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Dead Women Poets Society


Helen Bowell shares a reading of ‘A Woman is Laughing’ by Fahmida Riaz, translated by Ankita Saxena. This is a poem and a sharing of empowerment, honesty and defiance, of giving ourselves permission; by the incredible Dead [Women] Poets Society, which traces and offers new life to women’s literary heritage.

The poem was published in Modern Poetry in Translation Magazine Origins of the Fire Emoji: Focus on Dead [Women] Poets, guest edited by The Dead [Women] Poets Society Helen is one of the Co-Directors, alongside Jasmine Simms, Katie Byford and Sarah Fletcher.

Ankita Saxena, by Lily Arnold

Introduction to the poem by translator Ankita Saxena:

Loud, ugly, unashamed and sometimes disrespectful, laughter can be an unexpected form of liberation. We rarely laugh in rooms that do not make us feel welcome. To laugh with someone, truly and not consciously, is to think yourself their equal. In ‘Ek Aurat ki Hansi’, Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz portrays a woman’s laughter as a sign of her ‘azadi’ (freedom). Like many of our foremothers, Riaz fought for her right to laugh – to laugh at the religious separatism in post-partition India and Pakistan (which she captures in her poem ‘Tum Bilkul Hum Jaise Nikle’) and at the continued suppression of marginalised voices.

Riaz also spent a lot of time honouring her lineage, working on translations of the female Farsi poet Forough Farrokhzad, as well as Rumi, into Urdu. Despite her often radical gaze, when Riaz passed away in 2018, she was celebrated on both sides of the border as an extraordinary voice of authority. In an interview, Riaz said: ‘I am not an exceptionally politically over-charged poet. Perhaps the only exception is that I am a woman.’

I have grown up with women who laugh. My mother, who starts laughing midway through a story she is trying to tell you. My beautiful best friend, whose laugh emerges first in her eyes, then in the ‘lush tremor’ of her open mouth, before erupting finally into full-blown ecstasy. My translation is for all the women in my life, who have given, and continue to give me, me the permission to laugh.– Ankita Saxena

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