Poetry in Motion: Sheniz Janmohamed + Reminders on the Path
September 2, 2021
Growing up just outside of Toronto, Sheniz Janmohamed never felt like she belonged. But Kenya, as the place her ancestors emigrated to from India, felt familiar. In Sheniz's new poetry collection
Reminders on the Path (Mawenzi House) she explores the varied intersections of her own identity in the present while honouring the unknowns of her past.
I was born with a hole in my heart. A broken heart, of sorts. Perhaps that is why I’ve always been drawn to Mowlana Rumi’s words: You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.
Once, when I was little, I drew my heart in black crayon on a piece of paper and showed it to my mom, and asked her, “Why is my heart bad?” She had no adequate answer other than to point me to the wisdom of many faith traditions, from Buddhism to Sufism. I read and read, but it was only when I would sit down in the company of my own silence, and in nature, that I began to find my own heart again.
Growing up in a small town outside of Toronto, I never felt like I belonged. I was the only brown girl in my elementary school, mocked for the mendhi on my hands and the dark, thick hair on my arms. I felt ashamed of who I was. It was when I visited my grandmother in Kenya that I finally sensed relief and belonging. I can recall the small-town surroundings with murram roads, and paper-thin bouganvillea, the Kakamega Forest and heavy rains, and late night conversations about and politics that I wasn’t supposed to hear. Part of me knew that I didn’t belong there either, but it was easier to push that thought away in the company of my Nanima. We bonded over old Bollywood songs and drank numerous cups of chai as she recalled for me her track and field record in school and indulged in wistful remembrances of my late grandfather, whom I lovingly called Papa.
My ancestors emigrated to Kenya from Kutch and Gujarat, India, in the late 1880s. My parents and grandparents were born in Kenya. I have never been to Kutch or Gujarat, and have no remaining family in India. When I visited India for the first time, my Hindi had a North American accent and immediately betrayed me. I only have glimpses of my ancestors’ lives through my dad’s vivid recollections and detailed family tree and Papa’s written accounts of his pioneering father and grandfather. I began to ask myself how to own my own story, as a woman of many intersections and privileges, as a descendent of women whose stories I may never know.
This collection of poems honours this sense of unknowing and seeks to explore the relationship between the journeys of my ancestors and my own journey as a settler and third culture kid. It is rooted in the language of nature and place, from the desert terrain of Kutch to the Rift Valley in Kenya to the deciduous forests of Turtle Island.These places have grounded me in the realities of the present, even if some belong to the experiences of the past.
There is a Zen quote that says, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” Perhaps this is all I need to know. How to get up again and again, attend to the present, and remember that making and taking a path is a choice. A choice of taking one step after another, even when I don’t know where the path ends.
Sheniz reads "Rift Valley Song" from Reminders on the Path
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Sheniz Janmohamed (MFA) is a firm believer in fostering community through collaboration, compassion and creativity. In her own practice, she strives to embody words through performance, land art and writing in the ghazal form. A poet, artist educator and land artist, Sheniz has performed her work in venues across the world, including the Jaipur Literature Festival, Alliance Française de Nairobi and the Aga Khan Museum.
Sheniz is also the author of two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light (Mawenzi House, 2010) and Firesmoke (Mawenzi House, 2014), both of which have been taught at the University of Toronto. Her writing has been published in a variety of publications, including Quill & Quire, Arc Poetry Magazine, and Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers (Caitlin Press, 2019).
Sheniz visits dozens of schools and organizations each year to teach, perform, and inspire creativity in her students. In 2015, she was awarded the Lois Birkenshaw-Fleming Creative Teaching Scholarship, and holds an Artist Educator Mentor certificate from the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto).
Her third collection of poetry, Reminders on the Path, will be released this Fall (2021).
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