“You have read multiple books by brown people about brown people that made you feel as though the authors didn’t really know what it meant to be brown. Still, you continue to read these books because they inspire the writer in you.”
When you are young, you will be ashamed of your culture. You will hate eating rice everyday even though you love Amu’s cooking. You will hate that she makes you wear a salwar kameez to school every Halloween so you can be a princess. But you love mehndi and raise your right hand, palm outward, so the orange paisleys are visible to your teachers and classmates. You call the brown smelly paste mehndi, not henna. Your brownness is showing. It’s the only part of your culture you don’t reject.
When you’re a little older, you will scrub your skin raw and apply the Fair & Lovely your mother gave you to lighten your skin. You will resent her for making you resent your melanin. Your dad tells you that you will always look like an immigrant and you will never be an American in a white person’s eyes. This is a truth you will never let go.
Around this time you’ll start to read books by brown people about brown people because you think that if you can’t be American, you might as well embrace your heritage. You will be outraged by the inaccuracy, thinking brown people don’t have “white people problems.” You don’t think brown people can make mistakes, not because you think they’re flawless, but because mistakes are not allowed. You’ll be skeptical of brown characters on TV shows— their brownness erased by giving them names like John, and their otherness amplified by making them terrorists named Ali.
Your older cousin will recommend Corona by Bushra Rehman during your freshman year in high school. You have read multiple books by brown people about brown people that made you feel as though the authors didn’t really know what it meant to be brown. Still, you continue to read these books because they inspire the writer in you. Your cousin will tell you that Bushra Rehman is a Pakistani-American who grew up in a Pakistani Muslim community in Queens— she was just like you. Because, for the first time, you think you might actually see yourself in a South Asian character, you have ridiculous expectations for the book. You need Razia, the protagonist, to be just like you. But, of course, she won’t be. She leaves her family. She hitchhikes along the East Coast. She dates. She drinks alcohol. She smokes. What kind of Muslim is she? What kind of Pakistani is she? How could she be so selfish? What about her parents? You ignore the fact that you sound like the judgmental aunties you despise so much, but your brownness is showing.
In your junior year, your English class will read Into the Wild by Jon Krakaur. There’s something about the way Christopher McCandless drops everything and heads to Alaska that will intrigue you. You will try to ignore the fact that McCandless is a white man. You know that post-9/11 America will not work in favor of a wanderlust brown hijabi. Maybe it’s the fact that Chris seems invincible that’s appealing to you. Or that so many people treat him like their son and take care of him. Maybe you want to have that kind of faith in people. That they’ll help you instead of fear you or jump at the chance to hurt you. “Remember, Ma. You’re Muslim and they hate us,” your dad tells you this every day when he drops you off at the train station.
Maybe it’s the people at home who drive you away, the way Chris was unhappy with his ordinary life with his family. Without the fear of auntie gossip and the judgment of your parents, you could find the person you want to be. You will wish you could do something reckless and unpredictable because you don’t want to lead a conventional life.
You’re starting to write more this year. Your characters remind you of the ones you used to hate. Flawed, human, more similar to you than you’d like to admit. There isn’t a set of guidelines to be a brown person, you tell yourself to justify the choices your characters make. You have some life changing epiphanies and realize that you didn’t hate those characters from the books you used to read. You envied them. You wanted to screw up as easily as they did. You craved that kind of freedom, to be someone and to do things unexpected of the little brown girl you are. You will become restless. You’re tired of your commute and vain conversations you overhear in the locker room. You’re tired of your parents guilting you into staying in New York for college. You’re tired of your family telling you that you can only be a doctor and talking about your future in terms of salaries. You don’t want the things your parents want. Your mom tells you that you might as well give up on your education if you want to be a teacher, as if educating doesn’t require education.
During the short story unit, your English teacher gives the class Pioneer Spirit by Bushra Rehman and, as always, you’re skeptical. You remember how you felt while reading Corona. Reading Razia’s story again, two years later, with the knowledge that you used to envy her vagabond nature, you find that you can’t help but admire her. She’s not your typical brown girl from a conservative family. She tries to be anything but typical. For that, you wanted to be her, to have her courage (or selfishness), to be able to harden your heart and, for once, do something of your own will.
You know that you will never be able to harden your heart completely. You come from a family who loves you too much and respects you too little. The difference between you and Razia is that her parents kicked her out and yours would do everything to keep you at the same address in Jamaica, New York for the rest of your life.
You want to have a voice that defines itself like the characters in the books you read and the characters you create. You wish you could be selfish. You wish you weren’t afraid of losing your family by accidentally doing something for yourself.
But sometimes you let yourself think about the things you do have. You think about the tight-knit brown Muslim community in Queens that becomes Little Bangladesh the night before Eid with mehndi tables set up on every block. You go down to Hillside with your sister to eat mishtis and get intricate designs painted on your hands with the brown smelly paste, which is no longer the only part of your culture you don’t reject. Your brownness is showing. Every inch of Hillside Avenue is packed that night, the way your masjid is all throughout Ramadan, with people speaking a language that is home. Your brownness is showing. You know the next day will be ten times as busy. The field at the local high school will be filled with hundreds of Muslims praying together. You will wonder how you haven’t met some of these people, but then you will remember that this neighborhood is only home to a fraction of your identity— the fraction that your parents fostered.
You will be tired of having the same fights over and over again. You know you will be the first to back down and you will give your family what they want. You start to wonder what’s more important— your sanity or your reputation. Were all these arguments worth it or should you just put on a white coat and breathe in the fumes from the MTA buses? You know your parents want what’s best for you. That is, after all, the reason they came to this country. But you can’t seem to make their version of “the best” your own. You are terrified of being miserable, but your parents laugh when you tell them. Because according to them, brown girls don’t get to be happy. Brown girls don’t get to make themselves.
So the stories you read and the characters you envy remain fiction, at least for now.