The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Grant Barber on I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan translated by Eliza Griswold, and out last month from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Because I don’t know much about the tradition of Afghan landays, though I do find it both fascinating and in some ways haunting, I’ll let the jacket copy speak for itself before we get to Grant’s piece:
Afghans revere poetry, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet—a landay, an ancient oral and anonymous form created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. War, separation, homeland, love—these are the subjects of landays, which are brutal and spare, can be remixed like rap, and are powerful in that they make no attempts to be literary. From Facebook to drone strikes to the songs of the ancient caravans that first brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago, landays reflect contemporary Pashtun life and the impact of three decades of war. With the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk of being lost when the Americans leave.
The Poetry Foundation also has a more in-depth article on the topic, and the landays themselves, also written by Eliza Griswold (and also supplemented by photos from Seamus Murphy).
Here’s the beginning of Grant’s review:
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were his reference, the question touches on a matter much deeper: what is art’s purpose? Either it is an indulgence, lacking gravitas—the wasted calories of dessert after a nutritious meal, good tasting but not essential—or art is a vital part of the human experience in good and hard times. This collection of landays—an oral tradition of women’s poetry in Afghanistan, with prescribed form but subtlety of subject matter—brings full-circle that conversation 13 years ago. This collection testifies in deep and important ways how art is inextricably part of life. These poems, historical and culturally central to Afghanis, can address timeless matters such as love, composed centuries ago or in the present as a woman grieves the death of loved ones killed in a drone strike.
Griswold is an editor and translator, a poet, and she is a non-fiction writer who has been addressing the contemporary intersection of Islamic and Christian worlds (The 10th Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault-line Between Christianity and Islam, 2011) through first-hand accounts. She negotiates the tense geographical intersections, giving her unique access. Here she draws from first hand interviews with women from the Pashto region, generally rural, isolated and conservative. She brings together the landays topically, followed by a brief narrative of the poets’ lives and circumstances for the poems. Interspersed throughout are candid black and white photographs taken by Seamus Murphy of the people and their surroundings.
For the rest of the review, go here.
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