Living up to her name: Orooj e Zafar

Author of “Home and other debris” and Pakistan Poetry Slam champion 2018

islamabad - I sat down with Orooj at a beautiful coffee shop to have a chat about books, life, feminism and so much more. At 22, this girl has made a big name for herself in the poetry circle around the world. Looking back at how she began writing under a pseudonym that led to the birth of an online community supporting her and following her work, pushing her to do what she does best, putting emotions to words, giving a face to pain, she has not only touched my heart with her simple yet raw poetry but has also touched the hearts of countless other readers.  

While excitedly drinking a cup of hot chocolate she tells me how difficult it was to find her own place in the international poetry arena, having such a unique name and having brown skin doesn’t make things too easy, she said that countless people supported her but there very plenty that tried to jeopardize her career as well. “I had problems with my publisher, communication was so hard, so I am now self-publishing it. I faced racism because they said my poems weren’t relatable enough and were too brown so they won’t be able to attract an international crown since they won’t be able to relate to it. But when my work started getting published in international blogs and websites, the response completely annihilated these doubts.” 

Home and other debris, is her first book that got published last year and is available on, upon asking how she managed to get a poetry book published she proudly told me that she won the book deal as part of an international manuscript competition held by a small poetry publishing house “Where are you press” based in Portland, OR. The beautiful amalgamation of happiness and pain is what makes her book so pure, raw and honest.  Readers from all across the globe reacted very positively towards the book, it was an immediate success. 

She commented that “I was shocked to find out that I was one of the only two finalists from Pakistan, and fortunately I ended up winning it, hence ended up getting this book published”. She added that before this competition she never had planned on publishing a book so early because she thought she wasn’t ready for it, until Rachel Nix, a friend of hers contacted her, who was collecting poetry from across the world for an anthology she was creating titled “America is not the world”.

Orooj said that the book isn’t based solely on herself and her feelings but also the experiences of those close to her, she mentions the last poem in the book “Names of brown baby girls” which she wrote after being inspired by “alternate names of black boys”, a poem written by Danez Smith, an ode to the #blacklivesmatter campaign and about the experiences commonly shared by minorities in general, and by black people in particular, to which she strongly relates as a brown woman.

On a warm gold summer day as we speak, the rollout of Orooj’s second book is well underway. A very noticeable thing about her poetry is the way she connects feelings and pain with medical jargon and concludes with almost a diagnosis and prognosis of life like an intricately woven pattern, she said “poetry gets you in touch with your deeper self, it has the power to make you a better doctor, personally being a poet has made me a better medical professional, I’ve become more methodical as a writer and clinician since I look into such intricate details and feel so deeply about things that someone else might not even notice.” 

During the final round of the Poetry Grand Slam championship that she ultimately won, she wooed the audience like a rock star rather a poet. The audience was spellbound and every single person present on the occasion was and almost in tears by the end of her poem “Forgiving the river pt.2”.

In her book, a very common theme that is visible is mental health and issues related to it, Orooj is an avid mental health advocate, she hopes on becoming a mental health professional after she graduates from med school. Talking about her own struggles with mental health she said, “I’ve experienced mental health issues, everyone lies on the spectrum of human emotions, everyone feels a certain level of a certain feeling, I’ve had struggles that led me to question the meaning of life, why I was doing anything, I guess it’s related to past traumas that I’m still dealing with”. She said that she wants to demolish the stigma attached to mental health which is why she discusses her own personal struggles so openly in her poetry and on social media.

Juggling two different careers is a very difficult task, which Orooj is carrying out immaculately, when asked about how she manages art and hard science together she said that both are actually quite similar. “I feel like it all goes back to science, every punctuation mark has a meaning behind it, the scientific alignment of words is the key to jot down a beautiful poem, it’s almost like math, poetry is scientifically constructed, you’ll see that every poem needs to stick to some parameters so it’s just as hard as science. Going back to the fact that being in tune with poetry makes me a good doctor.”

At such an age where most early adults are unable to even decide what they want to do in life, Orooj has not only published a book, won countless national and international poetry competitions, became a TED x speaker, released two spoken word albums, got featured on various art blogs, finished writing a second book but also managed to juggle medical school while dealing with her own health issues. She is proof of the fact that Islamabad is creating hard-working, talented and fierce women that are not only fighting against stereotypes and the prevalent male chauvinism but are creating their own space to build each other up and help more women break free of the shackles gifted to us as heirlooms by our society. 

We end our conversation talking about our mutual admiration for Islamabad, she said: “I can’t imagine living anywhere else, I see myself always coming back here, I thought I wanted to escape the city, but no, as dysfunctional as it is, it is home after all.” 


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