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 the feminist analysis of sexual violence that I first found the language to name as abuse what the man who lived on the second floor of my building did when he forced his penis into my thirteen-year-old 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 changes 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 Write About Classical Iranian Literature
In 2002, I accepted a commission from the International Society for Iranian Culture (ISIC) to produce literary translations of 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.