Q&A: Lambda award winner Hasan Namir's Umbilical Cord explores his journey to becoming a gay parent
The poet's sister-in-law was the surrogate for his son
In recent years, Vancouver poet Hasan Namir has emerged as one of the leading queer Muslim voices in Canada. Namir, a Simon Fraser University grad, won the Lambda Literary Award for his novel God In Pink and the Stonewall Book Award for his poetry book War/Torn.
This month, Book*hug Press released his latest poetry collection, Umbilical Cord, which delves into what it's like to become a parent thanks to invitro fertilization of a surrogate, who happened to be his sister-in-law. Below, you can read an interview with Namir, which was supplied by his publisher's representative.
Umbilical Cord is unique as a collection of poetry on fatherhood from the perspective of a same sex couple and is also a very personal collection of poems. What drove you to write and publish this book?
Hasan Namir: Just when Kiran, my sister-in-law, Tarn and I started the surrogacy process, I knew I wanted to write a poetry book about that whole experience. I wanted to share with the world our journey of becoming parents, in hopes that it would inspire others and bring joy to their lives. The moment when Kiran became pregnant with Malek encouraged me even further to write this book and make it a reality. I shared the idea with Hazel and Jay Millar (Book*Hug Press), who published my first poetry book War/Torn and they were on board immediately. I started thinking about what I wanted to include in the book, my love of Tarn, our journey to become parents via surrogacy and our parenthood journey raising Malek up until he turned one years old.
In the book you mention that your sister-in-law was the surrogate for your son, Malek. Could you describe the journey that brought you to that decision?
Hasan Namir: When Tarn and I got engaged, at our engagement party, Kiran offered to both Tarn and I to become our surrogate whenever we wanted to become parents. She made the same offer again when we got married. When we were ready to become parents, it slipped from our mind that she had made that offer. So we asked a few friends but we realized that wouldn’t be possible because none of our friends had a previous successful pregnancy and birth and that was a requirement for the surrogacy. Then we remembered that Kiran had offered to become our surrogate prior. We had called her and asked her. She said, “Yes absolutely.”
Umbilical Cord reads in some ways like a memoir. How did the decision to write it as a collection of poetry allow you to access the emotions you felt on your path to fatherhood?
Hasan Namir: I chose to share our story in poems because poetry gives me a space which gives me comfort as a writer to share my personal stories, whereas, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable writing a memoir book about our journey. Through form and words, free-verse poetry allows me to be free and lets me express the whole experience in the way I want to express it. With poetry, I’m allowed to experiment, but in other genres or forms, I wouldn’t have been able to.
Many of these poems were written while you were on parental leave. What was that experience like for you?
Hasan Namir: It was all new to me. I had to learn to embrace every moment of it all. There was a lot of learning curves, and at times, I was feeling overwhelmed. I turned that overwhelming exciting feelings into poems. Some of the poems were written with me literarily holding Malek in my arms. I would have the laptop on my legs and he would be in my arms and I would write. Talk about multi-tasking. I would look at him and I would feel inspired to write as the words were coming out of my heart. Other times, he would be sleeping in his bassinet/crib and I would take that as an opportunity to write a poem. I felt so inspired by the whole experience and it was truly one of the best and most challenging but rewarding experience of my life so far.
In "Emails & Photos" you describe setting up an email account for your son in which to send him memories from his childhood. Similarly, Umbilical Cord serves as its own snapshot in time for your family to revisit at a later date. Can you speak a bit to what you wish Malek to understand through these records?
Hasan Namir: I want him to grow up and to relive the magic of his childhood from when he was first born and throughout the years. I want him to pick up Umbilical Cord one day when he’s old enough in hopes that he would be able to look back and see how much he’s loved. I want him to see how much his dads were determined into bringing him into the world with the help of his aunt Kiran. I want him to know that the journey wasn’t always easy but in the end, his dads’ dreams were fulfilled.
Your previous work, War / Torn was written from the perspective of other people and their lives. In contrast, Umbilical Cord is completely personal. How would you describe the difference in the experience of writing these two books?
Hasan Namir: The experience of writing both books were very different especially the tone of both books. War/Torn was dark and at times very mournful and elegiac as the poems highlighted the struggles of being queer set against religion and culture and nationality. Even the love poems in War/Torn had conflicting elements, so there was always some kind of war. Umbilical Cord was all about love, love and love, the love of two men who dreamed of being dads, the love of a sister to her brother and brother-in-law that allowed her to give them the gift of life, the love of grandparents, the love that the dads have for their child before and after birth. The book is also about the journey of surrogacy, all the challenges and the rewards of it all. Writing both books were a very emotional experience for me: one brought out the sadness out of, while the other brought the most happiness that I’ve ever felt.
Fatherhood is obviously a central theme in Umbilical Cord. How has your time in reflection as a parent changed your perspective on being a father and being a son yourself?
Hasan Namir: I was having a lot of excitement and some anxieties, especially when we were told that Malek was going to come into the world earlier than we had anticipated. Tarn and I spent two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. Prior to Malek being born, I’ve never changed a baby’s diaper let alone hold a baby. So I was nervous for sure. When Malek was born, both Tarn and I immediately had this inner feeling that was so fulfilling. We learned everything along the way and we’re still learning, which will never stop. That’s the beauty of parenting for sure. We appreciate all the challenges, all the ups and downs, all the happy moments, all the sad moments. We’re also very grateful because we learned so much form the nurses at the NICU. So when Malek came home from the hospital two weeks later after he was born, we felt comfortable and we knew what we were doing. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Tarn. He’s the best dad in the whole universe. I’m able to reflect and appreciate it all and look forward to the future challenges and moments in our parenthood journey.
Many modern families have a blended component to them that complicates titles such as "mother," "father," "grandmother" etc. Can you describe the decision-making process in assigning who is "dad," who is "baba" and the decision to have your sister-in-law remain "auntie"?
Hasan Namir: For us, it was easy because I’m Iraqi so we knew who “baba” was gong to be.” That’s me. We knew who dadda was going to be. That’s Tarn. So, Kiran, just wanted to help us bring Malek to the world. She knew that Malek is our child and she was excited to his “auntie” or “Puaji,” which means aunt in Punjabi. The moment Malek was born into the world, it was just Tarn and I who raised him and are raising him. The decision was mutual between all three of us. There was never a disagreement or any issues or hesitations.
There are few opinions stronger than those that concern how other people raise their children. How do you respond, if at all, to those who voice concern about a child raised by a same-sex couple?
Hasan Namir: We’re raising Malek cisgender and will continue to support him and his identity however which way it may evolve... We’re raising Malek with all the love in the world. Malek knows who his parents are. There is misconception that children of same-sex couples turn out to be gay. And that’s absolutely not true. We’re raising Malek to be loved unconditionally. We are happy with whoever he becomes and whatever decisions he make in his life, so long he’s happy, healthy and successful, that’s all we care about.
Umbilical Cord covers much more territory than just Malek and the circumstances of his birth. How did you decide where to begin in the story, and similarly, where to stop?
Hasan Namir: I felt like I didn’t do my love story with Tarn justice in War/Torn, so I really wanted to highlight our love story in Umbilical Cord. I wanted to focus on that, our love, our engagement, our marriage. I also wanted to briefly touch on my situational depression and how Tarn saved me. Then, I wanted to juxtapose that with surrogacy journey, Malek being born and only up until Malek turned one. So just like an umbilical cord, I wanted the book to go through the past and the present to highlight our whole journey.
What advice do you have for other same-sex couples who are exploring their options for becoming parents? What surprises or pitfalls, if any, did you experience along the way?
Hasan Namir: My biggest advice is, don’t lose hope. It may seem like the options are limited but keep looking and keep trying. Also, I understand that surrogacy is very expensive in BC and many provinces, which is why I want to take this as opportunity to tell our governments to include IVF as part of our healthcare system. LGBTQ2s+ couples should not have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars just so they can become parents.
My other advice is to love yourself and love your partner and be patient with one another. At times, this whole experience may be overwhelming so take it one step at a time. Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to a community of other queer and same sex parents. There’s a lot of great groups out there.
What is the ultimate takeaway you want readers to have after they have read Umbilical Cord?
Hasan Namir: Umbilical Cord is a book about love, parenting and hope. I want this book to inspire not only same sex parents but all parents and all readers. I want readers to know that parenting is a universal feeling, it’s all love. May the book bring the readers joy!