Where in the World Is...?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Shaka - bracelets made out of shells, here shown in different stages of the cutting and carving process.

Currently, I’m in transit. I’m headed to New York to speak at the Muslim Protagonist conference at Columbia University. Just three weeks ago, I was in Dhaka living an entirely separate life. And for the interim it’s felt as if all of that melted away as soon as I left the landing strip.

Flying that long of a distance is really strange – your time perception gets messed up no matter how regularly they dim the lights and project a starscape up on the overhead bins. When I hit the airport in Dubai, the past 8 months already felt like an elaborate dream. And Dubai airport is not the place you go to get a grip on reality. I forced myself to sleep for the majority of the flight time – my special skill – but there was a painful few hours at the end of it where I couldn’t go into vampire mode. I sat there trying to imagine what going back to my childhood home would feel like after all these months (and even years) of being away.

I think the only thing that taught me is that it’s impossible to envision how you will feel in the future. I could easily picture the big kitchen island, but I couldn’t know how surreal it would feel to be there without my dad. How frustrated I would get when I didn’t know how to change the light fixtures; how many ghosts would creak up and down the hallways, making it impossible for me to go downstairs. The friends who I grew up with remarked on it instantly when they visited – the creeping emptiness now that my dad (and the cat) have moved south.

But that wasn’t apparent at first. When I landed at Seatac, it was just as if I had come home for another brief vacation. I still haven’t fully accepted that I will be living in Seattle full-time after coming back from NYC. I have barely processed how fast things have moved. In the past two weeks, I’ve accepted 2 part-time jobs, submitted several pieces, and hosted a writing workshop at Hugo House on writing complex characters of color. All while getting through the physical effects of too-rapidly moving through time and space.

I'm in transit, but looking forward to putting down roots. I'm here, but I don't yet own it. Ringing in my ears is the sound of the Homeland Security agent's voice as I entered the country: “Welcome home.”

(Slowly) Letting My Hair Down & Some Images of Dhaka

Thursday, February 18, 2016

This week, I was reading a series of Tweets called "Let's Be Messy on the Internet Together" by Creatrix Tiara, and I really resonated with the pressures of 'being an expert' and 'building a brand' influencing what one posts on their blog/social media. It's what has kept me from posting more deeply personal and not-quite-there-yet material on this blog -- I'm not really a blogger, per se, but I like to play with ideas and put them out somewhere. I'm also a recovering perfectionist and putting out lower-grade material freaks me out a little bit. Yet I am drawn to it still. There are several articles that talk about the less professionalized internet (oh Xanga, my first home) and I want to harken back to those days at least every so often, when I'm not sharing my obviously fabulous life stories and pitch perfect advice.

A photo of my bed in disarray -- a.k.a my creative process.

I realize that I haven't been talking a lot about Dhaka in terms of its images. Part of that is because I am still living here and it's hard for me to both experience and reflect at the same time. But another part is that I've been feeling a little bit protective of the experiences I've had living here, for fear that they'll be misinterpreted or that I'll be judged for certain things. People don't have a good understanding of what it's like to live in this city, and sometimes neither do I. The pinhole vision I've got is so based on my class and language access and spaces I inhabit. Yet the things that have now become common to me were not common at all before; the histories that I've been reaching back into just open up new questions about what life looked like in the time period I've chosen to focus on -- the late 80s and early 90s.

I think giving a long view of the city would be too much to do in these types of posts, though I long to do it justice in my fiction. But I have been collecting images here -- for the first several months I would write down 10 images a day (an exercise adapted from the advice of the great Lynda Barry). Here are several I want to share for now:

The crashing sound of a transformer bursting creates a momentary silence, then a sprig of yelling voices after

Punctuating our conversations about social space with the sound of killing moshas (mosquitoes)

 A corner stall selling hardwares -- no wider than one man -- with its shopkeep napping like a little boy on his folded arms

Sitting on a rickshaw caught in traffic, the inexplicable joy of seeing a fruit tree filled with large bats swooping overhead

 Recording the hum of the CNG as it accelerates onto a flyover

Painstakingly sounding out the words to a chapter book with my father over Skype

The moment after the lights cut out, a thunderclap

An Open Mouth: A List of Up and Coming Inspirations

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A recent milestone: I fleshed out a complete plot line for my novel!

And it's awesome and messy and written by hand (don't worry, I immediately took photos of the curling pages so that it'd be preserved somewhere). It'll probably all change around in another month or so, when I'm frustrated by the middle scenes and need to file down the edges. But my thought process is that if I have an outline, I can start writing 1-page scenes for each of the segments and inch my way towards having a working draft. Not a completed draft, but a working one.

In the spirit of plot outlines (and my own neurotic list making), this post is a list of works and resources that have really resonated with me lately. As I wrote recently, I'm in the middle of a lot of things - otherwise known as the slog - and have been seeking works that make me inspired to keep moving.


And, of course, the allure of learning something completely new and out of my comfort zone: tabla!

A set of tabla and my notebook full of beats sitting on a printed orna on the floor.

Places to Leave

Monday, January 11, 2016

This week, I have a piece out in CultureStrike on transnational adoption. It’s a very personal piece and it took a lot of work to put together (thanks, Michelle!) so please give it a read. Now, back to the action.

A mala (floral necklace) made of red roses, orange and yellow accent flowers.

I’ve left a lot of places this month. Since I last wrote here, I’ve been living out of suitcases traveling to different family homes across Dhaka and across Bangladesh. New Year’s came and went. My father came and went. While he was here, we knit together his partner’s family and ours through a series of dinners and celebrations. Car ride after car ride after car ride – no wonder my stomach got upset and took me out of commission for a few days at the end!

It’s been a real honor to meet with so many new faces and travel to places I have not yet seen, but adjusting back to the quiet of everyday life has been its own delicious treat. I’ve been thinking (and reading) a lot about emotional labor and am working on a much larger piece chronicling some of those thoughts and feelings. But that’s all for later. For now, I leave you with some selected photos and images from my various trips.

My father (in a suit) and Raina (in a bright pink sari) seated and smiling with red and white malas.

Me and two friends laughing.

Meeting everyone in our Kushtia village - many people and children gathered around plastic chairs in our courtyard.

A bunch of mohish (water buffalo) on the shores of the Padma at Raita Ghat (a landing spot made by the British for boats to dock)

A kukur (dog) looking back at my camera as I take a picture of rice paddies in Noakhali.

Plants in red pots lined up against a wall at Noakhali Science and Technology University.

Two young children on stools looking deep in thought as they sit next to a pukur (pond) in Noakhali.

"You Sure About That?": Where I've Been Since November

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A builder working on the ranna ghor (kitchen) at our village home.

I set out at the beginning of November with the intention to prioritize myself over my worries, and the universe replied: “you sure about that?” A few weeks ago, I made a chart of what has been pulling at my attention. It takes up the full 8.5x11” sheet and I’m pretty sure that it could take up even more if I let it.

The whole month, I felt very scattered. I had to concede defeat to NaNoWriMo at around 20,000 words. I went to my family’s village for a few days. I took a 10 day trip to Kolkata for my first time in India. Project As[I]Am released its fall issue, Unpalatable, and submitted a grant application (fingers crossed on that!). I’ve felt alternately drained and guilty that I haven’t been doing enough. If you took a look at my internet history, you’d see a slew of bookmarks for self-care interspersed with those for productivity tips. I’m not quite sure what I’ve been looking for, but I’m devouring advice.

Once I had made up my chart, I started putting things into categories: creating, absorbing, reacting, practicing, and completing. I started noticing some things. For instance, it’s hard to ‘practice’ personal rituals when you’re heavily focusing on ‘completing’ tasks. A lot of my energy this past month has been spent ‘reacting’ to personal circumstances – these events can be positive or negative, but they take up energy nonetheless. Hoping that Kolkata would be something like a reset button, I took some much needed time away.

While there, I started turning on my audio recorder as I walked around the streets. I picked up the sounds of fireworks and drums for puja, people chatting outside of parks, rustling papers in an archival library. And street traffic, endless street traffic.

I’m adding these recordings to the stockpile of bits and bobs that I’ve got lying around. Chronologically, I’m at the halfway point in my stay overseas and my creative output really reflects that. When writing for NaNoWriMo, the middle is the biggest slog for me. Beginnings and endings are deliciously dramatic by comparison. In the middle, I make lists of things that need to happen, but won’t for quite a while. I’ve been sleeping more during the daytime and staying awake at nights. All of it has been gathering and more gathering, as I try to condense my focus into a few larger projects rather than spreading myself thin.

So, if you haven't heard from me in the past month (or several...), then know that this is part of my re-commitment process. There may not be leaves on this tree now, but wait for summer and you'll see!

Don't Leave Yourself Behind

Saturday, October 31, 2015

I have a piece out in The Atlantic today! For me, this is a huge milestone and also a very important piece, so give it a read.

A chocolate cake with red jello balls on top.

It’s the day before NaNo and all through the house… I’m throwing around drafts and outlines trying to get settled in.

As usual, my writing mind is exhilarated by the constraint and the mad fury that is writing 50,000 words in a single month. I’ve been working on a lot of shorter projects and have tried to build my discipline with research, writing, pitching, etc. But I am drawn to staying in a character’s head for a longer period of time, testing worldview and characteristics for pages and pages rather than paragraphs – even if much of it gets chopped later on.

Armed with a few earlier draft pages, I’ll be growing my story during quick timed exercises. I tend to work better with an overly formulaic structure that pushes me to think creatively within it. I also tend to work better under the cover of night with a bright screen in my face. We’ll see how annoyed my family members become with the cranky, somewhat sleep-deprived version of me that will undoubtedly show up by the end of the month.

I turned 24 this past week. It was a silly sort of day. Here in Dhaka, my family doesn’t really do birthdays. A cake was delivered; a biryani was cooked; several truly terrible jokes about age were told. In the evening, I started a new small notebook and wrote down a birthday intention for the upcoming year. This year: don’t leave yourself behind.

I spent a lot of age 23 in boom-bust cycles. I moved three and a half times – across NYC, across the country, across the ocean. I changed jobs four to five times. I attended births, organized events, grew a magazine, survived yet another long winter… And although I did a lot of great healing work for myself during that time, I also felt like a large part of it was spent worrying.

The challenges of living abroad are simply different challenges. I still worry, of course. But I am blessed to have more time and energy to invest in myself and my own work. Though I don’t have the expectation of returning to the US an entirely changed woman (I will certainly still be a workaholic and a chronic list-maker), I hope that I can return with the skills to hold space for myself no matter how intense the world around me.

With that in mind, let's take a deep breath and start novel-ing!

Hesitation, Authority, and Building the World As You See It

Monday, October 19, 2015

Graffiti of a wooden rowboat in black on a wall.

This week I learned about Bengali magicians working to preserve their mentor’s home. I’ve been reading folktales about jealous queens and urban studies papers about the development of Dhaka high rises. Photographs, art pieces, old magazine ads -- I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of research.

Research is actually a very exciting part (says the eternal nerd). Like research for an academic paper, I am starting wide and then narrowing my focus based on what calls to me. Unlike research for an academic paper, I don’t actually know what I’m looking for or how much any one thing will influence the end result. Tabla music could teach me how to set the tone and pace of the novel. I could write my characters into the black and white photographs I’ve been looking at. Or both, or neither.

You can probably already see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

I have a huge set of possibilities – and responsibilities. I agree with Wonderbook author Jeff Vandermeer: sometimes fantasy worlds are easier to construct than real ones. In the real world, I feel clogged with my assumptions and reactions. I’ve read empathetic and complex depictions of Bangladesh and the United States by now, but I’ve also read a lot of generic national histories, a lot of savior narratives, and a lot of just factually inaccurate pieces (several travel guides come to mind). And sometimes instead of absorbing the research, I get seduced by the image that I have for my characters, based on whatever approximation that I’ve read in other novels. There’s a difference between a pastiche of techniques and Frankenstein’s monster.

I needed a way to systematically think about the way I was creating worlds and the characters that inhabit them. Someone online suggested a series of essays called Writing the Other, and I inhaled them. They gave me the much-needed structure for how to go about research; they offered ways to re-evaluate and interrogate myself as I am drafting. Most importantly, they gave me back some confidence in my process.

One can never absorb all aspects of a society. Our social position – class, gender, race/ethnicity, to name a few – changes our access to materials and experiences. There’s no such thing as an impartial observer. I hold that tension in my head all the time as I write, hoping of course that it pushes me as I write my wriggling first draft.