For the longest while, I viewed time as a ball of dough -- if I needed more, I believed it would rise for me, make more room for all the things I want, need to do, all the people I wish to say yes to. Now that I have drowned in all my yes's and I can's and I will's, that dough has baked to one round loaf that needs to be divvied up with sound discretion. When I do this, I have no moments of rest or time to slow my mind and reflect. It's exhausting and tormenting, because I want to give all that I am to everything I care about and commit to. Work, volunteering, maintaining the important relationships in my life, taking care of myself, following through, writing that thank-you note, calling that insurance company, setting up that doctor appointment, and on and on and on.
I think it boils down to one thing: I want to make a positive imprint on this world and quickly, since once you see death so closely you realize it never forgets about us, and if I slow down long enough, I will begin to question what that all means.
I am struggling with the self-promotion part of being an author. There are so many voices in this world, so many fascinating perspectives and important issues to consider, so I'm usually playing the role of listener. Aren't writers supposed to help make sense of all those voices, rather than compete with them? I continuously feel pressed to make up my mind about myriad topics, vast and myopic, based on information I take in all day long -- is it unethical to buy quinoa from certain distributors? What information do I need to form a stance on fracking, and whose stats can I trust? Should I take my friend seriously when he proclaims to be a men's rights activist? Should I read that David Sedaris book on my desk first or On Human Nature - which will benefit me more as a person and writer? More info on Syria, click. An op-ed on machoism in the movie industry, click. An analysis of gun violence in the U.S., click. An inspirational piece about a man who tried to helicopter around the Arctic Circle, click. "10 Ways to Reduce and ReUse," click. Sign our petition to end solitary confinement of pregnant inmates!, click.
With so many voices, I find I am increasingly distracted. Writing is an act of centering myself, of returning to my own voice and locating my perspective in the midst of everyone else's. Publishing is an act of promoting this expression, which is where I have found some discomfort. There is a constant debate of whether we have raised or lowered the bar for all writers by making publishing so accessible; on one hand, the competition is fiercer and one would hope that the best will rise to the top naturally (a capitalistic view?), but on the other hand, it offers a soap box for ideas not fully formulated, for more noise to block out what we all need to hear. Writing should be a modest endeavor, but publishing is inherently not, no matter how much you believe in what you are saying. That is why I am always on edge about posting blog posts and participating in Twitter and Facebook, i.e. Writer Promotion 101. Am I adding to the noise? Am I saying what has already been said? Will people benefit from what I say? While I'm chattering, what am I missing?
Writers always have to balance this desire to listen but also be heard. We might wrestle with this sense of perfectionism in what we put out there, as well as a yearning for quietude against a need to stay relevant by weighing in.
The question is, When do you weigh in? At what point have you gathered enough information where you have a place to publish on a given topic? And at what point do you know that what you are saying hasn't already been said in some way? I think the answer is we must create our own space wisely; we must accept that we can only write to the extent that we understand, and that has limits. I think as long as I write as honestly as possible and to the best of my ability at that moment, I can be proud of what it is and accept wherever it may end up - or if it will not be read at all.
Such a philosophy can be problematic. Squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? I am learning how to strike a balance between maintaining quality in what I put out there and committing hefty time to "catching a break" by being a louder voice in the crowd. This involves breaking out of my comfort zone and talking about my writing more through different outlets. It also involves trying to making myself recognizable to readers who are looking for something specific.
It is good for every writer to find a niche. Stephen King fans know where to turn when they're craving horror or supernatural fiction. He has perfected his focus area to a degree, and that is how he markets so well. When I read big authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Cara Black, or Margaret Atwood, I know pretty much what I am getting because their style and genre are consistent. This type of recognition and branding makes their voice louder.
At the same time, I don't want to be pigeonholed. I've written all over the place and don't feel like I want to settle just yet; I want to keep digging for new methods of expression so that maybe what I put out there will be different and newer than whatever else is available at that moment, without being avant garde. I want to keep learning, deciding, changing. I guess self-promotion makes it feel as though I've settled on that marketable voice, or that I am speaking out of turn when I would rather just focus on the craft. Gradually, I'm working through the crowd.
You have an idea, maybe even an outline, maybe even the first few chapters, but that initial enthusiasm for writing your novel has worn off. Hear from author Katherine Russell on how to develop a mindset that will get you to the finish line.
A friend of mine is planning her wedding and has reserved a night at a country club in Buffalo. We were talking a bit about the blemished history of country clubs in our area, and how it wasn't that long ago that they were turning people away because of the color of their skin. We're talking the 1990s, not the 60s. Even today, it is questionable -- most clubs have a few black members but still there is an arduous screening, networking, and "sponsorship" process that continues to raise flags for me. Someone cracked, "I hope they won't turn any of our guests away" -- and then there was a pregnant pause -- "Wait, do we have any black guests?"
They concluded that, yes, out of the 200 guests, there was one. That's 200 of the future-bride-and-groom's most important family, friends, parents' friends and clients, business partners, coworkers, schoolmates, and neighbors, and only one is black.
I know this is awkward to talk about, and it's not meant to shame anyone in my life; this post is more to observe the current composition of Buffalo. Large weddings are emblematic of our social networks, and our social networks say a lot about the opportunities we've had in life. Anyone who is realistic about the power of networking can affirm this -- that our opportunities sometimes come prepackaged based on who our family members and family friends are. Many of my former high school classmates got their first jobs out of college through networking, whether it was networking through their families or through the resources of their privately-funded education. (Somewhere, there's someone reading this with a mouth full of Cheetos snarling, "Yea, yea, and hard work apparently doesn't get credit anymore, does it?" Of course hard work matters, but it is not the secret sauce to success. I think the topic of privilege has been written about plenty and I don't need to weigh in more. This post is about opportunity, and that is a different mechanism altogether.)
Based on the last Census, Buffalo is the 6th most segregated metropolitan in the country. It is also an impoverished, high-crime city (with a lot to offer! Sorry, had to represent) because when it comes to mobility, people's opportunities are quite limited: one, to whether they can access jobs with mobility, and two, whether they have built relationships with people or institutions who have the power to connect them. And yet, even for people of color who have high incomes, studies have shown they typically still live in neighborhoods of lower income that are predominantly black. Many studies have concluded that this has to do with steering in the real estate market, and others argue that this is a choice to stay in neighborhoods where they don't have to live with racial tension. This isn't to say black communities don't have powerful networks of their own that continuously reach out and help each other, because they do; however, the majority of wealth in Buffalo is concentrated in white populations.
White suburbanites do not typically branch out of their networks to meet people in positions of less power, i.e. any people of color who are living in cyclical poverty, lest it's through charity work, which creates a large gap in their ability to cross-network and promote real diversity in our neighborhoods and workplaces. While white suburbanites are disposed to benevolence and charity, and absolutely full of a great amount of compassion and altruism, their position stops there; they don't step out of their own comfort zone and collaborate with groups that, only on the surface, don't share their problems. Further, when predominantly white organizations and nonprofits bring in "diversity" to their boards and committees-to-save-Buffalo, they look for straight-laced perspectives, people who will represent approval rather than challenge the status quo. This is not a state of progress.
This brings me to the Dunbar number. Robert Dunbar was an Oxford anthropologist and psychologist. He studied how the neocortex relates to the size of primate social groups, and then he moved his hypothesis to humans. He concluded that, judging on homo sapiens brain size, the number of people any person can reasonably fit in a "friend" group is 150 (this doesn't include acquaintances, or people whose names you know). He then studied this from a social level; he asked people to break down their Christmas card recipient list according to levels of closeness, such as family, close friends, neighbors, and work colleagues. That magic number - one hundred fifty - remained pronounced even through the experimental phase. It continues to be relevant, even in the age of social media.
So a wedding of 200 people can often represent the hierarchy of your Dunbar number - especially when you have to narrow down your guest list, you are etching away at that hierarchy to determine who you are closest to. This is an important statement of whom we have opened our hearts to, reached out to, or simply who we have been exposed to in our little bubble lives. It is a snapshot reflection of not only the opportunity that is available to us, but may not be available to others.
What does the Dunbar number tell you about opportunity? We all have a similar networking threshold but different access. It comes down to who is in that network. When people are unwilling to navigate from their circles, their comfort zones, and even their self interests, they turn a blind eye to people who are marginalized. To me, this is an opportunity missed; our city could thrive through collaboration.
In yesterday's issue of Le Monde, Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen wrote about his reactions to Islamic extremism. Like most Muslims, he is frustrated - not just with those who have masked their violence with the name of his religion, but also - I sense - with the fact that all Muslims are now tasked with assuring everyone they don't prescribe to these "perverted ideologies." Worldwide, Muslims are standing up for the true meaning of their faith. In the US, this conversation is nudging its way to the front of a boisterous crowd. As anti-Islamic rhetoric bubbles to the surface of the Melting Pot, and the loose cannon spewing this hateful rhetoric (his name won't be mentioned here) still leads in Republican polls, and mosques are subjects of vandalism, and everyday Muslim citizens are vulnerable to harassment, American Muslims are in a precarious position. It is not the same position as the privileged American, who has the luxury of saying, "I am what I am, and this is a free country, so deal with it." Rather, they are put in the position of defending themselves over something that has about as much to do with them as Timothy McVeigh has to do with me (you know, he was from Buffalo too, and white, too, and came from a Catholic background, too, like me). It is a travesty that the air has to be cleared on that front.
There are two powerful quotes I want to point out from Gülen's op-ed. For one: "Our civilization will not progress until we treat the suffering of humans regardless of their religious or ethnic identity as equally tragic in our empathy and respond with the same determination." This is a thought I have been toiling with since San Bernardino, though he puts it more eloquently than I ever could. I can't find a way to express the sorrow of what happened in San Bernardino without being cliche. How can evil like that exist? Yet when I mourn for this, I'm slapped with a bitter realization that this is only the tip of the iceberg. In the U.S., we selectively grieve. After the Paris attacks, people changed their Facebook profile pictures to the French flag to show solidarity. Forget Beirut the day before and the thousands who have died in Iraq and Syria. This year alone, do you know there have been hundreds of lives lost to attacks in Tunisia, Nigeria, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Niger, Somalia...?
What about solidarity of mankind? People talk about mourning tragedy and in the same breath say our government shouldn't let refugees resettle here. I say it is time to start acknowledging the pain of mankind, as it is our own. While most Americans don't directly experience the same carnage as other places in the world, we are not separate from it. We're all breathing the same air. We are all closer than we acknowledge.
In the aftermath of the recent events I am witnessing, with chagrin, the revival of the thesis of the clash of civilizations. I do not know whether those who first put out such a hypothesis did so out of vision or desire. What is certain is that today, the revival of this rhetoric simply serves the recruitment efforts of the terrorist networks. I want to state clearly that what we are witnessing is not a clash of civilizations but rather the clash of humanity with barbarity in our common civilization.
We believe in the dichotomous narrative. That is, the narrative of "East versus West." For ease of discussion, I do use these terms of Western/Eastern, as there are cultural tenets and attitudes that have distinctly sprung from each region, but I don't believe in the separateness. It is imaginary. We are not in a separate world, creating a separate history. We are in fact very involved in other governments and conflicts, not as mediators but as participants, and have been for a long time. It is brutally insightful how Gulen points out that this hypothesis could have come from "vision or desire." Some people stand to benefit from this "clash," this idea of separateness. That is enough for me to bridge into a concluding question: Does your perspective contribute to disruption or peace?
This is me on my wedding day. You can't tell, but I've taken painstaking efforts to hide the t-tube in my neck. For those who don't know, a t-tube is similar to a tracheostomy, but it is able to be capped given its T-shape, which allows air to flow in three directions. Especially in your 20s, having this in your life can be socially awkward; I have more scarves than shirts in my closet. When I'm unable to hide it from strangers, coworkers, even friends, I'm subject to stares, questions, even hurtful remarks.
It feels different to laugh, to swallow, to run. My lung transplant saved me, but it didn't free me from that feeling of not having enough air; the trach takes me back. And yet, that's not my biggest obstacle. I want to talk about beauty here, and how having a t-tube has been a lesson in self-acceptance and comfortable self-awareness.
On my wedding day, I felt more beautiful than I'd felt in a long time. Maybe it was the fact that I had a jeweler design a special necklace to hide the t-tube. I also had the privilege of wearing that dress. And I was marrying someone I love deeply, and who loves me. Perhaps this latter fact is what makes me able to feel beautiful in the day to day, when I no longer have these frills and sparkles to mask reality. I believe his love is what carried me through the changes that I couldn't control: all the scars that have become a part of me, the seven-inch line where surgeons cracked opened my sternum twice. That not-so-glamorous trach that was placed three years ago. The heavy breathing. The fear of losing that breath.
What 20-something does not want to feel attractive? I have a trach but I still want to wear cute dresses and tank tops without the stares and commentary: is that permanent? Oh, poor thing. Why don't you just cover it? And I do; even on hot, humid days, even when it hurts, even when it keeps ruining my scarves, I try to hide this part of me on days where I'm not emotionally equipped to deal with rudeness.
Because pretty girls do pretty things, my 11th-grade Spanish teacher said more than once when I coughed too much in her class.
Pretty girls are healthy, vibrant, unmarked, unscarred. I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I do. I'm no damsel in distress. I don't need to be rescued. (I clung to that Ani DiFranco song in high school). But what if I were bold and just wore what I wanted? I tried that for a while; the not-hiding. People then made it their business to dole out advice, they were callous, or they would inadvertantly make me feel as though I were intruding on their space.
He always called me beautiful, even when I weighed 70 pounds after my transplant. Even when I had to have this invasive piece of plastic inserted into my neck. He says he doesn't notice it. He says, wear those pretty summer dresses; you make them look good; who cares if people look at it, comment. I worry that these words are rehearsed, insincere. But he does not give me any reasons to reinforce those worries.
Every few months, I go through a procedure to change the t- tube, and sometimes I can't talk for days or weeks. The voice box is blocked. These are times I can't hide it with a scarf. He tries to read my lips, my impromptu sign language. To speak is not to be heard; you need listeners for that, someone who will take time to understand who you are and what your words mean, at heart. These are the days after a procedure, something we call "routine." He playfully calls the humidifier machine that I hook up to the trach my "scuba." He watches me more, just to be sure I'm okay, but not in a way that makes me feel weak, incapable. Sometimes, I wake up and see ghosts next to my bed, staring at me, and I jump and he pulls me to him, half asleep, without even realizing; we laugh it off in the morning. My crazy dreams.
Normal is how we adapt. How we come to look at challenges - not as challenges but as pieces of our lives that can be held or disposed from our memories, if we try. We can choose what we see. There are people who define me by this, who call me "strong," whose first question when they see me is, "How is your health?" The outside world often forces my self-awareness. "You don't sound so good," strangers say to my cough; in line, at the store. "I'm not sick," I mutter. He is my haven of myself; he allows me to talk of my differences only when I want to. He does not bring attention to them. He trusts that I can care for me.
I've reminded myself that to be attractive is not the same as being valued, and it would be redundant to elaborate on the opposite messages society pounds into our minds on a daily basis. Beauty and value are not equals, and what we define for ourselves will always be different than what the outsider defines us as -- and we must let that be. He and I share a perfect space; when we look at each other, we feel who we are, without criticism, without self-loathing, without fearing what we lack. To be beautiful, one must be seen. To be seen, one must simply allow it.
On religion and culture
Religion and culture are so intertwined that they can be difficult to pull apart in a fiction setting. The informed reader will try to see these distinctions. In this book, I am not speaking for all Islam or representing global norms of Islam. Rather, I am portraying life in a small, 1960s village in Bangladesh where cultural practice and religion intermingle in their own unique way. Look anywhere, and you will see that culture brings nuances despite the defined religion. Shamanism, the evil eye, and mystic healing are not accepted practices of Islam, but they are cultural practices in certain parts of Bangladesh. Again, remember the setting: this is something that has changed drastically since the 1960s.
Nazli Kabria, author of Muslims in Motion: Islam and National Identity in the Bangladeshi Diaspora, writes: "Informed by a potent nationalist narrative in which Bengalis struggle and prevail over foreign oppression, Bangladeshi identity may be an important source of pride." This evident pride and cultural perseverance is something that drew me to write about this setting of Bangladesh in our imperialistic world.
Without Shame mainly illustrates the concept of cultural imperialism. The idea of the “white savior” is not new, but it is a necessary perspective to continue exploring and challenging. This is the perspective of Rodney, who is almost comically naïve and entitled in his efforts to “change” Sariyah’s village. His flaws - in how he interacts and observes - exist as a statement on neocolonialist attitudes; and his relationship with Sariyah is a microcosm of colonialism itself which begins with the courting, the interfering, the unfulfilled promises, the inevitable destruction, and the colonizer absconding from the mess.
Colonial influence is also important to consider in the context of East versus West Pakistan. After British colonial rule ended, territorial lines were drawn to separate a "Hindu" India from a "Muslim" Pakistan (the lack of thought that went into the Radcliff Lines is worth noting). The "habits" of colonizing did not end there, as West Pakistan took a dominant position over the East. Though East Pakistan had a higher population, West Pakistan politically controlled them. They also set language standards (an Urdu mandate) that threatened the mobility of Bengali-speaking citizens. This isn't my way of pointing fingers but it is about discussing the perpetual effects of colonialism, and now neocolonialism.
On the author’s Western perspective
While there were many postcolonial settings I could have drawn from, I chose Bangladesh because its history embodies the effects of imperialism. Of course, I am most familiar with the cultural values of my American character Rodney, whom I developed as mockery of the “white savior” archetype. Then another character emerged: Sariyah. I found myself walking in another woman's shoes in a culture with different - yet ofttimes very similar - values and truths from my own. I did this because I viewed her voice as more important than Rodney’s. I wanted to portray what it is to be an imperialized culture in a neocolonial world, where my own country is ever the imperialist.
Excited about some new reviews of Without Shame:
"Katherine Russell has done a very fine job with her novel. The characters are plausible and the events as well as the themes the novel touches upon will provide many interesting discussion points among readers."
"She [Russell] brings up pertinent issues of culture and language and how Colonialism affected people’s lives on these different levels. Moreover, she begs the question as to whether foreign education in developing countries actually works for the people or against them. I particularly enjoyed the intellectual debates between characters in the novel. One of the main characters Sajib, for instance puts forth the question as to whether English really is the language of progression and whether American education in East Pakistan was valuable or if it served to further strip the people from their culture...The political angle of the book did not overshadow the narrative and because it was so naturally written as part of the main story, it was not boring at all, instead it proved to be insightful."
-Muslim Women Exposed
"This book feels like it is set out for greatness. The book is written in a beautiful, almost poetic style, with a complexity of themes that I can imagine perfectly fitting in to a heated literary discussion as a high school or even a university setwork."
-The Jozi WAHM Guide to Everything
"Sariyah...starts working as a maid at Martin House, an American compound that brings American volunteers to teach the village people about agriculture, home economics, history, English and hygiene. There, she meets Rodney, a clueless, entitled, privileged (my opinion) teacher, who goes to teach in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the army...He thinks that things need to change in Eastern Pakistan and he thinks he knows how change should occur. He wants to bring “development” about...I saw the story as that of clashing patriarchies....white Western privilege is well and alive and that the rest of us continue to be subjects of “discovery,” “development” and of “saving.”"
-A good analysis of Rodney's role in the book, by Eren of Muslimah Media Watch
In the final weeks of waiting to see my finished book, I'm full of excitement, anticipation, and - the writer's curse - self doubt. Did I write a book that my friends and family will think is a worthy read? Did I create a work of fiction that will move complete strangers and provoke thought? Will it catalyze the right conversations? Every writer, at some point, is shaken by these fears. We're all afraid of being thought of as frauds (someone, somewhere is not going to like your style, or where you place your commas, or how you described that one character's 18th century cottage), slid under a microscope, every word scrutinized. That is because a good writer is also a harsh self-critic; it is rare to feel something is complete, absolute, and perfected. It has less to do with modesty than it does with a fear that all this time, energy, thought, research, and craziness you poured into a project might fall flat. If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
I wanted to bring someone's courage to life through Without Shame. It wasn't a Muslim girl, or a woman from a small Bengali village, or a naive English teacher determined to fix the things he doesn't understand - those details came from my curiosity about these lives and a desire to walk in their shoes. But I wanted to bring to paper what I know about pain, loss, and the things that can hinder or feed the human spirit. That includes what I believe about colonialism, and the things we continue to colonize. Of course, writers are also afraid of our work getting misinterpreted or read literally, but I can't influence my intended neocolonial interpretation indefinitely.
First, I must trust that I have made it to this point through diligent work. I deleted more than I wrote. I sculpted carefully while I shaped my own worldview - the process of writing was a process of growth, of forming my own ideas. I reached out to Bengalis. I spent endless hours in libraries, getting lost in personal accounts by Peace Corps volunteers. How else do I have these strange facts floating in my mind, that I needed to use the word thana for "village" because the story takes place before the 1980s, before the word for "village" changed to upazila. These things you have to ask questions about when you write on a different era that you didn't live through.
But secondly, as I await the launch of Without Shame, I must return to the poem that propelled me. When I lost direction, I returned to the words of Rabindranath Tagore. The poem below inspired and informed my themes and the truths I wanted to convey. It is inspiration for how I want to live life, and how I want my country to be. I found this poem after I began my novel, but it instantly sparked my purpose in writing it. You'll find these words in the front pages...
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Katherine Russell is an author, poet, activist, and freelancer from Buffalo, NY.