Shaking Me Out of My Skin

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"How do you honor people in your pieces?" I asked two different poets these past few weeks.


I've been struggling with this question as I think about writing and publishing more publicly. I always have ownership over my own stories, even when they include other people - family members, friends, and people who look suspiciously like them. Who gets visibility when I write them into my stories? My writer self or the subjects that I sit with? I've been asking for an easy answer, but I only get more complexities.

I've been writing in my head, but I've been writing badly. After the Eyes on Bangladesh event, I was fried. I started to describe my stress in waves. All the stimuli of having weekend after weekend of events made it hard for me to concentrate on anything but practicalities (did I send that email/write that post/eat today?). I love all of my work, but because I love it so much, I have not learned how to adequately say 'no'. To only get rest when someone cancels is no way to live your life. Something had to change.

What I needed was poetry.

And movement.


My friend of many years, Jess X. Chen, came to stay with me and since she is a poet, upon landing she had a list of events for us to go to. I inhaled Tarfia Faizullah's poetry collection Seam after seeing her perform. I listened to Cathy Linh Che and Jenny Le in Ocean Vuong's living room, humming and asking questions. It helps to have friends who can drop you a casual invite to an unfamiliar community.

Poetry influences a lot of my writing style, in part because that was the first form I wrote in that integrated my art and activism. These days, I don't keep up with poetry as well as fiction, though whenever I need inspiration I turn to my well-worn Pablo Neruda collection. More and more people of color poets are doing amazing work and getting noticed for it. These poets shook me out of my writing skin. This period of writing badly has reminded me of another lesson:

My art is slow. In form and content, I need to spend more time with my pieces. I need to draw inspiration from a wide range of sources. I need to listen to the people in my head before I can even think of honoring them.

I encourage you to also try drawing some other inspirations apart from your usual. I'm a fan, of course, of fabric arts (hence all the in-progress pictures in this post!). It's been immensely helpful

"Holding Hands:" My Piece for 1,000 Words, an Eyes on Bangladesh Event

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Hey all! Remember when I said I was doing a reading? Well, the reading happened last Saturday and it was amazing. I was so honored to be amongst such passionate folks -- writers, listeners, and organizers -- that cared about disrupting stereotypic narratives of Bengali life and art. It was also amazing to be in the physical space where the photographs were being displayed; I lingered much longer than just the reading, talking to people and taking in all the amazing photographs.

It was a lot of work to write this new response piece to their work, mostly because I wanted to respect representations of people that I do not share experiences with, even if my work fiction. But in the end, I had a deadline and I had to take the plunge. For any friends and fans who couldn't make it to the reading, here is a recording of "Holding Hands," my piece in response to Taslima Akhter's photos of Bangladeshi garment workers and the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Recording credit goes to Kyla Cheung. Text below the jump, including a more formal introduction than the one that was read in the recording. I appreciate all of your thoughts over Twitter or email.

This piece will also appear in The Margins, a magazine published by Asian American Writer's Workshop.
 

Bideshe Amra Bangladeshis: Celebrating Independence Day in Diaspora

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I recorded my boro chacha’s stories about the Liberation War one hot summer afternoon in the village house in Kushtia. We went into his private room with the fan turned on, but it was still sweltering; every few seconds I would swat at a giant fly that had swirled in too close to the recorder, or a baby would come toddling in for my boro chacha’s attention. But this was the last day we would spend in the village, and I knew that, despite the distractions, we had to finish.

Boro chacha is known as the “hothead” of our family – a label I also take after. It’s said that he couldn’t stand to be anywhere that compromised his values, which sometimes left him jobless. He was serving in the army in West Pakistan when the war broke out. So he disappeared. He deserted the army, changed his name, and hopped trains until he showed up out of the forest at the door of our village home. There were no reliable communication lines, so my family describes his arrival like the appearance of a ghost. Boro chacha takes pride in speaking Urdu so well that it allowed him to escape. He wasted no time at home though. A few weeks later, he left again – this time to serve in the liberation army.

My boro chacha is a wiry man in his seventies now, wearing a lungi and a long grey beard. I have my sister with me as we talk, and she will also do the written translation work afterwards. I feel embarrassed that I cannot understand it myself; I do not know enough Bengali to hear this story from boro chacha’s own mouth.

I found my connection to Bangladesh when I was fourteen: the year I found out I was adopted. It wasn’t part of the plan – my white adoptive mother spilled the beans. It was within the family; my Bengali adoptive father brought me into the U.S. when his sister could not take care of me in Bangladesh. I became a child of diaspora by a twist of fate.

Even once I knew about the adoption and having another family somewhere, I still wasn’t “connected.” I didn’t live in a Bengali community and I didn’t know how to find one in Seattle, where I grew up. Even my dreams of being reunited with family were in sepia tones; I couldn’t imagine Bangladesh as anything but a dusty set of buildings and brown faces. The first time I had any contact with my biological family was in college – when my biological sister found me on Facebook. I became consumed with trying to visit, finally convincing my father that we needed to make the trip in my sophomore year.

I was then able to fill in the colors and sounds – the loud honking of horns in Dhaka streets and the bright salwaars that are the day-to-day wear of women in every class. I was, however, virtually unable to communicate. Despite finally being part of the ethnic majority, I was handicapped by my lack of language skills and had to be led everywhere by my sister. Still, I felt more connected there than anywhere else I have lived. When I had to return to snowy New York for the rest of my semester, only the determination that I would go back helped me to survive through that year.


I asked my father during one of our more recent marathon phone calls: “Have you ever felt conflicted about your identity now that you’ve lived so long in the U.S.?”

“No,” he said, not missing a beat, “I am always a Bangladeshi man – at best, I am an expatriate.” An expatriate. Like the Brits in our country. Not the stereotyped immigrant who has to relinquish all loyalty to their previous homeland for citizenship. No worries about weakening ties. Not a hint of hesitation.

I am jealous of my father’s stability. His feet are firmly planted not only in Bangladesh soil but specifically in our village home in Kushtia, though he has not been back there for more than a few days out of ten years. He knows where he is from.

Celebrating Bangladesh Independence Day feels different when your heritage is more fragile, when you never feel “Bengali enough.” Most days, I don’t feel “American enough” because of how often I am asked to comment on “India” or “South Asia” – just another variation on “where are you really from?” But on this day, I am reminded that although I take immense pride in Bengali literature, I cannot yet read it. On this day, I am reminded that despite my loyal lineage, I feel I am still crashing someone else’s party.

The second time I went back to Bangladesh, I decided I had to collect stories. I begged my Amma, my biological mother, to teach me our language from books for kids in class 1 and 2. I tried to soak in all the family legends and wrote pages and pages of description as if the memories would fall out of my head once I landed on U.S. territory. My curiosity – and insecurity – has pushed me to take classes and read endless articles and books on Bangladesh while I am away. And slowly, ever so slowly, I am getting plugged in to the radical Bengali community that exists in the U.S.

As I turned off the tape recorder, stories in hand, I realized I am still trying to define where I fit into this narrative of national origins. This is a day of recognition: recognition of our pain and struggle, and of our victory. Achieving independence meant defining ourselves by separation: here is what we are not. Now, more than forty years later, we are still defining what we are. It is tempting to feel trapped in insecurities, but on this day I will be gentle. “Once a Bangladeshi, always a Bangladeshi,” my father would say. I am filling in the details of my own story along the way.

Reading at the Eyes on Bangladesh Exhibit!

Monday, March 24, 2014



Calling all New Yorkers: I'm excited to announce that this Saturday at 6pm I will be reading as part of the Eyes on Bangladesh photography exhibit! The exhibit is showcasing the work of Bengali photographers who show a different side of Bangladesh not often seen in the West, and wants to begin a dialogue between first and second generation Bangladeshis.

I will be reading a piece written in response to one of the amazing photographers being shown, specifically the powerful Taslima Akhter, a labor rights activist who is most famously known for her work documenting the Rana factory collapse and the Tazreen factory fire. I am honored to be reading a piece inspired by her work and cannot wait to see what the other creators have to share as well!

Doors open at 5:30pm, so come early and I hope to see you there! Also, check out the rest of their programming over on the Eyes on Bangladesh website.

A Building Collapses in Harlem...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

This post is helping me to process some of my first reactions to the Harlem building collapse that occurred last week and the media coverage following it. After only finding formal press coverage of the issue while Googling, I would like to be in dialogue with people who are actually on the ground and working on this particular issue -- please email me or Tweet @thecowation with your thoughts.

  
The first thought I had was: "How dare they?"

There was an explosion in Harlem, the news alert said. Two buildings collapsed. After a while, I turned off the TV and closed the open tabs filled with articles. They all said the same thing. They lamented; they listed the dead.

How dare they portray this as a casual accident, an unexplained tragedy -- a backward glance and then, boom? Anyone you ask could tell you those apartments have been crumbling for years. No landlord in sight, no incentive to be.

One life lost unfurls into three. Then six. Then eight. For every life that is extinguished, five are impacted by life-changing injuries, mental and physical. Maybe more. Yes more, endless more.

The injured are always shuffled to the end of the sentence, always the follow-up. But they remain present, devoid of context after the news cycle has run its course. In ICUs and family homes, unable to get insurance or with insurance that will not cover their care, they survive. Some will end up on subway trains begging, while other riders turn down their heads. Long after the initial event, these people will continue to navigate a world not designed for them.

My best layperson theory about the housing situation in NYC is that it's a ticking time bomb -- the buildings are old and there isn't much incentive to renovate unless you're knocking them down to build condos (read: gentrification). There are few city interventions for communities that aren't cared about, and when there are they always come after they're needed. After the crisis.

How do you mourn when your everyday life is a crisis? This is the same question I asked after the Rana building collapse in Bangladesh, where the death tolls were in the thousands. I continue to ask them now as the bodies are carefully dug out of the rubble in Harlem and the area becomes just another hole in the ground. Who lives on? Who benefits from their misfortune? And how, as onlookers, do we do anything at all?

I am wrestling with these unanswered questions. I have looked back at my social justice influences -- interviews and articles by Mia Mingus for disability justice in particular. Taking a workshop with her a few years ago completely changed my understanding of how social justice work can be connected with healing. As she mentions: we should center disability justice because we all have the potential to become disabled, whether or not we began that way. With that in mind, the question becomes "How do we change this?" Healing work should not only be responsive after a tragedy occurs; it should focus on preventing violence and creating accessible services for those who experience it.

So how dare they? How dare they separate this violent incident from all of the structural violence that led up to it? Its causes are echoed in a laundry list of ways that the system has failed us -- lack of adequate housing, lack of resources for homeless people, and lack of mental and physical healthcare. Not to mention how the myth of U.S. superiority hides its connection to broken infrastructures abroad.

Very few sources connect us with these answers; now, we must write our own.

Highlighting As[I]Am's Spring Issue Release: "Resistant Bodies"

Tuesday, March 18, 2014



This week, As[I]Am (my emerging Asian American social justice online magazine) released its first themed issue, on "Resistant Bodies"! Other than being wildly ecstatic that we have finished up the editorial process, it has made me reflect on the growth of As[I]Am since I founded it last year:

Even in this short year, there were many points when I wasn't sure it would even get this far. I started the project through a fellowship, where I was fully supported through the development phase. At the end of my fellowship, I applied for a grant that I didn't get and thought: "There's no way I can keep doing this on my own." Without funding and unsure of how to proceed as a one-person show, I took a summer hiatus and reached out to my lovely current co-editor, Amanda. She renewed the energy of the project -- we started building a new mission statement and read up on how to create a successful funding campaign.

It feels like we have been planning for this issue for just about as long -- at the end of the summer, we decided on the theme. We drew up our lofty goals and made executive decisions. The work multiplied on its own. We brought on Kyla, our incisive new editor, and all of us got really excited about the journey ahead.

There were highs, when we felt real cohesion. And there were lows -- when the rest of our lives became overwhelming or this "side gig" seemed like it was eating up our entire headspace. Being "on-call" meant that I would stop in the middle of the street to email someone back or stay up till 5am for an editor retreat. As with any project that I deeply care about, it became a part of me.

In some ways, As[I]Am was started for me to have an excuse to talk to Asian Americans beyond my own community doing meaningful work. And while that is still my favorite part of the experience, I am seeing more and more how media can serve our communities in more than just chronicling our struggles. I am seeing how it can, slowly, create community in the physical world as well as online.

This issue release makes me energized for the future -- more and more, our lofty goals don't seem so unreachable, and we are setting up a solid foundation. So, please click through and see the work of our amazing contributors and please get in contact if you would like to submit your own voice to the mix in the upcoming months. We'd all be so excited to hear from you!

Mannequins: A Response to American Apparel and Americans in General

Friday, March 7, 2014


The woman in the photo is wearing no clothes. She has light brown skin, lighter than me, and her dark hair is swept back in a wave. Her breasts are emblazoned with the message “Made in Bangladesh.” It’s not shocking to me – I too am a child of diaspora, an American Bengali or Bengali American, whichever you’d like. She does not share my mother’s well-lined hands or the dark skin my cousin diligently bleaches each day to look just a fraction lighter. But except for a single sentence presented by American Apparel, she is just as much a non-participant in the stories that get told about our people as they are.

These are the stories I have been told about my people:

Poor starving people. Poor polluted people. Poor corrupt people. Poor people who cannot rely on themselves and thus need NGOs to do their social service work – because any white person will do. But no one wants to talk about any of the reasons that underage women are moving to the cities in droves just to sit in front of a sewing machine and send money home. No one, not even the President, wants to talk about the big grave diggers wringing their hands at the scene of the factory collapse, Walmart – the largest retailer in the world – among them. That would take too much dredging up of history.

The only other context in which I hear of nude Bengali women is when they are being shown as sex workers. The fantastical image is of naked brown bodies strewn across brothel beds like waiting products to be consumed (not often accurate). But, to a white Western eye, how much further till they’ve reached the limits of their knowledge of Bengali people?

We aren’t given options for who exploits us. It isn’t a choose-your-own-adventure book – you can’t go to page 2 for the Western philanthropist who swoops in to save trafficked women or page 13 for the photographer/liberator paying this woman to take off her clothes. Liberal Americans of my generation only hear of Bangladesh as a place where people are destitute or just another set of violent Muslims. To be sure, the emphasis that is placed on the model Maks being a “former Muslim” tells us that she has made the leap: she’s not fitting the “conventional narrative” anymore. She’s come out of the darkness. The types of exploitation may differ vastly, but they all make our brown bodies into mannequins with moveable parts that only serve to make our voices even further unheard.

So this ad for me is not titillating, not liberating, and most certainly not a commentary that makes me want to buy more goods. Instead it reminds me that my body and the bodies of my family members will always be seen as objects for consumption – whether by individual sex tourists, exploitative philanthropy groups, or corporations out for cheap labor. This image, like all those catered to white eyes, speaks volumes about how my peoples’ stories are constructed by the American media. My only hope is that they can direct people to challenge themselves to move past the borders of their limited knowledge, and instead look to other resources where these women are not mannequins, and they speak for themselves.

For a very small sample, check out the work of Kalpona Akhter, a Bengali activist who organizes women working in factories for better pay. You can also click any of the links in this article for further expansion on these issues.

Stay tuned for the post I wanted to put out this week on diasporic identities and Mother Language Day.