Reema Zaman, an award-winning author, speaker and actress, details the lived experience of a Bangladeshi woman who, through recurring encounters with assault, trauma and pain, learned to turn her “pain into poetry,” and found her voice through the written word. “I Am Yours” follows Reema from her earliest memories as a consistently curious 3-year-old in Hawaii, all the way to a thirty-year-old living in Beaverton, Oregon, with her parents, transforming 30 years of life into a book. The years in between tell tales of an abusive father, countless moves from Bangladesh, to Bangkok, to New York and an abusive husband. She writes of a heart that was broken by verbal and physical assault, anorexia and voicelessness, and a heart that found healing in children, art and writing. Ultimately, Reema wrote out the darkest sorrows and deepest joys that comprise her storied life as a source of comfort for those with similar open wounds and healing scars. She writes,
“For you, who too has lived long years of silence. Who too has endured heartbreak, abandonment, trauma and cruelty. Who too yearns to feel seen, heard, understood and loved. Who too believes that humankind, we can and must do better. The love begins with us. You and I, ultimately, are the voices to alleviate the darkness. I wrote this for you. I am yours.”
Reema’s book came out Feb. 5, 2019. On Sunday, Feb. 17, I sat in eager anticipation in the coziness of the Pearl Room in Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. I had just finished devouring Reema’s beautiful and heart-wrenching words earlier that week. For over an hour, I was enveloped in words of affirmation, power and strength, surrounded by all kinds of people who, from the outside at least, demonstrated the inclusivity of Reema’s writing. For the balding man in the thick black glasses and even thicker red sweater; for the small girl with pink and gold eye shadow so glittery it sparkled from across the room; for the trendy-looking young woman in the black jumpsuit and soft curls, who had Reema’s book open on her lap, already diving into her words – this memoir contains a familiar path for every walk of life.
I had the opportunity to chat with Reema and dive deeper into her writing, and while I could have continued the conversation for several more hours, here are her thoughts on the topics of empowerment, voice and love.
Why does it matter that your story is everyone’s?
I knew I wanted to write a book that addressed the healing I so craved. I realized, a few pages in that what I was suffering from were wounds and ills that so many are suffering from. The words had a transformative effect on me because I was writing to myself with unconditional love. There is a deep need for unconditional love right now, a deep need for humble, radical connection right now. We are suffering from a normalization of toxic, masculine violence. We are suffering from disconnectedness. This is everyone’s story, I am just a conduit of this larger story. That’s why I don’t feel any fear speaking in front of an audience because I don’t feel any separation between myself and those sitting in those seats.
What have all your different moves, homes and experiences with different cultures taught you what it means to belong? How has all this time in transition affected your definition?
Having the privilege to move and live in so many different cultures – racial, cultural and socioeconomic – being both sister and nanny, employee as well as a friend, I’ve been a part of many different cultures. What I’ve learned is that belonging is not geographic, but comes from feeling safe, seen, heard and loved. All human beings, regardless of background, are governed by this deep need for authentic belonging. Understanding this allows for unconditional empathy, compassion and grace. Prejudice is such a construct; it is artificial to hate another person. We are not the same, but we are one; we are all governed by the same needs.
You choose your words so carefully throughout this whole memoir. How did you decide on the chapter titles and words (ex: Listen, Own, Bend), and know that those were the best single-word explanations of the stories that would unfold?
I wrote the book first, and then I knew I had kept them in sections and wanted to title them. Those words came organically and came from those sections. I allowed the words to teach me and reveal to me what the larger chapter was about. The book is an organic progression of how a human being is raised and becomes. All of those words narrate and trace a woman’s becoming, the breaking and wounding, the rising and healing. Not just a woman, but any human being – I wanted the chapters to be about that.
Voice is the consistent theme throughout your story. Why was this the connecting thread? What did you learn about voice in the process of writing this book, and what do you want your reader to walk away with?
The chapter headings are not rooted in geography, setting or action; they’re rooted in the self. I wanted to write a book with the central narrative as voice because from the beginning to the end of our stories is our connection with our inner voices. That’s definitely how I see identity, health and a life being successful. You can have all the physical, material possessions, but if you’re disconnected with yourself and feel unsettled or at loss, none of those flashy things will ever make up for that lack of self. This book was completely about voice, and it is my debut for a reason because I truly believe the beginning of our greatest self begins with connecting with our inner self. And then we can write the second, and the third and the fourth books. The first chapter is connecting and empowering one’s voice.
It took you 31 years to find a book that resembled you, and it was one you wrote – how can we be better? How do we include those voices and stories so children from all backgrounds can ultimately be born into a culture full of accurate and honorable representations of themselves?
It takes all of us doing the maximum and then some, with the amount of power and voice we have in this world. I have the power to write a book and use my voice and therefore, I am going to use it. I am the first Bangladeshi woman to speak out on abuse and trauma, and the best thing about being the first is that it makes it possible to have a second, third and fourth until we lose count because there is no longer reason to keep count. We all have a set of rights and responsibilities, it’s about using that patch of grass in the most empowered and empowering way to tip the needle toward greater and more organic, authentic diversity. It’s realizing that we are one in our humanity, and that’s how we make true progress. We cannot have progress without love.