Asha Karami

- The Netherlands -

Asha Karami is a poet, a doctor who works in youth health care and a ringside physician at martial arts tournaments. She won second place at the National Poetry Slam championship 2018, having competed as an 'anti-performance' performer. Her highly lauded debut, Godface (2019), was nominated for the Herman de Coninckprijs, De Grote Poëzieprijs and E. du Perronprijs.


Godface is a collection of contrasting images and rapidly shifting perspectives, evoking the idea of a play for voices or a masquerade. The contours of Karami’s poems are porous; voices, moods, locations, and time merge in writing that is not bound by traditional form. Relentless rhythm gives way to space and silence; poems morph into letters, dialogues, and theater. Karami opts for simple language and juxtaposes apparently random narrative elements, paradoxically allowing the poems to be fully understood, without the separate elements being perceived as logical or clear. This paradox makes the collection exciting, addictive and elusive. Karami’s keen eye, self-mockery and humor make Godface a unique and intriguing debut. 

Poetry International © Frances Welling (Translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey), New Dutch Poets 2020


Elusive self

In 2018, Karami scored very high at the final of the Dutch Championship Poetry Slam, where she came second with her declamation of hilarious poems about serotonin tests, the lack of good ideas and dogs with human skin. Over a year later, Karami’s firstborn, Godface, glows in the bookshop: a collection that is just as idiosyncratic, funny and disruptive as Karami’s declamation and was immediately nominated for the Grand Poetry Prize, the E. du Perron Prize and the Herman de Coninck Prize.

Godface is made up of sections which have been given the name of a neighbourhood in the Taiwanese city of Taipei. Each of those places is paired with a mental state: ‘Wanhua (agitation)’, ‘Ximending (aversion)’, ‘Keelung (delirium)’, ‘Yonghe (apathy)’ and ‘Songshan (euphoria)’. It is not easy to get a grip on the self that experiences those emotions. When reading the poems, the verses nimbly jump away, images and events slip through your fingers and it seems as if several selves are speaking at the same time. 

Blinding expressions 

One thing is certain: the candy wrapper around the bundle is intriguing. The blurb says not only that Karami works as a paediatrician, a yoga teacher and ringside doctor, but also that as a child she learned four languages, none of which she considers her mother tongue, that she changed names three times and that even her date of birth is ‘a complex story’. Those bits of information naturally whet the appetite. But you can also break your teeth on them. 

In a time of renewed appreciation for authenticity and expressive lyricism, a biographical approach offers a handy reading key for poems that do not easily reveal themselves. In Godface, Karami seems to anticipate that reading strategy and opens fire on it in advance.

Dreamed fragments

Dreams are an essential part of Godface. For example, the reader encounters ‘night book’, which arose from notes on dreams that Karami, in her own words, wrote down in unfiltered form immediately after awakening. In the collection, dreams offer the self the opportunity to exist as a body, without constantly having to account for who she is. The dreams in Godface are not interpreted anywhere; the reader must manage to sort it out without a manual. 

Surrealism 2.0

Although she herself does not refer to the artistic movement, Karami appears to share quite a few interests with the surrealists. Like Karami, surrealist artists saw their work as a form of (self) investigation. In Godface, the reader will find similar methods which set off a fit of laughter by means of their clinical and detached tone. 

Not only the recipes, but also the goal that Karami, in her own words, has in mind with her collection, echoes that of surrealist artists: “I really celebrated my own freedom with Godface […] I hope that will come across to the reader. That someone else also develops the desire to enjoy his or her freedom.”

Karami updates surrealism for the twenty-first century by manipulating processes such as automatic writing, collage and ready-mades into ambiguous reflections on today’s society. Because those techniques are used in sections in which mental states are related to neighbourhoods in Taipei, you can read Godface as the psychogram of a journey (whether dreamed or not) through the Taiwanese metropolis, which at the same time contains many references to Dutch places, customs and figures. What is refreshing is that Karami translates that old process into the twenty-first century, thereby raising new questions. Can any reader just follow in the footsteps of the lyrical self? Who knows how to use the key? And whose collective consciousness can you unlock with it?

Humour, affect and a compulsion for authenticity

Karami’s experimental critique of the excesses of identity politics remains manageable because she injects a strong dose of humour into the collection as a binding agent. She fires off quick-witted one-liners – ‘I hate logic / of course it chooses now of all times to rain’ – and puts her own tendency to boast into perspective.

Although she frequently keeps her readers at a distance through her resigned tone and often cynical humour, she also lets them come closer at times. This happens in particular when she writes tranquil vignettes that make life tangible in striking details. Questioning current problems with disruptive literary techniques also produces very moving results at times. This applies, for example, to the series of letters referring to Kafka that the lyrical self addresses to her father. It starts with one relatively understandable letter, which is copied several times and becomes more ungrammatical with each version. The result can be read as a melancholy reflection on disrupted communication between generations, (native) languages and cultures. 

Between a joke and an existential question

In Godface, resignation is expressed not only in the dry deadpan humour, but also in the paradoxical quest of the self, which tries to find itself by detaching itself from itself. By describing her own states of mind in the titles of the sections, they are kept at a distance: ‘I continuously check my mental state / it is completely still’. Western self-help Buddhism doesn’t seem far off here. Godface regularly exposes the Westerner who is tied up in knots and seeks help in Eastern philosophies. At the same time, the collection itself also uses similar conceptual frameworks. For example, Karami goes back to the Zen Buddhist genre of the dialogue of encounter, or koan. Such dialogues describe conversations between Zen masters and their students, in which the master answers the student’s questions about Buddhist doctrines in an enigmatic and seemingly illogical way. 

Fascinated by the radiant face of God hiding behind the cover, the reader searches for the coherence among the verses and poems of Godface that constantly jump away. As a result, the collection is a valuable gift: the poems are, each one of them, brand new discoveries that help us to question reality from a different perspective time and time again. One thing is certain: with Godface, Asha Karami delivers a sound that continues to resonate long after her debut has been read.

Author: Tijl Nuyts
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