Fahmida Raiz, writer, human rights activist and the author of more than 15 books on fiction and poetry, has always remained at the centre of controversies. When Badan Dareeda, her second collection of verse, appeared, she was accused of using erotic and sensual expressions in her poetry. The themes prevalent in her verse were, until then, considered taboo for women writers.
The feminist scholarship and women’s movement, however, not only acknowledged her expressions but welcomed them with applause. Riaz was also faced with challenges due to her political ideology. More than 10 cases were filed against her during General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. She was forced into exile during the same regime, only to return to Pakistan after Haq’s death in 1988. The poems from her collection Apna Jurm Sabit Hae are politically charged and reflect the torment her homeland experienced under dictatorship. In terms of using creative expression for political discourse, Riaz stands among literary greats such as Nazim Hikmet, Pablu Neruda, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
Following are excerpts of a conversation she had with Herald on her literary journey and issues confronting Pakistan’s literati.
Amar Sindhu: Does creativity need ideology?
Fahmida Riaz: Once creativity expands beyond the very personal, almost biological paradigms, it seeks some ground to stand upon. Creativity is very often rooted in some idea. Our folk songs and stories do not seem to be ideological but they seem to have ideas, when looked at closely. The question of ideology is raised mostly in the context of progressive literature that sees individuals in a web of external circumstances and class conflicts. Literary creativity does not have to emanate from this consciousness, nor does this consciousness hamper creativity. In the 20th century, great writers such as Pablo Neruda, Paul Nizan, Nazim Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Gabriel García Márquez declared themselves to be Marxists. An artist like Pablo Picasso, who revolutionised the world of painting, was a member of the Communist party of France. On the other hand, two literary giants before these writers, Leo Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, saw the individual and the society in the context of Christian teachings and sought the answers of all human problems in Christ. You may notice, though, that too was a kind of ideology.
Amar Sindhu: What made you realise that you possess creative talents?
Fahmida Riaz: Am I a creative person? Maybe I am, who knows? I am always trying to make sense of what may be total nonsense. All kinds of ideas come to my mind, ideas I am even ashamed to mention because no one is thinking along those lines. To cite just one example, I have been wondering why we Pakistanis keep thinking of the Afghans either as our stooges or as Indian stooges. Maybe the Afghans have their own national identity like us and the Indians. So if we approach them as such, we may learn what they want. Similarly, the Bangladeshis fought a war with West Pakistan in which India helped them but we keep thinking that it was a war between India and Pakistan only. This interpretation is pervasive in India also. However, if we begin to think of Bangladeshis as a national entity, as a people who wished to be separated from us, and not merely puppets in someone’s hand, the heartburn towards India for helping them may considerably subside.
Amar Sindhu: What is the source of your creative inspiration? Is it social upheavals, disorder, chaos or internal angst?
Fahmida Riaz: My poetry sprang from what I was engaged in. I belong to a tradition. This is how Faiz, Shaikh Ayaz, Gul Khan Naseer and Ajmal Khattak spent their lives and created marvelous poetry. I am not an exceptionally politically over-charged poet. Perhaps the only exception is that I am a woman. For me, literature is not separate from life. Literature is something alive, like any other living organism. There have been trailblazers in this country. It is a pity that many of us do not remember or understand or acknowledge what they have done for this state and its people. That our poetry has been largely political is the result of the peculiar circumstances prevailing in Pakistan. This country has been pushed from one crisis to another. Things have been so bad that a writer could not ignore them. It even made poets and writers of beautiful fantasies like Muneer Niazi and Intizar Hussain write about political matters.
Amar Sindhu: Do you believe that the political consciousness of a writer could become an emotional weakness or does it strengthen creativity?
Fahmida Riaz: There are many kinds of writers. There are those who choose not to respond to their socio-political surroundings. And, there are some writers who cannot dissociate their work from their surroundings and remain very much a part of the social mayhem. However, there are times when they are completely possessed by an inner turbulence or joy. My second book, Badan Dareeda, does not focus much on political and social developments. It depicted my inner being. My life had undergone a sea change – from being an optimistic, lovesick college girl, I had become a married woman. It dawned upon me that sexuality is forcibly subjugated to social needs. How natural desire and the longing of a woman for a man, arising out of a number of reasons, is completely disregarded by social customs. These were great upheavals within my heart and mind as a female poet. Then motherhood, a fantastic physical, psychological and emotional experience, found an outlet in words. So I had to change my life – only after that could I bring some change to my homeland. While I myself changed my life on my own, I joined hands with others who were trying to make a difference, to change my homeland. Critics have misinterpreted this change in my subject matter. Mostly, they have been unable to understand it at all. They have failed to closely examine the relationship between the life and works of a writer.