Bridge the Distance
By Boyah J. Farah
(This is the second post by Somali-American writer Boyah Farah. You can find his first piece here: "Fear, Giddiness and Surrealism: My Long Journey to GrubStreet.")
I am afraid of death and time. Death ceases memory. Time fades away the memories of war. The war in Somalia began when I turned thirteen years old. Then I saw the killings. I faced hunger, and diseases. Considering my background, I feel a great sense of achievement in America. My body flourishes, but my soul often feels as if it is being ripped apart by the need to tell the story of the betrayed women and children like Mama, me and my siblings in the war in Somalia. I have always written, but never did I consider myself a writer before GrubStreet, a creative writing school in Boston.
The fear of losing memories, the story of the most dreadful, yet essential part of my being, drove me to be in the Memoir in Progress Class at GrubStreet in Boston. During the last twenty three years, each day broke with the thought that the memories I carry are slipping away with the drifting cold winds of New England. Fear is an essential part of our lives, and it makes us do things we otherwise would not want to do. Fear and action stand side by side.
On November 7, 2013, I was invited to be a guest at the Lit Up event at the Boston Design Center. I wore a black suit with a bright pink shirt. The lights dimmed, and the conference began. Eve, the director of GrubStreet, walked up to the podium and began to read a short passage from my writings. After she read, I rose in acknowledgement, but what I really wanted was to remain insignificant in the front row seat. When I wrote those words, they were for me alone, but now they belonged to the world. I felt as if I wished to turn into a speck of dust to fly out of the hall, but my bright pink shirt glowed in the dim light. Hearing each of my words made my nervous energy spread all over my body like a bush fire in the African Savannah. Thank God for GrubStreet. I breathed with the realization that I am a writer. And that I should learn the art of writing.
The class runs ten Tuesdays. The year is 2014 and piles of snow lay sleeping over the grass and ice on the sidewalks. A frigid cold followed me to the first class. Michelle, the instructor, asked me “What do you do when you are not writing?”
“When I am not writing, I daydream about writing. Everything I see reminds me of the small details that I could not remember when I was writing the previous days,” I replied.
Even as I rushed to class that evening, while listening to National Public Radio, the thought of writing was omnipresent in my mind.
Last night was the third Tuesday where I had to read some of my work, but I hated hearing my words out loud. I have no problem writing, and I often write. My story even wakes me up in the middle of the night, and it refuses to let me sleep, but I must admit that I write elegantly in the silent nights. I do not write for the sheer joy of it. It is not about the fame or the glory, but my writing opens a line of communication to my spirit. I am a prisoner to the memories of the war. Writing frees part of my imprisoned soul, but my ears detest it when my lips utter my words in front of strangers.
I carried many writing frustrations to the class, but I quickly discovered that all the other students are as frustrated as I am. One of my classmates loathed reading his work for the same exact reasons I despise reading mine. He did not want others to feel pity for him, and he hated follow up questions. He wanted to see a wall between him and his work. By sharing his thoughts with me, he freed me from the feeling that I alone felt this way.
I have a convoluted relationship with my writing, and I am discovering that others carry similar feelings. I love to write because my heart made it obligatory for me. I sometimes refuse to listen, but it often compels me to write. This is the reason I remained seated for nine hours last Saturday at Starbucks. Sitting there and writing for many hours allowed me to earn free coffee refills, but that day, as always, I had the feeling that my written words were not equal to the weight of my story. Self-Doubt about my writing has remained with me.
Really, who wants to share a piece of their soul? In a world with so much peril, who likes to reveal the vulnerable parts of their life? No one does, unless the heart commands.
I feel that there is still a distance between me and my written words. When I read in front of nine strangers in the classroom last night, their staring eyes seemed to bridge that distance.
As I sat directly across from Michelle, I yearned the distance to remain unbroken. I write from the deep well of my soul, and sharing the voices inside with others is painfully beautiful. Reading five pages of my writing out loud was as preposterous as the war itself, but destiny carried me to be in this class. I survived the war to write and read out loud in this class.
So far, in the class, I have chosen to read the easy parts of my writings, my experience in America, and nothing about the war.
I write, but when I noticed that my writings are all over the place, I began to loathe my work. The relationship I have with my writing is like the relationship that a man might have with his ex-wife, whom he still loves through the eyes of his children. The man adores his children, but the love for his ex-wife ceased long before the marriage collapsed. The children live with his ex-wife and he knows that she is the greatest mother that his children will ever have. He hates her for not being with him, but he also loves her for being the greatest mother to his children. He reunites with her a few times, but their love never sticks. He is unable to rekindle the love that they once had. He watches her over his children as he steals glimpses of her from time to time. He leaves, and returns. Like the man with the ex-wife, when it comes to my writing, I wrestle with voices that carry competing emotions of love, and loathing.
An English professor once asked me to see if he could read my writings, so I emailed him a story, “City of Death”. After he read it, he asked my permission to share the piece with his students. I was thrilled that someone saw value in my writings, so I agreed. The following week, he invited me to read the piece to his students.
I stood in front of the class, reading: “When the sun fell behind the horizon, the religious men started preaching that the living souls were responsible for burying the dead. Over two hundred men, women and children were murdered that day,” I read the opening paragraph from “The City of Death”. In the second paragraph, my mind returned to that exact day, and then thick tears blocked my vision. My words seemed to choke me before I ceased reading it at once. When I looked at the class, I saw sad faces, and red eyes looking back at me.
"I am crying, and I am so happy you are here," one student said. Questions filled with compassion, empathy and sorrow followed. I wanted to weep too, but my African culture prohibited me from showing any shred of emotions. As I stood in front of the class, I kept swallowing my tears. And then I cried, but only behind the adjacent gray wall, and in front of the bathroom mirror. It is easy to get rid of your religion because all you have to do is not practice it, but culture is something else. Culture is part of your DNA. It drives all the rituals that you do each day. I could not get rid of my macho and show-no-emotion culture. In this class, I blame my culture for my hesitation to read the materials that evoke the rotten memories of the past. After that, I vowed never to read more than a paragraph of my work out loud.
In the Memoir in Progress Class, I am expected to read a whole chapter of my work, but my vow does not allow me to read. I do not want to read my work in public, but I need an editor who can chop my virgin writing apart and to give me raw feedback.
Writers are weird creatures. They are different, and they are often lonely, obscure, ambitious and distant in their own ways. Writers are pregnant with stories, and a class like this gives them the chance to deliver written words. Since writing became daily rituals for me, I have a strong feeling that the voices in my mind will give birth onto pages, chapters or books. GrubStreet serves as the delivery room for New England writers.
I write. I hate what I write and then I discard my writings before I vow never to write again. I blame my heart for the return.
I wrote last night.
Boyah J. Farah is a Somali-American writer.