Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani writer and artist currently living in Ottawa. She is the author of two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). She was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize, and was the 2019 winner of Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award.
Context, context, context. Where to give it and where to let others do the work to find out?
In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a rising movement on Twitter to steer away from explaining references to content that falls out of western “common knowledge.” This includes not giving translations of non-English words, and not stating each allusion. It gives way to rhythm and flow without the bulky footnotes that accompany each translation or definition.
But recent projects I’ve been involved with have forced me to think about when and why context is necessary. Sure, people could do the work on their own time, but will they? And if they don’t do the work, what broader message is lost? What context does the reader need to know? What can they figure out on their own?
I wanted to talk about the space of giving context versus content, with examples of two culturally and politically heavy projects I’ve been working on in the past few months.
1. Reth aur Reghistan
is a literary and sculptural interpretation of folklore from the city of Karachi and the province of Sindh in Pakistan. It’s a collaborative project between my sister, Nimra Bandukwala, and myself. We started this project out of our interest in exploring the stories from the city we grew up in, and our path has led us to thinking about how stories are passed down and how they evolve in cultural memory.
As part of our research, Nimra and I conducted interviews with cultural and creative workers. Through our interviews, we learned a lot about the archaeological evidence that traces a story’s origin, what these stories mean to communities, and the contemporary modes in which they continue to grow. Most of the content I gathered was things that I had little to no prior knowledge of. If I learned about these stories through grant-funded research, how could a prospective audience easily know or find this folklore?
Although the final product we envision for Reth aur Reghistan is a book of poetry and sculpture that interprets themes and specific scenes of folklore, we also want to share the interesting and sometimes hilarious stories we draw inspiration from. The way the manuscript is currently evolving includes both tellings of the folklore as well as poetic interpretation. The credit for this layout fully goes to Nimra. It’s been interesting working with someone who isn’t steeped in the literary world, because she brings a different perspective into this tension of context versus not.
By working in this way, I’ve felt like I have a lot more creative freedom to sprawl into abstract territory without worrying about a reader getting lost. I can focus my poem on how Sasui journeyed across the desert twice instead of telling the reader why she did that. A reader will have the context they need right there (told in an artistic way of course).
2. “Border”, forthcoming in Briarpatch
“Border” is a collaborative long poem between myself and Toronto-based poet . We started “Border” in July 2019, after finding out that we would be in close physical proximity to each other but on different sides of a militarized border. Sanna was in Srinagar, in Indian Occupied Kashmir, and I was going to be visiting Gilgit Baltistan, which borders Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
On August 5th, the Indian government scrapped Article 370 that gave Kashmir autonomous status, and the exchange between Sanna and I turned into a real-time reaction to an international crisis. We didn’t start “Border” with this intention, but this is what happens when your existence is inherently political. We’re both incredibly proud of what we’ve produced, but this poem of crisis was not a choice but circumstance. This context is something we want readers to know.
“Border” is now forthcoming in , a magazine committed to anticolonial perspectives on politics. When we were working with editor Saima Desai, we had conversations about what context to provide to readers. Many readers likely didn’t know what happened on August 5th, nor do they know that Kashmir is still under curfew. They probably don’t know what the line of control is, or why India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir since 1947.
I made the artwork that accompanies the poem, and had a long conversation with Saima as we figured out how to visually represent the piece. One of the things we talked about was showing a map of borders: the borders between Pakistan and India; the division of Kashmir along the line of control, and the places Sanna and I were writing from. How could I represent this accurately while also making clear the borders are a result of colonial legacy? How could I show the military presence of the region without reducing Kashmir to a warzone, or on the other end, romanticizing the mountain landscape?
There’s a lot of questions here. And I reached answers to them through conversations with creative collaborators and editors who shared the knowledge I had on the topic. In “Border,” for example, something that helped bridge the space between context and content was working with an editor from the same cultural context as us. We knew we could trust Saima with editing our work, and that her suggestions to provide context came from a perspective of making the piece as impactful as possible.
To some extent, an overarching backgrounder of a piece frees up space within the piece to just write. Just to talk about why context matters sometimes in this blog post, I had to give a summary of the projects and what they aimed to do. A lot of my recent writing draws on politics, history, religion, and culture – the work I’m going to read at Brockton Writer’s Series attests to that – and I want an audience to know the deeper political and cultural implications that run through my poetics.
Manahil Bandukwala visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Terese Mason Pierre, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”