Hurting, Healing, & Advocating For Afghanistan’s Freedom With Writer, Samman Akbarzada
This is a transcription of a conversation between Thought Catalog’s Katee Fletcher and Thought Catalog Books author Samman Akbarzada as part of Thought Catalog’s Instagram Live interview series. This series is in collaboration with the Collective World Careers Substack, which you can subscribe to here.
Katee: Good morning everyone! Today we’re going to be doing an interview with the amazing, talented writer Samman. We’re going to be talking about her poetry collection today.
And here’s Samman with us now! Hi, Samman!
Samman: Hi, Katee. How are you doing?
Katee: Good. Yes. How are you doing?
Samman: I’m good. Thank you.
Katee: Yeah, of course, I just want to show off your book a little bit. I have all my notes in the sides. But it’s so stunning and easy to hold. It’s just a beautiful poetry collection called A Glimmer in the Dark, but yeah, let’s just dive on in.
So maybe to start just telling us a little bit about yourself and your journey and how this book came to life for you.
Samman: So hi, everybody. My name is Samman Akbarzada and I’m an author from Afghanistan– this is my poetry book *showcases A Glimmer in the Dark* we will talk more about it. It feels so good holding it.
Katee: It’s perfect!
Samman: Yeah, and Kristina did amazing with the cover. Like, we should give her a lot of credit. She was so good with it.
Katee: Yeah– that’s awesome. Shout out to KJ!
Samman: I had a beautiful, wonderful, memorable childhood. And I was inspired by my mother to write. Later, I was nine years old when we moved to Afghanistan and you know, I was exposed to a completely new life and learned about things that I was completely ignorant about before that. I was homeschooled for seven years and during that time, I wrote short stories. And when I went to school in person was when I started writing scripts. In my senior years was when I wrote novels, but poems have been something that I’ve been writing throughout the journey, it never stopped happening, especially in my senior years was when I really wanted to write about Afghanistan a lot, because of the situation that I was witnessing. Considering my age, there’s a huge portion of my life that will live on through these pages. It’s about life as a woman in Afghanistan. It’s about life as a teen in Afghanistan, and as a person who I am with the intensity of my sentiments, I think, take most of the credits also.
Katee: Yeah, that’s beautiful. So just to, I guess, talk broad scope about the book. To begin, I wanted to ask about there’s 13 sections in total throughout the book. Some of them that are longer than others: we have “Motherland” which is 35 pages, and then we have “Stellar,” which is the shortest at 3 pages. How did these different sections come about for you? And why do you feel they’re important to the structure and meaning of the collection?
Samman: During my writing the poems, I noticed that there are certain notions certain themes that these poems share. And that idea itself had a significant part of who I am as a human and in my life in order to honor that and also, as a writer, you’re supposed to think, from the point of view of a reader. So maybe there are some people who aren’t ready– from my country– who aren’t ready to read motherland. And I can totally understand why. So they can completely skip that and come back to it whenever they’re ready. And also, because I don’t want to, you know, let the poems be all scattered around. Because there’s so much diversity in it. There’s poems about everything. That’s why I wanted it to be more structurized.
Katee: Yeah, I love that. I also love your like selflessness and thinking about the reader and how they might move through the different pages, jumping around to different parts that call to them, or maybe not so much at the time. Another really unique and such a beautiful tribute to your culture is the Dari poems that begin each section. So I just wanted to talk to you about how those Dari poems set up each section, and then have a relationship with the poems that follow.
Samman: Yeah, I don’t know what the future holds for me. But the fact that this book has my mother’s poems in it, and we will leave behind this mutual art is something that will make this book something special for me forever. She was the reason for my inspiration. And you know, her legacy will carry on through these poems, and also, the poems that will ultimately have her on their own special place. I love the fact that, because of her poems, this connects more profoundly to my roots and Afghanistan. And also, it’s the same way in each chapter, there’s a Dari poem that it begins with so those poems are completely correlated with the entire theme of the chapter, it’s just in a different language.
Katee: Yeah, awesome. And then, I guess, a follow up question– so the first 10 poems in Dari are your mom’s? And then are the last three, your Dari poems?
Katee: Oh, awesome. Really cool. I thought it was a beautiful addition to the book, and really such a beautiful tribute to your culture and to your mom. So, to dive now into the actual book, the actual collection– I wanted to start with– so throughout this collection, there’s like a notion of needing not to express emotions, not speak about feelings, or even like, mourn privately or grieve privately. Talk to me about where this sentiment comes from, and why.
Samman: You know, sometimes, when you tell somebody, how can you bear that sadness in their eyes, and the way they struggle to console you? I think I fear overwhelming others a lot. But there’s a paradox to that because I’m, in a way, expressing my emotions and that point, as well. So I think at the end of the day, we as individuals, we find our own way to express ourselves in one way or another, even though I’m very private, at the same time, I’m keeping the harmony between the heart and the mind– what the heart is saying express and the mind is saying don’t, so I’m expressing but telling myself not to express in that poem.
Katee: Yeah, no, I totally understand that like, almost not wanting to burden others with the weight that you carry, in a way.
Katee: It’s so heartbreaking, so relatable at the same time.
Another sentiment that I felt throughout the collection was this feeling of being trapped or stuck. For example, on page 16, you have this metaphor about being a statue and a human all within one body. So I just wanted to talk about that feeling and where that comes from for you.
Samman: Again, there’s I think, this duality in us– one part of that’s so ambitious or knows no bounds and is impatient even sometimes, like, “why am I not reaching to that dream or why is that not happening?” And then there is another part that’s having a rational perspective and saying “that’s happening for such and such reasons,” and so you are getting stretched between the heart and the mind. And sometimes, you know, we feel kind of stuck to the past and it’s really, again, a paradoxical situation that I’m trying to explain in that poem. It feels like you’re a human and a statue at the same time.
Katee: No, I love that. Yeah. Especially when you said like “being stuck to the past.” Which kind of leads me to my next question here, where– what’s your advice for coping with this kind of dichotomy that lives within us then of like: being stuck to the past or feeling glued to past trauma or pain? Like how do we continue to move forward and be a human despite having those statuesque types of emotions that live within us?
Samman: I think the first thing that we can do for ourselves is to change the perspective. What if we saw that as not being stuck to the past, but as a as a process of moving forward because how can you move forward from somewhere if you’re not first there? So what we should instead I think it’s to fully, consciously bring ourselves to that spot and go over and over again to articulate the situation for ourselves; see it from every single point of view. And, you know, rephrasing the narration, it sort of helps untangle that scribble of thoughts.
Katee: I think that’s awesome. It reminds me I was listening to a podcast recently and they were saying to approach life as if we have chapters in a book. So like, maybe one chapter has closed, hold on to it, but it continues to build your story. So that’s kind of what your response here reminded me of which is really, really great.
Diving into some deeper questions now– on page 240, you state:
We cannot empower all women until we highlight the oppressions they are forced to withstand. In Afghanistan, there are many girls left behind, some I used to know and continue to hold out hope for. But, I no longer know what to tell them, so I dedicate this book to them and all Afghan women, wherever they might be.Samman Akbarzada
And on page 26, you also state how you hurt for your people.
How do you navigate this communal hurt that continues to linger, but, you know, with the need for individual survival as well?
Samman: Yes, I’m glad that you have mentioned this and asked me about this. First to just give a brief, you know, information if any of us in here don’t know right now. In Afghanistan, being a female is currently criminalized and her status as a human being has come down to a thing to a property. Sometimes, I think to myself, like what am I even to my country right now? Because I feel like a slave. Like, what is going on? Every single day, there’s a new prohibition being declared against women and it’s happening so openly in the social medias. The dictators have official Twitter accounts with blue tick marks and they’re doing like the worst things to women right now. And I want to us to just imagine studying for your finals and they’re telling you, you can’t go to university anymore. Yeah, they’re literally rusting in the corners. It’s true, I used to be somebody who gave hope to them, but right now I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say anymore.
How does this impact you know, communal grief and individual survivor for survival? That’s a very good question.
It makes it difficult. Sometimes I do think this has to be one of the most difficult phase somebody has to go through, like, my grief is taking turns. But at the same time, I’m using this as a tool to connect more profoundly to my country. If I was living a happier life, I would be more guilty. But this, this mutual grief that we share, it helps me to, you know, get the courage to speak for my country, to write about them, and connect more profoundly with all my sisters and civilians in Afghanistan.
Katee: That’s really beautiful. And obviously, I mean, I was so thrilled to even have this conversation because I think that your work is so powerful and impactful. So it’s really, really tough to speak about and… I love that you call them your sisters. Just a beautiful sentiment to
continue to fight for them and speak for them and advocate for them. Going off of that, on page 55 you state:
I have the same stories my mother had to tell
This tale is reaping scarier, history repeating itself
Our motherland, on its deathbedSamman Akbarzada
And then page 43 explores a lot of the true violence and horror of the past and current state of Afghanistan.
How does this impact your day to day life now that you’re not physically present in that environment?
Samman: It’s true. You know, it’s heartbreaking to see a country with so much potential falling into the hands of barbarism over and over and over again. It’s really disheartening, because we thought that our parents were supposed to be the last generation who had to go through that. We thought we were this, you know, the youth who will change the narrative of the country, and they will never have to say goodbye to it like that. But yeah, things really happen so quickly, and it’s really disheartening. Could you say again, the question I forgot?
Katee: Yeah, no, you’re so fine! Just how does the the situation in Afghanistan, currently impact your day to day life now that you’re not physically present in that environment, but obviously, still grieving and experiencing that grief?
Samman: To be honest with you, it doesn’t impact my life, because it has become my life, every single thing I do, even the most mundane acts remind me. For instance, I could be looking at a tree. The other day, it was very, very tall. And I was like, I wonder why I haven’t seen such a long tree before. And then the epiphany struck me that oh, wait, because I come from a place where even trees didn’t get the chance to live long enough to get that tall. I might see a child happy and you know, having a childhood that will lead to a healthier adulthood and I think about that kid in Afghanistan who is currently selling pens in the street in this cold winter, with him being handicapped and his dream was to be a soccer player. I think about women being CEOs leading businesses as they should, but then again, that reminds me of my sisters in Afghanistan who currently can’t even go to kindergarten right now. Yeah, so it impacts everything that I do.
Katee: Yeah. Wow. That’s very profound. Especially just going I mean, with the tree thinking about nature and what that even means for growth and how that’s cut short. I mean, that’s crazy. And so true that, you know, when we have something so traumatic going on in our world, in our personal lives, it just bleeds into everything else that we’re doing, and affects our minds.
Leading into my next question of, especially when it comes to the debilitating situation for women in Afghanistan right now, how do you continue to advocate for them? I know you do it through your writing, but maybe outside of that, too? And how can we all continue as a society to advocate for people who are getting their rights stripped from them day after day?
Samman: Yeah, thank you so much for asking this question. Really glad. Um, personally, what I do is I speak for them or I write about them. Sometimes when I’m lucky, I get to write an essay for the girls to help them in a way. But as a society, sometimes it feels hopeless and I feel helpless, like why can’t I save them? Why can’t I do something more? But again, I’ve become rational and I’m sharing this with you that I know it might seem a little, but together, we can at least make it less miserable for them.
How we can help as a society, there’s a lot of ways we can help. So if you’re a student, go ahead send an email to your administration, to the dean of admission and request scholarships for those girls in Afghanistan. If you work, send an email to your CEO or somebody you think would be able to help to provide remote work opportunities for those in Afghanistan. There’s going to be a global movement on the 14th of January– in every major city, there’s going to be protests taking place for the rights of the Afghan people please go participate in that. There is this website called ASEEL– you can contribute to that and help the Afghan nation through that. And also, to those in authority, is it really that hard to change? Action is not being taken at all for the people of Afghanistan right now. We want a government that we have chosen. We want the right to choose our president. We want candidates who are educated and know how to run a country– not people who just wake up every single day and want to make life miserable for the women. So I think sending petitions, raising awareness in your community, to your friends, your family– educating everybody is really important right now.
Also, as I mentioned before, the dictators, the Taliban are the people who have traumatized all of us for the past 20 years, we, as a youth, our parents were so anxious all the time for us as we continue to work or get educated, you know? It was never safe for us, even back then. And right now, not only all that atrocities that they did in the past, but also they’re continuing all this suffering. So it hurts a lot. And I hope I’m able to convey how hurtful this is for the Afghan community, and that we really want all of this to change. We did not sign up for this.
Katee: Yeah, I think that’s very profound and impactful. I mean, at the end of the day, one way to continue to advocate for anyone is to always just speak up, and speak your mind and speak for those that are suffering and use your voice.
I think it’s extremely vital to be advocating for the rights of these women that are losing them every day, and just the people in general in Afghanistan who were suffering and struggling, like you were saying.
So all this in store, I mean, you have such a wild life story that you write about. It’s so beautiful to read, and also just heavy and profound, and just fascinating in some respect. So talk to me about being a female Afghan writer, how does your background and how does your story influence your work?
Samman: It has the difficulty that every aspiring writer has to go through, you know? From finding time to write, from finding inspiration to write, and going through rejection letters, finally making it to publication. But there are some additional pros and cons to it as well, like, it’s so heartbreaking that you never run out of things to write about. That’s the good part. It was really hard it was really hard to convince people– there’s another thing that I want to shed light into: when I was in Afghanistan, I was sending emails, I was going through the websites that mentioned the publication companies that accept unsolicited manuscripts. I would never go to anything else– the first thing I would see would be the eligibility because almost 90% of them stated that you had to be in Europe; you had to be in America. The location made it so difficult to get published. And it was really hard to convince them that come on, take a chance on me. It’s okay if I’m on the other side of the world. But I have this book that I want to publish. So yeah, I think that’s another struggle that came with being an Afghan writer. But eventually, it happened because I didn’t give up. And I think that’s also very important to all the undercover dreamers out there. Just know that it will happen, keep going.
Katee: Yeah. Well, I love that undercover dreamers. That’s amazing. One question that I continue to ask myself when reading the collection– two questions, actually. One was, who is the audience that you feel you’re aiming to reach when you’re writing and publishing a collection such as A Glimmer in the Dark? And also, how do you get the bravery to write so openly and honestly about some really tragic and tough situations?
Samman: Yeah, the audience I always aim to… for those people who are completely unaware of what malnourished children in a war zone is like, or that woman who claims to be a feminist but has no idea what it feels like to be an oppressed woman in Afghanistan right now. So I’ve always wanted to target those audiences. My main goal is them– to raise awareness.
The bravery– well, there’s a girl right now in Afghanistan with a board in her hand that is stating her rights in front of an army with guns in their hands. And there’s a risk that she will be taken to a detention center. So I think if we are going to call someone brave, that girl deserves that term and she inspires me to be brave. So my reason for being vulnerable or brave, is inspired by the amazing human beings that I get to see.
Katee: That’s incredible. Yeah. So true. Moving on to it a different set of questions, but still, in the same vein, I feel like– I’m sure you’ve experienced this– I can see it throughout your collection and I think just in general, as creatives, sometimes it can feel pretty pointless to just simply write, because it can seem kind of trivial in the face of a woman standing in front of an army, with guns, stating her rights on a board, and this act of writing can just feel kind of trivial.
How do you work through that feeling when it comes to your way? And what’s your advice for people to reconcile with that feeling in the face of tragedy?
Samman: Yeah, that’s a very profound thing that you’ve noticed through the book, and really, really true and raw and honest. I will share a story about it.
So, when I was just evacuated from Afghanistan, you know, stateless. Like all the dreams and hopes that I had, the future that I had envisioned, turned to dust. And for a month I could not write. I would sit on the balcony, it was a pretty scenic sight. And every day I went there and I just couldn’t, because all I could think was that we are doomed. It’s over. Like, my country has fallen and I’ve left my my friends, my classmates, and so many people behind– what am I writing for now? This is a lost cause. I couldn’t write.
What happened later was, of course, as a creative, you have to be creative. If you don’t be that way your life will be miserable. You’re going to be agitated. I watched a lot of movies. And there was this thing in this movie called Limbo. There’s this Afghan character who says to the other refugee, “we have a story in our country about a bird that forgets how to sing.” And the other character’s name is Omar, he asks, “Okay, what happens to the bird?” He says, “He dies out of sadness.” So that really stuck with me and I repeated that dialogue over and over. So I started journaling, again, one word at a day. Slowly, after weeks, that turned into a sentence, and I was adding the line breaks, so that turned into a poem. And eventually, I found the feeling, the courage to write again and yeah, it’s really difficult to get yourself there. But at the same time, you know, as much as writing or being creative, it can be for a good cause for others. It’s also about yourself. So don’t forget yourself in the process. That’s the food for your soul. Don’t deprive yourself of that, because that’s not going to help anybody.
Katee: Yeah, oh I really love that. Yeah, we’re writing for others, and for the audience, but at the same time, it’s totally for yourself. Yeah, you have to fill your own cup. That’s really beautiful.
Probably the last question we’ll get to today, but you have this quote on page 191 that says:
No matter how much I try
I can only be sad
And that’s all rightSamman Akbarzada
Which just sounds so simple, but so heartbreaking and true. Sometimes we just need to be sad and feel how we’re feeling.
In your opinion, what are the important steps in healing and how do we heal?
Samman: I think first of all, we should remove this utopian idea we have about healing that, you know? For somebody healing can mean that they were able to brush their teeth tonight, or someone else they smile for the first time in six months. Healing can be different things for every individual and stop comparing your healing to the healed version of someone else. I also think that healing/therapy, whatever we label it– it all boils down to changing your perspective about things. I think as time moves forward, you start to rethink what had happened and changing the perspective about the wounded self will sometimes feel in a way that there wasn’t a wound in the first place– it was just a phase that you had to get through. So I think healing is about embracing the wound. Don’t run away from the pain of what you have been through but honor that and feel that. When grief becomes a hand for you the hold– hold it. Walk with it. Let it even lean on you if it has to. And once you’ve done the circle and reached that point then just wave it goodbye until you meet again because that’s life– nobody has lived a fully happy life. And I also think that changing the perspective on how we judge our life. Like if you’re going through something hard and you’re judging your life based on how happy you are, that’s going to be a very difficult thing– that’s a lost cause. So, instead let’s judge our life on what we have overcome and are still here standing.
Katee: Yeah, wow, I love that. I also think that part about letting grief lean on you, hold its hand, go through what you have to go through is so profound the way you phrased that.
And I just wanted to close by saying thank you so much for your time; this has been so inspiring and impactful.
In her closing couple of pages, Samman has this profound line that really stuck with me that I want to read. It’s on page 243 and it states:
The world has become numb to my country’s pain. I do not want to; may I never stop hurting.Samman Akbarzada
So simply put. So powerful. So heartbreaking. I mean the atrocities we continue to see in afghanistan are just so tragic and I just wanted to end it there with continuing to advocate for those who are struggling and suffering and I hope that we never stop hurting for the things that we care about.
Thank you so much Samman, you are so talented.
Samman: Thank you for having me dear Katee. And thank you to everybody who listened to us. I hope we all leave this live with warmth in our hearts and that we all learned something new today.
Katee: I completely agree. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day Samman, take care.
Samman: You too– bye!
*This interview has been condensed from its original version for brevity and clarity.*