Hera Naguib has an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She has previously worked as the poetry editor of Papercuts magazine, and a Senior Reader at Sarah Lawrence College’s literary journal, Lumina. Her work can be found in The Maya Tree Liberal Arts Review and Papercuts among other publications. She is from Lahore.
Unravelling Memory in Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam
Bangladeshi-American poet Tarfia Faizullah’s poetry collection, Seam, is a gorgeous debut that draws from the troubled heritage of ravage and trauma endured by Bangladeshi women during the 1971 Liberation War. Those well-familiar with the tumultuous history of the Indian subcontinent throughout and post-British independence may recall the conditions that incited the war and the ghastly measures undertaken to ruthlessly plunder a vision of a nationalistic identity from the subjugated other revolting to secure its own.
In the two decades after the historic Partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bengalis of East Pakistan sparked a secessionist movement that sought to divide themselves from the state of Pakistan. The Bengalis, who formed more than half of Pakistan’s total population, had played a crucial role in the Pakistan Movement. The agitation behind their political movement arose from the surmounting political estrangement from its largely West Pakistani establishment, whose leaders had unjustly enforced their political vision of the state of Pakistan. Their resistance, at the heart of which lay the structural suppression of a methodically othered identity, would quickly attract popular support and spur the drastic breach of a second partition within the subcontinent.
On the night of March 25, 1971, West Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight, a military campaign geared towards the systematic elimination of dissident Bengali civilians, including students and intelligentsia, and pro-secession armed personnel. The war, which culminated in the independence of East Pakistan as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, claimed the lives of over three million civilians, according to Bangladeshi sources noted by Faizullah in the epigraph to her opening poem. During the war, the Pakistani forces adopted rape and sexual slavery as a weapon, Faizullah writes, and the “genocidal” crimes endangered the lives of 200,000 non-combatant Bangladeshi women.
This heinous event, instigated from within the landscape of conflict drawn out in the summary above—a summary which risks overlooking vital historical intricacies of the broader subcontinental war that also involved Indian forces against Pakistan—is what captivates Tarfia Faizullah’s attention. With equal grace and restraint, Faizullah hauntingly plumbs one of modern South Asian history’s most harrowing atrocities. In 2010, Tarfia Faizullah travelled to research the war on a Fulbright grant to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ushered by a local organisation providing support to rape survivours, Faizullah conducted interviews to gather the stories of the survivors.
Combining voices from oral testimony, historical fact, familial memories, and the voices of notable poets, Faizullah draws out the experience of an unwavering search into the archives of the collective subconscious to exhume the memory of mass brutalisation and loss sustained in the 1971 Liberation War. Hers is a courageous endeavour to confront and articulate the difficult work of recollection against the perils of forgetting and our collective silence over the troubled histories we inherit.
Winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Poetry Book Award, the resonance of Seam lies in Faizullah’s searing vision to narrate the human cost of suffering. Faizullah’s is a sensitive portrayal of her journey into history and the recollection which begins in the internal dimensions of familial memory. In “1971”, the first poem of five sections, Faizullah traverses the subterranean landscape of her mother’s memory of the year of war. Journeying into the past from their hometown of west Texas to her mother’s country of origin, Bangladesh, Faizullah repeatedly probes a single familiar memory around which looms an increasingly darkening atmosphere of an oncoming war.
In these delicate and sensuous poems, filled with earthen detail, memory dwells in the distilled ease of childhood reverie as her mother watches her grandmother undress and bathe alone in a pond. Delight and decorum harmoniously enfold this private and female space as her mother likens the green water her mother bathes in as “the same color,/she thinks, as/a dress she’d like to twirl the world in”. In the backdrop of the nearing war, memory of the world is no more innocuous, but disrobed to lay bare the sense of a nearing war. “1971: the entire world unravel[s]”, Faizullah writes in the third section. At the onset of war in the fourth part, the body is increasingly associated as instrument and site of dissent and violence as the memory of a woman’s rape at the hands of a Pakistani soldier cuts through the reiteration of her mother’s.
“Farishtaay” by Komal Shahid. 2018. Gouache on Wasli. 12 x 20 inches.
“Why call any of it back?” Faizullah pointedly asks. The answer lies in the prevalence of trauma: the inability to articulate logically the violation raveled in her mother’s mind. The poem presents this conflict. Disruption characterises the interaction as the narration of her mother bathing becomes incessantly distracted, in broken and interspersed images, by that of a woman’s rape. Once confronted, no reiteration of trauma, Faizullah implies, through form and content, can be simple and seamless. Memory “reel[s] backward”, an effect mirrored in the poem’s staggering lines. The rootedness of trauma is rampant in the inextricable conflation of detail: how the green of the water and the earth and the trees is found in the victim’s “green silence” and “his eyes green”.
“Yes, call it back again,” Faizullah finally urges as she fully confronts the lacuna in her own notion of her heritage and identity. Quickly the burden of this untapped legacy intimates her with the intuition of her own ineluctablity from the devastating history of Bangladesh: how the landscape of the past becomes “a veined geography inside you, another body inside your own”. Thus, the collection spans the arc of Faizullah’s journey from her metaphorical dive into familial memory to her visit to Bangladesh to research the war.
Faizullah lands into a Bangladesh enshrouded in a denial that serves as the thin seam under which the knowledge of history recurrently penetrates: “Each map I have seen/of this country obscures:/each blue line, each emerald/cannot claim such cloudy veins, these/long, porous seems between/us, still irrepressible–”. Here is a landscape no different than that of her familial memory in which silence over the atrocity persists and contributes to the erasure of gendered violence and the persistent existence of a marginal community of absent subjects: here woman is “bone is erasing bone” whom even language betrays through exclusion: “in Bangla/there are words/for every kind of woman/but a raped one”.
The poignancy of Faizullah’s reflections of her people’s oblivion lies in a voice that is distilled of censure. If critical, hers is a critique motivated by empathy and an impetus that works towards reformation. This imbues her artistic intention and her curiosity to unearth and reconcile with the turmoiled past with an earnestness, which time and time again, is substantiated in her scrupulous courage to interrogate her own privilege. For instance, as she walks through the Dubai Airport in “Enroute to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith”, past “the dark horde of men/and women” she claims “look like me–/because I look like them–”, she admits her shame of their stinking bodies because “I can”, she acknowledges “because I am an American.”
Similarly, the authenticity of her volition is foregrounded in her unflinching and heartfelt compassion. In this amnesiac landscape where, in the words of Paul Celan that preface the collection, “everything is near and forgotten”, Faizullah repeatedly questions the human capacity to live with traumatic memory: “it is possible to live without/memory Nietzsche said but/is it possible to live with it?” There is no simple answer, she knows. Rather, she grasps the ironic romance of denial that necessitates and enables life under the burden of trauma: “It is still beautiful to hear/the heart, but often the shadow/seems more real than/the body. How thin/the seam between the world”.
Here, the shadow is the nebulous ignorance cast upon the surface of public consciousness. Here, decades of national detachment and social disavowal has interposed an illumination on the past: the truth of the abominable affliction inflicted upon the countless Bangladeshi women. Faizullah partially acknowledges this in an epigraph to her own poems: in a policy towards adopting visibility after the war, she comments, the new Bangladeshi government honoured survivors as birangona or “war heroines”. Yet, the recognition did not penetrate into public consciousness. The birangona, Faizullah counters, faced frequent ostracisation from their families and social circles.
In Bangladesh, this marginalisation has created a lapse which persists in the public consciousness and extends to official histories. It precludes confrontation and an immersive engagement with this history of terrorisation. In her research and compilation of the oral accounts of the birangona in Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, historian Yasmin Saikia draws out the frightening consequences of this withdrawal: “the disengagement with women’s trauma in the existing official history has created a yawning gap that makes 1971 almost impossible to understand because what is submerged is also forgotten in the public collective memory and the awareness of the violent past is lost” (4-5).
This denial, Saika elaborates, has engendered and fostered the prevalence of convenient binary official accounts focused on apportioning blame to the “other” and “the construction of an official narrative that focuses on the events and actions happening on an external level and the combat, operations, tactics, strategies, leaders and campaigns become the stuff of memory and history” (5). In turn, such simplistic narratives of distorted nationalistic bravado overlook the intricacies of context, precisely “the complexities of the conditions and circumstances that produced horrific outcomes in the war and the impact of violence and terror on people’s lives” (4). The aggrandizement of nationalistic truth has contributed to the institutionalisation of effacement and dehumanisation of a people’s memory of suffering.
Against this climate of easy oblivion, a structural subjugation of sorts, Faizullah’s project to interview the birangona is a political one, with ramifications that are both personal and public. It not only entails the interrogation of the gap in her and her family’s memory but also presents a search for her own understanding and reckoning against detachment and forgetting. Moreover, the choice to confront and memorialise into poems a psyche that spells human cost of suffering in multiple tellings is also a political one. In doing so, Faizullah re-writes history against engineered official narratives and single nationalistic truths that focus on externalities of war. Writing as a second generation Bangladeshi woman, one wonders of the relevance and ramifications of this text upon subsequent generations of Bangladesh, if ever available in the local Bangla through translation.
For history, Faizullah knows, is her people’s story. In each of these poems that delicately thread images of defilement with beauty, Faizullah renders a lived story of sexual violence. Each poem is preceded by a question from the interviewer, namely Faizullah herself. What is insinuated of the grave abjection, usually at each poem’s denouement, is often more harrowing than any possibility of an apparent depiction. In one poem, Faizullah narrates a woman recalling her rape preceded by a man saying kutta. “It is only later I realize/it is me he is calling dog. Dog. Dog” she reveals. The moment of identification, with which Faizullah leaves us, is almost paralysing.
In another gutting instance, all a woman can remember is being trapped underground amidst “bodies piled on bodies” and “how when the time/came for his choosing, we all gave in for tea, a mango/overripe. Another chance to hear the river’s gray lull.” Another recalls stifling to death her baby born of rape. While in yet another aching memory, set in the backdrop of the president’s words: “you saved our country”, one recounts her grandfather slapping her for being raped and casting her out of her home.
In each of these mournful and deeply aggravating poems, which necessarily draw out their pain, Faizullah is careful to never reduce her representation of the birangona to their experiences of victimisation. Repeatedly, she contextualises the story of sexual abuse through a depiction that broadens memory beyond the details of the violation.
Moreover, her task of catalysing a narration of memory and her own poeticising of it is a fully humanising one. For in telling their stories, the victims assay an articulation against the relegation of silence imposed over time. In probing memory, in the choice to name, and to carve a shape out of their pain, these women engage in self-recognition, become agents and owners of their own narratives. This idea is perhaps also implied in Faizullah’s craft, in the intention to lend the full space of the poem to the rendering of testimony itself.
Therefore, the encounter between the interviewer and interviewee enables the creation of a creative space to face and voice the lived experiences of the war. Within this creative act lies a liberation of sorts. For in the act of storytelling lies their resistance against the prevailing ignorance of official history and the dehumanisation by its perpetrators through violence “when they [were] deemed as objects to be destroyed” (Saikia 11).
Listening and the creation of literature, whether oral or written, too, becomes a political act, which enables not only resistance against and condemnation of the bestiality, but the journey towards a degree of personal redemption. If there is anything lacking in this compelling debut, or that which evokes curiosity, it is the deepened remonstrance on how the project—her acquired knowledge of the violence—evolves Faizullah’s own relationship with Bangladesh and her identity as a Bangladeshi-American woman. Perhaps, as one may well argue, her restraint as partial outsider is wise. And in her role as sojourner, as interviewer, as listener, Faizullah acts upon a responsibility, one shared equally by the historian and the poet: to immerse into the past to confront the violence and tell it without judgement, but with equal gravity and compassion. When matched with this characteristic ethics of her treatment in representation of herself as witness and that of the narratives of the birangona, the humanism that drives her entire project is staunch and unequivocal and reminiscent of the emancipating force of poetry.