A few years ago, I read a book that detailed the grim and intolerable treatment of women, particularly in areas of the Middle East. I finished it in one day. It gave me horrific nightmares. Shortly thereafter, I became friends with a visual artist who was working on a documentary on forced prostitution in India, and she introduced me to a scholar who was studying cultural patriarchy and gender power. Suddenly, I had a new obsession. I was fixated on the lack of safety and basic human rights for women across the globe, and I was fixated on male dominance and control and how it caused disturbing and unbalanced familial relationships. As it often happens with writers, this obsession became unbearable enough to develop into a poem and then another and then another. This is when I realized I was heading toward a book, and this is when I stopped writing. For almost a year, I shelved the manuscript. I was paralyzed by the idea that I did not have permission to write a story that wasn’t mine. It felt intrusive and invasive. Was I skilled enough to write these poems with the level of cultural responsibility they deserved, and was I knowledgeable and compassionate enough to ensure this wouldn’t become a caricature of suffering, a gratuitous lament, an obvious outsider’s view?
Recently, I was discussing the book with a friend, and she asked me to explain my discomfort. She pressed me to articulate why I put limits on my stories. They were mine, after all, and if not me, who was it that got to define them? Who decided where they ended and where they began? Who decided if they paid attention to borders and fences? I don’t know that there are answers to any of these questions. The only thing I could say for sure was that this story came to me and it would continue to haunt me and keep me awake until I wrote it, until I gave it it’s own voice. And the truth is, I love it deeply. I love it like it is my own child, and like my own child, I carry it with a tenderness and an awe that is void of boundary and definition. My adoration is simply instinct. This is what makes it difficult. This makes the questioning, the concern for perfection, and the insistence on precision that much more severe. This makes me afraid of how my influence will affect the outcome, but parents are always afraid, and just like our own children, our stories will continue to grow and develop into something beyond us, something that goes out in the world and survives and leaves footprints in a landscape that would have been untouched otherwise, and this is a beautiful thing.
It took me awhile to untangle my fear and start on the manuscript again, and even longer to send the poems out to magazines, but I’m coming along. It’s a strange kind of torture we writers endure as we try to communicate stories that make us uncomfortable and make us doubt our ability and our ownership, but I’m learning that the courage it takes to write these stories isn’t innate, it’s manual. It’s a choice. We get up everyday, and we choose to do the things that make us uncomfortable because we know those are the acts that will define us, and we choose to sit down everyday and write the difficult stories that make us uncomfortable because we know those are the words that will define the world, fill it with humility, make it human enough to love.
Read “Brothel Song” in our current issue, or listen via SoundCloud.