Sunday, November 1, 2020

Shazia Hafiz Ramji : An Interview with Bahar Orang, author of Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty




Bahar Orang is a writer and physician-in-training living in Toronto. She has a BASc from McMaster University and an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. She completed her MD at McMaster University, and is now completing specialty training in psychiatry in Toronto. Her poetry and essays have been published in such places as GUTS, Hamilton Arts & Letters, CMAJ, and Ars Medica. Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty is her first book.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Bahar, how did you come to “beauty”? 

Bahar Orang: I think I’ve always cared about beauty, or followed beauty, or attended to beauty. Though I didn’t quite start from a place of wanting to write a book on beauty. Beauty emerged as a sort of tying thread in that endless, iterative revision process. I slowly realized that this thing that I was getting at - that relational dark matter, that deep and strange connectedness, that practice of attentiveness, that commitment to making life more livable - I would name it beauty. 

Shazia: I love that. The commitment to making life more livable reminds me of what Dionne Brand said: “the ruin of history visited upon a people does not wipe out the steadfastness of beauty.” Brand shifted something in my mind about beauty, which was previously tied to Romantic notions of the beautiful and the sublime. While reading your book, I saw how the quotidian can be erotic, how the tangle of life can be beauty, and it struck me that beauty is a way of looking, being, knowing, and that it takes practice. Who were your guides and influences while writing Where Things Touch

Bahar: “The steadfastness of beauty” - that’s stunning. Beauty really is so steadfast, it’s at once a refusal of violence and an opening towards something new.

I was reading so many poems while writing, I was swimming in poems, every time I sat down to write I had to get inside so much poetry before I could write a single word. Poems by Solmaz Sharif, Linda Gregg, Sharon Olds, Forough Farrokhzad, June Jordan - it was really such a pleasure and a joy to study beauty with poems that challenge and move me and that I love so much. Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema was also important to me, especially the film Close-Up, whose last scene taught me about the pace of beauty, the very slow, quotidien - to use your word - pace of beauty.   

SHR: How did you study beauty? Did you develop a practice of looking, stillness, attention, care? 

BO:  It’s probably all of those things (stillness, attention, care). Another word I might associate with the “pace of beauty” – a word I’ve become somewhat obsessed with – is rupture. There is an essay by Christina Sharpe called Beauty is a Method, and in it she writes, “I’ve been revisiting what beauty as a method might mean or do: what it might break open, rupture, make possible and impossible.” The word rupture also appears on the first page of Where Things Touch, where the speaker considers each fragment of writing as a kind of rupture. We live now in capitalist time, colonial time, empire’s time, linear time, rapid time, time swallowed up by work, by pain, by grief, empty time, time whose pace is bound by measures of productivity and domination. Attending to beauty, especially in the everyday, is a rupture to that time, that pace, and inside those ruptures, time opens up, time becomes capacious, and we catch a glimpse of different shapes for time, of other ways of being.

I have read that walking is important to your writing practice. Do you think walking does something to the pace of writing for you, or to the sense of time in your poems?

SHR: I love everything about “rupture” as you’ve described! It really hones in on the idea of rest as resistance,  joy as resistance, and now beauty as resistance.

Walking is a rupture for sure. I notice that when I walk I pay attention to the world with curiosity and openness … there’s something that feels effortless about the state of mind that comes with walking and taking in the world. It definitely changes my sense of time. I’m able to sustain a thought for much longer when walking. When I write after a walk, I’m able to hold many more tangents and bring them together at the same time.

There’s a passage halfway through Where Things Touch in which you say, “All our essays and poems are made up of echoes and reconfigurations of each other. Do we return to the same ideas, the same refrains, by habit or by virtue of the thought itself, where some thoughts are essentially generous, new things to say each time?” How do you reconfigure and make it new? 

BO: More and more I believe that there are no new ideas, no original thoughts, and every theory of beauty, or of freedom, or of liberation, is actually ancient. Of course, each time we grapple with those questions there are different manifestations, different kinds of potentialities that open up, but every idea emerges from so many histories, and is deeply enmeshed with those histories. Every reconfiguration, then, is made anew by the specificity of that encounter.

On a different scale, I think that many writers and artists have a set of preoccupations that they return to with every project, in ways that can be unpredictable or strange or quiet. And I think those returns are really amazing and can reveal surprising relationships between things. Sometimes I realize with a jolt that the seeds of what I’ve just written can be found inside what I wrote so many years before. Have you had this sort of experience? 

SHR: So beautifully said.

In my undergrad days, Kierkegaard was my favourite. A line by him still stays with me: "repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward.” 

I think that when we experience that jolt, we’ve remembered an earlier iteration of something, but it’s made new through the specificity of our aliveness in the present time - our specific encounter with the world. 

That jolt often feels like I had already known what I was going to write on some level, without knowing it consciously. And when it happens I feel that I’m a part of something much bigger.

Please tell me about your jolt experiences? Did you experience that recognition with Where Things Touch?

BO: I love that idea by Kierkegaard. Repetition, as a kind of recollection, is so important to the world-making possibilities of beauty. How every repetition of beauty, or every recollection of beauty, is like an insistence of beauty, an insistence of other arrangements for life – and we are back to beauty as steadfast.

About ten years ago, I wrote a short play for an English class, and I remembered it being mostly about trauma and exile, but when I recently encountered it again, I was stunned to see that it was also a play about beauty. Even back then, I wanted to understand, what can beauty enact where there is violence? 

SHR: <3





Shazia Hafiz Ramji 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 was named a “writer to watch” by the CBC and her poetry and prose have been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes. She is at work on an autofictional novel.

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