Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Denise Low interviews Jemshed Khan about Speech in an Age of Certainty

The Colonised Mind by Jemshed Khan
               What any colonial system does: impose its tongue on the subject races.
        ―Ngugi wa Thiong'o,  Decolonising the Mind

For me, it is already done:
my parents' ghazals shushed and mute;
their language siphoned away
by force of nursery rhyme, church choirs,

by various baptismal schemes.

Colonial garrisons occupy
the language centers of my brain―
my thinking circuits click the Anglo way.
Something traded once for wampum, 
Venetian beads, cowrie shells...
my tongue twists but it cannot say.

DNA still drives my bones and skin
but I am tongue-tied, beset historically.
Far from nest or clan or den,
my diaspora brain adapts as best it can―
colonised because language can.

from Speech in an Age of Certainty by J. Khan (Finishing Line Press, $14.99, 36 pages) 

Email Interview 8.31.2021:
Denise Low: Your title of this book of passionate involvement with social justice is Speech in
an Age of Certainty, based on a poem’s title. What led you to choose this as the book title?
Jemshed Khan: Great question. We live in a time when many people seem so certain and so vocal that their viewpoint is correct. Our leaders, on the other hand, give lip service to social justice but will not vote for any real change in military spending, healthcare, or housing because it will anger their corporate donors. Yet we cling so fervently to what little leadership we have left to believe in! It is this misplaced certainty that I am trying to disassemble in the reader’s mind. Of course, this is a Quixotic goal, but this is the nature of activist writing: to illustrate a counter-narrative in the face of overwhelming corporate and government power, media bias, and censorship. 
D.Low: The cover art of your book is striking—a blindfolded man holding an image of a single

eye as a political sign, and a row of eight figures dressed in black. Why did you choose this image? What does it signify to you?
J. Khan: The blindfolded prophet holding up an eye is symbolic of the act of purporting to have a truth.  The ominous crowd is vaguely sinister. A Matrix-like background implies contemporary digital relevance. All of these elements, for me, represent the false portrayals of reality that Americans navigate on a daily basis. The cover is designed to create a suspicion that some manipulation lurks beneath the surface.
D. Low: The poem “Dead Boys” begins with reference to a camera’s point of view: “The camera pans hillside jungle / zooms to our hero / body splayed, face up, / and stubbed by a missing limb” (18). Media play important roles in your book as source material and as models for structure. Can you discuss your relationship to media and how you work with them?
J. Khan: First off, I am not on FB, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, etc. As a writer hoping for an audience this is hugely disadvantageous, but I am opposed to the financial mining of personal data.  Second, I try to demonstrate how mass media and entertainment are the primary methods of programming the US population to accept “forever wars.”  Noam Chomsky pointed this out in Manufacturing Consent. 
     First-person shooter video games, multi-player online combat games, and Hollywood thrillers are developed with military input: the so-called Military-entertainment complex has its own Wikipedia page.  I am not saying that military input is bad, but the failure to openly communicate this to the public is emblematic of the extent to which the ruling elite manipulate the public, even children, without any pretense of transparency. We live in an age where much of our reality and our children’s reality is manufactured by the media in concert with institutions that are no longer subject to moral hazard or constitutional restraint. This is so pervasive that we don’t even question it. The net result is that the public treasury supports wealthy and wasteful private sector corporate interests at the expense of the overall public good, for example, billionaire wealth increased 44% during COVID, a time of serious unemployment and homelessness.
     My relationship with the mainstream media is one of caution. I do not want to be labelled a troublemaker and have my travel rights restricted as has happened to several Western journalists who write outside the accepted establishment guidelines. While the reach of poetry is limited, the arbitrariness with which our government can and will imprison individuals is not widely appreciated. Still, I wish my work to have impact as a counter-narrative. I am exceedingly grateful for the rights afforded to me as an immigrant and US citizen: to be accepted in US society and engage in passionate free speech of the type that is not tolerated in most countries. When I criticize the misuse of power, I am exercising my right to do so. Free speech!
D. Low: How does your experience as an immigrant writer inform your writing?
J. Khan: Well, I love the good in America. Like many readers I have a safe home, leisure time to read, travel activities, three meals a day, healthcare, a rewarding career. Indeed, from a personal perspective, I have no complaint. What little racism I have encountered in the US over the last 40 years was of trivial emotional or physical consequence compared to the overwhelming generosity that is the norm. America has been an awesome privilege for me and my parents in our immigration and journey.
     Therefore, what I have to say about the shortcomings of America relates to the disadvantage of others more than to me. One of my poems, “Maryville High School,” explores this. There are many wrongs. Writing through and about them has helped me come to terms with the limited impact an individual has on addressing the failings of society. 
D. Low: What is your recent work like? How does it relate to the poetry in this book?
J. Khan: I am in the midst of an epic poem collaboration with artist Leonard Greco where we follow the Mayan Hero Twins’ journey into the underworld. This project overlaps my current book in terms of subversive undertones and populist sentiment. 
     The conquest of the Mayans by the Spaniards was driven by pure colonialism and exploitive greed only matched at the time by the North American genocide against the First Peoples and subsequent North American slavery.  Leonard and I know we must acknowledge this history and deal with it in our revisiting of the myth. There is a line between accessing another culture’s mythology versus appropriating. This is difficult terrain as it strikes at the motives of the writer and requires appropriate distance, deferential tone, and sensitive treatment of subject matter. I am reading on how other poets have dealt with this; Derek Walcott in Omeros, Edward Kamau Braithwaite in Masks, and Michael Bazzett in recent translation. It is a great time to be writing. We will find our path.

Jemshed Khan lives and works in Kansas and Missouri. He has published in diverse magazines including Unlikely Stories, Rigorous, Rat's Ass Review, Chiron Review, Clockwise Cat, shufPoetry, Barzakh, pureSlush, Fifth Estate, I-70 Review, califragile, Coal City Review, San Pedro River Review, and Writers Resist. He has served as a guest editor for Glass: Poets Resist, was nominated for The Pushcart Prize XLIV, has completed a chapbook, and is mulling a book-length collection.