Parwana Fayyaz is from Kabul, Afghanistan, and came to Trinity by way of Stanford for a PhD in Persian Studies at Cambridge. She speaks Persian, Pashto, Urdu, Arabic and English and began writing poetry in English about 10 years ago.
She has won the 2019 Forward Prize for the best single poem for ‘Forty Names,’ which portrays the collective experience of struggle and sacrifice of 40 women who jump off a cliff to preserve their honour. The Forward Arts Foundation promotes poetry and supports talent in the UK and Ireland through the National Poetry Day, the Forward Prizes for Poetry and the Forward Book of Poetry.
We caught with Parwana in the wake of the Forward Foundation awards ceremony at London’s South Bank Centre.
How does it feel to have won the Forward Prize?
I am truly honoured. All thanks go to my parents for telling me the story of the forty girls when I was growing up, to Eavan Boland, my mentor for my study of poetry at Stanford, and to Michael Schmidt for encouraging me to submit some poems to PN Review for publication.
Please tell us about ‘Forty Names’
This poem is about forty women jumping off a cliff. The story is set in a historical (almost a mythical) context and attempts to capture the injustices suffered by women during the wars and armed occupations in Afghanistan.
The poem speaks of a collective experience of struggle and sacrifice, and the young women’s ultimate response to these injustices by choosing death with honour over survival with dishonour. They left their homes and walked up into the highest mountains and found caves to reside in, but once they were discovered, they jumped off the cliff. This poem is also about women taking refuge in the mountains, which seems to be safer than anywhere else during war time.
I believe that anything that can be named, titled, and given recognition offers serenity to one’s mind. I heard the story from my parents when I was very little, the mountains of Chahel Dokhtaran, the forty daughters. Why is it called Chahel Dokhtaran? I asked! The story went on to become as weighty as the surrounding mountains are in Kabul, in my imagination as well as in their actual presence. Serene, solid and silenced; leaning, and crooked, those mountains were given feminine characteristics.
As I grew more adept with words and in wisdom (perhaps), I recalled the story in a poem. I named those women with my favourite names (mostly names that are gems and precious stones such as Emerald, Ruby, Turquoise…) and handed them the lantern and chose for them colourful scarves. And now I am at peace when I recall the story each time I cross the mountains when I visit Afghanistan in summer time.
What are you studying and why Trinity?
I am working on Persian medieval literature, with a focus on Persian narrative poetry at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. My main research interests are in the history of ideas and understanding the influence of Greek philosophy in classical and (mainly) medieval Persian poetry, transmitted via Arabic.
I have wanted to study at Trinity since I have come to read and understand Jami in the English language. I first knew of Trinity College when I read about Edward FitzGerald, the nineteenth-century poet and translator of the famous ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’. Jami’s ‘Sálamán and Absál’ was the first poem that FitzGerald translated from Persian into English, and this poem is the focus of my PhD thesis.
How long have you been writing poetry?
I have been writing poetry (in English) for about 10 years now. I started writing poetry when I first learnt English as a second language (my fifth language actually). Writing poetry in English became a bridging point for me to alienate myself from my experiences growing up in war torn Afghanistan or as a refugee in Pakistan, yet to find new connections to my experiences and place them in the context of the larger world. Emotions have a language of their own, and writing poetry became my way to express emotions.
How does Cambridge inspire you as a poet?
My scholarly work on medieval Persian poetry and my reading English poets and German poets (in translation) inspire me every day.
I think all forms of poetry and the poetic experience stem from our personal interactions with the things that surround us and we want to express. I think there is a strange solitude at Cambridge; at first it is scary but then it turns to become the most comfortable and a very beautiful feeling of existence. Perhaps the seasons have helped me too – the dimmer nights and the longer illumining mornings are any poet’s magical bridge between the mind and the heart, between the voice and the pen.
I have experienced this form of solitude particularly at Trinity College, where I spend most of my days walking across Great Court to the library, or sitting in the café-bar, editing words and if the sun is shining soft, at the Fountain, or wherever I witness the sun arrive with its daylight and depart with its twilight.
What else inspires you to write?
Any form of experience that gives a sensation of life inspires me to write. Good books and happy faces of friends, restless birds, the sound of rain, and heart-warming talks with family all inspire me.
While doing my doctoral thesis and considering myself a full-time researcher, I have learned a sense of disciplining a creative mind, to use time and my energy to know when and how to complete any task. A good poem is really a task felt completed – in form, in content, in revisions and in one’s approval. The lines flow on their own as thoughts are processed and thus feelings are composed.
The Backs in winter, the soulful Cam River in autumn, and the summer and spring in between, have helped me make sense of the life I have come to terms with. I am a poet and a scholar in becoming. I thank Trinity College for this scholarly house and for this poetics of inspiration.
Find out more about the Forward Prizes for Poetry