The impact of trauma on entire communities, generations, or genders is too often ignored or disregarded. In my role as the executive director of Acupuncturists Without Borders, I often see people after the worst has happened. I see how, when disaster strikes a community—whether a wildfire, a murder, or a school shooting—a shared experience of trauma shudders through the collective. Sometimes, individual therapy and passing time do not repair the wounds. It is radical to challenge the global voicelessness absorbed by women after centuries of male violence, and insist that our fates are bound together.
And so, when I heard Reema Zaman speak at a reading soon after the 2016 election, I thought, This is the soundtrack of a modern resistance. Reading Zaman’s essay, The Harvest of Bodies, shortly after that, I was struck by her interrogation of the fertility industry from the perspective of a woman of color donating her eggs. Born in Bangladesh, raised in Thailand, and presently residing in Oregon, Zaman is the 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow.
The way Zaman connects the hard truths of her own life to women’s collective trauma is a welcome balm in this time of #MeToo. “When the world fails to provide the protector, healer, warrior, role, love, or opportunities we desire, we must genesis our own,” she writes. After years working as a TV and theater actress, Zaman left the industry to pursue her own script. As a speaker, she now stands before crowds and shares her mission to build a world where all voices are heard and respected. She gives talks like “Me Too, Now What: The Art of Turning Tragedy into Triumph” in corporate settings, yoga centers, colleges, and schools.
Zaman’s new memoir, I Am Yours, chronicles her fight to protect and free her voice from those who sought to silence it through starvation, erasure, and intimate violence. Within her radically subterranean storytelling, there are connections to universal questions about how we as women can love ourselves in a world that does not value our bodies or voices.
In Zaman’s Portland living room, with winter afternoon light streaming in through the windows, she and I ate vegan food with extra avocados and conspired as storytellers. We talked about how collective wounds heal, how we can rise from the ground after the worst has happened, and what it would mean for all of us to do it together.
— Gerri Ravyn Stanfield for Guernica
Guernica: You come from a tradition of “radical renegades” who value the beauty and strength of language. How did that affect your work as a storyteller?
Reema Zaman: Coming from that lineage means that “To speak is a revolution” has been my ancestry, my blood, and my mantra. Unlike most other wars that are fought in the name of land, oil, resources, or religion, Bangladesh went to war to gain our independence from Pakistan because we speak Bengali, while Pakistan mainly speaks Urdu. As Bangladeshis, we believe language and words are the reason, fodder, and fuel for self-identification, for self-determination, for independence, for resilience. Becoming a storyteller and performer was almost prophesied for me. From the time I was a little girl, my parents have told me I was “born to give voice” to various causes and injustices. It’s why I never feel fear when I’m onstage. Whenever I’m onstage or when I write, I feel like I’m my truest self, and I also feel most at home, most alive. It’s a responsibility and a privilege. It feels like destiny to get to stand and deliver words of comfort, solidarity, healing, and love for others, as a messenger for a larger story.
Guernica: Has the state of the world in the last six months shed new light on I Am Yours, and your reasons for writing it?
Zaman: Every conversation I’ve had, be it with a friend or a relative or a Lyft driver, and whether they’ve said something that has to do with childhood bullying or a recent breakup or about insecurity or feeling lost, and, with everything that has happened politically, culturally, and globally—from the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to the #MeToo movement to the Kavanaugh hearings—I’ve thought: “That’s precisely why I wrote I Am Yours.” The memoir is a guidebook for healing as well as preventative medicine. It’s a call to action as well as a manual for developing empathy, for finding one’s voice—and, through that, finding our humble, human power.
I wrote I Am Yours as a teaching tool for adults and teenagers alike: to hone our skills for empathy and cognitive and critical thinking, to discuss and unpack privilege, racism, misogyny, abuse and shame culture, intergenerational trauma, and to heal and develop self-worth and resilience in a chaotic and often cruel and lonely world. I wrote it to provide the words I wish others had known to give me when I was a child and a teenager encountering trauma, predators, battling anorexia, immigrating to the States by myself, navigating chaotic living situations, jobs, and toxic relationships. Wounds and adversities of any kind will sit inside a body like an echoing loneliness—and that loneliness, if left unchecked, can fester into a lack of self-worth and self-belief. I wrote this memoir to alleviate that loneliness for others, and to deliver a sense of unshakable self-worth, love, and faith for the reader, listener, viewer.
The clearest demonstration and affirmation of why I wrote I Am Yours is the way the book is being embraced by schools and teenagers. It has been adopted into the curricula of numerous high schools through an Innovation Grant from the Oregon Board of Education, and I’ve been speaking and performing pieces from the memoir at various middle schools and high schools. At every event and school, I take a few scenes from the book and add a few lines between the scenes to create a cohesive show. During the Q&A at an event last week for a few hundred students, faculty, and parents, one high school sophomore said, “I think reading your work and hearing you speak has saved me from years of suffering, shame, and loneliness.” That, to me, is everything. It is the reason I wrote the book in the voice of a child, teen, and adult. It is the reason I refused to focus the book on just one age, theme, or issue—like my childhood or my first marriage or beauty culture or relationships or anorexia—which was the advice I received from early naysayers because it would make the book “an easier, quicker sell for agents and publishers.” From the moment I began writing it, I knew my goals for this book and I trusted and protected its voice. Now, it’s thrilling to see it reach others.
Guernica: You discuss the difference between leading roles reserved for white women actors and stereotyped roles like “exotic vixen, sexy spy, drug-addled stripper” that are more typically available to women of color. How does the difference between these roles, and who gets to play them, shape our cultural narrative?
Zaman: The roles that perpetuate demeaning stereotypes stunt society, for they reinforce falsehoods and limitations about our true capabilities, realities, and potential. Art is inspired and informed by culture, but culture is shaped by art. We, the audience, consciously and unconsciously form our concepts of ourselves—and of other races, groups, genders, cultures, and how to relate interpersonally and on a larger scale—by how we see ourselves represented on the screen, in books, in the news, and so on. The way any gender or group is presented in the media and art will determine nearly everything. For instance, I, like most women of my generation, was raised on a steady diet of Barbie and Ken dolls. Barbie and Ken were presented to me as the ideal woman and man, and the ideal relationship and lifestyle. Naturally, I aspired to become as close to Barbie as possible. Of course there were ways and qualities that were simply out of my wheelhouse, and I hated myself for those “flaws.” Unsurprisingly, my first husband was a near spitting image to a Ken doll, because gaining his love meant I had been bequeathed membership to society’s most coveted and discerning club. But I didn’t bother to search him for qualities like emotional intelligence, accountability, empathy, and loyalty, because I didn’t know to; prioritizing those qualities hadn’t been part of the diet I had been fed on the ideals of women, and men. Obviously, that led to a toxic and short-lived marriage.
After I left that marriage in 2011, I became far more discerning about my personal and professional allegiances. I was twenty-seven, around that age when most of us start to ask ourselves the big, pressing questions about identity, legacy, and truth. I began asking myself, Do I really want to continue to devote my energy, time, and loyalty to the acting and modeling industries, that were still churning out misogynist tropes and messaging? What do I want my life to add up to? By acting in roles that were stereotypes, I was complicit in the toxicity. I had remained faithful to the acting industry for as long as I had by reciting the same rationale that so many actresses recite: I’ll audition for and accept these sexist roles, and play by the rules of the game, and ignore all the misogynist jokes on set, and the inappropriate behavior by male directors, producers, and even cast members, because someday, finally, I’ll be asked to audition for that one role: to play a woman who is intelligent, brave, outspoken, inspiring, powerful. I just have to hold on until I arrive at that chance.
It was during that abusive marriage that I began writing about my daily life, keeping track of and analyzing my then-husband’s abuse. By studying his actions, I was able to give myself the necessary clarity, courage, and validation to develop my voice and speak back to him, leading to our separation. So I knew my writing held value for me; if published, could those words be of value for others? I looked around at the antiquated, damaging roles I was being asked to audition for, and I looked at the writing coming forth from me, and decided to leave the traditional acting industry and try my hand at writing a memoir.
Guernica: You write about your high school principal silencing you when you complained about an abusive teacher, observing, “power responds to power.” What happens to a society when women switch from pursuing someone else’s beauty standards to embracing their own power?
Zaman: Patriarchy thrives on our obedient loyalty to repressive standards. Owning our power is in direct opposition to that. When we reject the messages and trappings at the root of those standards, patriarchy begins to crumble. On the personal level, there is a fundamental difference between being controlled by the patriarchal standards of beauty, and owning one’s beauty, one’s power, and one’s authentic, irrefutable value. The difference is you surge with freedom, and you become free to use your time, your brain, your emotional, creative, and mental energy on building legacy, art, businesses. My life is a clear demonstration of that before and after, and of what is possible when we women free ourselves to lead our own narratives.
Guernica: You write about the fusion of your natural, encouraging internal voice, and the contrary “bullying” voice, which you attribute to the culture around you. In neuroscience, we are just starting to recognize the brutal impact of negative self-talk on human behavior. How did you approach realigning those voices?
Zaman: The first step was this book and its writing process. Every day, as I wrote about my child self, teen self, and young adult self, and held witness for those various selves with utmost compassion, loving kindness, and non-judgment, I felt a transformation take shape. Revisiting my child self through loving, non-judgmental eyes let me see my inherent human value. Seeing my inherent value let me release the bullying voice. Also, revisiting my life let me see that all the times I felt ashamed or inept, those feelings were caused by another character, or by society inflicting that shame upon me. I realized the shame was never mine to carry; like a shroud, it was placed upon on me by outside forces. I realized that the bullying voice was culturally created, and that its claims that I was unworthy, inept, and insufficient were lies. I could release it. As I kept writing, the love and appreciation I started feeling toward my child self stayed with me. After years of feeling so unlovable, flawed, and fractured, I felt myself realign.
Guernica: As professionals who work with trauma, we both know that wounding is passed through both social institutions and DNA. In I Am Yours, you talk about your experiences caring for children, especially young boys. You also tell heartbreaking stories of relationships with men who are unable to love deeply, feel empathy, and respect women. What have you noticed about the ways men receive and transmit cultural trauma? What is your message to men in these times?
Zaman: I purposefully include scenes of loving, caregiving relationships with young boys I’ve had the privilege of knowing and caring for, alongside scenes of abusive or unkind partners. I do it to show that we are all born as children—innocent—and then become the love or the pain that is taught to us. I’m a firm believer in “shame the behavior, not the child”—and not the man, not the person, not the human. Shaming someone cuts off their capacity for growth. And if we cut off a human being’s capacity for growth, we cut off society’s chance at evolution.
I believe shame belongs to the society that raises and perpetuates misogyny, toxic masculinity, and abuse culture, and it harms and stunts all genders. We must hold misogynist, racist, or violent behavior accountable, while also giving all people—including those who have committed acts of disrespect, indignity, or outright violence toward women—the invitation and opportunity to change. All human beings are the sum of a series of choices: choices made unto us, choices we then make. This is proof that there is always an opportunity for compassion, empathy, and even forgiveness. There is always an opportunity and invitation for self-interrogation, healing, change, and growth. We each get to choose how we want to use our voice and our power.
My message to men in these times is to acknowledge and leverage the incredible resources of privilege you have been born with. A silent ally is not an ally. Being a silent bystander isn’t inaction; it’s complicity. Use your privilege to actively participate in the healing and the evolution our world so desperately needs.
Guernica: I love your assertion that “courage doesn’t belong to one person.” How do you think revealing your most vulnerable moments can empower others?
Zaman: Courage begets courage. That’s one of the most powerful qualities of memoir, and why I love the genre so dearly. Every story I share is told in service of the reader, to act as a reminder and mirror their courage and resilience. One of my favorite lines in I Am Yours is, “How lovely that being human soothes the act of being human.” By sharing my most vulnerable moments and my painful experiences, I hope both the reader and I realize that in our pain, we are more alike than we are different. Every trial both tests and nurtures our resilience. Every obstacle can be leveraged as an opportunity; every trial is a rung on the ladder we use to climb toward our bravest, boldest, brightest self. Moreover, by studying my life so closely, I’ve realized that all the rejections I’ve received have been generous acts of a cosmic hand directing me away from a path that wasn’t mine to tread, and toward a path that is.
Guernica: In what was for me one of the most resonant scenes, you describe an email you received from your father after you told him you want to write. In response, he told you the story of a woman whose arrogance and vanity brought her family to ruin. That is one of my biggest fears, and I think it’s true for many women: the idea that by pursuing our own dreams, we will hurt or detract from those we love. What supported you in overcoming that fear?
Zaman: I love that this scene spoke to you deeply. I felt like I was exposing a secret that requires our silence for its sanctity. For generations, patriarchy has promoted the message that a woman’s aspirations fall in direct conflict to the well-being of a community or family or a relationship. We are told that if we pursue our aspirations, we will bring ruin and shame to the people we love. This message, the culture of enforced limitation, was invented to make sure women remain devoted purely to the growth of the men and children around them. For patriarchy to survive and thrive, it needs our obedient smallness. It thus shames us for dreaming, to keep us from aspiring, and we become complicit in our own smallness.
Once I saw how it all connected, I became free. The shame and guilt I had previously felt for wanting grand things for and from myself evaporated. I think gaining awareness about, and language for, the larger architecture is the first step toward dismantling the cage and freeing ourselves.
Guernica: You write “the quieter we become, the tighter we clutch our illusion of choice.” What is most courageous about artists writing and speaking out in these times?
Zaman: In I Am Yours, I write, “Art gives voice to what would otherwise remain silent.” Toxic power requires silence for it to thrive. Our writing and speaking out in these times is a brave act, and it’s a necessary bravery. Silence breeds suffering. It is brave to speak, but also as necessary a human and global need as oxygen.
Guernica: What advice do you have for women who are just now discovering the depth and breadth of their own rage?
Zaman: Realize that shame is a construct created and embedded to control us. So often, the knee-jerk shame we’ve been taught to feel whenever we get angry is unsound, and we have been conditioned to be quiet and docile. In truth, women’s rage holds oceans of wisdom. Trust the presence and the wisdom of your anger. Pause to recognize the rising bile of shame, and remember that shame is a noose. Much like an electronic collar placed around the neck of a domesticated pet, your shame has been fashioned to keep you quiet, tame, and indoors. Reject the collar; voice your roar.