Any Way the White Wind Blows: how “Poetic YellowFace” serves White Supremacy

I stand up with my teacher David Mura and so many to criticize Sherman Alexie’s decision to publish a poem by a white man written under a deliberately chosen Chinese pseudonym in Best American Poetry. (What many have rightly called “literary Yellowface.”)

This isn’t just about poetry. It’s an echo of what we see everyday in American society.

Sherman Alexie writes: “And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.”  I worked as an affirmative action activist through my twenties, and Alexie sustained me through many of the hardest years. His words above broke my heart because I worked to build coalitions and to educate that an injustice against any group of color was part of systemic racism and must not be overlooked.

California – pre and post proposition 209 — are we willing to forget? Remember how White people have a history of fetishizing and “Orientalizing” Asians? They love our culture, our art, our religions, and they love to make money from us. They especially love to compare us to other people of color.

Using the stereotypes of well-behaved and smart, they love to compare us to other people of color to try and end affirmative action.  We’re one mass to them — not Vietnamese, not Korean, not Filipino, not Chinese, not Malaysian, not Singaporean, not Japanese, certainly not Indian, South Asian, not Bangladeshi or Fijian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan, or Polynesian or Cambodian. We were one group that had “merit” when it came time to argue affirmative action was dangerous for us.

They, of course, also complain that too many Asians attend the UC system, and they want to go to schools that aren’t peopled by Asian robots. Schools that value football more, or the “American way of life.” I never forgot — these were the same people who made us fear for our lives as they pasted a red sun on the cover of magazines and said Japan was taking our automative jobs. These are the same people that talk about our elegant and submissive women, our massage parlors, and the small dicks of our men, our slanty eyes. In their hands, our martial arts are used for good. In our hands, we’re the sneaky enemy on the battlefield or assassins.

Who are we to them?

By assuming our names in publishing contexts (and you should see the fucked up shit they do to our bodies and our culture when they write about us in science fiction/fantasy using their own names), white supremacists elide our great poets and their content; they elide our character; they elide us. We, they say, get published more because of our racial identity.

Didn’t we advance in society not because of our identity, but because of our merit, our hard work? Or, wait, but are we advancing in writing only because of our identity? Anybody with an Asian name can get ahead? I don’t know, seems confusing. Smells like White power.

If we aren’t vigilant about our relationship as a group within the non-Black people of color disapora — and with white supremacists, they will wear us like a glove and wield us like a hammer against all people of color, and always, against ourselves.


Because white supremacy is not a classroom issue or a poetics issue alone. It is a real system in which people dictate that equality for people of color amounts to “special treatment” and “tokenism” and “reverse racism.” The Asian mantle will be used strategically and deliberately in whichever way the racist wind dictates.

But get it clear peeps: We’re not your bridge group among non-Black POC. We’re not fooled. This shit won’t be on our backs.

We see what you’re doing.

It happens in daily life, in politics, in education, in so many styles of cultural appropriation, so of course it’s happening in poetry. Let’s read some great Asian Am poets like Hoa Nguyen, Ching-In Chen, David Mura, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Timothy Yu, Jenny Zhang, Franny Choi, Jane Wong, Bao Phi, Minal Hajrtwala, Ginger Ko, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Kazim Ali, and so many more for a little refreshment amongst these tired old antics.

Here’s David blog if you want to read a great critique – one that re-centers what being Asian Am has to do with writing Asian Am poetry:

Eid Mubarak! Celebrate the Queer Ones!


Dear Reader,

Eid Mubarak!

“Treat Yo Self!” Donna and Tom

The prophet says God is kind and he loves kindness. The one who is merciful to the merciful.

This past month I am deeply grateful to the queer Muslims of NYC. Together, we hosted Quran study and Iftars galore. We spoke to each other through ease and difficulty. Many of us fasted and observed in our own ways, and we offered each other compassion and kindness in ways that many people cannot imagine. We know what it means to change, and we are blessed for the courage it takes to do so.

We held each other while many of us endured physical and emotional trauma, through shame and secrecy, through courage with consequences, through depression and mental illness. We created prayer spaces for those who are trans and genderqueer, those who are feminist, those who do not accept that anyone is less because they are woman, or because they are non-binary or genderqueer. I pray for all people that they too will find a community like the queer Muslims of NYC.  I hope they will find acceptance in their lives. For Allah’s will is done through this queer community, through its love and compassion.

Today, I celebrate you, the queer ones. Hold your heads high. This Eid is Your Eid!

There must be growth. We can’t find the blessing that is uniquely you, if you yourself do not see yourself. When you take care of yourself, we are all taken care of.

I’m sending duas and hugging the community of poets, artists and writers of Poetry-A-Day for Ramadan. View their work here.  This was the creation of Tanzila Ahmed. Everyday, in my hungriest moments, fifty some artists flocked to Taz’s site. Not all of us thought of ourselves as poets, but all of us were. We were vulnerable. We fed each other words and art, drank of each other’s emotions. Taz, you gave breath, and we hope we honored the intent of your project by giving of our hearts and minds, and surely that is where we can find our best selves.

Today, I celebrate you, the poets and writers and all artists in any shape and form who observed Ramadan! However you observed it is cool by me.  We accepted each other and freed each other.  We discussed whether you broke your fast early, or fasted differently than prescribed, or did not fast at all.

Allah is the most merciful and the most loving of intention, and surely you as artists are helping all of us make visible that intention.

You artists are the ones who express Jannah, who give form to our imagination.  You are blessed for your work.

The purpose was to fill your hearts.

I’m so grateful to my family (Bustin, erniceba, and Mom and Bee-Doo and my uncle and aunt, and so many more).  They’re not Muslim, but they’ve found acceptance with my identity, queer and Muslim alike.

When I speak of family, I’m speaking of love itself.   For they tell me the thing that every daughter and son, every child, needs to hear most, that they are loved.  Tell your children and your parents and your siblings and your friends and your community this love.  Tell it before you speak a word of hurt.

I’m so grateful to my friends: those who uphold and believe #BlackLivesMatter, Debbie whose wisdom guides me and who is healing as I write, Penny who holds me at night and who I love more and more each day, Courtru my personal Taurus, T who inspires me and teaches me even when her arm is busted and hurts, Saimo who is brilliant and justice and compassion, the Don who is my own heart walking around this world creating beauty, art, and kindness, John who gives me time and energy and believed in this blog, the Imam who teaches forgiveness, S who truly listens and loves, Ra’D whose strength is in their vulnerability, Heart who is the joy after which they were named, Eman who is generous beyond gift and gold, Shubha so understanding and so sweet, Samira who taught me the awesome game with books and has true presence, Mickey/Kim for giving me the opportunity to teach, the 10th graders who taught me more than I taught them, Bridgett/Bold as Love for giving me a place to read this journal, VONA community, the Queer Muslims of NYC.  Everybody who supported me.  The Doctor who is always annoyingly right, who sustains me.

Thanks to every one of you who has read this blog.

A special thanks to all my friends who saw fit to love me through it, to pass an encouraging word now and then – you fueled me.

When I went through being assaulted at Union Square, I was held. Thank you to those who kept me in their thoughts.  You held me.

I’m so grateful to you for filling my heart.

Let me see this world through my heart not just through my eyes. And may your heart have compassion. Sometimes the hardest person to find love for is not somebody else but you yourself.


I struggled this Ramadan. The difficulty taught me many things.  It opened up a free fall of anger and hurt, as well as gratitude and compassion.

No love can reach a person who doesn’t love themselves.

Allah, thank you for loving me, for giving me this big heart.

It holds You.



The prophet says God is kind and he loves kindness. The one who is merciful to the merciful.

There must be growth. We can’t find the blessing that is uniquely you, if you yourself do not see yourself. When you take care of yourself, we are all taken care of.

The purpose was to fill your hearts.

Let me see this world through my heart not just through my eyes. And may your heart have compassion. Sometimes the hardest person to find love for is not somebody else but you yourself.

– excerpts from the khutba of Imam Khalid Latif

In loving memory of my father, Eric Garner, Claudia Emerson.

A nod to the many great poets/artists who I’ve cited in this year’s blog: Ruth Forman, St. Theresa of Ávila, Rumi, Hafiz, Galway Kinnell, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Sekou Sundiata, Metta Sáma, Sonia Sanchez, Yayoi Kusama, and Pablo Neruda.

In honor of Allah.

Ramadan Day 29: During Ramadan, Everything I have Done is Perfect

Today, the last day of Ramadan 2015, and I am travel.

I am weightlessness.  I am ground.  I am sky.

I am the weight.

Frustrations and gratitudes.




The last few days in the classroom, 10th graders, students of color, trying to be the first in their families to go to college. I’m swimming toward my students.  There was some kind of lethargy in the air, and I’m doing the crawl and the backstroke to reach them. Many of my students are using new words to grapple with ideas they don’t comprehend.  They’re upset with me because I tell them that they can’t sleep in my classroom, can’t talk to their friends, can’t drink sugar water.  They are making mistakes, and they don’t like what I’m saying.  I’m confused and continue to ask – and? why? what does _____ mean to you?


Today, I will tell them how learning feels.


They took my student out of the room.  The student I wrote about, a few posts back — the one I took aside because she was constantly talking to other students or sleeping.   The one I said was really smart, and that’s why she was bored.  I told her that she could help me by participating.  She did.

I sent her out of the classroom again, yesterday, when she was dozing off in my class.  I told the teaching assistant (basically, a recent high school grad) to talk to her, but I saw him poke her shoulder a few times.  I tell him if he has something to say to talk to her outside.

Somehow, she doesn’t come back.  An administrator transfers her without talking to me because she complained.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to her. To tell her how smart she was, again.  To explain.  I want this student in my class.  I believe in this student.

They don’t know me. How angry I am.  How the anger propels me forward.  How hard I work for people because justice is in my bones.

They took my student out of my room.  This is the room where I teach.  This is the room where she was a student.


I sit in a conference room at twenty and wish I’d learned Chinese.

In the car, blasting tunes, I wish I’d learned Spanish at 30.

I’m close to 40, I’m in the subway, wanting to learn Arabic.

Have I spent too many years on English.  Am I the tool – the master’s tool?

Allah, take this pen and dismantle me.


A white woman I’ve never met before comes into my classroom and says she’s in charge.  She lays into me:  You are too strict.  Don’t give them homework.  You don’t know how hard their lives are at home.  You can’t expect them to do all their work.  If they want to sleep, send them away to a lounge and let them lie down.  You can’t teach them at the college level.  They have hard lives.  They’re intimidated by you.  They’re in high school.  You’re not supposed to treat them like college students.


Dear Students,

Do you know what privilege is?  Privilege is in many classrooms.  In those classrooms, teachers expect you to listen, to behave, to write beautiful sentences, and when you sleep in class or don’t pay attention or chat with your friends – the teacher doesn’t tolerate it.  They ask you to stop, and the expectation is you stop.  Privilege is everybody always expecting the best of you because you have the best – you are the best.  Privilege is the opportunity to learn with a teacher who expects that the class wants to do well.

Do you know what oppression is?  Oppression is when one group has power over another and mistreats them or treats them unjustly and poorly.  We see oppression all the time with race and gender.  You’ve seen it in your classrooms.

For me, oppression can also happen when you’re told by teachers that you don’t have to pay attention, you don’t have to do your homework, you don’t have to learn because you’ve had a hard life.  I feel that you deserve as good an education from me as anybody in any classroom anywhere, no matter your race or how much money your parents make.  I will call on you and ask you to speak because every one of you has something worthy to say.  I’ve read what you wrote, and you’re all really smart.  I want to hear what you have to say.  I may be strict.  I understand that makes you uncomfortable.  That’s okay if you’re upset at me, and I hope you’ll talk to me about it.

But know this – I refuse to oppress you.

I believe in you.

[delivered in New Jersey to a small class of 10th graders on the last day of Ramadan 2015]


I go home.  I’m in a rage.

I’m sorry this happened.  I’ll sort it out, the program director says.

She was sleeping in the classroom, and they told you to let her take a nappie?  I can’t even.  That’s terrible, T says.

I hear Debbie’s voice.  Take the Best, Leave the Rest.

At first, Maybe I’m not fit to teach high schoolers.

Later, she’s right about some stuff:  I need to connect emotionally – I’m too something, too authoritarian? hierarchical? Maybe I’m intimidating. Maybe it’s time to listen.


Dear Students,

What do you want to learn about essays?

What can I do for you to help make this material more clear, or easier?

What’s confusing you?

How can I take material you find boring and make it interesting?

What do you want me to teach you?

[hands shoot up in the air.]


My final day fasting, and for the last 48 hours it has been anger.  They took my student out of my classroom!  I march to the program administrator — how could you do that to her?  She was learning from me!  Now she’s getting the message that she can complain about an instructor for her own poor behavior and be moved around.  She’s so smart.  I told her that, and now she will only feel more validated that she doesn’t have to do the work.  If you don’t like my standards, then please get another teacher, because this is the best I can do.


on the train again

The fast is ending

the new moon beginning

i’m moving backward

to learn at the speed

of life is perfection


Professor, I’m sorry this happened to you.  It was because I wasn’t there, and so the person who doesn’t work with students handled it.

I want you to know how much I respect you.  I’m sorry you had to go through this.  In fact, I have something to tell you.  I was waiting to tell you.  Do you remember that one student, K?  In your class last summer.  Well, I wanted to sit in your classroom and learn from you after what you did for him.  He gave a speech to the student body the other day, and everybody clapped.  You were the first teacher who made him talk in any class.  I cried when I heard him.  You believed in him.  You work with students where they are.

Thank you for telling me that.  I needed to hear that right now.  I think that K was amazing.  Thank you for giving me the chance to be a part of his life, but I know that you did the most work with him.

Now, stop taking the students who have problems out of my class.  I believe in them.  Don’t give up on them.  I haven’t, and I want them to know how special they are to me.  I don’t want any student of mine walking out on a misunderstanding.  When can I see her?  If I can’t see her will you please mention to her that I discussed her performance with you and she was absolutely one of the smartest and brightest kids I’ve ever taught.

Of course I will.

[conversation with an administrator on 7/16]


Today is the last day of Ramadan.  My heart has been filled with anger and despair for many days of this fast.  My body is tight and uneasy.  At times it has been in pain.  There have been headaches and always the press of doubt.  I’ve fixated on questions of should:  should I pray now? should I fast now? should I sleep now?  I’ve been unable to fill my empty stomach on faith, or poetry.  I’ve done more things wrong than I’ve done right.  I feel especially bad about all the ways I’ve failed to be grateful or disappointed Penny or simply been absent from my family, how I’ve fallen down completely with writing my novel.

All I’ve done is two things – I’ve fasted, and I’ve written in this journal as often as I could.


Samira once taught me this game that I’ve played a few times with her and other friends.  Essentially, you ask the questions that really matter to you, and you answer them by flipping to a random page in a book.  Every book, like every question, leads to completely different answers, but the answers are always worth thinking about.

How do I end this post?

I don’t really know how to end this post.

I don’t even want to stop fasting.  It feels too abrupt even though the days have been dragging.  I don’t want to stop writing in this Ramadan journal.  But the buzzer just went off, and Heart is at my door for a final Iftar.  We’re going to go eat lamb.

The other night Penny was next to me in bed, and when I turned around, falling asleep, I heard her say, I miss you.

I don’t know exactly where I’ve been during Ramadan, but I can’t shake the feeling that I haven’t been here-here.  I’ve been over there-here.  With Allah despite the deluge of earthly feelings.  That surprises me.  That my closeness to God has been struggle.  And that during Ramadan, everything I have done is perfect.


God what should I learn this Ramadan?

Súra Hud 11.49


Such are some of the stories

of the unseen, which We

have revealed unto thee:

before this, neither thou

nor thy people knew them.

So persevere patiently:

for the end is for those

who are righteous.

-trans. by Abdullah Yusuf Ali


Ramadan Day 26 – misc. poem

I ran into Wazina Zondon when I was out walking with Penny the other day.  Wazina, along with Terna Hamida Jahnjeh Tilley-Gyado, are the creators/producers of an amazing theater piece called “Coming Out Muslim.”  I’m very heartened by the work that they and so many others, including members of my Queer M book group in NYC have done to educate people, and to build solidarity.

There’s just something super refreshing about running into a fellow faster who you know supports you, who won’t question you or judge you for what you are or aren’t doing during the fast, who doesn’t disqualify you on the basis of your sexual orientation.  This is how I felt running into Wazina.

Wazina and I discussed our fast.  Despite the harder moments, she was uniquely positive about this year’s fasting.  (Most of my pals and I have been griping).  It could be just her naturally great perspective on life, but when I mentioned to her my surprise that fasting was a particularly good experience this year, she immediately credited Terna:  “Well, Terna and I were discussing the fast, and when I asked her about it, she told me it was important to prepare for Ramadan.”


Preparation.  How many times did the doctor tell me that if I was worried about the fast I should prepare?  Practice fasting, he’d say.  Don’t wait to fast.  Fast now.  Like a million times he’d say this stuff.  Seriously.  Again, he is so annoyingly always right.


The other day, a writer I really admire, asked me how I was so prolific during Ramadan.  She was definitely referring to my blog posts because I’m a slow-ass writer when it comes to novels, short stories, and poems.

The only answer I had at that moment was discipline.  I squeeze it in to all the moments, even when I’m tired.

But, I was so pleased to be called prolific (not to mention shocked), that I’ve decided to reconsider the question.

One reason I’m able to write is because I had a plan to arrange my life to make space for writing.  I left lawyering so I could have months like the past couple months, like this Ramadan, where I had hours (rather than minutes) here and there, to write in between jobs.

One could say I prioritized, but I don’t think that’s really true.  But it’s also important to remind myself that when I first tried to write, I failed.  This was about seven to eight years ago, when I first left lawyering to try and become a writer.  I couldn’t support myself.  I was lucky, my mom could help me out.  I was unemployed.  I spent a lot of time distressed in a very hot apartment in Pasadena.  After much heart-wringing, I went back to lawyering.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life, and I was able to do more legal work I love, work that has defined my life and taught me great lessons.

I love/loved lawyering, but I wasn’t writing as much as I am now.

But wait, there’s another thing, I’ve been relatively healthy during Ramadan.  That’s definitely why I can write as much as I do, relatively.  This year, with the Union Square attack, hurting my back, bed bugs, and especially with my mom having to undergo surgery weeks before Ramadan, I’ve come to appreciate how close I am to things going so terribly wrong that I can’t write at all.

One intention that I have set forth during Ramadan is to recognize the blessings that Allah has given me.  Believe it or not, that is hard.

I don’t ever want anyone to believe that writing is inaccessible, or that writing is just about talent or luck.  I’ve come to believe that it’s like the immigrant story.  It’s not straightforward.  You can work really hard and succeed.  You can work really hard and fail.  You can stop working and fail.  It’s not fair.  There’s a lot of intangibles in there like privilege and adversity and bias and discrimination.  One person’s success can look a lot different than another person’s success.  Some of us have to work harder. Some of us have to make a lot of mistakes before we get things right.


T’s voice is in my head again:  “Prepare for success.  How many people are always preparing for failure, or the worst case scenario.  But when success comes to people, and it does to many, they have no idea how to handle it, no idea how to accept it graciously, or even, to be grateful and to enjoy it.”

The only way to prepare myself to really love something I’ve written, is to write and write, until something appears on that page that I really love.

I’m gonna get ready by writing.


In the meantime, in the interest of not being a complete hypocrite, this poem really needs work, but I promised myself I’d write today:


On the train again, the next stop is Mecca or

it is home. We are never prepared to waken.

We are never prepared for the fast, for our

children to know us. The ending is abrupt, but

how was the ride?


What is the difference between a love for

Islam and a love for Allah? Is there any?

We rarely think philosophy when we pray

for our family. But all the hatred, rage, shame

with which we wreck the world. Love, still.


I want to tell you about three small children

to each a role was given, until one day,

the middle child, quiet yet bolder, no

longer held between extremes. She broke out,

ran before her horse, past the gate into Heaven.


When fasting remember to eat poetry, the words

make no sense in lieu of a meal, yet the taste

is a spice to your sensations, how rhyme tames

your hunger, curled up, a sleeping caterpillar,

Ramadan, when Allah runs a finger along your spine.


Ramadan Day 25 – On My Way

“The feeling remains that God is on the journey, too.”

– St. Theresa of Ávila





it don’t matter who you are

loneliness just come up n grab you

like a best friend

– Ruth Forman


The way some wings appear.

The old house is yellowed.  The spikes on the tire shop’s fence glisten.

Abandoned lots, fake fir on a telephone pole, 26 ambulances in a parking lot, a tractor conquering its mound of dirt.

Sights on the train ride from New Brunswick to New York Penn Station.

I feel so calm because I don’t have to be anywhere.  I don’t have to go anywhere.  I’m not running late.

Suppose I was running late.  Now I can’t go anywhere anyway, or go any faster.

The sun on my lap is warm like a cat.  The leather seat is smooth.

No rush, I tell myself, to discern the meaning of Ramadan.

But Newark Penn is arriving soon, then New York Penn.  I heard it on the speaker and was confused again.

It’s the same way I hear Code Blue from the waiting room.

It’s the same way I hear I don’t want to speak to you anymore.

It’s the same way I hear my own sweet voice rise:  Don’t you even remember me?  It’s me, dad.  It’s me, Serena.

It’s always time to transition, always time to move past this Ramadan.  Haven’t we bemoaned how hard it was? Haven’t we fasted long enough?

Conventional wisdom grows in force 4 days from Eid.  But the concrete high rise is turreted even though inside it is a bank.

The switch lights look like demons with crimson eyes. The overhang is sagging in the middle. Beware, the orange cones are totally jumbled.

I want to stay on this train and not go back, nor forward.

You can’t possibly know what I’m like when I’m desperate.

That’s when I’m my most sad.  I have no good reasons.

Some people are like that side of the tracks.

The Passaic’s water is shadows beneath steel and beneath its surface is more silt.

The track wires are never enclosed but hang like string. Come along now, before a train heads in the opposite direction.

I never speak to Ramadan like a lover except on the train.

Will you stay the night?

I’ll hold you.

I hear you.

I love you too.

On the train, I don’t worry about arrival.  That way the stop is a surprise.

Ramadan Day 23 – Blessings to the Day Sleeper

Snippets from last night:

“Every Ramadan is different. This one is unusual because it’s been hard to be truly present.” – The Imam

“I’m going to come look for you. Would you like some frittata? Some water?” – Alexandra

“I have things I need to do in the morning. Let’s sing.” – Ra’D

“I think you need to stop worrying about the future and live in the present.” – Penny

“What kind of star would you be?” – me

“I would be the Milky Way.” – Heart


What is the purpose of trust?

In law school, a comrade once told me:  the difference is that you don’t trust anybody until they give you a reason, and i trust everybody until they give me a reason not to.

In the name of distrust, I’ve laid waste to entire relationships.  I’ve picked fights about baked goods.  I’ve hidden behind the tire well of an ex-lover’s car (there’s no proof that this happened).  I’ve questioned innocent bystanders about their whereabouts.  I’ve lied.  I’ve smothered and clung worse than cow clop.  Oh yes, I’ve done things.

The other choice was to trust.  But I’m only human, I like to say, along with a billion others.

Not trusting people in my life has caused me to drive them away.  At a bare minimum, I’ve come to believe people are doing their best.  Still, I sometimes think I’d rather drive people away rather than trust them?

To trust, one way forward is to change the narrative.

Many who fail to trust are those who view themselves as having been victimized or are victimized by others.  We feel disempowered, so it’s hard to perceive the degree to which others are capable of greatness.

One of the fundamental traits that mistrust breeds is a controlling nature – the attempt, however weak, to protect oneself from hurt.

I’d tell you now, the Doctor said, that everything is a test.  Read the Qu’ran:  Allah showed the prophet heaven and then asked the prophet what it was was, and he answered it was a place that anybody would want to be, and then Allah showed the prophet hell, and the prophet said that it was a place where people wouldn’t want to be. Then Allah went about decorating the path to Hell with beauty and glitter and pain, and he set on the path Heaven nothing but obstacles and difficulty.

Allah, the Doctor said, is always testing us, both the good and the bad fortunes of life.

Doc, I said, this perspective on life is stress-inducing.

But you should know, the Doctor said, how many people who’ve been tested through blessings, through generous gifts, a good life, and yet they have done nothing to change this world or to have more compassion. They’ve failed the test.

So Allah has a purpose for everything, even privilege?

I’ve felt lately, a lack of trust toward Allah because fasting for Ramadan this year has been so difficult. I wake up exhausted and suspicious. I wonder if I will make it through the day. Will I become too dehydrated? Will I get a headache? Will I implode out of irritation and frustration because people around me are using words?

But, this Ramadan has demanded trust. I wonder if I’ve failed this Ramadan. But then I remember, I’m still fasting. I’m still trying to connect.  Some part of me must believe or I wouldn’t be reaching toward Allah.  Isn’t that what we do when we fast?

A faster walks the thin line between failure and success with their eyes open. At every point in life, I cannot know if I’m about to fail or succeed. However, during Ramadan, I am aware of this line. I see it marking each day with danger.

The oddest thing: the effort of fasting this year has made me vulnerable.  This is new.  I don’t feel strong and recharged by Ramadan.  I feel I need help to get through things.  I’m no longer connected to God through ease and spirituality.  I’m connected to God through difficulty.

I spoke to one of my dearest friends and teachers, T, today. T is a beautiful person. Of late, she’s really suffered because she tore her rotator cuff. She’s had to have major surgery and can’t lift her writing hand to even flip the bird. T was writing a letter to her mother. I told her – I feel like all your suffering this year is kind of like your own personal Ramadan – it’s like a mini-fast, at least.

What have you learned? I asked T.

One of the benefits of the incredible pain I’m in, T said, is that I’m entirely present. I’m so in my own body. I breathe and hurt and breathe and hurt. It’s usually helpful to know that whatever you’re worried about is not the center of the world. But when you’re in this much pain, you’re like – the center of the world is MY ARM.

I do these supine exercises, and I’m totally present. You know how when you meditate, you’re trying to be present, but you end up thinking about meditating and other things. Well, I’m completely focused on what I’m feeling during my physical therapy. I actually feel kind of relaxed when I’m done.

I’m aware this year, but not merely of the sweetness of my friends. But also their sweet aches.

I remember her voice:  Tell me, why is sadness sweet?

My friends tell me that they aren’t writing. Or, they tell me of their parents who’ve passed or are sick. They tell me of their shame, whether it’s for loving the wrong person, or the wrong gender. They tell me of their anger, their rage against the world, its racists and the many people who cannot accept the things they’ve done wrong. They talk of pain, of violations and intrusions. So many stories of hardship that I taste the bitter on my tongue.

This year’s Ramadan possesses gifts we are all trying to unlock. I’m comforted that my fellow fasters are struggling too.

At times, I cannot think because I’m too tired, and I’m focused solely on waking up. At times, I can only think of water. Two hours ago, I wanted to eat a peach. I imagined my hand, snaking out, snapping up that juicy fruit. And now, so close to Iftar, I’m filled with all the difficult encounters of the day.

My body feels tight and heavy and weak.

Soon I won’t be able to write.

I’ll only be able to breathe.

I feel tested this Ramadan, and perhaps later,

I’ll forget how all the easy months easy weeks

days that came before I was no more generous,

I’ll forget them entirely, altogether, one long sentence,

even then, the bright eyes of Allah were upon my deeds.

Let this Ramadan be known as the hard one, the one during which we fought, so hard. not to fall asleep, but we did, anyway, at our jobs, on the train, in crowded rooms, in our homes alone, napping, dozing, struggling to keep our eyes open.  Fajr and Maghrib slipping so close together that we didn’t have enough space to recognize our own two selves.  So we’ll remember 2015 as the glorious struggling, the humbling fall.  When the night came, and we were awake, and we saw not sun nor light, but difficulty, and through the grace of pain, that is how we were tested, and that is why we fasted, for it too brought us close to Allah.

For this is what we’ve become.

Day Sleeper.


Just Sit There

Just sit there right now.

Don’t do a thing.

Just rest.

For your separation from God

Is the hardest work in this world.

Let me bring you trays of food

And something

That you like to drink.

You can use my soft words

As a cushion

For your


– Hafiz, trans. by Daniel Ladinsky

Ramadan Day 22: Allah Loves to Go to Work, a Thesis Statement

I gulped down some rice and peas at the queer M Iftar.  I wasn’t sure what we were discussing during Quran study because I wanted to fall asleep.  Amelie sighed and said, I get my work done after Iftar, and even though I don’t work at night, I’m surprisingly productive.  It’s almost over, and only now do I finally get my routine down.



For the next two weeks, I teach writing and drama to 10th graders who are hoping to become first generation college kids in New Jersey.  This is the third year I’m teaching for this program.  It’s also the second year I teach during Ramadan.  It’s a 5 hour commute, and while commuting and in the hours before/after I teach, I try to get my admin work done.  Grading hasn’t even been factored in.  Writing this blog definitely hasn’t.

I hurt my back.  I have a grueling work schedule.  Why not break the fast?

Thesis statements need to be clear, specific, and state an argument or claim, I said.

They alternated between gossiping or dozing, as I spoke, or sprang around on their rocket feet, slurping big gulps and snapping plastic to-go boxes of chocolate cake.  One student woke up from her nap, whispered something I couldn’t hear to the girl next to her, and proclaimed loudly that she was bored, that this was a boring class.  The teaching assistant (a recent high school grad) told her to leave and take a bathroom break. 10 minutes later, she still hadn’t returned.  I had to send the assistant to ask her to come back.

I spoke to her outside as the other students started writing an essay.

I know what the problem is, I said.  What? she said, rolling her eyes.

You’re really bored because you’re too smart.  I was the same way.  High school was boring.  There were way better things to do with my time.  But, I had to sit there and prove to people that I already knew what I knew.  She rolled her eyes again.

I know I’m boring you, I said.

Really? she said.

I could use your help today, I said.

How so? she said.

I can’t give you extra attention because there are so many other students. Go ahead and raise your hand and volunteer answers to the questions.  That way, if you know something, you’re helping me teach the other students.

She raised her hand every 10 minutes to ask me questions.  Her questions were really smart, but she didn’t know any of the basics of essay writing.  How could she?  She clearly didn’t like to pay attention to subjects that weren’t easy for her.  We really do have a lot in common.

To be successful, both a teacher and her student must work.

What if I treated Ramadan like I did my work?

I’ve had to change the way I treat my writing.  I don’t just do it when I feel like it anymore.  I sit down and require myself to write, even if I’m not feeling it.  There have certainly been some very workmanlike posts this Ramadan.

I set aside time to sleep, time to be tired, time to eat, time to study the Qu’ran, time to write.

But the math doesn’t work this year.

There’s not enough hours between sunset and sunrise, when I’m most alert, to do everything.

I can’t get a routine because my commitments are moving targets, whether it’s teaching or travel or health or otherwise.  I can’t get a grip on the unexplained, the unknowable.

I can’t set aside my life for Ramadan.

I have to work to make room for both.

I have commitment issues.  It’s this part of the relationship that causes most of us to leave.

In the classroom, I was so tired.  I’d told them to quiet down dozens of times.  My throat was dry.  I’d lectured for most of the two hours.  It was the last five minutes of class.  I’d fasted through a jury trial as a Public Defender; I’d fasted while playing a tennis match; I’d fasted through thick and thin with barely a hiccup.  This year, at every turn, I’m stymied.  Blocked.  Things don’t feel good.  Am I just getting old?  Where are you, Allah?

Professor, Professor, the third student in a row asked, can you repeat the assignment?  Half the class couldn’t hear me because they were already packing their bags, or chatting.

I don’t, as a general rule, tell people who aren’t friends/family that I’m fasting.  I’ll sit around at a lunch meeting and not say I’m fasting if asked why I’m not eating.

I don’t like to discuss fasting because I feel that it’s nobody’s business, but also because I have an instinct that it takes away my personal power.  How so?  Well, it’s like when you’ve gone through a bad breakup, and you tell the story for way too long and with too many details and too much self-pity instead of just cutting yourself off.  You don’t feel good after you’ve said too much, no matter the listener.

I walked to the door.  I was coughing slightly.  I was losing my voice.  Hey, hey everybody, I said, frustrated.  I need you to pay attention.  I can’t continue to repeat things over your side conversations.  I’m fasting.

They stopped speaking immediately.  We didn’t discuss it.  I finished telling them the assignment, and they walked out the door.

I didn’t explain further.  I said it because it was the truth.  I didn’t think about it before, or immediately after.

This year’s fast has been so hard on my body and my mind that I’ve had to adjust, and repeatedly.

My irritation and emotions are strong, overwhelming.

But, I need to prepare you (and me), dear reader, for the unexpected:

Every day, the fasting has been getting harder and harder.  And I’ve been healing, becoming happier and happier.

I’m happy.

The Don said, “This is the first Ramadan I’ve experienced where the fast has gotten progressively harder every day. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? It definitely signifies something.”

I’ve been working so hard, been so focused, that more and more, I forget to think or worry.  There’s no way I could’ve done this by myself.  Allah is working too, delivering gift after gift, helping me to see the world.

By reducing this great fast into a series of small, somewhat grueling moments, I have somehow made this fast my own.

Isn’t this true for you as well?

Haven’t we, by denying ourselves food and water, by enduring, by trying so hard — haven’t we made ourselves somehow more awake, more cognizant of your own work than if it had all been easy?

Haven’t we become more human?

Haven’t we paid more attention to the effort and cost of living, than if it all came effortlessly — if the past twenty two days had felt like all the ones before?

Allah’s handiwork is revealed

by thread, then pull, the stitch

of faith, all sewn up, surrendered

submerged upon my bed of blackout

curtains, I hear Penny’s voice: Prospect

Park was lovely today.  There’s so much

more than the small world

in my mind.

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