Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Moniza Alvi - A Poet Caught Between Two Cultures

A Sense of Isolation Informs Alvi's Work - Image copyright J Cameron
Moniza Alvi was born in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. She moved to England when she was a baby in 1954. She grew up in Hertfordshire and went on to study at the University of York and the University of London. Her first collection, The Country at my Shoulder was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Whitbread poetry prizes. She has also worked as a teacher.
Her poem, Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan from her collection Carrying My Wife, refers to her father and family of aunts who remain in Lahore. A variety of colourful presents of Pakistani clothing heightens her sense of alienation and makes the mixed race poet question her Westernisation.
'They sent me a salwar kameez / peacock-blue / and another 'glistening like an orange split open...'
The split-open orange may be a metaphor for the separation that Alvi feels from her Asian country of birth. It heightens the importance of how belonging to a specific group constitutes a basic human need, without which the psyche is fractured and bewildered. After describing the fine Pakistani clothing, whose bright colours portray a sense of the exotic and of 'otherness', she tells of her aunts' appeal:
'My aunts requested cardigans / from Marks and Spencers...'
The theme of the woman poet
A recurring theme throughout the tradition of women's poetry is the female poet's sense of isolation. This isolation happens for many reasons, suppression of female creativity and accusations of insanity, as well as patriarchal and social pressures. Alvi's poem decribes this feeling from her viewpoint. Specifically, she writes out of her sense of loss and from a very personal identity crisis caused by the clash of cultures. These vastly contrasting cultures, Asian and British, in opposing each other, actually present Alvi with a sense of being caught between the two and thereby belonging to neither.
Unsurprisingly, the poem has been appropriated for use in a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) Rapid Revision publication. Clearly its function is to help bridge the gap between the cultures by increasing sensitivity to the problems of people of mixed race. Perhaps the poem serves another purpose, of reader-identification, for those who are in a similar position to Alvi may find comfort in empathising with a fellow-sufferer. The most poignant aspect of the poem is the poet's apparent helplessness, for Alvi seems to have relinquished all hope of changing her situation.
It might be helpful to contemplate specific events that may have heightened Alvi's sensitivity:
'My mother cherished her jewellery - / Indian gold, dangling, filigree, / But it was stolen from our car.'
Of course, thefts must also take place in Pakistan, but the reality that her mother's jewels were stolen injects an emotional and rather hostile element into the poem. The premise seem to be that England has asserted herself and, as a result, Pakistan has been confiscated. Such painful experiences must sour expectations.
Invading male territory
In her book, Women Writing About Men, Jane Miller examines the theme of women's fear in invading men's territory. 'If women cannot justly be regarding as conspiring with men's oppression of them, they have certainly not found it easy to tackle men's determinations of them in quite the same language that men have used to colonise them. Dependence, like a colony, is maintained through fear.' Miller compares women's fear with an immigrant's fear. '[T]he disorientation of anyone who leaves the place where they were enter a foreign country alone.' Possibly an element of Alvi's sense of alienation may be based on this immigrant's fear, compounded by the common fear of being a woman in a patriarchal society.
Therefore, as a woman-poet of mixed race, she suffers a double-bind. Miller says that women remain immigrants for most of their lives, leaving their mothers and entering a world of men whom they must trust yet distrust. If they must also overcome a sense of alienation from a cultural split at the roots of their existence, it is little wonder that they write of their confusion, caught as they are, between the two cultures. Moniza Alvi, detached from both Pakistan, her country of birth, and her current home in England, on receiving presents of colourful, luxurious Asian clothing, writes:
'I longed / for denim and corduroy / My costume clung to me / and I was aflame / I couldn't rise up out of its fire / half-English...'
Perhaps such uncomfortable differences can be more easily overcome when cultures overlap, or share, at least, some common customs. :
The Country at my Shoulder, Moniza Alvi, Oxford Univesity Press, Oxford, 1993
Carrying My Wife, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe, Northumberland, 2000
GCSE Rapid Revision, English, Mike Royston, published for W.H. Smith by Nelson Thornes Ltd., Cheltenham, 2000
Women Writing About Men, Jane Miller, Virago Press Ltd., London, 1986

Copyright Janet Cameron

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