Why I Write About the Impact of Fem­i­nism on My Life as a Man

I am a fem­i­nist because fem­i­nism is the only pol­i­tics I know that com­mits itself explic­itly to a world with­out sex­ual objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and to erad­i­cat­ing the per­sonal, cul­tural, socioe­co­nomic, and polit­i­cal violence—mostly, but not only against women—that sex­ual objec­ti­fi­ca­tion inevitably causes.

I am a fem­i­nist because it was in fem­i­nism that I first found the lan­guage to name as abuse what the man who lived on the sec­ond floor of my build­ing did to my thirteen-year-old self, forc­ing his penis into my mouth, push­ing my voice back down into my throat and fill­ing me with a silence that made any words I spoke after­wards feel simul­ta­ne­ously untrue and unreal.

I am a fem­i­nist because that silence left me voice­less when the sec­ond man who pre­sumed that my body was his to do with as he pleased did pre­cisely that.

I am a fem­i­nist because, like both those men, I was raised in a cul­ture where men are taught that it is our right sex­u­ally to objec­tify those who are weaker or are per­ceived as “less than” we are, start­ing, but not end­ing, with women.

I am a fem­i­nist because I do not want that right, because I never want to stand on the same side as my abusers.

I am a fem­i­nist because, if I am hon­est with myself, I can­not deny that I am, as a man, always and already on that side, because to be hon­est with myself is to rec­og­nize the changes that “my side” needs to make.

When I say that I write about the impact of fem­i­nism on my life as a man, I mean that I write about what those chages are, about how I have made them–or failed to make them–in my own life, and why I think they are a nec­es­sary part of any vision for social jus­tice in the world. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about mak­ing these changes, though, it’s that ask­ing the right ques­tions is far more impor­tant than hav­ing defin­i­tive answers. I do not pre­tend to know what man­hood and mas­culin­ity should be, only that the shape they have been given in my life does not work for me.

Why I Trans­late Clas­si­cal Per­sian Literature

In 2002, I accepted a com­mis­sion from the Inter­na­tional Soci­ety for Iran­ian Cul­ture (ISIC) to trans­late five works of clas­si­cal Per­sian poetry. I thought I was tak­ing on a straight­for­ward project of cul­tural exchange, one that would help bring to the United States a pic­ture of Iran that was very dif­fer­ent from the images of bearded aya­tol­lahs and chador-wrapped women that have shaped and reflected our under­stand­ing of that coun­try for at least the last three decades. I did not know, I had no way of know­ing, that in enter­ing the world of this lit­er­a­ture I would be enter­ing a world of wit and wis­dom, of pol­i­tics and spir­i­tu­al­ity, of truth-telling and social justice–a world that would con­front me with the foun­da­tional ques­tion of how to live a life of mean­ing and pur­pose. If, in 2002, you had told me this was going to hap­pen, I would have laughed out loud and told you you were crazy. My inter­ests and desires as a writer lay else­where. Yet here I am, more than ten years later, with three vol­umes of trans­la­tions to my credit and a fourth one in progress.

The first poet ISIC asked me to trans­late was Sa’di of Shi­raz, who lived in 13th cen­tury Iran. Sa’di is cel­e­brated all over the world for the lit­er­ary value of his work, his con­cern for social jus­tice, his humor, and his spir­i­tual wis­dom. His most famous lines, from Golestan, or Rose Gar­den, are woven into a car­pet that hangs in the United Nations. Here is my translation:

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a sin­gle body, each of us drawn
from life’s shim­mer­ing essence, God’s per­fect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you for­feit the right to be called human.

These lines bespeak a human­ism to which Sa’di gives voice through­out his work, mak­ing it a pointed response to the polit­i­cally stag­nant, consumer-oriented, increas­ingly vio­lent, and reli­giously polar­ized world we live in today. In both his major works–the other is called Bus­tan or Orchard–Sa’di takes on cor­rupt gov­ern­ment, reli­gious hypocrisy, the cor­ro­sive nature of wealth, and more, and he does so in lan­guage that has been mov­ing peo­ple for centuries.

The same can be said of the other books ISIC asked me to trans­late. Ferdowsi’s Shah­nameh (Book of Kings), for exam­ple, is filled with sto­ries that rival Shake­speare for their drama and emo­tional com­plex­ity; and Farid al-Din Attar’s Elahi Nameh, or Book of God, is a mas­ter storyteller’s inves­ti­ga­tion of the self-control and self-awareness that is a pre­req­ui­site of true enlightenment.

Each of these works has some­thing to say to us now, in twenty-first cen­tury Amer­ica, about what it means to live a mean­ing­ful life, polit­i­cally, socioe­co­nom­i­cally, eth­i­cally, and spiritually–not because what these writ­ers had to say a thou­sand and more years ago is always right, but because the hon­esty and integrity with which they wrote has the same power now as it did back then. Clearly, these works have spo­ken to me, and I am sure they will speak to you as well.

Why I Curate First Tues­days: A Neigh­bor­hood Read­ing Series

My favorite part of host­ing First Tues­days, the neigh­bor­hood read­ing series I run in Elmhurst, Queens, is build­ing the cento with which it has become tra­di­tion for me to close each month’s open mic. A cento is a poem made from lines of other people’s poetry and so it rep­re­sents a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the com­pos­ing poet and the poets from whose work he or she bor­rows. At First Tues­days, this col­lab­o­ra­tion hap­pens in real time. While the first open mic reader shares her or his work, prose or poetry, I lis­ten for lan­guage that moves me. When he or she is fin­ished, I recite that line back to the audi­ence, and then I take, or some­times the audi­ence sug­gests, a line or phrase from each sub­se­quent reader. In this way, line by line, we build a poem that rep­re­sents the work peo­ple have shared that evening.

Part of the fun is that I don’t write any­thing down until the entire cento is fin­ished. Indeed, the audi­ence often helps me remem­ber the lines, espe­cially when the list of open mic read­ers is long. This com­mu­nal par­tic­i­pa­tion, the fact that the peo­ple who come to First Tues­days see them­selves as a com­mu­nity, is what I cher­ish most. We are a diverse group, includ­ing writ­ers at all lev­els of accom­plish­ment and from many dif­fer­ent walks of life, and I am con­sis­tently inspired by how warm and wel­com­ing every­one is. Almost every month, we are the first audi­ence for some­one who has never before read their work pub­licly; and there are always peo­ple who come just to lis­ten. Some of them have become reg­u­lars as well.

First Tues­days meets on the first Tues­day of the month, from Sep­tem­ber through June, at Ter­raza Cafe in Elmhurst. If you have work you’d like to share, in any genre, come on down. The open mic limit is 3 min­utes. I hope you’ll join us.

  • Address: 40–19 Gleane St, Elmhurst, NY 11373
  • Time:
    • 6:30 — 7:00, open mic signup
    • 7:00 — 8:00, open mic (3 minute limit)
    • 8:00 — 8:30, fea­tured reader
  • Cost: $5 sug­gested donation
  • Info: First Tues­days website
  • Mail­ing List: To receive First Tues­days announce­ments sign up here.