Last fall, a few days after my book, Port of Being, was sent to the printer, I met with Juliane Okot Bitek, whom I had asked for a blurb. During that rainy day at a pub, Juliane and I shared our parallel experiences of migration. I spoke of my great-grandpa, whom I’d learned more about at that time. He was very poor. I couldn’t get over the fact of how poor he was and it made me sad. I didn't know how to think about him, but I couldn't stop thinking of him and my family. Juliane told me a story that Dionne Brand told her. I don’t remember the whole story, but I remember that it was about looking at a picture of a girl who had a ribbon in her hair. She said that no one noticed the ribbon in her hair. Instead, what they saw was the pain of her life. The more I thought about this, the more obvious it seemed and the more profound it became.
I’m currently at the AWP Conference in Portland. One of the best panels I’ve attended so far was about writing the dead, where panelists discussed the elegy as a protest poem in which the dead speak. After the panel discussion, my friend, Adrian Southin, asked a question about inhabiting the voices of the dead and whether it’s possible to do so responsibly. Kamilah Aisha Moon (who has written persona poems that take on the voices of the dead) replied: “reverence.” It was about finding those “lit moments out of the darkness,” as Kate Daniels said. The plain, banal happiness of the everyday makes it possible to write about the dead.
When I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a substance use disorder a few years ago, I was dead inside. I couldn't remember moments of joy or beauty. It was as if they had never happened. Some wild, instinctive survival urge kicked in eventually and I began making lists compulsively. It was something I did as a tic when I was younger: every time my family would prepare to go on a vacation or a trip, the lists came out. I would list every single thing I packed, everything my parents packed. When I was depressed, I began doing the same. This is what one of my lists looked like: 1) Today I ate an orange and it tasted like an orange and was good. 2) I think I smiled and felt it. 3) I went to get groceries today. These were my banal joys. They reminded me that there was a spark of something that made up "life" and that I only had to remember to remember. I was teaching myself to look at the ribbon.
When it comes to my family and my novel, and even myself and my own history, sometimes it hurts to remember, not only because of what’s been lost, but because of the joy that has been lost. But I can finally say: there is nothing truer than finding joy to write through pain. I never expected that I would need to remember joy to reach the stories of my ancestors, or that it would take me time to understand something that seems so obvious and necessary for life.
Brand says, "The ruin of history visited on a people does not wipe out the steadfastness of beauty." When I remember my ancestors happy and when I imagine their joy, I know I am reimagining what a century and more of colonialism erased from the fragments of the narratives of their lives: banal, everyday gestures so mundane they pass for life. But that is what life is — the one we forget about every day.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji's writing has recently appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, THIS magazine, and is forthcoming in EVENT, Gutter: the magazine of new Scottish and international writing, and Maisonneuve. Her poetry and prose have been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes by Poetry Northwest and carte blanche, respectively. Shazia is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is at work on a novel.