Have you always written poetry?
I started by writing short stories, and I published quite a few short stories in Kurdish when I was younger, when I was in my early twenties. I loved poetry, I knew a lot of poetry by heart, especially a lot of Kurdish and Persian poetry by heart, and I never imagined I could do it, I just thought... I need many more words, I need a lot of space to tell something, to make something happen. I guess I started writing poetry at the age of twenty, and it was love that made me into a poet, that's a cliché, but it's true. Before that I never imagined I could do it. And I guess that also happened when I read modern Persian poets of the sixties and seventies, they wrote about very ordinary, daily things and they made them extremely exciting, and when I read them I thought 'if this is poetry, maybe I can do it too!' But still, it took a long time after this thought, when I was already living in England, then I started writing poetry.
You are also a painter. How are your poetry and your painting linked?
Well, before I wrote at all, I painted. When I was a child I imagined I would be an artist, a visual artist. I love colours, I love figures, I love animals, and so on, but when I came to England that was one of the things - and it's very interesting in your life there are always crossroads - and I had a choice between studying fine art or philosophy. Part of me thought I could always do art without studying it and I would like to know more about philosophy and psychology and so on. Maybe not, maybe I would have been a visual artist if I had studied fine art, but that was always one of my passions. I think for me creativity - I mean I also write fiction - I think they are quite closely connected. Although poets say, don't they, that poets can write novels but novelists can't write poetry. I'm not sure if that's true, I think there's a point in that poets are probably much more sensitive to the subtleness of words, the nuances of words, and are much better editors, and maybe that will feed into writing fiction. But for me poetry, fiction, stories or art, they are very much connected, I just see them as different channels of the same thing. If my poetry is about how things are, how things have been, my art is very much about how I would like things to be. It's a utopian kind of perfect picture, it's very soppy sometimes, but I really like beautiful things. I have a struggle understanding some modern art of course, like everyone else, but I think it's, again, not being able, not having had the education to study how art has developed and what it means. My art has stayed as a visually beautiful thing, as a utopian world that I would like to explore. But I think they are connected, for me they've always been connected.
How much does gender inequality influence your writing?
I have written about gender inequality. I always felt a lot of injustice when I was back home and I was a terrible teenager, I was always shouting and screaming because many of the simple rights that were taken away from me I just thought it was unfair, to not be able to go for a walk in the park, to not be able to, you know, we lived under the Islamic republic of Iran, we became refugees there when I was fourteen. I had to wear the hijab, I couldn't go out. There are many simple things like just going for a walk, going to a park, going to have ice-cream, all of these things, wearing an ordinary dress or not covering your hair. These rights were taken away from me and I was always screaming about it. I remember I wanted to go to an art class, for example, there was a bit of...in the family, you know, 'you can't go to an art class, it's after school' etc, and I had to fight for these things, every simple thing that any girl here lives it and doesn't even question it, I had to fight for them. I noticed that much more when I came here. I remember a few years ago, three years ago, a Kurdish girl was stoned to death because of running away with her boyfriend, because of eloping. At the time I was living in Sweden, Uppsala. Of course what happened was that many people had recorded the stoning on their phone camera, and put it on the internet, and it was quite a traumatic, absolutely horrendous scene. Obviously I could not watch it, I just clicked 'open' and I saw two seconds and I couldn't watch it anymore. But that evening, I mean it took me about a week to get over this image I saw, that evening I walked home and there was this young Swedish couple kissing on the street, and I just kept remembering this girl, and kept thinking of this young couple who don't even realise how fortunate they are, because they can kiss on the street and it's ok. Another person might be killed for writing a letter, because they live somewhere where that's inappropriate. But I guess it's not something that is just developed here, I always had a problem with gender inequality, I was always aware about the fact that there was injustice. But that sense becomes stronger, and I guess you become stronger in defending yourself and other women. I became involved in the women's movement in Kurdistan and I had very good connections with many of the women's organisations, and I do defend them a lot whenever I give interviews back home, because there's a lot of attacks on the women's movement and Kurdish women's organisations back home.
Do you intend to teach your readers about Kurdish history in your poetry?
There is an element of that, but there's also an element of processing the past. I think my English book Life For Us is a very personal journey, you know it starts with displacement, ends with mixed marriage and future children. It's a very concrete journey of a person but as well of that it is a journey of a family, my family, and a journey of a people, the Kurds (at least the Kurds in Iraq). Some of the poems have dates, for example; Escape Journey 1988, At the Border 1979, The Spoils 1988 and so on, because they are historical events, moments in time. But I also write because I love writing, because various things inspire me. For example I read a poem by Jacob Polley called Moving House, which inspired me very much, it's about a person literally moving a house, physically, piece by piece moving the house and...I guess you would see in a poem what you would see, it's your perspective you're bringing to the poem. When I read that poem which is very playful, I nearly started crying because I realised that that's exactly what we do as immigrants, we think we leave our countries behind but we actually physically move them with us, we take the language, we take the culture, we take the honour killing, we take the warmth, we take the hospitality, we take the music, we take the food. And that's how I wrote a poem called Before You Leave, and it is about physically actually trying to move your language, your places, your school, your things, so sometimes I start off very innocently reading other people's work, and somehow that triggers something that is related to my own history. I guess many creative things happen like that, when ideas clash together and they create something new.
Is your work always autobiographical?
Much of my work has been autobiographical, and that is very interesting because it's not my Kurdish poetry, it's mostly my English poetry that's autobiographical. I think that's partly because writing in a foreign language, in a second or third or fourth language is a form of distancing, just like you need distance in time, in space to write about heavy subjects, emotional, intimate subjects, I guess writing in another language is another form of distancing, and it helps to write about personal things. But also I felt this burden of responsibility when I started reading poetry in English and when I started living in England, I realised there wasn't very much awareness for anything about Kurdish things. And I felt in some way I could do that, I could write about these things, I could make sense of this bundle of stories that nobody is quite sure what exactly it means.
Can you compare your English poems with your Kurdish poems?
I do feel that maybe my Kurdish poems are more musical than my English poems, and I feel that even when I read them, I read them to an audience and feel that with Kurdish poems I can elaborate a bit more because there's music in them. But I guess different languages have different kinds of music and rhythm, and for me English is still a language I am exploring, it's still a language that I still haven't got the hang of completely. There are still times when I read a poem and I struggle finding the rhythm in it, whereas in Kurdish, whenever I read a poem, much more easily I can feel the music. So I guess that is true to a certain extent. But I guess you're developing, I think your poetry in each language, whatever language you write in, the style, the music, the rhythm, all of it is developing as you go on, and maybe I am discovering a different kind of music in English.
How does the process of writing a poem start for you?
Well, it starts in various ways. Sometimes it starts with an idea. I, for example, have been thinking about the fact that one of my sisters has a name, her name is Seywan, and it was very much - when she was born - it was a place where there were picnics. Unfortunately over the years it became a graveyard. You think of these things, you think of the clash of a place with a person, and what that means for that person and their history. I thought about this for a long time, the idea was there and it was developing in my head, it took, I think, two to three years to write a poem about it. Other times it starts with a title, like Pyjamas 1983. Other times it starts with an image, I have a poem in Kurdish 'Yekek Bereda Teperri' Somebody Passed Through Here, and it's about somebody who passes through a land and the colours follow him, and the voices go into his pockets and everything. That was an image, the birds were flying and taking their song with him, that started really with a physical image of a person passing through a land, and then the language came later. So various poems have different starting points. I have another poem, There Was, and that again started with an idea. It came about when I was in England and was thinking how you have two seasons in this country, and I missed the four seasons that we had back home. That again was stewing for a long time, it was an idea that was there, and it clashed with other ideas, and suddenly something was born.
Does the fusion of your two cultures give your writing a distinctive identity?
Some of my poetry is about the past, some of it is about living in the UK, it's about living between two cultures, between two places, between two identities, about exile, if that is the right word to use. But, I think as writers our world, our writing keeps developing, our style develops, our subject matter develops, and as immigrant writers or as women writers or as ethnic minority writers, sometimes you are expected to write about certain things. This was one of the debates we were having when we started off Exiled Writers Inc, what does it mean to be a refugee writer? Does it mean to write about migration, about being a refugee? No, I personally believe it is just literature written by a refugee, and it could be about anything. A few years ago when we were organising a series of events called Across the Divide, across the Palestinian/Israeli divide, we were trying to bring together Israeli and Palestinian poets and writers to have a dialogue, and one of the Palestinian writers we invited said 'I now write about stones, shadows and trees, neutral subjects, the world, and if you expect me to come and read about Palestine, I don't want to do that anymore. I have done that; I don't want to do that.' I think that's a very good example of how people, writers, their writing world develops, their subject matter develops, their style changes, their language changes, and I think it is very important that that happens. It is very important not to be labelled, not to be expected to do the same thing all of your life, and not to expect that of yourself, either.
Are you a British or a Kurdish poet?
Writers who have come from one country and live in another, or have come from one community or one culture and live in another, can have dual identities. I guess I can be called a British poet, because I write in English, and my literature falls in line with the development of English literature. But I also can be a Kurdish poet, because much of what I write is about Kurdishness and reconstructing Kurdishness in English. I can be claimed by both, and I am very happy to do that, because I think there isn't a fixed label that any person or any writer should have really. It's a very fluid thing, identity, and I am very comfortable with being either, or both.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
My father once told me a story, and I really liked it. A young poet goes to this famous poet and says 'I want to write, what shall I do?' and he tells him 'Go and memorise a hundred thousand verse, couplets.' So the young man goes away, and it takes him a few years, he memorises so many things, and he comes back and tells the famous poet 'Okay, I memorised all the verse.' 'Now go away, and try to forget all of that, and start writing.' I think that's very important, that you need to be educated in whatever you do, so if you want to write poetry you really need to be aware of what is written, what kind of poetry is there, what this language, English language, has achieved, ancient and modern, and then you'll find your place and then you will be able will be able to write away, otherwise you might be writing cliché without knowing. That's something I did as an immigrant poet, because I was new to English. Sometimes you're completely fresh, and that is fantastic, but you have to read. If you don't read, I don't think you can be successful.
Genocide: Anfal survivors in Kurdistan-Iraq Ashgate,...
(trans)Kurdistan in the Shadow of History. Photographs...
(trans with Mima Khalvati) Kajal Ahmad, Poems Enitharmon...
(ed) The Fleeing Garden Exiled Writers' Ink!, 2006
Light of the shadows Raboon, 1998
Selected Poems Rendge, Kurdistan, 2003
Life for Us Bloodaxe Books, 2004