This week, I Am Yours (Amberjack Publishing, 2019), Reema Zaman‘s dazzling debut memoir, launches into the world, and we couldn’t be more excited! With unwavering courage and lyrical precision, Reema offers readers her story of unshackling her voice from the binds of patriarchy, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and anorexia as a companion through trauma and an antidote to loneliness. Her book embodies the truism: to speak is a revolution, and in this unprecedented time when all voices must be heard, Reema’s is one leading the charge.
I recently sat down with Reema to hear about her memoir (and life) journey and what this lead-up to the release of I Am Yours has been like. I invite you to watch our author chat below, read the interview that follows, and then head over to the Ms. Q&A: How Reema Zaman Found Healing in Her Own Story at Ms. Magazine to learn more about her and her beautiful writing.
Melanie Brooks: In I Am Yours, you write out of your own personal trauma from growing up in a culture infused with misogyny, experiencing sexual assault and emotional abuse, and living with an eating disorder. I’ve heard you speak to other writers about the importance of “writing from the scar, not the wound.” Before you began committing words to the page for this book, had you achieved any kind of reckoning with these experiences that gave you clarity on how you wanted to write about them?
Reema Zaman: Yes, because before I started writing the book, I had written all of these essays just for my own integration and clarification of self. I spent such a long period of time not speaking my own words, so this outpour was the first time my inner child was being allowed to speak without the threat of physical danger. When you are in the weeds and you are writing your way out of the weeds, you’re writing your way out of the wound. I could tell that these essays were quintessential to the making of me and to the making of a larger project that perhaps would be a book one day. But I did all of this analysis and getting to the heart of things first. For example, what was my anorexia? Where did it come from? I realized that for me, it was a side effect of being raised as a girl in this world. So when I sat down to write I Am Yours, I had already come to this place of deep understanding of what my disease had been and the roots of that disease. The question now was, how do I talk about this? How do I explain this to people? That became the exercise: I wanted to find language that was so precise and help people say, “So that’s what it is.” I think finding clarity of something is 90% of being able to heal and release it.
MB: You are trained as an actress and you are also a talented artist—some of your stunning drawings are woven into the pages of I Am Yours. How did this creative background make itself felt in the writing of your memoir?
RZ: I had all of this acting training where the first two things we’re taught are: 1. Story above ego, and 2. Audience always knows. We’re taught to respect the emotional intelligence of the audience and trust that they know what is happening without needing it explained to them. I Am Yours is a long book, but it’s also very sparsely written. In acting, it’s also all about creating urgency. Everything is done in the present tense—the audience is watching the scene happen as it happens. So for me, it made sense from the very beginning to set my book in the present tense as an effective way for the audience to literally be there with me while I was going through it. That urgency helped me find the accurate language, where my job was to just paint what was happening. I’ve also been really fortunate, in a sense, that the characters and the experiences that have come into my life have been so vivid and enormous. The dialogue sections happened verbatim, and then my acting background lets me know what feels authentic.
I attached to art at the same time I attached to anorexia—age fifteen—because both of them help you to create beauty out of the wreckage, clarity from chaos. There had been so much trauma and chaos in my life that my brain attached to anorexia because this disease is all about precision and intention. I realized I had to figure out how to meet those needs of precision and deliberate action in a way that was not killing me. I had to replace it with a new set of habits. I developed this really precise drawing style and then I began creating this really precise language.
MB: In our Q&A for Ms. Magazine, you tell me: “The biggest goal and purpose of this book is to provide medicine.” I know your words have already been a balm to other women who have experienced trauma and a call to action for them to lift their voices with yours. What do you hope men will take from your book?
RZ: I wanted to write a book as an agent for empathy—where you start to experience that person’s life through their body and voice. I want men to be looking and feeling these experiences through my eyes. My entire life, as I’ve stood in front of the different men in my life while they’ve done the things they’ve done, I’ve thought, If you only knew the pain that was coursing through my body, I think you would not be doing what you are doing. The most effective attempt I can make of that is to write a book that guides men through what it is to live life in the body of a woman through these experiences. That’s why raw emotion and vivid language are such huge parts of what this book is. I wanted to create that cinematic exploration of a woman’s life—specifically for men. A lot of women are able to access the experiences so quickly because they have a memory that connects to my memory, but most men reading my book don’t have a parallel experience. My job was to paint it in the most evocative, 4D effect as possible so it becomes like virtual reality for them. If this doesn’t ignite someone’s empathy, they are lost.
MB: In the past year, you have exploded onto the literary scene as a noteworthy writer and sought-after speaker. Your work has been widely published, and you’ve gained a global following in anticipation of your book’s release because of the undeniable power of your voice. Did you imagine this level of success?
RZ: I say this with complete, unaffected humility. The greatest surprise has been me—the presence of my intelligence. My degrees in college were theater and women’s studies. I began my career as an actress and model where my identity was based on sex appeal. I had never written personal essays, or thought of myself as a writer. It never occurred to any of us that I had any talent. I stepped into this voice only four years ago. Had you met me in my twenties, you’d say, “Oh, what a sweet little girl.” My voice was literally an entire octave higher, my energy was like that of a glass bird. Writing this book was an unpeeling of who I’ve always been. The first draft came out in such a flow that I wasn’t conscious of it and I wasn’t reading it while writing it. It was only when I was creating the second draft and doing a read-through and going through the process as an editor versus the author that I was able to objectively view this manuscript. That was the first time in my life that I started filling with a deep sense of genuine self-appreciation and self-respect because I started recognizing there was something there. I had a voice. The transformation was a revelation. And maybe as women, our transformation is the revelation. To peel back, to unlearn everything that was taught to us so that we can reveal ourselves to be the mighty women warriors we actually are.
MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of your writing journey, Reema. I’m holding my breath along with so many other grateful readers in anticipation of what comes next!
To celebrate the release of I Am Yours into the world, the women of Moving Forewords read the poem “I Am Woman” by Reema Zaman from the book’s opening pages.