A “Language for Loss and Grief”: An Interview with Ayesha Raees
Illustration by Kendall Moore
The body is a temple but only of a woman for a man who
knows no prayer. My mother grew up in a foliage where an
empty tree had nothing to do with a season. If the travel
mustered a distance longer, there would be long stretches of
golden sand. My mother once begged the sky for water and
the land for grain. - Ayesha Raees, Coining a Wishing Tower
The speaker of Ayesha Raees’ debut chapbook Coining a Wishing Tower knows how precarious language can be in the face of mortality and exile. "To possess desire is both an ailment and aliment," she observes, the line between sickness and health as thin as the switch between two mere letters. Through her lyrical prose poetry, she contemplates the sacred and the secular, pays homage to her heritage, and looks for new ways to interpret journeying and impermanence. We talked to Raees about her approach to writing, her views on life and language, and her aims as an author.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mishal Imaan Syed: In your bio, you say that you identify as “a hybrid creating hybrid poetry through hybrid forms.” What does the word “hybrid” mean to you? In this work, you combine prose and poetry, realism and magic, which is a form of hybridization—is there any reason you were attracted to this type of combined storytelling?
Ayesha Raees: I started identifying myself as a hybrid because it was impossible for me to choose a single genre or a single creative outlet. I indulge in poetry as well as in visual arts, and I felt like when I was in my undergrad a couple years ago, I struggled with the institutionalized way of thinking that meant I had to graduate in one thing—or be just one thing—that oneness of being. And I think that’s where the real conflict started: Acquiring and interrogating what I wanted to do in my personal pursuits, in my creative endeavors, and asking myself, how can I move forward with poetry and art? Why do I have to be tied to only one thing? That’s where the interrogation started.
In artists’ circles, we talk about how the personal is always political. I remember, when I was a junior, I took this art history class—a South Asian art history class—where I was introduced to texts about postcolonial theories and ideas of hybridity within that. It made me think about globalism and westernization—who are you, if you grew up in many cities, many countries? If you learned many languages and learned to adapt, becoming this social creature instead of maintaining your own authentic oneness? I was struck by the idea that there’s no such thing as true oneness for anyone. The idea of oneness is a very restricting, limiting, capitalistic view of the human experience. So that’s where the self-identity as a hybrid started to come forward—combining these parts of my experience as a woman, Pakistani, American, Muslim, all of those political identities. It was important to identify myself instead of someone else identifying me, because others labeling you often happens to people of any marginalized identity. I wanted to grab onto my autonomy.
Now I want to answer the second part of your question, about combining magic and realism in the book, and prose poetry. I believe prose poetry was once frowned upon by traditionalist poets—they’d say it’s not a real poem, because it isn’t enjambed, stuff like that. So prose poetry is sort of a hybrid identifier. Thematically, this book alludes to what hybrid genres can do—defining ideas with more than one meaning, and leaving the book open to many different ways of being read. And though I define prose poetry as poetry, I think it can be addressed through the reader’s own perception. So I abstain from defining the book as much as I could have.
MIS: I moved around a lot as a child—from Asia to five different cities in the US—and this reminded me of my desire to find a place of belonging, of home, despite constantly being stuck in a state of “in-between.” So I related to poem 48, where you mention the state of “chronic transit” and trying to find houses in cities where life was never completed, feeling fractured. How does this yearning for wholeness inform and motivate your writing?
AR: I think that's a wonderful, wonderful question. I don't think I've ever had a relationship with a city or a house or anything of that sort since I was born, that gave me a sense of permanence. And I really struggle with it. When you leave the next, turn 18 and go to college, you lose your ideas of permanence as well, because you’re losing some sense of your old self and gaining a new self, but in the process, you’re grieving all the time. You’re mourning the person you used to be. There’s this interesting conflict happening—and a lot of growth, a lot of depth. People like us, who went through a lot of movement in life, don’t have a centering permanence with regards to a house or a city. My father was in the military, which instigated our travel, so we were moving every two years in Pakistan until he retired, and then moved schools and houses. So the idea of impermanence was always there. When I left for America, for college, it was even more moving every year for jobs and internships and studying abroad.
So I began to find permanence in the in-betweens—I started to realize that when I'm in a train, or when I'm in an airplane, or when I'm in a boss, I actually find a lot of peace in it. I can just be: I don't have to do anything, I don't have to be very active; I realized that moments of in-between, of that travel, felt very healing for me. Coming to that realization has helped me because…moments of transit remind me of that sense of relaxation.
I’ve been reading a lot of Etel Adnan. In one of her interviews, she mentions that people who move a lot don’t have physical homes. The body becomes the idea of permanence or home. I used to have, and still have, a lot of conflict about physical permanence, because your body does need to stay for a while, and last. But there are moments when your body feels temperamental or isn’t working, and then you have to be strong through that. I’m still trying to find a clear answer, but those are my discoveries.
MIS: In the book, you repeatedly intertwine notions of “prayer” with notions of “wishing.” There is the ritual and mechanic of prayer (as envisioned in Islam) in the five times a day, the cupping of the hands, and then there is the “wish,” with its references to journeying, finding a new form of freedom, extricating oneself from the mundane and constrained (“Mama, I wish to leave.”) Do you perceive praying as a ritualistic form of wishing, or does it carry a different connotation? How do you cohere the constraints of Islamic prayer and practice with the desire to create a life/worldview beyond these pillars?
AR: That’s a really wonderful question. And I love your reading of the book—it makes me happy because the book found a good audience, and I’m grateful for that. Your question is brilliant. I think, when I was writing the book, I found mimicry between these traditional ideas of religion compared to the modern lingo we use, like manifestation and spiritualism. And at its core, it feels like there’s a human person with desire, who is brave enough to put that desire into words and language and create something out of it, like a wish. Wishing is like pointing the desire, even throwing it into a wishing well. That’s where the visual image of the title comes from: The coining of a wishing tower, as opposed to throwing a coin in a well. The latter is in Islamic culture—stoning the devil during Hajj, the pilgrimage. I don’t identify myself as very religious, as I feel like I’m moving away from that system, which can be oppressive. Removing myself from that system has helped me think of these things in a spiritual manner.
That spirituality has reminded me of the power of rituals…I do feel that rituals are a form of prayer, and prayer is nothing but wishing, really. And in Islam, it’s five times a day, and the pilgrimage itself is very ritualistic, so Islamic worship is full of rituals. And you start to think, if I get up every morning and do yoga, how does that differ from praying or meditating? Repetition of a ritual has an emotional, physical, mental effect. I wanted to mirror those sentiments.
What makes a ritual a ritual is intention—you need to intend something behind it. That’s where the healing comes from.
MIS: Something I found funny while reading was the way you juxtapose questions of modernity and mortality. You mention, for example, how angels keep track of your GPA to determine the soul's destiny; it's like college apps, but for the afterlife. You don’t arrive at a definitive conclusion in your evaluation of religion, but rather reflect on it. In your writing and in life, how do you approach this conflictedness—is there always an answer, and are you still looking for one, despite the fact that the “bare minimum to life” is to “just live”?
AR: I’m not looking for answers to religion at all. The reason it came into the book wasn’t because I’m a Muslim—I don’t write from that space—it’s because I grew up with this in my culture. There’s a third parent in a Muslim family, and the third parent is God. Language is used in that way—my mom, dad, teachers, classmates, everyone would use God in their language—inshallah, alhamdulillah. Even if you don’t identify with Islam, it’s there in the language—God is.
During my college experience, at one point I started identifying as an atheist. But the more I shut religion out of my life, or faith or God, the more I felt like I was losing my own culture. I do Ramadan, for example, because it mimics all the happy memories I had with my family and community.
The book deals with the afterlife, and it has these characters that are dealing with it in a more intellectual way, then there’s the family element as well. And the family element would not be authentic—especially since I’m talking about grief and loss and rebirth—if I didn’t include the religious connotations I grew up with, and all the knowledge that comes with that. The trip to Saudi, too, is coming from a very personal space and not a religious space.
It’s also very important for me to think about the way that religion has become radicalized and carries negative connotations. It can be used as a weapon to control you and your thoughts and actions—not just Islam, but religions as a system do that, the same way capitalism makes you feel a certain way in the interest of controlling you. So rebelling, and then redefining my experience with religion was impactful for me. I was able to find some peace about the conflicts I felt as a woman in Islam, a woman in the world, racially, everything, and writing the book really helped. And talking about the things I learned from my parents—like the angels on my shoulders—I learned that from cultural stories used to scare a child. These angels are going to record your actions, so don’t lie—this sparks anxiety in the child, and it’s used to teach them manners. If you grow up with that environment, it’s embedded into the language you use.
When I came to college, I wasn’t able to use that language anymore. So I had to find a real language that could comfort and console me—friends, care, morals, in my own way. It was like a rebirth. I try to write about all this from a point of observation and not from a place of stating what is correct, because my work comes from moments of observation and stillness. I don’t want to import my beliefs and morals to an audience, because that comes naturally, in its own way.
MIS: There’s a certain bleakness to the tone of some of these poems that reminded me of the ongoing crisis with the pandemic. In poem 40, you talk about “a knowledge that permanence is a human fantasy, that in the end, living is dying many times in one singular life.” But then, in poem 41, you suggest that the human soul may not be fully mortal—that “death itself is a journey,” that the body is a vessel for the “context” of the soul. So the seeming bleakness of the previous poem isn’t established; there is, once again, an alternation between ways of being and perceiving the self. How do the circumstances and inequity of the pandemic affect your perceptions and writing, and do your/narrator’s ideas of mortality (or lack thereof) shift with the circumstances?
AR: Thank you for asking that. So the book was written before the pandemic happened, in 2019. But it definitely talks about mortality, because I was struggling with that—mortality and loss. I think the first 25 pages were written linearly, and they were caused by a dreadful night I had. My best friend from college, my roommate and soul friend, the first person I ever met who didn’t make me feel like I was an alien of sorts—she was going through a difficult time, abusive circumstances. She went through a lot of hardship and unfortunately ended up committing suicide in December 2018. She was in a coma for six months. I found out in February—it was like losing someone I really, really loved, and then reaching out to her family and finding out she hadn’t passed on yet. There was still a chance she would live. I performed a lot of rituals and prayers during that time, and so did my friends—good thoughts, positive vibes, blessings, prayers. But she passed on in May.
I think that whole incident changed my life. I wasn’t the same person before and after it. And the pandemic kind of mirrored that jarring sense of displacement and grief and mourning. It all stems from losing someone you really love, and I wondered about my friend when she was in that in-between state in a coma—what did she know during that time? And that reminded me of the cultural language of grief. When my grandmother passed away, it was easy to say she would go to Jannah. But what happens when someone from outside your faith passes? Finding language for loss and grief and afterlife is a very difficult process. I don’t have real answers to it.
But this book allowed me to process all of it, to think about the many facets of grief. I tried to…speculate about many lives in the book, like a cat with nine lives, to try and figure out what it means to keep going. I drew some parallels between the wishing tower and the Kabah, to put these themes together and figure them out.
MIS: There are presumed binaries throughout the narrative—the divide between the sacred and the secular, meaning and its lack, temporality vs. eternity, mortality vs. permanence. This raises the question of whether binaries are necessary or valid in forming an understanding of the world. How does the work address the existence of these binaries overall—should we / the reader be propelled to consider these themes beyond bare dichotomy? Do we need them to structure the world?
AR: That’s a wonderful question, I could write a book about it…Most aggressions happen because of radicalism, towards or against binary systems. We need to make space for a range of systems, both binary and nonbinary, and not restrict ourselves to binaries because we feel that those are the only options, without considering the possibility that it could be all of the above. We often move in the world without thinking of options beyond the expected binaries, but if we consider the different shades, it gives us the ability to see the world beyond that.
This is one of those topics where I really encourage everyone to explore. We do talk about this in the humanities, but in other disciplines people really don’t talk about it at all; there’s an alienation from further exploration of ideas beyond binaries that creates a form of violence and radicalism. Creating space for these discussions is extremely important…I believe that there’s a way of living that can transcend binaries.
MIS: Google appears numerous times throughout the book. You mention, for example, Googling what Islamic “barzakh” means. Technology seems to act as an extension of sacred knowledge, but it’s delivered through secular means. What role does technology play in mediating your relationship with your heritage, religion, and desires—and in navigating the assumed divide between the sacred and the secular?
AR: Google mimics God—even the word. Before Google, everyone lived with the acknowledgement of not knowing—not being able to predict things, not knowing what certain things mean. And I think not knowing is sometimes a good thing, admitting you don’t have answers. In the modern world, we can get the answers to every question in the world, but these answers aren’t always coming from the right place, or come from people in general—so God has a man-made form here. We ask both God and Google questions, but Google gives you the more direct, quick answer. And the motion of typing parallels the motion of hands in prayer.
When I write about Google in the book—it appears in my other works too—it’s an admission that I’m very reliant on technology, and it gives a voice to the questions and answers. If I say “Barzakh means this,” that’s different from saying “Google says barzakh means this.” Saying the latter takes some of the pressure off the statement I’m making.
MIS: When I was reading, I interpreted House Mouse to be the constrained soul seeking “heights”/freedom/meaning (or the freedom to live life without meaning, if that becomes necessary) — and I saw Godfish as the waning notion of deity, the increasing obsoletion of the sacred (“a gold smeared fate—lost”). I have a couple questions about this—what were your original intentions in bringing these symbols together? And do my interpretations align with those interpretations?
AR: I think House Mouse has humanlike qualities for sure, and Godfish has Godlike qualities; the mouse being “housed” and only able to survive inside, and having the humanlike desires to achieve things and ascend, until it realizes that it’s all a loop—this is inspired by the Asian American sentiment that says a child is only valid if they are accomplished. That’s how the character came into being. The loss that the mouse experiences, and the return it experiences at the end, all add up to the loop of sorts; there’s no height you can reach that is ultimately satisfying.
Godfish resides in this glass, water bowl—no one can physically touch it, and it’s protected by the water and glass—it’s performing all the time, it wants to be worshiped, and everyone is enamored by it—the cat, the moon. But Godfish is enamored by the sun because the sun makes it shine and spotlights it. Godfish losing its status as divinity at the end (losing water, glass, aquarium) forces it to reach its own mortality. It’s no longer an object of worship when it loses its environment. This process of gain and loss was very intentional for me; I was intellectualizing what worship means, what afterlife can mean. When Godfish passes away, faith is lost, but House Mouse returns—which indicates that Godfish might also go on a journey in death. So even mortality might be a journey.
MIS: There are places where you leave words unconjugated: You mention in 26, the Godfish’s “act of balanced apathy and ignore”; in 42 the afterlife as “the soul’s place of exist.” Can you tell us about how grammar affects the way you compose your poems, especially in terms of sound, and what implications there are when you break its conventions?
AR: For me this is a very natural way to write poetry. I don’t exactly want to say it’s because I’m bilingual, since English is my main language, but I did grow up with Urdu. And the sentence structure in Urdu is different—we have subject-verb-object, but Urdu has subject-object-verb structure. So when I work on poetry, the syntax can come across as jarring or different or experimental; I use nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns, and as a poet and writer, my care for language is precise and minute. I’m making statements beyond just what’s on paper. Grammar can be a white supremacist constraint, where whiteness defines what English is, when in reality it’s always evolving and changing as a language. It’s a deceptively simple language, but you can do so much more with it because of its simplicity, that it becomes much more. So I enjoy breaking traditions with the language. There are so many possibilities with how we can relate to English; it’s a tool, an armor, all of those things, if you know how to use it.
MIS: I appreciated the way you honor and reckon with your Muslim background without being completely tied to the “Muslim diaspora” gaze. How do you achieve this balance—reckoning with our heritage without “Muslim diaspora girl” becoming the defining or limiting label of our/your capacity for writing?
AR: It’s kind of like in real life, people just perceive you however they want to, regardless of what you do. As a writer, you want to say a certain thing, but you have to step back and realize you might be read and perceived differently depending on the reader. For a lot of people, this book seems religious, but for me, I wasn’t explicitly thinking about religion. I was thinking about family and culture and death, interrogating these things, and God is always involved in the language and interpretations of these things. I’m a spiritual poet, but I’m often just thinking of God as a constant presence, a gaze, not as Allah specifically.
I separate my work from its reception. When I write, I write based on my own ideas, not for an audience—an ode to my own experiences, which is why my work is pretty autobiographical and lyrical. But when the poem is done and published, I acknowledge that it’s no longer mine in some ways. It’s written by me, created by me, but it’s got its own identity in the world. In journal or book form, it has found a home, and how it’s perceived is separate from what my intentions were in writing it. If you’re precise with your language, your primary intentions will always be there in every way, and people will see them.
But people also have other interpretations and readings of my work—and this is important for me. Each person found some tenderness in the work that spoke to them. If a non-Muslim, for example, reads the book and finds themes of family that they relate to more than the Islamic references, I appreciate that. That’s the most intimate and tender part of being a writer for me—to see how people create their own relationship with my work. That’s possible because I have an authentic and tender relationship with my own work—I don’t want to disgrace it by catering to an audience—as long as I have strong intentions of my own, I will always have a relationship with it, a pure and careful and strong one, and everyone else’s interpretation just adds celebratory potential to the work. Everything people read, they create their own relationship with it, and I always want to have some care for that.
Ayesha Raees identifies herself as a hybrid creating hybrid poetry through hybrid forms. Raees currently serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor at AAWW’s The Margins and has received fellow-ships from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Brooklyn Poets, and Kundiman. Raees also heads One Minute Press, a community centric zine and press that celebrates Asian literature and artistic voices. From Pakistan, she currently lives between Lahore and New York City. Her website is: ayesharaees.com
Mishal Imaan Syed is a second year student at UCLA studying English literature, creative writing, and cognitive science. Her work has appeared in Open Ceilings, Underwood Press, and Westwind. In her free time, she plays classical piano, does calligraphy, fluffs her hair, and practices being a fairy.