What Is Not Beautiful: An Interview with Adeeba Shahid Talukder

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Photo Credit: Willem van der Mei

“Beauty is a constant state/of unrest,” writes Adeeba Shahid Talukder in What Is Not Beautiful (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). In her debut collection, Talukder interrogates the fleeting nature of beauty and the uncomfortable cultural fascination that surrounds it with a deft, sparing hand. Sticky and unnerving in the best way, What Is Not Beautiful has a quiet, but electric, power.

Recently, I was able to talk to Talukder about What Is Not Beautiful, the art of translation and learning to love Urdu.

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One of the things I loved so much about What Is Not Beautiful is that it reminds the reader of a lot of the unsettling aspects of our cultural interest in beauty. The speaker of one of your poems asks the first responders to her car accident if she’s hideous, for instance. What about this subject interested you?

The idea of beauty has always been an obsession of mine because it is so central to our culture, and thus to my experience of the world. I’ve learned that looks are a source of capital, a source of power, and a means for self-fulfillment. There also exists the destructive idea that those with greater physical beauty are more deserving of love.

A lot of these poems have to do with my own distorted self-image and trying to accept what I see in the mirror. At the time of the car accident in the poem, I was going through a depression which altered, among other things, my visual perception of myself. I had learned to attach a disproportionate significance to physical beauty, and it was devastating to feel as though I did not hold any. Thus, even in tragedy, my first concern was how I looked— whether this incident had taken away more of my worth, whether I now deserved even less love.

When my speaker searches for beauty in herself, or desperately tries to hold on to what she has of beauty, she is asking for permission to take up space, to be able to tell herself: I am worthy. I deserve love, even my own.

What were the first and last poems that you wrote for this collection? What’s changed about you as a writer between the writing of that first poem and that last poem?

I think the first poem I wrote was “Meditations,” a little before I got married. The last one was “Mirror,” which I wrote a full year later. “Mirror” wasn’t part of the original manuscript when I sent it out, but I came across it when I was finalizing What Is Not Beautiful and realized it was part of the same emotional arc. It wasn’t surprising; I don’t think I’ll ever be done writing these poems.

In the beginning, writing these poems was a way of coping with the mental health challenges that colored the early months of my marriage, and a desperate attempt to find myself beautiful in the midst of all its emotional turmoil. The poems I wrote then were very emotionally charged, and perhaps more emotionally dense and direct as a result. In the year that followed, my poems went from an obsession with beauty to grappling with its meaning. I began moving more towards my own self and using my poems as spaces to preserve my spells and antidotes to destructive thoughts, and ways to bestow upon myself my own self-worth. By the time I wrote “Mirror,” my writing had calmed down a bit and moved from tumult towards self-reflection, towards rest.

One of the verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz I quote a lot is:

Perhaps the mirror of the world will clear once again;

perhaps, once again, our gaze will travel to the limits of sight.

The mirror of my world had started to clear, and as it did, I had more space to think as a writer.

You do a lot of work translating Persian and Urdu poetry. How has that informed your own writing? 

I think my writing is inextricable from translation, and perhaps a constant act of it. When I feel moved by a poem, I feel the need to engage with it, to be able to respond to it in some way. Translation allows me a greater intimacy with a poem; it requires me to internalize its essence and let the poem to live in me for some time before I am able to render it in another language. Usually, when I translate a poem, I also learn to sing it, which, in turn, feels like another act of translation— taking something from one language, and clothing it in another.

Because of this, the poems I translate— and the worlds of thought they embody— form a part of my consciousness and color the way I perceive things. I can’t help but think of verses by Faiz, or Ghalib, or Faraz when I write, and thus a lot of times my poems are in conversation with their work. I inhabit the worlds they create— a place where the nightingale laments the silence of the rose, the moth goes mad in his passion for the candle’s flame, and the lover worships the beloved as though she were an idol, or God.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from my translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “mujh se pehli si mohabbat meri mehboob na mang,” or “Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again”:

I once held that with you, all

of life was light.

When there was your grief,

there was no other—

not even the world’s.

Your sight was evidence of Spring, the world

held nothing but your eyes.

If you fell for me,

fate itself would surrender.

The speaker of “Tell the angels not to touch me/ without permission” converses with these lines to come to terms with the idea of settling down:

Beauty is a constant state

of unrest. To love, to settle

down; you will not be as alluring

after this.

(Your face no longer

evidence of springtime, your eyes

no longer all there is.)

I also find myself trying to challenge these tropes along with all the other ideals and restrictions of beauty that culture imposes on my speaker, who resists being reduced to her appearance. She implores this world— the real world as well as the fantastical world of Urdu metaphor— to free her of her shackles. She implores, most of all, herself.

You have another book forthcoming, Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, which won the Kundiman Poetry Prize. Kristina Marie Darling of Tupelo Press said the work was “a ledger of transformation” – I loved that because in a lot of ways, I felt that What Is Not Beautiful very much managed the initial shock of transformation – physical, emotional, their intersection through marriage and love and pain. Did you work on these manuscripts simultaneously? Did one come out of the other? 

I did work on both manuscripts simultaneously, but I finished What Is Not Beautiful first. I do have some obsessions— beauty, God, mental disorder— that show up in everything I write, but I see both books as very separate projects. Shahr-e-jaanaan was a long time in the making—over a decade, actually. What Is Not Beautiful, on the other hand, sort of came out in a burst while I was still working on Shahr-e-jaanaan, mostly over a period of 2-3 months, with some poems that came later. The longer manuscript dealt with a lot of past trauma that I was slowly processing, but due to the passage of time, it was trauma I was more able to manage. What Is Not Beautiful was a fast-forward to the present, and a space for poems that needed to be written more urgently. The poems I wrote during this time came out very differently, and were very specific to how I felt at the beginning of my marriage.

Writing, putting together, and sending out What Is Not Beautiful felt like the expulsion of a very heavy sigh, and perhaps that’s why I tended to it more quickly. The fact of it being in the world takes the burden of it away, separates it from me. It allows me some air, and a sense of calm to the fever that created it.

I read in another interview that you grew up being taught that Urdu wasn’t a beautiful language and that through translation, you found the beauty in your native language. Do you mind discussing that a bit?

It’s something I talk about a lot, particularly because it’s my way of resisting ideas of self-worth that have been imposed on me. As a 1.5 generation immigrant, I grew up speaking exclusively in Urdu until I entered kindergarten, when I realized there was an entire other medium of existence— one which I wasn’t a part of. I don’t know how to explain what it feels like not to be able speak English when everyone else is speaking it— it was as though my world was separate from everyone else’s, and I was entirely alone in mine. My elementary school also had tracking; there were three levels of classes, which were commonly termed ESL, Regular, and Eagle. ESL was considered to be at the bottom of the rung, and Eagle, which held the gifted students, was at the top. I was in ESL, and children from the other classes children teased me because of the way I spoke. After I grew fluent in English, however, I was transferred to Eagle. It felt like an accomplishment, a transcendence of disability, and an ascendence of hierarchy. More than anything, I felt a sense of acceptance and belonging.

After this, I always felt I needed to perform identity. It became so important to me, as I got older, to perfect my English so that no one would look down on me again. But all this came at the loss of Urdu; my mother tongue became less and less important to me, and I grew weaker in it. As an immigrant, I feel that so often, in order to be considered part of this culture, to prove we belong here, we must give up our identities, put them second, or at least accept them as inferior to the dominant culture. In high school, even my peers who came from Pakistani families derided me when I spoke Urdu. These days, I see my little cousins repeating the same pattern, speaking only in English because that’s what they’ve come to see as the language of power. To perform identity in this way, to refrain from speaking our native tongue, is a survival tactic. I think of how devastating this must be for my parents, who do not have the luxury of performance— who weren’t able to acquire this language, who are ashamed of the way they speak.

So when I— reluctantly— took Advanced Urdu at NYU with famed translator Tahira Naqvi, and saw someone really celebrating our language, I was surprised, and immediately entranced. I heard beauty and magnificence in the way Professor Naqvi spoke, and she exalted for me the language from which I had learned to dissociate myself. We read the poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmad Faraz, and fiction writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and Mir Hadi Ruswa, and I started to realize Urdu had a literature, a history, a tradition. And that it was nothing short of majestic.

I also began pursuing translation because of Professor Naqvi, and fell deeper in love with the language. Translation allowed me to work very closely with Urdu, and I truly began to delight in each word. I acquired a lot of vocabulary this way. I also began to realize how difficult it was to translate Urdu poets, particularly because of the complexity the language allowed for in a small space. Ghalib’s verses, for example, have so many layers that it is impossible to translate a two-line verse into two lines in English. The word play, the grandiosity, the intellectual feats— at best, these can only be approximated. It humbles me, as a speaker of English, before the Urdu language.

Another influence in my translations and poetry has been Agha Shahid Ali. I bought The Rebel’s Silhouette, Shahid’s book of translations of Faiz, ten years ago, and I have since returned to it again and again for guidance. Shahid also translates verses of other poets within his poems, which I think of as nods to readers who share the tradition. One of the reasons I look up to Agha Shahid Ali is that he succeeded in making a place for himself in a literary world that didn’t give much space to those who looked like us.

Shahid and Professor Naqvi taught me to celebrate Urdu, and in doing so, to celebrate where I come from. In seeing Urdu’s beauty, I came to see my own.

Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s What Is Not Beautiful is available for purchase from Glass Poetry Press. 

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