Five Questions for: Mirabel

Posted on: 1 June, 2023

Category: Featured Member, QWF News

Avleen K. Mokha, also known as Mirabel, is an award-winning poet based in Montreal. Originally from Mumbai, India, Mirabel holds a B.A. in English Literature and Linguistics from McGill University. The 2019 winner of McGill’s Peterson Memorial Prize for Creative Writing, Mirabel has had her poems featured in carte blanche, Yolk Literary, Dream Pop, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and more. Her writing has been supported by the Quebec Writers’ Federation Fresh Pages Initiative, and her critically acclaimed debut poetry chapbook, Dream Fragments, was published by Cactus Press in the fall of 2020. Her first full-length collection, The Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After), will be published by Guernica Editions in June 2023.

QWF Membership Services Coordinator Riley Palanca spoke to Mirabel about her new book and her work as a poet and journalist. Here are five questions for Mirabel.

1) You publish your creative work under the persona “Mirabel.” What is the significance of this name?

My pen name emerged in the summer of 2020 when I was getting ready to publish my debut poetry chapbook, Dream Fragments, with Montreal’s Cactus Press.

I had always found mononyms endearing, but I had to decide if I wanted to come up with one for my chapbook. There were practical reasons: for instance, I also do academic research, and I wanted to disassociate my creative writing from my academic writing the best I could.

That said, I wanted a pen name that could straddle two cultures, the Canadian one and the Indian one. That summer, I often walked around Montreal looking for inspiration and hope (as many of us did during the early stages of lockdown). I had always seen Mirabel on street signs leading drivers out of the city, and it reminded me of Mirabai, an Indian mystic poetess from the 16th century.

It just clicked. What I love is that no matter where I’ll be writing in the future, my pen name will be an invisible string, tying me to the Montreal literary community which has been so kind to me. Today, my creative name stands for the alter-ego of my daily self who is not afraid of ugly truths, both hers and the world’s.

2) You initially published a 40-page chapbook, Dream Fragments, before coming out with your first full-length book, The Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After). What can your readers expect from your new book?

Vulnerability, intersectionality, and versatility.

My poems can sometimes go in dark, somber directions—but this time, I wrote like there was nothing left to lose. I was working on a rough version of my collection when I received shattering personal news that altered the course of my life forever. I gave myself the space to write about existential questions, mundane moments, and heavy silences that came after.

I also wrote about being a member of multiple marginalized communities. A first for me, I explicitly wrote about being a young immigrant. There are pieces that reflect my Sikh heritage and the intergenerational effects of colonialism—topics I wasn’t ready to address head-on in my first collection.

Lastly, I wanted to offer poems varied enough to hold my reader’s attention all the way through. I wanted a collection that was more than a compilation of poems I had lying around. I was afraid of seeming complacent as a writer. So, I constantly played with the formal aspects of every poem, from stanza structures to the length of individual lines, to push myself outside of my comfort zone.

3) Your latest book is a collection of poems, and each poem belongs to one of two sections: “The Vanishing Act” and “The Miracle After.” How do these two themes work together in your book?

Duality is central to this collection. Wanting to believe there is good in the world and being deeply disappointed in what life gives you; wanting to get better and not being able to escape your bad habits. So, I divided the collection into two parts to reflect the ambivalent quality of the poems.

“The Vanishing Act” grapples with crisis, disappointment, and grief—and how these destabilize your self-identity. (Fun stuff, I know.) “The Miracle After” is about the nagging, quiet desire for hope that is often the foundation of recovery. What happens when you want a miracle, but it does not come?

I chose not to resolve the uncomfortable tension between hopelessness and hope in this collection, as tempting as a happy-ever-after ending was. I wanted both emotions to have full room to express themselves.

4) Among other things, you have worked as a poet and as a journalist. Can you tell us a story of how you navigate the different scenes and genres of the professional literary world?

Absolutely. I think different genres of writing fulfill different parts of me. “Illegible,” one of the poems in my collection, was written in the summer of 2021. With the support of a federal grant for local journalism, I was then working as a news reporter for Parc-Extension News.

That summer, I investigated a COVID-19 outbreak in a manufacturing facility after receiving a worrying tip. Like me, nearly all the infected workers came from India and left for Canada for better treatment; instead, they reported being subjected to unsafe conditions. I was in a unique position to interview them because I know Hindi and had soaked in enough Punjabi from hearing my parents and grandparents.

I needed the immediacy and factuality of news for the public to care about the workers’ experiences. Yet, at the same time, working on this news story took a toll on me. It revealed personal, intergenerational wounds that had no place in the news but nonetheless had to be processed.

Many of the workers I interviewed for the news story sounded like my grandparents. They lost their childhood homes during the violent India-Pakistan partition, a tactical move by the colonial British, manifested by trains full of corpses arriving at platforms. I was haunted by the shared cultural ancestry between me and my interviewees.

How much suffering goes unnoticed because no one is at the right place at the right time to write about it? Poetry turned out to be the best way for me to think about this question.

5) You’ve been very involved with QWF over the years. You took poetry workshops with us, and you curated a Words & Music Show as well as blog posts for carte blanche. How has QWF made an impact on your writing career?

I joined QWF as a newcomer to Canada when I moved to study at McGill. It was my first time leaving my home country, and I had no family in Canada, immediate or distant. But I was still itching to be creative. Since I joined, everyone I interacted with at QWF has been so prompt and encouraging that it made me believe I was doing something worthwhile by continuing to write in an unfamiliar country.

And when I was on a tight budget as an international student but really wanted to take poetry workshops, QWF enabled me to participate. I can’t stress how much that initial support can mean for young writers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.

Because of QWF’s generosity, I felt encouraged enough to apply for more opportunities, instead of shying away from them. These experiences have given me a greater understanding of the local literary community and led to professional and personal connections.

As an immigrant, I sometimes worry if my writing will be too different for the Canadian audience. QWF has treated me like I belong, and that has made all the difference.

Mirabel will be launching The Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After) at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (176 Bernard Ouest) on July 22 at 7pm.