Intimate explorations of empire, identity and womanhood

June 26, 2022

Neha Maqsood’s chapbook navigates belonging and gendered experience in a post-colonial world

Intimate explorations of empire, identity and womanhood


n the dream-like realm of Neha Maqsood’s poems, political questions mingle with a feminine sensuousness, as fleeting moments and formative experiences alike are narrated through the prism of post-coloniality, diasporic identity and subtextual brown feminism. In particular, the poems titled Zolpidem May Cause Hallucinations and Dizziness, How To Create The Perfect Girl and Apocalypse Now shine for their attentive and sensitive treatment of the tropes of spirituality, identity and gendered subjectivity.

In the opening poem, Zolpidem May Cause Hallucinations And Dizziness, Maqsood squarely establishes her interest in the complex experiences surrounding faith and spirituality. “I only see Allah in/ dreams and Arabic calligraphy/ on an off-white canvas,” the poem begins provocatively, establishing its link with the oeuvre of the iconic mystic poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, quoted at the outset. Zolpidem establishes Maqsood’s style as a contemporary interpretation of the vast tradition of devotional poetry stretching across the Indo-Islamic world, inserting a feminine and feminist sensibility into the very heart of a repertoire dominated otherwise by male mystic poets. The striking first lines sound somewhat ironic as the poem progresses – the poem’s narrator only sees Allah in “dreams and Arabic calligraphy”, yet the most vivid image in the poem that follows these lines is that of the “target kills of a/ floral printed shirt as/ chafed lips falter over Urdu literature”. The precision of the “Arabic calligraphy/ on an off-white canvas” contrasts with the “chafed lips [that] falter over Urdu literature/”, a juxtaposition that evokes the gap between the public and ‘proper’ performance of piety in an increasingly Arab-oriented Pakistani Islam, and the intimate, emotive and regionally embedded articulations of divine love that continue to ‘chafe against’ this hegemonic project.

Further, the “target kills of a/ floral printed shirt…” (my emphasis) roots the hallucinatory quality of the poem in the material context of Pakistan, hinting perhaps at the ever-present violence as the cause for the narrator’s insomnia, for which the Zolpidem (a drug to counter sleeplessness) it seems, has been prescribed. The Zolpidem-induced vision of God gives the poem a tender and embalming quality, yet it sits tensely alongside the “green noises and accusations”, the “target kills”, the “chafed lips” that “falter”, and the “scalps” that “flake off” and “weep”, images conveying a kind of slow violence that culminates in the poem’s last lines into what can be read as a reflection on the diasporic condition:

“we thought we were

growing up in

cahoots; shape shifting


sliding along latitudinal


and envisioning the faces

of gods and prophets,

but we were merely


The word “outliers” stands alone at the end, pushing against the intense intimacy and sense of connection contained in the first half of the poem. By the end of Zolpidem May Cause Hallucinations And Dizziness, the reader has journeyed through an inner reflection that vividly brings together questions of identity, spiritual practice and an incipient social critique. This element of critique is fully developed in other poems in Vulnerability, such as There Will Always Be A Man, which poignantly addresses inter-generational change in migrant families, as well as How To Create The Perfect Girl, which makes for a bitingly ironic and quirky take on gendered expectations in society.

The poem takes the form of a list of step-by-step instructions out of a recipe book, mechanically dictating the ingredients and preparation that go into constructing ‘the perfect girl’. Disconcerting images of detached, surgical violence are contained in each discreet numbered line in the poem, providing precise, almost clinical instructions on how to “Seed the chiselled boned animals” and “Slice the tufts of fur”. The combination of gastronomic and zoological imagery to represent the female body jolts the reader into confronting the objectification and commodification of women under capitalist patriarchy, as directly indicated in the searing irony of the concluding lines: “6. Your body is now a thing to notice. Serve/ whilst hot.” Moreover, the opening lines of the poem capture the violence involved in securing the social conformity of women: “1. A pinch of powdered turmeric must/ be added to the finishing touches of/ a burial.” The burial that precedes the elaborate preparation suggests that death, a sacrifice, is necessary for the birth and creation of “the perfect girl”. A woman’s hopes, dreams, desires and ‘imperfections’ must die to create the ‘perfect’ girl: “Butcher neonatal names in a slaughter-/ house; taste the redness. /Add salt if needed.”

A sustained interest in the politics and contestation surrounding empire and neo-colonialism underlies Maqsood’s explorations of the everyday and the intimate, whose immigrant subjectivity runs like an invisible, but palpable thread that runs through all the poems in Vulnerability. In fact, at certain points, this diasporic lens threatens to descend into the pitfalls of nostalgia, for example, in Things I Do To Remember Home, the poet writes:

“how is it that people


had husbands murdered by village mobs can find


in life whereas I, who’ve lived a near painless life cannot?”

The reference to the ‘happiness’ of people whose loved ones have been brutalised by village mobs descends into a construction that instead of eliciting irony, seems to romanticise the dignity with which the poor and powerless in the country routinely survive a violent and oppressive political landscape. Similarly, the generalising reference to “the West” in the same poem, as well as the lines, “seeking refuge with house help/ from inner-Pakistani villages” in What Is It About Brown Girls? evokes a similar problem, flattening the tensions within a ‘Pakistani’ identity and experience, while somewhat reifying the divide between the West and its others. This is despite the incredibly sharp critique of neo-imperialism as well as brown patriarchy that the poet presents in other works such as Of Colonisation And Polite Hello’s and Apocalypse Now. The latter poem signposts the continuing context of neo-imperialism following the end of formal empire through a reference to the widely celebrated film about the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now. The poem’s skilful weaving of imposing architectural images such as “marble floors” and “stone cathedrals” with biblical references to “apocalypses” and “Adam & Eve” evoke the might of Empire and its ‘civilising mission’, an ideology that fused white supremacy, Christianity and colonial modernity to justify the subjugation of people of colour across the globe. A halting rhyme places these grand images in sharp contrast with the graphic image of “foreheads [being] plucked” and “stiffening fingernails”, ending the poem with a barren landscape devoid of trees and mired in “chaos”.

All in all, Vulnerability offers readers riveting images, subtle emotive insight and a brown feminist sensibility that often pushes the conventions of post-colonial writing to delightful effect. It is a promising and welcome addition to the small but budding corpus of work by women of Pakistani origin.


Author: Neha Maqsood

Publisher: Hellebore Press

Pages: 20 (Chapbook)

The reviewer is a doctoral   candidate in criticism and   culture at the Department of English, University of Cambridge

Intimate explorations of empire, identity and womanhood