Analysis of Poem Presents From "My Aunts in Pakistan" by Moniza Alvi

Updated on July 10, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Moniza Alvi
Moniza Alvi | Source

Moniza Alvi and Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan

Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan focuses on the feelings of a teenage girl who is caught between cultures, having a father from Pakistan and an English mother. It is set in the past, the speaker recalling the time she received the gifts. So essentially this poem is an exploration of cultural identity within a series of memories.

The poem highlights in some detail a specific time the gifts themselves and uses metaphor and simile to explore the identity issue.

The gifts she receives, vividly coloured traditional Pakistani clothes, bangles and shoes, both delight and confuse her. They set off a train of thoughts, feelings and memories that take the speaker all the way from England to Pakistan and back, restless energy reflected in the poem's structure, especially the line breaks.

Above all, it is a person-centred poem, autobiographical. As the poet herself says:

'The girl in the poem would be me at about thirteen. The clothes seem to stick to her in an uncomfortable way, a bit like a kind of false skin, and she thinks things aren't straightforward for her.'

  • So the poem is a reflective search for a true identity, part of an ongoing process that only those with a dual heritage can understand and empathise with. Confusion is almost inevitable when you consider that the clothes we wear can influence the way we think and act and see ourselves - this speaker is split between cultures and so feels a push me pull you effect.

Many of Moniza Alvi's poems deal with this issue of cultural identity. Having been born in Pakistan she sailed to England when a young child and so experienced a totally alien culture at a time when she must have been highly impressionable.

This feeling of alienation comes through strongly in her work and especially in this poem.

Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan

Analysis of Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan

Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan looks back at a specific point in time when a teenage girl receives gifts from Pakistan, the country in which she was born. She now lives in England and so feels kind of stuck in between the two cultures.

The gifts include the traditional dress of Pakistan, the salwar kameez, a brightly coloured costume that makes the speaker feel inadequate. It is 'glistening like an orange split open' a suitable simile which enhances the idea of excitement and goodness.

There is a lot of detail in this poem, a visual wealth, the speaker carefully noting the different colours and elaborate design of the clothes. This reflects the strength of the culture and the connection the speaker has to Pakistan and her family there.

As a teenager she notices the fashion change - same for the west and for the east - but the emphasis is on her identity being confused. The more detail the reader receives about the gifts, the more the speaker's identity is challenged.

She feels attracted to Pakistan but also overwhelmed. When she puts the costume on there is no feeling of freedom or confidence. Just the opposite. The bangles produce blood and the interesting word 'aflame' causes some alarm. Being half-English she feels restrained and uncomfortable.

For all her confusion there is something about Pakistan and its exotic traditions that attracts her. The camel-skin lamp for sure, despite the associations of cruelty she always admired the colours.

This ambivalence is reflected in the language used. Consider glistening, lovely, radiant and conflict, fractured, throbbing. Her love of the colours and the materials, their radiance and splendour, is challenged by the fact that Pakistan has become 'a fractured land' full of divisions and violence.

The way the poem is structured adds to the notion of an unsettled person. Lines are indented and white gaps appear; dashes add to the uncertainty. Reading this poem is a challenge because there are uneasy gaps between lines which cause pauses, both long and short.

And there is an emphasis on the personal. Note the number of times lines start with I.....I tried, I could never, I longed, I couldn't, I wanted...and so on. This is a meaningful time in this person's life.

Her English friend wasn't too impressed by the salwar kameez, another example of the rift between Pakistani and English culture, felt deeply by the teenager, who on the one hand wants nothing but corduroy and denim but who is also attracted to the wonderful costume.

You sense a battle going on within the psyche of the speaker; for or against this or that culture, torn between the old and the new, the past and the future. There is guilt, wonder, inhibition, curiousness, discomfort, alienation.

So, here is the confused teenager searching for a definitive answer to her identity but never quite sure of her roots or her feelings. Her memories of Pakistan are mixed; she recalls beggars and women who had to be screened from the males, a sign of a restricted society. Yet, she is not judgemental, perhaps because she is too young.

She feels like an outsider, neither fully one nor the other. And all the time the question begs - will she eventually wear this salwar kameez? Will it lie for years in her wardrobe before she dare gets it out and shows it off in public?

After all, there is much psychology behind the clothes we choose or choose not to wear.

More Analysis of Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan

Presents From My Aunts in Pakistan is a free verse poem of seven stanzas with a total of 68 lines. There is no set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in the lines of varying length.

Structure/Form

A poem that appears restless on the page, moving from right to left as the lines become indented, shorter, staggered and longer. The lines vary in length too which, with everything added together reflects the lack of stability and wavering emotions of the speaker.

Language/Diction

In a poem written by a mixed race poet, on the subject of cultural identity, you would expect words to appear common to both cultures. In the first line note the Pakistani salwar kameez (traditional costume of the Indian subcontinent,baggy trousers and long shirt or top) and in contrast Marks and Spencers, the British retail company.

There are strong contrasts between words used in connection with Pakistan and those for England, and others related to specific objects or items. For example:

lovely/alien

cruelty/marvel

cherished/stolen

radiant/didn't impress/admired

screaming/playing

glistening/radiant/conflict/fractured

Metaphor

The salwar kameez can be seen as a metaphor, representing the country of Pakistan.

Simile

In the third line - glistening like an orange split open - compares a juicy fruit with the bright costume. So the idea expressed is about good things, excitement, things to look forward to.

At the end of third stanza - like stained glass - compares the colours of the camel skin lamp to those of stained glass, which are often rich and deep and translucent.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

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