I now do most of my writing from an upstairs room that overlooks most of my street. The room is stark, with freshly painted white walls (Thanks Write A House crew), a wooden desk and an aluminum folding chair. I've kept it bare to minimize distraction and maximize output. I am easily distracted. I lose focus. I am not one of those writers who can write comfortably anywhere, at any time. To get a place of pure, magical focus and creativity, I have to expend so much energy. But even a minimally decorated, quiet room has not stopped my mind from wandering elsewhere.
I sit in front of a window that day after day, gives me a look into the heart of modern America. A sea of men wearing their taqiyahs, the traditional Islamic skullcap, make their way down to the local mosque for Jumu'ah prayer every Friday and come Saturday, partake in a tradition as old as this country itself: sitting on the porch. At around 4 p.m. neighborhood kids happily ride their bikes around, up and down overgrown alleyways, reeling with the residue of a housing crisis. A group of young Bengali men fix cars, driving up the street with "#FuckISIS" bumper stickers and sweaters covered in the American flag, while also blasting Bengali music out of their fixed up cars. My neighbors have turned their gardens into massive green houses, growing fruit and vegetables that they will sell, or trade with one another. Space is one thing Detroit has plenty of, and no one can make better use of space - especially discarded space - than an immigrant. I say "salaam alaikum" (peace be to you in Arabic) to the man who lives next door, and he says "hello" to me.
We are living in a strange, chaotic and cruel time. Things seem more extreme, more polarizing than ever. The world feels lost and our collective culture is broken. Identity has been manipulated, mangled, misinterpreted and reduced to talking points for an election and so much more. There is a false, dangerous narrative being built, an "us" vs. "them," and it's completely dehumanizing.
When I look outside my window, I see the living contradiction to all of this. The scenes that play out in front of me every day, without me ever having to leave this writing room, are a reminder that identities are limitless, - that things aren't as straight and neat as they seem, that identity can be many things, it can cross faith, ethnicity and sexuality, and it can co-exist with all of these things harmoniously.
This is not to say that it is always easy to reconcile (or understand) any of these things, just that life and people (and cities, especially Detroit) are complex and complicated, and details are important, understanding people's stories are important. I am familiar with the double, intersecting life of the people I live amongst. I look at them and remember my childhood, the struggles of adapting, of trying to fit in and never really getting there. Perhaps they don't realize this - this familiarity that I feel. A few weeks ago I went to a wonderful local music performance of a renowned Bengali musician. Before he began to sing and play the harmonium, he turned directly to me and said that it was hard for him to explain the deep meaning and symbolism behind the lyrics, that not understanding Bengali meant that grasping the full magic of the ancient folk songs he would be singing would not be possible. I nodded, and knew to an extent he was right. No, I do not speak Bengali, I wanted to say. But I get it, I understand, I know how special this music is, I know it is important to your story, your cultural heritage, I know that you should treasure it and sing it and share it, especially with those who don't understand it.
The more time I've spent in my writing room, observing what is going on around me, the more I walk around in my neighborhood, I am convinced that I have never had such close access to a story before, a story that isn't just a part of Detroit, but really, part of America. Now, I just need to figure out how to tell it.