Ayesha F. Hamid is a poet and creative nonfiction writer, published in Big Easy Review, Philly Flash Inferno, and Rathalla Review. Her full-length memoir, The Borderland Between Worlds, is available through Auctus Publishers at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, and Target. Ayesha also has a full-length poetry collection called Waiting for Resurrection. Ayesha holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Publishing from Rosemont College. She also holds an M.A. in Sociology from Brooklyn College. She is the Editor-in-Chief at The City Key. Aside from writing, Ayesha also loves travel and photography.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Borderland Between Worlds. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially with an independent press. Can you tell us about your experience?
Ayesha F. Hamid: During my first year at Rosemont’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I took my first creative nonfiction class with writer, Richard Bank. Richard used Socratic Method in his class, and this question and answer format of learning, in addition to writing assignments, showed me that I had a story to tell. The Borderland Between Worlds became my thesis for the MFA program.
A few years after graduation, Richard introduced me to Krish Singh, the founder of Auctus Publishers. I found out that the mission of Auctus Publishers was to encourage writers and their growth and to publish work that doesn’t fit neatly with commercial publishers. I’d interacted with a handful of agents and decided that, for my book, going with an independent publisher was the best fit because I’d be able to tell my story the way I wanted without the need to change the story to appeal to larger audiences. So, Auctus Publishers ended up being the perfect fit for my book.
CS: The book is your story as an immigrant from Pakistan, so there’s a personal story here, but your story is an echo of the larger immigrant experience. As you wrote, were you keeping an eye on both this micro level of your life and the wider, macro level? If so, was this dual lens there from the beginning or was there a moment when you realized this was both your story and a larger story? Can you tell us about the challenges of writing at these two levels?
AFH: Writing a memoir about immigration has been one of the most treasured experiences of my life. In writing a book like this, the writer realizes so much about themselves and the world around them.
In the beginning of the writing process, I was focused on my past and my story, but then, I realized that although the events in my life were unique to me, the struggles I faced were not. I wanted my book to speak to these common struggles and to speak for those who want to be understood and included. My book is also a tribute for those who cling tenaciously to a goal though it may seem impossible to achieve.
During the inception of this book, I proposed that its themes revolved around financial struggle and the struggle to fit in. The more I wrote and read my own story, the more I noticed that the conflicts, in my life, always arose from the struggle of being from two different cultures with varying beliefs and norms. The struggle of living up to the expectations of two cultures places an individual in what I call a borderland. This is a place where many immigrants, among others such as those with religious, racial, or gender differences, inhabit. It is the space where individuals find themselves when presented with myriad demands from disparate worlds, demands that seem too daunting to meet. Those who have to walk this line also have to battle with themselves to understand their place in their cultures and ultimately, their identity and their place in the world. Needless to say, the battle with oneself is the most difficult one.
The difficulty in writing about this topic, whether it be at the micro or macro level, is the subject matter itself. The more I realized that others lived through similar or worst experiences, the more disheartening it was. My struggles made me stronger, but it was a burden to realize that others, who were so similar to me, either gave up their fight or in some cases gave up their lives.
CS: Another duality you explore was witnessed in your day-to-day life. You went to school and worked in a distinctly American culture, but you often ended your days in a very traditional home. We all balance our private and public lives—but the balancing act must be harder when one navigates their way between two different, sometimes clashing, cultures. What was this experience like as a young person? How did it change as you grew?
AFH: This question is an emotional one. To be honest, to be a young person and live in two different cultures, whose goals oftentimes oppose each other, is crushing. In school, I wasn’t able to participate in class trips, school events, or hang out with friends after school like everyone else did. I had some wonderful friends that made adjustments for me, but living so differently from my peers left me, again, with the feeling that I did not belong and that I did not fit in. Friends tried to understand why I couldn’t spend time with them outside of school and tried to reserve judgment on why my parents’ culture made them so strict and concerned with their children’s safety.
One of the groups I want my book to speak for is immigrant children, or any children for that matter, that feel that they do not belong or fit in. Now that I am older, I have the freedom to choose what I want, whereas when I was younger, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. As I’ve grown older, I see that there is much common ground between all cultures in the world. Everyone wants safety and security. Education is a goal that is accepted in both American and South Asian cultures, and learning every day is an activity that I’ve gravitated towards my whole life.
CS: You tackle some very personal issues—bullying, a failed marriage, race, religion. When I speak to memoirists, I’m always interested in where they draw their lines—where does the writer’s story end and another person’s story begin. It’s a hard line to navigate, yet we each have to do it, and there’s no right answer. What boundaries/guidelines did you follow?
AFH: In all that I write about, including issues with bullying, marriage, race, and religion, I try to explain the reason or point of view of the person causing the conflict or the person supporting me. As writers know, we have to understand the why of action, so I try to explain others’ points of view as much as possible. However, I always return to my own vantage point to tell my story.
CS: Part of the book touches on the struggles of the working college student. I think many of my generation don’t fully understand the financial strain many students face these days. I work with students who carry a full schedule and then work twenty, thirty, forty hours a week. Can you tell us about this time of your life? What were your challenges? What did you discover about yourself?
AFH: Those years were very challenging and uncertain times for me. Like many other students, I worked a lot of hours to make sure that I had enough money for tuition.
Depending on the cost of attending school, scholarships and financial aid oftentimes doesn’t cover all expenses. A student’s bill for tuition may be twenty-five thousand dollars a year. Depending on how much financial aid covers, the student would still have to come up with living expenses and, sometimes, additional money for tuition.
During my college years, an additional challenge I faced was the fact that my family wasn’t familiar with how schooling worked in the United States. In Pakistan, my grandparents could cover my parents’ college expenses out of pocket, but, in America, most families, like my own, could no longer cover college expenses out of pocket. The college I went to, Chestnut Hill College, was heavily invested in students’ success, so the combination of helpful mentors and my own work made paying for attendance at a private college a possibility. My struggles, during that time, helped me to learn independence and how to work towards a goal. The experience made me a more tenacious person because no matter what, I was going to finish college, even though this goal seemed extremely untenable at times.
CS: You’re active in the Philadelphia literary community. I think Philly has great lit scene. Can you tell us about the community you see? What can it offer to writers both new and experienced?
AFH: From what I see, the Philadelphia literary community is very connected and supportive. I have had the benefit of being connected to different parts of the writing community through being a student at Rosemont College as well as having the opportunity to volunteer for Philadelphia Stories (www.philadelphiastories.org), which is a vital organization supporting the work of writers and artists in the Philadelphia area. What I love about our writing community is that we have serious writers who care about the craft and work tirelessly. The focus here is on writing and not on schools or cliques as I have heard it said of writing communities in other cities.
CS: What’s next?
AFH: I am looking forward to mentoring others as they write their own memoirs. I have a poetry collection that I am revising, and after revisions are completed, I’ll be looking for a publisher for the collection. After this work is complete, it will finally be time to embark on the new adventure of writing another book!