When Our Inner Voices Speak: Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours
Reema Zaman calls her utterly unique debut, I Am Yours, a “shared memoir” because she wrote it with the help of voice in her head: one she calls “imaginary friend, art, muse, reader, guardian angel, higher self, inner voice, God.” I Am Yours begins with Reema addressing this “you” from a desk in Oregon, where, at thirty, she has gone to process the traumas she has survived throughout her life in Bangladesh, Thailand and New York. Reema stares at her hands, her reflection, and wonders, “How have I become the person I am? How can I feel better?” And “from the spot where my spine meets my brain comes a clear answer and stern order: Write.”
“You” encourages Reema to record all her memories from the past three decades. And so Reema writes not only memories of love—climbing over her grandparents with her siblings like chinchillas in their cozy apartment in Dhaka, empowering herself by studying feminism in college after growing up in cultures that confined women (one summer in Bangladesh, she meets a woman “whose face melted from acid thrown by her fiancé because she wanted continue college after they got engaged”), and exploring every outlet for self-expression, from painting to music (during her twenties, she makes a satirical rap song called “I Made a Sex Tape”) while working as an actress in New York—but also memories of abuse, like the emotional abuse of her father and of her former husband, sexual assaults and rape during her early twenties, and fifteen years living with anorexia. As Reema puts it succinctly: “I am twenty-nine. I was raised by a bully. I married a bully. And left unchecked, I became my biggest bully.”
The book’s narration moves between Reema writing at thirty—as she put it in a recent Rumpus interview, literally “tak[ing] dictation” of a “lifelong conversation” with her inner voice—and the chronological story of her life told in the present tense. Throughout the latter, Reema shows us how she spoke to “you” ever since she was three years old. When she gets up in the middle of the night: “Sitting. Watching. You spoke: I am here. I love you. I am yours…” When she is bullied in middle school: “I cannot see you or touch you but I know you are always here…” After her rape at twenty-three: “In the mirror… your invisible form mingles with my lines. You are always here.”
As Reema is pulled away from her own voice, her addresses to “you” become less frequent and more distant. Falling head over heels for her emotionally abusive husband, she writes: “Dear one, have you ever been in love? I’m unclear on how your reality works” and “I would never let you slip from me. It’s simply that he occupies so much space. There’s barely any left for you.” The “you” starts struggling to find a “window to sit by.” This increasing absence of “you” is a spectacular way to illustrate the long-term consequences of emotional abuse—its violent denial of one’s own reality. Reema recounts in painstaking language how men in her life denied the very veracity of her experience. How her high school principal replied, “Thank you for being quiet,” when she brought him physical evidence of her teacher’s sexual harassment. How, when she emailed her father asking for a conversation about wounds over the years, he replied saying she needs help for her lies. During their marriage, her emotionally abusive husband doesn’t just forbid her from wearing the clothes she wants, but when she injures herself in a car crash, instead of helping her up, he starts taking pictures of her, exclaiming, “Baby, I have never seen you cry like this before, it’s amazing!” All of these scenes show the direct toll emotional abuse takes on one’s surest voice: how it tries to destroy the voice that believes in one’s experience to say instead, You are not suffering, Your experience is not real, Your voice is not worth listening to.
It is not only her inner voice that helps Reema finally decide to write: she also has, over three decades, a growing desire to read a book that “feels like my life.” Even more often than we see Reema talking to “you,” we see her reading voraciously—book titles appear often in I Am Yours, from Ursula Le Guin to Cheryl Strayed. Always, afterward, we see her overwhelmed by the longing to read a book that more closely mirrors her experiences. At age ten, she writes, “I haven’t found it yet, a book that fits me perfectly… There must be a book made for me.” As Reema gets older and reads more, she wonders if she will ever find that book, read that voice. Until she decides to make it happen, by writing it:
Ever since I was a child, I have looked for this imaginary book. I was convinced it would be my direct, unhurried line of love. A balm for my every ache. A friend for my every flaw. A tonic for my anger. But it never arrived. Thus, now, I am trying to give myself that book.
What happens when we let our inner voices speak, and speak louder than the harmful voices we might have internalized from abuse or society itself? Art happens. Reema’s book teems with gorgeous metaphors. After her high school principal confiscates evidence of her teacher’s sexual harassment, she writes,
I feel like a stain. Not an ink stain from a split pen. Not a grease mark from food or the indigo left by blueberries. I’m the brown, scourged but still-visible stain of blood on a panty when you have your period and it leaks through a tampon. I feel like a stain only girls know.
After she ends her career as a model and actress in New York and moves to the haven of her mother’s new, happy family in remote Oregon, she writes, “For the first time since puberty, I’m not a sexual object… I feel like a newt, sexless, squishy, blobbish, neither coveted nor endangered, neither flaunted nor itemized. The sensation is extraordinary—to be safe and without form.” Not surprisingly, Reema is also a virtuoso with narrative voice. Her voice at age ten, helpless to her parents’ toxic marriage, is hauntingly realistic: “Momma’s voice is slow, quiet, like a lake… Papa uses his hard voice. It sounds like the ground.” By the time Reema is in her own marriage, she is singing Shakespearean: “Seemingly overnight, I can do no right. I morph from perfection incarnate to a cancerous blight.” Throughout the narration, Reema also sprinkles unique words and phrases from Bengali and Thai, synthesizing the vocabulary of her upbringing to sing her solo.
As Reema slowly realizes throughout this book, the voice in her head—“my closest incarnation of sacred belonging,” “my imaginary best friend”—is in fact her own voice: the voice of her singularly precious interiority. By writing her way to this realization, Reema teaches us a new way to think about self-love and self-care and all the terms we use today to envision total connectedness to oneself. She teaches us that something magical—perhaps revolutionary—happens when we engage in dialogue with ourselves: we close the hyphen between the self and something good. She teaches us a new way to think about what writing means, and why we write, and what it means to honor the human voice above all when we tell our stories.
Read an exclusive excerpt from I Am Yours here, and a reading list from Reema Zaman here.