This is an excerpt of a Senior Thesis by Pat Chau about my poem “The Difference Between Rubies and Pomegranates.” It was an honor reading this and to see myself nestled among my own feminist heroes: bell hooks (who taught me to teach), Gloria Anzaldua (who taught me the word mestiza), and Audre Lorde (who taught me the politics of poetry.) Thank you Pat.
III. The dialectical precedence of the autobiographical-as-biographical and the biographical-as-autobiographical—the imminent work of poetry as transformative vision. And, come again, just who are you Zohra Saed?
Feminist epistemology is Our shared communal project. A sociocultural, political, economic, psychological and historical task for the ordinary and extra-ordinary that bears Our most critical of interest, recalling and reconciling the most egregious and shared tragedies of Our dissenting material and lived realities. This indelible communion which calls forth and, for, autobiographical testimonial in scholarship and life, the passionate need to see empathic visionary yearnings become material fact, and the exquisite dialogue of multicultural and diverse self-and-communally defined standpoints. To these lofty ends, I must share gratitudes to the inspirations and shared knowledge[s] of Zohra Saed and Susan M. Guerra, the writers and poets, Woman and intellectuals, scholars and dreamers behind The Difference Between Rubies and Pomegranates and “In The End (Al Fin) We Are All Chicanas (Somos Todos Chicanas): pivotal positions for change; A textual collage of cross-cultural exile stories,” respectively. Exiles or immigrants exiles and immigrants. Constructors of knowledge[s] vis-à-vis sovereign authorities that imbue subjugated dependents with only mistrust, fear and hatred—the everyday products and alignments of ignorance and difference as ontological and immutable fact.
Giving rise to humility, and inexplicably courageous—voices that are unrelenting in breadth and depth, virtuosity and poignancy, despite lending word to a world that denigrates Other—subjugates, mystifies, exoticizes, and exploits without remorse or reprieve. An abstract and dogmatically revered hegemonic legacy, tradition that endeavors to quiet and rebuke, forever in silence, these poets’ ostensible indulgence, even as their everyday poetry transforms my world. My, as constructing, rather than possessing; as I explore how their worlds despite the immensity of miles, figurative and literal, that separate their bodies, their cultures, their mores, their customs, it becomes readily apparent that poetry is activism is advocacy. Poetries are the tremulous and quieted whispers that become the roar and seizure of revolution. Of freedom, of liberatory practice, of collective voice that was always meant as Ours.
As a counterstance to the prescriptive detailing of essentialized ignorances that sovereign narrative imposes, within the following analysis I will present these two poets as removed from obvious similarity of material experience as can be, and bring to light how their words are inscribed with a newer consciousness. Consciousness that implores us to re-envision differences as something more than the categorical delineations that breed confusion and contempt for one another therein serving the sovereign need of constructing peoples without coalitions. Instead these two Women, separated by the obvious idiosyncrasies of life, define dissensus as their means, their methods in exploring difference-as-commonality—the work of blurring borders, rather than perpetuating the lives devoid of dignity we have been aggregated. Eternally enshrined to borders and their policing of, lives as testimonial, lives as validation of the tainted oppressive histories as never written by Other hand. Re-imagining the biographical sketch of Saed as presented in the outset of this essay, this analysis presents a different sort of biographical and autobiographical testimonial. Embedded in the words of these poets, by way of their rarity of engagement, responsibility of word, and reflexive thoughts are the lives and material experiences of two very special authors and their self defined and autonomously explored expressions of their respective worlds. Uncannily, when words are colored by this impetus to freedom and community participation, they undergo a powerful transformation. Differences transgress only to transcend boundary, honoring border but only in the sense that individual experience should be centralized. Interconnectedness is sought and becomes the promise of Our communal project of words. zohra historicizes her own life and the life of her family in our poem susan historicizes her own life and the life of her family in our essay zohra historicizes the life and times of susan as susan historicizes the times and life of zohra. As we read to reflect, engage to be moved to action, read as to write, write as to read, how does Our participation become something more? Our eyes and hands, our hearts and minds the ever-vigilant agents that bring to light the experiences and lives that were quieted and in becoming so, reduced to lives that never were?
Zohra Saed. Afghan and Afghan American. Teacher-as-learner, learner-as-teacher, scholar within classrooms, and co-learner well beyond these walls so sacrosanct. Woman, and poet. These are the more overt slices of lived reality that are apparent in abundance upon meeting this contributor to the communal project of words. When examining The Difference Between Rubies and Pomegranates, engaged readers are privileged in sharing dialogue with an individual whose complexity far belies these categorical descriptors. In an informal e-mail interview Saed reflects on the poem in these words, “The dates are there because this is the biomythography of me but it’s not just a singular me — I carry my father and other family members under my skin. And the people I write about, dispersed by war, can only come together under the skin of poetry.” Saed is but one Woman. But in honoring her individual identity and concomitantly centralizing the lives of those whom she writes about, is able to move forth and switch roles: father to child, wife to mother, grandmother to community, community to individual. The poet, through her reflexive engagement has come to eschew the very borders of identity, for she Knows more intimately than words alone can describe, the voices of those that have suffered. The location of voices of those blessed with subjugated Knowledge[s], waiting in revolutionary impatience, for their stories to be told, their voices acknowledged.
The historical task of constructing words that offer alternatives, possibilities, is the onus of Saed. Her autobiographical testimony not a linear tale of herself per se, instead, the work stands as the documentation of “biomythography”. The many lives of herself brought significance by her indelible relation to Others—the would-be fathers, would-be mothers, the would-be grandmothers, the entirety of family as known by so-called blood relation, and also those would-be family members whose intimacy and interrelatedness might be not so obvious. The countless transglobal denizens separated by countless steps, the impossibility of geography, the cacophony of language, the wrought veil of culture and ethnicity—the sister brothers and brother sisters, the mother fathers and father mothers, for all those that have ever lay in wonder of blood, kinship, nation, country, community and home. Those whose lives have come to Know with brutal despair the unrequited yearning born from the need to belong. Despite being rend from securities that were never theirs to possess, those who would choose to still see beyond the lines, so transient, the plasticity of difference.
These broader understandings of what family[s] are come from the exquisite reflection of Knowing life without solidarity. The lack of coalition that makes meaningful affronts to the ubiquitous and deleterious hand of sovereign writ an insurmountable impossibility. Guerra commits to the need to broaden our understandings with her words, “Family stories. Border stories showing no way out for communities threatened by owners of guns, writers of documents, holy holders of the world. Where does exile begin and where does exile end?” (185). To exist on the borders, ascribed the moniker of “marginalized peoples” is somewhat deceptive. “Marginalized” suggests that these peoples, albeit allocated only subjugated positions, locations of power, resources, mobilities and dignities somehow still participate in the construction of their own lives. In the face of sovereign authority, I would argue that because all of their previous knowledge bases are gleaned from oppressive prescriptive histories, their every action only serves to reify the hopelessness, despair and unjust dominance of particular groups. It is offensive and distasteful to consider the traditional naming of marginal in the same breath as participatory. Only by centralizing the lives of Others, and placing these material realities in the center of dominant thought can we truly reconcile the previous invisibilities, the unspoken whispers, the unwritten words.
At the outset of the poem, Saed writes “Heaven is at the instep of a mother’s foot sharing the few inches with home. The faint fragrance of blood thick when we are near.” (Difference Between lines 12-15). Within Saed’s historical documentation Woman is central to the concept of home. As the proposed primary caregiver, this Woman’s life is culturally and deeply entwined with family. Morality, foundation, and support of the patriarch are her everyday impetus, lending the reader to ponder “a mother’s foot.” (Saed Difference Between 12). As a symbol of strength and support, virtuousness in a world marred by dissonance, “a mother’s foot” speaks to the rootedness, the groundedness, the stability and balance of women’s lives in reference to the families that they support through their everyday labor and love. It is only through this anchor of support, this unerring ethic of care, that the children in this poem, the son in particular, has the opportunity to engender his personal legend. Or, perhaps, this responsibility of support lay in the hands of an unexpected antagonist; one not traditionally and singularly ordained the sociocultural, moral, psychological and historical responsibility of care.
Guerra dissects the problematic thought that clouds traditional oppressive consciousness, the sovereign ideological assumptions that prescribe motherhood as a real and stable “identity” and as the predicator of a fruitful, productive “home”. Guerra muses, “Refugees of a world on fire. Bare feet. Backs and hands of labor. Artists. Thinkers. Communities tied together, knots of love and necessity.…Are our communities tied together only out of bare necessity, without the privilege to love affluently?…Survival games trick us into assuming particular identities.” (185). By assuming certain prescriptive identities uncritically, motherhood the example as narrated by Saed, we may indeed propagate Our survival in some arbitrary, base organizational ways, but Our greater need in living life and constructing autonomous consciousness falls by the wayside. Community is the byproduct of collective yearning and shared interest; when individuals blindly adhere to essentialized “identity”, therein to re-enact, only to circumscribe their lives to histories tainted by oppressive knowledge, there never exists the possibility of centralizing subjugated Knowledge[s]. The people who suffer most are conditioned to suffer in silence, finding solace in the fact that their atrocities of living were shared in kind by their ancestors before them, their families in the now, and their sister brothers and brother sisters, mother fathers and father mothers in the days to follow.
Saed’s newer consciousness, more inclusive understandings, leads to an unprecedented vocabulary of voices and standpoints from which she speaks in The Difference Between Rubies and Pomegranates. The poet writes, “When they tilted their heads back, their open mouths tasted water in the blue. At 18, they were all like this, a sudden itch in their feet and static in their hair telling them to go, go, go! And they left, following the map of their veins. The men in our family are deserts aching for the sky.” (Difference Between15-20). Examining the difficulty of traversing difference through narrative, the ever-present risk of cultural imperialism that always threatens to taint voices when authors choose to write from standpoints not explicitly their own, Saed’s choice to speak the words of her family’s men is particularly sticky and dangerous. However, with her sensitivity of exploration springs forth some very critical partial truisms that may just seduce the tenuous boundaries of universalized thought, emotion, and experience. To come of age is a critical time for these men. Torn between the culture of adolescence, on the cusp of inheriting the culture of young adulthood. These young men, torn-between-cultures, in search of validation through identity are on the verge of understanding yearning—the enacting of personal legends, legacies which are their responsibilities to call forth and seize. Although contextualized as the map in the veins of this family’s men, Saed could only responsibly pontificate these yearnings were she to understand these subjugated Knowledge[s] with intimacy, reverence and engagement. Concepts of agency and impetus are given rise in the lives of these men—as a Woman and poet, as responsible readers whose eyes’ may have never been initiated by visions of Afghanistan, how can these Other narratives of yearning become critical to us? How could we reasonably begin to understand these yearnings, considering Our own varied and exponential layers of real difference?
Useful in understanding possible answers to these complex dilemmas are Guerra’s reflexive proclamations, “Exiles. Forced to leave the dear and the wicked. Forced to re-arrange the blueprints of experience. As I take on the position of slayer of contorted histories I discover myself in the position to be slayed. To reshape my heart, I must change the subject, while collecting myself as the object. I am the pivot of transformation, the axis of what I choose as the end and what I choose as the beginning. But help me, sisters. Al fin, somos todos Chicanans.” (183). For anyone who has know the difficulties of narrating life as an amalgam of two or more identities, there exists the potential in unearthing the Knowledge[s] that characterize the exile. Forcefully displaced, dispersed amidst countless foreign lands, all without the semblance of a former, if ever, place to call home. There are no exclusive identities that characterize the lives of individuals as long as there are a multitude of contexts and terrains of difference that we tread; as long as there are social relations that request more meaningful communications; as long as we have pensive moments to reflect on just who we are. To amend the sovereign narratives which have tainted Our living, we must reposition Our Other differences-as-commonalities as a primary initiative. Otherwise the imagined need for consensus always remains the impossibility of burden, especially problematic when the promise of dissensus calls forth the generativity of critical thought, reflection and action. Saed was rightful in appropriating the voices of her family’s men; their voices never claimed by the so called objectivity of mystified outsider, for the poet Knows. This is her community to construct and re-construct. She participates through self-defined Knowledge[s] which are her works to claim and re-claim. She is just one Afghan and simply one Afghan American only one Woman and merely one poet. But her ability to voice the quieted whispers of her family’s men speak to the possibilities of engaged and responsible, empathic and emotional, intelligent and sensitive understandings of commonality and interconnectedness.
When plurality and ambiguity become the project of identity politics, there exists the opportunity for people to come together under the skin of poetry. Rather than reifying Our rhetoricized differences, announcing them as immutable and irreconcilable delimitations to understanding one another, we must take the first steps in exploring complexity. To begin to understand complexity not as the white fathers taught at us, instead to extend Our hands to one another in communal hope, trust, belief, and revolution. In describing Latifa’s earliest inclinations towards leaving her family, Saed writes, “She is too shy for thirst, but the butterfly inside is a desert aching for the sky. There is never enough sweet in her water. An old herbalist, neck heavy with corrals, advises zamzam. When the butterfly remains in her throat long after her son is born, she leaves in search of zamzam and for the desert that holds this sacred mineral water, thick with the shadow of God.” (Difference Between 28-32). The challenge in living autonomous lives while still dialectically acting as agents in the constructions of community is not a historical task that is accorded tranquilly. Alienation, loneliness, and the tremulous threads that hold Our interconnectedness are always on the fringe of rupture.
Therefore, everyday poets must be comfortable with living lives that are as ambiguous as they are diverse. The comfort that comes from stability must be eschewed, for to destabilize sovereign authority requires the active, engaged, critical and conscious disengagement (not to be confused with forgetting) of prescriptions for unjust oppression. Despite the implications that suggest a life possibly rife with further confusion, further heartache, further disentanglement, it is only through this discontinuity with master narrative can we live lives as Subjects and honor that which is Subect-ive. Guerra elucidates poignantly upon the lives of Saed and Latifa, and the difficulties in harmonizing the individual with the collective, the communally personal with the intimately public. The poet acknowledges, “We have inherited lives of separation, histories of fragmentation. Inherited the hearts of our fathers, haunted and scarred. Exile is also a search for emotional reconciliation, even if it means a geographic and cultural [and intellectual] distance. Go mi’ja. Go.” (Guerra 186). The histories of Our oppression have been documented only half-heartedly in popular texts, left as offal to the revisionist culture, and manipulated for the fabrication of benevolent mythology much in placation to the dominant conscience.
For Our actualization of personhood, we must recognize and re-construct these silenced narratives as Saed does in The Difference Between Rubies and Pomegranates. Furthermore, to proudly recognize the exile that exists intrinsic to Other material experience is essential and inextricable from this historical task. It is true that Our damaged psyches remain as more than just the artifacts of injustice past and present, historical and unfurling. To navigate the stratification in material wealth, resources, immobilities and dignities, we must choose to honor the often unspoken, unheralded emotions that have brought us to this place of subjugated Knowledge[s]. To disavow the shame that he taught at us was at the very core of Our inferiority, Our difference. To replace the shame that we have come to know, the shame that is rightfully traced to the pejorative histories of those who made the intellectual, geographical, sociocultural, and historical choice to either stand nihilistically in blindness to, or amnesiac ignorance of, the systemic silencing of Other voices, Our voices.
In interrogation of the dominant ideology that readily casts aside the lives of Saed, her families extended and blood, her families in language and word, her families in geography and transit, the poet documents with beautiful accuracy and care the complexity of divergent and convergent experience. The fluidity of narrative becomes a central tenet of Saed’s work as she assumes and voices the lineages of her plural origins. The poet historicizes with breadth and depth generations of living, the many procreations to sufferings, sufferings to achievements, the materially experienced to the spiritually yearned. Saed captures into focus, “v. A boy once abandoned for a thirst has grown, now with a daughter of his own. Baby girl dressed in bright yellow, the sun in his arms. 1976, Mecca…A mother who remembers her son as only a butterfly in her belly opens a door and finds him multiplied in three with a wife whose long neck and black eyes remind her of a swan.” (Difference Between 28-38). The poet acknowledges the impermanence of identity—a butterfly in her stomach transforms into a boy burdened by the scars of abandonment. Her thirst for zamzam water becomes the spiritual yearning of him, the boy whose thirst for sweet would well in his own throat, eventually moving him to pilgrimage. As the yearning for zamzam water could never be quelled by the bitterness of limes in both of their throats, the transitory steps of just one boy become the heavy treads of just one man who Knows. In spite of his scars, the man becomes three. The elegance and rarity of beauty that characterizes the long necked her becomes the long necked eloquence of she who is divisible of he. The dark eyes of they, so black they threaten to blot the very sun.
The dark eyes of they, so black they threaten to blot the very sun, still, these eyes so dark could do little to shroud just one baby girl whose bright yellow so bright. The very sun in the held tight arms of just one boy who would later tread the heavy steps of just one man, only to find himself multiplied by three. He chose to Know love despite bearing the scars of abandonment. and with that, no ordinary day was documented for all eternity. meandering firsts, thoroughly vigorous steps taken amidst the soils of Tehran, Iran. an endlessly beautiful baby girl was born. with the gift of sacred words no less. an almost unearthly conviction, rediscovered, but never truly forgotten, commitment to this communal and deeply personal project of words. words that sadden. words that extend tentative, forever diligent hands, with gracious strength that belie their ravaged vestiges. rare words, that with each day, grow in clarity. i know my voice…if only for these transient moments…i know this voice, the sometimes quieted dharm whispers, “our legacy is neither, and, always at hand. ours, is the wellspring of commitment and courage which eludes, altogether pervades. our personal legend belongs to our universe, is the genial and visceral product of our labor. our everyday steadfast that announces with grace for today’s requited breaths, tomorrow afternoon’s gentle sun kissed cheek, and yesteryear’s memory which remains neither far nor near.”
And so, with these words I eternally historicize my own additions to the autobiographical narrative of Saed’s own date of birth, self-defined within her poem. These words documented and seized factual in the previous paragraph, perhaps, some would consider non-traditional discourse, an alternative writing endeavor, a flowery exhibition of wordplay so superficial and haplessly indulgent, a blight to the sanctimonious project of that which is objective and right. To myself, however, embedded in this essay, these words are akin to all those that they follow, all those that they precede. In these words lay the exploration of the critical, creative, fertile, constructing and Subject-ive everyday poetry to that which I am committed—to words that are reflexive, to words that proclaim resistance, to words that do not shy away from the emotion that surrounds, is underneath, below, and around, to words that call forth and seize my humble contribution to the subjugated Knowledge[s] that I have collected over three decades of living—my communally personal and intimately public transformations to Our communal project of words.
Reflecting on the course of events that transpire in the poem Saed announces, “The poem is about my father. Not so much about my mother or his mother, but the decisions of a man who is abandoned by his mother and the conscious decision he makes in raising his daughter.” (apple to orange). This unexpected self-defined description of her family history is in sharp contrast to my initial assumptions. Perhaps, it is my fundamental biases as a Man committed to projects that seek to abolish classist, racist, and sexist oppressions that I handily and conveniently interpreted this familial history as the centralized narration of just one Woman, Latifa; all the Other lived experiences and voices Being tertiary peoples who contributed only in modest part to her exclusive celebration. In my excitement to read what I imagined was the empowered tale of just one Woman, her Subject-ive resistance against so-called patriarchal norms, her “woman’s rights” compromised by deleterious social sanctioning, marginal cultural allocations, severe economic restrictions, pervasive psychological impositions, and omnipresent historical revisions—I made a critical misstep. An egregious misgiving. A troubled assumption that could only be reconciled by returning to the truer material histories by way of she who originally expressed this history via poetry, Saed herself.
It is critical now to recapitulate Saed’s analogy of “a mother’s foot”, which could be interpreted as Woman’s transcultural association with groundedness, support, stability and balance in relation to concepts of “family” and “home”. However, in my overanxious attempt to reify these ethics of care as the everyday and arbitrarily ordained oppressive burden of Women, I was negligent in recognizing the fluidity of identity that characterizes Our lives as human Beings first and foremost. An important quality that Saed’s words bring to light throughout the poem, as a result of her complex, empathic narratives and centralizing of innumerable standpoints and worldviews. Significantly so, in her own words, Saed reflects pensively on generations of family history, “you were right on with the mother and grandmother having similar descriptions of eyes so dark they drain the sun of its light. It’s almost a prediction of my own mother’s abandonment of us, her children. So he is attracted to the same type of women. But his daughter he treats as the sun, and it is this that creates a man who honors women despite the wrongs done to him by his mother and by his wife.” (apple to orange).
To Saed, the plight of Latifa, this Woman whose life was undoubtedly wrought with stigma and difficulty, was but one dimension of her family’s history. The salient and more significant self-defined history lay in he who would choose to Know love despite bearing the scars of abandonment. This man was/is her father. It was her father that made the conscious decision, to embrace the sun held tight in arms. It was her father that had a truer claim to what I imagined was the province of “a mother’s foot”. His heavy treads, fashioned by feet that would come to Know life as this anchor of support, this unerring ethic of care. As a father mother, mother father, son daughter, and daughter son, it was he who chose resistance in the face of adversity; his revolutionary claim to difference-as-commonality. One not traditionally and singularly ordained the sociocultural, moral, psychological and historical responsibility of care, it was he who chose the multicultural threat of Being torn between identities; his life that reified reflection to action to praxes and again.
It bears to note, my overly ambitious claims to Saed’s poem led me down a very treacherous road. By assuming the feminist “identity” of would-be scholar, the then-tainted geographies of my mind culturally produced a narrative colored by a certain sort of colonial thought. I culturally produced a lie, a partial truth at best; I had romanticized Latifa’s story, drawing it further away from the self-defined truer histories as documented by Saed. By essentializing my own identity categorically, as a “feminist”, and then essentializing the identity of Latifa categorically, as a Woman oppressed, I chose to ignore the complexity that constructs truth by way of Our lived realities. The ontological fact that all of Our lives are intrinsically relational, exquisitely interconnected, constructed meaning by autonomous thought indeed, but always bearing the mark of Our would-be colleagues, would-be peers and would-be families. In wisdom and faith, Guerra warns, “Families live generations to build peace. Hunger strikes first the stomach then the heart, even before a child is born. I know.” (186). Saed’s The Difference Between Rubies and Pomegranates is a monolithic work bearing the traces of innumerable generations of family. Because my further contributions to this work harbor inseparably traces of my own reflexivity and my own autobiographical confessional, the duplicitous privileging of my own motivations (even if formerly benevolent) serve as a cautionary tale—the need for active and conscientious responsibility in scholarship and beyond. For this family history ever to become the province of my own, I must dutifully acknowledge that it is rightfully the work in progress of Saed and her family, in primacy and occupancy.