Welcome back to You Did That!. In this special episode, we will be diving into an incredible anthology of poetry titled “Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air” written by six talented authors who have a variety of immigrant and refugee backgrounds. Throughout the episode, we’ll explore the power of poetry as a means of self-discovery and self-expression. From feeling boxed-in as “the smart one” to navigating the pressures of med school, they have all found solace, confidence, and creative freedom within the pages of their book.
They’ll also take us on a journey through their writing circle and the publishing process.
From the scents of a bustling street market in India to the warmth of stories rooted in Venezuela to snippets of college days shared at MIT, the poetry in this book features an ache for grounds no longer walked upon. With a range of distinct styles and voices, the poets’ nuanced self-expression amounts to a piece that is both a prayer and a rebellion. Their words, introspective and reminiscing, witty and thoughtful, are an ode to that which makes them who they are and where they come from. Simultaneously, their voices are a rejection of dangerous stigmas, cultural taboos, and oppressive systems. In both verse and image, Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air is a bold and unfiltered collection recounting moments, tears, and dreams that have been generations in the making.
Afeefah Khazi-Syed was born and raised in the DFW metroplex but has always called two places home: the suburbs of Texas and her grandparents’ homes in Southern India. After studying biological engineering with a minor in urban studies at MIT, Afeefah finds herself on a new journey as a medical student at UT Southwestern. She attributes her love for writing and storytelling to her grandparents’ bedtime stories and the many writing mentors she has found throughout her life, from high school English teachers to other immigrant writers. Afeefah views poetry as a deeply personal exchange of experiences and stories.
Aleena Shabbir was born in Queens, New York and has lived in New York ever since. As a Pakistani-US- American, she cherishes connecting with a multitude of cultures, in addition to her own roots. Many years after the minor poetry lessons she had taken in elementary school, Aleena found a community with these fellow poets who have taught her how to express herself creatively and comfortably; she is forever grateful for them and their care. Having studied data science/operations research and different fields of applied mathematics, Aleena hopes to one day work in policy development with a quantitative background. Aleena usually enjoys reading, anything to do with nature, traveling, and pursuing adrenaline inducing experiences.
Ayse Angela Guvenilir was born in Austin into a family with a Turkish father, a Venezuelan mother, and three older brothers. Growing up in Texas, France, and various parts of upstate New York, Ayse has always used reading and writing for connection, reflection, and relaxation as she moved from place to place. She sees poetry in particular as a form of writing that can surpass the bounds of what words are expected to be, in turn connecting her with others. Ayse got her bachelor’s degree in biological engineering with a minor in creative writing from MIT and is currently a master’s student in the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Through her work, Ayse aims to empathize, educate, and inspire, the way that the works of others have always done for her.
Maisha Munawwara Prome was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and has moved back and forth between Bangladesh and the United States throughout her life. Maisha used to write poetry as a child growing up in New York City, but rediscovered it in college while taking classes for her writing minor. Aside from poetry, Maisha enjoys all things creative, from baking to crocheting to writing fiction. She has won awards for her short stories and hopes to continue writing alongside working in research and education. Maisha graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in biological sciences at Yale University.
Mariam Eman Dogar was born in Singapore and has lived in Dubai and Massachusetts. Moving every few years, Mariam describes the closest thing to “home” as the intangible bridge she and her siblings occupy between the very different countries, cultures, and families of her US- American mother and Pakistani father. Mariam has loved writing since she was in elementary school, creating fictional worlds and characters in the back of her notebooks. However, she started writing poetry during her time as a biology major and urban planning minor at MIT. Poetry is now deeply connected to self-care and spirituality for Mariam while she is training to be a physician at Harvard Medical School.
Marwa Abdulhai was born in Chennai, India and has called many places home across the US and in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s studies in computer science at MIT, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in robotics and artificial intelligence at University of California, Berkeley. She is drawn to poetry for its oral tradition, and grew up hearing her Dada Saab recite the works of Muhammad Iqbal and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi in their home in South India. Performing, writing, and listening to poetry allows her to connect with God and understand existence. It is her form of dawah to herself and the world.
- Committing to a writing circle with your college besties
- Publishing essentially your diary – that your family will read
- Staying equal as a team of six authors without competing
- How to write and publish your book idea
How did the idea for this book come about and who came up with the idea first to publish it?
Afeefah: So we all met at MIT, which is where we did our undergrad and we were all friends first kind of met through the Muslim Dance Association, lived in the same dorms, things of that sort. And in our friendship we also discovered that we all either were poets already or were interested in exploring poetry and just felt like we didn’t have time for it. And so we came together with this idea of just writing poetry in our dorm rooms every 2 weeks or so just as a way to give each other company, and make sure that we’re making time to write. And we did that for quite a while, starting at the end of 2019, and then eventually we all got sent to our own corners of the world with COVID, but continued to meet on zoom. And 2 years into writing together, we would kind of look back and we’ve actually compiled a lot of poems. We’ve written a lot of stories. What if we turn this into something bigger, and start thinking about publishing it? And long story short, here we are with physical books that are now available. I’m looking at Ayse because I feel like she was one of the earliest ones on that.
Ayse: I feel like it was a combination of me and Afeefah. When we first started, we were just so excited about the idea of writing together. And I think for a lot of us actually in this group, we’ve always kind of wanted a part of our lives in different ways. We were the first to be like, yeah, we’re gonna publish. And Everyone else was kind of ignoring us, like not paying attention to that fact, but it was really nice.
You mentioned the poems involve your family too. Any interesting responses from family members to share?
Aleena: So, one of the chapters in our books is specifically our first chapter is titled on mothers where we each vote upon a kind of highlighting, and encompassing the love that we have for our mothers in our lives and the roles that they’ve played. And so, for me, the way that I wrote my poem was or what I sort of detailed in my poem was basically, how my mother was my first sort of safe space for myself, growing up. Sort of the different actions that she took to highlight her love for me. I think that if I have to talk about love languages, I feel like her love language to show love is an act of service. So I talk about the different acts of service that she did for me growing up. I mean, they’re infinite. And in my family, we express love through action, and I guess not really words, which I feel like some people can relate to. And so, after she read my poem, I ended the poem by saying, I love you in the language of Pakistan, which I feel like I tell her way more than I did growing up in person. Like, I love you and verbal expression. She was just like, whenever I feel like you’re being a brat, I’ll remember that you told me this. So I think it’s done some good to have her see that.
Mariam: I can share some of my most emotional reactions are actually seeing some members of my family cry when reading some of my poems, and it was such a shock to me because I realized, some of the issues we had not really ever talked about in that level of depth, but then seeing them have an emotional reaction to something I had written was kind of the trigger point.
What were people’s perceptions of you while you were writing and they heard that you were trying to get this book published?
Maisha: I feel like I didn’t tell anybody that we were going to publish until the book came out. And maybe that’s because, like, we were having these conversations while we were all in the middle of the pandemic. We were all in different places. I was home in Bangladesh. Everyone else was at home. And so we kind of weren’t around our main friend groups. So I don’t know if the rest of us told anyone, but I personally didn’t tell anyone until the book came up.
Ayse: My family knew. I was way too excited to not talk about it. And then some of my close friends. They were the ones who I would have told. So, I’m sure I told other people, but it must have been very few until like, a couple months before we were gonna publish. I had roommates who weren’t in this group. And so, they knew and they were like, oh, we hate poetry. But it was definitely a joke. They are huge fans of the book.
When was the moment that this book became official to you?
Maisha: I would say our book launched in person, for me, at least, as Mary was talking about, and we all came back to Boston for a graduation. And we’ve had a book launch prior to that, like, maybe a month or so before that over Zoom. And that was also very nice, and that was, like, the first time you’re getting out in the world, but it was different from seeing, like, little box people’s faces in little boxes of her zoom. So, like, actually being there in person, being surrounded by all these people who had been part of our lives. We had all our college friends. We had some professors from our college. We had our families, and we had the book in our hand, and we were able to read out loud and just being in that garden and that we had our book launch in, I think it was just a very special moment.
Ayse: I feel like it was several different times, throughout the whole process. Like that 1st night, like, joking, like, oh, we’re gonna publish one day. Like, to me, it felt real then. when we actually officially decided, like, almost 2 years later, oh, we’re actually gonna publish. It felt real again then. When we had applied for some grants, and so, to, like, help the process of, like, the book. And so, like, when we got those grants, it felt real then. When we decided to, like, get our publisher then it also felt like that. And then the other experiences are the similar ones that might show much for me.
Afeefah: I think the other big moment for me was when I got my first copy in the mail, I think that was definitely just like, wow, it’s real. And she’s here and I’m holding her in my hands. I think that we just went and felt tangible, for the very first time.
Who’d like to share a favorite self-discovery from both the writing and publishing journey?
Ayse: For me, one thing was when we were laying out the book. We had a book designer, his name’s Jorge and he mostly just speaks Spanish. And so out of the group, some of my coworkers would speak a little bit of Spanish as well, but I speak the most. And so I was translating. There were things that needed to be changed based on the format and so we would meet with him. We met with him a few different times, and then I would be there translating for what people wanted to say. And so I know that I speak Spanish, but that experience of doing it within the writing world was really cool and learning how to say different, stylistic things in Spanish, like, bold or stuff like that, was really cool. That was really exciting for me and to have learned that I’m able to do that.
Maisha: I’ll say I learned that I like to find melody in everything, especially after I got really into writing poetry. Anytime I find myself writing, like, an email craft, cool applications, Instagram captions, I just read it over and over. And I’m like, “how many syllables does it have? Can this rhyme, what words can I switch out?” And my mind just automatically goes into that mode, but I think it helps me appreciate the details and things.
Afeefah: I think, for me, one of the biggest takeaways was learning to be okay with taking up space. And just something like, these ladies have heard me say this many times, but, I think in writing these poems was the first time that I really realized that my own stories and experiences could also be in the spotlight. And prior to that, a lot of the writing I did was reflective of nature or it’d be fiction writing with characters that I didn’t necessarily identify with. And so I was subconsciously writing about things that were not myself. And I think going through this process and this experience, especially with these friends of mine who pushed me to write and be treated myself, I really learned that I could be my own main character and that my stories could be from the spotlight.
Marwa: I think I’ve realized this more now, but I think being okay with the fact that the person who wrote the poems perhaps is different than the person now. And I think it’s like a snapshot as to who I was and how I reflected on the memories and moments in the past. And I think this is a huge concern of mine as I was writing. Like, what am I gonna think when I read these poems? Like, a year from now, 2 years from now. And I started already seeing that I would have done this differently. I would have reflected or said things about this event of my life differently. And I mean, that’s okay. And it’s quite beautiful to have a physical manifestation of who you were in that moment to reflect on. And perhaps it’ll still resonate with people who are at that moment in their lives too. So I think that’s been the biggest takeaway for me.
Mariam: I think one of the biggest things I learned was this confirmation that I am a multidimensional person, and it sounds so weird saying that. But I think as someone who is raised like, a lot of my friends here too, constantly being told you’re the smart one. You’re the smart one. Or you’re supposed to be this. So you’re gonna grow up and do X,Y,Z. And even being at MIT, I was often frustrated that I felt like I was like you said earlier, contained in a box. And even hearing a lot of the things that were told as a woman, like, you can have it all just not all at once. Or, like, you have to be really careful with what you commit to and what you end up doing. And I’m hearing that all again right now in med school and it’s just really annoying and frustrating. But whenever I think about this book and our process of writing it, I just get a lot of peace back to me because I am reminded that in the midst of everything going on and all the different things my brain was thinking of and working towards, I was also working on my creative self. And that’s something I go back to as a reminder whenever I’m feeling stressed now. And just think, like, “No!” I am someone who has all of these different interests. Now I even view them as talents. Like, that was a big confidence boost to writing this book. And, like, how can I move forward in the world really trying to harvest all of these different interests and talents. And that was something that I didn’t have the confidence to really put my foot down about before the book.
Aleena: I think for me, the takeaway that I got from this whole process was sort of seeing the beauty of and learning to love the unexpected over a long period. So everyone here knows that I’m a very impulsive person. Like, I’m an adrenaline junkie. I love doing crazy stuff at the last minute’s decision which I usually never regret. It’s not necessarily a peer commitment, but when it comes to longer skill things, when you don’t necessarily know what the journey is gonna look like throughout every single step or every single week. In this case, like, every week that we met, if you don’t know what the final product is gonna look like, what poems you’re gonna specifically have, what format, what design, I think I really learned how to slow down and take each meeting head on and reap what basically how much substance was in each meeting, even if the book wasn’t made in a meeting. Like, usually what I do, I expect something completely done after I dive head in. Like, each meeting had so much substance and so much care and so much compassion and so much to learn from everybody. And I think that going through this process, like, the two and a half year to 3 year process of writing our poems and publishing this book has really taught me a lot about how to value each interaction and each moment more, which I really appreciate.
What advice would have been valuable to you when you were making the decision to publish your work?
Maisha: It’s hard for me to think of anything on the spot because I feel like we trusted ourselves with the process, and it turned out so well. And I can’t imagine doing it differently. And if we did have to do it again, I think this would be the way.
Mariam: I would also say to myself a little earlier that it’s okay to be a little less conflict diverse. Like, when it came to some of our stylistic decisions or points on editing each other’s stuff. In the beginning, you know, we’re all such good friends and I think really generally polite people. And so, it took some time to really figure out what was our way of telling or expressing different ideas or different viewpoints for how we wanted the book to end up. And we had to come up with structures for voting on things or deciding about some big decisions. And, I think in the beginning, some of that stuff made me a little bit, like, just not necessarily sure how things would turn out. And I would just go back and tell myself that again, if you trust the people you’re working with, have really great intentions and are in your corner, then why not just brainstorm, throw a bunch of ideas on the table and get that done earlier? And that’s why I think it’s so important who you decide to work with and who you decide to trust with some things that are really important to you, like your creative work.
Afeefah: I’d say something along the lines of like, not being afraid when things take longer than you think they will. I think it’s really easy to fall into the wrap of, like, this is never gonna happen, and things keep getting pushed over. And I think just learning to trust the process and learning to trust that sometimes taking more time than anticipated is better in the long run, and just believing that things will still happen and your end goal is still there and will take a long time to get there. I think it was like our 14th iteration or editing copy that eventually got published. And, you know, I think when you’re honestly on your 10th copy, you’re like, is this ever gonna happen? Like, why are we still playing with it? But just knowing that you need that time to make sure that everyone’s content with that final product was really worth it because they’ve been looking bad at it. We’re all really proud of it.
Learn more about the authors of Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air:
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