In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Writing University is conducting a series of interviews with writers that are participating in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home. We are posting them now as examples of our shared community strength during this time.
Here is our interview with Playwrights Workshop MFA candidate Ikram Basra.
Ikram Basra is enrolled in the Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa. His work has been published in prestigious journals and newspapers, broadcast on Pakistani television and Radio China International, and translated into multiple languages. He is a former television news producer and reporter.
1. Hello Ikram! Do you have a specific project that you will be working on this year?
Right now, I'm working on 3-4 things. I just finished the final version of my 10-minute play “Familiar Laughter,” which was slated to be performed in April at the Fairfield Theatre Crawl, but due to the pandemic it has been postponed. My first collection of poems will also be coming out. It was scheduled to launch in New York in October, but this may also be postponed, given the pandemic. Meanwhile, I'm working on two projects: a stage play and a screenplay. One is an autobiographical monologue in which I try to reveal the impact of the US response to 9/11 and the War in Afghanistan on the lives of common Pakistanis. A one man play is a totally new venture for me, and I am learning a lot in the process. The other project is a screenplay inspired by Homer’s Iliad, set in 1980s-90s South Asia. This piece explores a justice system that permits honor killings (still prevalent in this part of the world) 3000 years after Homer.
2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?
I have no particular routine, and I don't write every day. In fact, sometimes I can’t write for weeks, but I am good with deadlines. Each day is different and I might appear disorganized to someone else, but I’ve never missed a deadline. I usually write late at night, and on a day I'm inspired, I make writing my priority. I like talking with other writers about their process, their approach to their work. When I'm working on a dramatic piece, I'll go for a walk or a drive to concentrate on planning my approach and arranging my thoughts. This is my favorite part of the process. But poetry it’s entirely different: It just happens. Poetry has its own place and time--it finds me. Usually, there are long spells between poems. When it comes, I do nothing else, and one sitting can last 10-12 hours of writing poetry.
3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?
There is so much reading to be done for the workshop and seminars that I haven't really been able to read much else in the last two years. Usually, I read two or three things at a time. My bedside table has two books these days: Dostoyevsky’s /Brothers of Karamazov/ and Murakami’s /After the Earthquake/. I am also reading about the theatre of the avant garde, and how catastrophic events in societies have changed theater. It's been interesting to reflect on how our current crisis will change literature.
4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and your work?
I like learning about writing and anything associated with writing. I enjoy words and the rhythms associated with different words and combinations of words is what appeals to me. I love the flexibility of words. How they can be shuffled to create new meanings or even to leave them meaningless. I like questions. I think where a mind can pose a logical question, at least part of the answer can be found in the question itself. In my writing, I always attempt to frame a question and then to find some truth reach through that question itself. The first fourteen years of my life, I spoke only Punjabi. Now, I write in Urdu, except for a few Punjabi poems. My process is pretty multilingual. Punjabi has had an immense effect on my personality, and most of my characters are from Punjab. At the same time, I write my plays in Urdu, and then I translate them to English. I did recently write a play directly into English: ‘A Village in South Asia.' At the end of the play, however, there is a monologue-- which I did write first in Urdu. It is my favorite part of the play, so it remains that I am still most comfortable writing in Urdu.
5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?
I grew up in a small town (pop. about 5,000) near Sargodha in Pakistan. It is in the Punjab, and at the center of wonderful orange groves. My extended family, the Basra clan, has about 15-20 houses like ours and we help one another. I spent the first 18 years of my life living in this joint family system. In our house, there are now 12 people living together: my parents, an uncle, my brothers and their wives, and two very sweet nephews ( Ahmad and Muhammad) and two very pretty nieces (Eshal and Fatima). They are endlessly active. My father, Chaudhry Muhammad Zubair Basra, is a very good writer himself. He never published, but he writes regularly and takes a lot of interest in my writing. He has been a big influence on my interest in literature, and I still often discuss literature with him.
Thank you Ikram!