The Car Window

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the backseat of Aj’s mother’s green truck, we looped our way back around California hills in the pitch dark, studded only with the stray lights of houses in the distance. This was before her mom’s hips and knees started aching too bad, before the injury and the swelling stopped her from getting out entirely. I was a little kid by anyone else’s standards – but Aj and I held on to the word ‘preteen.’

“What if there was a guy on the road?”

“What if there was someone tailing us?”

“What if a hand came out of nowhere and pressed up against the window?”

I grabbed Aj’s shoulder hard and we both turned to look. I could see the paper-white hand reaching out of the darkness. It was worse than the horror movies that I couldn’t bear to watch because my imagination didn’t know when to stop embellishing.

“What if—”

My shoulder collided with the hard front seat. I heard Aj squeal and her mother let out a breath like a pressure cooker. Then the slow crunch of gravel as the truck rolled gently forward again.

“Did you see it?” Aj’s mother asked.

“What?” Aj said, her voice hushed.

"That little raccoon! Damn near sent us over the side.”

She whistled and snorted with laughter and we couldn’t help but join her. I glanced out the back window, but by then the dark was complete.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing a lot of creative non-fiction. It’s been refreshing to return to fiction as a different type of storytelling, but it requires so much more follow-through. Generating material is always the exciting part, but then I have to add in transitions. By the time the rewrites and edits roll around, I’ve already bitten my nails down as far as they’ll go.

With my novel project, I’ve become more and more interested in the effect that place/space has on social practices, and on the way that’s changed over time. Specifically here in Dhaka, things like transport and access to public facilities (restrooms being a big one, but also parks and places to sit for extended periods of time) really change the way that people interact with the city. Though that’s only from my limited observation, I’m excited to start investigating what other folks have to say on the matter. Research can sometimes overshadow my drafting process, but right now it's leading me down corridors that I haven't yet explored -- I'm enjoying the thrill of it.

So, You're Not a Superhero

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

So you’re not a superhero. You get frustrated when you mix up verb tenses. You can’t cross the street without saying a small prayer. You’re not conventionally attractive, by American or Bengali standards. You stall in your writing – and your reading and your half-made plans. You take off your kameez one shoulder at a time, hopping on one foot as you tug on the sweaty fabric. You jump at the tiniest tik tiki movement on the wall across from you. You burst out of your new shoes. None of this is possible without you.

I moved to Dhaka a little over 2 weeks ago with the intention to write. I was here 2 years ago on a research project about perceptions of mental health and mental illness, but felt like all of the stories I was collecting deserved a better home than just an academic paper that would be read by only a few people. It was then that the idea for my novel manifested – and now I finally get to pursue it.

I also moved here as a challenge. I needed to shake myself out of my skin, my NYC hustle, and the perfectionism that keeps me from doing the work that I really want to do. It’s an amazing opportunity, but I’m also struggling with it. In my head, I wanted to pick up where I left off in my Bangla study, meet with new friends, and build a community around things that I care about – particularly social justice work. But all of these things take time.

The greatest work is to adjust my expectations as a person with a Western sense of timeline and a tendency towards impatience. It’s hard for me – when sitting down to verb charts or a blank page – to remember that learning isn’t often linear. It’s equally hard to admit feeling lonely and frustrated. I feel sometimes that I have to front like I’m superhuman and don’t have off days. It feels very much like my traveling has come to an end, and I have to learn to be settled.

Recently I’ve turned to this well-worn advice for writers: Revel in the questions. Be less concerned with the answers. Answers are, after all, a matter of growth rather than destination. And even though the results are TBA, I’m cultivating some gratitude for these hard moments as a way to connect more deeply with myself and with others.

Have you ever hit this point? Had these kinds of experiences adjusting to a new lifestyle? I’d love to hear from you – Tweet me @thecowation.

Working Out My (International) Travel Stories

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Traveling is a sensory overload.

I'm winding down on my international tour through Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. In a few days, I'll be back with family in Bangladesh trying to build a whole 'nother life on the subcontinent (though I'm sure my compulsions -- book buying, tea drinking, and writing about people in public -- will still stay much the same).

Drawing of Athens as seen from Mt. Lycabettus -- my phone overheated and so I took out my pens and sketched till there was no more light (thankfully I have been carrying red, black, and blue ink pens!)
On this trip, I've been drawing more than writing, photographing more than drawing. And each medium is so different. Drawing resonates with my emotions more than my eye; photographs give me a realistic slice of scenery, but not the depth (emotionally or physically). Writing just feels stubborn. How do you portray the visual and emotional in one line? How do you honor the place while not essentializing/stereotyping it or its people? I've been caught in the trap of overgeneralizing in my early drafts -- trying to capture the details in a very general way. Thus it's been my self-appointed writing assignment these past few weeks to capture the feeling of a place rather than its contours. I'm starting with a place that's in my near memory from just a few days ago in Istanbul. Stay tuned for more.

P.S. I'm also including two drawings that I've done on this trip -- both from amazing places in Greece. These pictures are straight from the notebook, so apologies in advance for the weird angles (neither, after all, is a photographic representation!). I think that they do well to capture the emotional energy of those places.

Drawing of a pebble beach against cliffs and the Aegean sea on Agistri in Greece, using pen and colored pencil.
She wasn't pretty like women you'd see standing on pedestals in the museums with their elegant robes draped just-so. She had hair that wound around her square face and eyes so dark and vacant that in the dim light they appeared pupil-less, staring past you. I stooped to look at her. The carved line of her cheekbone cast a shadow across the dark water below. Her head was upside down and, a few meters away, another version lay tipped on its side.

We had wound around the corridors - past the wishing spot and down a set of slippery stairs - to greet her. I turned to look over my shoulder at a patch of unlit columns, catching a glimpse of some fish encircling them as another amateur photographer's flash went off. I inhaled and turned back to her, her stone expression lit up and darkened as people drifted by. Many just went for the picture, a single burst, then power-walked back onto the path. I lingered. Then the next wave of paying guests arrived.

I was reminded of how often I've heard her name: Medusa. Snake-haired and turning people to stone (hence why she's been placed upside down/on her side). When I had safely returned to the dry and well-lit cafe area, I became aware of my shallow breathing. I was surprised at how much the eeriness had affected me; many tourist attractions lose their power due to the onslaught of people and gimmicks. The Basilica Cistern, underground and filled with dark corners, retained its well.

From being here, I've come to know a basic history of historical architecture: cisterns supplied the Ottomans with water before they installed pipe systems. I've come to know that several ancient empires had a lot in common, including their pantheon of gods. I've come to know that the way a few people find out about this place is through Dan Brown's Inferno. It makes me curious about how we put together the parts and pieces of our knowledge - popular literature, high school history classes, signs in museums - and reminds me of how terribly limited my own knowledge is from these sources.

It's hard to stumble upon these things in an American life. You have to want to know, then move from there. A day later, I stumbled into an English language bookstore and took a shot.

You Can't Get Here by Walking: Traveling between Coasts

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The prompt for this piece was an exercise that I did at the Indiana University Writer’s Conference this year with our poetry teacher, Gabrielle Calvocoressi. A fan of 3 or 4 pronged projects, she challenged us to write a letter that was also a map leading to (at the retreat) a cemetery to someone we’d not seen in a while. I figured it was the perfect way to write about my cross-country tour from New Mexico to Indiana, then Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago before getting back on a 2-day train trip to Seattle. Check it out!

You don’t get here by walking. You start out on a relay race of buses, trains, and airplanes with squalling babies all aboard. By the time you arrive, you’ve stripped off all the expectations of this place – you aren’t that kind of person whose researched and planned every moment of their travel, though there are moments you wished you were. Having so recently left the cramped dark city, the red rock cliffs astound you. The open spaces flecked with turkeys and mousing cats make you tingle with delight. Today, your friend helped guide a horse off a busy two-lane highway before you went on your way. There is laughter when you and your friend slather yourselves in mud and parade from hot spring to hot spring, feeling cleansed and sleepy on the way home. Home. This is the first state you’ve felt like you could live right when you stepped foot in it; you’ve fallen in love with the sprawling western-style houses and everything coated in chili.

When are you getting here? You’ve just missed the shuttle. The airport is humid. You spend your time re-folding clothes in your bag on a cushioned bench. When are you getting here? You come upon the tiny town in less time than you thought and wander where there are no stoplights, looking for all the greasy food you can handle. When the classes start the next morning, it finally feels as if you’ve arrived – a solid 6-8 hours a day drawing doodles and weaving images into plain notebook paper. Who cares if they’re good? At least they’ve gotten there. When social interaction is too overwhelming, you disappear to watch Midwestern roller derby, but remember too late that small town buses don’t run at night. Then you find yourself walking two miles down a dark road in a town you’re unfamiliar with – a story you tell only after you’ve survived it.

Take a detour and read my piece about wandering the city of Detroit.

Landing in a new city across the border, your first instinct is to go to the cemetery. To the old jail-turned-health-center and the small farm across the way. You find ponds that inexplicably frighten you; places where you think they could easily dump a body. Something about the city tires you. You meet new friends and eat bad Indian food and try to stay out of the rain. Meet me at the Necropolis, you’d like to say.

This is the last stop. It’s taken you an overwhelming amount of time to get here – night trains and day trains all conveniently delayed. By the time you’ve reached your host, you’ve started to flash back to New York. This is a scene familiar to you: big buildings clustered downtown, tourists flocking to the park. You get stopped by Christian college folk conducting surveys. You and your host pull out books and discuss them one by one. The night before you leave, you take in a play about Muslim women and post-9/11 Islamophobia that brings tears to your eyes. Then it’s yet another rain storm and yet another train.

The world is flat until Montana. You catch a glimpse outside your window when you’re not sleeping or nose-deep in a book. No internet here, sometimes no cell signal either. Spending two days on a train makes your teeth go soft; you clench your fists at some of the conversations of your fellow passengers. But every once in a while they surprise you. The conservatively dressed Amish people who depart in a cluster midway through. The older Idaho farm consultant, burned red in the sun, who talks politics with you into the night. For someone used to speed, this is not the way to go. But though the mountains slow you down, they also whisper “welcome.”