Associate Editor Jan Bottiglieri interviewed poet Dilruba Ahmed, whose poem “In the Echo Chamber” appeared in RHINO 2011.
your name, your story,
your life. Then sink
to the root of it…
From the poem “Evening in Mendocino”
At the root of things – that is where we expect to find dust, common and elemental. In her book Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, July 2011), poet Dilruba Ahmed helps readers reexamine, and re-imagine, that idea of commonality with each new image of dust – a dusty village road, memory’s dust on a photo album, the sweet taste of cinnamon on a market vendor’s lips – sifting it though her fingers to let the light catch and transform it. Dust is what clings or clouds; it is foreign and familiar, particle and apart, home and afar.
JB: Your bio mentions that you have “roots in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Bangladesh.” Please tell us a bit more about your background.
DA: My parents came to the U.S. from a region of Bengal known then as East Pakistan and later, as Bangladesh. I was born in Philadelphia, and I lived most of my childhood in Ohio and my adolescence in western PA. Much of my family’s early history in America is situated in Philadelphia, so although my family moved to Ohio when I was quite young, Philly is a home of sorts. I’ve never lived in Bangladesh, but the ties to my family’s homeland feel significant nonetheless.
JB: What led you to writing?
DA: I can only guess that the urge to write came in part from being an outsider in small midwestern towns. My parents and my older sisters were interested in creative writing, and my mother in particular was a strong influence on me. She had been active in poetry recitation competitions while she was in Bangladesh, and she continued to read, write, and recite Bangla poetry upon her arrival in the America.
JB: The New York Times book review of your book Dhaka Dust includes this quote from your poem “Dustcover”: “I let the words bear down and burn.” Please tell us more about what you feel gives language this type of transformative power. Do you feel language has shaped your cultural identity?
DA: Absolutely. Bengalis hold the Bangla language very dear to them. It’s a very soft, beautiful, expressive, and poetic language—and a matter of regional and cultural pride and political import. Bangla (Bengali) was my first language, English my second. I grew up in a bilingual household in which, over time, my parents spoke Bangla to my sisters and me, and we responded in English. (To this day, this is typically how we communicate.) While my siblings and I have retained our comprehension of Bangla, our spoken Bangla lags behind.
I think that growing up that bi-cultural and bi-lingual environment deeply shaped my cultural identity—my lived experiences spanned more than the small towns where I grew up, and I was keenly aware of my parents’ “ghost homeland” that seemed to exist just out of reach. My bilingual upbringing also heightened my awareness of language, I think—I discovered early that a very funny story relayed by my mother in Bangla sometimes failed to have the same richness and deliciousness in English, for example; or that certain English words had no counterpart in Bangla. I learned, too, that languages could provide access and power as much as they could create barriers to communication and belonging.
Most enduring were the experiences of hearing my mother recite Bangla poetry with great drama and expression. Much of the language was beyond my reach, but my mother would sometimes translate the formal Bangla into household Bangla, or into English. But without those translations—and even with them—those poetry recitations became incantations. I had a similar experience whenever I heard prayers called out in Arabic. Both of those languages functioned as pure music in my experience—deeply mysterious and powerful music that I could not fully comprehend.
JB: Reviews of Dhaka Dust all mention the sense of place that figures so prominently in your work. Your poem in RHINO 2011, “In the Echo Chamber,” is also very place-specific – but its landscape is the body. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write this particular piece?
DA: Long before I had a child, a colleague who was describing her labor and delivery said to me, “I miss being pregnant.” It was an alien thought to me at the time, but it struck me later that the experience of being pregnant was indeed so fleeting and, like so many experiences of parenthood, never to be duplicated in quite the same way.
While I was carrying my son, I felt so…plural. I was continually aware that, for a brief time, I possessed a bodily state that would only be temporary. The cutting of the umbilical cord released that physical bond, but the emotional and psychological bond is indescribable. In parenthood, there’s a kind of nostalgia for the present that’s hard to escape, imbuing many moments with both great sweetness and melancholy. I think of it now as an Instagram effect, in which snapshots taken 2 minutes prior can be transformed into objects of nostalgia, something from the long-ago, unrecoverable past. It’s that “Oh my God, remember when he was just [fill in blank]?” feeling of shock that many parents experience on an ongoing basis.
So I guess you could say that in this poem, the body becomes a landscape in which the speaker rues the loss of a particular kind of intimacy that results from the actual birth. Parenthood, in my experience, has often been a complex battle against time’s passing, with life moving at warp speed.
JB: I love the way “In the Echo Chamber” explores shifting ideas of connection and “otherness,” an idea that seems prevalent in much of your work. Can you share with us why those concepts are important to you, and how you address those ideas through your work?
DA: “Otherness” of one kind or another characterized many of my life experiences… I tended to feel both connected and apart in multiple contexts—both here in America, where I was born and raised, and in my family’s homeland as well. For example, in certain parts of America, others have expected (and in some parts, still do expect) me to be more “Indian” than I seem to be on the surface, or have been surprised that I’m fluent in English. In some settings, people distinguish whether one is Indian or Bangladeshi; in other settings, we are South Asians. While I was living in the cultural flux of the San Francisco Bay Area, a different set of questions arose about solidarity with all people of color. In Bangladesh, I experienced at times a profound divide, and in other moments a deep sense of belonging.
In my work, I hope I have conveyed how fluid those feelings of connection and alienation can be, whether through a speaker returning to Bangladesh and experiencing the comforts of reuniting with a family split by place and time, or via a narrator moving through an American homeland that is divided by racial tensions.
JB: What have you been reading lately?
DA: I have been reading Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God with an interest in unpacking her emotionally brutal distancing effects; Lighthead with great appreciation for Terrance Hayes’ sonic playfulness; and In the Surgical Theater, particularly for Dana Levin’s handling of a father figure in a medical crisis.
Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), winner of the Bakeless Literary Prize for poetry awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, and Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. Her writing has also appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review blog, the National Book Foundation blog, the Asian American Literary Review, and The Kenyon Review Online.Ahmed holds BPhil and MAT degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She teaches in Chatham University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.