By THOMAS MOODY
In the final chapter of Corona, Bushra Rehman’s debut novel, a bread truck breaks down on a cold Queens winter night on the street the neighborhood has unofficially reserved for abandoned cars. What seems like the whole of Corona looks on from their houses, waiting to see if the driver will return.
“The old Italian ladies were the first to disappear from their windows,” Razia, the young Pakistani-American speaker of the novel, recalls. “They showed up again, on the snow, like black crows on ice.”
The father of Razia’s friend Julio crowbars the truck’s gate open and, moments later, Razia watches as Julio runs home with his arms filled with loaves of bread. Slowly a line forms, and Julio’s father begins to dole out the spoils of the neighborhood’s good luck: the old Italian ladies at the head, “but behind them was the Korean grandmother, the young Dominican mothers, and other kids from my school.”
Razia looks up at her strict, conservative mother, waiting for her to admonish their neighbors. Instead, she tells her daughter to put on her coat and go out into the street to get some bread.
The scene is an illustration of what permeates Bushra Rehman’s work: a deep affection for Corona and the borough of Queens. “The seed of Corona was a series of prose poems I wrote to remember the beauty of Corona,” Rehman tells me, “a place others might just see as a rundown, impoverished neighborhood.”
It is hardly a romanticized version of her upbringing that she chronicles in her poetry and fiction. But out of its fallibilities, including those imperfections of her home borough, wonderful and unique characters grow.
Bushra Rehman was born into a first-generation Pakistani American family in Queens, and grew up here in the 1980s. It was a time when her family’s culture, religion and skin tone were new and unfamiliar to a borough that had already seen many waves of immigration. As Razia puts it in Corona to her Italian American friend Tony from another part of New York, “There were the Italians, the Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans, the Ecuadorians, the Colombians, the Cubans, the Koreans….But Pakistanis were on the bottom of the chain.”
Much of Rehman’s work is centered around what it is like to be the daughter of immigrants.
“I’m a Pakistani from Queens,” Rehman explains, “which is a specific cultural identity, very different than being a Pakistani from anywhere else, including Pakistan.”
Rehman’s work deals with the push and pull of these two cultures. Her speakers never seem to feel entirely comfortable in either one, but fluctuate between the two in another, third, space.
“I grew up in a tight-knit Muslim community where I prayed five times a day, read Quran and went to extra religious service on the weekends. Then when I went to school, I wore skin-tight acid-wash jeans, feathered my hair, belted out Whitney Houston and fell for boys breakdancing in the schoolyard. It was complicated.”
In her early 20s, Rehman traveled around America with “nothing more than a Greyhound ticket and a bag of poems.” The wide spaces and open roads provided a stark contrast to the religious and cultural confinements of her upbringing. Some of these experiences are alluded to in Corona in the guise of Razia Mirza, a young Pakistani woman who acts as Rehman’s fictional proxy.
Rehman sees the novel, published in 2013, as a work of “autobiographical fiction” that is “definitely not a memoir. Many of my experiences overlap with the character’s, but I’ve taken enormous liberties. The process is much like cutting up my memories and creating collages from the scraps.”
The result is, in the case of Corona, a wildly funny and moving portrait of life as a first-generation American. Rehman wants to make it clear, however, that her story, although in ways similar to all immigrant experiences, is decidedly unique in others.
“For the record: Razia’s life doesn’t represent the lives of all Muslim women,” Rehman said. “Not all Muslim women run away from home and get jobs at re-created 17th-century villages so they can dress up in costumes from the 1600s.”
Autofiction is a genre that Rehman loves. She views it as a way for writers of color to reclaim their stories and “work against the forces of dehumanization directed towards us.” Corona was noted among Poets & Writers’ “Best Debut Fiction” and featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books among a new wave of South Asian American Literature, and Rehman uses her extensive talents as a writer to help others aspiring to tell their own stories. She currently teaches a workshop at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in writing autobiographical fiction, brilliantly titled “Two Truths and a Lie.”
“It is such an essential part of my life” she insists. “It’s my way of community building and sharing with other writers what I’ve learned about turning life stories into fiction.”
This May saw the publication of Rehman’s first book of poetry, Marianna’s Beauty Salon. The poems share with her fiction a dark humor and brilliant, nuanced and often distressing insights into what it is like to exist in and between two cultures. In the poem “White Picket Fence, No,” Rehman writes:
white picket fence, no, try chain link
my father so afraid of the world
he erected it, Pakistani style-ghetto style
12-foot-high fence, metal, jail around our house
It is as if the speaker’s father is attempting to keep the old world—Pakistan—in and the new world—America, Queens—out.
Other poems seem quintessentially American in their references: “Sometimes I wonder what it was / if it was all those Long Island Iced Teas we drank”; while in poems such as “Your Lock,” Rehman writes with a beautiful sensuality about love and longing: “It is the missing clasp of your body / that shudders me awake / and before I fall asleep / I replay all the tightly / wound metal / of our kisses.”
Rehman currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the musician Ben Perowsky; and their 5-year-old daughter. But her home borough of Queens is still the major preoccupation of her work. She has recently finished the sequel to Corona (what she jokingly calls a “midquel”), covering Razia’s teenage years and her friendship with another Pakistani girl in their immigrant community. It is a young-adult novel, forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan. Rehman is also wrapping up the updated edition of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, a book of essays she co-edited with friend Daisy Hernandez that has become a seminal work in American feminism.
Bushra Rehman’s career as a writer, editor and teacher is going from strength to strength, and she is also quick to pay tribute to the influence that Queens has had on all of her pursuits.
“Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how lucky I was as a writer to be immersed in languages from all over the world,” she explains, “some of which I understood, many of which I didn’t. I could listen to the music of how people spoke, and then, of course, I was listening to music from all over the world on the streets and in the parks. 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. I went to under-resourced public schools in Queens and the teachers I had were amazing. They nurtured my love for books and reading. Now that I’ve been on the other side of the desk, I understand more the conditions they were working in and have even more admiration.”