The Missing Slate | So this brings us to our next question regarding why Pakistani writers generally focus so much on politics? It is understandable that politics is an inherent part of our existence in this country but still, why the fixation?
Ilona Yusuf | The thing is that all over the world in a way there is a trend towards social political writing. Now, [Gabriel García] Marquez is an amazing writer – I love to read his work – and with writers like that politics is not coming first at all. The craft of being a writer, and being a good writer is the basic thing, everything follows from that, the themes will automatically come because they’re inside you and you can’t escape the reality around you. It is a part of you, so you will reflect it in some way –it may be in the way you describe nature or it may be in the way you describe people and that is how politics comes out. But to take politics as the focal point of your writing, that’s not the right order.
The Missing Slate | Does it seem to you that the trend is changing?
Ilona Yusuf | It is changing; I’m not so familiar with Urdu, I read in translation and I do try to read bilingually because I did not grow up speaking Urdu. But I do try to get bilingual editions so that I can read the English and the Urdu. So I know that Faraz is very political, Iftikhar Arif again is political but he’s also not political, both things are there. Faiz of course is political, but there were many love poems as well. You know, you can’t say that they’re all political.
The Missing Slate | Two of your poems, 9/11 and From Swat, when compared to say, Jalebi, can be dubbed as being more overtly political.
Ilona Yusuf | I don’t usually write political poems. For me, these are my political poems…
The Missing Slate | But they’re not exactly political…
Ilona Yusuf | No, they’re not. You see when I was writing Jalebi…first of all the jalebi is a national sweet, right… and I don’t like to eat jalebis myself but everyone else in the family loves them. And I love to see how they are made. In my house a lot of political talk shows are watched and I close my ears and run out of the room, partly because I’m apolitical, and partly because in some of them the host is trying to goad the guests to bring out the worst in themselves… which they do. [Laughs] And they’re all speaking together and none of them are speaking the truth. And in our society… there is so much in our society which is untruthful and conspiracy theories, and I think that poem came out of that. And I used the jalebi because it’s such a convoluted kind of a thing – it’s a beautiful thing, but all convoluted and it’s all about evading the truth. About the dog, we actually had a dog that chased his tail, [laughs] so that’s where that metaphor came from.
The Missing Slate | During the panel discussion, poet Haris Khallique spoke about how your generation of poets is mostly bilingual, whereas the rising poets or emerging Pakistani poets generally aren’t. Do you agree with that?
Ilona Yusuf | Okay… lets clarify that. In a way, he has a point. Poets like Waqas Khwaja, Taufiq Rafat, Daud Kamal, they were also very good translators. Daud Kamal translated Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Taufiq Rafat translated Qadir Yar and Bulleh Shah, Waqas Khwaja has translated various Urdu poets and he’s also edited an anthology which came out about two years ago – it’s modern poetry of Pakistan but it’s [in] all languages, all the vernaculars. So they have a very solid grounding in local, vernacular poetry. I can’t claim that. Some of the new poets, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, she has a very good grounding in vernacular poetry; Bilal Tanweer, he has this felicity for being equal in both English and Urdu.
English medium schools are not making Urdu mandatory, and I think that really is very sad. When you come from Pakistan, why are you not teaching Urdu – you must have a connection to your literary heritage because otherwise you are going to divorce yourself totally from it. You can’t pretend not to be part of that heritage. It’s like when Zia came into power, he wanted to rewrite history but… you can’t pretend that Harrapa was not part of your history or Gandhara wasn’t… I mean you should really be over the moon that there was this wonderful civilization called Gandhara which embraced different religions and was so tolerant, and instead you want to negate it.
The Missing Slate | Why do you think we constantly downplay our literary culture, and then wonder if there’s a market for Pakistani writers?
Ilona Yusuf | There is a market definitely. Publications abroad are picking up Pakistani poetry and publications here also need to wake up and do something about it, because if you don’t recognize your heritage then you’re going to lose it.