Writing, for me, means freedom. Which is to say, everything prior to discovering writing was entrapment. You cannot desire freedom, you cannot be gripped by the desperate need to obtain it, if you are already free. For the hawk that has never known humans or any eminent danger, that has never had her wings clipped or broken, the sky is a nonchalant certainty. But for the hawk that has been hunted, wounded, held captive, the sky is a sacred, hard-won freedom. It is life made possible and renewed. It is rebirth.
I am from Bangladesh. 33 years ago, I was born in Dhaka Hospital under a single ceiling fan that offered little relief from the heat. I was delivered on a white metal cot, the paint chipping in petal shaped pieces. The eldest child in an arranged marriage, my parents welcomed my arrival with love and fierce hope. At that time, my father made $50 a month. We went home from the hospital in a borrowed car. All subsequent trips for doctors’ appointments were made in a rickshaw.
I was 3 when I began to realize that neither my mother nor father were happy. Looking up from my two-foot-high view, I remember feeling that each parent was both enormous yet shrunken, hunched and made concave as if there was a fist in their chest closing tighter and tighter. They were and continue to be incredibly loving. But mingled in Momma’s tenderness was ever-present icy fear. Timidity and anxiety so profound that I could taste the cold when kissing her cheek. I could hear it when I laid my head against her sharp clavicle. Woven through Papa’s sweetness was rage. His skill for anger and his muscle for kindness were both immense.
In our family, we do not dabble in anything casually. Every trait we possess, every gesture, habit, behavior, interaction is what others may describe as extreme. For us, it is our norm. We express, give, and demand love ardently, desperately, exuberantly. We pursue and work with obsessive, single-minded zeal. We wound with the ferocity and precision of expert marksmen.
I was raised to be perfect. The intention behind this education wasn’t at all malicious. My young, third-world born-and-raised parents firmly believed that perfection meant freedom and protection. It meant a life of success, love, opportunities, contentment, security, belonging, and happiness. They taught me everything a girl needs to be seen, upheld, and rewarded as being perfect. I, like any child, was governed entirely by one goal: the innocent desire to make my parents proud, a longing so deep it made my teeth hurt, like candy that is too sweet.
A perfect girl is ever-forgiving. She is patient, compassionate, thin, polite, obedient, humble, accommodating, beautiful and precise in appearance, behavior, habit, speech, demeanor, and lifestyle. She never complains. She is devoted to nurturing and preserving social harmony. She works and exists as part of a larger whole, a significant player but purposefully invisible.
My parents modeled and taught the commandments of perfection and if I disobeyed or failed to execute perfection, I was punished with deliberate precision through words, hands, silence, shame, and love withheld. The phrase I received as frequently as “I love you” was “Chi, chi, chi.” In Bengali it means “Shame, shame, shame.” So this I knew to trust and expect: you can be loved and shamed by the same person.
I was 11 the first time a cousin tried to rape me. Somehow, my inner voice chimed in; I managed to get away. I went to my father, terrified that I’d be reprimanded, for what in particular I couldn’t articulate. I went to tell him for I knew this same cousin had raped others, girl cousins who had shared their experiences with me. Had it only been attempted with me, the omnipotent certainty of my father’s temper would have been enough for me to never come forth. But I needed to share the others’ stories in hope that something would, could be done.
Papa replied, Boys will be boys. It happens especially between cousins. He looked down at me, his lip curling with distaste. By speaking, I was betraying my commandments. Chi chi chi. I swallowed what tasted like a piece of me.
At 18, a high-school teacher began stalking me, sending me 4-page long letters, handwritten in red ink, every letter capitalized. He memorized my class schedule and even called me at home. When I reported his actions to my headmaster and father, it was made clear to me that no man would ever behave this way unless provoked. His actions must be the result of my failure to perform the way good, clean, perfect girls should. I had manifested the dirtiness. It was my duty now to be quiet, understanding, apologetic, lest I cause more uncleanliness, more embarrassment, more trouble.
Chi chi chi.
By this time, I was severely anorexic and bulimic. Of course I was. I had internalized every rule, wound, and punishment, and had grown masterful at inflicting continual punishment upon myself. I was honoring the behavior modeled by my own stunningly beautiful, thin mother. Children inherit; children obey; children carry forth.
I graduated high school and moved to the United States for college. I majored in theater and gender studies. I loved acting. In acting, I was permitted to adopt roles that were capable of voicing the words, emotions, thoughts, and dreams I myself wasn’t allowed to. In acting, I was allowed to be a girl so far from my inherited design, to embody all sorts of indecorous states. Anger, resentment, ferocity, pain, sorrow.
I loved my gender studies courses as well. Our assignments were all written essays. There on the page, I was permitted, encouraged to be bold, impassioned, inquisitive, assertive, intelligent, and confident, so different from the girl I was in my waking life. On that stage, on that page, I shed her for a few hours at time, to step into a kind of woman who both terrified me and inspired me. I loved her. I would leave the studio, classroom, or theater thinking, I wish I was her. At least I get to adopt her ways, once in a while.
I graduated college and moved to New York City to pursue acting as a career. I was marketed and cast to play a very specific girl, one I knew so well: beautiful, thin, charming, uncomplicated, demure, sweet. The Ideal Girlfriend to the Leading Man. The complex roles, qualities, and stories I was permitted to embody in college were bid adieu. The industry did not care for them, certainly not from someone who looks like me–a young, feminine, brown woman. The only roles I was expected and offered to play were tired stereotypes.
I fell deeper into my anorexia and bulimia. I fell into modeling, the way one falls in love with someone cruel. I knew better, yet there I was, a sinew-and-bone puppet being pulled and handled by large, sweaty, ravenous hands. I fell into one abusive relationship after another, performing as I had been taught: I was ever-forgiving, patient, compassionate, polite, helpful, accommodating, nurturing, devoted to his care, needs, whims, fetishes.
I had my first miscarriage at 22, in the bathroom of the high-end restaurant where I was a hostess. Something violet and veined slipped out of me, landing with a wet plop in the toilet. An unmarried girl, my limbs flooded with fear. All around, I felt the chilling specter of my parents’ disapproval. A few months later, when I was 23, I was raped. This, like the miscarriage, ovarian cysts, and other sexual assaults, I kept silent. Good, clean, perfect girls do not draw such horrifying, shameful experiences. We certainly never speak of them.
I got married at 25. Ours was a love of extremes. Extreme passion, extreme tenderness, extreme pain, extreme fear. By this time, my bulimia had faded but my anorexia had grown deeper, more powerful than ever, a fist in my chest ever tightening. Curdled with shame that I had failed so profoundly to create a perfect marriage and life, I kept his actions and my pain hidden from everyone. Loneliness haunted me like a devoted shadow stitched to my heels.
The strange boon in that marriage was that after a year into our darkness, I started writing. Fully-formed essays arrived in my mind while I watched him pace and roar through the house, a lion caged by his own personality. While I watched him, bracing my body from what he could do, the space in my mind felt like a printing press, neatly printing and stacking page after page in a book without pause, the words having been written and edited long ago by people off-screen. Whole, complete essays arrived as well while I sat in waiting rooms before auditions. The pages arrived, I committed them to memory.
During the day, I tended to him and my other duties. Then at night, I sat and transcribed those memorized pages onto my laptop. I stared, aghast at the words, written in a voice that both shocked and amazed me. A voice that was bold, incisive, confident, assertive. Brimming with intelligence far beyond my own capacity. Speaking on themes like childhood trauma, rape culture, feminism, addiction, domestic violence, love, compatibility, and healing.
The voice was so foreign from the one everyone knew as mine that I kept it hushed. These pages, sent from the mysterious ether, became my delicious secret. I felt like I was cheating on my husband. I felt I was betraying him as well as everyone else, what they needed and wanted and relied upon. But I so feverishly loved the words and the feeling that slipped over me when I sat to write them that for the first time in my life, I didn’t care that I was doing something that felt so brazen, so audacious, so uncharacteristic of what perfect girls do.
The marriage ended. I was 27, then 28, then 29, still in New York, acting and modeling. But the pages sent from a sky beyond my sightlines had started to change me. I loathed the role I had inherited from the world. Each page was a step towards this other woman. Once we crossed the halfway point between myself and her, once I became more her and less my past, remaining inside the life ghost-written for me by the tastes and teachings of others became impossible.
I left. At 29 and a half, I left New York, acting, modeling, the very specific girl I had been, the particular kind of men I had allowed myself to be with, the life, habits, and qualities I had perfected. I left the entrapment, flying towards that promising sky.
At 30, I arrived at freedom. I sat and wrote a memoir, and I wrote myself anew. In deliberate, meticulous detail I documented my life, from infancy to age 30. I scoured my past, examined each shadow, healed what needed healing, found clarity, acceptance, forgiveness, release, and compassion for each character and experience.
I wrote and realized that for me, an author’s role towards her characters, their lives and actions, and her literary self’s actions and qualities is that of an uber-parent. As the author, I started to view each character, from my father, to my mother, my rapist, ex-husband, or my protagonist-self, with the unconditional patience, acceptance, compassion, maturity, and forgiveness of the kind of parent we all hope for, or hope to be. Every adult was once a child, a child who was fed their steady diet of pain, insecurity, conditioning, and fears, which then influences how they’ll behave towards others. I have long known this but becoming a writer cemented the truth and allowed me to catalyze action. All traces of anger that I had ever harbored towards the characters and events in my life disappeared.
Furthermore, as I wrote, I replaced my previous concepts of self. Those beliefs of what a perfect daughter, wife, and woman must be. When I revisited and documented the actions and words of my younger self, at ages 3, 4, 7, 17, 27, without meaning to, I observed and reacted to my past self the way I at 30 would respond to any child, any adult: with unconditional affection, bemusement, and affirmation. From this vantage point, I started to notice that contrary to the information I had received at the time of the actual experiences, I have never deserved the punishment, wounds, harassment, rape, assaults, disapproval, or rejection I’ve known as mine. I saw that No, I was never and have never been deserving or at fault for any of the pain I’ve been handed. The belief that I or that any girl or woman are deserving of the abuse the world inflicts upon us is the deepest, oldest lie. A lie that is told to keep us insecure, hesitant, fearful, and therefore subservient and controllable.
As the memoir took shape before me, the shame and self-loathing I had carried for three decades were replaced with self-respect, love, and confidence. These golden qualities travelled off the page and into my body. This healed, at long last, my anorexia. Anorexia comes from the belief that one is unworthy, unwanted, and unlovable, and therefore deserving of continual self-inflicted punishment. But as I wrote, I began to witness the evidence of my irrefutable, objective value take form on the page: worthiness that lives independent to what others or I can source from my body and my face. Thus, chapter by chapter, anorexia’s jaws loosened its hold on my psychology. Chapter by chapter, the illness that had plagued me since I was 15 vanished. Chapter by chapter, the once tiny, pretty, fragile, demure, timid girl reclaimed her narrative from the hands of others and transformed into a woman of ferocious power. My voice literally changed, dropping an octave.
As that memoir grew, it proved to me that not only does my brain have more value than my physical appearance and its marketability, everything I hold within my mind, heart, and unwavering spirit is far more significant than my ability to perform on cue, than my capacity to be a dutiful, polite, pleasing, ever-giving, ever-bending daughter, wife, nurturer, giver, helper, and lover for others. My brain, now unleashed, has become my favorite muscle.
I wrote that first book in one calendar year. Enough time for the Earth to orbit the Sun. Enough time for me to complete my orbit from shadowed past to present light. I turned 31. I spent six months revising the manuscript, then signed with an agent. We spent another six months revising the manuscript, then started circulating it to publishers.
I am now 33. These days, in addition to writing essays for various publications and working on a second memoir, I speak as well at different universities and conferences. I speak on rape culture, politics, ethics, social justice, self-ownership, empowerment, authentic confidence and beauty, self-love, intersectional feminism, and healing and rising beyond adversity. I’m now the kind of woman I used to marvel at on stage and on the page in college. Only now, she, I, am not a role I’m only allowed to visit for a few hours at a time.
The words “author” and “authority” both come from the Latin auctor, which means originator. I love this. I am my beginning and my end–the ultimate authority in my life. I love too that the craft of writing has equipped me with all I need to navigate the arc of life, past, present, future. While I don’t know the details, events, tragedies, characters, and heartbreaks ahead, I know with utter certainty that I’ll always be happy. I will forever rise. For I now have myself. And this, I’ve learned, is one’s larger journey and greatest tool. To create a self that is beloved, resilient, trusted, wise, and accountable.
Writing has taught me that every person’s story will hold the exact elements they need to become their best self. While the moments, seasons, characters, and experiences may feel chaotic, confusing, and violent at their time of inception, life will provide us with precisely what and whom we need to fill into our bravest self, our larger mission, our truest vocation, our greater trajectory. As it turns out, my life hasn’t been an ideal education in becoming the perfect woman. My life has been the perfect education to become a voice for those who have silenced, a woman pulsing with relentless fire, who encourages the fire within others. Mine will not be a legacy of perfection. It will be one of freedom. So when asked of my experiences as a writer, I will tell you that for me, writing is freedom. I came into form 33 years ago. But I was born from the words I have authored.
REEMA ZAMAN is a writer, speaker, and actress from Bangladesh, presently residing in Oregon. She writes and speaks on intersectional feminism, the beauty industry, rape culture, anorexia and recovery, self-ownership, and empowerment. Represented by Lisa DiMona of Writers House, Reema is the author of the memoir I Am Yours. Her work has been published in Shape, Nailed, Full Grown People, The Huffington Post, and Your Tango. Additionally, Reema performs her one-woman piece You Are The Voice at various universities and conferences, a talk on healing and rising beyond rape and other adversities. It explores the power we all hold within to turn pain into poetry, to become the authors of our own lives.
Reema is also the founder of We the Sisterhood, an NGO devoted to the healing, recovery, and empowerment of women who are survivors of acid violence, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and sex-trafficking in Bangladesh and neighboring regions. For more information, please visit www.reemazaman.com.