Ten Questions for Bushra Rehman

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Bushra Rehman, whose novel Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is out now from Flatiron. In this coming-of-age tale set in 1980s Queens, New York, Razia and her friends roam their neighborhood, Corona, in search of adventure—spying on neighbors, seeking buried treasure in abandoned garages and couches, and evading the scrutiny of their conservative Pakistani-immigrant community. As Razia matures, she finds herself questioning her family’s values, experimenting with the kind of clothes, music, and bold behavior her culture frowns on. Her acceptance into a prestigious Manhattan high school pulls Razia further from her roots—especially when she meets Angela, a cool classmate who lives in the East Village and awakens romantic feelings that will ultimately put her at existential odds with her family. In lush language that captures the sights, sounds, and distinctive characters of late twentieth-century New York City, Rehman offers a moving meditation on girlhood, queer love, and the difficulty of searching for personal truth under the weight of outside expectations. The New York Times calls Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion “stunningly beautiful.... Individuals are allowed to be surprising, even to themselves, in this deft and empathetic novel.” Rehman is the author of the fiction book Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and the poetry collection Marianna’s Beauty Salon (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018) as well as coeditor of the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism (Basic Books, 2002). A recipient of awards and residencies from Cave Canem, the Jerome Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere, Rehman has served as a teaching artist for Poet’s House, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Urban Word, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

Bushra Rehman, author of Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion  (Credit: Andrea Dobrich)

1. How long did it take you to write Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion
My entire life. Well, nine years of intense writing, twenty years of creating the world of the story through poems and vignettes, and the rest of my life living the seeds of the stories, healing, and creating a writing community to help bring this book into the world.

The book began as a poem I used to share in the spoken-word world of 1990s New York City. It was an electric time, when young BIPOC writers were given a mic and a stage. For those few minutes, we shone. All of this energy and so much more went into the creation of Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
It was challenging to learn how to write fiction when I was a poet at heart. It was challenging to shape the timeline of the book and know which characters needed to soften and which ones needed to step out front. But perhaps the most challenging aspect was finding the time and space to write while hustling to pay rent and raise a child. When I received writing residencies, and when I signed with Flatiron, I was finally able to focus on writing, and it was a dream come true.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to primarily write and edit my work on the subways to and from work. Now I love to write in libraries and coworking spaces. I try to connect with my writing every day, even if it’s just journaling, so that I’m always warmed up and can drop into a story even if I only have twenty minutes. Toward the end of writing Roses, I was working for long stretches of time in a beautiful coworking space on the Hudson River, and that’s when some deep magic happened.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I love this question because so much of writing is about reading. Right now I’m reading A New Race of Men From Heaven by Chaitali Sen, Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon, Nevada by Imogen Binnie, Girls That Never Die by Safia Elhillo, Who Is Wellness For?: An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind by Fariha Róisín, and How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children by Quincy Scott Jones.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
This list is long, but for now I’ll say my work is shaped very much by the absolutely necessary writing of Audre Lorde, by poetry on childhood trauma by Sharon Olds, by the brilliance of Toni Morrison, Betty Smith, and Dorothy Allison.

6.  What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion?
Before Roses, I had written a collection of stories called Corona about the character Razia Mirza. Corona moves back and forth in time from the central trauma—being disowned from a Muslim family, which is the black hole around which all the action spirals. When I first started to write Roses, I wanted to go directly into this black hole. When I did, I found so much light: friendship, mischief, and the deep love between parents, children, and members of a religious community. I found my own spiritual core while writing Roses.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I was teaching a class for young people at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop with Ed Garcia. We read Willie Perdomo’s “Where I’m From,” a poem I love to teach because it uses all the senses to celebrate one’s neighborhood, especially if it’s a neighborhood that’s often judged harshly. The pride among students is always so exhilarating. On this day, I wrote with the students about my own neighborhood in Corona, Queens, and that’s how the book began: “Corona. I’m talking about a place that is a little village perched under the number 7 train in Queens between Junction Boulevard and 111th street...”

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, what would you say?
Don’t worry, you’ll finish it one day.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I was raising a young child in New York City while writing, and this helped me recreate what childhood feels like in the under-resourced outer boroughs. I also taught poetry for years through amazing organizations such as Teachers & Writers Collaborative and Urban Word. All of this was essential for rediscovering the voice of a young person and the spirit of what it feels like to grow up in New York City.  I also run a community-based writing workshop, Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction, for queer BIPOC writers and allies. The conversations, writing, and joy we share is woven throughout the book.  

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
At the end of E. J. Koh’s memoir The Magical Language of Others, Koh is given advice by Joy, her writing mentor. Joy says, “The poem must forgive her, or the poem must forgive you... Otherwise, it’s not a poem.” I feel this applies to all genres of writing. There was so much forgiveness that had to take place in the creation of Roses, and that has been the ultimate gift.