|—||“I Think I Live For You”|
tell your daughter
you yell at her
out of love
you teach her to confuse
anger with kindness
which seems like a good idea
till she grows up to
trust men who hurt her
cause they look so much
|—||to fathers with daughters - rupi kaur|
“Your name is Tasbeeh. Don’t let them call you by anything else.”
My mother speaks to me in Arabic; the command sounds more forceful in her mother tongue, a Libyan dialect that is all sharp edges and hard, guttural sounds. I am seven years old and it has never occurred to me to disobey my mother. Until twelve years old, I would believe God gave her the supernatural ability to tell when I’m lying.
“Don’t let them give you an English nickname,” my mother insists once again, “I didn’t raise amreekan.”
My mother spits out this last word with venom. Amreekan. Americans. It sounds like a curse coming out of her mouth. Eight years in this country and she’s still not convinced she lives here. She wears her headscarf tightly around her neck, wades across the school lawn in long, floor-skimming skirts. Eight years in this country and her tongue refuses to bend and soften for the English language. It embarrasses me, her heavy Arab tongue, wrapping itself so forcefully around the clumsy syllables of English, strangling them out of their meaning.
But she is fierce and fearless. I have never heard her apologize to anyone. She will hold up long grocery lines checking and double-checking the receipt in case they’re trying to cheat us. My humiliation is heavy enough for the both of us. My English is not. Sometimes I step away, so people don’t know we’re together but my dark hair and skin betray me as a member of her tribe.
On my first day of school, my mother presses a kiss to my cheek.
“Your name is Tasbeeh,” she says again, like I’ve forgotten. “Tasbeeh.”
Roll call is the worst part of my day. After a long list of Brittanys, Jonathans, Ashleys, and Yen-but-call-me-Jens, the teacher rests on my name in silence. She squints. She has never seen this combination of letters strung together in this order before. They are incomprehensible. What is this h doing at the end? Maybe it is a typo.
“Tasbeeh,” I mutter, with my hand half up in the air. “Tasbeeh.”
“Do you go by anything else?”
“No,” I say. “Just Tasbeeh. Tas-beeh.”
“Tazbee. All right. Alex?”
She moves on before I can correct her. She said it wrong. She said it so wrong. I have never heard my name said so ugly before, like it’s a burden. Her entire face contorts as she says it, like she is expelling a distasteful thing from her mouth. She avoids saying it for the rest of the day, but she has already baptized me with this new name. It is the name everyone knows me by, now, for the next six years I am in elementary school. “Tazbee,” a name with no grace, no meaning, no history; it belongs in no language.
“Tazbee,” says one of the students on the playground, later. “Like Tazmanian Devil?” Everyone laughs. I laugh too. It is funny, if you think about it.
I do not correct anyone for years. One day, in third grade, a plane flies above our school.
“Your dad up there, Bin Laden?” The voice comes from behind. It is dripping in derision.
“My name is Tazbee,” I say. I said it in this heavy English accent, so he may know who I am. I am American. But when I turn around they are gone.
I go to middle school far, far away. It is a 30-minute drive from our house. It’s a beautiful set of buildings located a few blocks off the beach. I have never in my life seen so many blond people, so many colored irises. This is a school full of Ashtons and Penelopes, Patricks and Sophias. Beautiful names that belong to beautiful faces. The kind of names that promise a lifetime of social triumph.
I am one of two headscarved girls at this new school. We are assigned the same gym class. We are the only ones in sweatpants and long-sleeved undershirts. We are both dreading roll call. When the gym teacher pauses at my name, I am already red with humiliation.
“How do I say your name?” she asks.
“Tazbee,” I say.
“Can I just call you Tess?”
I want to say yes. Call me Tess. But my mother will know, somehow. She will see it written in my eyes. God will whisper it in her ear. Her disappointment will overwhelm me.
“No,” I say, “Please call me Tazbee.”
I don’t hear her say it for the rest of the year.
My history teacher calls me Tashbah for the entire year. It does not matter how often I correct her, she reverts to that misshapen sneeze of a word. It is the ugliest conglomeration of sounds I have ever heard.
When my mother comes to parents’ night, she corrects her angrily, “Tasbeeh. Her name is Tasbeeh.” My history teacher grimaces. I want the world to swallow me up.
My college professors don’t even bother. I will only know them for a few months of the year. They smother my name in their mouths. It is a hindrance for their tongues. They hand me papers silently. One of them mumbles it unintelligibly whenever he calls on my hand. Another just calls me “T.”
My name is a burden. My name is a burden. My name is a burden. I am a burden.
On the radio I hear a story about a tribe in some remote, rural place that has no name for the color blue. They do not know what the color blue is. It has no name so it does not exist. It does not exist because it has no name.
At the start of a new semester, I walk into a math class. My teacher is blond and blue-eyed. I don’t remember his name. When he comes to mine on the roll call, he takes the requisite pause. I hold my breath.
“How do I pronounce your name?” he asks.
I say, “Just call me Tess.”
“Is that how it’s pronounced?”
I say, “No one’s ever been able to pronounce it.”
“That’s probably because they didn’t want to try,” he said. “What is your name?”
When I say my name, it feels like redemption. I have never said it this way before. Tasbeeh. He repeats it back to me several times until he’s got it. It is difficult for his American tongue. His has none of the strength, none of the force of my mother’s. But he gets it, eventually, and it sounds beautiful. I have never heard it sound so beautiful. I have never felt so deserving of a name. My name feels like a crown.
“Thank you for my name, mama.”
When the barista asks me my name, sharpie poised above the coffee cup, I tell him: “My name is Tasbeeh. It’s a tough t clinging to a soft a, which melts into a silky ssss, which loosely hugs the b, and the rest of my name is a hard whisper — eeh. Tasbeeh. My name is Tasbeeh. Hold it in your mouth until it becomes a prayer. My name is a valuable undertaking. My name requires your rapt attention. Say my name in one swift note – Tasbeeeeeeeh – sand let the h heat your throat like cinnamon. Tasbeeh. My name is an endeavor. My name is a song. Tasbeeh. It means giving glory to God. Tasbeeh. Wrap your tongue around my name, unravel it with the music of your voice, and give God what he is due.”
and tear them apart
or you pin them down with your body and pretend they’re yours.
Richard Siken, from “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves”
but when you are in my presence,
it all becomes nervous.
What the fuck is that, “act my age”?
What do I care how old I am?
The Ocean is old as fuck.
It will still drown your ass with vigor.
the greatest thing i have ever read
1. Don’t think that being published will make you happy. It will for four weeks, if you are lucky. Then it’s the same old fucking shit.
2. Hemingway was fucking wrong. You shouldn’t write drunk. (See my third novel for details.)
3. Hemingway was also right. ‘The first draft of everything is shit.’
4. Never ask a publisher or agent what they are looking for. The best ones, if they are honest, don’t have a fucking clue, because the best books are the ones that seemingly come from nowhere.
5. In five years time the semi-colon is going to be nothing more than a fucking wink.
6. In five years time every fucking person on Twitter will be a writer.
7. Ignore the fucking snobs. Write that space zombie sex opera. Just give it some fucking soul.
8. If it’s not worth fucking reading, it’s not worth fucking writing. If it doesn’t make people laugh or cry or blow their fucking minds then why bother?
9. Don’t be the next Stephen King or the next Zadie Smith or the next Neil Gaiman or the next Jonathan Safran fucking Foer. Be the next fucking you.
10. Stories are fucking easy. PLOT OF EVERY BOOK EVER: Someone is looking for something. COMMERCIAL VERSION: They find it. LITERARY VERSION: They don’t find it. (That’s fucking it.)
11. No-one knows anything. Especially fucking me. Except:
12. Don’t kill off the fucking dog.
13. Oh, yeah, and lastly: write whatever you fucking want.
My creative writing professor told me to stop
writing about love. I asked him why and he said,
“Because you have turned it over and over in your hands,
felt every angle, every fault, every inch,
every bruise. You have ruined it for yourself.”
I spent the next 3 weeks writing about science
and space. Stars exploding.
Getting sucked into a black hole.
How much I wished I could sleep inside of that nothingness
without being annihilated. What an exploding star
would taste like. If it would make our stomachs glow
like fireflies, or tingle and shake like pop rocks
under our tongue.
My creative writing professor told me that those poems
weren’t what he was looking for.
He tells me to stop writing about outer space.
Stop writing about science.
Again, I ask him why. Again, he says,
“You have ruined it for yourself.”
I spend the next three weeks writing about my mother,
how we are told we can’t make homes inside
of other human beings, but the foreclosure sign
on my mother’s empty womb tells me that women
who give birth know a different,
more painful truth.
My creative writing professor tells me I am both talented
and hopeless, that everything I write is both visceral and empty,
a walking circus with no animals inside
but a beautiful trapeze artist with a broken hip
selling popcorn in the entrance-way.
He tells me to stop writing about my mother. I don’t ask why.
I pick up my books and my notepad
and I leave his office with my war stories
tucked under my tongue like an exploding star,
like the taste of the last person I ever loved,
like my mother’s baby thermometer, and I do not look back.
We are all writing about our mothers, our lovers,
the empty space that we will never be able to breathe in.
We are all carrying stones in our pockets
and tossing them back and forth in our hands,
trying to explain the heaviness
and we will never stop writing about love,
about black holes, about how quiet it must have been
inside the chaos of my mother’s belly,
inside the chaos of his arms,
inside the chaos of the spaces in every poem
I have ever written.
None of this is ruined.
Do not listen to them when they tell you that it is.
|—||Caitlyn Siehl, “My Creative Writing Professor Told Me to Stop Writing About Love”|