South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series: Afshan D'Souza-Lodhi
afshan d’souza-lodhi was born in Dubai and bred in Manchester. She is a writer of plays and poetry, and was recently commissioned to write and direct a short film for Channel 4 (An Act of Terror) and a radio play for BBC Sounds (Chop Chop).
afshan has edited many anthologies and has an essay featured in Picador's collection by Muslim women called Its Not About The Burqa. Her debut poetry collection ‘[re: desire]’ (Burning Eye Books) seeks to investigate the yearning to love, be loved and belong from desi (South Asian) perspectives.
afshan has completed residencies at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester LGBT History Month and has worked with Eclipse Theatre, Tamasha Theatre Company and Paul Burston’s Polari.
As well as her own writing, afshan is keen to develop other younger and emerging artists and sits on the boards of Manchester Literature Festival and Pie Radio. afshan also sits on the steering committee for Northern Police Monitoring Project, an independent campaigning and advocacy organisation that challenges police harassment and violence.
1. How would you describe your writing for someone who has never come across your work before?
My poetic work sits on the edge of poetry, flash fiction and script and merges the forms together. I like to bend ideas of gender, love and sexuality within my work. My debut poetry collection draws upon literary traditions common in South Asia. I begin the collection in the same way many mushairas begin ‘arz kiya hai’ it has been said.
My plays (radio, stage and screen) are often comedic commentaries on the political climate we live in today. My radio play ‘Chop Chop’ set in a halal butchers, investigates the way women band together in order to fight the patriarchy while simultaneously fighting racism.
All of my work centres women, and heavily features women of colour.
2. Who are your favourite writers of South Asian heritage and why?
One of the first books by a South Asian writer that I came across as a young person was Bali Rai. As a young person seeking out narratives that reflected my own cultural experience, his work really spoke to me. I also really love the beauty with which Zeba Talkhani writes her and Nadine Aisha Jassat’s work helps me to navigate my world on a daily basis.
3. If you could only recommend one book, whether novel, poetry collection or non-fiction, from a writer of South Asian heritage, what would it be?
I’d recommend reading Ismat Chugtai’s short story Lihaaf The Quilt – you can find a translated pdf of it online for free (its really short so I urge you to go find it now!). Her work was banned for a while in India but it was women like herself that really led the feminist writers’ movements in India and Pakistan.
4. What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading a couple of books on race and policing ‘End of Policing’ by Alex Vitale and ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’ by Asim Qureshi.
5. Could you tell us about the role of literature in your upbringing?
My father is a native Urdu speaker and it’s almost impossible to grow up in an Urdu speaking house and not have a relationship to poetry. I grew up overhearing my father on the phone reciting his poetry to his brothers and it really inspired me to write. In fact I wrote my first ‘poem’ (in Urdu) when I was 8 years old – I even rang into a TV show and recited it on live TV.
6. When did you realise you had a passion/skill for writing?
I’ve been writing since I was really young. From small couplets in Urdu when I was 8 to writing a whole book’s worth of poems just before I started high school (they’re all rhyming and badly written poems that will never see the light of day). It was only when a play I wrote was selected to be part of an evening of readings at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester when I was 16, that I thought this might be something I could be good at. My teachers at school didn’t really get it and didn’t think I’d make it as a writer and I don’t know if I ever will ‘make it’ (whatever that means) but I’m incredibly fortunate to have met so many writers and mentors over the years that have supported me and my work.
7. Do you write in other languages? If so, which languages do you write in and what are the differences you feel in writing in another language as well as English?
I began writing in Urdu, but unfortunately have lost a lot of the fluency with which I used to speak and write in. Still there are words and phrases that I only know in Urdu or Hindi and struggle to translate them into English – this is where google translate comes handy.
The ex-publisher of my poetry collection [re: desire] wanted me to have a glossary at the end where I translated all the ‘foreign’ words and gave context to each poem! I obviously tried to resist as they automatically assumed by reader would be white/lazy. My new publisher Burning Eye Books have been incredibly supportive and allowed me to write a glossary that is fun. I play with definitions and define words on my terms. In the collection I make an active decision to not italicise any of the word/phrases in Urdu, Hindi or Konkani. This is because the very purpose of italicisation is to emphasize or draw readers to the ‘otherness’ of a particular word or phrase. However, these words and phrases aren’t foreign to me, they are very much a part of my daily vernacular.
When I used to write in Urdu, I found that there were particular themes and images that would always emerge – love, anger and religion. I remember writing a series of angsty love poems in Urdu which sounded incredibly drab and common when I translated them into English – its as if the magic of the poetry can only be experienced in Urdu. I imagine the same would be true if I translated my English language poems into Urdu, they’d appear stale.
8. What advice do you have for emerging writers of South Asian heritage?
To keep writing and to keep reading work not only by desi diaspora writers but writers living in South Asia too!
Manchester City of Literature would like to say a huge thank you to Afshan for taking part in our South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series. Be sure to keep up to date with Afshan's work over on Twitter, Instagram, and on her website: www.afshandl.com