Afghanistan's New Writers

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Afghanistan's New Writers

Darcy Courteau

During National Poetry Month, a WQ editor reflects on an unusual editorial mission.

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3m 12sec

There is a small group of Afghan women whose names—Nasima, Farahnaz, Norwan—show up in my inbox weekly. I’ve never met these women, but I’ve been helping to edit their poems and essays for nearly two years. Founded in 2009 by American journalists and writers, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) mentors Afghan women and publishes their work in an online magazine run by volunteers.

Once recruited, I wondered if I was right for the job. Wary of ghettoization, I’d avoided women’s studies and writing groups in college, and while earning an MFA, I took the minimum of writing workshops required—for me, writing isn’t a social activity. It isn’t therapy, either, and my favorite authors give voice to loners and reprobates. But for women writers living in a country where they are often silenced—under the Taliban, they weren’t allowed to go to school after age eight—telling their stories and getting together to talk about writing could be seen as acts of defiance. Good enough for me, I thought.

Editing for AWWP brings with it, of course, a somewhat different set of concerns than those I find at the WQ. The Afghan writers compose in English, their second language, and I’m often called to work on poetry—a form not customarily edited but for the language issue. Fortunately, the writers’ English is very good, and when it does falter, often produces serendipitous word choices. It’s the slicker idioms—“achieving success” or “making dreams come true”—that are not so great on the page. Remembering that good writers, whether American or Afghan, appreciate an honest edit, I swat buzzwords like flies. In general, the writers are delighted to see their work receive serious treatment. After getting a poem back, one wrote, “I love my poems after the edits—it is like when you iron the clothes!”

That feedback, however, is rare, passed along from the directing editor. What I’ve learned about the women is mostly through their work. There is a lot of self-affirming pride in it, devotion to Allah and to family, but also pointed questions about the justice of some traditions. Violence and the threat of violence are everywhere, in memories of war, refugee life, and domestic assault. One woman tells of a husband who beat her so viciously that she left him. “I was tired of all the sacrifices and love and I no longer wanted to be the kind girl,” she writes, even while promising him her loyalty from a distance, “so that the meaning of love will not go away." Her voice, bitter, chilled, and complicated, has stayed with me since, and I’ve asked the directing editor to let me work on her future essays.

But even in that story there is hope, and many pieces end with a pledge to help build a better country. In the past eight months, Christopher Merrill, director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, has twice paid student groups a visit in Afghanistan. (Read his reflections on the experience for Granta here; see his WQ reviews here.) The mood was anxious, he reported, when I pumped him for details over the phone. Afghans were desperate to build civil structures like schools and courthouses before the NATO pullout in 2014. But despite the tension, the Afghan students were overwhelmingly eager to talk about poetry. They are already steeped, Chris found, in a rich literary tradition that claims Rumi as the national poet: “They know his ghazals by heart.”

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Photo by DVIDSHUB via flickr