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An Interview with I. S. Bashirah


I. S. Bashirah is a 25-year-old poet based in Canada. In 2023, she received the English Society Creative Writing Award for Poetry at the University of Waterloo Department of English Language and Literature Awards Ceremony. In 2024, she was also honoured with the Albert Shaw Poetry Award. If you’re interested in her work, please consider following her on Substack.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

Years ago, when I was in high school, a poet was invited to run a workshop for students. I decided to participate in the event, mainly to hang out with some friends who seemed far more interested in it than I was. I found that I actually really enjoyed it, and my friends were impressed with what I had created in the short time we had to respond to the workshop prompts. This experience motivated me to keep writing poetry, just to continue sharing it with my friends.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

During my time at the University of Waterloo, I was lucky to have access to many opportunities to pursue my passions, inside and outside of my coursework. Nearing the end of my degree, I felt compelled to make the most of the resources available to me while I still had the chance to benefit from the expertise of my professors. Initially, I set out to write a collection of poems containing fictional stories, and the project evolved very quickly. I started with a poem titled “pennies,” taking a few lines from an incomplete poem I had started years prior, and then wrote the rest of this collection within the span of six months.

Two of my professors met with me before the course started so I could start preparing in advance. I knew it was an ambitious project and I’m very grateful I was provided with the opportunity to attempt it. While writing this set of poems, I was able to go through multiple rounds of feedback with both peers and professors. Another professor mentoring me advised me to submit some of these poems to the University of Waterloo Department of English Language and Literature Awards Ceremony, and in 2023 I was humbled to receive the English Society Creative Writing Award for Poetry as well as an Honourable Mention for the Albert Shaw Poetry Award. This year, at the 2024 ceremony, I was lucky to receive the Albert Shaw Poetry Prize for other works in the same collection.

Thanks to the encouragement and mentorship of my professors, I had become an award-winning poet before the project was even completed and submitted for grading. At the end of this enriching experience, I had earned a grade of 100% on both the complete set of poems, and the visual illustrations I created to accompany them.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Poems in this collection, woven together, explore topics related to family folklore, the Partition of India, familial violence, violence against women, sexual assault, and trauma. Near the end of the project, when I finished titling the poems, I had one poem titled “Before there were two countries” and another poem titled “Before there were two countries, there were two of us.” Reflecting on the recurring themes within the collection, Before There Were Two Countries naturally emerged as a great title for the whole book. Reflecting on these two titles also guided what images I selected to depict in the visual illustrations.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

While working on this project, I had a playlist that I listened to as part of my creative process. It included songs by various artists, including Mitski, Skinny Local, ABBA, The Weeknd, and Grimes. A few songs that come to mind immediately are Kate Bush’s song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” “Oblivion” by Grimes, “Little Dark Age” by MGMT, and “THE CROW” by Skinny Local. Listening to these songs on days when I didn’t feel like writing helped me overcome writer’s block and get ready for creative work. Creating a playlist to enhance my creative process helped set me up for success with this project.

Describe your dream book cover.

I’ve already brought it to life! I created visual illustrations to accompany the set of poems, and this included cover art. The cover art I created is meant to span the front and the back covers of the book, and it depicts silhouettes of women with dupattas on both sides of the Radcliffe line. Used to making art by hand, I created the silhouettes in Google Slides primarily using the shape and line tools. For the Radcliffe line, I used Wingdings symbols resembling the Arabic nuqta.

On a page titled “India-Pakistan Border at Night,” a picture posted on the NASA Earth Observatory’s website, exposes that much of the border between India and Pakistan, if not all of it, is so brightly lit at night that it is visible from outer space. The white nuqta dots that comprise the Radcliffe line in my cover art, emulate the brightness of the lights that illuminate this border, while simultaneously, I’ve intended for my use of the nuqta to emphasize the man-made nature of the Radcliffe line. In writing, the nuqta is also considered the point from which lines and letters extend.

I decided on a simple white and dark grey colour palette. The white silhouettes and border line appear as if they are almost incandescent against the dark grey background. The dark grey background feels atmospheric behind the white elements, as if these elements are light sources, and their glow has dissipated into a dark night’s sky.

On one side, the Radcliffe line fractures into smaller fragments. Two of the silhouettes, divided by the Radcliffe line, face each other, both holding onto a sheer dupatta that spans the distance between them. Other silhouettes of women in dupattas are also present on both sides of the border. While creating the silhouette, I looked to traditional miniature paintings for inspiration, as well as a few contemporary artists, like Shahzia Sikander, and Babbu The Painter.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I began my undergraduate career as a student in the Faculty of Mathematics at UWaterloo, and I took a variety of courses in both math and computer science. People are sometimes surprised to find out that I’m good with numbers.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

A poetry collection I particularly enjoyed while working on this project was Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. I felt a strong sense of connection to the work as it touched on topics related to trauma, and family, and I appreciated how directly some of the poems addressed the reader. Building upon themes explored in Warsan Shire’s collection, I also drew upon the works of Tarfia Faizullah and Fatimah Asghar.

One of my poems, titled “pennies,” is an after-poem to “100 Bells” by Tarfia Faizullah. These poems both touch on the topic of sexual assault. While reflecting on “100 Bells,” and working on “pennies” I also benefited from insights within her article “Against Explanation,” on Poetry Magazine’s blog, as it helped me reach a point where I could complete “pennies” and begin sharing it with my peers, without being held back by any sense of obligation to prove, or explain anything I was uncomfortable speaking further about.

I also drew much inspiration from Fatimah Asghar, whose works have particularly resonated with me. I was actually careful not to re-read their poetry collection If They Come for Us while working on this project. I was profoundly impacted by Asghar’s works If They Come for Us, and When We Were Sisters, as I found elements of my own lived experiences reflected in both. When I listened to the audiobook form of When We Were Sisters, it was the first time I had encountered creative work depicting abuse similar to what I had personally experienced.

While working on this project, I also took time to reflect on the accessible language in Rupi Kaur’s poetry collection Milk and Honey, and craft elements in Fariha Róisín’s poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

While crafting this collection, I incorporated a clear call to action for the reader, aiming for them to feel empowered to leave a bad situation. I intended to provide a counternarrative to the sense of isolation that victims of abuse are sometimes left with. I was also very intentional about making this work accessible to readers who don’t regularly consume poetry, but simultaneously, I pushed myself to create something infused with my passion for the craft of writing.

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