In her new book of poetry “Marianna’s Beauty Salon,” Bushra Rehman delves into the meaning of girlhood, the feeling of being an outsider, and what it means to create a place for yourself in the world.
Rehman is no stranger to telling stories about the South Asian American experience. Her 2013 debut novel “Corona” was widely praised for its depiction of a rebellious young woman from a tightly-knit Pakistani immigrant community in Queens who decides to forge her own path after being excommunicated.
The power of storytelling along with the exploration of what it means to be a South Asian American woman has always been at the center of Rehman’s work.
We reached out to the poet and novelist to talk about “Marianna’s Beauty Salon,” the power of poetry and why her poems are particularly resonant in 2018.
The Teal Mango: This is your first book of poetry, but you’ve actually been writing poems for most of your life. When did your love of poetry begin?
Bushra Rehman: Like most young people I was drawn to poetry as an emotional release, a way to speak my true mind. Since I was ten, I wrote poems about feelings I couldn’t express as a young Pakistani girl in my home, at school, in this world. The poems were my safe space, my points of harbor, my life rafts. When I discovered the spoken word community in NYC in my twenties, I got hooked to the idea of community-making and poetry-sharing as a personal and political revolution.
TTM: These poems were written over the course of twenty years. What was it like revisiting the work you did in the 1990s and early 2000s as you compiled this collection?
Rehman: In the 90s there was a beautiful explosion of South Asian American arts and activism. It was for many of us a miracle, our own artistic revolution. The poems brought me back to this time when we were putting ourselves out there, in a public and vulnerable way, with no map or precedence. Here, I want to give a special shout-out to the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association and of course Sibling Rivalry Press for publishing the work right on time.
TTM: The poems that are set in the 80s often mention Bollywood films, stars, and songs and how the narrator connects to them. Which films stood out to you when you were a kid?
Rehman: Bollywood, especially 80s Bollywood has a special place in my heart. I developed my love for Zeenat Aman from the songs of Qurbani. I think Prem Rog and Umrao Jaan are classics. Then there is a lesser-known, very campy movie Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai, filled with disco qawwali, drag, and disowned daughters that my siblings and I watched over and over again.
TTM: Many of these poems are set in Queens (and more specifically, in your hometown neighborhood of Corona). Why do you think you keep returning to Queens in your work?
Rehman: Being from Queens is an essential part of who I am and it is expressed in the writing. I suppose wherever we grow up, especially if we stay in one place for a while, and especially if that place is as mind-exploding as Queens, and a jolt and a revelation, as it was to my parents, it marks us forever. My parents were from a place in the world shocking with natural beauty, for them each interaction with their new home in Queens was intense and that intensity trickled down to me and into my work.
TTM: It’s also interesting that your poems are set in Queens because we don’t hear much about Queens literary culture. We’re used to seeing writers out of Brooklyn (and of course Manhattan), but not so much Queens. When do you think Queens will have its big literary moment?
Rehman: Queens has always been a fertile ground for all forms of art, literature, and music. How can it not be, as one of the most diverse places in the world? In one small spot on this planet, we have hundreds of languages and cultures intermingling. This is where creative expression explodes. But even as I say this I hesitate because I don’t want to speed up the process of gentrification. So really, I’ll say: There is nothing happening here, folks. Nothing to see.
TTM: The new immigrant experience is also a major theme in your poems. In “Rapunzel’s Mother or A Pakistani Woman Newly Arrived in America” the narrator watches as her mother is embarrassed by a clerk in the supermarket. Do you think that poem especially strikes a chord in 2018 because of the current climate about immigration from Muslim countries and measures like the proposed ‘Muslim ban’?
Rehman: My parents were part of the wave of South Asian immigrants to arrive after the last ban, the Immigration Act of 1917, was lifted with the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. If you’re reading this and don’t know what it is, google immediately. We need to know our history. My parents were dealing with the racism of people who’d never seen South Asians, not even on a screen. They were arriving in a country in the midst of the Civil Rights revolution. My hope this time around is that we Desis align ourselves with all people who have been brutalized by American policies since this country’s inception in order to bring the vision of a just democracy into being.
Finally, a running theme throughout the collection is both discovering what the concept of ‘home’ is and leaving one’s roots behind. What does home mean to you?
Rehman: I’m a New Yorker. For better or worse, New York City has always been home. My family is close here. My friends, my community of fellow artists. I don’t have an idyllic idea of home, but I do feel grateful that I can still live and be near family and childhood friends in an international city that has always experienced a larger vision of the world.