I recently sat down with with the poet Tarfia Faizullah at Cafe 1923 in Hamtramck and interviewed her about her own work, about her sense of the Bangladeshi community in Hamtramck, and Organic Weapon Arts, an independent press she runs with Detroit native poet Jamaal May. Her most recent work, Seam, is an exploration of identity and place which focuses centrally around interviews with women (among hundreds of thousands) who were raped and brutalized by Pakistani military and militias during the Bangladeshi War for Independence. The women, called birangonas, were largely shunned in the aftermath of the war. To purchase a copy of Seam and learn more about Tarfia, visit her website here.
Casey Rocheteau: You traveled to Bangladesh to write Seam, and Hamtramck has a large Bangladeshi population…do people know about the work? I wondered too, because I didn’t know if you were necessarily entrenched in the Bangladeshi community just because of shared identity.
Tarfia Faizullah: I’m still amazed that I live in a place where I see so many Bangladeshis. It’s really comforting. But I haven’t necessarily felt the urgency to interact with the community as a Bangladeshi myself. I’m still sorting through why that is. I think some of it is that I’m afraid that I’ll be misperceived/judged because I’m not very conservative, and many Bangladeshis are. I’m hoping to do a documentary photo project in Hamtramck, to collect stories from Bangladeshis about their lives both here and in Bangladesh. Because I’m shy, I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s easier for me to start a convo from behind a lens than in front of it. That said, Seam has gotten some attention in Bangladesh. I’ve been interviewed by The Daily Star, the largest English periodical there, and some of the poems have been translated.
CR: So with the attention that Seam has gotten in Bangladesh, do you feel like it’s being well received or do you feel like there’s also this sense of “you’re airing secrets that we don’t want to talk about”?”
TF: For the most part, it’s been well received. The woman who did the translations, she said that there were a few people who asked the question “what right does she have to be writing about this?” as well as “why is she talking about old, sad, difficult things?”
CR: I’ve said this to you before, but I’ve been thinking about this book for over a year at this point because once I read it, there was a way in which I read it, and I’m an outsider to the whole context. So I’m able to be more voyeuristic in a certain sense, but also just look at it as a work where you’re writing these poems, not entirely anthropologically, but you’re going into a place and asking, what is home, what is belonging, and you interject—and the speaker’s voice, you get to the poems where the interviewer is addressing a specific thing. That to me has this valence that I don’t see necessarily in a lot of social science type work or poetry, where there’s this acknowledgment of who you are in the moment asking these questions. I feel like you’ve already asked the question of “what right do I have to be here? and why is this important to me?” within the work itself. I think about this a lot when I approach my own work, and if I’ve got older black radicals looking at me like “who are you, though?”. My question is did you feel any sense of anthropological mission, was there a certain objective distance that you were keeping in trying to put the work together?
TF: Yeah, totally. I guess that was sort of the challenge of it: moving in and out of a more heightened emotional state, and an objective space from which I could write. That’s what the “Interview with a Birangona” sequence did for me. It allowed me to create multiple kinds of distance between me and myself. I’ve talked about how I hit an ethical wall that made me feel like I couldn’t write the poems in America. That’s why I applied for a Fulbright. I went to Bangladesh with no expectations for what I was actually going to write. And then when I came back from Bangladesh, I had 150 pages that I ended up winnowing down to what became Seam. It was interesting to bridge the distance between myself in America and myself in Bangladesh. And then on the other side of things, to bridge the distance between myself and America after having been in Bangladesh. There were times in Bangladesh where I was really frightened, like being on a bus in the middle of the countryside on a very unstable feeling road, for example, or there was one morning when I fell off a rickshaw. I felt like I created a self that wasn’t allowed to be frightened of those things in order to interview the birangona and write the poems. Distance was something I was thinking about, and feeling: distance from my family and my friends, distance from myself, from the women I was interviewing and the vast differences in experiences we had had, the different kinds of vocabularies we shared or didn’t.
CR: Now I’m going to back track and ask a much simpler question, how long have you lived in this area?
TF: I’ve lived here two years in September.
CR: And what brought you out here?
TF: I was sort of at a crossroads (cue Bone Thugs ‘N’ Harmony). I was living in DC and my marriage had just ended, and I couldn’t afford to live in DC and I didn’t really want to. Jamaal (May) and I had the press together, and there was the promise of potentially working at insideOut, an arts organization I really admire. I just decided to take a risk and move here without any real prospects.
CR: Do you feel like it worked out?
TF: Mmhmm. Totally, I really love it here. I really feel at home here in a way that I haven’t since I left Texas years and years ago.
CR: So can you tell me a little about Organic Weapon Arts, and how it got started?
TF: Jamaal founded the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series in 2010. He started it with the hip-hop tradition of the mixtape in mind: when an artist is in the studio working on a studio release, they may also be performing shows with audiences yearning to take a piece of what they’ve just experienced home with them. The mix tape is way to get music in their hands before the more extensive project is honed. Often the mix tape works as a kind of opening salvo, a hint to what’s coming from the studio release, often featuring early versions of tracks that will be on the album. It also has served an important financial purpose, as the low overhead and direct marketing nature of the product means more money directly in the artist’s pocket. We added the film component just recently.
CR: And I wanted to ask you, for me, I didn’t know Blair well, but to me he was one of the most underrated performers in the slam scene. I don’t know if you knew him, I know the press has the David Blair prize, but it’s one of the things that since I’ve moved here, almost every poet I know has been so impacted by the loss of him. So I wanted to ask, what started the prize?
TF: I didn’t know Blair, but I was impacted by his work before I knew about Jamaal’s relationship to him—they were good friends and fellow artists. I had seen and heard some of his poems, and I was really astonished and moved by the heart there, and the elegance, and the courage and the willingness to talk about difficult things both brutally and beautifully. And, after he passed away, Jamaal really wanted to memorialize him in a meaningful and perpetual way. My impression is that Blair was a linchpin of any community he found himself in. He had a vision. And what do you do when you lose somebody that had vision? The David Blair Memorial Prize is just one small attempt to honor the amputation and truncation of that vision, and how much he meant to so many people.
CR: What is the press working on right now?
TF: We’re working on getting a couple of chapbooks out in time for AWP. We’re publishing Michael Lee’s book Refraction, which won the Blair prize, AND Michelle Peñaloza’s IDreamt of Volcanoes and, our editors’ choice. We’re also looking towards the future, working on the video content and we’re hoping to add a letterpress component as well. We’re also going to be publishing a collaborative chapbook of poems from the Dark Noise Collective (poets Danez Smith, Aaron Samuels, Franny Choi, Jamila Woods, Fatimah Asghar and Nate Marshall). We’ve discussed pushing OW! Arts towards a full fledged arts organization, one that is involved with education as well as supporting emerging writers, but that’s further off.
CR: So I feel like people have very varied ideas of what the literary community is like in Detroit, how would you describe it from what you’ve seen?
TF: I was thinking recently about the cave paintings in Lascaux. I imagine that at some point, the artists might have negotiated for whose narrative was more important, or how much of that canvas you could take up. I just imagine getting to this point where whatever narrative you’re working on is getting closer and closer to someone else’s narrative, then the question is—how do you share the space? Whose narrative gets more space? How do you measure what is important and valuable versus what isn’t? I think what’s exciting about Detroit is you can really pick a lane here, because there is more than one. It’s a place where I’m learning to locate other ways of being an artist, and in doing so, locating myself.