[This interview with Professor Ather Zia was conducted on March 31, 2018, at the University of Michigan (UM), where she delivered a keynote at Migrant Stories, a Women of Color poetry event organized by UM graduate students. The interview was conducted by Salman A Hussain (SH), Swarnim Khare (SK), and Mary Pena (MP). The interview was edited by Dr. Tapsi Mathur, and revised by Professor Zia in February 2019. A shorter version of this interview was published by Allegra Lab.]
Ather Zia, Ph.D., is a political anthropologist, poet, and short fiction writer. She teaches at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. Ather is the author of Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (June 2019) and co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (Upenn 2018) and A Desolation called Peace (Harper Collins, May 2019). She has published a poetry collection “The Frame” (1999) and another collection is forthcoming. Ather’s ethnographic poetry on Kashmir has won an award from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit and is the co-founder of Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the Kashmir region.
MP: Let’s start with talking about your work in both ethnography and poetry, and how you merged the two genres, and how the devices from the two can speak to each other. Processually speaking, how do you use poetic devices in your ethnographic work or how your ethnographic research and sensibility inform your poetry?
AZ: I came to anthropology from a journalism and media studies background, and quickly became focused on anthropological theory to the extent that I feared losing my other modes of expression. To not lose these other avenues, I forced myself to make time. I founded KashmirLit in 2007-08 to provide me with one such avenue. The idea behind KashmirLit was to channel the prodigious Kashmiri poetic output out there. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that every other Kashmiri writes poetry, particularly about repression and life under occupation by India. Still, I felt that I was becoming apologetic about my poetry, and guilty that I should be doing Anthropology. Then when I went to Kashmir for fieldwork I noticed that I was writing more poetry than I was fieldnotes. It was when I became affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Anthropology that I saw people who were doing both: theoretical work as well as unapologetically pursing other literary modes of expression. People such as Renato Rosaldo, whose writing I admire a lot, gave me hope.
I don’t buy into the dichotomy between creative writing and social science research. The latter, too, is creative. Yet, there is also the question of ethnographic surfeit, the subject of my forthcoming paper: What do you do with all that doesn’t neatly fit into fieldnotes, all that excess, of emotions, perceptions, and experiences? I channel this excess through poetry. The problem is of creating a space for it in academic representational forms and fora. While I intersperse my ethnography with poetic pieces, that alone does not quite cut it. To task the ethnographic reader with absorbing all that excess, the surfeit of emotions is to ask too much from the reader, but one had to still do it. Poetry helps the researcher as well, at least it did me, in that it is cathartic and helped me process my work. What my ethnographic research partners were telling me about Kashmir, about the trauma of occupation, was also, in a way, poetry. So, poetry has many uses, but we, as academics, worry that nonstandard creative modes of expression may hinder our careers and job prospects. I feel that we need to tell anthropologists who want to work in in other forms of expression and representations, in creative writing, and in creative ethnography that there is a place and space for them, too.