Adeeba Talukder is a Pakistani-American poet, who is on the mission to blend Urdu and English together to transfer the sacred Urdu poetic traditions in order to make it more accessible now. In her new book, Shahr-e-Jaanan, she delves deeper into mental health, family, and beauty with the backdrop of traditional Urdu poetry references and dialogues by famous Urdu poems and poets.
I think people in the literary world know me as a writer, but I would like to say that singing is as important to me as writing. If I were to identify myself, I would include both. As someone who is Pakistani American, I grew up speaking in entirely Urdu but also someone who had to attend schools here and had to not be trampled upon by other English speakers, because sometimes adults but even kids can be ruthless, they can make fun of your English so I had to make sure I was competent enough for that not to happen.
I dont want to say this because it’s a cliche, but I think a lot of us live between two worlds, for me, it was important to have them talk to each other. Because sometimes when I speak in Urdu, I forget, I forget everything else, and then sometimes when I speak in English, I forget the Urdu part of myself. So, for me, because they are intertwined, I wanted to acknowledge them as intertwined, or I wanted both of them to be present. In any case, that’s why I started writing poetry that had both English and Urdu, and part of the project of my upcoming book, Shahr-e-Jaanan, is bringing Urdu poetic tradition into English because it is an entirely different way of thinking. I dont think its always intuitive to people here, I guess I wanted to translate that world into English, and that’s why I actually make a lot of references to Urdu poetry because I want those references to be transferred over. I think a lot of the poems I write are very abstract, and I dont know why these poems, specifically are very grounded in community and in reality, but I think part of it must have been that I was dealing with profound mental health issues at the beginning of my marriage. Maybe I did need to get out of my head and write about what was actually happening, and maybe it was a time when being abstract wasn’t doing enough for me.
I dont want to misspeak, I’ll speak for my parents, they grew up in Pakistan. Actually, my mom grew up in Pakistan, at a time where there was such a thing as looking at someone who was mentally unwell, and really being like they are not like us, like dehumanizing them, like the way they are acting doesn’t make sense. My mom came from this place that having mental health issues meant that you had a jinn in you. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is what I have, that’s what they initially thought, they initially thought I was possessed. It feels really funny to me right now, but it was awful feeling like, you know, because it gets to you, thinking that there’s something wrong with you. I would chalk it up to people who dont want to try to know what’s different. So in my parent’s generation, no one had a mental disorder, and therefore they knew nothing about it. The people that they did know about were otherized, so they were apart from society. When you think that way, no normal person is supposed to have it, and if they do, it is cause for ostracising them. There’s also this fear of we dont know what to do if this happens.
So, this is a poem that comes at the very beginning of my book. It’s titled when in the dark, my mind brightened.
When in the Dark, My Mind Brightened
I realized I could no longer
wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed
bangles upon bangles
onto my wrist, rubbing
my hands raw with metal
Each time a bangle broke, I watched
the blood at my veins
with a grim face,
feeling more like a woman.
No symmetry or sequence.
All colors clanged upon my arms,
bright, jeweled, and dissonant.
That night, the window air was open,
the full moon luminous.
I waited for my mother to turn,
to see me as a bride.
I wanted to tell her,
the world is adorning itself for my wedding.
That night, my mother
looked into my eyes with terror.
That night, she wouldn’t let me leave.