I'm thrilled to be interviewing Reema Zaman today. Reema is an award-winning author, speaker, and actress. Born in Bangladesh and raised in Hawaii and Thailand, Reema moved to New York to pursue her dream of acting while also working in childcare before writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Her work has been published in Vogue, Shape, HuffPost, Salon.com, and Ms. Magazine. Reema is currently partnering with the International Rescue Committee and Girls, Inc. to serve crucial causes and empower the next generation of leaders. She currently lives in Oregon where she is an Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow from 2018.
I'm so thrilled to be here with Reema Zaman. Welcome, Reema.
Reema Zaman: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s an honor to be here.
Zibby: I feel like I'm now living the conclusion of your book. I'm in the sequel. Now that you're here, I know what happens after.
Reema: Because you caught me in the middle of book tour.
Zibby: Exactly. Welcome. I'm so excited. You've spilled your whole life out on these pages in such a beautiful and profound way. I really mean that. It was so poetic. The stories you told, the pain, the way you turned it all into such a gift. I was like, oh my gosh, she's the nicest person in the world. I have some specific questions, but just really wanted to get to know you.
There's this powerful scene at the beginning of I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir when you're four years old. You structured it by age as you went through, which was great. Your dad is at the dinner table with you. You have a fever and a cold. He doesn't want you to cough for whatever reason. He says, “Why is the child coughing? Stop it.” You say, “Papa uses his hard voice. It sounds like the ground. I order my throat to stop. The cough pushes against it making it burn and my eyes wet. The place where my heart lives starts hurting. The hummingbirds fly faster, but I don't cough.” I wanted to know -- start with that -- about how you felt in that moment and then how you think your dad’s relationship with you affected your relationships with men. I'm starting with this because I feel like that's the basis of most of the stories. Go ahead.
Reema: Exactly. Thank you. That's one of my favorite scenes. When you're a memoirist, you're bound to the truth, meaning you can't fabricate any scene. Strangely enough, my life has that experience of being, not directly ordered, but certainly given the cue that I need to hold my breath. To say that I spent many years holding my breath around my father wouldn't be hyperbole or metaphor. My mother and I, we recall that story quite often. It’s one of those scenes that unzips so much. From the time I was a child, I knew that my father’s love was constant. His love was nonnegotiable. However, I did feel that his affection, his attention, and certainly his approval was based on conditions. I felt that even the slightly imperfection was a failure on my part as his daughter, as a person.
That of course would then influence the way I related to other men throughout my life until I stopped to assess all of this, examine all of this, and put it down into a book. I was modelled a kind of love that conflates love with pain and perfection, meaning that I then went on to attract characters and situations that showed love conflated with pain and perfection. It isn't a coincidence that I then became an actress and a model. The kind of actress I was supposed to be was based on being a very perfect, idealized woman. That's also how I carried myself in relationships with men. The kind of partners I attracted were men who were very narrow-minded in what they perceived as being female beauty, female beauty based on strict conditions of the way I behaved. I always had to be pleasing and coy and demure based on their needs and approval.
Zibby: One of the ways you found to cope with these narrow-minded men was to tell yourself over and over again that you were the author of your own story. Each time you went through another situation, you would say, “This is just a page. This is only one page. Only I will author my life.” What other types of tools aside from this self-talk do you think really got you through?
I should say to listeners who haven't read the book yet, maybe Reema should give us the two-sentence summary of the book in case you're wondering why we’re talking about all these relationships before I give you any context.
Reema: The book is called I Am Yours. It’s a shared memoir. We've created this new genre. I break the fourth wall the entire book, meaning that from the very beginning, I address my reader directly. I call you my love. Initially when you're with toddler Reema, she thinks you're her imaginary best friend. It’s the reader as well as my inner voice. That's what I call love. We go through this journey of my life together. We go through painful situations together. We also then navigate the darkness and find our way to healing and resilience together. That is one of the reasons why the title is called I Am Yours. We go through these different woods around the world, and we find our way out by being each other's lighthouse.
Zibby: Back to the coping mechanisms you use. You talk a lot in the book about making it through. I was wondering on a day-to-day basis at the time, what are some of the things that were getting you through some of these difficult relationships?
Reema: There were difficult relationships that did contain psychological and emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. There were also instances of sexual violence where I was stalked by a predator when I was a senior in high school. A cousin tried to molest me when I was eleven. Then when I was twenty-three, I was raped. That's when I was living by myself in New York City while my family was still in Asia. One of the coping mechanisms that got me out of those periods of darkness was to focus on the woman I could be in five years were I to survive. I would envision her. I would envision her as being this strong, calm, mature woman who was able to turn her pain into her power and to do so in a way that hadn’t made her hardened or cold toward the world. True power is when we’re able to maintain softness of heart and love for humankind. That's true strength. I would envision that woman. Focusing on her let me take the daily steps toward becoming her.
The other coping mechanism was I would tell myself to focus on the life purpose that I knew has been mine ever since I was a little girl. I mentioned that cousin and that experience when I was eleven years old. When I was eleven, we were visiting family in Bangladesh. A cousin twenty years my senior tried to molest me. I reported him to my father. I was told that boys will be boys and that this happens, especially between cousins. In that moment, two things occurred. One, I started connecting that the reason why abuse culture exists is because there is silence culture. Silence culture is protected and created by complicity and accomplices that protect abusers. That silence culture is built on the backs of silenced children and silenced women. I had compassion for my father. His knee-jerk response saying boys will be boys, I knew it was him merely reciting what he had been taught and perhaps had been told as a child. I had a great deal of compassion for his conditioning as well as I gained insight into the larger culture.
It propelled me to make this vow that if people were unable or unwilling to speak, then I had this duty to break our generational silence by becoming the first in my generation to speak out and be a voice for the silenced stories and souls in my family. That then became this furious conviction that I had. It became the driving impetus and ambition that was the spine of my life. The spine of every single decision can be traced to that. In my twenties, I was in an abusive marriage. I would look at the man who was my husband. I would say in my brain over and over again, I would tell myself I was born for a story so much bigger than this. I have to get out because I was born for a calling much bigger than this relationship, things like that. Stitching ourselves to any kind of life calling or life purpose -- it really doesn't matter the wording we give it. We can say, I'm going to be a voice for the voiceless. I'm a voice of compassion. I'm a channel of love. Whatever the wording is, whatever we choose, it becomes your anchor. It becomes the lighthouse. It also gives you the ambition to overcome any adversity that crosses your path.
Zibby: I like it. I'm going to be a channel of love from now on. I like that. That's going to be my new tagline. You had this great scene on a subway. You were in New York and going through a really hard time. You had just survived all this stuff. You said you would write little notes to people you noticed on the subway who looked a little down or that you could tell they'd been going through a really hard time. You would take the time and slip them a little piece of paper. Sometimes, you could see them as the train would pull away. You could look out the window and see them look back and smile or be overcome with emotion. I want to hear more about that. I want to hear about the reactions. I put in my question, did nobody think you were nuts? If somebody tried to even talk to me on the subways, I'm very much wary, not that I'm not the channel of love I say am I.
Reema: I know. That's one of the precise reasons that I would tell myself to go that extra mile and hand over that love note to a stranger. We've all been taught to be wary because of something bad that happened. By doing little acts of love notes, we dismantle that fear. That's how I did it for myself. I started handing out love notes while I was in that marriage that had turned emotionally abusive as a way to keep my spirit alive. It gave me this moment of connection with a stranger. It reminded me of the beauty of humankind. It reminded me that I was born for something bigger than the chaos and pain at home. By being a channel of love for someone else, not only do you get to help shape their day and help nourish their day, that act of giving nourishes yours. It sustained me.
Actually, I never got any kind of resistance because human beings, we are craving to feel seen and understood and cared for. Any kind of reticence, again, has been taught to us out of something bad that happened. Every baby is born knowing how to ask for love. You don't see a baby denying themselves food because they think their thighs are chubby. They are not going to deny themselves a hug unless their repeated requests for food or for a hug or closeness have been denied of them. We’re born innocent. We’re born knowing that we can draw toward love and ask for love. Then it’s through the course of life that we grow reticent about asking for it. That's why I Am Yours is structed as this larger love letter. The first two words of I Am Yoursare “Dear Love.” It’s written this epistolary form to honor that, honor those little love notes on the subway.
Zibby: You write a lot about your experience with anorexia very openly and candidly and beautifully. When you first introduce it in the book, you have just lost twenty-two pounds, which you said was a fifth of your body weight. I had to stop and do some math and get out my pencil. No, I shouldn't even joke during this emotional talk. You used relentless running, laxatives, extreme food restrictions, chewing each bite thirty times. All the textbook things you could say about anorexia, you tried and wrote about. When you were writing about your biggest loss, you wrote, “I feel utterly calm. Anorexia feels heavenly. I have unlocked a mythical gold mine holding every coveted treasure, inner peace, beauty, and the power to shape actual matter. All around me is chaos, but all within is still.” I wanted to know how you thought this self-destructive method of self-care helped, and how it ended up hurting, and then what you would say to people struggling with this right now.
Reema: The inception of self-harm, it doesn't start at age fifteen when you start to maniacally work out. I believe it starts at the first moment of trauma in a person’s life in the same way that addiction doesn't necessarily begin with that first drink. It begins with that first trauma that intercepted that person’s life. It could go back to age seven, age three, age eleven. I attached to anorexia because everything around me, especially at home, felt so painful and chaotic. I believe any of us who attach to self-harm or eating disorders of any kind, we’re doing it to create a semblance of control in a world that feels so unkind and uncontrollable. I wanted to write about anorexia with a specific kind of language that holds poetry and compassion because there is so much misunderstanding and stigma surrounding it. I've certainly been told by relatives, by family members, and by many male partners that you're just so crazy. You're just so vain to be anorexia. That's like saying alcoholism is vain or a product of vanity or selfishness. No kind of self-harm or addiction is a product of vanity or recklessness or stupidity or insanity. It is a person trying to create a semblance of control and visibility in a world that makes us feel invisible and attacked.
It became my protective device. It became the thing that made me feel like I was powerful, that I had control over something in my life, being my physical appearance. Any kind of power, if we lean into it too much, it can become our prison. That's certainly what happened to me. There's a line later on in my twenties when I'm examining anorexia more deeply. I'm in a playground. I'm watching mothers and nannies with their children. I see a woman running behind her child. I can tell from her concave energy that she too is suffering from some kind of self-harm or eating disorder. We can recognize it in each other. It’s not from thinness. It’s more of an energy and a feeling that this woman is being eaten from the inside by pain. I write in the book, “When did you start shrinking yourself to protect yourself?” That's what it comes back to.
The moment I connected all of this, it became my freedom. Clarity is ninety-seven percent of healing from anything whether it’s healing from abuse, healing from assault, or healing from self-harm and eating disorders. When you start piecing together how it is you became the person that you are, it alleviates the shame. Shame is such a big part of the illness. When the shame is replaced with clarity, clarity then becomes the courage and strength you need to start making healthier choices. The other thing that I started doing is once I saw how everything connected and that I had started making these decisions to feel powerful, to use physical beauty as a way of feeling powerful, I realized then I just have to replace my metric of measurement. For the longest time, my metric of measurement was physical beauty. I decided I'm going to use something different as my identifying factor in the pack or the tribe. I decided I'm no longer going to be a creature of the body. I'm going to be a creature of the mind. My legacy in this world will be from my art, my writing, my advocacy, my activism, and the positive impact I'm able to have by serving others.
The moment I made that shift and I started identifying myself through a different metric of measurement, the impulse to starve myself vanished because to truly do my job as a creature of the mind, I had to feed my brain. I had to feed my body to become the best version of this person. It’ll be six years this June that I went cold turkey on everything, on all of my talks and decisions. The moment I made that mind-set shift, everything became clear. I started feeding myself and giving myself not only the food that a body requires, but also sleep and rest. I started prioritizing my mental health and my physical health more, even things like saying no to unkind people and putting up boundaries. It was all connected. When you attach to any kind of self-harm, you also start making harmful decisions in your relationships and with the people you allow in. It comes back to self-esteem and how we measure our self-esteem.
Zibby: You decided to turn all of this into a book. That was the other thing that I thought was really neat about this book and a little bit different. You describe, “Now, I decide to write a book.” Then you take us through the writing of the book as you're writing the book and how the act of writing is healing you as you're doing it and before it’s even finished, which was great. It was very neat to see it in real time, almost. It kept me as the reader right there with you.
Reema: Thank you. I wanted the experience of reading the book to feel transformative for the reader. That's been one of my greatest joys is hearing from readers that by going along with my journey of healing and resilience, they have now felt the healing and resilience in their lives too through the things that they have struggled with. That's why I made it that way, to do it in real time, so that we could go through the memories together, solve those memories, heal those memories, and then arrive at strength together.
Zibby: You go through this intense period of time. You write the book in your parent’s home, at your sister’s desk, wearing your stepfather’s sweatshirt. Then the book ends at a much -- not to give away the ending. Am I giving it away? I just want to say you're in a better place than when you started. I think that's fair. You were a four-year-old child at the beginning. I can safely say you're in a better place. You wrote this whole book in Oregon?
Reema: Yes, I did.
Zibby: Then you end it. What happened after you said, “Okay, I'm done”?
Reema: We leave the book on almost a cliffhanger. We’re on the plane. I'm about to go to New York. That's all we know. We know that the book has achieved the thing that we wanted it to achieve. It allowed me to reclaim my voice and with that, my power. It helped me heal and release anorexia. It also helped me heal and redefine many of the critical relationships in my life, with my father, with myself, with my family. Then I started looking for an agent. I was able to sign with my number one choice of literary agent. Then we developed the manuscript. I sent it to her. Her name’s Lisa DiMona. I love her so much. I sent draft number four to Lisa. We developed it to draft number seven. Then we sent it out to publishers. I started writing I Am Yours on November 28th, 2013. I gave myself a calendar year for that first draft. First, I was just living with my parents. They said you don't need to pay rent or groceries. You just focus on this. Then toward the tail end of that first year, I started working at KinderCare as a daycare provider for $11 an hour. I was looking for agents. I got my number one agent. I moved out of my parent’s place. I developed the book to draft number seven. We sent that around to publishers starting in June 2016.
Then it was on submission for a while. It’s such an unusual book. It’s a very ambitious book because I break a lot of traditional rules of how a memoir should be written. I certainly take enormous creative risks by talking to the reader directly. It’s a book that is radically empathic and radically intimate. For many publishers, they were telling us, “We don't know how to sell this. We don't know how to market it. It doesn't really fit into any niche category we have.” We kept on saying, “Because it’s not meant to.” It’s not meant to be a Bangladeshi woman’s story. It’s a human story. It’s going to be a big book. It’s going to have all that larger of appeal because it doesn't categorize or tokenize itself.
Lo and behold, we then matched up with the perfect publisher, Dayna Anderson of Amberjack Publishing, who shared our enormous vision and faith in this book. She said immediately, “This is going to be a book for a generation and generations to come.” It’s not a niche book. It can't be easily categorized. It’s meant to be a book that goes into the human canon. It’s been wonderful to see the book now. It was published on February 5th, 2019. It’s been so incredibly gratifying to see how it’s really profoundly impacted so many people and a population that cannot be identified by a single gender or age or race. It’s just human beings who are craving this radical empathy, radical connection. That's what the book is a vehicle for.
Zibby: Now, somehow you've gotten into activism. Tell me about that work that you're doing now.
Reema: From KinderCare, then I started cashiering at Whole Foods. I chose those jobs because -- yes, I could've started sending out my resume to creative agencies and become an in-house copywriter for an ad agency or something like that. Instinctively, I knew that were I to do that, all of my creative energy and intellectual power would be invested in someone else's baby, someone else's business. I took on these jobs that would allow me to be in contact with human beings. I could serve human beings directly every day in some act of service. I would make just enough to cover rent and groceries, but at the end of the day still have my full creative bandwidth at my disposal.
While I was working at Whole Foods -- this was in 2016 and 2017 -- I started training myself to launch a speaking career. When I say that, I mean I started watching at least two TED Talks a day and every single interview ever conducted with Oprah, Michelle Obama, Glennon Doyle, Brené Brown, all of the women whom I see as role models, all of the great poets and writers, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. I would watch them speak in their most authentic, powerful voice. Then I would respond to the same interview questions in my developing, authentic, powerful voice. I would put myself through these trainings, these rehearsals in every spare moment. When I knew that I had developed the muscle of my voice to a place where I would hire myself, I started pitching myself to various colleges and conferences.
I knew that my job was to become a voice who was going to articulate certain nuances and the journey of healing and resilience about sexual assault, abuse, and self-harm. I knew that there was a pocket that needed to be filled. There was a need. This was before the “me too” movement. I started training myself for that moment without knowing that I was. All I knew was that in a few years there will be a deep need for a woman to be speaking about these topics. My job was to do my all to become prepared for that moment. Success is exactly that. Success is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. I'd been putting myself through these rehearsals while cashiering at Whole Foods. That's throughout 2016. Trump gets elected November 2016. I started booking jobs as a speaker all throughout the nation, Northwestern, University of Oregon, all over.
Suddenly, having a young woman from Bangladesh speak about how she found her voice and her strength after sexual assault and abuse became precisely the kind of story that society needed to feel hopeful and to feel optimistic and to feel emboldened. Lo and behold, our right publisher came into my life when I was a fully-formed creature versus a young author who would be like, “Do whatever you want with me. Promote me and market me however you want.” Dayna and I, we signed a contract through that mutual respect. She came to me and she said, “You are already a fully-formed voice. All I want to do is support you and help you get to the next level.” That has also contributed to the book sales and the success of the book. I have come in knowing exactly what this book is about because I took the time to understand what my voice was about. It’s all connected. Everything always is.
Zibby: Now, you have speaking. You have activism. I feel like your trajectory is just going to soar. Do you have an out-there goal? Do you want to run a country? Do you want to be like Mother Teresa or something? You have a presence. You have a drive and a message. I feel like you're going to keep at it.
Reema: Thank you. It was interesting because the same time as booking all of these speaking engagements, my essays started getting published a lot. Then people started asking me after any speaking gig, “When are you going to run for office?” I don't want to run for office, or not yet. I do most service when I'm able to speak without anything over my head saying that I have to make sure that I speak within these parameters. In December 2018 just before the book was launched, the International Rescue Committee approached me and said, “We would love to engage your time and your voice in helping us to serve the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, your homeland.” It’s been the perfect marriage.
The next book will be written while I'm living and working in Cox’s Bazar with the Rohingya people. The book will be created in order to give their voices a global platform and amplification. To me, that's what's been the most exciting part. This book is the first book to have been written and published by a Bangladeshi woman that speaks out on assault, abuse, anorexia, and the path to healing and resilience. The best thing about being the first is it makes it possible for there to be a second and a third and a fourth until we lose count because there's no more need to keep count. In the same way, the best thing about having critical or commercial success with this first book is that I can then use this platform and the proverbial mic and the actual mic to shine light and give voice to those who are being underserved, who have gone silenced for so long. That's what I'm so passionate about. Any little bit of resources or privilege and power I'm able to gain, how do I then use it to bring up the largest amount of people in one go?
Zibby: Amazing. What advice do you have to aspiring authors out there, maybe who have a story to tell that hasn’t been told?
Reema: Believe that your story is vital. The story you have lived is unique and sacred to you. By virtue of being human, it also is so relatable to other human beings. That's the beauty of memoir. It really proves that within the personal lives the universal. I've had the honor of being on this -- we’re now on our twelfth state -- book tour for the last couple of months. I keep on hearing a pattern in sentences. I keep on hearing, “Thank you for telling your story because your story is my story. I feel more visible, understood, and loved because you have taken the time to write down your story.” That's what I say to aspiring writers, is keep at it.
You're helping to heal not only yourself, but you're going to give voice for so many people. You can't even fathom the numbers. I've now met thousands of people who keep on reiterating the same thing. From there, you're also going to learn, because I have learned, by clueing into what your audience says, you then get to understand your next steps to be of service to the conversation you spark. For instance, I'm going to launch my own podcast in June, actually. It’s called “Dear Reema.” It’s based on letters where listeners write in letters about things that they’re struggling with, anorexia, or how do I forgive someone who has wounded me or raped me, all of those things. Each week is going to be a different theme. To any artist, that's our duty, is to continually clue in to the larger conversation and be of service to that conversation.
Zibby: That's great. Thank you so much for taking the time to come in today and for sharing your story.
Reema: Thank you so much, Zibby.