Book preview: Quiet Women by Afshan Shafi | Pakistan Today

Book preview: Quiet Women by Afshan Shafi

“There are new poetries emerging in the twenty-first century, which are characterized by a ferocity that spans yet exceeds love and outrage, involvement and observation. The languages and literary traditions which underlie or accompany them are rarely monoglot, and are of many vintages. These poetries go beyond notions of ‘decentering’ or ‘voice’. They enter vividly into the stuff of things, our present and our past clamouring together. Cut Afshan Shafi’s poems anywhere and you will find lines and phrases of vividness and beauty, sensual and bloody and lavender and fiery. Beyond these aesthetic and imaginative satisfactions, there is also intelligence at work, taking every juncture and interaction between creature and being, thought and world, body and history, and finding what knots, combusts, mates, repulses, in them” –
Vahni Capildeo- winner of the Forward Prize for poetry,  for ‘Measures of Expatriation’

There seems to be an emphatic relationship between the written and the visual. The visual inspires the written and the written can inspire the visual – both forms of expression working in tandem, both complementary and secondary to each other. Quiet Women is an up-and-coming collection of poetry by Afshan Shafi that explores this relationship. Not her first foray into the world of publishing poetry, Shafi has by her own admission matured as a poet and there are high expectations from her upcoming work.

‘Quiet Women’ is a collaboration between Shafi and a number of other female artists including Marjan Baniasadi, Ishita Basu Mallik, and Samya Arif. The work is thus not just a Collaboration between a few individual artists, but an interaction of different artforms.

While we have in the past seen works of poetry and fiction accompanied by some stunning art, the attempts have usually lacked a certain coherence between the written and the visual. Even from the muted glance that Afshan Shafi gave ABC, it seems that will not be a problem in ‘Quiet Women.’

Much thought has been put behind the art which has been produced specifically for the poetry penned by Shafi. The result seems to be a work that is both a critical and aesthetic success. In the past and now, Afshan Shafi seems to have paid attention to the aesthetic of poetry. She has played with the structure and form, crafting stanzas and verses at will. This appreciation of aesthetic is reflected in her selection of artists, who have undoubtedly done right by the surprisingly mature poetry of the young poet.

A book to definitely look forward to. Vahni Capildeo- winner of the Forward Prize for poetry has praised  ‘Quiet Women,’ saying “Beyond these aesthetic and imaginative satisfactions, there is also intelligence at work, taking every juncture and interaction between creature and being, thought and world, body and history.”

ABC spoke to Afshan about the process behind the work, the incorporation of art and her experience publishing in Pakistan.   

ABC: You have mentioned that the title poem was written after the death of a close family member. That is an incredibly personal experience. Poets often really have to put themselves out there for their audiences. Did you ever feel any hesitation publishing a work that is so personal?

Afshan Shafi: I feel that for poets the personal is implied , it’s there in the seams of the poem if you will. It’s what you make of the personal (the flotsam of the inspiration, itself), that makes the final cut. The title poem ‘quiet women’ is an missive to a close family member who battled addiction and died tragically young. For me the poem is a response to what I feel must have been the weight of the silence that she was held to. I feel like she suffered , like many women from this part of the world, from the absence of a voice to articulate her battle. I think female addicts face far worse stigma then male addicts, and this is painfully unfair. Women have to carry too much on their shoulders, for the sake of that now almost malignant notion; honour.

ABC: You’ve described the collection as “a kind of tribute to the ones who struggle to find the right language for their lives.” As a poet, do you ever feel the need to help find words for those that struggle to or is this an unconscious result of you writing?

AS: I’ve always been fond of the ‘outsider’, or those who think and work on the margins of prescribed thought. Rebels, no matter whether they are boisterous or quiet in unseemly ways, always present a challenge to conventional ways of thinking. I would like to think of people not as social constructs but as beings who have the power to unsettle, and thus to create. Poets, by and large, posses a way of thinking outside the limned, or the normative geography of the intellect. They posses an interest in transgressive thought, in semiotics , in the darkness or overwhelming light of the world in motion. For me, the struggle is to find a way to translate the raw sensitivity of how I see the world, into lines on the page or image after image. Perhaps I feel a kinship to those who think in exaggerated ways, who amplify ceaselessly or those who hang on to stray thoughts as if they were whispers of the divine. One can’t really say.

ABC: Art features heavily in your collections. Did you know, or at least know of any of the artists you have collaborated with before starting your collection? Were there any artists whose work you see and immediately thought would be a good fit for the book?

AS: I knew off all three artists from before and later also came across the work of the photographer Bihammal Zurqa who brilliantly combines graphic art with her photos. Each of these collaborators has something unique to them. Samya’s work is defined by its bold and extraordinary detail. She thinks in a lush, opulent manner. Marjan hails from Iran and has studied at the NCA and her paintings are  complex and so wise and beautiful. Ishita who lives in Calcutta is a poet as well as an artist and there is such a longing and elegant sadness to her creations. You will see how their work complements the poetry , when the book is out.

ABC: You’ve listed American expressionist Helen Frankenthaler and the Iranian artist Farideh Lashai as inspirations for you poetry. Is the art in the collection inspired by the poetry, or the poetry inspired by the art or are they individual components. What I mean to say is, is the poetry complimenting the art, the art complimenting the poetry or are they working in tandem?

AS: I sent all of the artists the poems beforehand and they created accordingly . It was so interesting to see what came about because they all are in a way so contrary to each other! The poems you have mentioned have been inspired by female artists whose name should be known more, and whose work is freeing and evocative. Since, for me , the key inspiration is always metaphorical or image-derived, I always keep abreast of contemporary and classical art.

ABC: This is not your first time being published. Aside from the artistic, how have you as a writer found the experience of publishing in Pakistan. What have been your greatest challenges on the logistical front of putting a work on the market.

AS: There is a long way to go for the publishing industry here but the Readings team possesses a true love for the written word. They are very encouraging . Niche publishing houses like Broken Leg publishing founded by Mehvash Amin are gradually transforming the landscape of Pakistani literature. I’m excited to see how this transformation devolves!

Quiet Women

Didn’t start out quiet.

Until drawn out of my own body

to scarf it cell by cell,

last meal.

mirrors fell around me

melding into a single conduit.

everywhere I looked,

a spark petal loosened

into tremulous flesh.

looked down at feet that belonged to another.

people who danced over ice-hills-


like them , I was not forgiven.

greedy for all the glowing refuse,

greedy for the shimmering interstices

careworn ghouls.

greedy for the prolonged street dweller

morning throat, heart skidding on

dirty snowflakes.

a false start

waking up in a crate of gold snakes

false hope

a masquerade of high heaven

because the escape had to have

precious galleons

on call.

there was nothing there



water  lion

held my own face in front of me

and counted teeth.

dear illusionist

your magic was