Mental health and grief: despite being often considered taboo topics, they are two aspects that almost everyone, at a certain point in their lives, is simply forced to deal with. What we do with this kind of pain further defines who we are as people. We had the pleasure to speak with Shehrbano Naqvi (www.banoqvi.org and @banoqvi on Instagram), a Pakistani writer and poetess who began posting her works online after losing her older brother, concerning not only the therapeutic power writing has, but especially her personal perspective on the role of the writer and her voice as a woman.
What inspires you the most as a writer and poet?
For me, writing has always been a way to navigate through the influx of emotions and intrusive thoughts – it’s always been my tool to use to make sense of things. In that way then it’s fair to say that my writing is most often inspired by the things happening around me and to me. It’s perhaps a little more obvious when it comes to poetry, but even when I dabble in fictional storytelling, it’s almost always birthed from either personal, intimate musings or real-life events.
Who are some of your biggest literary and poetic influences?
Although I look up to so many artists – those that came before us as well as contemporary – and all of them influence my writing and teach me something new, there are a few writers that have helped me find my voice in particular. When I indulge in longer stories, fiction or non-fiction, I find myself often trying to mimic Muhammad Hanif’s eloquent grit and honest narrative, while when I dabble in short stories, there are heavy influences of Raymond Carver’s clipped storytelling style and urgent dialogues. I found my poetic voice at a time where I felt like prose was not the medium with which I wanted to explore abstract emotions like grief. In the beginning days of finding my poetic voice, I relied heavily on the guidance of Emily Dickinson. Out of all the incredible things I learnt from her, perhaps the most inspiring was that her literary fame came posthumously, which showed me how important it is to remember to create for ourselves, to use this medium for our expression rather than to please the world, and that the rest will follow if it's meant to be.
You were born in Pakistan. How has your cultural background shaped your voice?
The answer to this question has so many different levels that can each be spoken about quite deeply. On a more individual level, as a young Pakistani girl writing exploring rather dark, controversial and often taboo topics, my voice has always had a bit of a defiant, unfiltered edge to it. Part of it stems from my personality, but part of it definitely stems from the society’s ideas of how certain things shouldn’t be spoken about, or their idea of how soft and demure a woman should be.
You graduated in Literature and Writing. How has that helped you in developing your writing career?
I specifically chose my areas of study in order to pursue a career in writing. Studying Literature has helped me explore the great artists that have come before me and learn from them. Perhaps a couple of the most important things I learned was that firstly, everything a writer does – down to an extra full stop – is always deliberate and there for a reason, and secondly, that it is the writer’s job to not only share but also include the reader and make them a part of the experience.
In 2018, you suffered a grievous loss. One year later, you started posting your works online. Would you say that writing has been a therapeutic experience for you?
I started sharing my work just a few months after my brother passed away in 2018. It was largely motivated by a huge regret I will perhaps always carry – that I wish I got to share more of my present self with my older brother, that he too got to see his little sister all grown up. But as far as writing about his loss goes, that began the very weekend he passed away and I wrote his eulogy. From then on, I did find it extremely therapeutic to have the opportunity and the medium to explore something as confusing and complex and abstract as grief. The entire process is therapeutic but also exhausting, but eventually seeing the chaotic mess inside translated onto my screen and grounded in words that make sense to me, is extremely cathartic.
Amongst the ones you’ve posted and/or published, what is that one piece of yours that you feel the most proud of?
It’s a little difficult to choose one, because each of them reflect a stage of my process that means so much to me. A more obvious answer to this question would be the two pieces (“No Man’s Land” & “No More Room”) I was able to read at the Karachi Literary Festival in 2020 – a performance opportunity that has always been one of my dreams come true. However, I think the answer to this question changes for me personally depending on where I am on the pendulum of grief, and which poem captures that most honestly for me. These days that poem for me is “Maybe”.
What are the main takeaways you hope people get when reading your works?
I hope the biggest take away is seeing the cathartic power of honest, unfiltered expression. I hope they see that we first create for ourselves, and then for the audience that will receive it. A lot of times we find ourselves – me included – trying to mince our words to either soften our feelings out of fear for how they will be received, or painting them in pretty devices trying too hard to put the artistic expectations above their own personal intent to express in the first place. Sometimes it’ll lead to a poem that more people will connect to, and sometimes it’ll be one that only makes sense to me and flops on social media. But I hope they see that that shouldn’t matter, because we create for ourselves first.
What are your biggest aspirations as a writer?
In the grander scheme of things, like every other artist, I aspire to start conversations, to challenge our way of thinking, and to normalize the idea of strength in vulnerability. But perhaps on a more personal note, It sounds silly to say now, but my biggest dream has always been to stumble upon my words sitting casually bound in a paperback on an unassuming shelf in a random bookstore. The feeling of belonging amongst so many brilliant writers, to have my own book sitting tucked amongst them, having earned its place.
Lastly, what does it mean for you to be a female writer in today’s world?
In a world where women’s rights are a conversation at the forefront of so many different societies across the globe, I find it extremely empowering to have a voice as a writer. It's important to acknowledge that due to my privilege, I have nowhere near as stifled a voice as so many others. But I am part of a society where so many young girls still find themselves, and their opinions and voices, boxed in by what’s considered ‘appropriate’ or allowed. I believe representation goes a long way, and if young girls can look at me and get ideas outside of the four walls permitted to them, then that is incredibly exciting.
We will meet with Shehrbano on 26 April 2021 at 6:30 PM (CET) through an Instagram Live where we will further discuss poetry, emerging women writers, dealing with mental health and grief, and how writing can often guide your recovery.