Running After Shadows: A Collection of Haiku Destigmatizing Mental Illness in Women
by Hifsa Ashraf
(2020 Human/Kind Press) 6.5” x 6.5” Perfect bound paperback. 42 Pages.
Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta.
Stranded between the qualms of our personal and professional commitments, all of us seek light—a luminosity that can saturate the recesses of our darker selves. Fraught with this desire, we forget our shadow selves, as explained by Carl Jung, and this ironically shines through in Hifsa Ashraf's new chapbook Running After Shadows.
Ashraf paints a world with “layer after layer after layer of black fog delerium” and where “a starling murmuration blends into the dark amnesia.” The poems in the collection are bilingual haiku in English and Urdu. Most of them are in tercet form with a couple of one-line haiku (monoku), and one five-line haiku, which renders tonal variation as well as aids the poet in depicting the sting of mental illness poignantly. Due to the brevity of the form, and the crisp images these poems evoke, the poems in this collection will stay with the readers as they empathize with women living with these conditions.
One of the poems that stood out:
long strands of spaghetti
lost in my thoughts
I don't recall having read any haiku on binge eating. But it is not that I liked the novelty of it topically, but rather the aha moment—“lost in my thoughts.” One is almost immediately speculating: what thoughts is she getting lost in? Is it another intense urge to gobble up food but while she is eating, she realizes that it will add some extra inches to her waist? Or is she worried about the friends who will ridicule her with horrible nicknames? Or is she feeling helpless because of this involuntary cycle of eating and purging? We don't know, but this open-ended poem will ensnare the reader.
Another poem about Bipolar Disorder caught my attention:
the silhouette of driftwood
on a windswept beach
Bipolar is a disorder where emotions, like a pendulum, swing to and fro between two extremes. The silhouette of driftwood wavers with the varying velocity of the wind—the faster the wind, the more fleeting is the shadow. Waxing and waning of the shadow can be one way to interpret it; the other possibility can be the presence of a shadow and its abrupt disappearance as the clouds layer over the sun or the sun retires into the evening sky.
One cannot separate the darkness described here from the haze during desolate junctures of the day, our twin from a parallel world, asserting itself even in the most radiant mornings. But the desperation is not personal and assumes a universal form:
at the core
of her palm lines . . .
In the breath I read it and the ones that followed, I could not think of “her” as Ashraf's acquaintance but rather denoting women all over the world. A long history of subjugation follows women irrespective of the country they inhabit. However, some women have embarked on the journey of raising awareness and providing therapy at affordable prices; sadly, a large fraction of women, deprived of resources, continue to be tethered to the gloom of mental ailments.
This book is a reflection of the despair trapped beneath the rocks, in corners, inside us, perhaps because the existence of darkness is crucial to experience light in the fissures of our existence. By exploring darkness, this book makes us conscious of the life gushing inside us and makes us empathize with those whose light has been put out.
Ashraf's finesse in addressing mental health and its distortions is further enhanced by the use of the Japanese forms of haiku and senryu, traditionally inclined towards tropes such as the cherry blossom and frangipani. This collection, therefore, should be considered not only as an effort to destigmatize mental illness but also as a successful experiment in pushing the boundaries of the form.
You should grab your copy soon!