10 Questions for Zohra Saed
- By Emily Wojcik
Jalal Abad, once Adinapour,
is the mythic city of shine—
the whim of a Mughal King, Jalaludin Akbar,
known for his fondness for citrus and fountains.
—from “Jalalabad Will Never B JBAD,” from Volume 59, Issue 4 (Winter 2018)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was a child, I wrote mini stories on the blank back pages of books I took out from my elementary school library. I didn’t sign my name. Once, I got bold and drew some pictures to go with the stories. These were stories inspired by the Afghan and Uzbek fairy tales my father told me. I got in trouble by my second grade teacher and I got a kind of detention, a gentle one, for vandalizing school property. When I got home, my father was so proud of me for getting in trouble for writing! I felt so happy that day after my father came home from work. It was better than winning any stars or badges for attendance and obedience at school. I think that is when I realized I liked writing in small marginal spaces, and poetry appealed to me because of this.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Fairy tales of all kinds. Afghan songs. Uzbek, zarb e masals, proverbs and poetry. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage. The Shahnameh by Ferdowsi. Khosrau va Shirin by Nizami. Emily Dickinson. LaTasha Diggs. Suheir Hammad. Jamaica Kincaid. Mahmud Darwish. Fedwa Tuqan. Beowulf trans by Seamus Heaney. Ullysses by James Joyce. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz Bart.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’m a literature teacher. I’m a scholar of Central Asian diaspora literature, film, and video art. I seem to do well as a MC at poetry events. I am an editor for a small indie press that I co-founded after the MFA with the brilliant poet and tireless editor Robert Booras: UpSet Press. We publish first books by poets.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I don’t remember being a very ambitious child. I do remember loving the smell of paper and books. I liked wandering with a pack of cousins and neighborhood friends. In Brooklyn, we were very loyal to our block and to our neighborhoods. I climbed rooftops and crawled through very narrow alleys in search of stray kittens and sparrows. I don’t remember thinking about professions. My family, of course, wanted me to be a doctor, a governor, or a professor.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The war in Afghanistan. Hearing names of Afghan cities abbreviated and separated from what the names mean, separating them from their history. Jalalabad is my birth city.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Afghanistan, and mostly an imagined Afghanistan, and its full history from antiquity to the present is the core of what I keep returning to in my writing. My immigrant story. The story of I was here once and now I am here and all of the cities in between. These are the stories I want to tell through poetry.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Recently, Anatolian instrumental music. Afghan mahali music (folk music). And always the music of the sound of people. I write in busy places. Writing in silence makes me feel a little claustrophobic.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Photography. Cooking! I think I have cookbook length recipe book that is traditional Brooklyn-Uzbek-Afghan cuisine.
What are you working on currently?
A book of poetry about Afghan cities and folktales: An Astrologer’s Map of Afghanistan. Scholarly work is my work on Langston Hughes in Turkestan.
What are you reading right now?
Medieval Central Asian literature. I’m reading everything I can get my hand on. When the translations are stilted, I ask my father to read from the farsi or chagatoi turkestani language.
ZOHRA SAED is the co-editor, with Sahar Muradi, of One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature (University of Arkansas Press), editor of Langston Hughes: Poems, Photos and Notebook from Turkestan 1932-1933; and Woman. Hand/Pen.. Her essays on the Central Asian diaspora have appeared in Eating Asian America, The Asian American Literary Review, Aster(ix), and Tongue: A Journal of Writing and Art. She is co-founder UpSet Press, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit indie press, with poet Robert Booras.