We have a very special visit today, my friends, to one of Poets United's earliest members, Shaista Tayabali, who blogs at Lupus In Flight. As the name of her blog indicates, Shaista lives with lupus. But it is not her illness that defines her; it is her radiant spirit, which truly does fly above. Shaista lives with her beautiful artist parents in Cambridge, England. She is well-known to all who cross her path at Addenbrooke's Hospital, whose halls she graces often; she has been interviewed by the BBC more than once. When Shaista's book of poems came out, I asked her if we might feature her, and announce its publication. Happily, she said yes. Prepare to be inspired.
Sherry: Shaista, it is so good to be chatting with
you again. We last spoke in 2017,
and we understand since then you have completed not one, but two books, a
memoir and, recently, a lovely book of poetry, “Something Beautiful Travels Far”. I have a copy, and it truly is
something beautiful, your words traveling to me across the Pond.
Tell us about your poetry book first, won’t you?
Kindle Edition available here
Shaista : Sherry! Blue Eyes! Thank you for doing a
second interview with me – it’s the closest we get to having a proper
The poetry book… I’ve been sharing my poems on my
blog since 2009 – in fact, my poems were the reason for creating my blog in the
first place, but then it became a home for all sorts of anecdotes about my
hospital life and family life… my little village shenanigans across the pond
from you… but two years ago I decided I wanted to put out a physical
I put together a host of poems, and then I asked a poet friend of
mine what she thought. She advised me to wait, send my poems out individually some
more, so I followed her advice… until this year when I decided I couldn’t wait
anymore for a poetry press to find a collection of my work acceptable, so I
have become my own poetry press for now! There is nothing new in writers and poets
printing their own work as you know. Leonard Woolf did it for Virginia; Eliot,
Twain, Atwood, Poe… all put out their own collections of words from time to
I have a kindle edition available for those who
cannot buy the print edition, and lately I’ve been illustrating copies for
those friends who bought the book but wanted it autographed. If I can manage to
include illustrations in a future edition, I will. My parents are both artists,
and the gene is hard to shake off! I find myself wanting to paint and draw more
than ever. One of my literary heroes is Beatrix Potter, and I often think about
how people described her incredible originality as ‘those little books’. Those
little books continue to bring such joy! And joy is a good enough reason to
keep at our art.
Sherry: I am so happy your book is out! An illustrated version sounds wonderful!
What I love most about your poetry – and
your blog posts – is that, while you live with a debilitating illness, you radiate such joy in life. Your compassionate heart shines
forth in your posts, as you interact with people you meet, on the hospital ward
and off. How do you manage to stay so positive, my friend?
Shaista: I have been on a chemotherapy type drug
called Rituximab since 2009, the same year I began my blog; Ritux is also
described as monoclonal antibody therapy, and it has been the most effective
treatment for the version of systemic lupus I have. But as I just mentioned, it
is cytotoxic, and highly immunosuppressive, so picking up infections is too
easily done, and then too hard to treat because my body has become fairly
resistant to the usual antibiotics.
When I’m in hospital I am determined to
humanise my own experience, so I don’t suffer more than necessary. It can be a
very lonely place in spite of the hubbub of nurses and doctors, and it can rob
you entirely of your sense of self. You are a number, a case, a diagnosis. You
might arrive without your clothes, hairbrush, glasses. No books to read, no
entertainment, and no one who knows the worth of your soul. I go in to hospital
prepared to counter all of those things. And poetry is probably my most
powerful arsenal. People often speak of me being a warrior, and use the
language of battlegrounds and fighting. So then why not speak of poetry as my
weapon, or the pen, at least, as the sword I wield.
Sherry: Your pen definitely wields considerable power! Do keep wielding it! I admire your determination to humanise your experience.
I love all of your poems, and blog
posts, needless to say. I am a big fan of the way you
see the world. There are two poems from your book that I especially love. Your
poem “Shaista” describes you so well. (Our newer members may not know that your
name is pronounced “Shy-sta”, and that you are known by your family as
“Shy-Star”, which suits you so well.) Let’s take a look:
That is a proud name."
I am proud of my name.
It is the Rajput name
It is the Persian name
Am I not then Shaista
I am standing on the battleground
listing a little
Sword and pen at the ready
Blood and words aplenty
But I long for sakura
snow pink petals of my cherry tree
Oh brief, beautiful one, wrap yourself around me
So I can be
Shaista, the free.
Sherry: You are indeed a warrior-poet! Oh, this is achingly lovely. I also really
liked your “Night of the Blood Moon”. Let’s read:
I went to the place where the wild things are
last night, on the trail of the blood moon;
I followed stardust and scalpel stones
to the place beside the runes.
I held my palms, out,
for all the readers to see,
to make what they could of the threads that bind me
behind the smudging
and the tearing
and the rearranging
of my soul.
The blood moon passed over
I was bathed in blood
I paid in pain of a different sort
from a different source;
from the place where the wild things are
to the place where the unspeakables are
to the place where the silent are
Sherry: I love the places where the wild things are.
Tell us a bit about this poem?
Shaista: Thank you – I always find it interesting
which poems appeal to people. My dearest friend Mary, to whom my collection of
poems is dedicated, loves ‘Girl,Interrupted’ and my father of course loves the
first poem in the book – ‘Crocuses’ – because it’s all about him!
Sherry: Those are both brilliant! If I could, I would include the entire book here! Smiles.
Shaista: ‘Night of the
Blood Moon’ was a result of some images posted on a poetry prompt website
featuring the portrait photography of Phyllis Galembo, professor of fine art at
Albany University in New York, celebrating the ritual of masquerade from Nigeria,
Haiti, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Benin. The carnival
characters she photographs are rooted in African religion and spirituality, and
among the materials plundered for their costumes are lizard excrement, sugar
syrup, tar, coal dust, leaves, cowry shells, sisal. The images struck a memory
chord of the drawings from Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
I had also
been wanting to write about the blood moon phenomenon (have you ever seen the
blood moon in Tofino?), which had coincided with Passover… it’s quite fun being
a poet – you can thread (or plunder) all sorts of seemingly disparate ideas,
concepts, objects into the union of a single narrative. I want to do what
William Stafford did - write a poem every day - but I don’t. I tend to wait
until I can connect ideas, moments, images. Ekphrasia, the Greeks called it!
Sherry: These inspirations came together wonderfully in your poem. I missed the blood moon but occasionally, when I have a Keeper to drive me to the beach at night, for I can't drive in the dark, I get to see a lovely moon rise above the sea.
I know you have been trying to decide where
to submit your memoir. Would you tell us a bit about the story
you tell in this book? (I have read it and it is as wonderful and inspiring as
I expected it to be. I am certain the right publisher would leap at the chance
to publish it.)
Shaista : Well, that’s a kind way of putting it! I
know you are always so supportive of my work – and I have always been grateful
for your unfailing belief in me. Do you remember sending me a carved stone into
which you taped a tiny piece of paper, with the words ‘Shaista, Believe!’ on
it? I love that stone!
I am struggling to find an agent willing to take a chance
on a tale of living with lupus and glaucoma. Some books take longer than others
to find the right home and mine is among those - difficult to place, harder to
sell. It is a book I have worked on for many years, honing it, turning it from
a personal recounting towards a more universal direction - that of living what
appears to be a failed or imperfect life – we are not supposed to be
chronically ill, society has no idea what to do with us – and still finding
joy, beauty, happiness, contentment. It is a kind of coming of age tale… not
the cut off age of 18 or 21, but rather moving towards 40, and refusing to be made
invisible, or rendered voiceless.
Also, there are a lot of absurdities in a
life like mine. So hopefully the book is funny too. Maybe not a roaring comedy,
but my consciousness about these oddities is an intrinsic part of why I do
smile and laugh as much as I do!
Sherry: Not a failed life at all, but a transcendent one, no small achievement! All of who you are is so much more than your illness, my friend. But I know your challenges are very hard to deal with. So I think we must sneak Mary's favourite poem in, since it illustrates so well what we have been speaking of.
Patient #13915 etc etc
The gleaming pebble
of my sparkly days
Rubs itself raw,
Here, on the Stroke Unit
I am just another Case
of Girl, Interrupted
I have lost my face
along the waterways
of little deaths
and unbearable truths.
I have lost my place
Lost the fluidity of my grace.
Sigh. A well-described reminder of the reality you live with, though you smile so bravely.
I know that one great blessing in your life is your extraordinary parents, both artists, whom I admire so much. Let's take a peek at the poem “Happy”, which you penned for them.
What does happy look like to you?
They fill the shelves with How To Be Happy,
but it's a sale.
What if you could be happy
without the sale?
What does happy look like to me?
My parents at the bottom of the garden,
Dad investigating his old domain;
He used to be the one who
cleared the ivy, tidied the hedges,
raked the weeds and watered the green -
Time took his eyes away,
but not the pride.
Nothing half remembered about that.
Arm in arm, they take a turn
about each bed, each nook, each curve;
Mum describes the changing years
in patterns of leaves,
trading the memory of colour
with his cane; but her hands
still tell most of the stories -
he accepts this was always her way.
Golden fields beyond their figures;
my mother's laughter, the evening chorus.
Wood pigeons salute their love.
Sherry: I salute their love, too. How wonderful they
are, and how beautiful your poem.
You took a couple of amazing trips this past year,
as well. Would you tell us a bit about your trip to Italy (!!!) and your recent
trip home to Bombay, for the first time in 21 years?
Shaista: I was hospitalised four times last year
with various forms of sepsis, including an infection that ought to have stayed
localised but instead entered my bloodstream. I ended up with PICC lines twice,
which means a tube is inserted inside the body for daily self injections. Yup,
not much fun.
So in comparison, this year has been miraculous. First, a three
day whirlwind trip in June with my younger sister-in-law Theresa – I surprised
her with Napoli, Positano and Capri. A lot of walking, like we couldn’t walk
normally type of excessive walking (Positano, your steps are unbelievable!) –
and eating (pizza from Da Michele – the place made famous by Julia Roberts in
Eat, Pray, Love when she unzips her jeans to make more space?) Best. Pizza.
Ever. Cheese on double cheese on cheese…
I thought that would be it as I had been incredibly
fortunate to travel at all. So when it came time to celebrate my 40th birthday
I thought I’d keep it local, just go to the seaside on a watercolour retreat….
But this same sister decided that was not a good enough plan. So she consulted
with all my siblings and then my older sister-in-law Angelina casually asked me
if I’d come out to India. So casually, I decided why not?
Bombay was extraordinary after 21 years, like a
dream. I was only there a few days, but I lived every second as deeply as I
could. Friends I hadn’t seen in all those years, foods I hadn’t eaten, places I
hadn’t visited since my diagnosis in August 1997. I fit Bombay in between
Bangalore and Singapore, and we spent a few days in Indonesia too, so all in
all, I may have used up all my birthday wishes of many years combined, and a
few miracles too.
Sherry: I live vicariously if, indeed, I live at all, and I think your travels made me as happy as they made you. I so enjoy the photos on your blog, of all your adventures.
How are you doing now, Shaista? What plans and
dreams do you have for the year ahead?
Shaista: I’ve talked about all sorts of hospital
stuff, but not my eyes. I’ve had a bunch of operations on my eyes for glaucoma
– a trabeculectomy bleb, a Molteno tube - but the one I had in September 2013
really destroyed my peace of mind. It’s called a Baerveldt shunt and it sits
attached to my iris. So every time my pupils move, I experience various stages
All my dreams and hopes and plans rest on the fulcrum of what my
eyes and body are capable of. Sometimes they allow me the freedom to do as I
please, and much of the time they don’t.
Sherry: That is very grave news, my friend, as we poets and artists need our eyes. I imagine the shunt must be very uncomfortable. I pray your eyes continue to serve you.
Shaista: I want to work on my quarter finished
novel. I want to start teaching again. I want to put together another
collection of poetry. I want to travel. I want to be present for the lives of
those I love. I want to be a good, better friend. I ought to learn to cook, to
drive. I must exercise more. I want to keep illustrating, to work on bigger
canvases, create a mural. I want to come visit you in Tofino!
But I’ll take what I’ve been given so far, and store
it away in the treasure box of things to be grateful for.
Sherry: Gratitude is your signature quality, my friend. I want you to come to Tofino, too. You nearly did, once! So close. Next time.
Thank you for this lovely visit, and for sharing your radiant spirit with us. I believe there is a publisher out there who as yet doesn't realize there is a best selling memoir sitting on a desk in Cambridge with his or her name on it. Shaista, Believe!
I am sure you loved this visit as much as I did, my friends. Does this girl not shine? Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!