Toilets in Pakistan by Z. Raja is an #OwnVoices Pakistani-Canadian poetry and prose collection, which is autobiographical, that I read on my Kindle. At it’s core it’s a collection of work that revolves around relationships, cultural identity, and travelling through Pakistan as a diasporic person.
Raja’s prose style is terse, candid, and unflinchingly honest. This will resonate with readers who prefer an air of unfiltered crudeness and humour to their poetry, while others may be put off by the brusque voice that describes her struggles with being an outsider in a country that is supposed to be her homeland as well as the ache of loneliness of long distance relationships.
There were many poems that I enjoyed and felt an intimate connection to as it related to similar experiences or emotions that I have in my life. The ones that come to mind immediately were passages sharing what it feels like to alone, specifically while being in a relationship. While these apply to long-distance relationships, I strongly felt the intensity of the meaning behind these words from a former relationship of mine where the intimate connection between me and my partner was so wide, it might as well have been non-existent.
The distance between us can’t be bridged by words, / no matter how many words we use. / The piercing emptiness beside me at night, / can’t be filled by prose, / no matter how elegant it may be. / No translation can do justice / to the language of my heart / yet no one can say they don’t understand it.”
Her longer poems were my favourite as I do not necessarily care for flash poetry, which is entirely a personal preference of poetic style. However, the glimpses that each piece gives us into the author’s life and struggles that she has had were rather insightful. I have always admired people who weren’t afraid to share their vulnerabilities and the more intimate corners of their mind via the work they produce.
For example, in one of the prose works, Raja chats about cultural identity that had a profound impression on me and my sense of my own South Asian identity. It was beautiful and so impactful.
What bigger relative in Pakistan can I find beyond my ancestral history, my ethnic reality, and the knowledge that my existence stands upon the countless sacrifices and struggles? Attempting to relinquish my ties to Pakistan means belittling those sacrifices and struggles. It means throwing myself forth into the world as an anonymous soul who rejects the human story and the importance of understanding lineage / I, for one, can’t be that disloyal to my blood.”
Most of her other prose work consist of chronicles of Pakistan’s richly conservative and judgmental culture in terms of outsiders, which includes South Asians who aren’t born, raised, and/or residing in the country. As someone who moved away from my home country at a young age, I could feel the ache and the hurt that stems from being seen as a thing that doesn’t fit in, regardless of sharing the same country-blood and ethnic identity. It is a quality that shall give comfort to other diaspora who may have had similar experiences.
Overall, Toilets in Pakistan is a very good small collection of poems and prose. I don’t think every single work will be a fit for every single reader of the genre, some will be more hit/miss than others, but it’s a work of #OwnVoices literature that provides wonderful insight into the woes of not fitting in and learning to navigate motherland that is a stranger.