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Pakistan’s Sophia Naz is a Pushcart Prize nominee writing in both English and Urdu, and also the poetry editor and columnist at The Sunflower Collective, as well as founder of rekhti.org
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Sophia writes this in the introduction of her short poems section on her website, interestingly titled pomegranates:
Because you never know which grain of sand will grow a pearl within you”
Essentially a poet of the in-between space of the mind and soul, Sophia is a South-Asian American who juggles a hybrid of memories and experiences in her surreal poetry.Her luminous work has been featured in various reputed literary journals and she has three published poetry collections so far along with being a regular contributor to Dawn (Pakistan).
Sophia’s childhood was spent in constant transition owing to her father’s job in the army. He had to move to a different city every two years. Changing schools often, she was thus the new girl in every classroom, and unlike most girls back then, more interested in climbing trees than playing with dolls.
This incessant transitory did not allow her to develop any close friendships in her growing up years and consequently, trees and books became her close companions. When she was six her brother built a simple little plank tree house in a large banyan tree outside their house in Karachi, which became not just her favourite hideout from where she read and observed the busy intersection, but also a constant motif in her poetry later.
She recalls, “That period, from age 6 to 9 is something which is very vivid in my memory, and in particular the motif of the banyan with its aerial roots is something that is a constant thread in my poetry. In fact I have often said that my poetry is itself analogous to an aerial root because it is explores new terrain, yet has deep connections to the mother lode of history and culture.“
Another incident that had a long lasting impact on her writing journey was a sudden separation from her father who was taken POW in the 1971 war when they were living in Dhaka. The family had to evacuate overnight to Karachi, and Sophia didn’t see her father for three years until thankfully, he was released. The trauma of this separation acted as a trigger for her to write letters to him, which turned out to be actually some of her first poems.
Sophia has often said that she inhabits the in-between, hinting at her hybrid existence, being South Asian but also American, belonging to both milieus and yet to none.
She says, “Since birth I have lived in 22 cities, spread all over Asia, Europe and North America. When I travel to South Asia I say I am coming home, when I travel back also, I say I am coming home, yet at the same time crucial parts of me do not fit into either of these homes.”
But this liminal existence has not only been a drawback but has also been an advantage in certain ways. Owing to this she comprehends and expresses the edges and the margins much better. Being removed from a place and having a diaspora consciousness has made her write with an intensity born of separation, and her bilingual abilities allow her to create new possibilities in poetry altogether.
While studying art history for her A Levels she encountered Pointillism in the traditional sense of the word – a style of painting that used dots rather than brushstrokes to create an image. Sophia titled one of her most acclaimed collections Pointillism later; the title itself becoming a point of poetic deliberation.
Sophia observes, “That is what I did to the word, Pointillism. I looked at it differently. In doing so I also subtly subverted the language we inherited from our colonial encounter to privilege those who are bilingual, as they will immediately recognize the word tilism as talisman. Simply by turning one half of the word Pointillism into italics I have created a subtle separation, an in-betweenness, just enough space for a multiplicity of meanings to jump in.”
Sophia’s poetry is a commendable example of how the making of meaning is the unique delight of poetry and that the reader continues this process long after the paper boat of the poem has set sail from the mind of the poet.
The recurrent themes in her work range from all things rooted and winged, bodies of water, the solitary self and of late, loss brought to the fore, by the sad loss of her home due to the recent wildfires in California.
She recounts, “The loss of my home due to climate change is an emblem of devastating losses that our collective home, Planet Earth faces, and my poetry is reflective of that, the fragility of the beauty that remains, the need to nurture our awareness of it and each other, if we are to survive as a species.”
Sophia has connected with some wonderful poets on Social Media; however she also believes it can be a huge distraction, as according to her writing demands large chunks of unplugged solitude. The past Mother’s Day however, it brought to her a special surprise. She wrote an article about her mother’s life in 1950’s Bombay where she suffered from terrible abuse at the hands of her first husband, which ended up being republished several times and led to a book deal with Penguin Random House.
Sophia believes that most writing is just human experience independent of gender, however some gender-specific experiences like childbirth that are unique to women, do sometimes define their perspective as writers.
Sophia has published three books of poetry titled Peripheries, Pointillism and Date Palms. Besides these she has founded Rekhti as an attempt to give a voice to modern poetry by women (and those that self-identify as women) outside of the usual realm of the ghazal, named after an old form of poetry which was about women’s lives, but ironically written by men appropriating women’s voices.
Her current projects are Nocturnes for Laila which is a poetry-photography collaboration with a Colorado based nature photographer Troy Payne, and a book on her mother’s life titled Shehnaz. She is also working on a fourth, as yet untitled, collection of poetry.
Sophia believes that writing is just like any other muscle and thus needs strengthening with constant exercise. She was herself influenced by the greats like Amir Khusrau, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, Anais Nin, and Saadat Hasan Manto.
Her advice to young writers – “Go for walks. Look up from the neon rectangle of your device. Buy a cheap notebook; if you buy something fancy you will never write in it. Try paths less travelled. Read what you have written out aloud. Revise, persevere and learn from your failures.”
After her mother’s death, Sophia gave up both paternal and married surnames and adopted her middle name Naz, as her surname as well as her takhallus (pen name). Proudly wearing the mantle of this matronymic, Sophia Naz remains inspirational in poetry and in life.
Note: all the sub-headings are lines/quotes from Sophia’s poems published on her website
Images source: Sophia Naz
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