To those in the literary world, it might seem like Reema Zaman just exploded onto the scene. In the past year alone, her work has been featured in Narratively, The Guardian, The New York Times Dear Sugar Podcast, and The Rumpus, earning her the 2018 Oregon Literary Arts’ Writer of Color Fellowship and a nomination for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Behind the scenes, however, the Bangladeshi writer’s growth has been discerning, and intentional.
Trained as an actress and model, Zaman moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon, in 2013 to write her way to healing. Her goal was to unearth a voice that, through the trials of an abusive marriage, sexual assault, and anorexia, had been all but quashed. For one calendar year, she wrote. Through dogged determination and persistence, that manuscript became I Am Yours, her debut memoir set to be published in January 2019 by Amberjack. Bestselling author Lidia Yuknavitch calls the book a “phenomenal triumph of one woman’s body and voice rising up and through a culture that would quiet her.”
Earlier this year, Zaman published “My Perfect Pictures and the Pain Behind Them,” a powerful photo essay detailing her transformation through writing. “I traced my narrative,” she writes, “sutured my lashes, and reclaimed my body from the hands of others. My body is now mine, my voice returned.” After publishing her Narratively essay, the piece was chosen as the debut for Guardian Selects, and has reeled in over 250,000 views and counting. What’s more, it triggered an investigation into the systemic harassment she endured as a student at the International School of Bangkok.
Narratively: Can you tell us a bit about how your Narratively piece came together? Is it true it actually came out of a Facebook post?
Reema Zaman: It did! It was last November, during #MeToo. I’d already written the manuscript for I Am Yours. A lot of people were sharing their stories for the first time – I wanted my post not only to be about #MeToo, but “Now what?” To not only expose something that happened in my life, but also what happens when assault is neglected.
The post itself was of a photograph of when I was 18 years old. I wrote about the teacher in my high school who was a predator. The following week, I posted another photo that detailed an assault when I was 23. I continued posting for a few weeks, and realized I wanted to create an essay from five of them. Around that same time, Lilly [Narratively memoir editor Lilly Dancyger] contacted me, saying, “Were you thinking about ever doing this as an essay? I would love to talk about it.” I was literally about to connect with her about it! It really came together organically.
Narratively: No kidding! What was the response to the essay like?
Zaman: It was published by Narratively in February 2018, and then the Guardian re-published it. In the essay, I write about what happened to that predator after I reported him, and how my high school principal totally silenced the incident. Because of global exposure that the Guardian brought (250,000+ views), my high school reached out to me saying, “We had no idea that this had happened. Not only the predator, but the systemic coverup. We are so sorry.”
The essay effectively unleashed a criminal investigation into my high school, not only into my case but into the school’s 50-year history. So the school, International School of Bangkok, hired a forensics firm to investigate. They also put out a call to our community and alumni asking if anyone else had experienced assault or harassment. Dozens of other students sent them their stories – alumni in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. That is the power of the human voice.
Narratively: That must’ve been beyond what you’d imagined would happen.
Zaman: At first, I was just happy that I had an essay in Narratively! I was like, “Oh yay! Fantastic.” (laughs)
Narratively: Much of your work confronts emotional and physical trauma. As a writer, how do you delineate between writing as therapy, and writing in service of the reader?
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Zaman: My background is in acting. The first thing they teach in acting is that you are there to serve story, not ego. You’re so cognizant that your body is being used as a vehicle for a larger narrative. As an author, it’s the same. Everything I publish is in service to the larger conversation. Because my writing has so much to do with trauma, I feel it would be irresponsible to share something before it had completely gone through its arc – from wound into wisdom. When it comes to trauma, I don’t believe audiences should be used as a therapist.
In one of my talks, I discuss the five main pillars of radical vulnerability and trauma writing. The first is to ground the work in a sense of purpose: What’s the larger objective behind the story? I’m not telling any of these stories in order to seek revenge, that’s a surefire strategy for a miserable life, and miserable writing. In contrast, when were able to identify and outline our work with a deep life purpose, that work will take on a gravitas.
Narratively: You began writing I Am Yours long before publishing a personal essay. What inspired you to start the manuscript?
Zaman: I Am Yours sprang from my longing for deep human connection. I wanted to give myself, in book-form, the words and unconditional love I longed for when I had been assaulted, or was battling anorexia, or was inside an abusive marriage. For years, I searched for a book that had a protagonist like me, a woman from Bangladesh, an immigrant. I looked for a voice that resembled mine to no avail. So I created it by writing this memoir, with a structure that hasn’t a fourth wall, speaking directly to my reader. I really took to heart the saying, “Become the person you needed when you were younger.”
Narratively: What was the journey from finishing the manuscript to signing the deal with Amberjack?
Zaman: I started writing I Am Yours in November of 2013. I didn’t have a single friend who was a writer, I didn’t even know there were such things as writer’s clubs. Because of that, it was a very organic process. The utility of futility – I had no stakes, and every stake.
For that first draft, I gave myself a calendar year. I spent a few months editing it down from 600,000 to 300,000 words, then began querying agents. One agent told me the writing was beautiful, but nobody would touch a 300,000-word manuscript – most run around 100,000. I was totally clueless! It was the first time anyone had said I had a beautiful writing voice so I thought, “This is a win! That’s amazing.”
Then, I made a list of 15 agents I wanted to work with and got the manuscript down to 120,000 words. That’s when I queried agents 15, 14, 13. The manuscript was in a solid enough place where people asked for partials and then gave feedback. I took that feedback, layered it into draft number two, and sent it to the next chunk of agents.
Narratively: Oh, that’s brilliant!
Zaman: (laughs) All this time, I’m also working full-time at a daycare center for $11/hr. My work was being done at 4 a.m. before I went to my 8 a.m. job, and after I got home at 6 p.m. I’d work till about midnight and get up in the morning to do it all over again.
In April 2015, I splurged and got myself a ticket to this conference in Seattle with a high-powered New York agency. There were maybe 150 of us in that conference hall, and they said “Okay, we’re going to do to a flash pitch event where you’re going to pretend to be an agent representing a manuscript, and we’re going to pretend to be publishers. Who wants to go?”
Everyone was terrified. Being a former actress, there’s nothing I love more than holding a microphone in my hand. So it’s like 9a.m. and my hand shoots up, and they start drilling me with questions.
They ask, “How many social media followers does your client have?”
I said, “Oh, like 200!”
“What publications have they been in?”
I was like, “Nothing!”
“What MFA program? What endorsements from other big-name authors?”
I say, “No MFA program! No endorsements whatsoever!”
Then they said, “So why should we buy this story?” That’s when I nailed it. I knew my book through and through, and I knew that it served a larger story. They came up to me after and said, “Here’s our card. Please send us the manuscript.”
They were one of the agents that said, “It’s great material, you have a good voice, but we want to make it a little bit more traditional.” And I said “Thank you for your time, but you’re not my person.”
They gave me an in-depth reader report with notes and recommended I hire a developmental editor. I found out they were like $9,000, and I was like “How the hell am I supposed to do $9,000? I taught myself how to write. I’m going to figure out how to edit as well.”
A lot of freelance development advisers offer first-time consults for free, so I signed up for a consultation. The adviser read my first 15 pages, and gave some fantastic notes, but she also suggested I write a book about one narrative thread, as opposed to 10. “Just take the anorexia thread,” she said. I said “thank you, but I’m not going to run with that.” I knew I didn’t want to make a thematic book. I wanted to make a definitive one.
So I took all of that feedback and made draft number four. Then I sent draft number four to my number one choice agent, Lisa DiMona. She and her assistant read it, and they offered me representation.
Lisa, Nora and I spent about six months putting it through three other drafts, until draft number seven went out on submission for about a year and a half. People kept saying, “It is beautiful. We don’t know how it will fit in our catalog. We’re not looking for something like this right now.” But they never gave any specific feedback, like – is this a rejection?
I asked Lisa, “Do want me to write something new?” She said, “No, it just sounds like the publishers want something more traditional about anorexia or domestic violence. We’re going to hold out until we find the person who gets excited about the grandeur of what this can be.”
Lo and behold, that’s when we found Amberjack. Dayna [Anderson] sent the most amazing letter to us echoing everything we believed about the book. Which is, it speaks on an international level, and is a call to action at this critical moment in history.
We were going to publish it in April 2019, but after the Narratively essay and the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, I gained so much momentum that my publisher bumped up my publication to January.
Narratively: So now promotion for I Am Yours is ramping up. You’re speaking and traveling. With everything going on, do you maintain writing routine?
Zaman: I keep a tight routine. In my 20s, I realized that every time I stray from a morning practice, things start breaking down. So when I moved to Portland to pursue writing, I made a list of what do I need every day.
I wake up, and I don’t check my phone. I do some yoga, sit in meditation while the coffee is brewing. Then I make my breakfast and write in my gratitude journal. That whole ritual takes about an hour.
I start writing around 8 a.m., write for a few hours, then break for a run – I run about 7 or 8 miles a day. I don’t listen to music – I use my running time to edit and revise, going over everything in my head. Then I come home, shower, eat lunch and download revisions to my laptop until about 6:00 p.m. If I have a full day of writing, that’s what it looks like. I eat the same meals every day. I’m a creature of healthy rituals, and try to minimize my decisions to as bare minimum as possible so that I can have my creative space devoted to my work.
Now that I’m traveling, I give myself my gratitude and spiritual practice, and the food I need to feel healthy. As long as I have those taken care of, I can execute any kind of art or productivity. I don’t put pressure on myself like, “Oh, even though I’m on the road I have to do eight hours of writing.” Life is seasonal.
Narratively: I understand that you’re working on a second memoir. Can you tell us about that?
Zaman: I have a few more weeks to finish up the final illustrations for the book. Otherwise, I am working on the second memoir called I Am My Own. It piggybacks off of the writing process I’m in now.
I’ve given myself permission to live this memoir for a while. I’ve been taking notes here and there, writing everything down. I’m writing about the impact of using your voice in the world, as well as the backlash – mostly in the form of anger. Here I am, a Bangladeshi woman, survivor of assault and violence. For me to live so confidently, I threaten the very people who have profited from my silence. There are so many waves of white male rage – the last dying gasps of a system that knows its days are numbered. Woman by woman, voice by voice, we are reclaiming the narrative.