Written by Philippa Willitts
Dimensions is a book of poetry and shorts by Pakistani writer and feminist activist, Shahidah Janjua. It takes the reader through aspects of the author’s life, with each poem and piece of prose both segmented and connected by recurring, colliding themes.
With evocative imagery of Lahore, Dimensions begins with reflections on Janjua’s early life. The smells, sights, sounds and rhythm of her childhood express both warm nostalgia and intense discomfort. Identifying the “sisterhood of servitude”, a place from which she chose “companions for the journeying way”, the author describes the cautious eye she had to keep on “the fathers wants, the brothers needs”. Already, her place as a girl in the world is painful. And, although I can sometimes find poetry to be impenetrable, these words are vibrant and distinct.
One section of the book is about Adam, Shahidah’s son whose death sent her spinning. I could barely breathe as I read the palpable agony of his passing and her grief.
My spirit lays down, its cheek pressed to the velvet grass.
Extracts from her diary talk directly to Adam. Pain, love, regret and memories mingle to create a narrative that is both uplifting and devastating. I found connections with my own experiences of loss, which no doubt contributed to how moving I found the writing, but Shahidah’s words went further than this. The pain of a mother who loses a child is said to be incomparable to any other grief and, through reading Dimensions a number of times, I sense that this is true.
Other parts of the book are, by contrast, light hearted and humorous. Laughing at the way we see the world and its contradictions is, at times, a welcome relief from the intense scrutiny of misogyny and oppression, although even these parts demonstrate the depth of the author’s awareness and intuition. We laugh because we recognise what we read.
Tales of Shahidah the wild child – an indication of the rebellious, misbehaving streak that remains, decades later – convey an optimism that abides despite her acutely perceptive insights into the problems facing the women of the world, from environmental destruction to beheadings to self-harm to rape. She does not shy away from discussing her uncle who raped her and the impossible choices she was forced to make. Righteous fury sings through Shahidah’s words.
Rights are for rapists
Freedom is for fuckers
Justice is for Judge Clarence
Punishment is for the poor.
Shahidah’s grandmother, with her “toothless smile and craggy face”, is a source of love and comfort, while walls and bars limit access to her father. Other women are a recurring theme in Shahidah’s words; their influence on her life, their meaning in her feminism. In Not Tangible Enough, she writes,
The reality of this me
Came from other women’s lives.
Their blood sweat words and brushstrokes
Wrung out on patterns across a page.
A powerful text about the powerful connections between women, the pain we live through and the injustices that surround us, Dimensions is a deeply feminist work that cuts through the fog and shines an uncompromising light on oppression. Shahidah Janjua’s writing takes readers from wistful longing to brutal pain and back in a single breath. Time and again, I allowed myself to relax into humour or enjoy a scene she so expertly conjures, before being whipped into the bleakness of her truths about the male gaze and misogyny.
The book is dedicated to Andrea Dworkin, who she credits as having taught her “plain speaking and truth telling”, and this book is certainly a powerful testament to that influence.
If Dworkin taught Shahidah Janjua to speak plainly and tell the truth, then she did so expertly. The author’s words are both beautiful and desolate, because the world she reflects is, too. This book is a work of beauty, a work of passionate feminism, and a work of truth; truth about women, our lives and our many complex realities.