5 Questions: Maryam Azam

by Robert Wood

Maryam Azam is a writer and teacher in Western Sydney.
She graduated with Honours in Creative Writing from Western Sydney University.
Her debut poetry collection is The Hijab Files (Giramondo, 2018).

Azam - Hijab Files.jpg

Tell us about your new book, The Hijab Files. How did you come to write it and what is it about?

The Hijab Files started as part of my Honours project where I examined representations of the hijab in contemporary poetry. Such representations were frequently Orientalised, presented in the trope of the silent, oppressed woman, and written about by writers with no personal experience of wearing a hijab.

The Hijab Files is a snapshot in the life and times of a young woman in Western Sydney and covers the usual themes of that liminal period in life: school, friendship, love and identity, through the lens of being a hijab-wearing Muslim woman.

The Hijab Files builds from your own personal experiences, but it is coupled with thinking beyond yourself. Can you explain how you bring together those different elements? Who are you speaking for and to?

To be a practicing Muslim is to bring your beliefs and religious practices to every aspect of life. There is no 'separation of Church and State' and so the poems reflect this through their descriptions of ordinary occurrences in ordinary places like the train station or the cinema or the sick bay at school while at the same time exploring how the persona navigates prayer time, wearing the headscarf and her spiritual worldview in these situations.

I definitely don't speak for all hijab-wearing Muslim women—I can only speak for myself and my own experiences, especially as I strive for authenticity in my writing. While writing these poems, I had an idea in my head that I was writing for an audience much like who I was in high school—the young girl looking for relatable characters in the books she read.

Building on that, you often deal with ideology, especially around religion, youth, the city. What is the intersection between politics and poetry, especially when it comes to your voice?

Every choice a writer makes is a political one. Therefore, I am highly sensitive to the political implications of my writing practice. Considering that this collection was born as a response to the disempowerment I felt when reading representations of the hijab by writers with no intimate understanding of what that experience could mean, I am careful not to impose on the experiences of others which I hold no claim to.  

As an example, the poem 'Ninja' in The Hijab Files describes a woman who wears the niqab, the face veil. As I have never worn the niqab, I was careful to frame the poem so that the main character, a hijab-wearing woman, is meeting the woman wearing the face veil, so that any expressed ideas the main character has about the niqab are not imposed on niqab wearing women and instead maps the complexities in the relationship between hijab and niqab wearers.

The Hijab Files moves around but the work is often located in Western Sydney where you are from. Talk to us about this place, how does it matter to you and how do you express its identity, its feeling, its history?

Having spent most of my life in Western Sydney I know it intimately well. My writing represents one experience of Western Sydney as opposed to the multitudes of experiences out there, all of which would paint an individual picture of this place. But my sense of Western Sydney comes across through the specific detail of the various people and places within it – the train station, the shopping centre, the goings on inside different homes.

Finally, what do you want the reader to take away from The Hijab Files?

I would like a reader to find The Hijab Files a memorable and enjoyable read.