What has gone missing?: Zehra Naqvi finds her voice in The Knot of My Tongue

“begin everything with bismillah | in the name of God”

This is how Pakistani-Canadian writer and UBC alum Zehra Naqvi begins one of her poems in her upcoming poetry collection The Knot of My Tongue, which explores the act of storytelling — it questions whose tales are remembered as time goes on and people inevitably forget much of the past.

The book mainly follows a chronological order, starting with retellings of stories from the Qur’an, to Naqvi’s grandmother's travels, then Naqvi’s own upbringing.

As the title suggests, the pieces’ characters are haunted by the inability to speak. Oftentimes the lack of speech is not literal, rather voices being dismissed or languages being lost. In the poem “Revelation,” the Prophet Muhammed is visited by an angel and told to recite the Qur’an, but cannot because he is illiterate.

This loss of voices continues as Naqvi follows her dadi’s — grandmother, in Urdu — travels during the partition of India and Pakistan, when over 14 million people were displaced. The section is an invitation to reflect on how geographical connections were lost, as places inhabited by families for generations were suddenly no longer considered their own.

Her family moved from “lucknow then karachi then vancouver — I have many questions, dadi / to which city do i turn of the many lost since lucknow.”

Once in Vancouver, Naqvi is confronted with Islamophobia. A man harasses her at a grocery store for wearing a hijab. Her own brother “exchanges his softness for a knife between himself and the world,” as she watches the men around her face increased surveillance and violence.

Naqvi adds another layer to this by investigating what it means to experience and witness Islamophobia as a Muslim woman, as Western society has subscribed to the idea that Muslim women need saving from the religion and the men in it. She never provides an answer of how to deal with this — maybe there is no monolith solution, and it is instead something everyone has to reconcile with individually.

At the heart of the poems, Naqvi connects the lives of those around her, past and present. By combining contemporary memories with figures from the Qur’an who faced similar hardships, she traces how people are still searching for the same solutions.

The people in the stories express feelings of isolation from the rest of society — but Naqvi believes “Aloneness is the stuff of prophethood.” We are not messengers of some higher power, and instead are all just looking for someone to crack through the solitude.

Naqvi also explores how growing up in Vancouver shifted the ways in which she connected to her culture. She remembers getting outfits from Pakistan for Eid, Sunday school at the mosque and visiting Karachi — but she can no longer speak her mother tongue.

In “Forgetting Urdu,” she describes the hollowness of losing your language — a feeling of shame and guilt familiar to many from immigrant families. But Naqvi contextualizes the forgetting before her time, instead during the colonization of India, and reflects on how only “the barbed wire of Angrezi,” English, is left around her tongue.

“Words went missing. baba, what is the word for longing in urdu?” It’s آرزو.

The Knot of My Tongue comes out on March 26.