Reviews

Re-Authoring a Life in Reema Zaman’s ‘I Am Yours’

A memoir that delves into the complications of backstory.

I Am Yours serves as the title for Reema Zaman’s debut memoir, as well as the leitmotif that plays throughout the text. The phrase initially functions as a concession and later manifests into a rallying cry. That which seeks to destroy us is often the very thing that can be used to propels us forward. I Am Yours is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be a woman in the world, in Zaman’s native Bangladesh, in the entertainment industry, within the confines of a marriage, and later, as an artist attempting to write her first book.

Zaman’s story begins two days shy of being born, but in truth, it begins, as most stories do, with the fact of her mother. “She had been preparing for a career in teaching and writing. Now I, my unborn self, ensure[d] her hopes remain[ed] muted, indefinitely.” Zaman positions her mother’s arranged marriage, and her subsequent birth, as the site of ruin for her mother’s potential. In marriage, her mother becomes a secondary figure, lessened by her husband’s patriarchal rule. It’s difficult not to wonder what that kind of guilt does to a child. What seeing your arrival as a collapse can do to the soul.

Twenty-six years later, Zaman follows suit. In the story of her life, she falls in love with an American who serves as her antithesis: “I am in awe of his unrestraint… He imbues me with lightness.” There is a moment after he proposes in which Zaman “question[s] whether [she] want[s] to become a woman whose ability to work and reside in a country hinges on her husband.” But her hesitation is fleeting; her steadfast belief in love, which pulses through the book, bleeding into every encounter, every devastation, every failure, compels her to reply: “’I am yours,’ …Three words that are both assent and reason why I would do anything to make him happy.”

Within her marriage, “I Am Yours” is a refrain that is synonymous with possession, with ownership, with that blurry line between being bound to another person and being physically restrained by them. Although the beginning of their love story is saturated with beauty, it quickly sours, revealing her husband’s intense insecurity with being cast in the shadow of her light. He counters with a devastatingly common masculine powerplay, by attempting to squash and silence her. “Every relationship has felt like a consumption, as in the illness and the synonym for a devouring. Every bond has begun with dilated infatuation and has ended with me dismantled limb by limb, a spider toyed with by a cruel child.”

Throughout I Am Yours, Zaman studies the many ways she’s been dismantled, objectified, sexualized, silenced, assaulted. As an actress, she is constantly confronted with violent stereotypes, asked to conform to idealistic typecasts. “How tall are you? How much do you weigh? Okay. So you’re not short-short but you’re not tall, and you’re thin and definitely not curvy, but not skinny-thin either…. Where are you from? Asia? But you’re not Asian Asian. Bangladesh? Is that India? No? Bangladesh is Bangladesh? I thought you guys were darker.” She seamlessly weaves the intersection of her racial identity and gender identity, skillfully exploring the compounding oppression and inherent racism.

Her story is told with an exacting, at times, compulsive attention to detail. Every encounter is tinged with scent, with a vibrant metaphor that lingers in your nostrils. This creates an intensely vivid tapestry that threads intimacy with realism, that captures the particularities of childhood: stickiness and apple sauce, that occasionally toes the line of cliché, but so much more often, startles with tender accuracy. I found myself reminded of Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, the painstakingly beautiful portrayals of everyday life and small moments of familial devotion.

There is an unwavering confidence to Zaman’s prose. A pulse point, that calls to mind unflinching memoirists that precede her, Melissa Febos and Cheryl Strayed. In I Am Yours, Zaman does not look away from trauma, she does not let us sit outside it, watch from the window. We are forced inside the room. We are stretched out on the bed. We are naïvely charmed at dinner, and shocked when a seemingly consensual encounter turns violent.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped during their lifetime. In eight out of ten cases of rape, the victim will know the perpetrator. “Humility is the moment you realize your universe is neither original nor special. You’re scathingly human, mostly alone, and now you must stand.” I Am Yours is not a book about a rape, it is a book in which a rape occurs. Zaman refuses to allow assault to define her life, she consistently refuses to be reduced by the men who violate her. “This is my story. He is but one page. One character. I refuse to feel small, dirty, or somehow damaged… He is a scab, and Momma taught me not to pick scabs. Especially if they are human.”

This insistence on resisting categorization and oppression, both systematic and intimate, is the beating bloodied heart of I Am Yours. Zaman’s rape is not a turning point in the text, it is not a plot device, unsettlingly, her life continues, seemingly unaltered after its occurrence. There is no report. She cannot compromise her immigration status. She is a woman, she is a person of color, she is an immigrant. There is no legal justice for her. She lives anyway. Later in the book, as Zaman begins crafting the pages that will become I Am Yours, she declares: “Only I author my life.” This proclamation is her regaining power, finding her voice, discovering the weapon that has always been at her disposal.

As Zaman pieces together the many chapters of her life, “I Am Yours” becomes a promise to herself and to her reader — it is an unabashed declaration of self-love, which our society celebrates in men, but has judgmental unkindness for in women. Zaman’s inward affection is not founded in superiority, it is hard-fought, after many battles with disordered eating. It is about acceptance. “Our fault lines are where our paths intersect, where your shards align with mine. Reasons to never feel less or better than anyone.” In re-authoring her story, Zaman learns to accept herself where she is. To celebrate the beauty that has always been for others. In response to the demeaning inquiry: “Who are you to write a book?” Zaman answers: “I am a person.” It is this line that shatters her chains, that frees her. “How lovely that being human soothes the ache of being human.”

MEMOIR
I Am Yours by Reema Zaman
Amberjack Publishing
Published February 5, 2019

Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in fiction and literary translation. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published in Guernica, Tin House, The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine and elsewhere. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she is pursuing a subsequent graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

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