I Am Mine
“We tend to think deaths and events are all that require grieving, but selves, choices, habits, and relationships we’ve known, they need loving rituals of healing as well. The speed at which life demands we run, simply to make it to the next day, makes it difficult to see them through. Wounds tally. Addictions anesthetize the pain. We try to stitch while moving. But life’s racing pace continually tears open old scars and mangles the new ones. Mending-while-enduring is well-meant but ultimately futile, the sutures never tight enough to hold. I am revisiting myself. Year by year, I peer into the stitching. I am 3. I am 5. I am 11. 13, 18, 23, 27, 29. I mend the pieces. I arrange them just so. I cover myself with earth.” –Reema Zaman
Reema Zaman’s memoir I Am Yours is truly a necessary read for those who feel isolated, slightly hopeless, and emotionally vulnerable—but also are aware that they have a voice—especially someone like me. At times, I feel that myself as well as my peers intentionally mute their voices, and Zaman’s story gives insight as well as instructions on how to un-mute and raise the volume up. She writes that I Am Yours is a love letter, but it also reads like a play, as she structures her memoir with four acts and one-word chapters of verbs/nouns that represent scenes, starting before she was born—naming each age she is when events take place—to the actual editing stages of her memoir at age 31. Zaman also had strict parameters and a deadline for her “play,” giving herself a year, about 10 hours a day, to write the first draft while living in Oregon with her mom and stepdad. Since she spent a large portion of her life acting and performing roles, it makes sense for her to write this way—drawing attention to the performative aspects of attempting to write one’s life, incorporating the events that “matter most,” and having to be somewhat selective—which is a relative / subjective concept and very difficult to do. Yet, there’s some relief in the phrase she uses: “Only I author my life,” while also infusing genuine self-reflective meta-moments and struggles during the process of writing within the last stages.
She is first and foremost an artist here, describing the magic of art so succinctly: “How I love that the creation of art is like the sculpting of a person. Both are the reshaping of matter, transforming the wretched into beauty, common into magic, chaos into order” (52). Zaman is extremely aware of documenting and tracing language, space, thought, and time, and her writing style organizes itself in a “magically real” way, almost along the same lines as well-known playwrights, poets, and novelists she mentions, some including Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and David Sedaris. At the age of 10, she writes that she really wanted to read a book “that feels like my life,” and I think she has successfully created this for herself. I especially enjoyed Zaman when she said good stories are like music, perhaps a pleasant type of “loud,” and this sense of “loud” refers to voices as well. Throughout the entire memoir, Zaman talks to an imaginary friend, in which she labels as another voice: “within me live two voices, spliced since a toddler. One is calm, loving, and kind, and the other, exceptionally destructive” (243). Her journey involves unifying and then discarding the negative characteristics of her voices.
Similar to Zaman, I’ve struggled with being a femme-read person in the world, which includes almost automatic cat-calling/verbal assaults from particular men and them thinking they can (and often will) take advantage of people on a daily basis, the effects of rape culture, criticism for speaking and thinking “too much” or really “too intelligently,” body image issues, ethnic and/or racial ambiguity that leans toward a sense of “whiteness” with light-skinned privilege, as well as driving anxiety. She acknowledges her privileges from the beginning, expressing her overall genuine character and self-awareness. Zaman writes: “In a world wherein beauty reigns, I’m half elite, half minority. Superpower, third world. America, Bangladesh. I learned beauty the way I learned English, and for the same reason: a ticket to freedom. I view my appearance with the wry humor and blunt objectivity with which a scientist navigates a living case study” (224). The beauty standards in Bangladesh go by skin, hair and body shape, therefore men consider women who are dark-skinned moilah—“soiled” and “muddy” in Bengali—leaving those who are light-skinned to have more privilege. Her awareness of privilege does not mean she condones it, she clearly states in several examples throughout the memoir how disgusting these types of standards are and the extreme effects they have on women’s sense of confidence and understanding of self-worth.
Zaman writes specifically about personal abilities as well as obstacles, including switching back and forth between Bengali and English languages throughout her life, her strong acting abilities, high achievement in academia, and attention from men. She beautifully incorporates Bengali translations, while highlighting the significance of some translations not being able to exist in English. The idea of certain expressions and meanings belonging to or living within one language and not another is magical and worth investing in regards to additional realities/topics. Some translations from Bengali to English include jaan meaning “soul” and amanjee meaning “little mother,” both being her nicknames. Zaman includes definitions and meanings of words and rituals throughout the memoir, centering around how our understanding of things shifts or that we may not be aware or paying attention to the meanings at all. For example, she considers the words “author” and “authority” and their root connection: “…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” (267). Zaman looks up the meanings of her first name, after years of wondering: “In Persian, Reema means poetry. In Sanskrit, Reema means limitless” (202). These two meanings perfectly align with who Zaman is and what she’s doing throughout the book.
She brilliantly and confidently discusses her experiences and how they vary depending on where she’s living in the world, whether it be in her home of Dhaka, Bangladesh, her second home in Bangkok, Thailand or at the beginning of her acting career in New York City. Zaman describes the differences between being a girl in Dhaka and in Bangkok, through girls not having certain freedoms, such as a man throwing acid at his fiancé for wanting to continue her studies at college in Dhaka, to body-image issues in Bangkok with sex work being a strong form of business and demand. Zaman’s thinking that ballet isn’t for Bangladeshi girls, based on who is desired and who excels at dance, upsets me as a former dancer, yet I understand her perspective considering how the dance world often discriminates or discourages people based on aesthetics and tradition. The occurrence that follows, involving Zaman going to a mosque and seeing gender separating the room also joins the list of activities not meant for her based again on tradition. Situations of gendered mistreatment drift in and out of Zaman’s life, almost like breaths—actions that are necessary for patriarchal societies to thrive. The common saying, coming from her father, “boys will be boys,” is something Zaman realizes and actively rejects, bringing to light all personal injuries and injustices, the undertones of discomfort around men, and her own journey in overcoming them. She effectively writes about the eerie discreteness and horrifically violent actions of three men, or players, in her life—The Rapist, Peter Pan, and The Prince—using fragments of their identities to name them:
The Rapist [the friend] trickster: platonic friendship followed by forced physical violence, erasure, and forgetting
Peter Pan [the husband] singer: heavy romance followed by envy—to the extent of which he would deny Zaman being a true artist—projections of anger and complete disrespect
The Prince [the wannabe more-than-a-rebound] leader: exciting fling with potential for more followed by betrayal and a “you’re too good for me” attitude
For anyone who’s been through compromising circumstances, those that can’t easily be described or named due to embarrassment, fear, lack of support, etc., Zaman speaks to readers directly, encouraging acceptance that events happen, that readers are not at fault, and that they can work on establishing the strength to move forward. She writes that “endings arrive in pieces,” because we move by habit to keep trying for the sake of another instead of learning to let go for the sake of oneself. Only I author my life. Her realization helps me to heal from past violence, and through reading her story, I’m able to reflect on how to continue healing, as it’s an ongoing process. I appreciate Zaman’s wisdom, too, with the idea of forgiveness for oneself, not necessarily for the people who commit(ted) the acts. Despite her many trials with men, she still maintains empathy: “I have learned all individuals are beautiful on their own but certain combinations can be catastrophic” (258). Through this way of thinking, she chooses freedom over what she calls “the pain of memory.” I’m enough, the past doesn’t have to shape me, my trauma can be embraced in order to heal, and the best person to constantly learn from as well as love is myself.
As she writes, she also choreographs and dances from her desk and from public transit. One of my favorite moments of the memoir is Zaman writing and then giving hurried love lines/notes to random people on the subway—people, she writes, that may need some kindness and a reminder that they are stronger than they may realize. I’ve started giving out notes to people on the Buffalo subway, with various but mostly positive responses in return. Even if people don’t accept the notes, Zaman lives by release instead of rejection, which is a central theme in her career as well as in her relationships. Her strong relationship with and reliance on words inspires me to look up my own name’s meaning and look for depth within the obvious, such as how fireflies make their light through a “‘cold light,’ devoid of the more common infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths” (150).
In Sanskrit, Dana means generosity, and in Persian, Dana means knowledgeable, which are definitely states of being I’d love to continue embodying. Zaman inspires us to look inside, as we are all language and words in bodily form, waiting to define ourselves. “I am yours,” then, translates to “I am mine.”
Dana Venerable is a writer from New Jersey. Currently, she’s a third-year PhD student in English and an Arthur A. Schomburg Fellow at SUNY – University at Buffalo, focusing on critical race theory, dance studies (primarily tap dance and percussive movement), performance, poetics, and sound. She’s interested in the ways in which communities and events choreograph, constitute and/or manipulate movement, and how movement complicates identities, land/space, language and senses of home. Dana has written for The Dartmouth, Mouth Magazine, and Zoomoozophone Review. For her poem “Church Bus,” she was nominated for the 2017 Best of the Net award by Sundress Publications.