Alumni Profile: Faisal Mohyuddin (’00)

The Miscellany recently caught up with Faisal Mohyuddin (’00), whose debut poetry collection The Displaced Children of Displaced Children (Eyewear Publishing, 2018) won the 2017 Sexton Prize for Poetry and is one of the Poetry Book Society’s 2018 Summer Recommendations. In addition to his writing, Faisal teaches English at Highland Park High School in Illinois and is an educator adviser at Narrative 4, a global not-for-profit working toward empathy-building through the exchange of stories. We asked Faisal about his writing and his relationship with poetry, and you can read what he had to say below.

The title for your collection comes from your poem “Ghazal for the Diaspora,” which begins with the stunning lines: “We have always been the displaced children of displaced children, / tethered by distant rivers to abandoned lands, our blood’s history lost.” Can you talk about how these lines, and the title of your book, constitute a poetic nucleus for your work?

My parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the 1970s, my late father in 1971, my mother in 1976, so there is the natural sense of displacement all immigrants feel—of their bodies existing in a new, foreign place, while their hearts, no matter how welcoming their new homes are, remain emotionally rooted in their homelands. For both my parents’ families, however, even Pakistan was a new place into which they migrated in 1947. Prior to the Partition, they lived in India, just east of the new western border that was drawn to form two countries when India secured its independence from Great Britain. (To the east, was another new border, which divided India from the Muslim-majority East Pakistan that in 1971 would become the independent nation of Bangladesh.) My respective grandparents and their families each joined the masses of Muslims who migrated west into Pakistan, the Muslim-majority nation. Going the other way into India were Hindus and Sikhs. And even though these groups had lived in relative harmony for centuries, the upheaval of Partition repositioned these groups in opposition to one another, and the resulting migrations were extraordinarily violent and traumatic, where some historical estimates claim that more than a million people were killed. My forbearers were survivors, and they grew up when to look backwards was too painful, too heartrending, too beyond any kind of reconciliation. Truly, their “blood’s history [was] lost,” not worth trying to reclaim. Instead, they pledged a deep and abiding allegiance to Pakistan, looked forever forward, surrendering with great optimism to the promises of a better tomorrow. Yet I can’t help but imagine just how difficult this mentality must have been, how impossible it must have for them to ever put to rest their longing for home and their desire to forge some kind of peace with all the bloodshed they’d endured and survived. So to think of displacement on historical and geopolitical terms, my parents, as soon as they left Pakistan (but likely long before then), became displaced children of displaced children.

Sandeep Parmar talks about this displacement when discussing my book in the 2018 Summer Bulletin of the Poetry Book Society in the United Kingdom. He writes that my collection “the rippling intergenerational trauma that originates in India’s Partition, hastily orchestrated by the British Empire, and is sustained by subsequent migrations westward since. Mohyuddin’s poems locate the wound from nostalgia or paranoia embeds itself in the psyche of future generations.” Indeed, so many poems in the book are about the legacy of this trauma and displacement, how even I, born and raised in America, carry around the silenced anguish of the people who came before me. And despite being American, all my life I have experienced a sense of being an “outsider” on account of my name, ethnicity, race, religion, skin color, and multilingualism. And, especially in our current age, these “othering” qualities have led to a sense of emotional and psychological displacement, where I too struggle to define what home means.

A final note: The state my family hails from is the Punjab—literally, the land of “five rivers”—and it has always been a state with a distinct culture and language that transcended religion, where one’s ethnic Punjabi identity was just as important, if not more so, than one’s religion. As is the case for any ethnic group, Punjabis are intensely proud of being Punjabi and speaking Punjabi—and this is a pride I feel deeply. Symbolically, the five rivers have always appealed to me, how rivers are a source of life, how they make a region more fertile, and how they connect both people and heritage together. It was very important for me to capture this sentiment in this early poem (“Ghazal for the Diaspora” is the second piece in book) and to let it echo in subsequent poems in the collection.

Tell us more about the larger scope and vision of your book.

In “The Opening,” the first poem in The Displaced Children of Displaced Children, a nameless child, overwhelmed by longing, interviewing his father on matters of history, family, and grief. Desperately wanting to feel closer to his father, each question emerges from a “bottomless” curiosity borne of the silences that pervade the child’s life. Every response, expressed like a riddle, communicates the father’s inability to answer. Thus, a shared sense of displacement frames the exchange, with both child and father seeking comfort and companionship in the other. Yet, in the end, both realize—as the reader might, too—that to find solace, and a sense of rootedness, they must turn their attention to the “untarnished majesty” of the future.

In my own life, the most uncomfortable silences, the ones I most longed to fill and which in turn ushered me heart-first into the poems that hold this book together, were those related to the unspoken, unrecorded traumas of the Partition of 1947—and to the untimely death of my paternal grandfather about a decade later. Poetry allowed me to invent imagined narratives about what my forbearers endured, cobble together answers to questions I could never voice, and forge a kinship with a host of displaced others (human or otherwise) to feel less lost. I could even—as I do in the opening poem—pull my father from death, mythologize him in the interview, and broker a reconciliation with our pasts. The rest of the book meanders through time and space, from one body into another, resisting despair by turning again and again toward what is still possible.

Near the end of the collection, as if measuring my capacity to make peace with the ‘unknowability’ of my own history, I hold a mirror up to my poet-self: “Do you remember, Faisal, what the elders preached about forgetting? Centuries of grief / Had made them wise, taught them to seek the mercy and goodness of mystery.” Despite the pain and desperation that pervade so many of these poems, the book is ultimately an act of mercy, of forgiveness, of hope.

The poem’s title is borrowed from the title of the opening surah of the Holy Qur’an, “Al-Fatiha.” In its first verses, Muslims declare their faith in God’s grandeur and mercy; in the final three verses (which are the epigraph for the poem), we express an open-ended appeal for guidance. What follows is the rest of the Qur’an—answers to that prayer, verses of guidance, maps for the heart, mind, spirit, and body. I wanted this piece to be the opening piece because it sets in motion a larger, grander mission. And the rest of the book—and to some extent everything I will ever write—follows my mythologized father’s charge at the end of “The Opening”:

The Child: One final question,
Father. What should I say
when my son, when I too become a father,
asks me about the hours
of your life that exist beyond
my knowing?

The Father: Tell him more
about the hours of your life
so his hunger is not as desperate
nor as bottomless
as ours.

Speaking of fatherhood, family is at the glowing center of your work. How has marriage and fatherhood shaped your work?

Marriage and fatherhood have had an immense and complicated impact on my work. In one respect, they’ve made it more challenging to write because it’s more difficult for me to carve out ample stretches of solitary time in which to write. I am conscious of the fact that every hour I spend on my work (writing, revising, reading, promoting, etc.), is time when my wife Hina, who has a demanding full-time job of her, must carry the entire burden of parenthood and of caring for the home. Even to be away for a few hours can be quite taxing on her and on my son. And the more successful I’ve become as a writer, the harder life has become for my wife. Despite this trend, I’m beyond blessed to have Hina’s support and enthusiasm for m work.

I’ve recognized that I need to limit how much time I spend on my work, which has helped me become a more efficient, more focused writer. These challenges have also elevated my ambitions as a writer and made me serious about the quality and scope of my work. I feel more inspired to write the best poems I can as I wanted to validate all the time I spend away from my family; I want and need my writing to be worth the time and effort, worth the sacrifices others are making to allow me to pursue poetry.

But I have also been able to put poetry and writing into a different kind of perspective—that while it’s become more important to me, it’s also become less important. The contradiction lies in the fact that words on the page, as powerful and beautiful and important they can be, cannot compare to the power and beauty of spending time with my family, especially my young son. I miss him when I’m not with him, and I feel that if I never wrote another poem but had a strong relationship with my son, then life would be alright. But I feel fortunate that I don’t have to choose, that I can do both. And just as I want to validate the time I spend writing, I also want to continue to explore my family’s histories and narratives and to pass them on to my son. The older my son gets, the more I feel compelled to write to him and for him. I like to believe that he will appreciate my poems later in his life, that he will come to know me better, and know my own parents and our South Asian and Muslim heritage better.

What has writing this book taught you about your parents and their lives?

So much of my writing is inspired by not-knowing, by the silences I mentioned above. But in my efforts to invent memories and understanding, I also have imagined, as realistically as possible, what my parents endured in leaving Pakistan, migrating to the United States, starting life anew in a new land, becoming parents in a culture and society that was so different than the ones in which they were raised, and navigating their children’s lives in a way that remained rooted in their own value systems but were open to values more prevalent in America. Most importantly—and becoming a parent has sharpened this realization so much—I’ve come to better recognize, appreciate, and admire just how many sacrifices my parents made, how much trauma and hardship they battled through, how gracefully and bravely they kept their own pain and heartsickness and longing for home hidden from view from their five children, and how they “exchanged” their own dreams and ambitions and daily pleasures for better futures for their children. They wanted us to know more comfort and more safety, get a better education, have a better future and a happier, more stable, more joyful life.

It’s extraordinary, really, to think of my parents as younger people, as people whose strength I didn’t recognize or appreciate as a child. And, just as becoming a husband and parent has made me more ambitious a writer, the significance of my writing has become even more pronounced when I see it through my parents’ eyes. While my father didn’t live to see my book come into the world, he was alive to see me publishing poetry, receiving accolades and awards, and being praised by others in the writing world. That meant so much to him, and means so much to my mom—that I am fulfilling their dreams by doing something worthwhile, something that honors them, our family, our community, and our heritage and religion. Their pride and joy is deeper because of how much they struggled, and I’m grateful for how poetry has helped me know my parents and family better.

How has working as a high school teacher influenced your poetry? How has your work as a poet influenced your work in the high school classroom?

Most importantly, as much as I love to teach, I know that being actively engaged in my writing has made me a much happier, centered, and invested teacher. I feel a sense of fulfilment when I write, a kind of fulfilment that I don’t feel when I’m not teaching. And there’s a sense of fulfilment I feel in a classroom full of young learners that I know I’d not feel if I wasn’t an educator. So to be able to feel both kinds of professional fulfilment has been so wonderful, so energizing in my life.

Without writing, I know I’d be a teacher who would be missing a huge part of himself; I’ve always wanted my professional existence to transcend the walls of my classroom and school, but I also continue to be very happy, very inspired as a teacher. I always want to be teaching but doing more than teaching. That I have summers to write, and colleagues and students who are so supportive of my writing endeavors, has given me what I always think is a perfect professional reality, full of a professional fulfilment that continues to energize and inspire me.

In terms of my teaching itself, being a poet who has enjoyed opportunities to publish, interact with other poets, and to learn about the world of publishing has allowed me to enrich my students’ grasp of how and why writers write; it’s also helped me inspire them to think of themselves as writers, as young people who have great potential to empower themselves with words. I’ve also found that being a poet has helped me better “sell” to students the revolutionary idea that poetry can be fun and relevant.

How has writing poetry changed for you under the Trump administration? (If at all)

Most importantly, I feel much more conscious of being seen as a “Muslim poet” in a political sense. I’ve always written as an American Muslim, weaving into my poetry elements of my faith and my strong, positive relationship to Islam. However, it rarely was a political act; it was more artistic, about me sharing the daily truth of who and what I am as an American, as a poet, as a person.

I used to always say that I don’t strive to write “political” poems; that is, poems that have an agenda or that want to make a political statement. However, what I was really saying is that I don’t want my poems to be only about politics/political statements. Instead, as I’ve mentioned so many times already, my poems about family, about longing, about trying to better understand that which may not be possible to understand. I want to write poems that are anchored in wonder and curiosity, in the beauty and musicality of language.

But every poem can be (and perhaps is) political—and, despite my past reluctance to see my writing in this way, I absolutely believe that now and accept it. And I feel like under the current administration—in the social climate of heightened, brazen xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, etc., that has emerged these past few years—I think of every one of my actions as political. I’ve very conscious of being seen an “outsider,” as someone who is not “fully” American. I don’t think my poems are meant to convince people otherwise, although I hope they capture the universality of longing and loneliness, demonstrate how America, even when it falls short, has always been about diversity and inclusion, and show just how much average people’s lives can be destroyed by political decisions that neglect others.

Along these lines, I do have some overtly “political poems,” poems that do directly address issues of oppression, racism, Islamophobia, and radicalism. These include “In Defense of Monsters,” “Advice to Religious Fanatics,” “On the Morning of November 9, 2016, I had an Entire Pumpkin Pie for Breakfast,” and the last poem in the collection, “Song of Myself as a Tomorrow.” What is by far the most ambitious poem in the book and perhaps the most political is the eight-part “Denaturalization: An Elegy for Mr. Vaishno Das Bagai, an American”; it examines the story of Bagai, who hailed from India, and how his life was impacted by the1923 Supreme Court case United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, which ruled on who could claim to be “white” and thus who could become a naturalized citizens. Immigrants from India had, up until this case, been racially designated as “white” with “dark” complexions; however, this case ruled that they could no longer claim whiteness, and subsequently scores of Indian-born naturalized citizens were “denaturalized,” leaving them as nationless people.

That there are so many incredible young Muslim poets writing right now—Leila Chatti, Fatimah Asghar, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Kaveh Akbar, and Zeina Hashem Beck are just a few—is incredibly inspiring and freeing. I mean, I feel comforted by their work, by how powerful and beautiful it is. But knowing there are so many of us, at a time when so many of us (all of us, actually) are needed, makes it easier for me to more freely write whatever poem my heart wants to write, be it something blatantly political (like the pieces I mentioned before) or not (like “The Forgotten Banana”). Yet, this too emphasizes just how conscious I am about who and what I am as a poet, how others see me and my work, but how I must always continue to write with a sense of wonder and curiosity, with my heart and mind attuned to language and the inherent playfulness poetry affords.

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