Emerging Author of the Month: Irfan Ali

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Tell us about yourself.

I’m a Pakistani-Canadian(-ish) Muslim(-ish) guy(-ish) human who has had the pleasure of being on this Earth for 26 years thus far. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to occupy many different roles in both my personal and professional lives in a handful of different places around the world. Beyond this perpetual need for change, the only other constants in my life have been confusion about my identity (hence the—ish’s above) and an unflinching desire to observe and document the world around me, and especially the people who populate it. It was the latter that ultimately led me to write. While I have spent most of my life writing in various forms, it’s only been within the last two years that I actually built up the confidence to start taking my craft seriously and share it with others.

Tell us about the piece you’ve decided to share.

The piece, Big, started out as a celebration of elephants, my favourite animal. As it grew, it organically became a vehicle for me to explore the inherent beauty of ‘bigness’ (that is so often excluded from social norms of beauty), the power of love expressed through violence, and the subversion of traditional masculinity. Like a lot of my work, it also gave me an opportunity to explore some very personal issues, though I tried to do it in a way that did not alienate anyone. While I’m not sure I was entirely successful in its execution, I really enjoyed the process of creating and editing this piece. At the time I wrote Big, I was reading Geoffrey Brown’s Notice, so stylistically it is definitely inspired by the deliberate repetition of Brown’s poetry.

When and why did you realize you had a passion for writing?

At a very young age. My first serious writing project began at age ten with ‘adventures’—Dungeons and Dragons-like quests without all of the complex math and character sheets of the real game. I would spend hours writing these adventures before allowing my brothers to play the game. Unfortunately, while I was growing up, I was unable to see myself as a writer because of a combination of low self-confidence, having no one in my family who had gone down that path, and a lack of representation both in authors and characters within the majority of the literature I was exposed to throughout my life. I owe a lot to the Toronto Street Writers, a local youth writing group, for helping me overcome a lot of these issues.

What pieces of writing/authors have had the greatest impact on you?

There are a lot of authors that have really influenced my writing including Nizar QabbaniLeonard Cohen, Anne Wilkinson, Robert Priest, and Pablo Neruda. The two most important poems in my life have been Frank O’Hara’s Having a Coke with You and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’ Bol. The former really opened my eyes to the power of the stream of consciousness and free verse and the beauty of everyday observation, while the latter to me represents a perfect fusion of activism, sexuality, and art through words. I make a habit of reading both of these poems when I feel discouraged to remind myself of why I started writing poetry.

What kind of writer do you aspire to be?

I aspire to be the kind of writer that causes pause when someone is asked to describe my writing [in the future], and finally responds, “Well, I guess his writing is something like a cross between [WRITER A]’s and [WRITER B]’s, but not really.” Also, although I’m not at this level of skill or knowledge yet, I would love my writing to act as a form of social and political activism without being either too diluted or too heavy-handed, which in my mind is what has really set some of the most important artistic works in history apart from their contemporaries and has allowed them to affect lasting social change. Both of these are extremely lofty goals, but a guy can dream can’t he?

How and when do you find time to write?

Wherever and whenever I can. I currently work two jobs and also spend a lot of time DJ-ing so I am generally always short on time. To try to help this, I started using an agenda this year to plan out my days and try to work in some writing time whenever I can. In practice though, the only writing time I get is at night so I often sacrifice sleep to write. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), writing is enough of a compulsion that I have to do it even if it means only sleeping for three hours. Thankfully, even when I’m disillusioned or too busy to write, I’m surrounded by a group of really amazing fellow writers, friends, and family who support and challenge me to come back to it.