aila Malik’s collection of poetry, Archipelago, is a text fraught with deviations, passionate catharsis and memories that are cuttingly full-bodied and sensory. Malik describes herself as a diaspora writer living in Adobigok, a “land of indigenous communities that include the Anishinaabe, Seneca, Mohawk Haudenosaunee and Wendat”. The diaspora she invokes in her work is not static but diverse. Her poems span the Gulf, East Africa, Kashmir and Canada. Her work has been widely published in literary magazines and journals, including Contemporary Verse 2, Canthius, The New Quarterly, Ricepaper, Qwerty, Room, Sukoon, The Bangalore Review and Archetype. She was a fellow at the Banff Centre for Creative Arts in 2021 for her in-progress novel. Archipelago is her debut poetry collection.
In a quote from her book Writing Outside the Nation (Princeton University Press, 2001), scholar Azade Seyhan provides a lucid analysis of the many knotted realities that diaspora writers attempt to unravel. She writes of how they “express the sentiment that neither a return to the homeland left behind nor being at home in the host country is an option. They need an alternative space, a third geography. This is the space of memory, of language, of translation. This alternative geography can now be figured as a terrain (of) writing.” The latter is true of Malik’s poesis. Her poems are attempts to create bridges between all the places she has lived in; in the same breadth, they are attempts to establish a floating terrain, a space where metaphors of the personal realm loom large and vibrant.
The prologue is a poem that hums with a cut-up musicality. It is titled: All your grandmothers have stopped cooking. Here, languages collide in an alliterative, sonorous burst. The Urdu word for frying, bhun, is made splendid use of when the poet writes, “bhun like a grandmother/ like your life depends on it/ if a shalgham is not bhuned and no grandmother is there/ to seize the doi from your/ hand/ is it/ still a shalgham?” For Malik, cooking a traditional dish from the land of her ancestors is not a prosaic act – it is the kind of ritualistic wizardry that strengthens a sense of love and belonging across generations, even on foreign soil.
Malik goes on to construct a sense of powerful nostalgia in the poem, “we will somberly proclaim this the alchemy of our DNA/ we will perfect the dish/ imagining/ the grandmothers into a Kodachrome era with brighter flavours/ better fashion/ more precise truths/ tongues warm-wagging/ dois aloft.” We can see here how fathoming the past is a spiritual exercise for the poet; it allows her to sink into and vigorously articulate what makes her authentic and irreplaceable.
The poet is dextrous and unafraid to include original word combinations and neologisms in her diction.
By the end of the poem, the reader is thoroughly invested – “you will ask me for the family shalgham recipe/ I will nod as though I have waited all my life for this/ and I will launch WhatsApp inquiries and Google investigations/ seeking a legend to the map of your veins/ I will ask whosoever still breathes and cares/ whosoever holds fragments unbloodied with grudge/ I will stitch the patchwork and call it our flesh.” The poet is sensitive to how a beloved family recipe functions as wondrous connective tissue, gestating a potent sense of identity across huge tracts of time and distance.
Though the prologue is suffused with joy and conviviality, the tone of the poems takes a more sombre turn as the poet turns her mind to her life in the Gulf. In Just Kids Going Home, Malik invokes the trials of Hagar, the mother of Prophet Ismail and the wife of Prophet Abraham (peace be upon them), in the desert. Malik writes, “we are not the first girls to walk the desert alone but we don’t know this yet/ Hagar and the seven sprints/ parched and panicked between two mountains/ water for the dying baby, Hagar and the millions of others with bones and names and babies long since dissolved into the sand. We too are thirsty. We are not the first girls.” Malik’s beseeching writer’s eye unearths artefacts of yearning in the latter poem and across the body of her text. She picks apart and reinstates histories that still feel fiercely alive.
We see Malik turning her attention to the hyper-capitalist cage of her environs in some other poems in the book. For example, in Charred Grain, Malik writes, “the maid despoils the future/ children unspool the past/ siblings poison the present/ her own self stretches sorry/ across every tense.”
Wordplay picks up more energy as we read on; “caringly cairned/ with Soviet bonechina/ saltwater pearls/ French chiffon/ wrapped in the smoke of burnt basmati,” and further; “they say, it broke my heart/ like a heart could snap clean & instant/ hearts break so slow you never see it coming/ bones crack across years of gentle traction/ great continents breathing deep/ tectonic sighs for all the extinct words.” From bone-china to bones cracking across years of gentle traction, Malik’s gift in creating correlations between a range of elements endows her verse with a pleasant reverberative quality. Her lines strongly impact the reader and immerse them, joltingly, in re-imagining her personal universe.
Archipelago hums with surprises on every page. The poet is dextrous and unafraid to include original word combinations and neologisms in her diction. The effect is, by turns, starting and astringent as well as witty and beautifully corrosive. Archipelago is a poetic text that boasts a fully realised poetic sensibility, pushing the reader to empathise with the many disparate worlds Malik has inhabited.
Author: Laila Malik
Publisher: Bookhug Press, 2023
The reviewer is a senior contributing editor at The Aleph Review and a columnist at Libas Now