FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH CHOMAN HARDI

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it? Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

CHOMAN HARDI: My father was a poet and he regularly recited poetry by heart, yet writing poetry did not happen early for me. I was 20 years old when I started. I had read a lot of literature, including poetry, by then. The modern Persian poets (whom I started reading from the age of 14 when we fled to Iran and I learnt Persian) had a big impact on me. I memorised many of their poems and recited them to myself when I felt down.

As a teenage girl who was forced to wear the hijab under the Islamic republic of Iran and was under constant surveillance by the conservative patriarchal society at the time, I was starved for freedom, for adventure and fun. In my head I scripted an entirely different life for myself and lived through the words I read. I fell in love and cried and longed (as the characters in the books did) without having anyone specific to love. I imagined walks by the sea (which I had never seen), imagined the wind playing with my hair (without the scarf) and the rain soaking my clothes. I imagined whole conversations with the person I loved (who was he?). Words raced through my head, crowded my feelings, spilt from my pen. I wrote constantly, stories, letters, diary. I wanted to become a writer but did not think that I would write poetry. Finally, it was love, real, tangible, and tidal, that made me write poetry. It was like an explosion, suddenly all I thought came in the form of poetry, with its rhythms and new ways of using words. It felt like I would always be able to write so easily and so fluently but of course this did not last.

I published two small collections in Kurdish (in 1996 and 1998) and then I published my first English collection, Life for Us, in 2004. After this book I experienced a long drought. Starting work on an academic book about gender and genocide in 2005 did not help my poetry. Research and trauma made me poetically dumb. I was in agony, worried that I may never write poetry again. My own father had produced one volume of poetry, albeit a very good and much loved one. I worried that I too will be a one-book-in-English poet. I know now that I relived the traumas of my past life while I conducted my research about genocide survivors. In a brilliant conference about the role of art in post-genocide times, Erik Ehn, who was the dean of theatre in CarlArts, said: “If you are responding to communities that have experienced violence, it is most likely because there is a ruin inside you that needs tending to. You are never in the complete donor situation.” Regardless of the fact that I came from a community which had survived forced assimilation, dictatorship, war, and genocide, I had marched through my life as if I was bullet proof. There was always another language to learn, another school system to get used to, another culture to become fluent in. There was always so much to read and so much to learn. After doing my A-Levels in London, I went on to read philosophy and psychology in Oxford (when my English was still quite basic). I then got an MA in philosophy at UCL and a PhD in mental health of refugee women at University of Kent in Canterbury. There had been no time to stop and rest. My post-doctoral research about women survivors of genocide, which inspired the Anfal sequence in Considering the Women, brought my life to a halt. It took a long time to recover from it to be able to write again.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

CH: I am delighted to be shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Writing is a lonely business and since I moved back to Kurdistan two years ago, I feel even more isolated. There are days when I am not certain if what I write and what I do, both of which inform each other, have any value at all. I had been feeling rather dispirited before hearing this good news, not sure if what I do makes any difference. I chair the English department at the American University of Iraq- Sulaimani and I teach literature. In my classes I tackle social inequalities, specifically gender and class related inequalities. Sometimes I face resistance from students who have been trained not see these issues all their lives. I know that it is difficult for those who live by common sense ideas and have constructed a sense of normality for themselves to question the status quo and see the inequalities hidden within it; to see the injustice that permeate our language, our expectations of others, our sense of self. Some days my students are kind to me and tell me that what I do in the classroom has changed the way they see the world. Other days, I face resistance, and despite explaining an idea so many times and tackling it from many angels, I see a facebook post by one of my good students (in whom I have hope) which makes me think I am just banging my head against a wall. This news has been very welcome because it makes me feel that the people whom I tried to give voice to in Considering the Women will be heard, that bearing witness is valued, that telling the truth about the human condition is necessary.

FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?

CH: Considering the Women took a long time to write. It is shaped by various personal and political concerns. Over the years gender inequality has become a prominent issue for me, especially how violent conflict consolidates gender inequality and how violence trickles down into personal relationships. I have also been interested in history and the voices that are marginalised by the mainstream narratives that inform it.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I was living in London when the first Kurdish satellite channels started broadcasting their programs. Commemorating the gassing of Halabja and the Anfal genocide consisted of broadcasting images of gassed and mutilated victims and the remains of mass grave victims to incite public sympathy and outrage. In fact saturating the public psyche with these images led to compassion fatigue and depreciation of the victims. The images became meaningless and normalised, the people portrayed in these videos and photos became a bunch of nameless victims of the past, a group that people were no longer interested in. In fact the new generation wanted to move away from them, as much as possible, to shun this awful past.

A Kurdish artist who brilliantly captures what happens to victims of mass violence in history is Osman Ahmad. In his exhibition about the Anfal genocide in the Imperial War Museum in 2008, Osman showed a series of drawings which address this issue. At first the pencil drawing shows a small group of individuals getting caught up in the net of Anfal, in the following drawings the group becomes larger and moves further and further away from us. In the final drawing what is left of them is a black hole in the distance. This is what happens to victims of genocide, they move further and further away from us until they are no longer individuals with hopes and dreams, no longer human, just nameless victims, a black spot in our history.

On the other hand, documentaries about the Anfal genocide had a very narrow focus. They were mostly about the political victimisation of Kurdistan’s village population by the Iraqi state between February and September 1988. They were mainly about gas weapons, mass graves, prison camps, torture, and starvation. While the focus was on the violence and destruction, a large part of women’s experiences were missing from the Anfal narrative. I started my research about the women survivors of genocide because of these omissions, and because a large part of my own questions remained unanswered. I wanted to know the full story, to recover women’s personal and intimate experiences and include them in the written history of Anfal, to stretch the Anfal narrative and historical account, to include women as victims and as survivors, to counter the negative stereotypes of this group and of women’s abilities in comparison to men.

The academic research informed several poems in Considering the Women, especially the Anfal sequence. While writing the poems about Anfal and Halabja, I tried to remember the victims differently, to give them back their humanity, to bring them back from the black spot that Osman Ahmed so beautiful captured. I also wanted to give voice to the survivors who felt that their stories are continually exploited, edited, and shaped by others to suit different purposes and objectives. They wanted their stories to be told as they are, they wanted the world to know about what they suffered and what they continue to suffer, they wanted acknowledgment, apology, compensation, respect, closure. They wanted the mass graves in the south and west of Iraq to be uncovered, the remains of their loved ones to be brought back. They wanted sympathy and understanding for events that they regularly said could not be expressed in language. Language failed the survivors, it was an inadequate tool. Tears too had dried. There were many silences and unspeakable grief, loneliness, isolation and anger.

Considering the Women also explores the personal cost of traumatic knowledge. It is an acknowledgement of the difficulties I faced because during the research process I felt that I was going mad and could not understand why. I wanted to be kind to myself and to those who go through this process. It is madening to realise that positive psychology is a sham, that there is no rationality in the world and certain things can never be explained, that there is unspeakable suffering all around us and at times we hide away from it in order to survive, that we need to construct a different view of our own selves and our positions in the world.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

CH: I have translated a book length poem by the brilliant Kurdish poet Sherko Bekes, who passed away two years ago. I hope to publish this book in the near future. In the meantime I will continue to write in Kurdish and English. I have been working on a novel on and off for several years. I hope this too will see the light in the near future.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

CH: For anyone who wants to write, poetry or otherwise, my advice is to read, read, read and practice writing as much as you can. Don’t just read literature, read philosophy, psychology, sociology, political theory. The more educated and well read you are the better your writing.