November 25, 2013

Corona, Not the Beer: A Reading With Bushra Rehman

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Poet Bushra Rehman led a reading from her 2013 novel, Corona, with a personal writing workshop on Thursday evening in the One World Café. Corona contains 11 stories written from the perspective of a Pakistani-American woman named Razia. The novel details her life in Corona, Queens after fleeing her family following an ultimatum regarding her current romance. Working with first-hand material, Rehman takes readers into the authentic world of a Pakistani-American woman in Queens through a conversational memoir that compels readers to take a fresh perspective on the gender dynamics of her culture.

After completing her masters in creative writing, Rehman claims that in the 10 years she spent writing Corona, she learned to write fiction — poetry being her “first language.” Motifs, from the tan brick of Corona to the traditional male dress of her father, are placed throughout the novel, but Rehman says that her symbolism is not intentional — she prefers to write about the images running through her mind. As an English teacher (with several former students in attendance), Rehman was inspired to begin Corona after joining her students in a “Where I’m From” poetry exercise. The poem, “Corona (And I’m Not Talking About the Beer)” opens the book, planting Razia as a spectator of Julio, the boy she loves, and more broadly, a culture more liberated than her own.

During her conversation at Cornell, Rehman read a chapter of Corona in which Razia attends attends a Bhangra dance competition and admires a male Bhangra dancer, meditating on his resemblances to her own father, and Pakistani-American men in general. Rehman writes with a conversational voice that is candidly childlike at times and her writing weaves Pakistani words into colloquial English for a style that is linguistically representative of the Pakistani-American culture she describes. Razia dwells on her carefree outspokenness and body image, nicknaming herself “behshuddham,” translated as “living without shame.” This powerful use of language juxtaposed with American cultural references punctuates Corona with the authenticity of Rehman’s experience as a first generation American. Corona, told from the perspective of Razia in her twenties, meanwhile, builds on culturally ambiguous themes of young romance and developing independence and body image.

The question and answer portion of Rehman’s presentation led to a dialogue on the perception of women in Muslim culture — the discrepancy between portrayals in American media and the perspective of Muslim women themselves. As a woman of color writing about her culture, Rehman seems cognizant of a responsibility, to both celebrate her culture and respectfully express criticism as she sees fit. The premise of her novel, a girl running away from home after being reprimanded by her family for a disapproved relationship with a boy, criticizes traces of misogyny, but in her conversation, she highlights the subtle ways in which Corona defends the intimacy of family and gender relations within her culture. She points specifically to a scene where Razia brings her father and uncles tea, not subserviently, but affectionately. Razia, particularly rebellious and outspoken for her age, also adds an effective platform for looking at women’s role in Muslim culture.

Rehman also utilizes the order of her stories in Corona to compare American and Pakistani culture. In one story, Razia interacts with an American couple whose relationship, tinged with misogyny and conflict, sharply contrasts the love expressed by a Pakistani family in the story directly preceding it.

Ultimately, in Corona, Rehman’s strategy is to convey the complex gender dynamics of her culture by telling a variety of different stories, each exploring a different perspective on the relationships between men and women in relationships and families. To the colored women writers in the audience, Rehman says, “The more of us there are, the less weight each of our stories will take,” urging more women to share their opinions and contribute to a more comprehensive societal perception of Muslim culture. All in all, Rehman’s conversation at Cornell was an excellent introduction to her new book and provided refreshing insight into her culture. It sparked a meaningful conversation on the social impact of her work.