Samia Kemal grew up in the leafy green haven of Connecticut. Surrounded by her mostly white classmates, she cultivated a dry sense of humor to make sense of her insulated world, and hungrily sought out media and pop culture as an escape. Here, she reflects on how her outspoken nature has fueled her career in communications, inspired her to stretch her horizons, and dream up new avenues for Muslim-American representation.
Connecticut did a number on my brain.
How could it not? I often wonder what my parents – both Muslim, Pakistani, and physicians – were thinking when they decided to plant their roots in Farmington, Connecticut’s perfectly manicured ground.
“We wanted you to have a great education,” my Mom says like the high-achiever she is.
But my primarily STEM-driven, AP-loaded, medicine-bound coursework came with another separate education: how to avoid drawing attention to my “otherness.” The last thing my insecure, pre-teen self wanted was to be confused for a FOB (“Fresh Off the Boat”). I loathed the idea that I couldn’t “pass” for American. That no matter how much Hollister I wore or “Boy Meets World” I watched or how many times I bleached my very visible ’stache, there would always be something about me that others could point to and note, “you’re different.”
Being Muslim in a post-9/11 era only increased my crippling self-consciousness. During my freshman year of high-school, my 20-something World History teacher began our world religions unit by introducing our class to the Azhan. She had enthusiastically recorded the Islamic call to prayer at the Blue Mosque while backpacking through Turkey.
“It’s a really beautiful, haunting, melodic call,” she earnestly prefaced before pressing play.
The tape ended, and silence befell the classroom before one kid announced, “that is the ugliest thing I’ve ever heard, I hope you didn’t just convert us all to Islam.” The room erupted into laughter.
Ah, yes – this was truly the pinnacle of intellectual curiosity.
Though I struggled, I’d be foolish not to note that my challenges with race, religion, and identity manifested primarily in a lot of awkwardness, bathroom tears, and surprisingly low STEM grades for an Asian (I was ahead of my time combating racial stereotypes). Many Muslims and minorities in the United States are threatened with terrifying and violent degrees of xenophobia and islamophobia. I was lucky that the worst of my troubles at the time saw me crying to an endless loop of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” under my covers.
That being said, I felt pretty alone – and television, film, and books soon became my glorious antidote and relieving escape.
Every time I read, I envisioned myself as the protagonist. Whether I was a time-traveling hero unraveling a deep hidden secret, or a wizard discovering their powers for the first time, I loved the feeling that came from letting my mind occupy new spaces and take on new identities.
Even more, I was fascinated by film and TV and ingested the gamut: trashy reality TV (why was I watching “Flavor of Love” at 13?!), horror, romantic comedies, period pieces, understated independent dysfunctional family dramas (thanks, Netflix). You name it; much to my parents’ understandable frustration, I was a complete devotee to the screen.
Yet the American media I so urgently consumed never reflected my own experiences, or anyone who looked remotely like me. That’s why few years ago, when my sister and I bought tickets to see an up-and-coming comic perform his one-man show at the tiny Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village, I was shocked and awed by what I saw.
“Homecoming King,” written and performed by comedian Hasan Minhaj, was one of the first pieces of media I saw myself reflected in. From the intergenerational conflict with his parents, to sorting out religion and identity in the context of American teenage life, to the perils of embarking on a creative career completely untethered; each vignette of Minhaj’s show touched a new chord.
During the show, he reflected, “one phrase is the killer of all brown kids’ dreams…Log Kya Kahenge” (What will people think?). An audible groan of agreement spread across the mostly brown crowd; we were all very familiar with that phrase.
In my case, my individualistic hopes and goals frequently clashed with my parents’ expectations for another doctor in the family. A career of stability and security was the ultimate success in my community’s eyes and having passion for your job would just be an added bonus.
Though I tried with Sisyphean effort, my attempts toward medical school were fruitless. And of course they would be! In my soul, I’d always identified as an artist; the inner monologue that constantly chirped in my head told me again and again that I had a voice and a perspective to share with the world but no idea how to properly channel it.
My denialism about my path toward medicine led me as far as to obtain a degree in public health, thinking it would look good on future med school applications that never actually materialized. But public health school was full of passionate, outspoken, and likeminded people who recognized the need to shed light on those who are underrepresented. Many of my classmates were minorities like myself, reckoning with the systemic challenges that existed as barriers to accessing full and healthy lives. All of us were learning to cultivate the power of our own voices, and that expressing our opinions could not only shift minds, but policy; an education that became instrumental in pushing me toward my current career in communications.
And then I fell flat on my face.
I wish I was joking. After much pomp and circumstance, figuratively getting up on a pedestal and defending my life choices to my parents, and a whole existential journey that supposedly led me toward the “perfect” fit of a career – I completely floundered and crash-landed.
An agency job in communications left me emotionally and professionally battered. It was as if the dynamics of my homogenous high school had been transposed into an adult workplace. Every day, some new fresh hell had me questioning my work ethic or my merit as a writer. I thought I’d made it past the worst, but I had much to learn about American workplace politics and the self-reliance I would need to cultivate as a woman and a minority.
That job folded rather quickly and I wondered if writing for a living was something I could still actually do. Maybe I should just refocus and go to med school.
But I thought often of Minhaj’s show, and followed along as his journey evolved all the way to headlining the White House Correspondents dinner to getting his own show on Netflix greenlit. This man was South Asian, Muslim and knew how to tell his story. His work had made me feel seen. I thought, if I want to do anything with my life, it’s to create something that makes others feel seen as well.
Somehow, while I continued to reflect on the stories I’d like to tell, I found myself in another communications position, this time at a global health university all the way in Rwanda. I’m writing again, and it feels right. More than that, the experience of being a minority in a context completely different than Connecticut is ultimately refreshing, allowing me to grow rather than stay stifled.
I’d like to continue writing, and one day find an avenue to channel my experiences as a Muslim, Pakistani-American 20-something. Whether I write a book or script or a one-woman show starring sock-puppets. Us creative minorities can often feel excited but also conversely anxious when a really prolific piece of storytelling comes out that actually showcases our experiences and resonates with the masses. As if two stories about Pakistani-Muslim women navigating their first few years out of college couldn’t possibly exist at the same time even though Hollywood’s created about 10,000 sports films starring white guys since the birth of cinema.
To me, the Muslim-American experience is so vast, varied, and rich with hilarity, love, strife, loss, triumph – our experiences are the perfect soil to grow some of the most deeply affecting and human stories. I want to be a part of this symbolic wave, and I know as I continue to write and use my voice, that I can be.
I keep telling myself I will get “there,” but in actuality, I am here. The story I want to tell is already being written, one day of my life at a time.