Reclaiming Our Power: A Conversation with Reema Zaman

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She cooked and cleaned and catered to his every need; he wiped off her makeup when he thought she was wearing too much. She was afraid to speak openly; he ranted about having “sister wives.” She starved herself physically and emotionally; he feasted on her need to be perfect. In the debut memoir I Am Yours, Reema Zaman tells the story of overcoming an emotionally abusive relationship and ultimately, reclaiming her voice.

The structure of I Am Yours gave me a shared experience with the author. As I turned the last page of this memoir, I couldn’t help but feel like Zaman and I were on this journey together, hand-in-hand. What I love most about Zaman’s writing is that you don’t want to rescue her because you don’t feel like you have to. She is anchored. She has claimed her strength, and if you follow her path, you’ll have yours, too. She is seizing the torch, holding it high, and asking us to remember that we are not alone.

Zaman, born in Bangladesh and raised in Thailand, is also a speaker and actress. We spoke about the process of writing about this kind of abuse, the necessary audacity of caring for yourself, and the dangers and triumphs of being a millennial woman today.

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The Rumpus: Writing a memoir about emotional abuse is a massively ambitious undertaking. I was shocked when I read that writing this book wasn’t especially difficult for you. How is it that the words just spilled onto the page?

Reema Zaman: For such a long time, I wasn’t allowed to speak. So, when I was finally in a safe space and able to speak, all I had to do was sit down and transcribe the lifelong conversation that had transpired in my head. For so long, nobody wanted to hear from me, and any time I attempted to speak my truth, I incurred harm. When you’re in an abusive relationship you’re physically, financially, and emotionally not safe. Speaking is dangerous. Moreover, in addition to the abusive marriage, I had been a part of other relationships, cultures, and situations where my voice was not welcome.

I Am Yours lived inside me for thirty years, quiet, patient, ready, waiting for me to arrive at a space in my life, emotionally and physically, when I could sit down and take dictation. The narrative structure is chronological, beginning in infancy leading up to age thirty-one, because I wanted the journey and conversation to sound precisely the way I lived it. I fought to arrive in a place in my life where I could finally speak. Once there, everything rushed out.

Rumpus: At first, I expected I Am Yours to focus on your relationship with your ex-husband. Instead, the book starts much earlier, with your parents’ relationship and the relationship you had with your father. Did you know it would start there?

Zaman: In a way, you went through the same discovery that I did, of realizing, “Oh, wait a minute, I thought the story was going to be this one marriage but actually, the story goes beyond that and is about something much larger.” Once I left my ex-husband, I thought I was going to write the story of what happened between us. But I realized that much of the reason why I was capable of staying in that emotionally abusive and starving relationship is because I was so expert at starving myself physically and physiologically through anorexia, an illness I had battled for fifteen years. I had been loyal to my husband because I had grown so accustomed to pain and starvation. And I realized that to understand my anorexia I had to delve into my childhood, to recall how my mother had felt continual pressure to be as small as she could be—physically, emotionally, and vocally.

To truly understand who we are, we have to return to the beginning. When we say “beginning,” it’s not merely the beginning of our physical life, but also what happened in our parents’ lives to make them who they are. Wounds, if left unhealed, will metastasize. Wounds, if left unchecked, can be passed on and inherited.

Rumpus: You came up with an interesting poetic voice that’s used as you move chronologically throughout the story of your life. The reader watches you grow from a child to a young woman through the changes of your voice. And then there are these interludes that seem to be written from a more present, reflecting narrator.

Zaman: I began in a present-tense, child-voice because I wanted to communicate details and scenes about my parents with the utmost loving-kindness and compassion, without sounding analytical, distant, harsh, or judgmental. I felt if I used an adult voice, recalling flashbacks, I might have sounded aloof or overly cerebral. There is something very disarming, non-judgmental, and captivating about seeing things through a child’s eyes, feeling their feelings. I created a lyrical voice that uses symbols and metaphor because this poetic language allowed me to hint on things that have happened to certain characters, particularly my parents, without my intruding into their privacy. The poetry acts as a soothing, inviting hand, to make a clear yet gentle point. It invites you, the reader, to connect the dots in your understanding of the characters in your life, and my understanding of the characters in my life, so that together, we can both gain deeper clarity and compassion.

Rumpus: I related to the pattern of emotionally abusive relationships you had with men. First it was your father, then your ex-husband, and then you introduce an interesting character you call “the Prince.” Do you think you’ve finally broken this pattern of falling into emotionally abusive relationships, since writing this memoir?

Zaman: Absolutely. I wanted to show that sometimes, we think it’s going to be easy. Well, I got out of that unhealthy relationship. Now I’ll spend three months by myself and then, I’ll be fine. But, no! Because the story—all our stories—starts decades before. The choices we make in our thirties aren’t isolated incidents. Thirty years beforehand, those choices started coming into play, like prophecies based on elements from the past. By writing about the Prince, I wanted to illustrate how this occurs, how I relapsed into the cycle of abusive relationships because I hadn’t yet done the deep work to understand and release the toxic conditioning that made me susceptible to abusive men.

It was only after I sat down to write I Am Yours that I gained true understanding of the cycle, the conditioning that governed it, and was able to replace the harmful psychology with a whole new identity and self-esteem that is anchored, healthy, and strong. Writing a memoir is about healing and reclaiming one’s narrative, so that the future can be lived through wiser choices. Now that I’ve gained ownership of my life, I’m no longer in danger of relapsing to abusive forces.

Rumpus: How do you think other young women can break this pattern of emotional abuse?

Zaman: In order to break the cycle of abuse, we first must take honest assessment of what has happened in our lives, in our own choices and habits, and then trace how those habits and choices came to be. Then, we decide to replace that toxic psychology with a healthy psychology toward our needs, toward our bodies, toward how we feel about love, toward our understanding of home and what we deserve. I think writing a memoir (or any journey of deep self-reflection and realignment) is a matter of re-parenting ourselves. Ultimately, it is a rebirth.

Rumpus: As a young woman who was in an emotionally abusive relationship, I understand the space these men can take up in our lives. Yet you chose not to mention any of their names. You write, “His name doesn’t matter and will never matter. What matters is the woman I am on my own, and the woman I am with him.”

Zaman: Exactly. Their names don’t matter. For me, this journey was not about finding the next man. It was about finding myself and through that, my power. This story is about leaving so that I could reclaim my voice and create the woman I wanted to be.

Rumpus: At first in the book, you slip into the role of the polite young woman. Yet as the story progresses, it seems like you find this role more and more difficult to fulfill. How do gender roles play into your story?

Zaman: We women are encouraged to be perfect in every way. It’s a social contract we’re born and sworn into, without our choosing. For traditional society to continue and thrive as it has, it requires our polite obedience to the contract. Numerous people benefit from our obedience. An enormous part of the contract is that we don’t complain, to the point where we remain so quiet, forgiving, and compassionate about other people’s harmful choices that we become tolerant and enabling of abusive behavior.

We’re taught that a “strong woman” always rises above the immaturity and cruelty of the men around her, and that actually, the presence of a man’s immaturity or cruelty is an indication that as women, we must do our all to understand, forgive, and care for him, to “help him grow.” It’s an insidious web of gaslighting and conditioning projected upon us by society from the time we’re young girls. There is a dangerously fine line between being a perfect, polite, and “strong” woman to ultimately enabling abusive behavior. The American Association of Psychology published a paper in 2018 that shows an enormous rise in perfectionism and the pressure to be perfect in millennial women. The rise in perfectionism parallels a rise in eating disorders, in workaholism, in various manifestations of us being so incredibly hard on ourselves because we feel we must be perfect, to prove we are enough.

I’ll attest as well that an addiction to perfectionism can lead to a perilous tolerance toward abusive behavior. Perfectionism, compounded by past experiences, conditioning, or modeling, makes us say, “I’m too smart, strong, and confident to allow abuse into my life. I got this. I just have to work harder at fixing him, healing him, helping him so that he can become a better person.” We take on abusive partners as if it’s another job on our list of things to accomplish every day to prove we are enough, including having the perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect outfit, perfect body, perfect job, and never complaining. We begin to wear pain as a badge of honor.

But we must realize that being smart, strong, and confident is not a reason to accept any form of unkindness or pain. Authentic strength doesn’t include accepting, forgiving, and enabling abusive behavior, be it from oneself toward oneself, or from another person.

It isn’t our job nor our responsibly to heal and reform the abusers of the world. We’re already enough without having anything to prove or achieve. Furthermore, as it was never our responsibility, and when we’re unable to reform an abuser it isn’t our failure. Nor is it our shame to carry. Shame doesn’t belong to the abused. Shame rests on the society that raises abusers.

Rumpus: In the chapter titled “Fight,” the reader learns of your rape. This chapter was especially difficult for me to read, yet you write it with such grace and compassion. How was that possible?

Zaman: This chapter was written for the reader to realize that we are never born with misogyny, hatred, or fear in our hearts. As children, we are born innocent, whatever gender we are. We are taught fear through abandonment and wounds; we are taught hatred through the prejudice we are modeled. It’s how I know to forgive human beings. The person who raped me wasn’t born a rapist. Something happened for him to become capable of such cruelty. Perhaps he was abandoned by society at large, or by one of his parents. There is that sentence where I look deep in his eyes, I see his pupils have dilated, and all traces of humanity have left. Something happened for the humanity to leave his eyes, for him to then inflict such indignity on my body. Because I recognize that, it allows me to have grace, compassion, and forgiveness, which I carry through the memoir. Having grace and forgiveness also allow for a quiet strength, to keep living.

Rumpus: You refer to I Am Yours not only as a memoir, but also as an experience. What do you mean by that?

Zaman: From the very beginning, I wanted the book to feel like an experience. Of course, every book is an experience, but I wanted I Am Yours to feel like a visceral experience. This book changed my cells. Writing it healed me of anorexia. It healed me of the toxic psychology I had inherited, and today, I’m incapable of putting myself in dangerous situations. I experienced an alchemic transformation the same way that when you cook something, the cells are changed irrevocably, never to return to their original state. I wanted the experience of reading this book to feel like a series of awakening moments that are so transformative that you enter the book one person, and you finish the book having risen to the next stage of your human existence.

I labored over every single sentence for five years. I wrote the first draft in one year, then continued to develop and finesse every line. I had to be meticulous because I’m playing with numerous devices that require intense craft, control, understanding, and balance. For instance, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the reader is a tremendous risk. If done haphazardly or too frequently it can sound forced or cheesy. If you layer it in too infrequently then it’s startling.

Similarly with the poeticism and the metaphors, I made sure to track all the metaphors so they would evolve and circle back at just the right times, in the right ways. If there was a metaphor that started on the first page and continued to the final page, it had to be woven in different ways throughout the narrative. You’ll see in the childhood section, all the metaphors are childlike. Crayons. Ballerinas inside music boxes. Lost buttons. Then when I’m in New York, the metaphors relate to carnivorous, devouring creatures because that’s how New York feels in its commodification of the female body. When I write about my ex-husband, all the metaphors are about fire, control, danger, burning.

At first, I didn’t think I had a story. Yet the characters and experiences in my life made it inevitable for me to write a memoir because they were so perfectly placed. The story already existed, long before I grew aware of it. Once I understood the patterns and connections, and gained strength from recognizing them, I realized there was value in sharing this story. Gaining clarity of and from this tale was such a liberating journey for me. I hope I Am Yours can be a catalyst for liberation, courage, love, and healing for others.

Rumpus: So many memoirs end with a “happily ever after” story line; it was refreshing to read that yours ends differently. It meant a lot to me, as a reader. How did you come up with the ending of this book?

Zaman: Thank you. I love that it meant so much to you, too, because it meant so much to me. I don’t identify with the “happily ever after” trope, especially the idea that happily ever after can only exist if you find the ideal man, have a specific number of children, and live in a perfect, beautiful house. That’s not my current happily ever after. Perhaps it will be, in five or ten years, but I don’t agree with saying that there is one finite definition of happiness and success that we should all aspire for, and therefore, if we don’t attain it, we fail.

Being in alignment with my self is the happily ever after I offer as the ending of I Am Yours; that foundation is the beginning of ultimate happiness. I know so many women who have achieved the exterior perfection but they are still suffering inside because, ultimately, the pivotal factor in sustainable, lasting happiness is how happy we are with ourselves, how deeply we know ourselves, and how sincerely confident we are in our own voice, in our own power.

I wanted to write an authentic ending, an anti-ending to the harmful Hollywood and Disney myths that we were fed as children. I have found my voice, and therefore my power in this world, and whatever happens, I will be okay. It was liberating and validating to claim that as my final chapter. I trust that for other women reading this, it will be freeing to claim that as the final chapter, too.

Rumpus: How do you feel now that you’ve finished the book?

Zaman: I feel a deep peace knowing this book is exactly the book I wanted to write. To see it already having such an impact in other people’s lives is the greatest fulfillment. I may have written the initial notes of this song. Now, other voices are learning them, rising to roar this anthem.

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Photograph of Reema Zaman © Erika Ellis Photography.


Raz Tal is a writer based in Tel Aviv. Her work can be found in Forbes Israel, NoCamels, The Israel Association of Writers in English Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir about overcoming a toxic relationship that began when she served in the Israeli army. Find her on Twitter @Raz_Tal. More from this author →