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Interview / Rahat Kurd + Marguerite Pigeon
November 18, 2021 @ 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm PST
At the event, Marguerite Pigeon’s “The Endless Garment” (2021, Wolsak & Wynn) and Rahat Kurd’s “The City that is Leaving Forever” (2021, Talon) will be introduced to the audience in an intimate conversation about their works and artistic processes.
“Beauty, Politics, Poetics” will be hosted at the Massy Arts Gallery, at 23 East Pender Street (Chinatown, Vancouver), and registration is mandatory.
Click HERE to know more about the event, and register to attend.
Following, Community Engagement Coordinator Rafael Zen interviews the authors on an exclusive talk for Massy Books, addressing poetry creation, personal writing processes, and the research behind their works.
Rahat Kurd: poetry as an essential part of daily life in Kashmir
RZ – Why poetry and journal entries? Why choose these forms of literature to communicate the poetical and political aspects of your collaboration with Sumayya Syed?
RK – The book grew out of an exchange of messages on Whatsapp. Sumayya and I had met in Vancouver in 2012, at UBC, but she returned to Srinagar at the end of 2014. We began using the app during the summer of 2016, when we were both expecting that I would arrive in Srinagar by mid-July for a month. We were making plans to spend time together. When the Indian military carried out the extrajudicial killing of Burhan Wani, a young Kashmiri man who was known as a militant, (i.e. someone who publicly opposed India’s 30-year military occupation of Kashmir), they also imposed a curfew across all of Kashmir, a routine way for them to try to shut down protests, which also shuts down daily life, commerce, and traffic, with police checking IDs of anyone out on the streets, and routine internet blockades.
At that point I had not been back to Kashmir myself for 18 years, and I had planned this trip with my son, and while there is no getting away from the fact that public space is militarized in Kashmir, that is something we live with, there were all kinds of reasons why I didn’t want to take my son who was then 12 years old, into the higher tension of the curfew situation specifically. We decided to cancel the trip, and as things developed, the state imposed the curfew for the entire summer, for more than 50 days.
While I wasn’t there, I still had to grapple with the reality of the occupation and how it had affected multiple generations of my family, and I still needed to learn what it meant for young people in Kashmir. Sumayya was able to share her perspectives with me, having been born in Srinagar, and having been an eye witness on the ground, not just to the presence of the soldiers but the ways the occupation and its rituals of dominance had, over the decades of her lifetime, become systemic, discursive – even epistemic.
At first, the fact that we were both poets was almost incidental to our initial friendship, and to the correspondence. At first, what mattered most was that we were both Kashmiris, trying to think of ways to stay connected despite the 2016 curfew. But when Sumayya began to write poetry again, and to send her work to me, our poet selves became seamlessly woven into the conversation we were having, and I think that sharpened the necessity for both of us to keep it going.
RZ – Why the title “The City That Is Leaving Forever”? What do you think it encapsulates from the book? What is it suggesting?
RK – The book title, THE CITY THAT IS LEAVING FOREVER, comes from a poem about Srinagar, called “The City of Daughters”, written by Agha Shahid Ali, a poet who had grown up in Kashmir, and who wrote in English.
Shahid wrote several books of poetry [I refer to him by his pen-name, or takhallus, as is the tradition among ghazal writers] which were published in the US, where he lived and taught from the late 1980s until his death from brain cancer in December 2001. “The City of Daughters” appears in his most important collection of poems about the occupation of Kashmir, THE COUNTRY WITHOUT A POST OFFICE (WW Norton, 1998). He was only in his 50s when he died. His loss is mourned as his poetry is loved, and quoted in ordinary conversation, by all Kashmiris.
When I was in Kashmir in August 2018, I mis-quoted that line in one of my text messages to Sumayya, on the day of a general workers’ strike when everything in the city was closed. Exactly one year later, on August 5th, 2019, the Indian government, having won a majority in May, unilaterally did what the strikers had been protesting against: it abrogated the section of the Indian constitution that had protected Kashmir’s semi-autonomous statehood, essentially re-colonizing Kashmir as a “territory” to be controlled directly from Delhi.
Tens of thousands of additional Indian troops arrived in Kashmir that week and imposed a new curfew to suppress protests, along with a total communication blockade – landlines, cell phones, and the internet, cutting off Kashmiris from each other and the world.
The book title encapsulates the effort to remember – and to memorialize – all that this annexation has tried, and still seeks, to erase. It also pays homage more generally to the effort that poets have always made, to remember and record the places that formed them artistically and politically.
RZ – In your book, the conversations you had with Sumayya Syed are witness to the harsh tolls exacted by patriarchy and state violence. Would you call it a feminist record? What are the forms of violence you address in the book – and what do you expect your audience to take from it?
RK – I think any extended conversation between two women, recorded and shared, persisting in spite of obstacles and interruptions, takes on a deeper feminist significance. The work of this book is to witness the way state violence can be, and has been in Kashmir’s case, multigenerational. It records the fact, for instance, that being in her 30s, Sumayya cannot recall a time when the city where she was born did not have bunkers and barbed wire and police checkpoints and cordoned-off streets; when strikes and stone-pelting did not define how people experience their built environments.
I do have memories, from before the mass militarization of 1990, of childhood summers, of tranquility and harmony, as well as the memories shared by my mother, of how things were for her family and friends growing up, but it’s been very difficult to close that memory gap for the younger generation.
The communication blockade which lasted for seven months was another obstacle – an imposed silence, and a stopping of livelihood, of education, on the entire population – and the way our exchange was also stopped reflects that larger reality, which potentially makes for an unusual experience for the reader.
Hopefully it also offers a sense of the necessity of literature and art-making – how vital they are under a repressive situation.
RZ – Could you choose one poem or passage from this book to share with our audiences?
RK – I’d like to share a passage that evokes the urgency of the first month of the communication blockade in August 2019, because it shows Sumayya’s persistence in finding a way for her words to reach me. I was relieved and very moved to get this letter because even in this state of crisis, which Sumayya calls unprecedented, she still thinks like a poet, and still draws on poetic references as a way to keep going.
Sumayya Syed, 2019-08-22
(Received by Rahat six days later)
Dear Rahat, salam from the country without a post office. My brother is travelling to Delhi and will have internet access while there. I am giving him a picture of this letter so he can send it on your WhatsApp number. We are under unprecedented army cover and communication blockade.
This is unprecedented even by Kashmiri standards. I don’t know what news you have of Kashmir – we have no news. There is absolutely no way of hearing from anyone. This is watertight. I will likely not be able to travel to KL as I had planned to – the internet blockade has meant that I am unable to apply for a visa. The abrupt beginning of fall and the bleeding edge of summer are extremely beautiful. I keep thinking back to last year when we shared this city, except it is deadly quiet this year. I also keep remembering Darwish’s “Cities are smells.” Today Srinagar is the smell of witch hazel.
A couple of years ago – or was that last year? – during the siege of Aleppo, the internet saw a graffiti saying (in Arabic), “To the one who shared with me the siege” on the wall of a bombed-out camp or shelter. I am sure you must have come across it. The poignancy and heartbreak of the love story within that line never stop haunting me. All walls and houses in Srinagar are intact. So the “missed connection” of shared siege is neither entirely missed, nor a complete connection. We have “last messages sent” and “seen” and blue ticks where bandages might later go, along the fault lines of potential heartbreak. I have, however, managed to catch up on my backlog of readings. I hope your work is bringing you fulfillment and stability, and a year to look forward to. Please remember us in du’ā.
Until we meet again,
Click HERE to purchase “The City That is Leaving Forever” by Rahat Kurd
Marguerite Pigeon: allure, excitement, and disappointment – poems about mirages
RZ – Why Fashion? Or, more specifically, why poetry about fashion? How did this theme emerge in your practice as a writer?
MP – The idea of fashion was with me from an early age. I used it as a window onto another world, different from my own. TV and magazines showed me charming, well-lit places populated by good-looking Americans in fantastic clothes. I think we instinctively sense our proximity or distance from the centres of culture, money, power and activity. Fashion is where those threads come together, and for me, that was very alluring.
But it also had the quality of a mirage. No sooner had I ordered a blouse from the Sears catalogue or paid for shoes from Le Château than they dissolved into plain old stuff. “Real” fashion remained out there, glittering in the distance. This has always been really frustrating to me.
In my late 30s, I finally felt old enough to think seriously about those feelings — the allure, the excitement and the disappointment of fashion. Poetry presented itself as the best venue to explore many facets of my interest.
RZ – The book’s synopsis reveals that the narrator is forced to reckon with some of fashion’s fascist, colonial, and capitalist underpinnings, as well as today’s hideous working conditions for garment industry workers. What would these underpinnings be? Do you think this book provides a critical (re)vision of what is means to use fashion as self-expression?
MP – I hope my book captures both the search involved in self-fashioning and the political realities behind fashion.
Many of us grow up seeking to “make” or remake ourselves through fashionable clothes, fashionable expressions, opinions, ideas… even fashionable writing. In this sense, fashion is a kind of social capital. We can think of fashion “victimhood” as what happens when we grab hold of too many ready-made fashionable ways of being. But using fashion to send messages is also thrilling—and human. We are semiotic creatures. We like to play with, trade and recognize signs. This makes it a real bummer when we come to understand how easily fashion’s codes can be used to exclude and shame, how much they reflect existing power structures. Fashion is social communication on speed.
This speaks to fashion’s underpinnings, yes. At its core, fashion is inherently classist, gendering and othering. It grew from a time when Europeans wanted to cheapen and standardize production to generate surplus capital for themselves—no matter the human cost. Just as sugar production exploded based on the theft of Indigenous lands and the labour of enslaved peoples, so did the production of indigo and cotton for textiles. Here in North America, on the territories of many Indigenous peoples, the fur trade radically transformed existing trade arrangements as Europeans pressed hunters for more and more pelts to ship to Europe for fashionable clothes (and especially hats). From my reading, I believe Indigenous peoples’ ability to navigate that demand and those changes was extraordinary. But fashion was wedded to colonization.
The weird thing about fashion is that it seems to fight back against its own roots. Clever people with fresh, unique perspectives all over the world find ways to develop styles that challenge the status quo. Think of Black jazz artists in the 1920s, and Indigenous hip-hop artists today. They resist, celebrate and communicate through fashion.
RZ – In the book, the narrator is guided, and haunted, by a series of ghosts – from Coco Chanel to Gypsy Rose Lee to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. How and why did you choose these ghosts from Fashion’s history? What do you think they have to reveal about your epic narrative?
MP – Did I choose these ghosts or did they choose me… hmmm. The more I’ve read about each of these figures, the more they’ve gotten into my head; each “wrote” a life that was not assigned to them by birth or history.
Like characters, I guess, I’ve decided that some are good guys (Barrett Browning, the writer who dared to defy her tyrant father), some villains (Chanel, the fascist collaborator), some visionaries (Lee/Alexander McQueen, the working-class designer.
But they are all touchstones where my subject matter, my “pocket epic” structure, and my imagination thrived.
RZ – Could you choose one poem or passage from this book to share with our audiences?
MP – Sure! Here is a passage from the Fall/Winter “collection,” early in the book.
I’m keen to lose the northern town, its frayed river
and pine-needle streets, the chipped dresser,
red tights dangling out of reach; the church
statue’s grey-cast robes; the school’s beige brick,
knee skids over gravel stone, every recess
someone teased in flood pants or faded dyes;
hand-me-down hours startled by the bell,
Forget how it’s mostly February there.
Forget the whispers of snowsuited thighs.
Forget orange Cougar boots marching glum red
tongues single file up crusted snowbanks to fling
insult from sopping home-knit mitts.
I’ll keep just this bedialed cathode-ray tube,
rushing home to its brilliant impressions,
jumpsuits unzipped for a Leather Tuscadero effect;
Solid Gold lamé bras; Christmas Snow
hot pants ajiggle with each snort;
waist-tied gingham on shipwrecked Mary Ann;
Starsky leathers and crotch-distressed jeans.
Click HERE to purchase “The Endless Garment” by Marguerite Pigeon