Naseem Jamnia on “If I Were a Boy”

Posted on May 5, 2016 | No Comments
Naseem Jamnia | Issue 7

Naseem Jamnia | Issue 7

In Naseem Jamnia’s essay “If I Were a Boy” (Issue 7), she explores her relationship to femininity in the context of her family and childhood. In this interview, she discusses the authors that inspire her, her purpose in writing this essay, and the connection between science and writing.

Naseem Jamnia’s goal is to balance her two passions: writing and science. This often means she’s writing while waiting for her lab rats to finish their tasks. Her Channillo essay series is called “Fine Lines and Ambiguities,” where she writes about gender, growing up in a religious household in Chicago, and other issues. Her story, “Letter To My Former Self,” was chosen for the Mental Health America of Illinois’ “Manifesting Healthy Futures” project, an exhibit of literary and visual artists exploring mental health and wellness. (@jamsternazzy)

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What inspired you to create this piece? The catalyst event was actually the one described in part three of the essay—a conversation with my father about job hunting that became one about gender. That “discussion” haunted me until I started writing the essay a few weeks later. My parents and I were in a larger fight about my decisions for this next year and I wrote this essay mostly addressed to them, but also trying to sort out of feelings about owning my independence and adulthood.

I am no stranger to writing highly personal pieces that I then share. To my utmost surprise, doing so has enabled people to step forward and tell me their stories or personal details about their lives. That’s why I started sharing them, and now I almost feel like I must. My mother called the tendency exhibitionist, and I understand her sentiment: I feel very naked in telling these details about my life. What spurs me, as it did in this piece, is the knowledge that someone will reach out and tell me their story.

I’m interested in the idea that you wrote this essay “mostly addressed to them” (your parents). Does that mean you wrote it with the intention that they should read it, or was the essay more of an outlet for what you weren’t planning to say? At the beginning of the essay, I had no intention of it being a “letter to my parents,” so to speak. By the end of it, it became more of a “declaration to my parents.” What I mean to say is that in the beginning, I was just writing to write. I wanted to explore what it might have been like at my brother’s birth, which I had originally started as a mother’s day piece. Then after I wrote that, I knew that there was going to be more to the essay. The second part really solidified what the essay was going to be about, and was more for my own clarification as to my history. It wasn’t really until the third part that I wanted to finally “come out” as non-binary… That was really my “official” time. I wanted my parents to know that and work on accepting it. But I guess I also was using it as a way to admit how I’ve been feeling about gender since I was a kid to everyone, anyone who would read it.

I wrote the essay at a time where my dad and I weren’t speaking, and I was hoping that it would bridge the gap. It was a hard time for me; I’ve always been close to my dad. In the last section, I really tried to tell him what I needed to but couldn’t do in person. The other two sections were more for my mom, by the end. I know she’s read it, but I don’t think he has.
How does your research in the sciences impact your writing, and vice versa? Writing is actually one of the reasons I became a scientist. I wanted to study human behavior and understand what makes people tick and what happens when, pardon the expression, shit hits the fan. I loved psychology in high school. I took a bit of a detour in college and studied mental illness in rodents, and then concussions in rodents for my master’s, but I’m hoping to do my PhD work strictly in humans. Coming full circle has been, partially, a result of my writing. I wanted to study neuroscience to understand the brain–because of behavior, not because of anything else. I’m hoping to go back to that.

Science has been both a blessing and a horrible hinderance to my writing. It’s caused me to be more reflective in it, as I try to take apart and piece together what I mean and why I might think the way I do. When I write about certain topics, like my brother’s autism or trauma women in my family have experienced, I’ve actually used my scientific knowledge in the piece itself. I’m working on a piece doing exactly that, blending bits of scientific understanding about my genetics and heritable traits with human truths of motherhood fears. So whatever I study in science directly impacts my writing in that sense. Unfortunately, sometimes the scientific drive to not draw conclusions until all the data is in, or to say everything just right physically causes me not to write. Scientific Truths and nonfiction Truths aren’t always the same thing, and sometimes, knowing too much doesn’t help.

Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. I am a fan of working in cafes, which has just enough noise to break the silence and not so much that I can’t focus. However, lately, I’ve been using my morning commute as my space to write. Usually, I get severe motion sickness, but the Metra has been a blessing in that regard. I now find that I am all but compelled to pull out my laptop when I sit down and start clattering away.

Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? Over the years, I have identified as a fiction writer, and so a range of novels has influenced my writing, depending on the genre. It is only recently that I have begun my stride as an essay writer. I really savor the feeling of words in nonfiction, so I find poetry—Seamus Heaney, Silvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, the usual suspects—to be especially warm on my tongue. I look for writers that use words in ways that echo with me. My favorite author, Kazuo Ishiguro, is a master of stringing together sentences. His vivid descriptions and character development and unreliable narrators make my fingers itch.

My stories are inspired by real and imagined things. Storytelling helps with the latter: a play, a movie, a book. Otherwise, I draw upon my own (limited) experiences. Lately, I’ve recently become very invested in the Hae Min Lee case and know there’s a novel or some sort of other book in me about it.

What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I wish I knew the answer! I’ve been in a creative rut for months now, especially in my fiction. I’ve come to the decision that it must be due to what I’m reading (or not). I listen to a lot of audiobooks while I do my lab work, and I think my nonfiction pieces reflect the types of deeply personal stories—whether real or imagined—I’ve been listening to. (I recently finished Stephen King’s The Shining, so the resulting stories should be interesting…) I think that’s the best way I’ve gotten over a block: read something that I want to write. I (re-)read Tamora Pierce every year and every year, after, I’m itching to get back into my latest novel. I recently finished (again, as is common with me, re-)reading The Remains of the Day, and I need to sit down and for some sort of deeply introspective piece on faulty memories. Having a block must mean that I haven’t been reading.

What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? I cannot over-express the brilliance of Anne Carson. The Glass Essay is one of my favorite things to read (especially whenever there’s a heartache involved). I love the way she twists language; it’s what I like to do as a writer, place words in unexpected places for new meanings. Nox is a beautiful description of grief, a multi-media book on her brother’s death, obsessing over the same details and images in, I think, exacting detail. Autobiography of Red challenges the concepts of adjectives. Picking up anything written almost makes me want to throw up my hands in defeat. How can I ever write anything so beautiful? Then it inspires me to pick up a pen and strive towards it.

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We asked Naseem to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? I’m bad at picking up my verbal ticks—apparently I stutter words when I’m on the phone calling for customer support stuff?—but I can see patterns in my writing. There will be a key phrase or two that I put throughout a piece in very deliberate places. In if i were a boy part ii, it was “Feminine, feminine. You’re not feminine.” In another piece, it was, “Oh, but you’re American.” In a piece I wrote recently, it was, “The day my grandmother died.” Sometimes I wonder if this is problematic, but I also wonder if this isn’t just my style and I should embrace it.

What is your greatest extravagance? I recently got another tattoo and have appointments for several more: in short, art is my extravagance. Just as people pay money to have images on their walls, I spend money to have images on my body. (Or plan to, anyway.) I support my artist friends by commissioning work from them, as well. I believe art is deeply necessary to the human condition, whether visual or auditory or written.

Which talent would you most like to have? I wish I were good at picking up languages. Some people have an amazing knack for it—alas (earwax), I am not one of them. My business is words, as the poet once said, and having more fuels the obsession. Growing up bilingual, I appreciate the concepts that are expressed in Persian that have no English equivalent. I can only imagine how limited my concept vocabulary still is, with only two languages.

Who is your hero of fiction? I read this question in two ways: one, who is my hero who is fictional; and two, who is my fiction hero. I’ve been thinking about this question for days and the only character I keep coming back to Alanna of Trebond, from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series. I connected more with Alanna than I even did Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Alanna taught me to be brave, and to fight for what I believe in, even if it will most certainly backfire. Alanna was the first character I saw who disguised her gender, and I didn’t understand why that resonated with me then (ha!), but it did. She struggled with her femininity and wanting to be a knight and fighting for what was right, things that in some ways I’m still working through and trying to understand. I recently got a lioness rampant tattoo in tribute to her, a reminder to fight like the Lioness.

What is your motto? There’s an old Sufi story about a king and a ring inscribed with a Persian phrase: ein niz bogzarad. It’s been adapted as the saying “this, too, shall pass.” I have it tattooed on my left inner ankle and it’s my constant reminder to live in the moment and let go of past and present. Struggling with anxiety and depression means that I am constantly ruminating over things instead of moving past them, so I like telling this phrase to myself. Bad day? Ein niz bogzarad. Mistake made? Ein niz bogzarad. It reminds me to be grateful for positive things as they happen.

 

 

 


This interview was curated by Devon Halliday, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a Comparative Literature student at Brown University.

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