Zoya Patel reviews Hijabi in Jeans by Isil Cosar

Hijabi in Jeans

by Isil Cosar

Guillotine Press

ISBN 978-0-6481693-3-8

Reviewed by ZOYA PATEL

From the very first poem, it is clear that Hijabi In Jeans by H.I. Cosar is a deeply personal, and deeply political collection, entwining the two themes to carry through every piece. Cosar, a Turkish-Australian teacher and writer has spoken of her bilingual, bicultural upbringing and the complexities that entailed (ABC, May 2018), and these experiences are clear influences that flow throughout the collection. There is the sense that Cosar is grappling with her fractured identity on the page, wrestling with cultural demons and trying to find a way through the murkiness that is the migrant experience.

This murkiness is defined in the opening poem, ‘Untitled’, as a sort of ‘in between-ness’ – the space between cultures that exists for immigrants who are forever trapped in an identity that is too foreign for home, and too foreign for their adopted countries at the same time. She writes of ‘a language/between two tongues’, the image encapsulating the silencing impact of immigration, where the subject exists in the no-woman’s land between two absolute cultures. Later in the collection, Cosar describes this space as ‘purgatory,’ further cementing this image of exclusion from both sides of her identity.

It is this intelligent and lyrical exploration of identity that immediately connects me with this collection. Like Cosar, I am also an immigrant, and the struggles she explores on the page mirror my own in many ways. Crucially, the title of the collection provides a clear indicator that we are of the same ilk – a ‘hijabi in jeans’ is a modern, Australian woman, a Muslim proud of her culture and religion, and equally proud of her feminism and independence. The title nods to the collision of two cultures, and the determination on Cosar’s part to inhabit both, despite the barriers she experiences from either culture.

This balance between a strong cultural identity and the feminist principles that underpin this, but simultaneously create triggers for opposition from both of her homes is a strong theme throughout the collection. There is a tension on the page that suggests that Cosar is no closer to finding a balance between these influences, and this tension is what drives the collection forward.

This is especially apparent in ‘Apology’, which is the rallying cry of the book, a bold and fearless statement against the suggestion that Cosar is anything less than a whole, strong person, regardless of what society expects from Muslim Australian women. She references her ‘two hearts, two tongues, two brains’, a dualism that continues to draw a line between her Turkish and Australia cultures, posing them as two separate influences, each commanding exactly half of her being.

The poem deftly demonstrates the frustration of being judged by other Muslims for her supposed lack of modesty, while being assumed to be a victim by mainstream Australians who have a blinkered definition of Muslim women.

As a reader, it feels as though the opposition between the two cultures is what makes Cosar’s subject position so untenable – for her, it isn’t about accepting her complex identity so much as making each part of her accept the other.

In ‘Nothing to Declare’, Cosar writes in sharp sentences the words she has to repeat again and again to strangers throughout her life, deflecting prejudice and benevolent racism at each turn. She writes:

Yes, this is my passport

No, my name’s not simple

Yes, I am hard to define

In this last line, Cosar appears to be addressing herself – acknowledging what the rest of the collection is grappling with, that her identity will forever be in flux, unable to be captured in a single term.

The anger of these poems is strongly evident, the tone almost creating a beat for their reading. There is an urgency in Cosar’s writing that suggest the immediacy of the poems’ meanings to her reality, and that the emotional bruises that underlie her words are still sore to touch.

In the poem ‘My Land-guage, the reader is taken on a journey to Cosar’s imagined conversations with the grandmother she never met. The imagery in these lines is potent, the descriptions of life in Turkey bringing alive the smells and sounds that Cosar conjures up. There is an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss, of the relationship that couldn’t exist due to distance.

The focus on identity in Hijabi in Jeans, however, does not detract from Cosar’s belief in community – the second overwhelming theme of the collection is the shared experience of immigrants, and of Turkish Australians, and the impact that cultural heritage has on our constructions of self. Several poems are reimagining’s of Turkey in the past, or moving reflections on her memories of the country These poems bring the collection together to create a firm foundation for Cosar’s self-examining pieces that, on their own, have less impact than they do when bolstered by the reminder of the universal experiences of immigrants.

Cosar’s use of language is stunning. Her ability to take the reader through her journey of self-examination, as it critiques the society we live in, is impressive, and is largely achieved through emotive and poignant imagery that transports the reader into the experiences she describes.

While the collection as a whole is lyrical and highly emotive, there are some poems, particularly several that examine Australia’s commemoration of the ANZACs that stick out as lacking the empathic resonance as the rest of the book, or appear defensive as if Cosar has readied herself for backlash.

Structurally, the first half of Hijabi in Jeans has a deeper sense of anger and both internal and external conflict than the latter half, which is more reflective and imaginative. Where Cosar soars is when the two come together to beautifully explore the fraught experience of immigration, such as in Nothing. The poem is a stark and arresting vignette of allowing her body to surrender to the ocean, nature for a moment overtaking the intricacies of her thoughts and internal conflict.

Cosar shows how migrants are so often defined by what we aren’t – not white, not speaking English, not of an acceptable religion, not enough – than what we are. It is a concept which is so beautifully encapsulated in the poem, and that simply unveils the crux of the issue at the heart of this collection – that the agency to define our experiences as migrants is held ransom by the country that is constantly withholding belonging and inclusion from us.

This is a collection that is wild in its anger and determination, yet soft in its acknowledgement of the vulnerability we have as humans to the whims of others – how we allow ourselves to be defined and deconstructed by the cultures and systems we have created, which demand labels even when there are none that will fit.

Cosar shows immense talent, and as her writing continues to sharpen, her voice will only become even more necessary for defining the Australia that is inclusive of its multitudes.  

ZOYA PATEL is the author of No Country Woman, a memoir of race, religion and feminism, published by Hachette Australia. She founded feminist journal Feminartsy in 2014, following four years as Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine.  Zoya was Highly Commended in the Scribe Publishing Non-Fiction Prize 2015, was the 2014 recipient of the Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship, and was named the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year. She is a member of the Feminist Writers Festival board, and has been published widely.