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Arts and Culture Public Officials Breakfast 2015

strengthening, unifying and connecting greater Cleveland's arts and culture sector

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Speak For Yourself (Guest blog by Imad Rahman)

One of the most common logical fallacies some writers of color, or some writers of color born outside the U.S., encounter is one of representation (this is somewhat akin to the ‘You speak English very well’ conversational gambit some well-meaning strangers employ). You are automatically drafted into the position of ambassador, or spokesperson, for your entire ethnic community. You are supposed to write about them, voice their concerns, represent their emotional truths, chart their logistical realities, reveal their deepest darkest secrets, make them accessible through their flaws. In short, a personal truth is expected to become the Universal Truth. And truth, of course, is much murkier than a zero-sum game.

This is something I have fought through my entire life as a fiction writer. Sure, my recent protagonists have been Pakistani-American, like me. Sure, they’ve been dudes, like me. But despite the fact that they obviously come from somewhere within me (I had to give myself permission to write brown; not surprisingly, this corresponded to my becoming a better writer), they’re not me, and if you’re a Pakistani-American dude, they’re not you either. Sorry. They don’t represent you or speak for you. Just like me, they’re barely able to speak for themselves because they’re barely able to understand who they are. I find this impulse towards representation amusing, and somewhat exasperating. By choosing to be a writer, you are also choosing to become an outsider or an outlier, professionally, regardless of whichever community you belong to or subscribe to.

Writers document the world as they see it. I see weird, or to use Salman Rushdie’s words, “this strange business of what it is to be a writer in this increasingly insane world in which we live, in which surrealism, it seems, is the new realism.” Hence my work, my world, is weird. You may (should!) see it differently. Hence your work is different. If there’s any advice I have for writers in immigrant communities, it is this. Write about what you see, literally and metaphorically. It can be real, whatever that means, and it can be imaginary, whatever that means, and it can be some combination thereof, however that tracks---regardless, it will be experienced by your readers through their imaginations, just as it is channeled from your imagination onto the page. 

My first book chronicles the misadventures, via a series of interconnected stories, about a flailing Pakistani-American actor named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is unable to distinguish between acting and real, actual life. He is an identity, but he has no identity. He is who he plays at any given moment. The book I’m working on now is a novel-in-stories about a flailing Pakistani-American journalist named James Butt (once Jamshed Bhatt, but since Americanized), who discovers that his real father is the former dictator of his home country, a man generally viewed in James’s left-leaning community as a monster, a murderer, a sociopath; a man James believes responsible for the death of the only father he has known. James finds his life teetering, wonders if his identity is in fact a construct, if his true nature is something darker, if the only way to get to being the best person you can be is by first becoming the worst person you can be.

I do not claim to be a great repository of knowledge. I’ve read some books, I’ve written a book, I’ve tried to write more books. Each time, Samuel Beckett bellows in my ear: “Fail Better”! I came to this country almost thirty years ago as a student, I remain in this country as a student of the world at large, I teach students in this country in a professional capacity. My home is the page, just as it also is the house where I live. I can only hope to channel the loudest voice in my head, can only hope to listen with precision and empathy.  I cannot be you. I can only speak for myself, and hope that you can hear.

Imad Rahman

This blog is used under license and was submitted by volunteer contributor Imad Rahman, writer and 2016 Creative Workforce Fellow. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CPAC. CPAC does not endorse the purchase of products or services by its guest bloggers. We thank all writers for volunteering their expertise with us in order to continue to strengthen, unify and connect greater Cleveland’s arts and culture community. 

Categories: literature, Race, Storytelling, writer


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