Wednesday, August 02, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Laila Malik

Laila Malik is a desisporic settler and writer living in Adobigok, traditional land of Indigenous communities including the Anishinaabe, Seneca, Mohawk Haudenosaunee, and Wendat. Her debut poetry collection, archipelago (Book*Hug Press, 2023) has been described as haunting, tender and exquisite (Salma Hussain, Temz Review) and was named one of the CBC's Canadian poetry collections to watch for in 2023. Her essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthology, longlisted for five different creative nonfiction and poetry contests, and widely published in Canadian and international literary journals. Malik has been awarded grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Council for the Arts, and was a fellow at the Banff Centre for Creative Arts for her novel-in-progress.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was a very slow, jigsaw process of building courage and coming to acceptance. I come from a people who are intensely private, and the prospect of publishing has always posed carried great risk to me and to us. I had to slowly come to terms with the idea of becoming more public, and think through ways to navigate a landscape that was foreign and riddled with real and perceived threat. But one of the most wonderful results has been the opportunity to connect with individuals who were just as starved as I had been for more complex diaspora stories, and specifically voices from our hitherto unspoken experience as South Asians coming of age in the Arabian Gulf.

I still write poetry after archipelago, but I have been trying the new challenge of novel-writing, which so far feels comparatively slow and clumsy. I did a residency at Banff where a mentor mentioned that it takes on average between four and six years to complete a novel, and that sounds about right. Add to that the daily needs of paying the bills and feeding the children, and who knows how much longer it might take?

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I was a high school misfit in a place of impossible airlessness, skulking the dusty aisles of my library to alleviate desperate boredom when I came upon two forms that changed my life: poetry and plays. There was ee cummings and Eugene Ionesco, and the strange speed and immediacy of poetry, alongside the radical but upside-down, inside-out approach of the theatre of the absurd in particular, split open my universe of possibility. I was stunned that this work was sitting casually and untouched in the middle of an otherwise strictly guarded world. I began a correspondence with another poetic rebel friend, and we compared notes on form and content, pushing one another to try new things with words on paper to speak to all things unspeakably sublime and grotesquely unbearable.

But it wasn’t until I got to university and encountered the work of feminist, and especially Black feminist poets like Audre Lorde and June Jordan that I began to understand poetry as innate and experiential to the lives of women and those who are repeatedly kept out of institutions of power, a form that is fundamentally revolutionary and accessible. I could and did write poetry in hospital hallways, in the mosque, at 3am while feeding a child, after a racist or sexist encounter at a supermarket, with a boss, with a government official. Poetry gleams from within the blood and visceral filth of the every day and so I seized it quickly and greedily and eternally as mine, before anyone could tell me any different.

Finally, in 2017, I was selected to participate in a small, advanced poetry workshop with award-winning poet and author Chelene Knight. Besides being a phenomenal writer, Chelene has devoted her career to enabling writers to succeed and navigate the publishing world with creative balance. The workshop was pivotal for me in terms of deepening my craft, understanding the industry, and gaining enough confidence to take the next step. archipelago was born of that process.

I did and do write fiction and non-fiction, but it requires a different kind of time and attention.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

My writerly thoughts initially come quickly, and most often in the place between sleep and consciousness. It’s always a question of how persistent those thoughts are that determine whether they make it to paper. Poems almost always get completed, seconded by essays. Fiction is a whole other ballgame and seems to engage an entirely different part of my brain.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For me, poems usually begin from an experience or observation, suffused with strong emotion, often emerging as snippets in my journaling. Essays begin when I’m wrestling with an incident or dynamic that has no name or precedent, and I’m compelled to document and make sense of it. Fiction begins with a flirtation with outrageous possibility – perhaps the reason I’ve yet to really fully explore that path.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

The prospect of public readings used to fill me with the deepest dread but since publishing archipelago I’ve come to look forward to it – the opportunity to connect with readers and other writers is precious. People who were waiting for me to give name and life to experiences and didn’t quite know it, much as I have waited for other writers to do the same for me. I’m not sure how much it propels my creative process but it does remind me to stay in the room, and not to get too distracted by the drudgeries of life to continue the practice.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Certainly. I’m preoccupied with the big ticket items – eco-collapse, spirituality, encounters between gender, imperialism and petty human power-mongering around identity, all from the perspectives of the specific groups of peoples from whom I draw my lineages and in the context of the most unprecedented migratory movement our planet has ever seen. I suppose my “the questions” are “Who are we becoming? What are we choosing? And what will be the outcomes?”

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

After decades of shirking that question for fear of sinking into hackneyed hubris, I’ve come to think that the role of the writer is to provide relief to the reader by giving voice to the complex vagaries and possibilities of existence. A window through which to see and be seen, hence to feel fulfilled. In an essay I wrote for my late sister, I talk about seeing the CN tower on a prodigal return to Toronto, and how it provided “a reassurance, corresponding with my earliest memory. A single, immovable constant, proof that we happened, my family and I.” Don’t we all want to be assured that we happened?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It really depends on the editor. For the most part, I find it to be an incredibly rewarding, educational experience – almost all of the editors I’ve worked with have an incredible eye, and show me things I hadn’t seen. On the rare occasion I’ve worked with a pedant, or an editor who is really not getting where I’m coming from or what I’m trying to do, and I’ve found it necessary to learn how to hold my ground a bit. Overall I do find it to be an essential and extremely useful part of the process.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Keep writing.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

I spent a long time in the academy, and work in communications, so I do tend to move between different types of writing frequently. My approach to essays, though, is steeped in poetry, so I haven’t found it difficult at all. On the other hand, there are some readers who have found it challenging. I’m thinking of a workshop I did many years ago, in which the instructor, despite seeming to really like my work, scratched her head at my meandering, sometimes rhythmic, alliterative and occasionally absurd sentences. But that’s my jam and I’m happy with it.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

In a perfect world I would journal religiously. Life and its upkeep often keep me from this goal.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Books, film, travel (when available), visits to desi neighbourhoods, family.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Jasmine, thai basil and the salt scent of the Arabian Gulf at night.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

All of the above, but definitely nature, science and music. It’s been decades since I saw it, but the Indian Ocean fires every one of my neurons.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many. When I was younger, I was so influenced by the humour and absurd possibility in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s works. More recently, my jaw was reset by Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous took my breath away and reminded me, as did Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, that it is not impossible to write a poetic novel beautifully and with solid, coherent, narrative architecture, and that this ultimately is what I want to achieve next.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

See above. I’m working to achieve this with my novel-in-progress, Bitumen, but I have a long way to go.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I pay the bills with communications but I think it would have been deeply rewarding to be a zoologist or a meteorologist, had I had more of a scientific brain.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

The feeling of being chronically, constantly, eternally silenced, and the irrepressible need to give voice to the unspoken, the grotesque, the beautiful, the ludicrous, the possible.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English. Film: Desi Standard Time Travel, an incredibly sweet, funny and poignant short by Kashif Pasta. I hope they both get turned into feature films.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on my first novel, which germinated twenty years ago in a very different world and a very different moment in my life. I’ve been trying to work out who it is now, and what it needs to say.

I’m also contemplating a book of essays, comprised of some of the work I’ve already published, alongside newer work. Thinking through narrative threads and considering publication options.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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