Shaheen Qureshi | Excerpt from "In my loneliness your memories are my companion, what am I to do, something is happening"


Mourning begins in utero. I begin with the alienation I live with that was formed originally by my parents, and for them by their parents through migrations of bodies. Partition and separation. Economic promise and failure. Reasons for a disenfranchised body to not stay in one place. What happens to the offspring of that body to attempt a meaningful presence in a place? Does she have the right?

Someone at the hospital pierces my ears without my consent. I wear gold earrings before I can understand what it means to be a girl who wears gold earrings. I graduate to gold bracelets on both my wrists which are brought over to me from Karachi. They are tiny and delicate. My father’s mother, the woman who named me, and who my sister and I are instructed to call Ammie—the word for Mother, not Grandmother—and my aunt Nagmana, soap up my hands to squeeze them on. I cry and watch my skin turn red as they squeeze and squeeze. Once on, the bracelets won’t come off unless I take a pair of garden shears and cut myself loose. I look down at my skinny arms glinting with gold, feeling like a precious prisoner.

We have big birds—macaws, cockatoos—playful and exquisite, loud and terrifyingly intelligent. The type that are long-living, incredibly affectionate, and capable of holding a grudge to the point of biting you until you bleed. They are my favorite siblings, my surrogate primary caregivers. Our first bird, my brother—a yellow-collared macaw named Tutu—also has a bracelet around his leg. Tutu teaches me how to whistle and sing. I creep up on him while he sings a song to himself after Ammie places a simple sheet over his cage and I poke my head under. He stops his secret song, clicks his tongue, pins his eyes at me, and we sing before Ammie catches us and pulls me away.

At a reading, Cedar Sigo once said a poet can “rearrange a poem, take it apart, leave the poem, make dinner, and come back to it tomorrow.” I interpret this to mean that when things in your life go awry, it’s helpful to know that the poem will be there when you return. I think of Amiri Baraka. The poem permits all.

In her book-length poetic essay, A Bestiary, Lily Hoang haggles for a jade bracelet at a market during a trip to her ancestral Vietnam. She must use soap, lotion, a plastic bag, even popping her thumb out of place to get it on. “It fits perfectly,” she says. Eventually this bracelet is smashed to pieces after an accidental spill.

Hoang’s book is anchored around the death of her sister, who died from addiction, and the dissolution of her marriage to a white man. He told her if she’d just been more careful, maybe the bracelet wouldn’t have broken. He told her, a classically trained musician, that maybe she just doesn’t get punk music. She, a woman of color, pays him, a self-proclaimed feminist, alimony despite his having a trust fund.

My last two romantic ex-partners are both white. I tried to play house with each of them. Now one owes me half of a literal house. The other owes me a sum that is almost unquantifiable. This matters only because if you asked, they would both argue that because they come from working-class white families, they owe me nothing. That the playing field is even between them and me, a Brown Asian woman with a model minority complex.

I spent my day editing an artist’s book. For a while I got stuck on figuring out if the word “sculpture” was a countable or non-countable noun. A room of many sculptures. I think of Etel Adnan. She said the books are houses that she builds for herself. A room surrounded by sculpture.

My body is being pulled from all directions, stretching out like taffy. I’m suddenly taller and lankier than anyone in my family. I awake in the middle of the night from a throbbing in my legs. Everyone chalks it up to growing pains. I take it literally, imagining that part of being alive is to be in almost constant physical pain. Ammie wraps my legs up every night in dupattas so tightly I can’t bend my knees. The compression is a temporary relief, enough so that I can eventually fall back asleep. The next morning, I wake up in a loose tangle of multi-colored chiffon, my restless legs at war with the wrappings all night, fighting for their freedom.

I got a massage by a British expat in Oaxaca with my abusive ex. The British expat said I should get a massage every two weeks. “I work on people much bigger than you, and my hands hurt. You carry a lot of stress in your body.” I muttered “I know,” but felt shocked to hear it from a stranger. As if she broke past my skin and clenched muscles, pulled my insides out with her bare, essential oiled hands and showed me. I felt myself making myself small again.

I think about wrapping my legs like Ammie did for me whenever I now get a slight ache, like that residual dull pain after a Charlie horse. How do you wrap up your insides after they’ve spilled out?

I take comfort in what Roxane Gay says in a recent interview with Monica Lewinsky: “Boundaries are a great container that will keep out things you don’t want to include, and keep in everything else.” This is of course true in life as it is in writing. I see how a constraint can be a necessary container when filling it with complicated content. The chances of spillover are high.

My mother cleans houses. She takes me with her to work. Before the divorce, there were days we had to take the bus again because my father hid my mother’s car. I entertain myself in palatial bathrooms and mezzanines overlooking living rooms three times the size of our Section-8 townhouse. I pretend to clean and sing songs to an imagined audience while in the next room my mother irons someone’s underwear. I get a scholarship and attend a private high school in the same neighborhood where my mother cleans, and instead of going over to giant houses because they need cleaning I am going over to hang out with my friends. The help is another Filipina who greets my mother in Tagalog when she picks me up.

For years, I made a career out of working in restaurants. Despite the glam foodie culture and industry appeal to promising, entrepreneurial types, most of the work lies in sweeping and mopping floors, wiping tables, scrubbing toilets. Like some kind of debaucherous night nurse, I administered drink after drink to otherwise seemingly nice people until the point of incoherence or racial microaggression. On the weekends, the floor was sticky from so much alcohol underneath my Danskos. My legs ached again. The work came naturally for me; I felt it in my bones, the familiar, intergenerational, dare I say gendered gestures of this kind of work. When restaurants closed at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, and I was laid off, I mourned this part of me.

One of Toni Morrison’s first jobs was cleaning for a white woman. As soon as she got better at doing the job, her boss made her do more and more seemingly impossible tasks to the point of injury. The young Morrison complained to her father who harbored little sympathy. Instead, he offered this morsel of advice: "You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”

I was very good at my job. Outside of the job, I am also very good at carrying an emotional load. Which probably explains why I am good at the job. But I don’t want to be because I see all the ways this also hurts me. How it has hurt women in my family before me too. I fear I am precisely the work I do. How this fear has shaped me in all the ways I move in the world. I am simultaneously resentful for the position of serving others and unable to detach myself personally from said role because it pays my bills but equally importantly, gives me purpose. Somebody, even if they are a stranger, needs me.

She turns every TV on in whoever's house or apartment we are cleaning so that she won’t miss a single moment of her favorite American soap operas. Young and the Restless, Days of our Lives, the Bold and the Beautiful. I watch them alongside her, internalizing every toxic, dramatic storyline like scripture.

Before Maya Angelou was a household name, she worked at a restaurant cooking Creole food. Later, she wrote two cookbooks and everyone in the literary world dismissed her.

Gertrude Stein’s life partner, Alice B. Toklas, wrote a cookbook instead of a memoir to write about her life. Toklas is not quite a household name as Stein is.

I visited the home where Gertrude Stein was born. There is a plaque commemorating her life on the side of the house with a quote from the Making of Americans.

I think about how a name becomes household. How a house can hold someone’s name.

Carmen Maria Machado’s 2019 memoir charts the emotional and physical terrors of being in a relationship through the materiality and mythology of a dream house, the perfect, sinister setting for domestic dystopia. I did not know that a book could show me a way out from my own terrors of loving gone wrong the way this book could. Poems can be like dream houses themselves—spun out of the poet, but still containing the hard, painful stuff. Sometimes they remain nightmares. I invoke Lacan’s concept of extimacy here. Checking off a to-do list to curb the anxiety. Lists become coping become poetics, a hypervigilance on the sensorial as a means for survival.

I have been in mourning before the recent rise in anti-Asian violence. I am mourning again after these attacks. The ambience of racial paranoia is not new and also not particular to one “kind” of Asian. No one group can claim ownership of this paranoia. Cathy Park Hong writes, “the indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported. We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will only make us disappear.” Divya Victor writes, “all of us don’t matter at all.”

I wish to show the unsmoothness, the sadness, the joy, the bare facts and the untruths, as my way of refusal. Refuse as excess. I wish to show everything so that I will not disappear.

Shaheen Qureshi is a writer and editor. Born in Virginia to Filipino and Pakistani immigrants, her work has been published in Ewa Journal, Changes Review, Pinsapo Press, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from Caldera Arts and MASS MoCA and holds an MFA from Bard College. She co-curates the reading series Here I Am Again, is co-founding member of artist collective SCAR, and works as associate editor at Carnegie Museum of Art.