The Dance Interview Series with Yena Sharma Purmasir

In When I’m Not There, Yena Sharma Purmasir sheds her skin so wholly and so truly that you forget her fingers are the ones holding the pen. Purmasir steps away from herself and into her dead father to look back at the world she has existed in without him. She peers into the shadowy corners of her own life and, through her father’s eyes, floods them with light. If this seems sad, be sure that isn’t the only thing it is. It’s also funny and beautiful and so devastatingly human that you almost want to look away. You almost aren’t used to such unwavering honesty. This collection peels grief apart layer by layer and stands unflinching in its glory and horror.

It’s easier to think that this is all my fault, my absence. 

That this never would have happened if I was still alive. 

But the truth is that even if I was there, 

I couldn’t protect you from a day like today.

Purmasir plays tug-of-war in these poems, unsure of what winning in a game like this looks like. In this collection, there is a central question: when someone you love dies, what is the right way to live without them? Purmasir pulls readers into moments where the living feels okay, if only for a second and others where even existing in a world without her father is a betrayal. And, in this way, this collection sees the truth of grief and love and loss: there are days when you can’t breathe and there are days when you can. In these poems, you will find blinding moments of each. 

After reading this collection, I was lucky enough to speak to Purmasir about her writing process, the reaction of her family, and the act of peering into 15-year old memories to write this gorgeous, aching book.

Fortesa Latifi : Your most recent collection, When I’m Not There, is written from the point of view of your deceased father. Was this a conscious decision you made before starting the writing process or did it occur organically somewhere along the way?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : I wish I could say that that this book was the result of a great deal of thought and introspection. Instead, like much of my work, this idea happened to me. It was a Thursday in late January. I was on my way to work. I was sitting at the end of the subway car and I looked out the window, at the connection between my car and the next. Suddenly, I had the following lines in my head: “I imagine what you must look like now/like my mother maybe/another woman I never got to know.” Those lines were from my father’s perspective. He died when I was eight years old. Almost instantaneously, I thought about what it would be like to write a book from his perspective. I realized that his 15th death anniversary was a few months’ away. So, I started outlining the topics I wanted in the book. I knew I wanted about 30 poems and I wanted to address events chronologically. I gave myself about a week to write the poems. That meant that I wrote many of these poems on the same day.

Fortesa Latifi : What was your first thought when the idea of this book occurred to you? Were you scared? Nervous? Excited?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : My first thought was complete surprise. I never thought I would write something like this. My father died when I was in the third grade. He had been suffering with multiple illnesses in the years before that. I consider myself a deeply private person. Growing up, I was so ashamed of my father’s death. I used to feel like it was reflection of the kind of person I was, that if I had been better or kinder or stronger, this awful thing wouldn’t have happened to my family. I hardly talked about him. Even when I was in high school, there were friends of mine who had no idea that my father had died. Writing this book meant that I was going to have to talk about him, about the experience of loss and grief openly. It felt like a huge leap for me – but once the idea took shape, I wanted to show it to the world. This is my second book, but in many ways, it felt like my first project, like I was finally writing something only I could write. Fifteen years is a long time to miss someone, to love someone. I’ve done that. I finally wanted people to know this story. More than that, I wanted people to know my father.

Fortesa Latifi : How did you tell your mother and brother, who are mentioned multiple times throughout the book, about what you were writing? What were their reactions?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : I called my mother literally an hour after I got the idea. I live at home with her and my brother, but I wanted her input immediately. My mother and father were soulmates. In general, her opinion carried a lot of weight for me, but for something like this, I desperately wanted her to be onboard with the idea. I’m very lucky to have her in my life, someone so willing to embrace eccentric thought. She said it was a great idea, that I had to follow through and produce a product. I asked her if it was morbid. My father was a hilarious, charming man. The last thing I would want to do is tie his memory to something depressing and dark. It doesn’t have to be, she said. You can write funny things. He would have written some funny things. My brother  is 21 years old. He found out when I came home that night. He joked that he should have received some kind of payment, for being mentioned throughout these poems. The acknowledgement for When I’m Not There is actually the acknowledgement page from my father’s manuscript – he had been working on a book before he passed away. I burst into tears when I found it, in the midst of all his things. It was a sobering moment for our family. It was a reminder that this thing I was working on, this fake thing, goes back to someone who was real. Someone we all loved. Someone we all lost.

Fortesa Latifi : You were eight years old when your father died. While writing, did you find that there were things you weren’t aware of about his life and his death? If so, where did you go to find that information?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : Oh man, I was an inquisitive child. In the months following my father’s death, I dug through all his materials, his books and journals and manila folders. I knew everything there was to know about his life. I was greedy for that information. When I was a kid, it was so easy to remember how my father would speak, what he would say. But we all forget things. As I’ve gotten older, I have looked through his things less and less. In order to write this book, I had to remind myself of his voice. I had to read his journals again. I found this poem that he wrote, about a year before he died. It was about my mother, about her love and care. The poem ended with “but I owe my life to no one.” I shivered when I reread that poem. My dad was sick. I mean, he was really sick and it must’ve been such a painful time for him. What I remember of that time was mostly laughter and jokes and silly adventures. But that wasn’t the only truth. Rereading these deeply personal poems and diary entries made it easy for me to find his tone of voice: serious, vulnerable, honest. Someone loving, someone hurting.

Fortesa Latifi : Your father died 6 months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. You grew up in New York City and were living there when the attacks occurred. Are these two traumatic events linked in your mind? How did it feel to see your country mourning something so public as you mourned something so private?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : 2001 was a very difficult year for me, for my family, for my city. I remember vividly the morning of September 11th. I was in the fourth grade. My science teacher wrote the word TERRORISM on the blackboard. He was trying to explain this concept and then the principal announced that the World Trade Center had been hit. There was a flurry of confusion. The World Trade Center in Canada? No, one girl piped up, it must have been the World Trade Center here, in New York, in Manhattan. Almost immediately, the entire class started asking about their parents, almost all of whom worked in Manhattan. As the day went on, children started getting picked up from home. My brother was in kindergarten. I saw him at lunch and told him that our mother had called to talk to me, that she was okay. But, she hadn’t called. I hadn’t heard from her. I had no idea if she was okay, if she was alive. By the time the school day ended, I was one of four students on my bus. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was waiting for me when I got off the bus. She said that she saw my mom on the news, as one of thousands of people crossing the bridge to get into Queens. I didn’t believe her. This was before cellphones were commonplace. The more time that passed, the more I thought that my mother had died. I replayed in my head this terrible possibility. I worried about where we would live, what would become of our lives. It seems now like a crazy jump, a wild conclusion, but I was nine years old, my father had just died, something terrifying was happening in my city. I was so full of grief and pain. When my mom finally did come home, I was relieved, so unbelievably relieved. But this awful thing was still real for others. A boy in my school, his father died in the attack. He was a firefighter. The guidance counselor asked me to talk to him. And I did. I was so so sorry for his loss. What happened to us happened for different reasons, but the result looked the same. We both lost our fathers. When I think about the 9/11 attacks, I always think of how real it felt, the sick thought that I was going to lose my entire sense of family, my experience of parental love. I was only nine years old. I was too young to be scared of something like that.

Fortesa Latifi : Did you have any hesitations when it came to publishing this book? If so, what were they and how did you let them go in order to move forward in the publishing process?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : Ultimately, I was nervous that I was going to do a disservice to my father’s memory. That this book would be morbid and dark and sad. I was scared that no one would like it, that it wouldn’t feel real to them. That was probably the worst fear, not just because of the book, but because I really feel like my father is there, sometimes. The idea that he isn’t, that he’s really gone forever, is terrifying to me. I didn’t want anyone to read this book and feel sorry for me. I worked with the themes, with each topic, to make sure I was capturing the complex experience of growing up. Were there funny poems? What about scary poems? Do I have some happy poems? What does a happy poem look like? I thought about the kind of relationship I have with my mother, how close we are. I imagine that if my father was still alive, I would be as close with him. In that way, I was able to address some of these concerns.

Fortesa Latifi : Was writing from your father’s point of view difficult? What challenges did it present?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : Once I started writing from my father’s perspective, it was surprisingly easy. I refused to write anything else while I was working on the book. I didn’t want to lose his voice. I thought about the way he used to speak, even the way he wrote his sentences in his journals. My father was an older man and his sense of language was different from mine. Once I got the hang of his voice, it felt genuine and effortless. Writing in his voice meant that I was constantly referring to myself in second person. I became a character. I had to look at my own life, my own memories, from this other angle. Even moments that felt private were open to reinterpretation. I wrote a poem about getting my period in school. That might feel like a strange thing to write in a book like this, but if my father was alive, I would’ve come home and told him about this giant humiliation. He was my father. If things were different, he would have known everything about me. So, I wrote everything about myself. I didn’t hold back.

Fortesa Latifi : One of the profound accomplishments of this collection is how it steadies a microscope on the smallest moments of a life. For example, there is a poem called “Dream Deferred” where the narrator tries to ease your anxiety about a deferral from a college by equating it with having to wait for the bus at the zoo as a small child. How did you choose which small moments to include? It seems as though it must have been harder to choose the small moments than the big ones- i.e. graduations, first loves, and ceremonies.

Yena Sharma Purmasir : I’ve always had a really strong sense of memory. My first memory is from when I was two years old. My memories of my childhood are so special to me. Maybe even then, I had some sense or feeling that these moments would be important. Some things are documented in photographs, like us waiting for the bus before that trip to the zoo. But other things are contained nowhere. It was harder to choose those smaller moments. Our lives are made of small moments, because of the way they add up. The big moments, the milestones, are easy to identify. I was writing this book in hindsight though, and in hindsight, even some small moments stick out. Now, I can say why that bus ride to the zoo made it into the book: because my family was together and I was happy.

Fortesa Latifi : In reading this, I found so many haunting moments but I was mostly struck by how deeply human the entire collection is. It’s funny and it’s sad and it’s complicated. One of my favorite lines is:

I’ll be dead for the rest of your life and all the lives thereafter.

What you miss about me, you’re going to have to find in someone else.

Was this collection about coming to terms with the grief of those statements or was it about cracking them wide open?

Yena Sharma Purmasir : To be honest, I think this book was trying to do both things. I don’t remember when I realized this, but at one point, I had to acknowledge that nothing was going to bring my father back. I could try to be the smartest, kindest, funniest, best version of myself, but it wouldn’t change things. That there is nothing I can do that will have the power to undo this truth. I really struggle with this truth. It’s hard to accept. For most things, it’s not something we have to accept. Change is generally possible. Here is something I cannot change. Here is something no one can change. I wrote an entire book about my father’s death and he’s still dead. I know that sounds sad. I know it sounds painful and hard. But I wanted to acknowledge these feelings. Loss is a part of life. My father is not the only person I’ve lost. I know that as I get older, I will watch other people I love die. Someday I will also die. Accepting death is hard. People have grappled with this concept for centuries. I don’t expect my book to address everyone’s experience with grief. But I hope it can start a conversation about grief. Losing someone can be such a lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be. When my father died, I remember wondering if my life would ever be good again, if I would ever really laugh again. It’s been 15 years since I lost one of the best people in my life and I have laughed plenty since then. What I miss about my father, I really did find those things in someone else. I found them in myself.

Yena Sharma Purmasir is a 23 year old poet and author from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. When I’m Not There is her second book of poetry. Purmasir graduated from Swarthmore College in 2014 with a major in Psychology and a double minor in English Literature and Religion Studies. She was the recipient of the Chuck James Literary Prize from Swarthmore College’s Black Cultural Center. She served in the New York City Civic Corps program, dedicating 10 months of service at Hour Children, a non-profit supporting formerly incarcerated mothers and their families. Purmasir currently works at the Louis August Jonas Foundation, helping organize and implement their international scholarship program, Camp Rising Sun. She believes in the power of hard work, second chances, and, above all, love.

Contributing Editor

Fortesa Latifi is a 22-year old poet. Her first book, This Is How We Find Each Other was published through Where Are You Press in 2014. She hopes you find something good here. She knows you will.