I wrote my first story at six-years-old. It was called “King and Queen” and I was excited to send it to the Reading Rainbow Short Story contest. My love of words, stories, stringing sentences together to form legible thoughts to be conveyed to an audience was innate, I believe. Plus, Mom used to pop me with a thick comb if I hadn’t learned to spell at least ten words a day during home-school sessions.
Words and I became best friends. I read and wrote. And read and wrote some more. It was my outlet away from being daddy-less and watching our single, Black mother work damn hard to keep five kids together, off the streets, and fed. As you could imagine, she was there, but then again, she wasn’t. She had too much on her plate to be everything we needed her to be. Stories became my life. And, 24 years later, it still rings true.
I’ve had many of rough patches, and will probably have many more if I live long enough, but one in particular almost took me out the game. Yes, a fucked up relationship stirred in with heavy mental illness and lack of family support and financial issues played a major role, but looking back on it, the major issue was that I felt as if I hadn’t had a voice in the world.
I keep using the words “fail” and “embarrass” because that’s how I genuinely felt at the time.
I’d tried my hand at creating a blog and putting some fiction on there. It failed. The following year, I tried to start a trendy YouTube page where I talked about myself and celebrities. It was reckless. People bashed me. I embarrassed myself and stopped immediately. I made a public video where I basically had a mental breakdown on camera. Posted it. Again, embarrassing myself. I wrote tons of full-length novels. Four to be exact. Those got shot down by every agent in LA and New York. Started another blog. Failed.
I keep using the words “fail” and “embarrass” because that’s how I genuinely felt at the time. I had so many ideas in my head. Like some cutting-edge shit and no one (or not many) understood them. No one got it like I needed them to, so I was ignored.
Friends (well, not any more) would make fun of me. One time, in particular, I wrote a quirky feminist poem. I was so scared to get on stage and perform it. I stumbled a bit, but I got up there and did it. After the applause died and I went back to my seat. One person kept taunting me and laughing at the words I wrote. I sat there, confused. Wondering why was it so funny to overcome your fears and have the courage to say something, even if it sounded stupid to her. Why did she have to kill my moment? But, people like her, individuals who don’t have courage to fuck up, don’t have the persistence to keep at it, even though you’ve failed a hundred times just don’t get people like me or you.
I thought I valued myself, but I hadn’t. Not at all. I never saw myself as a writer. As creative. A creator. An artist. I deemed myself as someone who wrote words. Why? Everyone could write words. I made myself plain. Regular. I boxed myself in with the “normal” people. The one’s who didn’t have any special abilities. I’d been told so many times that I wasn’t special that I started to believe them. I was the person who hadn’t spoke because it’d make people feel uncomfortable. There were stories I hadn’t written because I was afraid to stir the pot, make waves. Because of all the restrictions and limits I placed on myself, I became a drone.
When you truly figure out who you’re supposed to be, it makes others mad, resentful, uncomfortable.
The difference was that the inside hadn’t matched the outside, which created turmoil like no other. I was fighting a silent battle that no one saw or heard. One that almost destroyed me. And, I am the only one to blame for that. But no one told me that I could be me. That it was okay to be unapologetic in my very own skin. I was always told to put on a face, be the bigger person, do what you gotta do to survive. And, I never questioned it. I watched the women in my life crumble because of that norm. They’d gone through the same battle as I was and suppressed it. They were stuck. I hadn’t and I don’t want to be stuck like my grandmother. Like my mom. Like my aunts. And my cousins.
I wanted to be free. Free of constraints.
I was told that it wasn’t possible. That I could never model as a Muslim woman. That no one would buy my work, my stories. That I could never write and tell the whole truth. That I could never be me. The real me.
I became resistant. And, man, was it a lonely road. When you truly figure out who you’re supposed to be, it makes others mad, resentful, uncomfortable. I had no friends. A husband that barely wanted to be there. And myself.
I still had myself. That was more than enough. We gotta be okay with just being. Ourselves.
The resistance grew. And grew and grew. I hadn’t cared about money. I stopped caring about success. I’d write. Every day. At one point, I was thinking about just living out of my car – that as long as I had a notepad and access to a library then I’d be fine. As long as I could create. Then I’d be so fine.
The question I get asked a lot is how am I so raw with the pieces I share?
When you are good to yourself and stop placing limitations on you and what you put out, then you’ll become what you are meant to be. A lot of these limitations come from ourselves, first and foremost, and our perceptions of what other people will think of us. We are wrapped in holding up these facades that we don’t even know who the fuck we are anymore. We care so much about what someone who isn’t paying our bills or brushing our teeth think that we don’t even try to step outside the box and explore ourselves.
You are needed. Your voice is needed. And you belong. Speak for us ladies that don’t have the courage to do so.
It’s funny because I’ve become this sort of beacon for individuals who’ve had no voice. I’ve been deemed as this, I guess, motivational speaker and writer, almost. People actually come to me with their problems and their body image issues and we talk – chat and share stories. They throw words at me like “inspirational” and “motivational” and “innovative.” Each time, I’m in awe that they see me in those ways. I write for myself, for the most part. As an artist, if you don’t feel your shit, then who will?
A few ladies came up to me after I accepted the Gilda Award last week and grabbed my hand or my shoulders, and squeezed. Each one said, “You are needed. Your voice is needed. And you belong. Speak for us ladies that don’t have the courage to do so.”
Love you Leah!!! You do continue to inspire me everyday!!!
Love you, too boo boo 🙂
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