Working with Words: Maryam Azam

Maryam Azam is a poet and teacher living in Western Sydney. She spoke with us about observing raw human nature, stolen diaries and leaving teen angst behind.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of Maryam Azam

It was Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. The part where Jesse finds out his best friend Leslie has died in an accident – the description of his feelings of confusion and pain, like popcorn popping in his head, was so vivid I spent half an hour in tears.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I wrote poems and stories for pleasure as soon as I learnt to write. I had a poem called ‘Yoghurt’ published in the school newsletter in Grade One, which I was immensely proud of. In high school, my poetry tackled topical political issues with grand metaphors and allegories, such as a fun fair to describe the refugee crisis. 

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

Being a teacher is an opportunity to observe raw human nature that hasn’t been refined or trained yet.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, just like I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so in every imagining of my career I see myself teaching in some form or another. If I wasn’t writing, I’d have more time to design resources and would probably be running an online resource store on TeachersPayTeachers.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Being a teacher is an opportunity to observe raw human nature that hasn’t been refined or trained yet.

The best advice I’ve received was being told a poem was ‘shit rolled in glitter’ – it made me realise that the story you are telling is equally important as the bells and whistles of how you’re telling the story. I didn’t waste time on another teen angst poem after that.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I used to keep a diary up until a day in primary school when a boy snatched my diary from me and passed it around. Someone took offence at something I wrote and told a teacher. The teacher said to me, 'your mother is a lawyer, you should know not to put things in writing'. Since then I’ve known better than to put my private thoughts and feelings on paper.  

Which classic book/play/film do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

The story you are telling is equally important as the bells and whistles of how you’re telling the story.

No one seems to talk much about The Waves by Virginia Woolf. It was a book I’d go back to often during high school. The stream of consciousness narration by each character was impressive to me. I would often read parts of Rhoda or Susan’s narration because I found it comforting and relatable and a source of inspiration. 

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I don’t think there’s anything strange about my writing habits. I have to have a cup of tea with me when I write.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I’ve never thought that I wanted to go back and change anything – the good and the bad of my writing are all part of my personal journey of development as a writer and I’m focused on going forward and publishing writing that is better than the last.

Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

I’d like to have dinner with Kamala Khan and discuss the challenges of a hybrid Pakistani identity – and hear about her adventures as Ms Marvel.

Portrait of Maryam Azam

Maryam Azam is an Australian-born Muslim millennial who lives and works in Western Sydney. She graduated with Honours in Creative Writing from Western Sydney University and holds a diploma in the Islamic Sciences. She is a recipient of the WestWords Emerging Writers’ Fellowship. Her debut poetry collection, The Hijab Files, was released in 2018 by Giramondo Publishing.

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