Two Poems by Rakhshan Rizwan
By Wasafiri Editor on February 15, 2023 in Poetry
In these two poems from Rakhshan Rizwan’s debut collection Europe, Love Me Back (The Emma Press), the poet probes ideas of systemic racism in academia and unbelonging with an unerringly sharp eye for language and imagery. Imbued with irony and raw feeling, Rizwan’s voice lingers long after the last lines.
You can order Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education, here.
There are miles between us, though we are speaking;
behind you, a thousand friends, the gleaming bookcase.
You talk down to me and I accept this honour, for there are
seven single-author monographs in your bookcase.
You laugh at my misuse of punctuation; Racism,
materiality and meta-reality, says a title in the bookcase.
You say, ‘Does Punjabi have this many commas?’
as if a distant language is responsible for my disasters.
You’ve had a new book proposal accepted: Marginalities
within Academia, a future entrant in the bookcase.
I dream of panel discussions I have arranged, conferences
I have left enthralled, while my eyes gaze over the bookcase.
‘I appreciate how the chapters are coming together,’ you say,
while I notice you have colour-coded your bookcase.
It’s been four years and I don’t have the first draft,
while you’re re-arranging the books in your bookcase.
You insist on a supervisor-supervisee coffee but don’t show up;
I am haunted by the empty cups of tea on your bookcase.
I refresh my browser, for the date for my thesis defense,
a dissertation proudly displayed in your bookcase.
You use my main hypothesis in your new work,
cite brown women I want to carve into the bookcase.
If I don’t get a job, I will apply to clean in this department,
and every night I will dust this bookcase.
A latecomer at a postcolonial perspectives on cosmopolitanism conference,
I make myself invisible. This should be easy, since I have spent the last decade
learning the skill of artful disappearance.
The crowd is a sea of academics in black jackets. Nobody turns, because I am quiet,
and I seat myself in the last row, but a pair of blue eyes, offended by this interruption,
this melanin for his gaze, this unpleasant offering, fixates on my face.
Instead of staring back, I look away, pretend that none of this is happening,
that if I don’t acknowledge the exclusion, it didn’t happen.
Like I have to sign off on racism before it becomes real.
And so I tear up the contract: find a spot on the wall,
a shady corner, a leaf in the wind, a grey tile, stare at white academics
presenting papers on postcoloniality, and how it applies to their nation-states.
I do a quick scan of the room. As prey, my mind constantly navigates the thread of predators
who don’t kill but casually humiliate, which is much worse.
I come to the conclusion that I am one of two people of colour in the room.
The other brown woman is in the front row: a distinguished guest, an invited speaker
(unlike my small, unwanted, doctoral ass), listening to all this with a dour expression,
not looking to massage anyone’s ego, to please or disarm anyone.
After the presentation on postcoloniality in Denmark, it is her turn to present:
‘If someone had told me this was the white postcolonialism conference,
I wouldn’t have put in a paper.’ Nobody laughs, but she does, rather loudly.
Any questions? The blue-eyed man says, ‘I don’t understand how coloniality is only valid
for certain countries. For example, Germany was ruled by the Roman Empire.
Surely colonialism and empire is part of everyone’s history?’
‘Does anyone here have lived experience of living under the Roman Empire?’ she says.
‘Does anyone here have lived experience of living under the British Empire?’
I raise a reluctant hand.
‘There you go!’ she says, with a soft movement of the hand
and then continues with the rest of her paper. In that moment, I am glad to exist
and to come into view briefly if only to prove her point.
Rakhshan Rizwan works as an Acquisitions Editor. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Utrecht University. Her poetry pamphlet, Paisley (The Emma Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the Saboteur Award and the Michael Marks Poetry Prize. She is also author of My Sneezes are Perfect (The Emma Press, 2021) and Kashmiri Life Narratives: Human Rights, Pleasure, and the Local Cosmopolitan (Routledge, 2020). She is from Lahore, Pakistan, has lived in Germany and the Netherlands, and currently lives in the Bay Area of North California, US.
Edited by Darren Chetty, Angelique Golding, and Nicola Rollock, Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education considers what education means within and beyond the classroom, investigating government intervention and the reclamation and exploration of decolonisation, and addressing the forces of change and continuity in Britain today. Featuring interviews with Inua Ellams, Gary Younge, and Steve Garner; fiction from Durre Shawar and Jade E Bradford; poetry from Salena Godden; life writing from Diane Leedham, and much more, this is an issue not to be missed.