Over millennia, men have developed an entire language geared toward silencing women, its dictionary filled with words like "crazy," "bitter," "resentful" and many others that brush away women's feelings as particular to a weaker, less self-controlled sex. If there is a throughline in Reema Zaman's memoir, I Am Yours (Amberjack Publishing, 2019), it's the constant, teetering-on-ironic tension between that language and its use to silence an intensely strong woman.
"Chup!," her father yelled when a young Zaman balked at his plan to arrange her marriage. (That's Bengali for "silence.") "Don't talk so much," her husband said to her much later in life. "I love you, but it's arrogant to think people want to hear your opinion." (She later left him.)
Zaman will speak at Storyfort on Friday, March 22, and the outline of her life is superficially the born-out promise of liberalism and multiculturalism. The product of an arranged marriage herself, she was born in Bangladesh to educated, professional parents, and has lived all over the map—Thailand, Hawaii, Oregon, New York. She attended elite schools and has simultaneously pursued several careers as an actress, artist, educator, model, public speaker and writer.
Much of the content of her book, however, shows the ways forces from outside and within threatened to collapse her promise. Her biological father, a flawed but loving man, flirted with disowning his daughter for supporting her mother in their divorce, though he frequently appeared to be more worried about what his peers would say about him as a divorcee than the prospect of being alone. For years, she struggled with an eating disorder.
In high school, she was stalked by her psychology teacher. He sent her handwritten messages in red ink, the letters in all caps. He called her on the phone. "You're a naughty girl," he would say. She reported the teacher's behavior to the principal, who confiscated her evidence of the teacher's wrongdoing. A Narratively blog post she later wrote on the subject was picked up by The Guardian, and triggered an international investigation into coverups of misconduct at the school.
- Amberjack Publishing
Some reviews and advance media regarding I Am Yours have painted Zaman's memoir as part of a healing process. Prior to the February release of the book, Zaman told Ms. that she had continued to tweak the manuscript in light of her reflections on the election of President Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement and, toward the end, the confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The book is decidedly topical, but readers will also find timeless elements and stylish innovations in her work, including a bottomless reserve of natural references; comfortable, driving language; and a storyline that doesn't recall the hero's journey so much as the vagaries of lived experience.
There is an important distinction to be made between I Am Yours' relevance and its significance as what its subtitle calls "a shared memoir." This is a powerful work of literature, and one that cries for consideration on its merits, as well as in light of the historical moment in which it was published. In an interview with Boise Weekly, Zaman said she wrote the book at a remove from the traumas it contains.
"I sum it up as speaking from the scar, not the wound," she said. "It's imperative that if we want to do trauma-informed work ethically, the artist has to complete their healing process before making the journey into sharing the work."
The book loses none of its immediacy for putting emotional distance between artist and subject. Making her triumphs and tribulations real for readers meant facing the most fraught aspects of her life and conducting her feelings like heat through a cast iron skillet. Part of the marvel of the book is how those feelings grow and mature alongside Zaman the person.
"The opening scene of I Am Yours is me tugging my anger around from room to room, and I use that image because so much of a woman's story, for so many women—that's what we do. The world continues to wound us and insult us from the time we're toddlers, and then we're also told to not accept or bring our anger to the surface," she said. "I felt so ashamed of bringing my anger to the surface, and it was the process of sitting down to write that allowed me to see that anger is actually a signal of something wrong that has happened, and a deep injustice has been committed."
None of this is to say that I Am Yours dwells on anger. Emotionally, the book is a quick-flowing stream, and that it often winds past infuriating things is a function of people who have tried to corral Zaman. During the writing process and ahead of her visit to Boise for Storyfort, Zaman said she felt free.
"I've always been able to feel viscerally when I don't fit in an environment, whether it's an industry or a relationship, and usually it's because someone is telling me to be quiet," she said. "I'm in a place in my life where nothing feels ill-fitting anymore."