Q&A: Queens Native Bushra Rehman On Her Debut Novel and Growing Up Pakistani Muslim in Queens
Bushra Rehman's first novel, Corona, is a fragmented, poetic, on-the-road adventure told from the perspective of the charismatic Razia Mirza. After coming of age in a tight Muslim community surrounding the first Sunni Masjid built in New York City, a rebellious streak leads to Razia's excommunication, prompting the young heroine to flee. Stories that alternate between childhood memories and the misadventures of her young adulthood slowly reveal glimpses of the past that Razia is escaping and the Queens neighborhood that has shaped her life.
Rehman's poems, stories, and essays have been featured on BBC radio and in the New York Times, among other publications, and she co-edited the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. Here, via e-mail, she talks about the Muslim community in her native borough, being a new mother, and why her protagonist aspires to be shameless.
I know you're not supposed to ask fiction writers this, but Razia's story seems very personal. What parts of this character are based on you?
Most people will think Razia’s life is my life. I wish! Corona is a cocktail of truth and fiction. I cut up some of my memories, added lots of lies, and created bizarre collages from the scraps.
It's true, we're not supposed to ask the question, but it’s always on everyone’s mind. Including mine. I think authors get offended because perhaps there’s an implication, or an author’s paranoia that there is, that autobiographical fiction reveals a lack of craft or imagination. But I think it takes a great deal of craft to make your life interesting to someone else—and a great deal of imagination to live a life worthy of fiction.
I also think it’s a sensitive topic because I’m Muslim. Non-Muslims have often said to me: “Oh, I read this novel about a Muslim woman who (insert oppression),” and they think it’s real. I have to remind them they’re reading fiction. So I should say for the record: Razia’s life doesn’t represent the lives of all Muslim women. Not all Muslim women are stoners who get jobs at re-created 17th-century villages so they can dress up in costumes from the 1600s.
Razia is a Pakistani Muslim raised in Corona, Queens, a community where several ethnicities and religions cross paths. What was growing up in Corona like for you?
It was a special place. There were hundreds of cultural bubbles, each community making its own world. Then they threw us in public school where all those bubbles hit up against each other and burst.
Razia is a Pakistani from Queens, which is very different than being a Pakistani from Pakistan. She’s spent most of her life praying five times a day, reading Quran, and going to extra religious services on the weekends, all the while wearing skin-tight acid-wash jeans, getting her hair feathered, loving Whitney Houston, and falling for boys breakdancing in the schoolyard. She’s a Queens girl through and through, but she’s also a closet beatnik who devours poetry and dreams of jumping freight trains.
Her religion and the culture of Queens form her being. She can no more reject them than reject her physical body, so when she is excommunicated from her Muslim community, she struggles with feelings of anguish and exhilaration. She’s always wanted to be a vagabond, but when she’s thrown into the wide world outside of Queens, it takes her time to find her footing.
Of all the places Razia could have run off to, why Salem, Massachusetts, working in a re-enactment village?
I loved writing about a Pakistani woman working as a Puritan in [the story] "Pioneer Spirit." When I was a child, I thought living history museums were places where English immigrants were so successful in preserving their culture, they’d completely lost track of time and place. The culture Razia’s community is trying to preserve is also locked in time: the Pakistan they left in the '70s. If someone from her community went back home, it would be as if a 17th-century Puritan went to modern England. People would say, “You know, we stopped wearing bonnets a long time ago.”
Also, it’s a little-known fact, but Salem, Massachusetts, is where the first South Asians settled in the United States. They were sailors who worked for the East India Trading Company. They jumped ship and blended into the Native population. So it makes sense that when Razia jumps ship, she heads straight for Salem.
Corona is a novel, but the story is told in fragments and memories. In this way it feels very poetic. Do you have a background writing poetry?
Yes, the seed of this book was a series of prose poems I wrote about Corona, where I wanted to show the beauty of a place others might just see as a run-down, impoverished neighborhood. As the book started to become a novel, I became really interested in writing a story that was structured like a poem with omissions, illogical leaps, and dislocations in time and space. One of the key moments, Razia’s disownment scene, is never written about directly, only alluded to again and again. It is the void, the black hole around which all the action of the novel circles. So I guess the structure of the book is also based on the avoidance of pain.
Stories about Razia's rebellious young adulthood are interspersed with stories from her childhood. Why did you decide to arrange the stories in a nonlinear fashion?
I wanted readers to step into Razia’s chaotic reality, to have a feeling of being displaced in time and space. Also, when placed side by side with how she grew up, her misadventures seem even stranger. In "The Grass Pulled Up," Razia and her girlfriend are hitchhiking to Key West and get picked up by a born-again Christian couple. There’s a situational comedy right there, but read along with the story before it, "Skin," the reader can see Razia was once just as religious as the couple—so religious, her idea of childhood play was burning porn to save the souls of the beautiful women in the magazines.
The story "The Old Italian" is all of the sudden very dark. It ends by claiming that, as the new immigrant group to move to the neighborhood, "We didn't know how to take care of life. We didn't know how to grow anything, and when we touched the world, it died." Do you believe that, or did you believe it at a time?
This story is about the ways neighborhoods change in New York, about “white flight” specifically. In this story, the Italian neighbors are unhappy that Pakistanis and Dominicans are moving into Corona. Razia, as a child, starts to internalize this hatred. This is why she says the statement above. I wanted to include this feeling because, later in the book, Razia is accused of being shameless, and she is shameless precisely because she has experienced shaming. At some point she just grew tired of this feeling and decided she would be shameless. Being free from shame is a beautiful freedom.
You've just had a baby and now you're releasing your novel. How are you managing both those things at the same time?
Well, at this very moment, I’m rocking her chair with one foot while writing to you. I was reading this interview with Ani DiFranco where she was asked how motherhood affected her work, and she said it affected her work by interrupting it. I laughed out loud because it’s so true. It’s this strange tension of having no time to write and all the time in the world to write, because she’s a newborn and I’m sitting still for hours every day holding her.
As difficult as it is, I do think having this interruption, this dreaming space, this nothing space, will be helpful for me as a writer. I’ve learned how to type with one hand, and I’ve slowly been working on the second Razia book during marathon feeding sessions. I’m noticing the world of the book is opening up in a way it wasn’t before I had Rosina. I’m less afraid to make slash-and-burn edits or add material where Razia is emotional and vulnerable. The intensity of the love I feel for my daughter has definitely broken me open.
I also feel more driven as a writer. If I can help support us with my writing, I can spend more time working from home, closer to Rosina.
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