A LAND THAT LIVES IN MEMORY
In Conversation With Sham-e-Ali Nayeem
by Franny Choi
Sham-e-Ali Nayeem's debut poetry collection is a place for meditation, for memory, for the grief that's necessary to heal. I read City of Pearls once, rapidly, on a plane; then I read it again, slowly, at dusk, in a hotel room in a city where I didn't know anyone. That second time was when I understood that the gift that the book offers is the gift of quiet---the gift of a resting place in the face of the many violences that thread the collection. I was grateful for the chance to talk to Sham-e-Ali about quiet, the transmutation of grief, and the relationship between sense and memory.
To start, can you talk about your title, City of Pearls? Why did you choose to call the collection by this name?
The title of the book is a tribute to Hyderabad, India, my ancestral city where I was born and left with my family as a baby. For centuries, Hyderabad has been known as the "City of Pearls" due to its 400-year-old history as an epicenter for pearls. I have a fondness for pearls. They are created in the depths of fresh or salt water. They begin from grit or debris. Through patience and a surrender into themselves, they transmute into precious jewels. Similarly, I honor those who transform their struggles into something beautiful for themselves. The title also honors the rich contributions of Indian Muslim communities who face extreme oppression by the Indian government and Hindu extremists. The story arc of the book explores grief and loss: the loss of home, the death of a parent and the loss of self. It asks, what do you do when you lose your anchor? How do you change, how do you honor who was there before you and how do you find a sense of self in the present moment? A transmutation, like that of a pearl.
The book engages with place as both imagined and immediate, starting with the epigraph by Agha Shahid Ali, in which he writes, "home is of course here--and always a missed land." Later, in "Place of Birth," you write, "the smoky smell of this air / have i imagined it?" How do you tackle the task of writing the images of a missed land?
Often writing begins with the senses, and this is what I tap into when I write about a missed land. The missed land is possibly an imagined land. A land that may no longer exist. A land that lives in memory. A land that is yet to be realized. A timeless land. The writing keeps it alive. The few occasions I have been able to return to India (2014 being my last visit after over 23 years of being apart), I savored every single body memory of the senses that activated within me. The scent of the raath ki rani night bloom mingling with the fragrance of diesel from generators, the burning tires mingling with the fresh perfume of mango and rose in the market. The scent and touch of fabrics in the shops that literally opened my heart. The music, the sound of the trains, the clanking of pots being washed in the neighbors kitchen, the sound of the adhan punctuating the days. The bite of the red ant. The dust on my face. The reflections of light on the river. The sound of the breeze in the trees. I know this place. Even if I have not had the chance to live here long, my senses remind me how closely I am connected to this missed land.
Aside from Ali, whose voices guided this book for you?
My dad's voice is my first guide. When he was alive, my dad introduced me to poetry and guided me to the voices of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Muhammad Iqbal, Rumi, Hafiz, Ghalib, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers. Other voices that guided this book for me include: Mahmoud Darwish, Lucille Clifton, Nizam Hikmet, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Malcolm X, Alifa Rifaat, Naomi Shihab Nye, Audre Lorde, Sandra Cisneros, Suheir Hammad, Lawson Inada, Nikky Finney, Martin Espada, Joy Harjo, Mohja Kahf, Li-Young Lee, Jessica Hagedorn, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Octavia Butler, Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Trinh T. Minh Ha, Ama Ata Aidoo, Derek Walcott, Chandra Mohanty, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Abida Parveen, Prince, my son, my mother and my ancestors. I am deeply indebted to so many voices that have guided this book. I am also learning to be guided and trust my own voice. (This list is incomplete and too vast).
This book does so much work in connecting the distances created by colonization, Partition, migration, and loss. I'm particularly struck by the phrase "displacement even after death" in your poem "How We Would Change." Why was it important for you to put these different displacements in conversation with each other?
It was critical for me to put these displacements in conversation with each other because they are so intimately connected. Because of these connections, there are so many ways we end up participating in the very things that displace us in the first place.
What is the role of quiet in your poems?
Quiet and space are important in my poems. It is similar to the rest or break in a song. It is the pause, beautiful and spacious. It is timeless. The place you let your hair down. Where you fill it with breath. It is the "infinite play of empty mirrors" as described by Trinh T. Minh Ha in her book Woman, Native, Other. She says, "Writing necessarily refers to writing. The image is that of a mirror capturing only the reflections of other mirrors. When I say, ‘I see myself seeing myself,’ I am not alluding to the illusory relation of subject to subject (or object) but to the play of mirrors that defers to infinity the real subject and subverts the notion of an original ‘I’... How difficult it is to keep our mirrors clean. We all tend to cloud and soil them as soon as the older smudges are wiped off, for we love to use them as instruments to behold ourselves maintaining a narcissistic relation of me to me, still me and always me. Rare are the moments when we accept leaving our mirrors empty." For me, the role of quiet in my poems is the empty mirror.
The book begins in loss and moves toward the birth of your child. Is grief still present at the end of City of Pearls?
Yes, grief is still present at the end of the book. The grief has changed, however. Grief never leaves; it transforms. When I lost my dad, I learned that I do not have to be afraid of grief. There isn't an expiration date with grief. It has become a part of me. I learned I can take grief and transmute it into a positive energy that can help others, instead of being lost in sea of despair fighting or wishing it to be gone. There is no rush to be done with grief. Once you are not afraid of it, grief does not control you. I have also found that birth and death are inextricably linked, so in this way I see grief linked to joy. We all experience birth and death, and these are the moments that profoundly transform and remain with us.
Sham-e-Ali Nayeem is a poet, visual artist and author of the poetry collection, City of Pearls (UpSet Press 2019). Born in Hyderabad, India and raised in both the UK and the US, she is a former public interest lawyer that supported economic justice for survivors of family and intimate partner violence. Sham-e-Ali is the recipient of the Loft Literary Center Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship.
Franny Choi is the author of two poetry collections, Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019) and Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014). She is a Kundiman Fellow, a Senior News Editor for Hyphen Magazine, and a co-host of the podcast VS.