On the importance of memoirs

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Photo Credit: Amazon

I just finished reading Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage last night.

For those of you familiar with Leila Ahmed, you’re probably thinking “Oh no!” or “Right on!” For those unfamiliar, Leila Ahmed is a controversial figure within Islamic Studies scholarship. Or maybe just with Muslims. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t really read too much of her work. Maybe I should. I feel her views may have evolved.

In any case, I first encountered her work as a freshman in the midst of writing my very first research paper (we didn’t do that in high school – have things changed since then?). At the time, I didn’t wear the headscarf, but was still interested in the topic of Women in Islam. Leila Ahmed came up as THE scholar in this field and I basically used her arguments to justify my feelings on hijab at the time (i.e. it is not required).

Things obviously have changed since then.

Fast forward almost five years later, I felt regret and almost disgust for having taken the self-righteous and arrogant position I once had (I don’t blame Leila for this, this was all on me). For now, I had begun to don the headscarf.

So, when I came across Leila Ahmed’s memoir at Half Price Books a few months ago, I was at once intrigued and a bit hesitant. Did I want to subject myself to more orientalist drivel (I just love that phrase, btw)? But the synopsis (can it even be called a synopsis if it’s a memoir?) mentioned things like Arab nationalism and identity that I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s only $3.50.” I don’t have to buy into everything she says. So I bought the book.

And then read it (well, I read two books in between, because like I said, I was hesitant). But I have to say: since perhaps A Suitable Boy, I haven’t read a book that has caused me to ponder on so many topics on such a visceral level: manufactured nationalism (because it always is), women, feeling “home,” the “liberating” West, interfaith relations in a more pristine time, etc. I didn’t agree with everything Leila wrote, but I do appreciate her telling of history.

Whatever you think of Nasser (he’s the most prominent political figure in this memoir, Leila having grown up in Egypt in the middle of the 20th century – but you can substitute him for almost anyone), depending on what side you are on, the history book you are reading only tells you one side. We like to think of history as objective, factual, empirical in a way. But Leila’s recalling reminded me that there are many more perspectives than we are privy to. I particularly appreciated how Leila herself added many times throughout that her own memory might not have captured all that was going on. And that too reminded me of the importance of memoirs.

As someone who writes about her life with one-time plans to write a memoir, I realized that even if I don’t live an extraordinary life in the sense that I will never be recorded in “history,” that does not mean that my personal experiences don’t have something unique and needed to offer to those interested in the entirety of the human experience. As my last post almost abruptly touched on: What is it like to be a young woman who loses all that weight after the “entire world”* essentially made her feel that her weight was all that mattered? That story, as I’ve lived with for the past 8 years, does not come with a nicely packaged conclusion after that “after” shot.

But that’s not all. What is it like to be a young woman observing hijab in a world (or country) where some people feel that shariah law is going to take over the entire world? What is it like to be a Muslim from India and to be proud of this fact and yet also be concerned about what the right-wing hateful political establishment is doing to your Muslim brothers and sisters still living in the desh?

These are but some of the narratives constantly playing in my mind — and only I can weave them together in the way that I would.

In a world where individuals increasingly feel that there’s nothing we can do, that there are forces more powerful (and sinister, in many cases!) than we moving and shaping the trajectory of our lives, memoirs reminds us that our thoughts and our feelings are still within our control, and that they still matter… to at least someone.

*Remember that my telling will be subjective. But that’s fine.

Waiting for my muse

I’m relatively new to the world of writing. Though I’ve been blogging since 2003 and have always felt an affinity for writing over, say, public speaking, I only started feeling like a writer last year.

I no longer introduce myself as an aspiring writer. But I do hesitate to tell people that I even do write. I know the first thing they’ll ask is: “Oh yeah? So, what have you written?” I could point to the numerous articles I’ve written for various online publications and even my short story. But until I’ve written a book that’s on its way to be published, the term “writer” feels hollow, fraudulent even.

For one, I don’t make a living off of my writing – although funnily enough for work today, I did write a letter of recommendation on behalf of someone.

I “know” that one doesn’t have to be a prolific novelist to be considered a writer; but in the world that we live in, it’s the only example we see.

That, or being a journalist.

I do not want to be a journalist (I know that now)

What I want to do is write my own stories.

But I’m having difficulty actually writing them.

I thought I would do what I do best – or, naturally, rather – and write a memoir. Luckily, as I’ve learned, you don’t have to be a celebrity to write one. I received encouragement from a couple of writing instructors that neither my age (I just turned 30 in February) nor a lack of truly shocking experiences (I have not fought in any wars nor am I a poverty-stricken cancer survivor) should serve as a deterrent. I still have a story tell: my story that no one else can tell.

For one, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence being the “fat kid” and then lost over 100 pounds when I was 22. I’ve more or less maintained this weight loss since then, which, believe me, is NOT easy.

I am the daughter of immigrants and a Muslim woman living in a post-9/11 America.

I come from a traditional family where I assumed the only way I would get married was if it was an arranged marriage. But I ended up marrying a man I met on the internet — and my family was totally okay with it.

I know that any story can be an interesting story, as long as it is written well.

But there are darker moments in my life I just cannot share. It wasn’t until I started writing my memoir – I’m about 7,000 or so words in – that I realized this. To write an honest and genuine memoir, I would have to share stories that I know loved ones won’t appreciate being shared with potentially the rest of the world.

Feeling stuck and mulling over what to do, I decided that I would give fiction another attempt. I guess you can say finally having my short story published has given me the courage to do something I told myself I do not have a mind for. But given the writing I do most naturally, I know I can’t create a world that is completely alien to me. I still want to weave my life into this book – I want it to be a fictional tale inspired by my life.

But where do I begin?

Just this week, I’ve started jotting down thoughts that could potentially turn into something. But every idea I have thus far come up with just plain sucks. It’s too cliche. It’s not literary enough. It’s too YA.

I’ve started following writer websites left and right and have even turned to watching vlogs! I’ve never done this before.

Still. Nothing.

Is this common? Is this a rite of passage I must endure? Or is the lack of any real ideas a sign that I should just continue with this blog and be happy with what I have? Am I being too ambitious? Am I being too hard on myself?

Oh, future Muse, wherever you are (if you do exist), please make yourself known soon. Please and thank you!

Happy Birthday to Cake & Cows! A blog CAN actually make dreams come true

Though I am physically feeling unwell, today is a happy day otherwise*. And since I can’t really do anything else and don’t really take naps, I figured I’d blog.

Today marks the day that Cake & Cows first graced the blogosphere with its presence. Quite like myself, Cake & Cows was the child I could not have foreseen (or planned for), and yet brings me such joy that I can’t imagine my life without it.

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I want to, again, thank you, my readers – some of whom have become my friends – for giving me the encouragement to not put this blog on hiatus and eventually delete it, as I did with my previous blogs. As I said before, even if this blog had no readership, I’d still write. In fact, my journal would probably be filled by now. There’s a certain joy however that comes from knowing that what you’ve written will be read. To learn that my blog has actually made people laugh and reflect? It’s like my dreams of being a comedienne and philosopher have come true! I’m like Steve Martin Heidegger.

As a token of appreciation, I’ll give you one more thing to read ;) You know that short story I wrote that I alluded to months ago? It’s finally been published by Blue Minaret! I got the email yesterday. In the midst of pain, it was just the thing I needed. So if you’re interested, please read my story “The Family Stories We Tell Ourselves.” If it’s not already clear, this is my first short story, but I welcome constructive criticism nonetheless. Who knows, maybe I can write fiction? But if I can’t, let me know; it’s better that we nip it in the bud.

Also yesterday, I got a call from Simon & Shuster!

No, it wasn’t to say they wanted to publish my-yet-to-be-completed memoir. A girl can dream though! I had signed up for a free self-publishing guide I stumbled upon. Apparently, they are very serious about helping authors self-publish. The publishing consultant and I talked about my motivations for writing and a bit about my memoir. She’ll be checking in on my progress every 6 weeks until I am ready to publish. Wow. While we were talking, publishing actually felt like a reality. If that’s the case, I better get to writing! She recommended at least 20-30 minutes each day. I was really encouraged by this talk. If you’re an aspiring author like myself, check this link out. And when you get that unknown call and actually happen to pick up that day because you’re not feeling your usual paranoid and/or asocial self and then hear “Simon & Shuster,” it’ll be the greatest thing you’ve heard all day. You can tell people “I got a call from Simon & Shuster” and provide no further context :) Sounds pretty awesome, eh?

It’s kind of weird how all these things converged together around the same time. Of course, I’m always reading into signs that could just be coincidence. But I don’t know if it is. My blog reaches a milestone that no other blog of mine has, the short story that I thought would never see the light of day is actually published, I get encouragement to continue with my memoir from SIMON & SHUSTER! Sorry, I’m still reveling in the fact that someone from Simon & Shuster called me!

Feeling like a true-blue writer might actually be the best treat I could get for this special day – but I’ll take the cake, too ;)

*It’s also my dad’s birthday today. One could argue that if it weren’t for him (and my mom… and God), none of this blog stuff would have even been possible, because, like, I wouldn’t exist.