After Healing comes rising
By Reema Zaman
I was born in Bangladesh, the eldest child of an arranged marriage. When I was 2 we moved to Hawaii, and when I was 6 we moved to Thailand. Whether we were in Bangladesh, Hawaii, or Thailand, I was always cognizant of being different; I was reminded of my difference by everyone around me. Otherness is a subjective state, brought only to our attention by someone else highlighting our contrast, more often than not, unkindly. But from a young age, I've used my otherness to my benefit. I've thought, "If I'm so different, I'll be an observing stenographer of life." That mindset has worked beautifully because I was born with a curiosity for the human condition, for relationships, love, family. As a young child I asked my parents questions constantly: Why are some people poor while others aren't? What is poverty? Why are some people brown while others aren't? And why is this an issue? Where does pain come from? Does it live in the same place where love lives, inside us? How many kinds of pain are there?
My curiosity was always affirmed by my parents. They tried their best to answer my questions. If they couldn't, my mother would tell me to write or draw. I would, happily for hours by myself, sit and scribble to make sense of my thoughts. I remember at age 4 reading a book and accidentally tearing a page. I thought, "Oh my goodness, if books have a beginning, middle, and end, and a page can tear just like that, does that mean the story is now different? Are we a beginning, middle, and end? Can we tear, just like that?"
I went to my mom and asked, "Momma, will your story end? Will mine? Can we tear?" And she said to me, "Our physical bodies will come to an end eventually. But I am yours, you are mine, and our love will never end."
So those scribbles evolved and manifested as my becoming a writer. Whenever I'm confronted with something painful or seemingly arbitrary or chaotic, I know the way to make sense of things is to go to the page, to see how things connect.
As a writer and speaker, the stories I'm most passionate about are my surviving and rising from sexual assault, domestic violence, anorexia, and other trials. Toni Morrison said, "The function of freedom is to free someone else," meaning, if you've wrestled free from a nightmarish experience, person, or way of life, tell that story. Telling it may free someone else. I'm committed to my work of radical vulnerability because knowing how to healthily deal with pain and rise into peace, strength, and freedom are not skills we easily possess. It takes effort to learn how to deal with pain. Most people, our initial, immediate response is to shut down, self-medicate, attack, run, repress, or ignore. But the more we hide or avoid wounds, the more corrosive they become. Pain left unhealed will metastasize as harm inflicted on oneself or others. The other skill requiring effort and time to learn is the skill of igniting one's voice and stepping into one's full, true power. My work is devoted to these things: the healing of our past, and the rise into our bravest, boldest self.
My memoir, I Am Yours, tells the story of how I found freedom from my past. The book explores how difficult and often dangerous it is for a woman to tell the truth and claim her power in this world. I wrote the memoir as a manual for healing, joy, and empowerment, for myself and anyone else. Due to the purpose and content of the book, it felt necessary to have a clear deadline for my spirit, goals, and sanity. I wrote the first draft in a year, while living with my parents and working at a daycare center for $11 an hour. The memoir will be published in April 2019, through Amberjack. While writing, I didn't know anyone else who was a writer. I didn't want to take the traditional route of an MFA or writing classes. I wanted to discover, recover, and evolve on my own.
While writing the memoir and revisiting my most pivotal experiences, many of which are painful, I realized that by writing about them, the power those wounds held was rightfully returned to me. The memories stopped feeling like nightmarish creatures holding me silent and captive. By stepping into the role of an author, I regained emotional authority over my life. As I wrote, every day I reclaimed my story from other people's hands, page by page. What was once a haunting shadow was transformed into nourishment and proof of my resilience.
Although I wasn't formally trained in writing, my background in acting has seamlessly transitioned into a career in writing and public speaking. I began acting at 15, double majored in Theater and Women's Studies in college, where I wrote, produced, directed, and starred in my own plays. I then worked as an actress for 10 years in New York City. As actors, we're trained to master emotional accessibility, agility, and authority. Our instruments are our face, voice, and body, and we're hired to channel the playwright's instrument — words. We're trained to emulate the entire range of human emotions, from falling in love to experiencing pain. We're trained to bodily understand narrative structure and pace, to hit and emote the beginning, middle, and end of a narrative. We're trained to be able to control and decide whether we'll cry one tear, rolling down our left cheek, or have a full-on breakdown. Through it all, the principle we're trained to uphold is "Serve the story, not the ego," meaning, you are not serving the self; you are a messenger, part of a larger narrative. Every word, action, and emotional and vocal inflection must honor, be specific, and be necessary for the story. A superfluous element is a function of ego; it must be trimmed away.
These principles of intentionality, precision, story, ego, emotional control, modulation, and pace carry into writing, live storytelling, and public speaking. All art is catharsis — beginning, middle, end. In writing, our instrument is the written word. In live storytelling and public speaking, our instruments are voice, word, face, and body. The difference between a great artist and an early artist isn't talent — it's mastery. If you've ever read a book, essay, or blog post, or watched a talk or a performance that seems to lack narrative agility, cohesion, and catharsis, or feels monotonically sentimental, laborious, or defeatist, that's usually because the artist hasn't yet mastered their voice, modulation, structure, pace, or tone.
There is an art to radical vulnerability, to turning wound into wisdom, pain into poetry. Transparency on its own doesn't automatically yield great art, in the same way that a powerful personal story, be it something heart-wrenching like loss, cancer, or rape, or euphoric and lovely like love or children, won't automatically result in beautiful art. For great art, the vulnerability and content must be coupled with talent and craft.
So much of an artist's journey into mastery is private. We all live through grief, loss, heartbreak. But to use these elements and anecdotes beautifully, we must do the solo, inner work. Again: Serve the story, not the ego. Going through one's private process of closure and transformation, of honing one's content, craft, and voice, before sharing one's story with an audience, is especially crucial when working with stories that deal with pain. If a person neglects to complete their private journey before sharing their life story publicly, they risk inflicting pain on others, and themselves.
In such, as artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. It's a matter of coming from pain versus self-possession. The audience can feel the difference. When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.
November, 19th, 2016, was the day I first publicly performed a chapter from my memoir. The chapter I performed deals with my experience with rape, the lessons learned, and how I rose. I started writing my memoir on November 28th, 2013. I spent three years quietly, privately honing my material, coming into my voice, before I began publishing and performing the material.
A hiccup many early artists fall into is spilling their nightmares in front of an audience, thinking that's "art." Spilling nightmares is best done in the privacy of a first draft, a diary, or in therapy. In therapy, it's a therapist’s job to guide your healing, closure, and emancipation. In writing, public speaking, or storytelling, it's the artist's responsibility to lead herself and her audience through their entwined journey of catharsis. You want your audience to feel comfortable and confident that even though you're relaying a painful story, you're relaying the details purely to illustrate the initial scenes of a larger journey toward light. I feel that leading an audience into pain, without catharsis, is irresponsible and unethical. That's not mastery. That is an unwitting or willful exploitation of an audience's time, attention, and trust.
The stage isn't the place to sort one's shadows. First drafts are for sorting one's shadows. The first draft of a manuscript or spoken script is for your own creative, emotional, and spiritual process. The first draft acts as a midwife for your journey. Then, your second, seventh, final drafts are sculpted from the details, scenes, dialogue, and lessons worth sharing with others, to serve in their journey. The other night, after a performance, a woman from the audience came up to me, sobbing, and said, "I'm not crying because I've witnessed your pain; I'm crying because I've experienced your strength. I'm a survivor, too, of rape and other things. Although I didn't know it, you're the voice I've needed and have been looking for. You're speaking the words I wish I could but cannot speak, not yet. Hearing your clarity and feeling your power helps me believe that in a month, a year, I'll be capable of the same." Nothing makes me happier than hearing that.
The recent #metoo movement is significant, exciting, and fascinating. It's significant because voicing one's trauma is part of the healing process, exciting because survivors are leveraging social media to spread awareness and ignite action, and fascinating because as someone involved in turning pain into power for so long, creatively and professionally, it's interesting to watch this transpire on a global and societal level.
We need to be mindful and forgiving that #metoo is a social movement of self-expression involving survivors — it's not a professional work of art and activism. Self-expression is different from art and activism. The latter two are governed by sturdy principles to ensure the information communicated with a public audience is shared in a well-thought, responsible manner. The audience is a player and focus in the communion. In contrast, self-expression is purely about the person sharing, a citizen invoking their freedom of speech. What concerns me is countless survivors may have shared their stories without having fully completed their personal healing. Sharing a wound-story prematurely or haphazardly can be harmful for whoever sharing, reading, or listening. As a survivor, if you haven't fostered your healing and self-esteem, and you share your truth publicly, you're putting your sense of self in the audience's hands — you become highly susceptible to negative feedback, and potentially dependent on positive feedback. Furthermore, it may feel euphoric, initially, to publicly share something, but if you're unused to exercising radical vulnerability daily or consistently, the gravity and rawness of what you shared may result in a vulnerability whiplash.
I've heard some people express anger that reading one #metoo post after another has traumatized them. That is a real risk and harm. However, we can exercise compassion that the driving intention for most survivors and their posts wasn't healing and empowerment for others — that's not their job, or the expectation to hold them to. Some posts did inspire closure or strength in the observing audience. But that's a bonus. The objective behind most posts was to share and unload grief, to raise awareness and solidarity through numbers. At the end of the day, we can exercise choice over what we want to read in our social media, and through what lens.
Ultimately, this social movement of survivors voicing their stories is profound. During any traumatic experience, a large part of the trauma is that you feel insignificant and voiceless. Until you've healed, it will feel like your abuser has usurped your voice, that your life is being ghostwritten through their voice, their actions, their opinion of you. A vital step in the survivor's journey is the reclamation of voice and authorship in life. Giving voice to your story will manifest differently for everyone. For some, it can be sharing their story on social media. For others, it can be private and quiet, like looking into a mirror, thinking and believing the words, "I am here. I am the author of my trajectory. I am not the story you tried to make of me." After voice and speaking comes healing — coming into acceptance, wisdom, release. After healing comes rising — sharing what you've learned with others, to help catalyze their empowerment.
All my work comes from this three-part arc of the warrior's journey: speaking, healing, rising. Every day, every manuscript, every essay, I feel I'm writing from a place of, "Me too, but now what?" We have been through violence, loss, heartbreak, and now what, how do we rise? The job of the artist is to answer, "How do we rise?" As we are all witnessing, there is such anger in this world. Anger is only useful if we transform that fury into function. Life is ceaseless; it will always happen. We will experience one trauma, then another. We must alchemize that pain into something powerful and beautiful. The Parkland students, led by Emma Gonzalez, are an awe-inspiring demonstration of this.
One of my talks is called "You Are the Voice." I perform it at various colleges and conferences. A performance that really moved me was last April, at Portland State University. The audience was 200 girls, ages 18 to 22. The talk begins with my reenacting my rape, at 23 years old, living alone in New York City. I spoke about not knowing a single soul, the loneliness and voicelessness of that experience, and how I moved forward. The talk is about this journey of rising, of the strength we each hold within, and how we can regain authorship over our destiny. In the beginning, about half the students were engaged. Then, as the talk went on, one by one, everyone fell in sync; we began breathing simultaneously. That's my favorite: that moment when the audience and artist begin breathing as one. Suddenly, it was a solidarity of silent tears, with everyone nodding along, our fires being nourished together. Once I finished speaking, they all rose to their feet and, one by one, hugged me. It was a collective embrace of women gathering in our commitment to rise beyond the world's wounding hands, in our conviction that we are capable of so much beauty and strength. That day, I felt I entered a new stage in my life. Every life experience, every rehearsal, every page written and workshopped on my own had led to that moment. I stood there, encircled by 200 young women, thinking, "This is not about me. I'm a conduit for a story and a purpose bigger than myself."
There are three ways to respond to a rainstorm. One is with utter doom, receiving the rainstorm as evidence that the universe wishes you misery. Two is to not realize the rainstorm because you're busy strolling through Instagram — this willful refusal to register the rainstorm is actually fear, an avoidance mechanism toward life's incoming elements. And three is to stand or sit in quiet rapture, feeling the rainstorm, listening to its overt and hidden song whispering and bellowing wisdom, an education on seasons in a human life, both certain and uncertain. This rainstorm reminds us that sometimes it's the most violent, loud things that carry within them the possibility for new growth.
For each of us, our rainstorms will occur differently. Among mine have been disownment, rape, divorce. I could take each storm as proof of my worthlessness, as a wound eroding me. Or I can embrace the storm as sustenance for my resilience, and as evidence that life is always trying to teach me something. To survive and thrive, we have to be willing to turn our storms into sustenance, to find the wonder and wisdom in all things. I believe every pain and beauty, every trial, wound, dragon, gift, blessing are cooperating in conspiracy, helping me become my boldest self so I may serve my purpose.
When it comes to success, I credit discipline, tenacity, and focus. I'm fiercely disciplined and devoted in my work, for I'm forever cognizant of being a woman of color, an immigrant, and a Bangladeshi. It may be bold for any woman to write and speak on domestic violence, rape, trauma, and empowerment. But to do so as a Bangladeshi woman isn't just bold — it's dangerous. And I feel that often, the more dangerous or scary, the more indication that it's a story that needs telling, a journey that needs walking. I'm proud that of all the stories, all the paths, all the people, here I am.
Oftentimes I hear, "Oh, you're so brave to speak and write about your experiences so openly." Although I'm very grateful for the compliment, I don't feel it's an act of courage on my end. For me, it's an act of self-ownership, self-proclaimed power, and self-love. When we own our power, use our voices, and share our stories, we are reclaiming the narrative and saying, "This is who I am. You are hearing MY voice. The shadows are not leading this song. I am."
The 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow, Reema Zaman is an author, speaker, and actress. Born in Bangladesh, presently residing in Oregon, she is the author of the memoir I Am Yours (April 2019, Amberjack). She has been published in B*tch Magazine, VIDA, SHAPE, and more, with forthcoming titles in Harper's Bazaar, The Rumpus, and Narratively. An internationally renowned speaker, Reema tackles challenging topics and vulnerable stories with poise, eloquence, and warmth. For more, www.reemazaman.com.
Words: Reema Zaman