The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Harris Khalique
Harris Khalique is a Pakistani poet who writes in both Urdu and English. He occasionally writes in Punjabi as well. Currently based in Islamabad, Pakistan, he was a fall resident at the 2015 International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa. He also performed at City of Asylum’s Jazz Poetry Concert in September.
An internationally recognized poet, Harris Khalique is the author of eight poetry collections, including the English collection Between You and Your Love. In 2013, his collection Melay Mein won the UBL Literary Excellence Award in the category of Urdu poetry. He is also a weekly columnist in The News International, and has advocated for social, labor, gender, and minority rights in Pakistan.
Sampsonia Way interviewed Harris Khalique about poetry’s power of liberation, the Pakistani literary tradition of resistance, and the revolutionary movement currently occurring in Pakistan’s poetry community despite the dangers writers face in that country. Pakistan ranks #159 out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index.
You write poems in both Urdu and English. How do you decide which language you are going to write a poem in?
There is nothing really exotic about it. Unfortunately, we are becoming a monolingual world. Otherwise, in the part of the world where I come from, most people are multilingual. That’s our history. We speak in many languages. We have had classical poets, or mystic poets who write in more than one language in order to communicate with different kinds of people and diverse groups of people. It is a part of our culture.
It is interesting now that English has become a major language. It connects us with the larger, global, human intellectual tradition, and human artistic tradition also. For us in Pakistan — or in South Asia in general, including India — English has been a language of education for many people for a very long time.
It is also the language that connects us with, in the case of literature, with all other languages. We are not directly able to read works in Spanish, or Portuguese, or Arabic, or French, or Chinese. English connects us with those languages.
There are a lot of changes in the linguistic landscape, as it were, that have taken place not only across the globe, but also in South Asia. So while I am very proud of being an Urdu poet, I think English increases my exposure and gives me and my colleagues and my friends an opportunity to know more about what’s happening in the rest of the world.
What is it important for you to identify yourself as an Urdu poet?
Urdu is my first language. It is also the language which is perhaps not the native mother tongue of the majority of Pakistanis, but the shared language for all of the people in Pakistan, as well as in Northern India, Central India, the Middle East. The spoken language, Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani, is largely one big language. We call it “Urdu” because we write it in a certain way, and of course there are dialectal differences in some cases.
For me, it’s not really a source of pride, but it’s just natural that you express yourself more intimately in a language in which you have grown up, in which you are trained. I see English as a very close second language, so I’m comfortable.
With ideas in Urdu, perhaps I carry some baggage. When you come from a certain literary tradition, you carry that baggage of that literary tradition. In English, I do not carry any baggage of any literary tradition, or a very limited literary tradition in South Asia. The rest is all acquired through school or personal interests.
Sometimes I think English liberates me, also. I can or play with genres, forms, or themes in English, which, perhaps psychologically, somewhere in the back of my mind in Urdu, idea come to me in certain forms and in certain shapes.
Is this the “baggage” that comes with writing in Urdu – ideas arriving in a form or shape already determined by tradition?
It could be themes also. You see it’s not a deliberate choice, it’s not intentional. If you’re operating in multiple languages, it just comes to you naturally. Sometimes you start writing about something in one language, sometimes in another, particularly in poetry. For prose and nonfiction, there is a bit of choice, and there is a bit of decision involved that the writer makes. In poetry I don’t think that’s the case.
You talked about how writing in English can liberate you. Is poetry an act of liberation in itself?
Poetry is not just an act of liberation, it’s also an act of subversion. Art subverts the power structures or the institutional arrangements that are imposed upon humanity by a small group of people in a way that nothing else can. Major political movements and campaigns may achieve or make some small gains in the short term, but in the larger realm, for the way people view the world, and the way we can shape the way they view the world — that is actually what art does.
Art also has a therapeutic effect. I’m writing an essay about that these days: art is both subversive and therapeutic. So it heals the wounds that politics, any social work, cannot.
Right now writers in Pakistan, particularly journalists, face a hostile environment where writing puts their lives are at risk. How do you see poetry responding to this situation?
I will talk about the whole clan of poets of which I am a part — not just poets but writers, creative artists, and journalists. I’ve been writing a regular journalistic column for a very long time also, and they all merge and come together.
I think there is a huge, major literary tradition of resistance poetry, of feminist poetry in Pakistan. We have produced some of the finest feminist poets in the Muslim societies anywhere. Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, and there are so many others. Younger women are coming and joining their ranks.
We have people who have written for working classes, who have associated themselves with labor movements, with other rights movements, and all sorts of social movements — people pay attention to writers who have associated themselves. I think it all gets reflected in our poetry.
There is this ongoing debate, it continues in our part of the world: art for art or art for life. But I don’t think that’s important, I mean you cannot compromise aesthetics, otherwise your piece of writing becomes a journalistic piece. But you cannot disassociate yourself from so much suffering that is happening around you if you’re a writer. I think that when a nation is going through such adverse and violent and difficult and hostile times as we are as a nation, even people who claim that they have disassociated themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, start writing about these things. I think it does get reflected big time in our writing, and it will be discovered by the rest of the world sooner or later.
Some really outstanding writing has come out in the last couple of decades from Pakistan. It is not even recognized within the country as much as it should be. English connects us with the rest of the world, and we love the language and its literature, but at the same time it has a very imperial role, and it keeps people out of power. The top writers that we have in Pakistan are not writers in English. They write in Urdu or other Pakistani languages, Punjabi or Saraiki or Pashto or Sindhi. It’s a very diverse and very colorful linguistic landscape we have there. What is written in English is not reflective of the whole literary scene. So if you look at Urdu and other Pakistani languages that I mentioned, a lot is happening and a lot of good literature is coming out. I hope more gets translated.
What issues might get lost in translating a poem written in Urdu to English, or in reading a poem written by a Pakistani writer to an American audience?
Translation is difficult but, at the same time, translation is very important. I’m a great fan of translation and I’m really proud of my mother being a translator of world literature into Urdu. So I’m really all for translation, while knowing that there are constraints and certain compulsions, which one language imposes on the original text, on the other language.
Having said that, I think if we annotate properly, if we get good translators — and that is serious work — it is possible that global audience can access what has been written. But there are situations where the idiom or ideas are local will be very difficult to translate. That’s two-fold for translation between any two languages, even if those two languages are as close to each other as Urdu and Hindi, or Spanish and Portuguese.
Is there anything that you would like to write about but avoid because it would be culturally or socially inappropriate?
I do not find it difficult to write, but I find it difficult to publish, and I think that is what writers face. I’m not sure if writers apply self-censorship as much as journalists do. I don’t hold that against journalists because journalists live in the face of the violence and terrorism that we see. They are in the front line, I must say, journalists and political workers.
I’m a bit of a journalist also — not a working journalist, but a columnist — so I understand the pressures there. As a creative writer, I think our writers do not apply self-censorship in Pakistan. We get to read those or listen to what can’t get publish by listening to each other or sitting together. But things about sexuality, for instance, sexual rights, don’t get out that easily or don’t get published. Things about the discriminatory laws, which were imposed in a certain, particular interpretation of the Qur’an which is used against women or religious minorities, or even minority sects within Islam, when there are so many other interpretations available. It’s not easy to write scathing pieces against those things, you can be subtle and you can continue to raise those issues, but if you write something really direct or sharp or poignant and it gets noticed, either it won’t get published or you will be in trouble.
You are finishing up your time at the International Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. What has that experience been like for you? Why is it important for intellectuals to engage with intellectuals from other countries?
I think it is important for intellectuals to engage with intellectuals and poets to engage with poets and writers and artists, but it is important for people to engage with people from every country. I imagine a world where people are free to move and they can afford to go to each other’s countries and intermingle and meet and spend time — it will just change them. It will be an end to bigotry and conservatism in the world if people are able to meet people, not just intellectuals with other intellectuals.
Iowa, of course, is absolutely an extraordinary opportunity, and the international writing program and the kind of people you meet there gives you an opportunity to think and reflect about your own work.
And something that I love about the University of Iowa is the library. I like spending a lot of time in bookshops, but you know we have libraries back home, but it is incomparable to what I have seen here. The library system in the U.S. is something that you guys should be proud of, rather than other things that I unfortunately see people proud of in the U.S. — for example, the huge arms industry.
In the United States there is so much diversity and there’s so much possibility that you guys can actually be seen as something totally different 50 years from now, if the nation decides to lead the world in a different way. There is so much intellectual opportunity and intellectual capital in the U.S. which nobody else on the planet can ever dream of. If there is a shift in the way U.S. politics views the world, I think it will be a much better world.