Jacki Lyden interviews Reema Zaman at Bookfest

Reema Zaman (Erika Ellis Photography)

When Reema Zaman finally began saying “No” to her abusive husband, he kicked her out of their country home with a backpack, $60, and her laptop containing several chapters of the manuscript that had helped her summon up the courage to talk back. “I felt such peace,” she recalled. “All I needed was my name and my voice. And if writing this manuscript had done so much for me, then I had a social responsibility to teach myself to write and revise and publish it for other people.”

The author of I Am Yours, just out from Amberjack Publishing, Zaman will be the keynote speaker at the 10th annual Woodstock Bookfest on Saturday, March 30, at 8 p.m. at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts. Zaman will be interviewed by former NPR war correspondent Jacki Lyden, herself the author of a memoir, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba (Penguin, 1998).

Zaman was born in Bangla Desh and grew up in Thailand. During her childhood and her years at college in Thailand, she reported inappropriate advances by males and was always told by those in authority, including her diplomat father, that “boys will be boys,” and she should just forget what had happened. A career as a model and actress brought her to the U.S., where the incidents not only continued but escalated, and she was raped twice, with no consequences for the assailants.

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Marriage to a golden surfer boy from California looked like salvation. Instead, her husband did everything he could to control her, making her wipe off makeup and wear baggy clothes, showing her pictures of the women he flirted with. “I was only allowed to speak in certain ways,” she said. “I had to rein in my voice so it didn’t sound overbearing. He told me how to sing and laugh, because a certain kind of laughter was indecorous. The more he did this, the more my inner voice started to roar.”

Although she suffered from shame like other domestic violence survivors, believing she had done something incorrect to draw his anger, her writing told a different story. Entire essays sprang into her mind, and writing them down jumpstarted her healing process. “I realized the shame was not mine to carry. I started to piece together my life’s narrative and realized I’d come to that place because of all my childhood wounds, sexual assault, and traumas. The more clarity I gained, it replaced shame and became the courage and validation I needed to speak back to him.”

More than a compelling memoir, I Am Yours is a handbook to help women find their way out of oppressive relationships. “The success of the book has shown me people are ready and hungry for it,” said Zaman. “Two days after its release, it went into a second printing. The first slew of publishers that rejected me said it’s a niche book because of my ethnicity. But in fact, there’s huge demographic of women it’s relevant to. I never set out to write a brown book by a brown woman. Gone are the days of limiting myself.”

As she was writing and editing, the #metoo movement gave a heightened urgency to the work. “First drafts were more polite. The book started becoming more articulate and sharper-speaking. The process of writing draft after draft, laboring over every sentence, made me more intelligent. I also started eating more, feeding my brain,” and healing her long-time eating disorder. 

But the book is not just for women. A Marine who had served for 17 years, witnessing the best and worst in men, told Zaman the book is needed in a world that “needs a new definition of strength. And that conversation needs to be led by women.” A Kuwaiti refugee she met in Iowa told her, “I went through the same childhood as you did, with abuse and sexual assault. I felt invisible. Now I feel seen.”

Teachers at a high school in Oregon will be using I Am Yours to teach the craft of memoir writing. It will also guide the discussion of topics from navigating and rising beyond adversity to developing self-esteem, resilience, empathy, forgiveness, and a connection with one’s inner voice. 

“Muslim, Jewish, Christian people from all over the world are nodding along about this one book,” Zaman marveled. “We are one family. I’ve been waking up with a profound feeling of hope and faith in the world.”

It’s hard to have a conversation with your mother when she believes she’s the Queen of Sheba. While Zaman’s memoir is a dialogue with an alternate self that was struggling to awaken, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba is Jacki Lyden’s effort to converse with her mother, in a way she couldn’t in real life, as she seeks to understand the forces that contributed to her mother’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. 

When asked whether growing up with her mother’s mental illness had something to do with her own willingness to report from war zones in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, Lyden said, “I really fell in love with the Middle East upon landing in Jordan. My mother did bequeath me Mesopotamia when I was 12.” While in the Middle East, she recalled, “I would tell other correspondents about the Queen of Sheba character. When I started to listen to the megalomania of Saddam Hussein, his detachment from reality, it felt very familiar to me.”

Lyden saw a sense of past injury or grievance that needed to be redressed. For her mother, the injury was having been denied more education that “would’ve given her a life beyond marrying a wealthy, powerful man and being his arm candy. In the 1960s in rural Wisconsin, it was not unlike Reema’s choices in Manhattan and this millennium. They are 60 years and worlds apart, but the consciousness for both is, ‘If I’m pretty, everything is going to be okay.’”

Lyden remembered the moment she realized she had to write about her mother. She was on the Kuwaiti border in 1991, interviewing a Palestinian man who told her, “If I don’t get back to Kuwait, I will lose all my family history.” In a flash, it came to her that if she didn’t go back and write her memoir, she would also lose her family history.

In addition to interviewing Zaman on Saturday night, Lyden is teaching a Friday workshop intensive on “The Art of the Interview.” She leads an annual writers’ retreat in Ireland in May called “Love Comes in at the Eye.” Here’s one tip she offered about interviewing: “It’s about asking the ‘why’ question. You’re trying to catch someone in the act of thinking.”