If you follow the blog of my literary magazine, The Drowning Gull, or you’re one of my co-workers, you’ll know I always speak highly of Orooj-e-Zafar. She’s a Pakistani spoken-word poet and all-round wonderful person who I met via Raquel Thorne (who I met because I started doing some spoken-word poet interviews… the irony!)
Anyway, I have this English assignment for which I have to present the life story of someone I know, either through a digital (Adobe Spark,My24, etc) or written medium. I decided there would be no better place to present Orooj’s life story than on my blog! Otherwise, no one will ever see this apart from my school English teacher. Not that that’s a bad thing. But anyway.
Without further ado…
The Life Story of Orooj-e-Zafar
Orooj-e-Zafar was born on March 8, 1996, in the quiet green suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan.
She’s lived in Islamabad her entire life; although moving, on occasion, within it. And one of the comforting constants in her life was her familiarity with Urdu poetry.
It was in grade seven that Orooj publicly “sang” her first Urdu Ghazal: Bahaar Aai by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, one of her favourite Urdu poets. Orooj’s mother helped her to understand the meaning behind each poem, which paved her way towards winning many Urdu poetry contests. One poem that she performed, Dasht-e-Tanhaii, received an especially positive response from the older crowd.
The ninth grade was Orooj’s most spiritual time; until that point, she’d been writing very intermittently (having discovered her love of poetry in the sixth grade, when she wrote her first poem ever for an English assignment). She hadn’t read much. Orooj had been brought up with Urdu poetry but felt like her idols were too perfect, and that even trying would taint that art form. So, she found another option; Orooj sought after English poetry. There wasn’t much of a “poetry market” in Islamabad at that time– the capital of Pakistan, where she still lives– so she could never find poetry books that interested her. A whole new world had opened up for her when she wrote her first poem; Orooj had discovered a whole other colour in the universe that was beautiful and exciting. She was determined to explore that world further.
Orooj stopped writing for a while after her Grandfather died. But a month or so later, she got into the swing of things again. She developed a fondness for couplets, as that was what she’d been studying at school at the time; the works of Robert Frost, John Keats and Edwin Brock.
The poets Orooj studied in school. Top left: Edwin Brock. Bottom left: John Keats. Right: Robert Frost.
The first time Orooj-e-Zafar performed an English spoken-word poem was a different experience. You Are, You Will Be was an audio recording published by cahoodaloodaling in their Slam It! issue. She felt a very strong connection to the words, and could barely record the poem without being reduced to tears as a result.
Orooj has enthusiastically and successfully performed at numerous poetry slams and open mics.
Orooj found Bandcamp, and therefore a platform to publish her spoken word poetry, via Witness: a rapsmith who only utters poetry. Orooj adored his music so much that Witness inspired some of her own poems, and it was then that she wanted to curate something similar; heartbreak two years ago was the catalyst for finally making a start on her first ever spoken word album, the articulation of my vertebrae. When I asked Orooj to elaborate further about what prompted her to start, she simply said: “Horrible things give way to honest art.” In a particularly difficult stage of her life, Orooj’s only coping mechanism was to write and perform poetry.
You’ll notice the album often uses body parts as metaphors for emotional strength and vulnerability. Orooj’s medical training definitely complements her poetic prowess (she’s completing her third year of med school). She says: “Looking at the world as a scientist hasn’t taken away my wonderment at the universe and the human condition; in fact, I think knowing about the biochemical processes in our bodies means I have far more empathy as a writer than I would’ve had otherwise.” For example, To the boy who plans on leaving, (Orooj’s personal favourite from the album) is an emotional counterpart to cervical vertebrae; when damaged, it has devastating prognoses.
“Looking at the world as a scientist hasn’t taken away my wonderment at the universe and the human condition; in fact I think knowing about the biochemical processes in our bodies means I have far more empathy as a writer than I would’ve had otherwise.”
Later on, in August, Orooj-e-Zafar also managed to snag a contest win at the Desi Writer’s Lounge, for their second annual Judith Khan Poetry Prize! A prize awarded to English-language poets who self-identify as Pakistani.
Orooj’s two poems, “My Sister, By Land” and “Superpowers,” earned her the win. In the announcement, Orooj explains that she wrote “My Sister, By Land” for her best friend on her friend’s birthday. Orooj’s second poem, “Superpowers”, is about self-reassurance.
Orooj’s location or lineage hasn’t in any way affected her poetry career; winning the Judith Khan Poetry Prize is proof of that. On this, she admits: “Of course, I wish shipping costs were lower, or PayPal allowed me an account in Pakistan, and artists I admire were able to distribute their work where I’m at, but I’m sure the world isn’t as full of hate as I’ve led myself to believe.”
“Of course, I wish shipping costs were lower, or PayPal allowed me an account in Pakistan, and artists I admire were able to distribute their work where I’m at, but I’m sure the world isn’t as full of hate as I’ve led myself to believe.”
It wasn’t long after Orooj’s poetry prize win that she achieved something even more admirable: she won a chapbook contest! Orooj entered her chapbook, Home and Other Debris, into Where Are You Press‘ chapbook competition, and co-won it!
Home and Other Debris is titled according to two select things: home, Orooj’s reference to the love, innocence and purity of her childhood; debris, a representation of the worst stages of her growing up, and the undeterred resilience borne from it. The chapbook was spawned from an inkling that emerged after Orooj’s editor-friend, Rachel Nix, invited her to submit to the America is Not the World anthology.
Given the opportunity, Orooj praises Where Are You Press: “One of the poets I read viciously in my teen years, Sade Andria Zabala (who is now my friend!) told me to submit to their contest! Literally everyone they have been associated with stood out to me: Lora Mathis, Clementine von Radics, Meggie Royer and so many more.” Orooj felt so humbled, and intimidated by the work of her co-winners, that she immediately told her fiancée the good news. She even woke her mother up from her sleep, she was so excited!
Books Where Are You Press has published.
It doesn’t stop there! In early November, Orooj released her SECOND spoken-word album: All the Colours My Hair Has Worn.
When asked about how this second album differs from her first, Orooj says: “They’re written from completely different head-spaces. ‘all the colors my hair has worn’ was written about a horrifying experience but from a place of acceptance and unapologetic self-love. ‘the articulation of my vertebrae’ was written when I was still figuring the ‘self-love’ part out; I’ve always struggled with my low self-esteem superimposed on my perfectionism.” This is how Orooj summarised the album on Bandcamp:
this is what grew out of the places he polluted.
this is the story of how i learned i could still shake the earth with my voice.
this is my scream through all the battles he fought too, but lost miserably.
this is me, victorious, wearing my skin so proud.
all too loud for his eyes, look at all the colors my hair has worn.
Orooj is proud of both her albums; how they are both honest and true to herself.
Just for some fun– and to conclude our chat– I asked her to describe herself, her poetry, and her hopes for the future; each in one word. Here’s what she said.
Her poetry? Visceral.
Herself? (Painstakingly) Empathetic.
(That doesn’t really count for one word, Orooj, but I’ll let it slide.)
Her hopes for the future? MASSIVE.
If you want to see more of Orooj’s work or know more about her, she’s on Facebook (relatively frequently) and Twitter (not so frequently). She is also Bandcamp (which I’ve already linked to, but I’ll do it again here, in case you’re feeling lazy). Orooj does some work through cahoodaloodaling and The Missing Slate (previously mentioned); you can check out her bios here and here for those respective journals.
Thank you, Orooj, for allowing me to learn more about your homeland and your poetry!
If you’re a writer looking to get your work out there, I run a literary magazine called The Drowning Gull. We’re currently reading for a nature-themed, NONFICTION AND ART ONLY issue– so if you create in those categories, please do send us something.
Thanks for reading!