Guernica

Writer of Color

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?”