By Reema Zaman (writer, actress, speaker, and coach from Bangladesh. www.reemazaman.com)
“I am my own.
I run through these woods, cocooned in somber reflection. Known and seen only by the trees, my limbs pulse with hard-won agency. How sublime, to be safe from the wet, hot suck of others. How luxurious, to be preoccupied solely by role and design I assign myself. At 33, I’ve begun to feel the occasional ache in my knees and lower back. Three decades of committed motion will have that effect.
I meld well with the woods’ palette. My color is that of my skin, the only hue I’ve ever desired. It defies name for I cannot be rooted in place. The most accurate description is, I am my own. When you are anything but Caucasian, the frequency with which others remind you of your difference ensures you cannot forget your alleged otherness. Which is the mechanism behind exoticism of any kind. You only know otherness if you’re told of it. If you allow, the pieces of you become politicized. It is then on you to regain authorship.
Fall delivers the uncanny: in the leaves, we witness both sunrise and sunset. We fall to our knees, humbled by majesty we can never replicate, only, exalt. Like the trees through which I run, my skin shifts with the seasons. I move through honey to caramel to amber to toasted sesame. During my twenties, as a girl, as a new immigrant, as an actress, my skin existed only as extension, as determined by others. By their nearness, their graze, their decree. “We’re looking for someone lighter. You don’t fit with the cast line-up.”
Such were the waking hours. Self-preservation demanded disassociation. The slicing of self to trade as commodity. In the evenings, my skin would be that which pleased, landscape licked clean, paradoxically in the process, dirtied. Him then him then him, each man burrowing with such fervor, furrowed brow, clenched jaw, knotted heart, foraging through my pieces, kidnapping any errant bit he could to spackle his jagged form. As if the harvest could complete him. Scrolling down and along the walls like the stock exchange sprinted my orphaned self.
What is the way forward, when one's pieces are taken, rewritten, or threatened extinction by a person, a country, an ideal? How does one heal the reaping?
I run. I run fueled by a fire sourced and sustained within, lit from a wick only I match. I run remembering that in the deepest ink of night, the one thing we each can claim is sovereignty over our sense of self. I run and recover the taken, the misplaced, the surrendered. How I adore that word: recover. To retrieve, to unearth, to heal. Each day, I lay to rest what needs tender burial. Hopes that have been pierced. Losses that haunt. Characters I no longer need, or those I love but cannot have.
Today, I lay first to rest a miscarried daughter. With crystalline certainty, I know she looks identical to me, which is to say, identical to my mother. We women, ours are a fierce thread. Every feature makes sure to emerge. Mis-carry. How like Western medicine to invent such a word. Through a pert trio of syllables, it paints blame, to say a woman failed to handle, perform, correctly.
Beside her, I lay down another memory that though I healed a long while ago, reemerged to hunt me this past month. A memory of a night, at age 23, when I was raped. One of the luckier ones, my assault was swift. My rapist was economical with time, pain, and me.
After his illegal acquisition, I sat in the dark for 15 minutes, listing my options and weighing the costs of each. Back then, I was on my OPT visa. If I accrued enough professional credits, I could, hopefully, obtain a green card.
To negotiate any legal retribution for rape is a brutal ordeal, for any woman, any nationality. The fine print of my immigrant status claimed I was, am, not to be treated any differently than an American women but often, the fine print fails to inform reality. Similarly, the minutia behind immigration included nothing to suggest pressing charges against a rapist could compromise my status, or my future application for permanent residency. But all it would take was for my case to land in the hands of that one deciding authority who found pleasure in turning the innocuous into injury.
I had been working, and continue to work, so hard to live in America. I loved then and continue to love this country beyond words. I haven’t a place in Bangladesh. But here in the United States, I can pursue the life I want, to be a voice for those without one.
Thus, that evening, I decided I would not harm my chances for living here. The irony was acutely painful: I had to be quiet then to be a voice for others later. What hurt most was the fact that my silence would allow my rapist the wicked freedom to assault other women. The thought of hypothetical others branded me with guilt.
Today I am a permanent resident of the United of States of America. I am not a citizen but I will be soon. Today, next to that evening from ten years ago, I lay to rest last night. November 8th, 2016, the howl of our collective anguish. I stand for a while by its invisible tomb, feeling both alone yet tethered, tiny yet enormous. While this latest loss feels similar to any one of life’s greatest wounds, it feels significantly different: all around me, I feel the shimmering presence of brothers and sisters. Mourning our tragedy, standing today in our connected conviction that we will bury and honor what needs rest, and then, rise anew.
I breathe, swelling with this feeling of togetherness so big, sacred, and comforting. I close my eyes and reunite my fractured selves. I claim skin, limbs, lips, hair, identity. No longer things to alienate, demean, monetize, or consume. Simply, mine and part of a grander choice. I know now more than ever that we either orphan or own our truth. Our disappointments and lashes will never fully mute us. Rather, they are invitations to speak.
Fall reminds us that from decay, we grow. The grim truth behind loss is that with each one, we become better at coping. As we move through the passage of time, our wounds stack. It is not that the losses dull or lessen each other. What happens is each blow is like that of a blacksmith’s hammer, pummeling iron. Each hit fortifies our metal.
No group knows this better than women – we are privy to unique grief, singular hostility. Thus, forged in fire, we are all the more prepared and capable for leadership, resilience, grit. We know, despite and in the name of our many shocks, the few things we do have are paramount. We have autonomy over sense of self. We have the choice to persevere. We remain, as ever, voices for those without one.
I bid my ache to sleep with the lullaby my inner voice has recited to me my entire life, from the time I was a toddler: I love you. I am here. I am yours.
With that, my losses rest. With that, I run. I repeat again our song, adding a new refrain. I love you. I am here. I am yours. I am my own.”
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