How old were you when you left Afghanistan? How does this short time in Afghanistan inform your work?
I was born in 1975 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We left at the end of 1976 because my parents wanted to travel to the Middle East. We were in Saudi Arabia when the Communist coup happened in 1978, so we were trapped outside the country. Because of this, we weren't legally considered refugees when we came to the U.S. We had to argue that we were refugees because Saudi Arabia didn't want us, either. I have no memories of Afghanistan. I am a sort of memory-parasite. I feed off of my parents’ and my family's memories. [My family] is made up of fabulous storytellers who implanted Afghanistan deep inside my navel and have given me the power to write Afghanistan as if I had actually lived there.
Has your time in Brooklyn been equally formative? Reading some of your work, you evoke very poignant imagery from each place, be it the lime orchard in Afghanistan or the fruit stalls in Brooklyn.
During my second year in the MFA program in poetry at Brooklyn College, a critic of my poetry said two things to me which could have discouraged me from writing, but [wound up having the opposite effect]. He asked me who would read my work if I was writing about Afghanistan all the time and followed that statement up by recommending that I make my work accessible to the average American poetry consumer.... To counter that statement, I began writing a lot more about Brooklyn and in this way reclaimed the streets of Brooklyn that I grew up in. Rather than follow in the footsteps of immigrant writers who feel alienated in their adopted countries, I wrote about owning Brooklyn, transforming pieces of Brooklyn so that it was no longer a generic Brooklyn. The way we claimed our streets was through our language and through our play. I never felt bullied by Brooklyn or New York; we owned [the city] as much as anyone else did. So I feel as much a Brooklyn poet as I do an Afghan poet. These two places are who I am so intertwining them is very natural for me.
What are your hopes for the future of Afghanistan?
I pray for peace, stability and democracy to return to Afghanistan. I know that I can't expect Afghanistan to return to the memories of our parents, which seems like a more enlightened Afghanistan than the war-weary Afghanistan of [my generation], but I do wish for a possibility to reconstruct and begin the healing process in Afghanistan
Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Soceity.