Sana A Rashid is an educator and a poet, who has collaborated with organisations in
different parts of the world, including in India, the USA and England, with the intention of
making poetry more accessible.
As a British Pakistani Muslim, she recognises the importance of representation and advocates for the inclusion of more books by writers from the global majority, especially within academia. Several of her poems celebrate bilingualism and centre around creating space for an array of emotions that coincide with her own everyday experiences as a South Asian. We talk to Sana about her interest in words, her commitment to equality and justice and why representation matters.
How did you build a connection with poetry? Were you always interested in words?
Prior to my university education, I felt very disconnected to literature. Books surrounding me lacked characters that I could relate to, which fragmented my relationship with reading. My first truly impactful encounter with poetry was during a module in my undergraduate degree, called ‘Mysticism’ wherein I explored the works of Jalaluddin Rumi and William Blake. I believe this is what sparked my interest in poetic writing as I experienced how words can convey rich and soulful messages. Seeing the writing of Jalaluddin Rumi within university in particular was eye opening for me, as it was the first time I had academically engaged in the influence a Muslim had across the wider world.
I was curious to read more poetry by Rumi (Whispers of the Beloved is still a favourite of mine) and this led me to reading ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran, then I listened to more contemporary spoken word poetry too. An accumulation of actively reading poetry and listening to poetry made me begin noting down verses, which grew to become poems. The regularity of writing poems increased and I started sharing these poems more.
Why did you choose Instagram as a platform to share your work and what are your thoughts on the Instagram writing community as a whole?
Several years have passed since I first decided to share my writing via instagram. It was actually a friend who suggested this social media platform and I was sceptical at first. However, I realised there were a lot of things I needed to write about, therefore I took a plunge into it; realising it would be great to connect with those who had a similar interest as myself. I have always believed humans are more connected than we realise. The emotions our experiences evoke and the ideas we think of are often universal. When trying to make sense of the events occurring in the world, poetry was my vehicle for expression. When sharing my words on Instagram, there were many readers who resonated with my words and as a result I felt a sense of community grow. Therefore, my experience of the Instagram writing community has been positive as I have felt comfortable sharing my writing because I have seen (and still do see) a lot of compassion, empathy and kindness towards what I share.
Can you tell us about your poetry content and style. What is your creative process?
I believe poetry should evoke feeling, therefore that is my main purpose. When I write, I don't think too much about the length of the poem, or the rhyme, or the stanzas, I let the mind and heart sync so that the feeling, whether it be happiness, sadness, guilt, excitement, sorrow etcetera is relayed with an element of vulnerability. Once the emotion has been penned down (let’s imagine it as a heart), the technicalities of the poem’s structure and word choice are edited later (these elements provide the heartbeats) and at the end of it there is a piece of writing that when read is alive for that set duration. I realise my writing is evolving and currently I am very deliberate in ensuring my identity is conveyed, whenever I feel the need arises. Nature (trees, streams, skies, rainfall, snow, seasons), architecture (in particular patterns of historical buildings and masjids) and classical music drive my creativity forward, because it all helps remind me of the miracles surrounding me and stirs my thoughts and emotions.
Your poems are full of emotion, how do you channel feelings into words?
My poetry surprises me at times. It is only when I have completed writing a poem that I am provided a glimpse of the emotions I am feeling. I usually let writing come to me - rather than forcing it out. This means I take time to be away from others so I can sit with myself for a while. Time and silence enable me to channel my feelings effectively. That is probably why my favourite time to write is late at night or early in the morning, because during these times silence surrounds me, and I have time to myself. Another integral aspect in channelling certain emotions effectively is visualisation - often I can see what I need to express through my imagination. Oh, and reading helps as well. There are probably over a hundred words that could sit between a pair of words and describe something- the bigger the bank of words in the mind, the easier the words fall from the mind into a poem.
What has been the biggest challenge of your writing journey to date and how did you overcome that?
My biggest challenge has been overcoming the emotions that are a part of Imposter Syndrome. I questioned the quality of my poetry and whether I should adapt my poetry so it represents who I am. As a South Asian, a British Pakistani, a Muslim, a woman, I have recognised that there are multiple aspects of myself that add to who I am. Through a lot of work on myself, I realise my worth and understand the importance of embracing every aspect of myself. Once I felt comfortable with who I am, I gave myself permission to take up space too with my writing.
What themes and concepts do you explore in your work?
My poetry encompasses themes based on love, equality, grief and the questions and confusion that arises as a result of everyday experiences. I write about belonging, empowerment, identity- a range of things basically. Sometimes my poetry sounds dreamy. My writing refers to things that may not be, but it would be wonderful if it could be. I like to blur the lines of what is and what could be, as well as what has happened and what I've imagined.
How has your heritage and faith influenced your creative practice?
My heritage and faith have influenced my writing significantly. I categorise myself as a bilingual writer, although the majority of my work is written in English, I do enjoy incorporating aspects of Urdu in my poetry and prose. It is my way of celebrating my heritage. However, I am conscious of not making it appear cliché - there is a great degree of honesty and transparency in what I write. I realise how important representation is and therefore I actively do more towards showing aspects of my heritage, which is why I am more comfortable writing about the thoughts and questions surrounding identity and displacement (now than ever before). There are layers making me who I am and the sense of spirituality and hope which is emerges in my poetry is as a result of the important layer of Islam in my life. Several poems of mine include the word ‘prayer’ because prayer is what brings rest to my restlessness. It is a reminder of possibilities still out there, when things feel impossible.
You are also a teacher, has this affected your creativity and provided inspiration for your writing?
I do think my creativity benefited to some degree - while teaching I have also been an English leader. This meant I read a lot of books to ensure they were right for the curriculum. It also revealed how vital representation is - pupils need to see more of it! Alongside the rest of the curriculum, I have delivered poetry lessons too, which meant writing poetry and recognising the steps required for pupils to write a poem successfully. I realised how passionate I was towards writing because my colleagues would recognise it and admire it. I recognise how aspects of my creativity have hindered as a result of being a teacher too though. By giving most of my time on the weekdays and weekends to teaching, assessment and planning, the time for creativity shortened. However, I know my purpose for writing is what has always spurred me on, therefore I have maintained writing regardless of the pressures of the academic profession.
Your poetry highlighted how you had a yearning for equality. Why is equality important to you and your work?
I generally feel a strong connection with marginalised groups. I have seen how discrimination has impacted my family, friends and other communities. I recognise the power one voice has and the importance of emphasising issues, especially when the rights of certain genders and ethnic groups are negatively impacted. I know my upbringing has influenced this aspect of myself as empathy and equality are important aspects in Islam. I do feel I have a moral responsibility to write about equality and speak up against unfairness- this could also be because I am a highly sensitive person. Essentially, the pain of others becomes my pain and I think this empathetic aspect of me is one I want to keep intact as I journey on in life.
What would you say to writers who struggle with being consistent in both writing and sharing their writing?
Writing is the best thing you can start doing! I think words are beautiful in the way they can evoke a myriad of feelings. To be a writer means to create a performance on paper by compiling groups of words together. It means to listen to the syllables, the rhyme, follow the rhythm and the weight of a word in a verse or passage and let it roam in the arena that is the page. The best advice I can give to writers is to understand the why - once the why is established, it is easier to write with purpose. This purpose is going to keep a person wanting to write. I encourage writers to share their writing/poetry with trusted friends or family members- this is a good place to start and the more regularly writing is shared, it can help validate the worth of the writing. Eventually, the writer will not feel the need for validation anymore and recognise the amazing worth of their own writing. Have a goal to share, then send to online magazines, publishers, attend writing retreats, but writers should plan a time every few months to refresh, re-align themselves and appreciate the power of writing- this could be through writing get-togethers or poetry spa days.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
My favourite poets are undoubtedly Jalaluddin Rumi, Nizar Qabbani, Kahlil Gibran and Allama Muhammad Iqbal. I absolutely love their poetry!
Do you think there is a lack of inclusion of Muslim poets in the mainstream literary world?
Oh yes, definitely. I had no access to Muslims poets in my teens. I am proud of the Muslim poets around the world who are currently writing, sharing, performing and publishing their poems because it adds to representation after all. The true power of connecting with the words of fellow Muslims should not be underestimated and I know this will be very helpful for the next generation. Although there are more Muslims poets in the literary world (in comparison to a decade or two ago), there is still a long way to go. As an English lead at a school, it has been very difficult sourcing poems by Muslims to present to pupils. If we want to engage youngsters with poetry, they need to see poetry written by a range of people from different backgrounds, this includes Muslim backgrounds too.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you and what future possibilities does poetry present?
I think it will definitely continue to expand. Creatives interpret Islamic art and culture in an individualistic way and I am excited to see what it can produce. I have already seen Muslim artists showcase impeccable calligraphy skills. I have seen artworks exemplifying arabesque patterns and stunning scenery. Acting by Muslims have centred around portraying important issues and in the poetry world there is a great resurgence of using videography with poetry, which means we can celebrate the beauty of certain places while incorporating the intricacy of emotions through verse. I can imagine more poetry in adverts, poetic dramas, across posters hung on streets, more live events solely based on listening to poetry and more collaboration forming between Muslim poets around the world.
Find out more about Peter Gould and Islam Imagined here: http://www.islamimagined.com
The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.