Q&A With Author Bushra Rehman

And I’m not talking about the beer, though it may help! (Art by Chitra Ganesh)

This is one of these short books that you finish in a few hours and it resonates with you for weeks, maybe years and possibly for the rest of your life. Corona reads like a fascinating collection of journals and fiction mashed together in a backpack and bound as is. It’s quite fitting that author Bushra Rehman was a vagabond poet.

Bushra and I met not even a year after after 9/11 and it’s a complete coincidence that I’m posting this on an anniversary of 9/11. 9/11 actually figures into the fabric of Corona, as narrator Razia Mirza, a Pakistani woman from Corona, Queens, travels through the country and through time, through troubled relationships and relationships with trouble. Smoking pot with asshole soon-to-be-ex-boyfriends. Drinking beer with racists in the burbs. It’s funny, it’s sad and, if you hang on long enough like Razia manages to, it’s funny again. The book is a brilliant rendering of life and if it is not always life-affirming, it is always genuine and honest.

Are you in New York this Friday Sept. 13? I strongly suggest you come to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and see Bushra in all her glory. She is a fantastic reader and always a joy to behold.

Below is Bushra’s official bio. Below that is a little romp of a Q&A with her.

Bushra Rehman’s first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press) is a dark comedy about being South Asian in the United States and was noted among this year’s Best Debut Fiction by Poets & Writers. Rehman’s first book, which she co-edited with Daisy Hernandez, Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism was included in Ms. Magazine’s 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time. Her writing has been featured in numerous anthologies and on BBC Radio 4, WNYC, and KPFA and in Poets & Writers, The New York Times, India Currents, Crab Orchard Review, Sepia Mutiny, Color Lines, The Feminist Wire, and Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America.

1) When we met you were a poet. Did you shift to narrative storytelling or have you been collecting these stories all along?

Yes, I remember those crazy tours we did with the Asian American Literary Caravan, hitting unsuspecting Asian-American students all over the country with our insidious literature! My poems were all so heavy and disturbing back then that I started to tell funny stories in the middle about my own personal misadventures to lighten the mood. That way the audience could join me on the emotional rollercoaster of my mind.  The book is composed of some of those funny stories, mixed in with some heavy dark moments. Onwards with the Asian American Literary Caravan!

2) There are so many crazy, dangerous and awful things that happen in Corona, and yet the reader comes away from it in the same way that the narrator Razia does — with a measure of humor. I feel that people who’ve lived tough lives are usually funny because they had to laugh their way through times that were hard. Don’t you agree?

You know I do. The hardest times in my life were the times I laughed the hardest. I hope people laugh out loud when they read Corona, especially if they’re going through a hard time.

Bushra’s not flaky at all. (Photo by Jaishri Abichandani)

3) True or false? People with roots in Pakistan, which literally means, “Land of the Pure,” are naturals to portray Puritans.

Ha!  All the required body parts are covered with a Puritan costume, and they have so much in common, like praying. I loved writing about a Pakistani woman working as a Puritan in Salem. When I was a child, I thought living history museums were places where English immigrants were so successful in preserving their culture, they’d completely lost track of time and place. Of course I also want to share this fun fact, that Salem, Massachusetts, is where the first South Asians settled in the United States in the 1700s. They were sailors who worked for the East India Trading Company. They jumped ship and blended into the Native population. So it makes sense that when Razia leaves home, she heads straight for Salem to be a Puritan.

4) What would happen if hipsters began to migrate to Corona and turn it into the new Williamsburg? There goes the neighborhood or change is welcome?

What are you trying to do Ed, make me lose the only audience that has the money to buy my book? Such a loaded question… so I’ll have to give a loaded answer, whether it’s loaded with BS, time will tell.

If the implied definition is that hipster=uber cool trust fund kids with a lots of attitude who cause the rents to increase wherever they move, it would be terrible! Corona is a family neighborhood with people from every part of the globe living there. It’s still a place where you can afford to raise a family. Whether or not they intend for this to happen, the presence of hipsters displaces these families. So, is it too late for me to say, “Corona is an imaginary neighborhood, people. It does not exist. Do not try to move there. You will get shot-imaginarily.”

I was so into this question, I ran it by a number of friends. One said, “Corona was already the ultimate hipster joint.”  Back in the 40s and 50s, it was home to the original hipsters, the jazz greats, Louis Armstrong, Nat Adderley and Jimmy Heath. What a great answer.

Another friend, who grew up in Williamsburg when it was rough and tumble, tumble being a euphemism for people dying on the street, and I talked until we found the hidden question: Why can’t people of color who pay taxes (maybe more taxes then hipsters) get the city resources to live in safe and clean neighborhoods?

At the end of the day, even I cannot move back to Corona. I’d just want to sit in a café with my laptop writing the next great American novel like the worst hipster around.

  I also want to share this fun fact, that Salem, Massachusetts, is where the first South Asians settled in the United States in the 1700s.

5) It’s interesting that the people who have been traditional threats — bikers, hot-blooded Italian men — are actually the one looking out for Razia while the traditional protectors — family and lovers — are the real menaces. Are you trying to say that Everything You Know About People Is Wrong?

Oh my god is it? Is everything I know about people wrong? No wonder things keep getting messed up! You know I rarely set out with a message when I’m writing, then later readers help me know what I’m thinking. It’s a highly advanced, complicated and inefficient form of psychotherapy for a person like me who is too broke to pay for it.

6) What are your favorite toys?

I don’t remember having toys in the traditional sense. There were these rusty milk crates we used to build up a lot into different structures and one year there was this old broken down car in my friend’s yard. We spent a whole summer pretending to drive around and go on adventures. It was so fun, it’s strange I never learned how to drive.

I do remember thirteen years ago being at Burning Man clutching a 2 liter bottle of water and someone saying, “You’re holding that like a teddy bear,” and I said, “I didn’t have teddy bears. I had younger siblings.” It’s true. When I first rocked my newborn daughter to sleep, I thought, this reminds me of my childhood. It was a sweet feeling.