From Grit to Pearl: An Interview with Sham-e-Ali Nayeem
Named for Hyderabad, India, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem’s debut book of poetry, City of Pearls explores loss and grief through the experience of a Muslim Indian woman whose sense of home is further lost following the death of her father. While comprised of stand-alone poems, a narrative arc emerges over the book’s three sections, tracing the speaker’s grief as it transforms over time. From being pulled under water in the ocean to seeing a movie with family, being searched at the airport, and giving birth, Nayeem masterfully captures life in large and small moments, and distills it into concise lyric poems.
Nayeem is a poet and visual artist who was born in Hyderabad and raised in both the United Kingdom and the United States. She is a former public interest lawyer supporting economic justice for survivors of family and intimate partner violence, and is the recipient of the Loft Literary Center Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship.
Nayeem recently took the time to discuss her new book of poems, ideas of displacement and home, dreaming in English, and how grief can be embraced.
How long did it take for these poems to come together into book form?
It feels like a chapter is closing on a body of work that I have been with for so long. There are poems in the book that date back to 1997. Originally, this was going to be quite a different book with a different title because I began working on it when my dad was alive. He passed in 2006, and it became a totally different book. After he died, every poem was an offering for him. The real heart of these poems took shape. The book is more than a fifteen-year journey, though these aren’t all the poems I wrote in fifteen years. It’s curated to tell a story around grief and loss, the need to recalibrate when you lose an anchor and then re-anchor in your own sense of self.
Yes, that arc is something that I picked up on when reading—the idea of being caught between this idea of home and where one finds home. Can you talk about that more?
It’s not the traditional idea of “home is here and home is there, so where is home?” There are stages of grief that most people go through when they experience a loss. I was kind of exploring what happens to the folks who don’t have that kind of physical anchor of a home. You wind up making homes out of people. When you lose that, it’s like losing your place in the world. There isn’t a place to return to. There isn’t a place where you’re necessarily welcome.
It’s also about losing history. When my dad died, I lost this history that I am not able to look up in a book. I lost a connection to my ancestry that I can’t just go back to Hyderabad and ask someone about. I lost a sense of safety. I also question the aspect of what happens when you come to a new place that has its own history of displacing people. In what ways am I complicit in that? And in what ways do I change things by being here?
The idea of loss and losing access to your history really comes up in your poem “Partition Story” but also in several other poems where you talk about stories that aren’t told or letters that aren’t sent. There’s also a way that you talk about your birthplace being an imagined place or an imaginary place.
Yes, the imagined sense of home—by that I mean you hear about home through your loved ones. For example, I heard about Hyderabad through my dad. You create a home in your mind that you definitely belong to. There’s a Hyderabad that is absolutely mine even if I didn’t really live there very long. I feel very much a part of it, and it feels like a home. But if you were to go there right now, you realize it may not exist anymore or some of it was in your imagination because you have been preserving this idea of a place while you’re not in it.
The idea of an imaginary home isn’t like a fiction. I think it is a very real place for a lot of people. It is often based in sensory experience—if I remember just a scent or fragrance from Hyderabad, it can be the foundation of this place for me that does feel safe, that does feel very intimate, that I feel connected to.
You also talked about finding home through relationships with people, and I think there is a really beautiful thing that happens later in the book, in “Finding Home,” where you talk about motherhood and finding home when you’re holding your child.
That piece was about realizing that I am home for my son, and ultimately realizing I am home—that this place I had been looking for was actually in me. Just by being, I am a home. In the same way that I was looking at my dad through the lens of being this home for me, I realized I was now that for my child.
In the second section of the book, there are more overtly political poems, from talking about the Muslim ban and being searched at the airport, to the really powerful poem “Before Bombing.” Have you always considered yourself a political poet, or is that something that has become more prominent in your work over time?
My first exposure to poetry was through my dad who really loved Urdu poetry, like the poetry of Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who were political poets. It’s not like I set out to write about political subjects, but that’s what I thought poetry was about—that in poetry you are really talking about all aspects of life: the human condition, liberation, a spiritual connection to liberation, and a lens to the world. That can include love, that can include home, that can include the Muslim ban, that can include the Divine because it is a part of our experience of life. That has grounded me as a poet, but it is also kind of how it has been in any work that I do. One of the things that is beautiful about art in general—not specific to poetry—is the way that art is a catalyst to shift our consciousness.
In your work, you’re dealing with complicated ideas and successfully distill them into these clear and concise lyric poems. Has poetry always been how you wanted to tell these stories? Or have you worked in other art forms too?
I was really drawn to poetry from the start, but I enjoy visual art too. I would not call myself a photographer, but I really enjoy photography. I do some digital collage work that I really enjoy also. I have tried other mediums, but I really like poetry because it’s so inexpensive to do. It can be with you anywhere. I love the way in so few words, poetry can capture so much. You can have, for example, five words and all of life in those five words. I’m really drawn to poets who tend to have an economy of words like that. Sonia Sanchez is a master of this in terms of having these beautiful poems that are enormous with such few words.
As I mentioned, I was introduced to poetry by my dad. It was very casual the way he would share poetry. It wasn’t like, “Now we’re going to read some poetry.” It was something experienced at the kitchen table or while doing a chore or on a road trip. He just enjoyed it and brought it into our world in an accessible way. I also loved that it was in Urdu. We would speak Urdu at home, but it was lovely to have these Urdu poems and music. I liked that experience of having another connection to my language that I felt a disconnect from, that I didn’t dream in. I don’t dream in Urdu. I dream in English. It’s like poetry is this kind of liminal space that is kind of like dream. Sometimes dreams don’t have any words, but we experience all of life in five minutes of a dream. Poetry is like a dream space. It’s different than normal language.
I love that your father brought in poetry as something that is normal and part of everyday experience.
I know this is not unique to my experience. It’s a common thing to be able to experience poetry in an accessible way where it isn’t necessarily on the stage or in a library. It’s that people really enjoy memorizing it and sharing it with each other in a way that it is woven into life. I am grateful to have had that experience growing up with my dad. It also made it feel a little less intimidating for me to try writing it. To think that way. Even if I’m not writing a poem to be shared in a book or on stage, I have the enjoyment of seeing the world through poetry in my own thoughts. It’s such a pleasure to see the world that way and not to think poetry is something separate that you have to set aside time for. I can’t stop the poems in my head if I tried.
You mentioned that you don’t dream in Urdu. Have you ever written in it, or did you begin writing poems in English?
I have always written in English. I would love to get to a point where I can write poetry in Urdu, or maybe that I write it in English and then translate it into Urdu. I can understand Urdu, but I can’t read it. I read at about a third grade level, and I write at an even more elementary level than that. However, I am able to speak and understand it. My mom speaks it at home. It’s normal to have it around me, but I dream in English and I think that’s really telling. I think that’s something I felt sad about growing up.
I have friends who have had similar experiences—they speak and understand the language that was spoken in their home, but they never learned to read or write it.
There wasn’t a lot of access to be able to learn it. It wasn’t an elective in school, and my parents didn’t have the time to teach me, to sit down and be like, “Now we’re doing Urdu lessons.” I did try to learn some when I was in my early twenties, which is why I can read a little. I mean, phonetically I can read it, but I am slow. If I picked up some poetry of Faiz in Urdu, I would really struggle to read it. If someone else read it to me, I would understand. But I can definitely read the third grade book on mangoes and peacocks, and I can read a menu. I do think it is telling the language you dream in—it’s probably the language you feel more comfortable in in your mind.
If I had the privilege to get to go to India a lot, I think maybe I would have a different relationship with Urdu. I just know the space we were able to experience it the most was at home. I have not written poems in Urdu yet, but I would love to be able to.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
That it’s okay to not be afraid of grief. We can transform our struggles and our feelings of loss into things that strengthen us. And some of these things do continue to live with us, but we can turn them into beautiful things that don’t leave you in a space of despair or denial.
I also hope to share an experience of being an Indian Muslim. We don’t hear a lot of stories from an Indian Muslim perspective often, especially since in India there’s a current government that is oppressing and marginalizing Muslim communities. It’s almost to the point where it’s like, you’re not an Indian if you’re a Muslim, but we are. We exist.
You say grief is something that you continue to carry with you, but does having the book completed and out now feel like your relationship to this grief has changed in some way?
Grief is still present at the end of the book, but there’s a stronger sense that it is really okay to embrace it and let it be a part of you. It changes. The book is called City of Pearls because Hyderabad is known as the City of Pearls, but I also like the idea of a pearl being this entity that is created from debris or grit. It’s born from debris or grit and it transmutes into a jewel. Grief can be a struggle and it can be transmuted into something where you don’t have to deny it. It can be something that propels you in your growth.
Author photo by Les Talusan.