This past Saturday, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dilruba Ahmed, author of Dhaka Dust, a delightful collection of poetry that I read and re-read with great pleasure. I first encountered Ahmed’s work in the form of a powerful letter she wrote for the Asian American Literary Review, titled “To Agha Shahid Ali.” In it, she reacts to a statement made by the Kashmiri-American poet:
“I wish all this had not happened…This dividing of the country, the divisions between people–Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu–you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick.” Similarly, we may feel enraged, appalled, dismayed, and frustrated with recent events that emphasize those “divisions between people” here in America and around the world. And as writers, we may find ourselves wondering how to make sense of our impulse to write when other, larger matters seem far more pressing.
She goes on to respond to her own question: “If literature confronts us with our humanity, if it proves to us the shared desires and struggles of our individual lives, then literature, particularly writing by Asian Americans and other minorities, is arguably more important now than ever before.”
Agreed. And in the context of the mayhem that struck Mumbai this past week, even more poignant. Ahmed’s own work can be both whimsical and somber. In one of my favorites, “Rumor,” she paints the portrait of a woman who jogs in a sari.”Rumor had it/ she jogged the river trail/ in a sari. Chiffon layers draping crooked arms.” In another, “Thinking of His Jaywalking Ticket While Boarding a Plane at SFO,” Ahmed vividly recounts her own fears for her husband as the family experiences post-9/11 suspicion at airports across America. “Which swallowed Arabic vowel will trap him now?” she asks. “You liked to tease and say, mothers, do not name your sons Muhammad, but you do not joke anymore/You don’t joke about anything.” And here’s another of my favorites:
It’s wine I need. Is it a sin to have another?
No harm in merlot, no harm in another.
In Ramadan, we’ll break our fast with dates and wine–
Must we pray in one room and dance in another?
Crushed blossoms at the end of the summer:
teach me how to coax nectar from the bloom of another.
Burned rice on the stove again: what’s to love
but my imperfections–you’ll forgive me another.
Butter by a kettle always melts, warns the proverb.
Heated, greased, we slip one into the other.
When, inexplicably, you enter my prayers,
I hear messages from one god or another.
Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro.
mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.
Heart thief, enter the fields like a woman in love,
vase in one hand, shears in the other.
I urge you to check out more of her poetry – I link to several more below. And you can find the full interview I did with Dilruba at my personal podcast, Talkadelphia. (Apologies for the ambient noise, it was all done in a coffee shop.) If you happen to be in Philadelphia this weekend, you can join me this Saturday and come hear Dilruba read her poetry in person.
Dilruba Ahmed’s Poems: Dhaka Dust, Mother, Roulade, Rumor, Venice during an Election Year in the U.S., Cathedral, Gazal