Rakhshan Rizwan, The Missing Slate’s Poet of the Month, talks to Rosario Freire about being an outsider (even at ‘home’), the need to contest the hegemony of ‘standard English’, and oppressive visions of womanhood in Pakistan and in Europe.
After reading ‘Homecoming’ I was inevitably drawn back to your previous poem, ‘Ausländerin‘, and felt that there was a strong connection between the two. It appears to me that this feeling of “not belonging”, of being a stranger and an outsider, returns and recurs, regardless of the place you find yourself at. How would you react to this assumption?
I would say the observation is spot on. The feeling of not “belonging” as you say, of being perpetually uprooted is a running theme in my life and in my writing. What is striking about this, as you perceptively pointed out, is that this feeling of displacement is not alleviated by being “home” in Pakistan. One reason, perhaps the obvious reason, for this is that living abroad defamiliarizes the “homeliness” of home, it destabilizes the frame of reference so that the ex-migrant/exile has to live with a kind of psychic disruption, even when they are in a place which once felt like home.
However, there is another reason for this as well. Growing up in Lahore, I always felt othered and in retrospect, I have come to realize that this was a function of both class and gender. Belonging to a certain social class allows you to have privileges that are not accessible to the majority of the country. Therefore, you navigate the precarious world of Lahore in your expensive vehicle with its tinted windows in order to keep the rest of the country, the poor, the beggars, the haggardly street women, them, at an arm’s length. You live in an artificial, anesthetized space, drinking filtered water, piously wiping your hands with antibacterial solution, keeping away from salmonella infested street food so the pathogens of poverty, disease, oppression and unemployment will not infect you. You study in English-medium private schools so that, as the years go by, your grasp of Punjabi or Urdu grows more tenuous, more unsteady till you struggle to adequately express yourself in what is, quite possibly, your “mother tongue.”
Gender further intensifies the problem. As a teenager in Pakistan, my life essentially involved being shuttled back and forth between home and school. It wasn’t entirely safe to venture out on your own because of the fear of harassment. Consequently, I grew up to view the public space: the market, the bazaar, the chowks, the street corners, the main roads as threatening, even if this might not have been the case at all. So based on these experiences, I always felt like a detached observer gazing out from a window, a vantage point, onto a country which I loved but which seemed only half real, surreal, a bit like a postcard.
My experiences of being a woman in Pakistan and in Europe are, as you might imagine, vastly different. In my poem, for instance, I talk about how in Pakistan the notion of womanhood, or rather idealized womanhood is intimately connected to being nazuk, being fragile. For instance, back home I was always helped with everything from carrying my groceries to doing my laundry. There is nothing inherently ‘evil’ in this (and to be honest, I sometimes miss some of that good old Pakistani chauvinism in Europe when I’m carrying heavy bags without a soul in sight to help an “independent” woman), but it does instill a profound sense of vulnerability in you. To a certain extent, in my years in Pakistan I came to believe that I was somehow incapable of executing mundane tasks such as carrying my luggage, doing my laundry, paying my bills or even cooking my own meals. And in my first few weeks abroad when I had no choice but to do all these scintillating tasks on my own, I was surprised that I could do them.
In Europe, however I feel that in an attempt to create a gender-neutral world, there is an unnatural suppression of gender difference. One had to be this perfect bot, this power-woman, suited up, efficient to the core, keeping unnecessary feminine distractions like pregnancies, menstrual cycles, hormones, breastfeeding and child-rearing carefully tucked away so as to be viewed as a serious contributing member of society. In my opinion, this neutering of femininity is also a subtle form of oppression.
Although Pakistani and European notions of ideal womanhood seem to contradict one another on the surface, they have one fundamental thing in common. They both place an inordinate amount of pressure on women to be a certain way – and knowing this has enabled me to try to dodge these pressures and not let them dictate my choices.
Both ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Ausländerin’ are quite critical of the societies they are set in. Do you think that poetry, beyond just simply expressing feelings, should be used as a tool for means of social and political protest?
Absolutely. I was raised to believe that poetry was innately political so I never learnt to view it otherwise as a cerebral, purely esoteric practice. As a Pakistani, one grows up reading the anti-colonial ghazals of Iqbal, the dirges of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the socialist verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and so, poetry is viewed, by the vast majority, as an effective mode of resistance, a means of carving political and aesthetic space and of positing an ethical ‘voice’ in the public sphere.