Interview #108—Zainab Zahra Syed
by Robert Wood
Zainab Zahra Syed is a performance poet, writer, and educator. In 2015, she was a finalist in the Australian Poetry Slam, and, in 2017, she joined Performing Lines WA as a performing arts producer.
We caught up with Zainab to talk about movement, home, belonging, poetry, family, and why we need visionaries for today’s world.
I want to focus our conversation on poetry today, on being Asian in Australia, and on identity more broadly. I think that poetry is where we see some of the most interesting expressions of who we are. But it also means thinking about what things mean in different places with different languages.
So let me start by asking, where do you feel like you belong? Is it poetry? Is it Pakistan? Is it Perth? Is it language, and if so, which ones?
I’ve spent most of my life in transition – in between places, and always saying goodbye to someone or something. As moving, shifting bodies across multiple landscapes, there is a yearning to be anchored within all of us. Just like almost every writer I know, I’ve tried to articulate this yearning time and again through my writing. When I was younger, I was desperate to carve out my identity; put a name to all the things I was; all the homes I had known; all the people I had loved. I measured my sense of place, in how hard I loved. And I loved very hard. It became unsustainable when parts of my self no longer fitted neatly into just one place, or one language. There was a time when I wondered if opening my heart to other places made me less Pakistani. If writing poetry in English, and not Urdu, made me less authentic. But over time, something has changed. Perhaps I’ve grown more comfortable with un-belonging in the physical, tangible sense of the word - unbelonging to something or someone – instead I’ve learnt to find home in myself, particularly in the self that is tied to the values I hold most dear. They are the principles that anchor me, the ones I use to navigate my way through this world originate in my name. My maternal great grandfather changed our family name to haq, meaning truth, and left his children no inheritance except the name. On my paternal side, I come from the family of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) – the Syed’s. For me, the inheritance of these names is belonging. So whether I am in Lahore, or Perth, whether I speak English or Urdu – as long as I am living up to their legacy, I am home.
Is this what home means for you? A movement between places, this belonging to multiple locations, and how we might come to rest in them, in family and legacy? Or to celebrate and sing of it as poets?
I think home is this sense of self that holds us accountable, and often helps us navigate through all the locations we move between in our lives; whether they be physical, emotional or spiritual. We are never far from home, we are only far from ourselves, and I believe the greatest work we have before us, is to try to unveil ourselves to ourselves. To sift through all of the noise this world exposes us to, and find that home within us – it is where the universe resides, as Rumi says. I believe it is the work of poets to help us get there. Poets, who, through a gift, honed over the years, can help us navigate to the place where our most honest self resides. It is therefore no wonder that the greatest poets, were also people of high moral standing, and deeply engaged in their own spiritual journeys. You cannot be a great poet, if you are not a good human being. There, I said it. Until we have mastered the self, we are all just students of poetry.
You said it. We are learning, and, we do that from childhood onwards. Talk to us about your childhood. But, what do you remember from growing up and what has stayed with you since then from your time at Brown University to now?
I don’t think I can underestimate the impact of my upbringing on the person I am today. I’ve grown up with a fierce sense of responsibility and justice – when I was younger, it used to be the cause of much of my anger. My mother jokes that poetry saved me because it channelled that anger. This sense of justice and responsibility is the primary motivation behind all choices I make and how I spend my time. I was very lucky to know a home with strong women, and a very strong set of values. We did things a certain way, not because they were fashionable, but because they were the right thing to do. We were taught to cultivate the power of our femininity without shirking our responsibility to home and family. I was taught to dream big, and wild, and then my parents facilitated ways for me to go after those dreams. Despite having means, my brothers and I were never over indulged. We didn’t deserve anything; instead we had to earn everything. This has been one of the most important lessons of my life so far. Finally, no matter where we lived, and travelled across the world, my parents showed me, that I didn’t have to compromise on my beliefs to fit in. This meant that I was never shy to practice my faith, or be different. I was never embarrassed by it. That confidence does marvels for a teenager. It also meant that I found it very easy to mix with different cultures, to find common ground, and still retain my sense of self. And that has made all the difference.
There was a time when I wondered if opening my heart to other places made me less Pakistani. If writing poetry in English, and not Urdu, made me less authentic.
But over time, something has changed.
That sense of mixing between cultures matters no matter where you are, but seems especially important right here. Can you talk about being a bridge and how poetry can bring people together from different places?
Poetry, the kind that endures – is able to be both; just as particular as it is universal. It speaks to a collective human experience that has tied us to each other across generations, and civilisations. So it resonates. So it connects. So it opens doors between hearts, and changes us in ways we could never have imagined.
We can speak of opening doors between hearts, but what have your experiences of racism been as a performance poet and how do we counter it?
I’m not sure I can give you the most informed response – personally I haven’t experienced racism as a performance poet that I can think of. My poetry, even when it was more political in nature, has never been aggressive. I’d like to think it seeks to disarm people, and find ways to create dialogue. My poetry is also rooted in my sense of self: I am very proud of who I am, where I come from so it doesn’t leave much room for racism because there is no insecurity to exploit. With that as a preface: if those of us do experience racism, how do we counter it? We continue to be honest and vulnerable. Not once, not twice, but all the time. And when we see someone else’s ignorance or anger rear its ugly head in our communities, we call it out, but we also do not succumb to our own rage. We do not respond like with like or shut them out, instead we try to understand the context some people come from, and then find a way to reach them. And it goes without saying that we, as a community have an obligation to create spaces where all of us protect each other. I grew up as a writer in one such space while I was at Brown University – it was my anchor, and my home and it changed everything for me, in the best way possible.
Building on from that, I am wondering if you could share with us some of the people that are doing really important things in poetry at the moment. Who are the people who are mixing and matching worlds and work?
Two people whose work, and who themselves have moved me, and inspired me:
Laura Brown Lavoie and Robert Snyderman. Both embody the words they write, and inhabit the worlds they create. I am a better person, and a better writer from having witnessed their artistry, and for having known them.
Perhaps, you could share one of your own poems with us now.
Haha, cheeky. Speaking of belonging, I wrote this poem last Ramadan when my father was betrayed by his country, and my loyalty to home, became a confusing thing.
Every morning my father picks flowers from our garden & leaves them by my bedside so I always wake up to something beautiful
I grow up believing love blooms at night
& looks like flowers I gather in my palms & string into garlands,
their scent sits heavy on my fingers
Even now, this residue of love,
Its roots deep in the soil of my childhood garden
calls me home like a prayer.
When the cancer burns through our garden
my father returns home to quell the fires
& finds only ash
At my grandfathers funeral my father buries his father
the soil holds my dada in its embrace,
while the residue of longing smells of burning
When my father becomes un-fathered
the waterworks in him scatter over the grave
weaving garlands of prayer
I watch him unravel at my feet
As the jasmine continues to bloom
& I learn love has no allegiance to grief
when they come for my father
only my brothers are home
I wonder what happens to sons who witness a father’s exile
Whose children do we become
When our fathers are unfathered by their soil?
What becomes of prayer
When our tongues are full of triggers?
Is it still my fatherland
If it has orphaned my father?
Is it still my language
If I speak in my fathers voice?
I spend all night scrubbing away my allegiance to soil
Still, it clings to me like love
Calling me home –
But what becomes of home
When it unravels at his feet?
What becomes of love
When it betrays him on the battlefield?
What becomes of our fathers
If they cannot trace their way back to the gardens?
Does that make us daughters who wake up to nothing beautiful?
Do we still gather jasmine & string it into garlands?
Wrap it around our fingers & carry love like ammunition?
Does residue always look like longing?
When the ash sits heavy on our breaths
Do we still stand for prayer?
Tell me, how do we continue to love a land that does not love us back?
In the morning I wake up without father
Without land or language
the jasmine continues to bloom, despite
& all i’m left with, are prayers
& all I’m left with, are prayers
…if those of us do experience racism, how do we counter it? We continue to be honest and vulnerable. Not once, not twice, but all the time.
Thank you!! Sometimes it pays to ask a cheeky question. This conversation makes me think about the future. There are lots of things to be worried about from global warming to capitalism to neo-colonialism to death. But they are all frames of reference that are spaces we can enter into as well. What is the role for poets in making tomorrow?
Everything. Poets and scholars are the visionaries. They dream up the beauty of tomorrow, and then our doctors, engineers, lawyers etc find ways for us to inhabit those spaces. During the golden age of the Muslim civilizations, back when we lived by our values—we held poets and scholars in the highest esteem. They were paid the highest salaries because people understood how important their role was. Now, our poets and scholars are barely scraping by. It’s no surprise the world looks the way it does.
Do you have any advice for emerging poets?
Take your time. There is no such thing as insta-poetry. Nourish yourselves through obscurity in the beginning of your journey so you can find your authentic voice. Once you find it, do not become idle. Constantly work to refine it. As a teacher of mine once told me, what you seek lies yet ahead of you—keep walking.
Who are you inspired by?
Anyone who moves through this world with humility, and endeavours to cultivate ihsan – leaving everything more beautiful than they first found it to be.
As a teacher of mine once told me, what you seek lies yet ahead of you—keep walking.
What are you currently listening to?
As I write this it’s Ramadan, so currently I’m focusing on listening to the sound of my own rhythm – it’s a luxury afforded by the stillness, and deliberate pause for reflection that this month brings to my life every year.
What are you currently reading?
Go Wild by John J. Rattey. Absolutely Brilliant.
How do you practice self-care?
I pray 5 times a day. It re-orients me. I have a spiritual practice. It anchors me. I go to the beach a lot. It nourishes me. Although strangely, sometimes my self care looks a lot like organising (bookshelves, pantry, folders on my computer, excel sheets at work) – because it allows my mind to wander. I was just reading an article by Alain de Botton on how, in our busy busy lives we don’t find enough time to “be lazy” which is when creativity is sparked. I definitely need to learn to be lazy. To let my mind wander the way it used to on long car rides home with my parents when I was much much younger.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I don’t have my Australian passport yet, so technically I’m still not an Asian-Australian – but I will say this: these past few years in Perth have given me permission to fully grow into myself, away from all was once familiar to me. It has taken me a long time to see this separation, this physical distance from everything and everyone I have loved, for the gift that it is. In hindsight I couldn’t have imagined a better way to come closer to knowing myself – so today, after all the stumbles, sometimes the bruising and always the quiet, I feel nourished by this place in a way I have never known before – and for that alone, I feel as though no matter where I go on from here, in some way, I will always belong to Perth; to its waters and skies alike.