Saturday 9 October 2021

Making Sense of Memory: In conversation with Parwana Fayyaz

Editor’s note: Parwana Fayyaz’s highly-anticipated debut was released earlier this year, titled ‘Forty Names’ after a gorgeous poem (first published in PN Review) that won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2019. In this conversation with the Asian Books Blog, she unravels the many strands of tradition and translation woven into the fabric of this collection. This short interview took place over email, and has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Congratulations, once again, on the publication of Forty NamesI read all the poems in one sitting yesterday, and the most distinctive thing about these poems, to me, is the striking narrative voice that threads through them. At times, this voice seems to belong both to the child in the poems, listening to some of these stories for the first time, and to you today, re-telling them many years on. How did these poems take shape, and how long did that process take? 

Thank you for your thoughts, Theo.

Yes, your observation about the dual voices or perhaps dual perspectives in the poems is correct.  The poems are drawn largely from my memories—memories of my mother, of the women in our extended family, of stories I heard as a child, and of girls and women I observed—but the poems also reveal my reflections as an adult, twelve years after I left Afghanistan to pursue my education, about these memories and experiences. And there is an intended oscillation between the child’s voice and my voice today. For example, in ‘The Emerald Ring’, I recall the childhood memory of my grandmother giving me an emerald ring and the story she told me that evening, but the adult voice in the poem now understands my grandmother’s silence about her miscarriages and the significance of her gift. Or in ‘The Golden-Haired Zari’, the child’s voice recalls this memory from my childhood, but the adult voice reflects on and understand the impact of what happened to Zari on my life. 

There is a stronger draw on the voice that can tell the story in the most honest and serious way. And that’s my voice today. There is also the mystery of not-knowing as a child, and knowledge and perspective as an adult, that is reflected in the two voices and this makes each story, each poem more vibrant. These poems capture the stories I heard as a child without the need to question, and also the voice of the adult who has questioned everything. The adult has experience to make sense of the stories, and as a poet, can shape and tell these stories in a far more powerful way by giving them the poetics they deserve.  

Your poems, and the stories in them, also seem to exist in two different times: there are timeless, age-old narratives here, positioned against a tapestry of more recent events, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to 9/11, and your own time at Stanford. Do you have different considerations when re-telling stories from the more distant past, and the recent history of your family? Are there important resonances for you between these two 'timelines'? 

Stories do not rely on the termination of a particular political era, and surely, such events do contribute to the making and remaking of stories. But I also think stories that surprise or intrigue people at one time remain surprising and intriguing forever, unless they are never told that way again. Since my stories are actual events, the historic timelines and politics are inevitably pertinent or at times injuring. An example of the latter is the story of Queen of Sheba on page 43. It has been only some 30+ years since the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and only 20 years since 9/11. I don’t think we realize that that past isn’t that distant, at least not for Afghans. Stories are still unfading. If anything, stories are passed down orally as lessons, which are essential for living a good life.

"The resonances between these two timelines are none other than the Afghan women remaining at the outskirts of history, without a voice and always struggling to find their own ground."

My only different considerations when re-telling these stories is my own presence in relation to the people in the stories and at times to whom the stories belong and that include the storytellers. Surely some events and stories are first-hand accounts—like me personally encountering and knowing my aunts or cousins or witnessing my classmates turning into a story in a shared time and space, yet others are in the distant past these are stories told to me by my mother or another woman member in my family. I am either observing and actively contributing with my presence, or someone who listens to distant past events. And the resonances between these two timelines are none other than the Afghan women remaining at the outskirts of history, without a voice and always struggling to find their own ground. 

In your 'Meet the Author' video with Carcanet, you mention the matrilineal storytelling tradition in your family, and how this book is a way of honouring the women you grew up with, and their wisdom. What do you think these stories have gained (or lost) in the transition from spoken to written form? And more broadly, perhaps, in the journey you've undertaken to share them beyond the community, and with a wider audience? 

Thank you for this thought-provoking question.

As I say in that video, storytelling has a long tradition in Afghan culture. Stories are passed down orally. Every woman, even or especially those who are illiterate, knows and has memorized a few important stories to share. I grew up among women who never went to school—my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts. As I grew away from that tradition, in which patience was the chief virtue, I lost patience and began my resistance, their resistance, in these poems which exist between cultures and languages, thinking in one and understanding in another. It was learning English that gave me my voice as a poet, enabling me to distance myself from, as well as comprehend the tradition I was brought up in.

Stories in all forms require an audience. In writing these poems, these stories have gained is a wider audience and these readers can now bear witness to the lives of the women I write about almost as if they are sitting beside me and listening to my stories. Many people have told me they now have a much deeper insight into the lives of Afghan women after reading my poems than they ever gained from any news report. I tried to make the stories as accessible as possible to a western audience. And that was possible through translation of names and key phrases. Translation was not only a means to communicate with a larger audience, but also it became a imaginative tool in the composition of these poems. In turn, translation caused me to reflect on a deeper level, which in turn enables a deeper level of understanding by a western audience. Observe my use of both Afghan names and their English meaning, and then consider the poem ‘Patience Flower to Morning Dew’. What would have been lost to a western audience had I titled the poem ‘Sabar Gul to Shabnam’, and only used Persian names throughout the poem? 

When I started working on this collection about Afghan women, during the first COVID-19 lockdown, I found myself struggling at times to gain a clear sense of the meaning of a story I recalled from childhood. So I would share the stories, tell them to another. I have always had someone as my first reader—my first audience. She has been a mentor to and an editor for me. Translating the names from Persian into English allowed me to tell her what the names meant and why I was interested in these stories. Her questions helped me to understand the power of a particular story, or provide further explanation to clear the ‘mud’ away to make the story comprehensible to a western audience. I would then call my mother and ask her further questions in an attempt to better understand the plot and to know the truth. In my daily conversations with my mother about the women in my life, I was able to fill in the gaps in my memory with major details that created the fabric of the stories and the poems then flowed off my pen. However, I often found myself struggling toward the end of a poem. Too many details. Too many plots. Where to end? And most of all how to conclude (what sense had I made of the story, now as an adult)? That’s when I would call my mentor again and discuss it with her. After discussing all the details in the story, I would decide on a major lesson, resolution, or fact to end the poem. For example, consider the ending to ‘Three Dolls’ (page 3): “They lived longer than our childhood.” That enables a continuation of the story, but is also an end to the poem.

Based on my experiences of transmitting stories into poems, I came to understand that the power of the stories written as poems with both the voice of the memory and the voice of the adult is greater than the original story, because the process of writing allowed me to make sense of the stories, of the memories. The process of writing the poems allowed me to live those stories once again, but as an adult, a witness to their memories.

I also think that these stories have gained a different sort of power that emanates from reading the poems aloud. I can recapture whatever sensibility and emotion of the story may have become lost in the written form, and I have the benefit of two voices now—the voice of the memory (the original story) and the voice of the adult making sense of the memory. The poems are meant to be read aloud, for then they take on the combined power of the Afghan oral tradition, insights for a western audience, and perspective I as the poet have gained from both traditions. I think that power is in this freedom to oscillate between the child’s voice and my adult voice, in the juxtaposition of the original Persian names and stories, and their translation into English, which required the understanding of both traditions.


Parwana Fayyaz was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1990. From the age of seven to sixteen, she was raised in Quetta, Pakistan. After finishing high school in Kabul, she enrolled in an English language immersion program and subsequently began her undergraduate studies in Chittagong, Bangladesh. She transferred to Stanford University and earned both her B.A. in 2015, with a major in Comparative Literature (with Honors) and a minor in Creative Writing (Poetry). She moved to Cambridge University to pursue a PhD in Persian Studies at Trinity College in September of 2016 and took up Junior Research Fellowship as the Carmen Blacker Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge University in October 2020.

Forty Names is available on the Carcanet Press website