COMPLICATING NARRATIVES: A CONVERSATION WITH BUSHRA REHMAN

THE RUMPUS
By Tamiko Byer
October 31st, 2018

Poet, novelist, and teaching artist Bushra Rehman knows a Queens bully when she sees one.

In her first novel, Corona, and now in her new poetry collection, Marianna’s Beauty Salon, Rehman depicts a tough and tender New York City. Her writing is rooted in her experience of growing up in Corona, an immigrant neighborhood in Queens where too-loved-to-be-abandoned sofa beds bloomed in front yards. At a recent reading, sponsored by the community and literary organizations Kundiman and NY Writers Coalition, Rehman talked about the current resident of the White House as “a Queens bully.” I was intrigued.

Rehman and I met more than a decade ago in New York City, but we can’t quite remember how. We were both active in queer and Asian American activist and literary scenes. We bonded in part over the belief that writing and social change are inseparable.

Rehman shows up in her poems real and raw in a world where being any one of these things—Muslim, immigrant, queer—could get you killed. Her brutal and magical poems are like spells, fiercely claiming space and airtime. Now they’ve been collected into a tight volume that spans her childhood, years of her life on the road as a runaway and vagabond poet, and the museum of her past loves.

The release of Marianna’s Beauty Salon will soon be followed by her first YA novel, Corona: Stories of a Queens Girlhood, published by Tor Books, an imprint of Macmillan. In 2019, Rehman and her co-editor Daisy Hernández are also releasing an updated edition of their seminal anthology on women and race, Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism.

We talked on the phone about her new poetry collection, chosen family, and what it means to have a bully as President.

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The Rumpus:  I’ve read your work and heard you read for many years, and it was only now, as I read this collection, that I realized you use repetition in a very specific way. Maybe because the first poem directly evokes and re-envisions the fairy tale Rapunzel in a Muslim immigrant context, but it made me think of how repetition is integral to spells, prayers, and rituals across cultures. Do you see your use of the device as being in conversation with this kind of spiritual oral tradition?

Bushra Rehman: I do. Growing up Muslim means being steeped in the oral tradition of memorizing and reciting the Quran, which is very rhythmic in its use of poetic repetition. When I began writing, the rhythm of the Quran naturally came into my poetry. I didn’t even realize it at first.

When I started reading in public, I discovered New York City’s people of color spoken word scene. Many of us came from religious backgrounds and were still religious or were fleeing from these backgrounds. We brought a spiritual orality to our work, making personal confessions, and connecting with others who might be suffering or rising, loving and living hard like we were.

I was considered a spoken word poet since I read from memory, and I read from memory because I was so nervous my hands shook. The paper trembled. It was easy to memorize poems since I’d grown up memorizing prayers. I had the facility—I can’t say I have it now—to recite long passages, and of course, it’s easier to memorize with repetition.

Even though some may mock spoken word now, I do believe it was a revolutionary moment that had lasting effects on American poetry. I’m grateful I was pulled into this world.

It was amazing to be part of the creation of an alternative chosen family around art and poetry, such as the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Women in Literature and Letters, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, and Kundiman. These artistic circles became—and still are—extended families. They are imperfect, as are real families, but they were essential for my survival as an artist and human being.

Rumpus: Now you’ve gone on to create another intentional community around autobiographical writing through your Two Truths and a Lie class. What has this class meant for you in terms of the healing work it facilitates?

Rehman: Two Truths and a Lie came from my experience of writing my first novel, Corona, which is about running away from home, life on the road, and memories of my old neighborhood. There was so much I had to learn about overcoming emotional hurdles to write this book. I took the best things I’d learned in the journey and created a class specifically for writers of color and allies. Many told me the class helped them become unblocked in their writing, so I kept offering it.

Then there was a major turning point in 2014, when our class was held up at gunpoint. Our laptops were stolen. We became the center of a maelstrom of tension around the New York police department and the gentrification of Flatbush, Brooklyn. The story was written up in the New York Times, New York Post, and discussed in a frenzy in local blogs and listservs. Many were using our experience as an excuse to bring a larger police presence to the neighborhood.

We, as a class, were against this policing. In fact, that night was yet another example of how dangerous police presence can be for people of color. Although we immediately traced our own computers to another neighborhood with our Find My Mac apps, the police were stopping, frisking, and harassing young black men right outside the café where the class was held.

With the support of the rest of the class, Nina Sharma, Soniya Munshi, and I wrote our own piecesabout the night of the robbery. For us, it was such a clear example of how if you don’t tell your version of the story, someone else will. They’ll get it wrong and at worst will use you as a pawn for their own purposes.

That was almost four years ago, but many of us still write together. I call it the Alum Two Truths class. Anyone who has taken Two Truths can join, but the core people are still from the class in 2014. They are the heart of my writing community.

Rumpus: That’s such a vivid example of how politics and literature are deeply intertwined. Can you talk more about the role you think poetry and fiction play in the world today, or what role you think they should play?

Rehman: It’s such a scary moment right now when we see people turning their pain outward onto others. I know when I’m feeling a great deal of pain, if I can break it out into a poem, I feel a relief that nothing else can bring me. There is a necessary place for learning how to have this creative release.

I’m not saying that a poetry workshop will change all the hate and violence that the Trump presidency has surfaced and unleashed. I’m saying that all of us need to be able to get in touch with our creative selves in order to document, heal, survive, and overcome. There’s a place for writing just as there’s a place for grassroots activism, working at Planned Parenthood, getting out on the streets, doing the essential legal work, running for office. It has to be all hands on deck.

I also believe fiction and poetry can reach readers’ hearts in ways news stories may not. Stories get under people’s skin. So much of the rhetoric of the Trump administration is about dehumanizing “others.” Through my work, I hope to share my lived Muslim experience and complicate the narratives because I know most Americans are taught to believe we are monsters. Most Americans have not actually met a Muslim person, so they believe what they are told. I can’t be everywhere, but my books can travel far.

Rumpus: That raises the question of audience for me, which was really present as I read Marianna’s Beauty Salon. How do you think of audience?

Rehman: In the beginning, I wrote for myself, for my own sanity and pleasure. I never imagined I would share my work with the world. When I first started reading in public, it was almost always at fundraisers for queer, South Asian, and women of color organizations. I began to write more with them in mind. I loved when people exploded in recognition over cultural markers, whether it was a reference to Bollywood icon Zeenat Aman or working-class chic like plastic-covered sofas. It’s still the audience I’m writing for.

Even now when my work is being read by a more diverse crowd of folk, I try not to interrupt a narrative to explain a cultural reference. I trust readers will get concepts through context or take the time to look items up. What I don’t want to do is over-explain, so a reader from my original audience feels shut out. That’s how I feel when I read a fellow South Asian writer who over-explains cultural references within a story—shut out.

Rumpus: You said it took ten years to write Corona and I know Marianna’s Beauty Salon was twenty years in the making. Can you talk about the process and how you think about these two books together?

Rehman: The poems were written first. Then, when I was traveling and doing poetry readings, I’d often tell humorous stories in between poems, since the poems were dark and serious. Those in-between stories grew into Corona.

Corona was published first, after a decade of rejections. I still dreamed of getting Marianna’s Beauty Salon published as well. I sent it out for twenty years and got rejection after rejection. I’d say this to writers who are struggling with rejection: you have to be your own biggest fan. There are limited options for publication and there are so many great writers. You can’t always take the rejection personally.

I also feel lucky that I had a community who showed me my work meant something to them. Even when agents wrote in their rejection letters: “We don’t see an audience for your work,” I knew there was an audience, because I’d been in community with them for decades.

After Corona came out, I published Marianna’s Beauty Salon with the same publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, who I love. Their mission is inspired by Adrienne Rich, who wrote,

There’s a lot of what I would call ‘comfortable’ poetry around… But then there is all this other stuff going on—which is wilder, which is bristling; it’s juicier, it’s everything that you would want. And it’s not comfortable… It can speak to people who have themselves felt like monsters and say: you are not alone, this is not monstrous. It can disturb and enrapture.

There are a lot of disturbing thoughts and poems in Marianna’s Beauty Salon, and Sibling Rivalry didn’t shy away from publishing them. I’m forever grateful.

Rumpus: Yes—the book is both disturbing and enrapturing. I’m really interested in the surrealism, sometimes brutal surrealism, of so many of these poems, like “Ovary,” which might be my favorite poem of the whole collection.

Rehman: Thank you, Tamiko. You know, we’re constantly forced to be rational, logical, practical. Poems are places where you don’t have to be any of those things. You can be surreal. It’s so freeing, and it can help open the door to writing about difficult material.

When I was twenty eight, I had an oophorectomy—such a poetic word for losing an ovary. I had ovarian tumors, no health care, and I couldn’t find anyone who’d operate on me. When I finally did find a kind, accomplished surgeon, I had to sign off that I’d submit to a full hysterectomy if they found it necessary in the moment. Although I was not a person who thought I had to have a biological child, to suddenly have no choice in the matter was terrifying. I was so overwhelmed thinking about it, I left my book bag behind on the subway while agonizing over the situation.

That moment became the opening of the poem: “I left my ovary in the subway last night / stepped out, felt light / heard the doors close behind me and then realized I’d left my ovary behind.” I started to think of how my ovary contained the genetic material for certain family resemblances—a smile or laugh, crooked teeth—just as my book bag contained all the essential contents I needed to move through my daily life.

Rumpus: What drew me to this poem was how strangely and accurately it reflects how we leave pieces of ourselves behind in public places to be found by others. Especially, I think, in New York City.

Rehman: Yes, in the poem, there’s an all-too-real customer service interaction with the MTA Lost and Found, and a reference to NYC’s Village Voice, which was essential reading material when I was a teenager—back when you still had to buy it! In the Village Voice, there were, and still are, ads for selling your eggs. As a young person who struggled financially, I always had it in the back of my mind that this was an option if I truly needed it. In the poem, I thought about how if I left my ovary on the train, with enough eggs in there to last me a lifetime, whoever found it was going to be rich.

Rumpus: That’s one of the things I really love about poetry—a radical way of using language. You can evoke new ways of thinking about the world when you disrupt language as only poetry can.

Rehman: For those of us who grew up speaking another language before we learned English, there is a way in which our language feels violently broken. For those of us who feel silenced, we can’t always speak in complete sentences. Poetry provides the possibility of a deeper communication within these traumas to our voices.

Poetry can also transform something that feels ugly into something beautiful, through the way it’s written. The poetry we were reading in our under-resourced public schools in Queens was about love and daffodils. We didn’t have daffodils. We had plastic-covered couches. We had roaches. We had mice stuck in glue traps. Writing about these childhood images in ways where the language was beautiful felt healing.

Writing about what was silenced also felt healing. In some ways “Ovary” is also a meditation on what happens when sexual trauma is turned inward. These days, I’m amazed at what is happening with #MeToo. It feels so liberating. Even though it was originally created by the community organizer Tarana Burke over a decade ago, I feel it really took off because of Trump. His aggressive misogyny was the final straw. Now he’s mocking the movement, of course, just like an ignorant bully with no morals would.

Rumpus: I’m really interested in this perspective you have on Trump as a specific kind of Queens bully. How did you come to this realization? I think so many of us are traumatized by Trump’s bullying, what it triggers, and what it represents. How do you think this insight might help those of us working to resist him and the forces he’s evoked?

Rehman: His bullying is dangerous, and there are people in horrible situations because of his policies. It’s infuriating, but it’s important not to let our anger consume us, paralyze us, make us run in circles.

I think for me, Trump kicked something into high gear. I remember when he first came on the scene, people were baffled by him. But I thought: I know this particular kind of white man. He’s a Queens bully. An Archie Bunker gone rogue. He’s trying to scare me to the core, but I won’t let him. I’ll get smarter than him (easy) and I’ll outsmart him at every turn. I do see people outsmarting him and pushing back in every possible way. It’s a beautiful resistance.

I feel what we’re experiencing with Trump and his followers is a backlash against the forward movement that’s been happening in this country. This positive change is unstoppable. Sixteen years ago, my friend Daisy Hernández and I published the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. When we first put out the book, we felt a barrenness in terms of activism, a scarcity. The book was a call for healing and community organizing for our generation.

Now, we’re doing an updated edition of the book, which will be released in early 2019. We want to document the amazing resistance and grassroots movements of this time: Black Lives Matter, Me Too, March for our Lives, Trans Justice, organizing by Undocumented students, movements to end campus rape, so much essential work that is happening now.

It’s always been communities of color who reminded me to have hope, love this precious life—all our joy among the sorrow, our laughter, and especially our dance parties, which, Tamiko, now that I think about it, is how we probably first met.