Berkshire Festival of Women Writers celebrates courage, honesty and strong voices


GREAT BARRINGTON -- A young woman takes a car trip with friends from New York to Washington, D.C. Tom Waits is singing "take my hand, you got to hold on" on their mix CD as they drive south to the Bhangra Blow Up dance competition.

Meet Razia Mirza in Bushra Rehman's new novel, "Corona."

"Razia is a hybrid," Rehman said in an email from New York, as she rocked her new baby. "She is a Pakistani from Queens, which is very different than being a Pakistani from Pakistan. She's spent most of her life praying five times a day, reading Quran and going to extra religious service on the weekends, all the while wearing skin-tight jeans, getting her hair feathered, and falling for boys break-dancing in the schoolyard.

"She's so Queens Pakistani, but she's also a closet beatnik who dreams of hitchhiking around the country. She loves Whitney Houston, Tom Waits and Panjabi MC equally."

She is a new voice in this year's Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. She joins a month-long celebration of women with as wide a reach as Razia's in her travels, and as deep a need to live their own lives, tell their own stories and plant their feet on the earth.

Professor Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez at Bard College at Simon's Rock has fostered the festival and watched it grow into year-round readings and writing workshops, and more than 150 women speaking, reading and performing this month -- from Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinam on Tuesday, March 4, to singer/songwriter Peggy Seeger to Tony award-winning actress Jayne Atkinson.

Rehman read from "Corona" this week at Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Her book gets its name from the neighborhood where Razia grew up -- like Rehman, she comes from Corona, a New York neighborhood.

"I wanted to show the beauty of a place others might just see as a run-down, impoverished neighborhood," Rehman said. "Wherever Razia travels, she carries Corona inside. Her fierce pride in Corona is similar to the fierce pride she feels about her family and culture. She can see what's wrong, but if anyone calls her home a ghetto or her family anything negative, watch out. She will get ghetto."

Razia, the central character, has strong roots in Corona -- and painful memories there. She spends the book half in trying to leave and half in trying to come back. But she wants to come back on her own terms.

She gets her voice and spirit often from Rehman's life and courage.

"Razia is a braver, wilder version of me," Rehman said, "so even as I was living through certain adventures, I knew I would write about them one day. At first I envisioned an ‘On the Road' style novel with a rebellious young Muslim woman at the center, but when I began to write, Razia's Pakistani childhood in Queens kept asserting itself."

Razia spends most of the book in motion, but not only because she wants to bring back the Beats.

Her family have disowned her.

She is on the road and on her own, and she is often in danger.

"She learns to adapt wherever she lands," Rehman said. "When her reality does become hostile, as it tends to, given that she is a Muslim-American woman who doesn't fit anyone's ideas of what that means, Razia manages to survive through her sense of humor and unique way of seeing the world."

She shows a kind of survival at the heart of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

Browdy tells a story about her first memory of stage fright. As the narrator in "Fiddler on the Roof," she remembers standing on stage without words. That experience stayed with her, she said. She became afraid of public speaking. But teaching gave her confidence. She wants to help women tell their own stories in their own words.

Telling those stories may hurt.

"The idea of truth is one that haunts me," Rehman said. "A character like Razia has to lie often in order to be true to herself. This is the case for many children of immigrants or children who are raised in religious families or queer children, the list can go on and on We must lie to our families and communities in order to follow our path.

"We love our families and we want to spare them the shame our actions might cause. But it would be impossible to live their way and be true to ourselves."

Razia, in the book, has had to choose between her family and the life she wants to live, and it is a hard choice.

"The idea of being disowned is one that many children I grew up with feared," Rehman said said. "Ex-communication from the family meant not only the loss of a family, but the loss of a whole culture, foundation and source of strength and support.

"At the same time, [Razia's] family and community gave her such a solid foundation, that she is able to move through the world with a strong sense of self. Every time her reality collapses, she comes closer and closer to the core of her being, and this being always reflects back on her home, the positive relationships she had with her Muslim family and community."

Toward the end of the book, she falls for a man who will go back to India. He draws her because he reminds her of home.

"Ravi is a present day version of what her father and uncles had been," Rehman said. "They paved the way, knocking their foreheads against the pavement of New York City, working in stores, factories and low-level labs. They made room for ... Ravi so his kind could come like big spoiled children."

Ravi may not be the man Razia's father is, but he reminds her of her family, of what she loves in her Desi heritage. He wakes the part of her that went to daily prayer with her father as a much-loved small girl.

She feels familiarity in what he wears, in the music he listens to and the words he reads.

"For Razia as a child of immigrants and as a writer, the most painful loss is the loss of language," Rehman said. "Ravi introduces her to contemporary Urdu poetry, and it's one of the many reasons she is drawn to him. He fills up a part of her she thought she had lost."


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