“Don’t compromise.” Bushra Rehman on the revolutionary power of writing + GIVEAWAY of Marianna’s Beauty Salon

This week, we are thrilled to welcome Bushra Rehman, author of novel Corona and poetry collection Marianna’s Beauty Salon (May 2018, Sibling Rivalry Press). Bushra’s work, which I first came across as a college student while I was living far from home, was like nothing I’d ever read before. Despite writing about the gritty realities of New York City with exquisite authenticity, her writing overflows with so much empathy and compassion that it constantly makes me reconsider my perception of my hometown. Corona, Queens, and the surrounding neighborhoods are places I know intimately yet descriptions of sofa beds blooming like night flowers on the streets and the moon appearing over the horizon like “the small clip of a nail” filled me with awe, like a person gazing upon the city for the very first time.

In Bushra’s work, everyone from the mice in the floorboards to the Muslim girls receiving haircuts from Dominican women to the firemen wailing down the street seem to be searching for kindness, and are looking for ways to extend that kindness to others as well. A woman calls into a lost and found service asking for an ovary she thinks she’s misplaced, and the woman on the other line diligently looks through the bins. It’s this sense of connection and shared humanity despite all odds that makes Bushra’s work sparkle, and I am so excited to be talking today to Bushra about writing, community, and what’s next on her plate. We’ll also be giving a free copy of Marianna’s Beauty Salon to a lucky reader, so make sure to enter — more details at the end of the post!

Stephanie Jimenez: At the Debutante Ball, we often talk about the twists and turns in publishing our first novels, but I imagine the process of publishing a book of poetry is quite different. You’ve done both — first you published your novel Corona, and now you’ve published Marianna’s Beauty Salon this past May. Can you tell us about the process of each? How did you decide to write a poetry collection after a novel?

Bushra Rehman: There were definitely many twists and turns, but I think that’s part of the journey writers must take sometimes. Marianna’s Beauty Salon, the poetry collection was actually written first. The earliest poems were written while I was still a disowned Pakistani daughter wandering the country. Then when I came back home to NYC, I found these amazing radical people of color spaces where I could develop and share my work. This was before social media, so these were our spaces for speaking freely. These artistic venues were our meeting spots. There was a certain freedom because what we shared on stage could still be fleeting (i.e. not recorded and posted on YouTube).

The life I was living while I was performing the poetry, the stories I remembered from my childhood that did not fit into poems, and the life I had lived on the road became the basis for Corona.

It was not easy for me to find a publisher for either Marianna’s Beauty Salon or Corona. I believe it’s because these books are not about an oppressed Muslim woman or about second generation children who want to assimilate into white culture. It was not until I found the amazing publisher Sibling Rivalry Press that I was able to get both books published. This was after twenty years of rejections for Marianna’s and ten years of rejections for Corona.

SJ: I remember when I first came across your work in my early twenties, and being shocked because I had never read anything about the particular part of Queens that I’d grown up in, much less from a woman of color’s perspective. It was one of those moments that made me feel like I had permission to write about myself, and about the place I was from, through my own eyes and understanding. I’m curious about your inspirations and how you first came to literature — if there was a moment you can pinpoint, or perhaps many moments, when you first decided you would write a book. 

BR: It makes me so happy to hear this. Right now I’m working on a sequel to Corona and it’s been amazing to re-enter the world of the narrator and to expand the project in ways I couldn’t before. It’s going to be called Corona: Stories of a Queens Girlhood and will be released with Tor/Macmillan hopefully very soon.

My inspiration for all my books comes from both from the lack I’ve seen myself, but also from all the amazing women and gender non-conforming artists and writers who came before me. All their writings were like breadcrumbs in the forest. I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was 16 and having my mind blown, discovering Maxine Hong Kingston, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, so many other writers who made me feel excited about the craft and revolutionary power of writing.

But I’m also grateful that I discovered a community of artists when I was in my twenties who were also just beginning in their artistic paths. I met many through The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Women in Literature and Letters, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, Urban Word, and so many other spaces. We made it possible for our artistic lives to be filled with joy as much as they could be filled with agony.

SJ: You worked on a different project called Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism — an anthology that I hold dear to my heart as both a writer and a feminist of color. I would love to hear a little bit about how that project came about and how you first started working with Daisy Hernández. 

BR: I met Daisy through the writing collective Women in Literature and Letters. We co-edited Colonize This! out of the blank space we saw in feminist literature about our generation. We wanted to document the amazing women of color community and activist spaces we were a part of and to create a book which could be a revolutionary tool, passed from hand to hand.

Daisy and I just completed an updated edition of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism which will be released in 2019. We want to document the amazing resistance and grassroots movements taking place now: Black Lives Matter, #Me Too, March for our Lives, Trans Justice, radical organizing by Undocumented students, so much essential work that is happening at this time.

SJ: Let’s end with a fun question. What advice would you give to aspiring writers? What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your writing career?

BR: I would definitely say to aspiring writers that they should make the process of writing and publishing as enjoyable and sustainable as possible (because it can definitely be heart-wrenching and soul-crushing). It’s possible to make it fun by forming writing collectives and partnerships that are nurturing, and by finding peer artists to write, dance, sing, love and live with. It may sound corny, but it’s true.

For me, the journey of being a writer has been so much about the relationships I have formed as much as it is about the words that I have written. I’d also say: Don’t compromise your voice or your vision. Don’t compromise the work you believe you need to create.

Don’t forget to enter our giveaway of Marianna’s Beauty Salon by following @DebutanteBall and RTing this interview on Twitter or sharing on Facebook! Extra entries granted to readers who comment below.

Bushra Rehman is a poet, novelist and teaching artist. Her novel Corona, a dark comedy about being South Asian American, was noted by Poets & Writers among the year’s Best Debut Fiction. Rehman is co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, one of Ms. Magazine’s “100 Best Non-fiction Books of All Time.” Rehman is creator of the community-based writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction. Her first poetry collection Marianna’s Beauty Salon was released in May 2018 and her first YA novel Corona: Stories of a Queens Girlhood is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan.

Author: Stephanie Jimenez

Stephanie Jimenez is a former Fulbright recipient and Prep for Prep alumna. She is based in Queens, New York, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, O! the Oprah Magazine, Entropy, and more. Her debut novel, THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING, will be published in the summer of 2019 (Little A). Follow her @estefsays.

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