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Tarfia Faizullah


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Tarfia Faizullah


                On March 26, 1971, West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali
                    civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from West
                    Pakistan. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of
                    Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, 200,000 women were raped and over 3 million people were killed.


In West Texas, oil froths
luxurious from hard ground
while across Bangladesh,

bayoneted women stain
pondwater blossom. Your
mother, age 8, follows

your grandmother down worn
stone steps to the old pond,
waits breathless for her

to finish untwining from
herself the simple cotton
sari to wade alone into green

water—the same color,
your mother thinks, as
a dress she’d like to twirl

the world in. She knows
the strange men joining
them daily for meals mean

her no harm—they look like
her brothers do nights they
jump back over the iron gate,

drenched in the scents of else-
where—only thinner. So thin—
in the distance, thunder,

though the sky reflected
in the water her mother
floats in burns bright blue.


Gather these materials:

          slivers of wet soap, hair

                    swirling pondwater, black oil.

Amar peet ta duye de na,

          Grandmother says, so Mother

                    palms the pink soap, slides

it between her small hands

          before arcing its jasmine-

                    scented froth across her

back. Gather these materials:

          the afternoon’s undrowned

                    ceremonies, the nattering

of cicadas—yes, yes, yes

          Mother watches Grandmother

                    disappear into water: light:

many-leafed, like bits of bomb-

          shells gleaming like rose petals

                    upturned in wet grass, like

the long river in red twilight—


1971: the entire world unraveling
like thread your mother pulls

& pulls away from the hem of her
dress. In America, the bodies

of men & women march forward
in protest, rage candling

their voices—in Vietnam, monks
light themselves on fire, learning

too late how easily the body burns—
soon, the men whose stomachs

flinch inward will struggle
the curved blades of their bayonets

into khaki-clad bodies, but for now
they lean against the cool stone

walls of your grandparents’ house,
eyes closed as your mother watches

her mother twirl in the pond, longs
to encircle herself in ripples

of light her fingers might
arpeggio across green water—

she loves the small diamond
in her mother’s nose, its sunlit

surface glittering like curled
hot metal she knows falls from

the sky, though never before her eyes.  


Why call any of it back? Easy
          enough to descend with your

mother, down
                     & down hard
                                         stone steps—how I loved,
she says, to watch her

                     yes, reach

            forward to touch

                                  the sun-ambered softness

of the bright sari Grandmother

           retwines around
                                 her body—yes,

your eyes
            dazzled by the diamond’s

many-chambered light
                       —it shined
so, Mother says,
                       though it’s not you

           she’s speaking to anymore,

                      caught as she is in this reeling
                      & a Bangladeshi

woman catches the gaze
                                            of a Pakistani
soldier through rain-curved palm

                       trees—her sari is torn
                                                       from her—
She bathed the same
                          way each time
, Mother says

—the torn woman curls
                                  into green silence—first, she

would fold her sari,
                          then dive in

the earth green
                       with rain, the water,

green—then she would
                                       wash her face
until her nosepin shined, aha re,
how it shined

                       his eyes, green

then she would ask me to wash her back

                                     the torn woman a helix of blood

 —then she would rub cream into her
beautiful skin

                                                    the soldier buttoning
                                                                          himself back

                                          into khaki—yes, call it
                                                                          back again—


Two oceans between you, but still
you can see her running a finger
along the granite counter in the sun-

spilled kitchen, waiting for the tea
to boil before she drives past old
West Texas oil fields still bright

with bluebells. But tell me, she asks,
why couldn’t you research the war
from here?
Gather these materials,

these undrowned ceremonies—
tea poured into a cup, a woman
stepping lightly across green field

into a green pond—but don’t tell
her the country of her birth
became a veined geography inside

you, another body inside your own—Oh
, she sobs. I miss her so. You open
the door to step out to the concrete

veranda. Look: the moon is an ivory
scythe gutting another pond across
which the reflection of a young girl’s

braid ripples. Tell me, you say, about 1971.

                                    -from Seam


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Bangladeshi-American poet, editor, and educator Tarfia Faizullah was born in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY and raised in west Texas. She received an MFA in poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the author of Seam (SIU 2014), which U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey calls "beautiful and necessary," as well as Register of Eliminated Villages, (Graywolf 2017).

In reviewing Seam for Slate Magazine, Jonathan Farmer observes "There is poetry here: our living language pulled into shape by hunger and intelligence." Focused around a long sequence "Interview with a Birangona," the book explores the ethics of interviewing as well as the history of the birangona, Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971. Tarfia received a Fulbright award to travel to Bangladesh and interview the birangona. Of her book, Tarfia has said, "I don't believe that there is an art that can ever render something as unreasonable and as violent as human suffering. I tried to write a book that acknowledges the limitations of that rendering as much as it is helpless before those ‘images of the atrocious' and the ways in which those images are forgotten even as they continue to haunt us."

Tarfia's honors and awards include a Great Lake College Association New Writers Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, as well as scholarships and fellowships from Kundiman, Bread Loaf, Kenyon Review, Sewanee, and Vermont Studio Center. Her poems appear in Poetry Magazine, Poetry Daily, Oxford American, Ploughshares, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. Poems have also been anthologized in Best New Poets 2013 (Meridian), The Book of Scented Things (Rose O'Neill Literary House Press), Please Excuse this Poem: 100 Poems for the Next Generation (Viking/Penguin), and Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (University of Southern Carolina Press). Recent prose appears in LA Review of Books, the Poetry Foundation, and Necessary Fiction.

Tarfia has collaborated with photographer Elizabeth Herman, emcee and producer Brooklyn Shanti, and composer Jacob Cooper, and has served as an editor for Blackbird, Asian American Literary Review, Four Way Review, Orison Books, and New England Review. She co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May, and lives in Detroit, MI. She is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Poetry in the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan.


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

A Review of Tarfia Faizullah's Seam by Anne Champion, first published at Tupelo Quarterly

Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, may be my favorite book of 2014. I picked it up after returning from a peace delegation to Palestine, and I was experiencing a range of emotions that witnessing brutality and listening to stories of survivors evoked within me, but I found myself utterly mute in terms of articulating it. Then I read Seam: a collection that weaves beauty and devastation tightly together, carefully and respectfully chronicling traumatic memory in a way that reaffirms hope, humanity, and community.

Seam explores the horrors of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, a catastrophe that haunted her parents’ lives in America, a deep wound that Faizullah bravely interrogates. The first poem of the book, “1971,” begins with a historical note that lays the foundation of her work:

“On March 26, 1971, West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from the West. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, two hundred thousand women were raped, and over 3 million people were killed.”

This dark stain of history is what Faizullah tenderly caresses, reimagining and bringing to life the voices and stories of the raped women who survived terrors rendered so unspeakable that they risk being forgotten. Faizullah’s poems, through fearless witness, ensure this doesn’t happen.

The book organizes itself around a few touchstone tropes that are repeatedly returned to: several poems bear the same title or variations of that title. Some include, “Interviewer’s Notes,” “Instructions for the Interviewer,” “Interview with a Birangona” (A Birangona is a word for women who survived rape and/or torture during the war), poems to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and poems about reading various authors in Bangladesh, such as Willa Cather and Tomas Transtromer. The repetition of titles echoes the relentlessness of repeated acts of violence upon women during this time period, but it also points to persistence and resilience in the face of trauma.

Just like Faizullah’s note at the beginning of her book, documents of history often reduce tragedy to numbers, and those numbers are void of emotion as they become simple details of fact. However, Faizullah’s poetry combats this, putting narratives front and center, reclaiming the humanity and dignity of the survivors by reimagining the details with vivid precision and force. In “Reading Transtromer in Bangledesh,” the speaker documents being in her grandmother’s house and hearing of the sudden death of a classmate:

      details flare out like sails
      of a ship: mother trapped
      in an asylum, father weeping,
      his son’s warm corpse cradled
      in his arms, the chicken bone
      still lodged in his young throat.
      To whom would this not be
      an inelegant death—a caught
      bone like one of our own?”

I’m struck by Faizullah’s simile—flare out like a ship—how tragedy turns to narrative and sets other pains into motion, be it grief or a desire for some form of justice. Faizullah also documents the stories in compact ways, choosing the most potent images and details to render heartbreaking devastation, and then moves to a larger, almost prophetic, question that forces readers to confront the senselessness of such a death. Later in the poem, she writes:

     “I want to shed each jagged
      dirt road, bodies jostled inside
      each swerving car, trains
      draped with bodies dangling
      like writhing vines—”

In the speaker’s overpowering desire to escape grief, Faizullah again uses imagery in a way that’s utterly haunting. These bodies—filled with their stories and the stories filled with their grief—dangle like “writhing vines.” It’s strangely inhuman, but the sentiments of fear, threat, and claustrophobia come through clearly in those few lines.

Faizullah’s details not only haunt: they also create a sense of place while documenting an acute sense of loss. Simple images can set the reader’s heart to aching in one swift turn. Take, for example, one of her poems titled “Interviewer’s Note”:

     “Past another clothesline heavy
      with saris: for hours they
      will lift into the wind, hollow
      of any bruised or broken body.”

The saris on this clothesline take on a ghostly quality, reminding us that even though they are clean, they are never washed of the broken bodies that inhabited them. It’s a stark image and a difficult one to confront.

The poems get more difficult as they directly convey the voices of rape survivors. In another poem titled “Interviewer’s Note,” we get a glimpse into the horror of assault.

     “They tossed—
      me—river—me—you want the splayed heart
      of another’s hand clasping yours, to know
      if cruelty exists, or if it is only love’s threadbare

I actually have no words for this. Simply demoralizing, shocking, overwhelming, profoundly painful. Faizullah uses the second person to take on an accusatory and simultaneously distanced voice of the rape victim, encompassing the sense of shame in the details. The juxtaposition of the self with the river creates a jarring image of callous assault; however, as it’s repeated the speaker starts to blend with the river in a way that’s both haunting (does she exist anymore or is she drowning in this river? Becoming the river?) and beautiful (a body is a part of nature.) The craft work here is stunning.

Faizullah also documents the after effects of trauma in moving, empathetic ways. In “Dhaka Nocturne”:

     “I admit that when the falling hour
      Begins to husk the sky free of its
      saffroning light, I reach for anyone

     willing to wrap his good arm tight
     around me for as long as the ribboned
     darkness allows. Who wants, after all,

     to be seen too clearly?”

Again, the question takes on a shaman like quality—how grief resides within us in a way that forces us to want to hide part of ourselves. Ironically, we also want human contact and tenderness in any form. Loss doesn’t make us fully recoil: it often makes us desperately reach out for any type of contrived and fleeting semblance of healing.

The horrors of history are not past: sadly, these types of injustices still occur all over the world, making trauma almost commonplace, even in its profound effects on communities and politics. However, Faizullah’s poetry does some of the necessary work we need to begin to combat injustice: forcing oneself to confront it and making it impossible to forget it. Thus, her poetry restores faith in humanity through its graceful empathy, and reminds us of our responsibilities to the future: we must feel the pain of others, so that we can fight for justice passionately when tragedy and war bear their monstrous teeth in our present.

Click here to read a review of Seam at Slate


 Click here to read a review of Seam
   at The American Literary Review



Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah by Sean Carman, first published by the Paris Review

In the 1971 Liberation War, in which Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, the Pakistani army adopted the rape of Bangladeshi women as a military tactic. Over the course of the more than eight-month conflict, the Pakistani military raped or made sex slaves of between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women.

In 2010, the poet Tarfia Faizullah traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to interview survivors of that atrocity, whom their new government has given the name birangona, a Bengali word that means “brave woman” but might be better translated as “war heroine.”

Seam, Faizullah’s collection about those interviews, and about the experience of traveling to Bangladesh to conduct them, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and will be published on March 6. Faizullah’s collection translates the Pakistani army’s atrocities against the birangona into poetry. It also investigates, and attempts to come to terms with, Faizullah’s own heritage, identity, and experience. One of her interview poems begins: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well, / bathe in my sari, wring / it out, beat it against / the flattest rocks—Are you / Muslim or Bengali, they / asked again and again. / Both, I said, both.

Tarfia Faizullah and I spoke by telephone in January.

Sean Carman: The subjects of these poems have a striking, immediate urgency, and I wondered what inspired you to write them.

Tarfia Faizullah: In 2006, I happened to go to a poetry panel at the University of Texas at Austin, where I saw a Bangladeshi writer, Mahmud Rahman. He had translated an excerpt of a novel, Talaash, by a writer named Shaheen Akhtar. Her book is about the life of a woman who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. It was the first time I had heard about such a wide-scale atrocity in Bangladesh. I became fascinated by it, and started researching and writing the first of the interview poems, just from imagination. 

SC: What made you decide to travel to Bangladesh to interview the women yourself? Was there a particular experience that made you realize you had to go there?

TF: I realized very quickly there was only so far my imagination could go, and only so much research I could do from the States. So I applied for a Fulbright because it seemed—you used the word urgent, and it seemed very urgent for me to go to Bangladesh and record the voices of these women, and spend time in the country in which these atrocities occurred.

I was struggling to articulate the difference between being seen as a whole person versus self-fetishizing. I was starting to reckon with what it means to be a South Asian Muslim woman from West Texas, and how sometimes it was very easy to identify as one thing or another. At the same time, something about the poems I was writing felt off to me. There was something wrong in my assumption that, even if the poems were imagined, I could claim to understand what a woman who had undergone something like that would be going through, and what it might mean to her. 

Even as I was trying not to fetishize my own identity, I was running the risk of writing poems that exoticized or diminutized the experience of being a victim, or being treated as a martyr, when a lot of the birangona haven’t lived their lives that way. That was when I knew I had to go. 

SC: Do you think that, in any way, your own background gave you a window into the experience of the birangona?

TF: I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how to be a woman in the right way—what it means to be a woman in a religiously conservative culture, and what happens when some attention is given to you as a sexual being.

So much of the time, these women have had a sexual self projected onto their identities, in part because the culture itself is conservative. When something violent and sexual happens to you in that context, it doesn’t necessarily go into an easy category, in terms of how you’re supposed to react, how you’re supposed to feel, what you’re supposed to think, or the way you’re supposed to live your life. 

Though the questions are very different, I experienced something similar growing up in West Texas as a Bangladeshi American. There was an empathy about having people try to categorize you when you cannot be so easily categorized. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand what it means when there is no vocabulary, or language, or even space given for you, as a being, outside of certain prescribed categories. In a lot of ways, these women seemed to me to be outside the usual categories. Their stories cannot be seen as either personal or political. They have to be seen as both simultaneously.  

SC: How did you try to find the women you wanted to interview?

TF: I had really great support from the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. A freedom fighter during the war named Akku Chowdhury was very helpful in talking to me about his experiences and introducing me to others. Finally, a scholar put me in touch a woman named Safina Lohani. She fought during the war and now runs an organization that provides support to women who were raped during the conflict. It was in meeting her that I connected with a large number of birangona. That’s when I started delving into the interviews. But this was after a lot of false starts, a lot of touch-and-go. Part of the process was just trying to be open to the ways in which the project might change, trying to be attentive when those opportunities arose, and trying to take them when they were offered.

The interviews themselves defied description. They made me rethink my own assumptions about what we think about when we use terms like victim or survivor or rape or sex, or even something as simple as the concept of pity. I met a group of sisters who had been raped. It had never occurred to me, until I spoke to them, that a woman might share an experience like that with her sisters. I had always thought of the birangona as individuals, as isolated beings strangely removed from family. But of course an experience like that is never isolated. It always permeates through the community and through family. 

As I was talking to them, one of the sisters came up behind me and started playing with my hair. And she said, You poor thing, you must have nobody to comb your hair. That just totally blew me away. I thought I was there to ask what it was like for them. To have a woman who had survived something so horrible with her sisters, to have her pity me because my hair seemed unkempt—I never could have predicted something like that was going to happen. 

SC: Did your experience alter the way you thought about the war and the women you met? 

TF: It certainly brought to life some things about being Bangladeshi. Bangladesh was only liberated in the seventies. It’s very much a new country. My grandparents’ generation grew up thinking of themselves as Pakistani, not Bangladeshi. So my experience not only changed how I thought about the war, it complicated the very notion of being from a place and feeling a loyalty to that place. It also made me think about how we often focus on the victory of a war rather than its consequences. So many of these women, while they were held up by the new Bangladeshi government as war heroines, were often shunned by their families and social circles.   

So there was a kind of cognitive dissonance between what the new state was doing to try to protect them, and the difficulties they sometimes experienced with the people closest to them. It made me think about patriotism, the consequences of independence, and how often the wartime experiences of women are sidelined. A lot of people in Bangladesh refuse to acknowledge that anything like this ever happened. 

SC: How did you shape the material you had gathered into poems?

TF: It was a gradual process of putting things together, taking them back out, seeing where things fell, and realizing that some poems didn’t actually belong in the collection, even though it felt important to write them. I put the interview sequence at the center of the book because I felt doing so most accurately depicted my conversations with these women, in which I was also dealing with my own reckoning as a Bangladeshi American woman with a different kind of relationship to Bangladesh. The book tries to navigate some of those spaces. 

I was trying to figure out how to marry form and content to create a very human poem. Many of the interview poems happened very instinctively once I chose a form for them. The form became the lens through which I could focus my experiences and conversations. For example, a lot of poems from the perspective of the birangona are written in couplets. There’s something about the couplet that allows you to take two seemingly incommensurate objects and give them room to dwell beside each other. For me, a privileged Bangladeshi American woman interviewing women living in Bangladesh, the couplet became a way to put those concepts in the same space. It became a natural way of delivering the voices of the birangona as I had heard them.

Some of the poems, such as “Reading Celan in the Liberation War Museum,” took longer to figure out. That poem ended up being a crown of sonnets, in part because I think there’s something very obsessive about that form, just as there was something about moving through that museum that felt obsessive and meditative in equal measure.

I wanted each poem to be able to stand on its own, outside the narrative trajectory of the book. I focused on writing poems that would have integrity outside of the manuscript, and those were the poems I kept. Once Seam began to take shape as a book, I realized that a lot of the poems were trying to tell a story in a number of different ways, through a number of different timelines and perspectives. I don’t give voice to all of the perspectives, but I wanted to try to confront the ways in which, as Celan wrote, everything is near and unforgotten. So part of the experience was trying to weave together, say, a story my mother told me about watching her mother bathe in the pond behind their house during the 1971 war, while also trying to write a poem in the voice of a woman who underwent a very different experience during the war than my mother did.

SC: How much of that search for poetic form is intuitive and how much comes from your knowledge of craft?

TF: I’m always educating myself about poetry. I can understand, for example, that a sonnet has fourteen lines, and that it has a turn on the eighth line. I can understand what meter is. I can recognize a rhyme when I see it. But all of those tools are useless to me without imagination. Similarly, vision doesn’t find its shape without the craft. I don’t know how you render human vulnerability without the right vocabulary or syntax. So, if I have written a poem that seems to have roughly fourteen lines, I’ll ask, Is this possibly a sonnet? And I’ll try it as a sonnet. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll say, Well, maybe it’s not a sonnet. Maybe it needs to be similar to a sonnet, but to break out of that form a little bit. The tools are useful, but I don’t ever feel trapped or isolated by them. There is much more an expansiveness in thinking about form than there is limitation. 

SC: A poem might find its form in the way a person seeks to find out who she is, how she can be seen. 

TF: Right. I once heard the poet Li-Young Lee say, Syntax is identity. That’s something I’ve always believed, that everybody has a distinct vocabulary based on experience, upbringing, and geography. For me, form is a way of imprinting yourself. I think of it the way I think of the cave paintings of Lascaux, where there is this sense that somebody wanted to affix something permanent of themselves in a world, or a life, that is impermanent.

Click here to read an interview with Taria Faizullah at Lantern Review


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Click here to view multiple readings by Tarfia Faizullah

Click here to purchase Seam

Tarfia Faizullah

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