You are apparently famous, though I have never heard of you. You workshop my piece at a prestigious writing workshop in California. It is my second year at this conference, and my fifth working on my novel. Writers have found their agents here, people whisper.
Each morning, two pieces are workshopped, facilitated by an industry professional- agents, publishers, famous writers. Many facilitators come prepared with notes, charts, insider tips so that even if your piece isn’t being workshopped, the atmosphere is charged with the thrill of learning. The morning I am to be workshopped, you come in and slouch in your seat, one arm slung over a chair. You speak about yourself for the first 45 minutes, cutting into my workshop time.
I have been writing my novel for five years and I’m just about ready to shop it around, a phase which feels like I carry my writing heart on my sleeve, open and raw, vulnerable and desperate. I have read about writers being discovered in such places, whether in workshop, or over a casual conversation over dinner, at which you might just be seated by someone with connections.
I look around at the other students to see if they’re bothered by your ego, but they sit riveted by your every word. As they take turns to critique my piece, you say nothing. You survey the scene with your tiny faded blue eyes and I think, you looked like a white Amitabh Bachchan. You have the same air of giant ego mixed with lechy-old-man as the famous Bollywood actor. And like Big B, you are adored by your fans but you make my stomach curdle for reasons I can’t pinpoint.
When it is your turn to critique my work, you say nothing. Not one note, not one comment. As people filter out of the class, you say to me, “Meet me for coffee. I want to discuss your work.”
“He must see something in you,” the others say as we walk to lunch. “He is giving you special attention.”
I walk in silence, shaking from being completely ignored by you, my “mentor,” from losing my critique time to your ego.
You are late arriving at the coffee shop. I offer to buy you a drink, figuring I should, since you are giving me your precious time for some apparently great writing advice. You ask for a venti latte. It costs me seven dollars, a hard blow on a writer’s wallet.
“I want to talk to you about your use of senses in your writing,” you say, resuming your slouched posture. You say some esoteric mumbo jumbo I cannot follow. Seeing my confusion, you say, “Here’s an example: ‘the soft jazz music that played in the background of the overpriced coffee shop resonated in his chest as he looked at the beautiful Pakistani woman sitting across from him’.”
I put down my pen.
You wait for my response. What do you want me to say? Yes, I am a Pakistani woman, and as such, I am conditioned to be wary of men, to be hyper vigilant in their presence.
Yes, I know these things that you’re suggesting behind a thin veil of literary advice also happen at this conference.
But not for me. I am here for feedback from apparent experts in the field. I had such expectations of this workshop, I have spent so much money to be here. I have not done an MFA, I have no connections in the writing world. This week means everything to me.
I sit across from you unable to speak. Why? Because you are old, nearly 70? Because I am married? Because I am turned off by how much you looked like your subcontinental counterpart, who I can imagine pulling this same bullshit with eager young actresses on the other side of the world?
No. I sit here unable to speak because I am not here for this. I am here as a writer and I expect to be seen as such. But you perceive me very differently. You perceive me as woman. Exotic. Available despite the ring on my finger.
I look into your tiny faded blue eyes. I understand that I will get no real feedback on my piece. I understand that you have wasted my time and cost me seven dollars. I understand that though I combat unwanted attention in every other aspect of my life, you have brought the unwanted here, to this sacred space meant for writing and mentorship and you have made the sacred unsafe.
I can tell you none of this. Because on top of everything else, I have been raised South Asian, and as such, I have only ever been taught, “don’t talk back to your elders.” Raised as a South Asian woman, I have certainly not been taught words for this type of situation. Words of self-protection and empowerment. Words which go against a man, no matter what the request. Words to tell a man that he is being inappropriate. That she is not interested. That he should fuck off.
I thank you for your time and I leave. I walk through the village, mentally retracing my steps. Why did this happen to me? Did I give off some sort of signal? Did I indicate in any way that I was interested, that it was okay to treat me like this? Would another woman in my place have done something different, would she have had the words?
I tell my roommates what happened. “He was just being friendly,” they say. Is it because they’re white women? Is it because they would have stayed on, taken him up on whatever followed? Their response makes me wonder, were you just being friendly? Did I over react?
I have nowhere to take my anger, so I take myself to my room. Swallow the experience. Silence it.
You stop me in the middle of a crowded passage at the Karachi Literature Festival. Say you saw me on a flight back from Lahore the other week and I must be Parsi because you heard me speak Gujarati on the phone. It is true that I was on the flight and that I was speaking Gujarati. But I did not see you see me and this bothers me. I am running late for the next panel- I like to arrive at panels early to get a good seat and absorb all I can about literature and life – but you are least bothered by my half-walking-away stance. You talk as though we are lounging at a tiki bar at a beach resort and not surrounded by hundreds of hurried passersby.
You say you are screenwriter and I am a writer and maybe we should collaborate. And here I am once again, on the fulcrum, the moment of decision I always face with men: do I believe the words coming out of your mouth, take them at face value, or do I automatically assume that this is a pick up line?
So much goes into this decision that you do not know. So much goes into this decision that even I don’t know, not on any conscious level, not at this point in my life. I give you my number though I don’t fully want to. Saying no to men who ask for my number is a skill I have not yet developed, though I am 35 and married.
The layers of complexity are not immediately clear though they live inside my bones.
I am in the city of my birth because the Karachi Literature Festival has a lot of agents and publishers on its roster and, after a year of pitching American agents, I still have a manuscript to sell. Maybe connecting with you, a screenwriter, is a good idea.
Mixed up in this moment is my father’s voice, deep inside me, which says men are not to be trusted. I’ve battled this message much of my life, wanting it not to be true. I want so much to blame my father’s Pakistani conditioning but men have mistreated me regardless of their nationality. Yet I continue to want to trust people as humans, I continue to want my father to be wrong. And perhaps I act from this place when I give you my number.
Mixed deeper down in the muck of this moment is this: the almost frantic urgency behind all my actions on this trip to Karachi is not the desire to get published, but a desire to escape my own deep unhappiness in life. And in fact, my encounter with you will be a catalyst for change.
Days later, you text me, “Let’s meet at my place for drinks and then go to dinner.”
My guard goes up- this doesn’t sound like a professional meeting. Yet I don’t say no immediately. I want to be a strong independent woman, not a scared one who still believes her father’s outdated messages. I say, I’m busy that night and we reschedule, agree to meet at the restaurant directly. I am triumphant with this small victory; we are meeting on my terms. I can do this. I can have a professional relationship with a man and not let my father’s blanket message cripple me.
The night of our meeting, I let my regular driver go, figuring you are close and can pick me up on the way to the restaurant. When you come to get me at my aunt’s house, you tell her that you are staying with a really established family.
Once in the car, you say you need to stop by your place, you “need to drop off your bag.” My body tenses. I tell myself it’s okay. You are sitting in the front with your driver and it is going fine – till you mention my curves. And then it’s not fine. But we have arrived at the house, and you are inviting me in and I can’t stay outside with the driver, and you know it. You pour us drinks without asking. They are strong. You make yourself a second, then a third; I barely sip mine.
I want to leave but I don’t have the words. I also don’t have the means. I did not come here with my own driver. I can’t just call a cab- we are in suburban Karachi, not downtown New York. Plus, in Karachi, women- especially foreigners, as I am considered there- don’t just hail cabs. Women only travel with their own driver. I have put myself at your mercy, despite every desire not to.
As you speak, I alternate between panic and anger at myself. Once again, I am here as a writer, wanting to network, wanting to make industry connections. Once again, I’m seen as woman, as exotic (whether for my Parsi-ness or my American-ness, who knows), and as available despite the ring on my finger. Once again, I ask what I did wrong, how I invited this situation.
You take me to an intimate restaurant. You gesture for me to go ahead of you and as I do, you touch the small of my back. It is such a fleeting moment yet it lands heavy in my body, taking its place amid thousands of other unwanted touches. As we are seated, I realize how drunk you are. Your eyes are glassy, your words come slowly. I give up any hope that we will talk about writing or screenplays. I am now only concerned for my safety.
I feel sick. I need to leave. But this is Karachi and leaving is not easy. I can’t just Uber home. I can’t call my uncle or aunt or cousins. I am ashamed and embarrassed and I don’t want them to know what a stupid decision I’ve made, what a dangerous mess I’ve gotten myself into. I am afraid that if they find out, then they will get more vigilant with me, that they will try to stop me from going out next time. Yes, I am 35, married, but none of that matters in Karachi. I left this place as a very young child and I still haven’t learned all its unspoken rules, its clear gender lines.
Mixed up in all this is this deep desire I always have to be seen and accepted as a real Pakistani woman. I silently scold myself: no Pakistani woman would ever find herself in this situation. No Pakistani woman would have stopped in that crowded passageway of the literature festival to talk to some man she did not know, let alone given him her number. On this trip, I have fancied myself quite the Pakistani, but in this moment, I am a stupid, naive North American.
“Why aren’t you eating?” you ask as you stuff your face. You are too drunk to notice I do not respond.
On the way home, you sit in the back seat with me as the driver heads to my aunt’s house. I squeeze myself as far from you as I can but you spread yourself out as close to me as you can. We are nearly at my aunt’s when you ask why I am sniffling. “Oh, it’s an ongoing cold,” I say and before I finish my sentence, your finger is on my forehead.
“Rub here,” you say, “It relieves sinus congestion.”
Such a small gesture. Compared to how wrong the evening could have gone. Compared to all the ways you could have harmed me. Such a brief touch yet in that moment, your finger on my forehead feels like an assault.
I lay in my bed for hours, shaking. The possibilities of all that could have gone wrong land heavily on my soul. My stupidity, my naivete, my blind trust in others rains down on me in shards of self-blame and self-hate.
Not once, not for a second, do I blame you.
Unable to sleep, I email you about Forehead Man, as I’ve come to call him. I assume that I can tell you what happened and I assume that as my husband, you will be as enraged as me. That you will take my side. That you will make me feel better. I pour my heart out to you in the email, I give you my feelings in all their complexity, what I’d hoped for in the meeting, the self-blame I feel. I give you my vulnerability and my fragility and I fall asleep.
I wake up with a headache, and I call you, needing your comfort. You ask about everything else, you tell me about everything else, but you do not mention the email and my heart tightens. I finally bring it up and you are silent. It is not the first time in our eight-year relationship you have avoided emotions, but it is the first time your avoidance hits me hard, knocks me over.
I don’t remember exactly how you respond, but I remember noticing with horror that you are not enraged as I had imagined. I notice that you do not ask if I am okay and you do not say how sorry you are that this had happened to me.
The buzzing in my body that has lingered from the previous night’s encounter is now replaced with a more palpable buzzing: the unsafe feeling I got with Forehead Man is replaced by the unsafe feeling I now have from our phone call, from you.
You say in that detached tone you always get when I’m having feelings, “Well, be careful next time.”
Your businesslike tone rattles me and after we hang up, I frantically tell myself, at least you are not like my father, at least you don’t believe all men are out to get me. But your utter lack of response, your utter lack of any emotion whatsoever, is equally devastating.
A few months before my trip to Karachi, you and I are at a bookstore one Friday night after dinner, when I see this sentence in the acknowledgements section of a book I’m rifling through: “Most of all, I thank my husband, who reads everything I ever write.”
It stirs something within me, something I have always feared and never acknowledged. I am quiet all the way home and as we pull into the garage, I say to you, “I want to share my novel with you but I am afraid you won’t read it.”
I am surprised at how nervous I am, how vulnerable it feels to say this deep fear aloud even though you are my husband and we have been together for eight years.
Closing the car door, you respond, “You’re probably right.”
Am I misremembering? Did you really say that, just like that? You did. I remember because that is all you said. Nothing more. Nothing to explain your own concerns or fears around this subject, nothing to help me unravel mine.
In the ten years I’ve been writing, I have had a very specific fantasy of what this moment looks like, the moment a spouse shares her manuscript with her partner. In my fantasy, you sit in a red armchair and I plop a thick stack of pages into your eager, outstretched hands. You read it in one go, mesmerized, and then we discuss it for hours and days after.
When I finally work up the courage to send you my manuscript some months later, you ask for it in PDF format and download it onto your iPad. For weeks afterwards, every time I see you looking at your iPad, I hope you are reading my manuscript, but every time I look over your shoulder, you are reading something else. A grandfather clock booms in my heart, marking each passing minute since I’ve sent you my manuscript, marking each passing day that you don’t touch it.
You eventually start it, some months later, get part way through then put it down again. I notice, of course I do. But I have no words to ask you about it. My soul is dead. I go to Karachi, and I stay longer than I planned. I take the space I need to make the decision I need to make. The experience with Forehead Man is not the only thing that exposes the tears in our relationship. When I come back, things unravel fast. The unhappiness I have kept hidden for years bubbles up and out every day. I tell you some of my unhappiness in fits and starts. You tell me you have resumed reading my manuscript and even though I want to appreciate the gesture, the wound is already too deep. It is too late, I am too far gone. When you finally finish it, we talk about my novel for about twelve minutes. I don’t remember what you said about it, but I remember that it took us twelve minutes to exhaust the discussion. By now I am so exhausted from trying to revive our marriage, I let this go.
As I contemplate leaving you, the memory of this whole procedure around you reading/not reading my manuscript lands hard. Because you have supported me for four years as I’ve written my manuscript. You’ve paid my bills and not once have you asked me to go back to work. You have attended my readings, you have spoken highly of your writer wife to your friends and co-workers. Yet when you do not read my manuscript- which to me is everything, it is me on paper- all the support you showed for my writing burns away and all that is left is a cinder. An analogy comes to mind: I feel like you are a rich parent sending me, your child, to the best schools and buying me the best toys, but when it comes to actually engaging, seeing, being with me, this is something you can’t or won’t do. This analogy sickens me, but once it comes, it stays.
A year or so after my divorce, I write this piece. The topic, “misogyny and women writers,” brings up memories I did not know I held inside me and as they emerge onto the page, I feel nauseous from morning to night. This feeling lasts the whole week that I write my first draft because to see these encounters, a small selection of a very long list, laid out one after the other, is sickening: to think of what I was put through, to think of how little I spoke at that time. Weeks of self-care follow. Self-compassion. Gentleness with myself. I wonder if I’ll actually submit this piece. Will I dare? This is the most truth I’ve ever told, the closest to home I’ve ever written about.
But then I think: not submitting this piece is an act of self-silencing. And that is something I no longer do. I choose to share this piece not to complain or blame but to stand up. Claim my voice. Join the conversation to bring about change or at the very least, awareness, acknowledgement of these dangerous subversions men act out everyday with no repercussions. I put my name on this piece and thus, move with integrity towards speaking my truth, confidently and strongly.