A teacher once told this Hamilton poet he 'wasn't the best at English.' Now he's a PEN Canada award winner

·5 min read
Fareh Malik, 28, was born in Toronto, grew up in Oshawa, and moved to Hamilton, Ont., in 2012 to attend McMaster University. He now calls this city home.  (Submitted by Fareh Malik - image credit)
Fareh Malik, 28, was born in Toronto, grew up in Oshawa, and moved to Hamilton, Ont., in 2012 to attend McMaster University. He now calls this city home. (Submitted by Fareh Malik - image credit)

Poet and author Fareh Malik, the recent 2022 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award winner, was always fascinated by verbal and oral storytelling, and he's been actively involved in "spoken word" since high school.

"I didn't know that I wanted to be a writer until recently, but I always knew that I wanted to be an artist," Malik told CBC Hamilton on Sunday.

Malik, 28, was born in Toronto, grew up in Oshawa, and moved to Hamilton in 2012 to attend McMaster University. He now calls this city home.

He describes himself as "an artist who likes to partake in activism and helping out in the community," and "a semi-professional dancer" for nearly 10 years.

"I feel a lot of things and I tend to not express them very well, so [dancing is] the one thing that always really helped me in expressing [what I feel]," he said.

Pandemic led to more focus on poetry 

While he spent his earlier years dancing, Malik is more recently known for being a writer — something he finds funny.

"It's just funny because even in high school, my English teacher told me that I wasn't the best at English," he said with a chuckle.

Malik says it was during the lockdowns in the earlier period of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he "was deprived of going into dance studios," that he started to focus more on poetry.

Submitted by Fareh Malik
Submitted by Fareh Malik

He says writing poetry enables him to reach people very directly.

"What I aim to do with my artistry now is just really try to make a difference in people who are going through negative circumstances," Malik said.

"My work has to do a lot about, you know, racialization, racism, Islamophobia, all these negative things that we see in our community and how to deal with and overcome those things.

"I try not to harp on the negative aspects of these things, but I do like to highlight their negative nature, because it gives us a pathway to move toward positivity and move toward reconciling these things," he said.

One of Malik's poems — Aftershock — addresses "the tremors … that take place in your family lineage, even years after a trauma has been resolved."

Another poem — After 911, The War Spilled Into Our Hometowns And Made Us Grow Up Too Fast, And My Homie Sister Don't Wear Her Hijab No More — zeroes in on Islamophobia.

"It's about Islamophobia first and foremost, but to give it more dimension and more depth, the poem …. is also about a cyclical nature of hatred, where someone is racist to me and my family, and so then I hate that person ... and then they start hating other people," Malik said.

"So, I don't like to focus on the negativity, I like to focus on what are the processes behind this hatred and this negativity and how do we fix that."

Debut poetry collection coming this month

Malik's debut poetry collection — Streams That Lead Somewhere — will be published by Mawenzi House on Aug. 15.

Malik says the book starts off in a very negative place, but there's a stream that shows people how to follow positivity and how to get to a better place.

"The book deals a lot with racism and xenophobia and heartbreak," he said.

"A big, big cornerstone of all of that is how all these things affect mental health. As someone who has been a sufferer of mental illness in the past, and a lot of people around me have, it's something that I feel like it's important to talk about."

He does such a wonderful job articulating those experiences thoughtfully and really making wonderful scenes with his words. – Josh Taylor, artist, choreographer, educator and storyteller

Josh Taylor, a choreographer, artist, educator and storyteller, is a longtime friend of Malik's, whom he first met in 2012.

"We're kind of like brothers in hip hop in terms of talking about culture," Taylor told CBC Hamilton.

"We've had hundreds of conversations about the experience as a racialized person within the art space, within society and things we could do to affect that."

Taylor says his "friend and collaborator" has always been "really thoughtful and it comes through in his poetry."

Submitted by Josh Taylor
Submitted by Josh Taylor

According to Taylor, Malik uses poetry to connect the racialized experience, the angle of mental health, being Muslim, and also what he's experienced and seen around him.

"He does such a wonderful job articulating those experiences thoughtfully and really making wonderful scenes with his words that really makes you think," Taylor said.

"It's been really exciting to see how good he is at touching nerves and bringing up emotions and also speaking to others who've had similar experiences."

Taylor said Malik is a "talented" and "thoughtful person who is thinking about others, very empathetic," and this has taken his writing and his talent to another level.

"His work connects so well because it's coming from a place of introspection, but also kind of critical eyes of looking at the world that we live in. And because it's coming from this empathetic place, it will connect with people, it connects with your own experiences," he said.

"Those are some of the reasons to read what he's doing and to follow what he's doing because he will make you think, will make you cry or make you laugh or he'll make you feel many things and great things."

RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award winner

In June, Malik won the 2022 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award, a national competition which recognizes emerging writers across multiple genres.

The jury described the excerpt from his collection of poems as an intense "portrait of what it's like to feel othered and alienated by daily doses of hate."

The citation noted the poems' "tenderness and throat-grabbing use of imagery" and Malik's "wide range of voices and tones to convey a nuanced spectrum of emotions and a laser sharp critique of Canada's blatant and covert systemic racism."

Taylor said he had two reactions when he heard that Malik won the award.

One was, "Of course he did … Like, of course, because he is that good. He is talented, insightful and what he has to say — people should hear it and read it," Taylor said.

"I sent him a text with a lot of emojis and exclamation marks, and 'Bro,' with a lot of Os.

"I'm really glad that they picked him because he's deserving and he's just just getting started," added Taylor.

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