Mini-interview: Sheniz Janmohamed

Sheniz Janmohamed was born and raised in Toronto, with ancestral ties to Kenya, Kutch and Gujarat. A graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph, Sheniz has been published in a variety of journals including CV2, Quill & Quire and Canadian Literature. A spoken word artist, Sheniz has performed across the world at venues including the Vancouver Writers Fest, Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA), Jaipur Literature Festival, Alliance Francaise de Nairobi and the Aga Khan Museum. An arts educator and nature artist, Sheniz regularly visits schools and community organizations to teach and perform.  Sheniz has three collections of poetry, published by Mawenzi House:  Bleeding Light (2010), Firesmoke (2014) and most recently, Reminders on the Path (2021). 

What drew me to this poet: When she came to the Ottawa Small Press fair with her first book of ghazals, I bought it. Unlike John Thompson’s Stilt Jack, these were poems closer to the oral root of refrain and passion, rather than broken ghazals of suicide ideation. Her new book has been profiled by CBC and Canthius.

The book:  Reminders on the Path (Mawenzi House, 2021)


Like this 
I speak a language unspoken, 
of timeless streams of blood 
poured from one chalice
to the next— 
an unbroken lineage of ache. 
If I raise the draught of the past to my lips,
 I’ll become a relic
in the museum of my own making. 
How do I walk into the sun
of who I’ve become
without searching for the shadows 
of who I was? 
I turn my attention to
a river of flame-tipped tulips 
winding its way between this path, 
scarlet goblets opening
for silver sheets of rain. 
A glimmer of sunlight
flickers between
a single line of drenched poplars. 
Like this
just like this. 

 Reminders on the Path (Mawenzi House, 2021)

About the Book: Infused with the language of place, the poems in this collection are stepping-stones from the author’s past to her present, from forgetfulness to remembrance, The poet is wayfarer: at each step she sees reminders of the ephemeral and the indelible.

Praise for the book:

Tracing the movements of her generational forebears through crossings from India to East Africa to North America, this gifted mystic poet reminds us that while our outer journeys bring dislocations too heavy to bear, our inner journeys bring us back to a shattered heart that finds, in its remembering, healing and wholeness in the present. –Zayn Kassam, Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College

Lyrics of longing and surrender float down the pages of Sheniz Janmohamed’s startling third collection, Reminders on the Path. Here, ghazals are not just couplets of emotion, free verse is not without form, these are the precise political unravelings of a human being living on Turtle Island with a heart that beats in Sufic Persia. The poet asks, What is the motherland? What is the land? Who am I in diaspora? And then, the garden enters the poet to show the way. – Tawhida Tanya Evanson, author of Book of Wings, longlisted for Canada Reads


PP: In a Canthius review, Namitha Rathinappillai remarks how your poems anchor in being part of the whole, and entrench “hyper-awareness of one’s positionality in their lineage” descendant and future ancestor. Is this responsibility to the future excite and cause stage fright?

SJ: Thank you for such an insightful question. I often think about why we, as a culture, avoid the more challenging aspects of our responsibility to the future. Perhaps because it can feel debilitating and overwhelming. For me, the responsibility to the future, if deeply peered into, should terrify and inspire. The weight of responsibility from one generation to the next requires investigating within, listening, and then paving forward in collaboration with the ones who came before us, and the ones who follow.  What anchors me in reality, free from abstraction, is to just sit with one person who is younger than me, and truly understand what they need. That is a form of gazing into the future. 

PP: Your imagery is paired with leaning into truth-telling. What is it that makes a poem grab you with its necessity as you write?

SJ: I have to keep returning to direct experience. While I’m writing, I’m careful not to direct the poem into meaning, but instead, allow it to reveal itself to me.   I try to listen for what the image or set of words is trying to convey, and get to the truth of it, unobscured by my own bias. I return to a guiding question: How can I serve the poem?
So often there’s a notion that we direct the writing, but sometimes the writing directs us. That is a form of truth-telling. 

PP: Many writers write for what they wish they had to read as a young person? Is that part of your drive as well?
SJ: Partly, but it’s also for what I need to hear at this moment. Poems, or the windows that open into poems, are reminders and anchors for my everyday life.  That said, I’m not writing in a silo. We’re often asked the question, “Who do you write for?” but I am learning to reframe the question as, “Who do I write with?” 

What was or were your favourite moment(s) in making this book?
SJ: A lot of my favourite moments in making this book were not in the process of writing it, but in the process of preparing the ground for it. 
– I visited Kenya in 2017 and 2019, taking notes and interviewing my maternal grandmother about her life experiences, some of which made their way into the book. While I was there, I also created a catalogue of the plants, flowers and trees in our garden, which served as a lexicon for Reminders. -I’m a tactile person, so when I returned from Kenya, I made index cards with big questions and colour-coordinated notecards with images and symbols. I laid them out on my floor and paired them together for writing experiments. Over the months, the cards took different shapes, and eventually I formed a path of words through them. This process was deeply satisfying and playful, and allowed me to pull from my own distilled experiences to shape my book. 

As I’m also an artist, I found multiple entry points into the creation of my book. In the early days, I was envisioning the book as a paradise garden– so I sketched one. The sketch served as inspiration for the structure of my book, even though the form evolved over time.  When I began dreaming up my book, I felt that the tone of the book was hued  emerald and gold. When I had a chance to create the cover art, I was able to bring that vision to life. The materials I used were found in and around my house, which makes it even more special. I also made original sketches for each section, which act as visual markers for different stages of the journey.