Samira Sadeque: To See In Infinites — How I Use Storytelling to Unlearn the World

Samira Sadeque is a New York-based Bangladeshi journalist and poet focusing on migration, the refugee community, gender, and mental health. She completed her M.S. in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School in 2017. Her work appears in Reuters, NPR, Al Jazeera, Quartz, The Lily, Scroll.in, and the Dhaka Tribune among other publications. Her poetry has been featured in New York City Poetry Festival (2018), National Book Month (2018), and Thinking In Full Color (2018), among other platforms.

Where does your journey begin?

I come from a pretty religious and liberal Muslim family in Bangladesh.  I always say that, as a Muslim, my parents sort of grew with me: I’ve been through different phases of faith, different phases of questioning, different phases of belief but it’s very much been a part of my family life growing up as a Muslim.  It’s interesting because writing as a Muslim is something that I started doing very recently, and I think that’s because it’s still a part of the journey that I’m working on.

I came to the U.S. for college, and I went back to Bangladesh to work for a few years, and then I came back [to the U.S.] for graduate school and I’ve stayed since.  So I was here from 2008 until 2012, and then I came back in 2016.

Is it difficult living so far away from your family in Bangladesh?

Yeah!  Actually, when I came here for college it really wasn’t very difficult…I think a lot of it is because I had wanted to leave home for as long as I can remember because it was very tempting—you know, the idea of the freedom that I would have to be away from home. But that’s definitely changed, and part of that is because my parents are super chill now, so it would be great to live with them.  I grew up in an extended family (what we call a joined family) with all of my cousins in the same house, so we were a big family and I really miss that community feeling.

Do you feel like you’ve been able to find community in New York?   

Absolutely!  I’m also a poet, so I’m very plugged into the writer’s community and the creative writer’s communities.  But it was a bit difficult right after I graduated from grad school, because most people sort of just left, or a lot people who stayed for the first year eventually left.  That’s what I feel about New York: People are always leaving and arriving, there seems to be very little stability to it, so I think that was a bit challenging, but I guess the silver lining is that you can always keep making new communities.  Ultimately, I think that whether it’s in journalism or with poetry, I have been able to make a community. Last year I did a bunch of fellowships and workshops for journalists of color, which was a very big source of support for me.

You do a lot of journalistic work as well as a lot of creative writing and poetry, do you find that these different approaches and styles influence each other?  Do you allow them to influence each other?

Even though I was geared towards social justice and human rights from a very early age, I never thought that my poetry would be influenced by that; but ever since I started writing poetry seriously, it’s definitely very much influenced by my journalism.  In journalism you have a limited set of words. There are certain adjectives you can or can’t use because it has to be less opinionated. I think that’s where poetry comes in for me. I write a lot of poems about what I’m reporting on, for instance I recently wrote a poem about the immigrant communities that I have been reporting on over the years,.  That piece was very much influenced by these reports I did on the taxi driver community and mental health and sexual violence in the south Asian community. So I actually see my poetry as an extension of the journalism that I do.

As a journalist, what are some things that you try to keep in mind when you are collecting and re-telling stories about other people and their communities?

I try to constantly give my sources a reaffirmation of how much their voice will be respected and how much I am going to try my best to accommodate their needs.  A lot of sources will often not want their names on the piece, and I have to negotiate with my editor about why it’s okay in a particular story to not put their real name.  So I’m constantly letting my source know why something may be important, or what I’m doing to make sure that their privacy will be respected.

I also try to keep in mind when going into a space that I may have been taught certain impressions about the community that I’m reporting on.  I try to be very careful about not shaping my questions around pres-existing impressions or take something that someone is saying to fit that description that I may already have of them.  I think sometimes a person can see something and it’s very easy to interpret that as part of what they already know, and fit it into that box, and not ask a follow-up question. But that’s something that I always try to do.  You know, we all are taught certain understandings of communities and people, and I try to unlearn that in my work.

What is an assumption that you would like people to unlearn about your own community?

There are so many layers to every identity.  If I say I’m a Bangladeshi Muslim woman journalist, I think there are certain ideas associated with ‘Muslim,’ there are certain ideas associated with ‘Bangladeshi,’ and with ‘woman.’  It’s not one-dimensional: There are so many layers that are shaped by each of our experiences. I recently published a piece that received a lot of backlash, and the piece was about how the term, “Asalaamu Aleikum” had a very different connotation for me, whereas for a lot of American Muslims who have been a minority in this country it was an empowering phrase.  I think you can acknowledge that it was empowering for them, and at the same time acknowledge that it meant something else for someone else with a very different experience growing up in a Muslim-majority country. I think that’s what I would like for people within the community, as well as outside the community, to know — that being a Muslim woman can be a very different experience in a country where the entire Muslim population is a minority, as opposed to where the entire mainstream population is Muslim.  

How do you remain honest to yourself in your own writing?

Most of my poetry is very much a part of my stream of consciousness.  I am not a very disciplined writer, like I won’t really sit down and write every day.  Most of the poems that I write will start as a thought that comes to my mind right away.  I’m very intentional when I edit; when I write it’s just like whatever’s coming to mind and I just sort of let it flow, but then when I come back to edit it I just really want to make sure that it makes sense—especially if it’s anything that has come out of my journalism.  

One poem that I had mentioned before, it’s called The City is a Death Sentence, and it’s basically about documenting the death of an immigrant every month of the year.  I had reported on enough immigrant deaths to be writing that, but in the poem they weren’t exactly in that order or exactly in that month. I was so paranoid because I kept feeling that it had to be accurate, So I edited the whole poem to make sure that it wasn’t just factual, but each detail was accurate.  I don’t know, I think in general you get to negotiate a little bit more in poetry because it doesn’t have to be like 100 percent accurate—it can be true, not to the ‘T,’ right? But I think the journalist in me really freaks out at times.

In one of your blog posts, you write “…I think that’s what happens when you’re finally able to share a story you’ve been wanting to for years, when you’re finally able to bring it out of a vacuum—you begin to think in infinities.”  What did you mean when you wrote this, how does storytelling help us think in infinities?

It’s like having hope, on steroids.  It’s basically the realization of the absolute impossibility of something and realizing that into reality.  For example, when I was in Bangladesh, I co-founded aan English spoken word group – where we trained budding poets and held shows.  This is a group that just started by sipping coffee and writing poetry together. At the end of our first show, there was a teenagersitting in the audience, and I saw her writing in her notebook before the show, but I didn’t think much of it, and at the end of the show we had an open mic session and I could see that she was super nervous about coming up.  And then she left.

I usually don’t do this but something in me just kicked in and I followed her to tell her that I’d seen her writing in her notebook and practicing for a long time, and it’s a completely safe space.  “I can’t force you, but I’d really encourage you to share—obviously, no pressure,” I said. She didn’t say anything but after a while she came back, and she went up and read a poem coming out as gay.  And that’s what I mean: to realize that giving space to even a small story can explode into something so much bigger. I remember after she read the poem, her friends in the audience ran and just formed a huddle on stage around her just to show her the support.  It’s things like that that inspired that line bout infinities. I think when you realize that you have a platform to share incredible stories like that…that’s only the beginning. You can look at is as a ray of light. That’s the starting point and it can only go forward from there.  

What has your experience been like as an immigrant living in the U.S.?

I, frankly, am a very privileged immigrant; I don’t have to support my whole family with  my work. There are a lot of people who have had to give up so much to be here, and a lot of people who had to give up families.  So if I can have so much anxiety just within my journey, then I can’t even imagine what a lot of these people are going through. At the same time, though, it gives me strength.  You look at so many people who are DACA recipients who have had their identities compromised and who are, at the same time, organizing and protesting and you realize that courage is a collective.  It’s not a singular thing, it’s not an individualistic thing. Being an immigrant—being a woman—has taught me that more than anything. Just seeing how people around you will rally together for you…you can’t do that by yourself.  You can’t stand on something that can crumble so easily unless you have your whole community rallying for you.

I think my own transition into becoming an immigrant has definitely shaped how I report on immigrant communities and how I address them.  Last summer I was reporting on a story about a girl who was killed here, it was a really bad hit-and-run and she was a toddler and her parents were being threatened with I.C.E. (Immigration Customs Enforcement) if they filed charges.  I was really persistent with the story because they were really interested to talk with me at first and then it didn’t ultimately work out, but I don’t think I would have understood the anxiety surrounding their situation if I wasn’t an immigrant at that point.  

Do you see yourself staying in the U.S. for a while?

I hope to, definitely for my poetry as well as for my journalism.  One of the reasons I wanted to come here is that after I worked for a few years in Bangladesh I felt like I didn’t have any more guidance.  I felt like I needed to go somewhere else—and it’s pushed me against a wall in a way (laughs). I really wanted to challenge myself to grow as a journalist in New York—which is probably the most challenging place to do so as a woman, as an immigrant woman, with a Muslim name.  I talk about this quite openly, but as a journalist with an accent there is a lot pitted against you. There’s something about that challenge that I found very exciting at first, but there are times when I have my doubts and it gets very scary to realize that I don’t know what’s at the end of the tunnel.

In the meantime, where do you find strength in your day-to-day life these days?

I find strength in the poetry community and the journalism communities.  There have been so many times where I wanted to give up and every time I do, something totally random comes up and that helps me continue on the path.  And as chaotic as it is to live in New York, I think that’s what’s kept me going throughout this whole time is that every time you want to give up, there’s something that comes up.  And it’s always morsels, but when I look back on the last two years—I’ve been published in some of my dream publications and attended amazing workshops and fellowships, and how all of that has spun out just from these little morsels.