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Zahir Janmohamed: Writer of Color

June 13, 2013

On being asked to speak for a whole community and region rather than yourself.

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Image from Flickr via matryosha

By Zahir Janmohamed

I sat on the bean bag chair off to the side of the room, sipped my Diet Coke, and waited for comments on my submission at a writers’ group in Sacramento, California.

“So in this book, do you write about Pakistan too?”

“Actually my book is about India, not Pakistan,” I explained to the writer sitting across from me.

“Right,” he said, drinking a glass of wine. “But I think you should still write about Pakistan. You know, like a comparison.”

An elderly woman lowered her reading glasses. “So these Muslim kids you write about, the ones whose parents were burned alive in Gujarat,” she said, over-accentuating the second syllable of the word Gujarat, “Do you ever worry these kids will be radicalized? Like, you know, become suicide bombers?”

Another writer asked: “So do you just write political stuff? Because I think you should have more fun with this.” I wrote his comment down to be polite, but I wondered where “fun” was in writing about a tragedy like the 2002 Gujarat riots?

I came to this workshop to understand if my sentences work, if my pacing is effective, and not to be told I need to write about countries I have never visited just because I share the same faith.

One writer had not yet given her feedback. She sat in silence and then reached over, her hand—white like every other in the room—touched my arm in the space between my elbow and my shoulder.

“I am sorry you had to witness [the riots]. Are you ok?”

I wanted to tell her thank you for asking, but no, I am not ok in being asked if I am ok.

I came to this workshop to understand if my sentences work, if my pacing is effective, and not to be told I need to write about countries I have never visited just because I share the same faith.

I wanted to say I am not a political writer. My life has never been political, but sometimes, like that one time when I was dressed in my swim trunks and flip flops and flew to Miami with my friends and a TSA agent pulled me aside and questioned me about the nature of “my business in the U.S.,” well, then the story of my life is made “political.”

I wanted to tell them that if being a writer is to endure loneliness then being a writer of color in America is to suffer banishment: the only boat off this island often being if I write a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way for a certain kind of audience, which is to say—and we do not say these words enough—for a white audience.

But I could not get myself to say these things and instead I just stared at my brown fingers hovering above the black keys on my laptop, unable to type.

“Yeah, I’m cool.”

***

But I am stubborn, as most writers are, and I kept looking for people to help me revise my manuscript. I had been admitted to a few writers’ workshops and while some offered scholarships, others were too costly and I found myself rejoicing and mourning each acceptance: I was thrilled that writers I admired wanted to review my work but devastated that my life as a writer made me too poor to attend these workshops.

So I found another writers’ group. It was invite-only, I had to submit twenty pages each week to be admitted, and the group leader laughed when I told her I found The Kite Runner to be about as profound as a Coldplay song. I had hope.

We met on alternate Sundays at the base of the hills in Oakland, in a home decorated with tchotchkes from Tibet and Nepal, and the owner welcomed me with a hug and a reminder that if I use the toilet, I should only flush if I go number two.

Soon after the other writers showed up. One man wrote a searing piece about working in prisons. A woman wrote about her abusive father. Maybe this was the right group for me, I thought. After all, I have always believed in the advice of my mentor, Professor June Jordan, who said, in her Poetry for the People class, “Writing is about making your pain public.”

At my turn, I read a section from my manuscript about a woman who had the courage to leave her abusive husband after she suffered in the riots.

“I feel like you need to insert yourself in more,” one reader, white like every other person in the room, told me.

“But the chapter is not about me,” I said, “and I want her story to stand on its own.”

“You know, I have never met another Muslim and I would love to know what it is like to be a Muslim, especially these days.”

I did not know how to respond. What did she mean by “these days”?

She continued. “Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers?”

I had and I loved it.

“I think you can learn a lot from that book.”

Sitting in a room with African-American, Latino, Iranian, Indian, and other writers, I could finally do what I wanted to all along: discuss craft.

“But you said I should include myself more in the book, to help you understand what it is like to be a Muslim. Boo does not include herself at all.”

She didn’t say anything.

I broke the silence. “Perhaps we should review the next manuscript?”

***

I had become friends with some published authors, most of them white, and every time I shared my experiences they told me I need to “keep trying” and “not give up.” Focus on the writing, they told me, because it is all about the writing.

It was the Voices of Our Nation’s Artists Workshop for Writers’ of Color that made me realize it is not just about the writing. Being a writer is about caring for yourself and guarding against your sanity slipping away, tasks that are only magnified when you are a writer of color.

Sitting in a room with African-American, Latino, Iranian, Indian, and other writers, I could finally do what I wanted to all along: discuss craft. There was no discussion about our responsibilities to represent an entire people, if that is even possible, and VONA teaches you to write the story you want to write. Are editors interested in publishing these stories? Not always.

In November 2012, as anti-Shia violence escalated in Pakistan, I wrote an op-ed about my uncle who was killed in anti-Shia violence in Karachi in April 2000. Every place I pitched responded within a day, expressing an interest in publishing it.

I am proud of the piece I wrote but I am very conscious of what it does—it builds onto an existing narrative of Muslims being intolerant and violent and of Pakistan being a failed state. Editors said I was “brave,” “singular,” and “eloquent,” words I never hear when I am pitching a piece about being on the receiving end of prejudice in the United States.

But I continued to try my luck. At the time, I was living in Ahmedabad, India and I wrote a first person account about witnessing the 2002 riots, which many say was orchestrated by the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a man who may become India’s next prime minister. It was a week before Gujarat’s elections and I thought I had a sufficient news hook.

Almost all ignored my emails. Finally one editor responded. His email only contained two sentences: “Interesting work you are doing in India. But we were wondering—can you write a piece for us on Pakistan?”

Zahir Janmohamed is writing a book about the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. He was previously a fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

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7 comments for Zahir Janmohamed: Writer of Color

  1. Comment by Minal Hajratwala on June 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    So happy to have had you in the VONA workshop, Zahir. As a teacher it’s been a delight to watch you hone your craft in order to serve as the best witness possible. I feel like such a proud mama bear every time I see you share your incredibly valuable work with the wider world. :)

  2. Comment by Sanjay on June 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Typical lefty victim hood peddled, which actually took me a while to get rid off myself. While its good that ur first hand experience at riots is indeed hard but what’s the point of dragging modis name in the piece if not to influence first time readers with anti- modi bias? Let me tell u my experience as a leftis Hindu. My Flatmate at a London university was a christian Jordanian. We became good friends and he slowly removed what I held as truth about arabs and middle east and he actually surprised me with is knowledge about India. We got jobs after education but we remained in touch. He went for his brothers convocation at the same university, and he met antis brother who happened to be Indian too. Over their conversation, my friend learnt that he too ails from the same city as myself. On learning my Hindu name, the other Indian ho happened to be a Muslim advised my friend not to mingle as I am a Hindu and hence kaffir.irony is that I was friends with an arab, but someone who hails from the same city as me has a negative impression..this is not o belittle your experience but victim hood mentality is I’ve amongst Muslims as vouched by my other arab friends.

  3. Comment by Anonymous Commenter on June 17, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Sanjay, were you reading the same article as me?

    I just read an article about a writer of Indian origin struggling because people keep seeing him through the lens of his religion, while ignoring his actual writing.

    You responded by telling a story about an unpleasant man from Jordan, while making broad statements about Muslim “victim hood mentality.”

  4. Comment by annonymous on June 18, 2013 at 8:56 am

    Sanjay ,while reading your stuff it seems totally you are ignorant about the guy who belongs to same city and happens to be muslim and a arab guy who is Jordanian your comment expresses more love to arab guy and hate for particular community.
    Sanjay you yourself is intolerant to your own countrymen and loyal to a arab guy what can else be expected by typical guys like you.

  5. Comment by R on June 19, 2013 at 6:49 am

    What an account. These are stories that need to be heard.

  6. Comment by brook on June 21, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Zahir
    this piece is wonderful. I am sure every writer of color has had this experience including me. I am writing a novel and yeah its not about me but that’s always the same question,
    so did this happen to you?
    me:no
    So aren’t these the people you know?
    me:no. none of these people are real. the circumstances are but I took creative license.
    yeah.
    Thank you for sharing this struggle. Maybe that next writing group will not ask you about pakistan.

  7. Comment by The Learned Kat on July 2, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Zahir. I can totally relate to a lot of what you have written. Being a Brit Asian man, I wrote a novella based on my experience of losing my father several years ago and the associated memories I had whilst we were in the midst of grief. In this autobiography, in one of the sections, I recalled a memory of visiting Pakistan and what I thought of it. The Editor of the Publishing House rejected my autobiography and said they would rather me focus on the lifestyle in Pakistan rather than the bereavement issues. However, I wanted to tell the story of my somewhat strained relationship with my father. The ironic thing is, this same Publishing House wanted to provide a new voice or platform for “writers of colour” and breakdown the barriers of “stereotypical stories associated with being Asian like arranged marriage, East meets West culture” etc and move into the 21st Century with new subject matter. Yet here I was, writing about one of the last taboos – death – and it was deemed “not suitable for their readers!” So, hats off to you if you can make the change happen! Good Luck in your future endeavours.

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