Deputy Culture Editor – Books
In conversation with editor of the collection, Shehzar Doja, Books Editor Katrina Williams explains the importance of supporting Rohingya creatives alongside the events of the Rohingya genocide.
Often, the viewpoint of the Western world is to reduce those experiencing large-scale persecution or genocide worldwide to simply victims. There is a real lack of nuance in the general public towards appreciating those going through these extreme human-rights crimes as anything more than the context of their situation, largely due to the general depersonalisation of our media and lack of dedicated coverage to many emergencies occurring outside of the Western bubble. However, the collection I Am a Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond, edited and translated by James Byrne and Shehzar Doja (amongst others), gives us an important opportunity to explore those displaced and affected by the Rohingya genocides as more than just victims; as creatives and as voices for their ethnicity.
I Am a Rohingya collects a range of poetry and songs from creative poetry workshops in Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees who have fled from Myanmar due to their persecution by the country’s government, which occurred primarily between 2016 and 2017. Editor Shehzar Doja, who studies at the University of Glasgow, discussed the collection with me through email correspondence. He began visiting the camps in September 2017 in order to grow a relationship with the poets located there in preparation for the workshops (on which the collection is based) that took place at the end of April 2019.
The collection itself is thought-provoking and deeply necessary. A common theme is that of identity; the Rohingya people were already denied higher education, freedom of movement and citizenship in Myanmar. When the crisis occurred, as indeed with most genocides, they were further removed from their identity as a people, torn apart and displaced. As a result, through poetry and songs, the contributors to the collection express that “holding onto one’s cultural identity becomes imperative”. And indeed is this cultural identity skilfully expressed. Many of the poets attending the sessions were first-time poets, yet the work they’ve produced is expertly spun. For instance, in Being Rohingya, Ro Anamul Hasan (“Ro” being a moniker adopted by many of the poets in the book to again stress their identity as Rohingya) discusses their experience of the genocide.
“We all wear human organs. Am I not the same as you? | The world treats me like some other creature.”
Upon reflection of the collection, I find myself looking towards how the Western world often disregards victims of these crimes as anything but numbers, despite claiming to be on the side of those affected. On the collection in general, Shehzar explains its importance as an introduction of Rohingya to the world.
“The Rohingya population have more to offer than just being seen or labelled as victims. […] A powerful voice exists that is a part of the cultural scene, whether in the camps or emerging from the wider diaspora.”
Cultural works, from theatre to novels, from art to, of course, poetry, are one of the key ways we as human beings express ourselves. It is one of the ways that we can each find our own voice. And, poignantly, this is what the poets of I Am a Rohingya indeed achieve within the collection. These voices are definitely powerful, as Shehzar claims.
He hopes that the wider world will take notice of these poems, stressing how we need to “actively engage to play a more vital role in promoting and preserving [the Rohingya] identity.” So please, do involve yourself with these talented voices and take part in uplifting them, not just as victims but as creatives attempting to preserve a rich and vibrant history. If you’re interested in hearing some of the songs that are featured in the collection, they can be accessed on YouTube on the Ro Archive 2019 channel. I Am a Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond is available both at the John Smiths bookstore on the University campus as well as online at https://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/byrne-doja-i-am-a-rohingya-593, RRP £9.99.