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Poets and Dreamers

By Aamer Hussein

Judith. I met her at a reading by the late African American poet June Jordan in 1988. “I’m Judith Kazantzis!” she came up and said. “Thatcher!” I responded. I was referring to her poem about the then British prime minister: a coruscating piece of satire which hung on the wall of my local library. She grinned.

She belonged to a renowned family: her father was the social reformer Lord Longford, her mother Elizabeth a biographer, her sisters Antonia and Rachel both writers. She was the rebellious one. She didn’t use her title and went by the surname of her Greek first husband.

Those were strange days. The atmosphere of neoconservatism, which could have stifled us, instead brought together writers of various genres in a sort of rainbow coalition: feminists, people of colour, migrants. Small presses mushroomed; voices surprisingly absent in more liberal times made themselves heard. Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette was emblematic of the time: it wove the Tory entrepreneurship of the 1980s into a story of migrant resilience and racist attitudes, boldly challenging prevalent stereotypes.

Resistance was the leitmotif of the late ’80s. Judith, along with her contemporaries Michele Roberts and Alison Fell, was one of the time’s radical poets who overturned convention in their search for a new aesthetic. Judith went further than most into foreign terrain: visited Latin America, worked with refugees from Nepal and the Philippines, shrugged off privilege. She and her American partner, Irving Weinman, delighted in making common cause with innovative painters, poets and writers.

We became fast friends though I remained, to an extent, the odd one out in every circle — although I’d been in England half my life, my refusal to conform to a monocultural ethos and my frequent trips to Asia meant that I alwayssaw the world through double lenses. Sometimes a thoughtless racist or Islamophobic comment would make me lose my composure.

Our friendship reached new heights when together we attended anti-war meetings on freezing nights and marched against Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War in 1990. We were still talking of Third World writers; that was the stance with which I identified. I’d never before felt as foreign in my 21 years in London as I did in those days. I wrought a story from the anger and pain I felt; on reading it, Judith recognised the political anguish we of foreign origin hid behind our polite and smiling masks.

She developed a fascination with the Arab world, at first through poets Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, and then, years later, on her trip to the occupied territories of Palestine: she became a lifelong supporter of the Palestinian cause.

In the 1990s, new voices emerged from the ‘East’: Ahdaf Soueif, Rana Kabbani, Mimi Khalvati, Romesh Gunesekera. Judith took me to a reading at the Commonwealth Institute not far from her home to hear another migrant writer, Rukhsana Ahmad, read from We Sinful Women: Contemporary Feminist Urdu Poetry, her translations of Pakistani women poets including Kishwar Naheed and the already legendary Fahmida Riaz.

In 1993, after I’d handed in a first book for publication and become an avid reader of Urdu fiction, Rukhsana invited me to a dinner for Fahmida. A lively friendship began when I read, and admired, two brief books Fahmida had written: the travelogue/memoir/novella Zinda Bahar [Living Spring], and the deceptively simple yet exquisitely multi-layered novel Godavari. Both were directly derived from lived experience. That year, I revisited both India and Bangladesh: I could see their vicissitudes through Fahmida’s visionary eyes.

For two decades Fahmida and I would meet in London; talk about and exchange texts we’d written. We read Rumi and Attar together in Persian. In 1996 she translated one of my stories, ‘Little Tales’ into Urdu. That year she also published her hypertext Karachi — possibly the most unusual work of Urdu literature I’ve ever read: documentary, memoir, realist and surreal fiction.

Fahmida saw my position here as anomalous and ambiguous: I was situated in the mainstream as a writer, but she saw me as ‘courageously struggling’ against a culture that attempted either to homogenise or to ostracise us incomers. I thought she overrated my courage, but when I read her book I knew it was the right moment to revisit my birthplace.

That trip in the late summer of ’96 reconnected me not only to Pakistani literature, but to the writers who were creating it; to their struggles and the achievements they charted, to those places where history was still in a continuous process of flux. It was the first of many trips.

Did Fahmida and Judith meet at my home when Fahmida read her poems, with other writers, at a party? I like to remember they did: they had much in common, both these rebels against very different cultures and backgrounds.

I was to see both of them often over the years and into the 21st century: Fahmida in Berlin, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and Judith, who grew increasingly reclusive with a back ailment, at her home in Lewes. One freezing winter, just back from Delhi, driving past a snowy Sussex landscape on my way back from Judith’s home, I realised that Britain’s landscapes had become a part of me just like the sea and sand of Karachi.

Now both are gone. But there are keepsakes beside me to remind me of them. Fahmida asked me to introduce an English translation of her poems, Four Walls and a Black Veil, in 2004; she liked my essay and had it translated into Urdu for her Collected Poems. Judith painted a beautiful image of a swan for the jacket of The Swan’s Wife, a book I published in Pakistan in 2014.

I last saw Judith, straight-backed and brave, at the funeral of her husband in 2015. She moved houses; ill health and constant hospitalisation made travel impossible for her. I regret that somehow we never met again. I was a mourner at her funeral this October.

Fahmida I did see — on a December morning last year, in her Karachi home, the day after I’d spoken about her new book, Qila-i-Faramoshi [The Fortress of Forgetting], at a function she couldn’t attend. A picture of us was taken that day: she’s sitting on her bed, surrounded by flowers and friends — frail, but indomitable in deed and word.