Interview with Ather Zia

Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?

When I was living in Kashmir the Indian government had made our relationship with most forms of communication, including phones, very tenuous and unpredictable. The service could be banned at any moment by the government. As a Kashmiri who who now lives overseas, a phone is a vital connection to my homeland but since communication including phone and internet are often banned, a sense of precarity exists. A phone is not a given for a Kashmiri. What is most mundane and routine of the basic rights in free societies becomes a luxury for a Kashmiri, whether one is inside or outside the region. In my poem, this is the circumstance that I am caught in and am trying to express.

How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?

Since 5th August 2019 8 million Kashmiris were imprisoned in their homes under a curfew and communication lockdown. There was complete communication blackout, which meant no phones, no Internet and not even basic cable. The Indian government, unilaterally without consensus of Kashmiri people, removed Kashmir’s quasi-autonomous status. Kashmir has since 1947 demanded its right to self-determination and independence, which India has curbed by indirect and direct military violence. While curfews, communication bans, and lockdowns are not new to Kashmiris, the intensity and the duration of the siege became a shock. India broke its own record in longest internet shutdown: over seven months. This poem has resonance to that sense of precarity, symbolized by the phone that is often dead and of no use to Kashmiri people. Even today as world faces a pandemic, Kashmiris only have partial access to cell-phones and internet which is slow and text-based.

How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition?

While writing I was conscious of speaking to a mobile audience, who would primarily be in the UK. It was important to me that I spoke to them about the role of British imperialism in creating the tragedy of Kashmir and leaving it as a postcolonial wound that is not healing. I try to use a direct addressal to catch the listeners ear and also create comparison here and there to give them an idea of how to gauge a Kashmiris pain.

Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?

I had already been thinking about the loss of communication with my homeland and family and expressing myself on these lines. During the siege I penned what I termed a ‘Verse journal of the Kashmir Siege’. This daily epigrammatic journal, mostly highlighting the siege, lasted almost 150 days. It acted as a placeholder for daily communication, while documenting what was happening as all Kashmiri were forcefully subjected to a communication blackhole. To give an idea, I am including a link to the initial excerpt of the verse journal published here.

Are there any other reflections you can make about the process of producing the poem, or your participation in the project?

I was apprehensive about writing a poem on a prompt; a deliberate poem if you will. But it turned out to be very liberating. To think around an object and a theme and to rummage my overflowing mind and heart for the things I was itching to say again in a different way was cathartic. I am happy I participated in this project. Thank you.

May 2020