*Singing* “If you’re sad and mad and you know it, clap your hands.”

This is how Bushra Rehman, award-winning author of multiple books and poetry collections, first addressed the audience in the presentation of her newest novel, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion. Needless to say, everyone clapped along to Rehman’s song while also smiling at this introduction. Rehman is the author of the dark comedy, Corona, the poetry collection, Marianna’s Beauty Salon, and co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. On Tuesday night, she was in conversation with Quincy Scott Jones, Adjunct Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Creative Writing Advisor in Poetry, as part of the Art + Life series organized by Columbia’s Undergraduate Creative Writing Program.

“Writing is about communication,” said Rehman as she began a reading of a short passage from Roses. Set in the 1980s, this novel tells the coming of age story of teenager Razia Mirza and her life in a close-knit Pakistani-American community in Corona, Queens. When Razia is accepted into a prestigious high school in Manhattan, she meets Greek-Italian Angela, whom she develops a new kind of attraction for. The novel deals with Razia trying to navigate her heritage and her self-identity; to this effect, Rehman read a scene in which Razia and Angela are kissing on a subway platform when one of Razia’s aunties discovers them and has a conversation with the protagonist about it.

After Rehman’s reading, she and Scott Jones started an animated and fun conversation that had the audience chuckling constantly. Rehman talked about her experimentation with story formatting in previous works in order to avoid tackling the trauma that Roses does touch upon, and she explained the difficulty of getting her book published due to it being hard to categorize as either Adult or Young Adult. Rehman mentioned some of the themes that her novel addresses, such as sleep paralysis (or culturally understood as “being possessed by djinn”), letters written in blood, and the varieties and multifacetedness of the “auntie” types, including the “queer positive auntie.” 

Rehman and Scott Jones hinted at the lack of a “happily ever after” and the open-endedness of the novel. She described Angela as “Razia’s Brokeback Mountain story,” earning many understanding nods and sympathetic smiles from the audience.

In terms of the more technical aspects, Rehman explored Scott Jones’s questions about the influence of poetry in her writing style for this novel in discussing the lyrical quality to her work, the presentation of feelings like shame through personification, and what it is like to explore and write about the same memories in different literary genres.

When Scott Jones asked about the importance of writers connecting with the audience, Rehman recalled her decades of experience with the people attending her readings and workshops and the value of them sharing their own stories with her. On the topic of young writers who are told that “there is no audience for [their] work,” Rehman recounted that she contended with this by making her own audience, striving to build her community, trying out self-publishing and personally handing out her own zines, as well as always helping other writers.

Rehman also talked about how she tried to balance different cultures (Western and non-Western) when writing this novel, while at the same time endeavoring to celebrate Corona and its Muslim culture. She referred to the Queer aspects of the novel as naturally “unfolding” throughout the writing process, and she recommended to any writer feeling stuck to try Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions.

“There’s no question for me that art matters,” expressed Rehman, as she talked about art and poetry as a way to keep ourselves informed, especially in contexts like the current situation in Palestine. She also emphasized the importance of “being in community” both in times of joy and sorrow, as well as the relevance of young people learning how to transform their feelings—being sad and mad—into art.

Finally, the floor opened to audience questions. After such an engaging conversation, the many writers in the room had questions for Rehman, including what it was like for her to revisit her old writing material, what the process of growing close to a single character for a long time looks like, and what it is like working with an editor’s revisions. Rehman also stated the importance of “knowing your own voice,” describing the process of writing fiction as “letting go of control.” She wrapped up her reflections by sharing her momentous realization that “[her] life is important enough to write about,” and her hope that other young Queer writers of color would realize the same thing.

In the fun vein that marked this conversation, Rehman concluded by establishing that “Outside” is the best George Michael song to dance alone to.

Image via Author