An interview with Manahil Bandukwala

Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani writer and artist. She is the author of two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in PRISM, Room, Bywords.ca, the Temz Review, and other places. Her short story, "Dye me in the colour of spring," is forthcoming in the anthology, "You hit me with your car, and other love stories," published by the Eighteen Eleven Collective. See her work on her website, manahils.com.

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

I probably started properly writing poetry around the same time I joined the team of In/Words. And now, the community is what keeps me going. Working and collaborating with other writers and artists is an amazing experience. I’m spurred along by the poets I edit with in Ottawa, including nina jane drystek, Conyer Clayton, Leah Maclean-Evans, Ian Martin, dorian bell, Mia Morgan, Liam Burke, Claire Farley, and Sarah MacDonnell. Reading and sharing work with these writers is a good motivation as any to keep writing. I also love the community that builds online, and how I have been able to connect with amazing artists this way.

Have you noticed a difference in how you approach writing now that you’ve published a couple of chapbooks? Do you feel your process of putting together a manuscript has evolved?

Definitely. When I put together my first chapbook manuscript, I selected poems of mine I thought were strong, and had the flow of one poem to the next as a secondary consideration. Now, I’m working on projects that involve one specific thread. A current work-in-progress I have going is a series of poems about Mumtaz Mahal, wife of emperor Shah Jehan and the reason he built the Taj Mahal. Approaching writing a manuscript with a clear idea of what it will look like is a newer experience. I’m now thinking of my work in conversation with itself, which I really like. I’ve also started considering poetry/visual art combinations more. In my first chapbook, I made illustrations to accompany some of the poems, but now I’m thinking about a manuscript crafted with the intent of art as holding as much of a place as poetry rather than being a secondary consideration.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

Ayesha Chatterjee’s writing is a great influence for me. I reread Bottles and Bones many times while putting together the manuscript of Paper Doll. I took a lot of inspiration from how she represents Indian stories, mythology, motifs, and symbols in a non-stereotypical or appropriative way. Reading her work is hugely helpful to me writing poetry as a Pakistani without worrying about trying to represent something bigger. Ayesha’s poetry is about evoking the senses, which is what I strive to do in my own work.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

I can think of a lot of people who helped me and have been helping me along my journey as a writer, but here I want to give a shout out to Sanita Fejzic, who was incredibly supportive during my process of applying to grants. She read over and gave advice for my successful grants with the City of Ottawa and the Canada Council for the Arts. The latter grant is currently consuming my time, and has pushed the way I approach writing and art-making. As a first-time applicant for a grant with Canada Council, Sanita assisted me throughout the process, and it was definitely with her help that my final application was as strong as it was. The literary world is vast and confusing, and having someone along to guide you with the little things makes all the difference in the long run.

You spent a couple of years as the editor of In/Words Magazine and Press. Why do you feel this work is important, and what did you learn through the process?

Working with In/Words has everything to do with my development as a poet. In addition to technical things like editing poems and compiling issues and chapbooks, I learned about community building. What it means to collaborate with others. How being part of a small, university-run magazine means being part of the larger circuit of magazines and small presses.

What are you currently working on?

I got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts this summer, and spent two months researching folklore in Pakistan. This project, Reth aur Reghistan, is a collaborative endeavor between myself and my sister, Nimra, and we’re focusing on stories from Karachi, the city we grew up in, as well as from the province of Sindh. We conducted interviews with artists and cultural workers, visited sites of importance to the stories, and went to museums to see what folklore means to Pakistan. The intention is for me to write poetry based on the folklore we found, and for Nimra to create sculptures to accompany the poems. So far, we have been documenting our research process on our website, sculpturalstorytelling.com.

I’ve learned so much about how folklore lives and breathes today, and how people continue to contemporize the stories so they live on. One of the key figures in Sindhi folklore is the Sufi saint and poet, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, who is famous for his “Seven Queens,” or stories about seven heroines in Sindhi folklore. We visited his shrine in Bhit Shah, and talked to a local, Ismail, about the poetry and music of Bhittai. Ismail shared that Bhittai wrote about women so people would realize their importance. We wrote a blog post about our experience in Bhit Shah, and plan to write more about all the information we found.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Sanna Wani.

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