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     Volume 4 Issue 1 | June 25, 2004 | 8th Anniversary Issue


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Picture a long, curving marble staircase. Lounging, almost insolently but with elegant ease at the bottom, with his broad back to us is a man. Your eye, guided by a camera pauses at a balustrade to take him in. Then he turns around and the camera sweeps down the length of the staircase for one of the most breathtaking close ups in the history of film. Your eight-year-old breath catches in your skinny throat as your eyes light upon Clark Gable's cocky, knowing grin and you fall in love for the first time. You realise that for all your dodge ball, cartwheels off the diving board, chasing the ice cream truck adventures you have, in fact, been leading a lack lustre existence up until then. And that Katie Scarlett O'Hara is one lucky broad to be the recipient of such a smile.

Clark Gable is not what one would describe as a handsome man (apparently he suffered from halitosis as well, leaving Vivian Leigh breathless for all the wrong reasons) but somehow when I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time in a revival movie house in Cambridge, MA it didn't matter. I was caught up in the drama of the first moment Rhett Butler saw Scarlett O'Hara. The colours, the music, and Gable's smouldering gaze made him the most fetching creature on the planet. It was the emotion of the moment that stayed with me, long after I emerged from the dark theatre, blinking dazed and suddenly suffused with purpose. I knew what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be an actor, but more importantly, I wanted to create moments like the one I had just witnessed.

I wish I could say I pursued that dream with gusto. I wish I could say I moved to LA, became a waitress working the graveyard shift in some seedy diner, lived in a cold water flat with a couple of rats and made the exhausting run of auditions by day. Because apparently, that is the only way to make it in Hollywood. Instead, I went to college, not an Ivy League one, much to the chagrin of my over-achieving family, majored in English because it was impractical to major in drama, and then went on to get an MA in creative writing from NYU. I got married at a respectable age (23) and had a baby. I was a good Bangali girl. Except that I married a gorah (he converted, don't freak out) who, despite his fair and lovely complexion did not quite meet my mother's specifications. She threatened to go on hunger strike--very Gandhiesque. Update: she loves him now and is eating normally.

Having a baby was the best thing that ever happened to me. It grounded me and taught me to focus on something other than myself. Before that, however, I tried to be an actor and experienced the kind of rejection that stayed with me for far too long, but was integral to how I have chosen to approach this profession.

As karma would have it, I went to the same boarding school in Western Massachusettes as leggy kung fu fighter Uma Thurman. We even lived in the same dorm, Moody Cottage. Not at the same time--she left to pursue her dreams a year before I arrived.

Not to boast, but we do actually have mutual acquaintances, Uma and I, namely the drama teacher who kept giving her leads and me the ax. Now, I am sure you're thinking, well, no offence but maybe you're just not that talented. That could very well be and if the teacher had told me that it might have been easier to let go of this compulsion to perform.

I auditioned for a play every term I was at Northfield Mt. Hermon and made the first cut every time, meaning I always survived the first round of eliminations. I got an actual part only once, in the chorus of a kabuki version of Trojan Women (don't ask) and had about three lines. The excuses for not getting other parts ran something like this: "Well, you're really talented but we don't quite know how to place you. You're not black, you're not white; you're not Puerto Rican (there appear to be some Latino construction workers who would argue otherwise) and you're not even Chinese. There just doesn't seem to be any parts for you. But you really do have something." Yeah, buddy, it's called imagination, try growing one.

When I told my mother, she said, "Shona, this is reality. This is what you will have to face. Better you know now. I bet that boy I wanted to introduce to you looks pretty inviting." (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

This rejection was a solid example of a mainstream attitude. I was an alien. It broke my spirit. Ten years passed. I got into NYU's creative writing programme and an idea crept into my already chaotic head. I could write my own parts. If They won't give me a chance then I will create my own tracking shots down ornate staircases. I will use my imagination, something prep school drama teachers, and Hollywood executives seem to lack. But, above all, I will create moments that leave skinny brown eight-year-old Bangali girls breathless with all their synapses firing at once.

I have actually managed to get my short stories published and even won a literary award once. I haven't quite written my Gone With the Wind yet. (An aside: frankly my dear, the racial stereo-typing of black Americans in that movie makes my now 33-year-old sensibilities cringe.) I have written something I am proud of, though (insert shameless plug). It's called Raisins Not Virgins. It's about a Bangladeshi American woman who is facing a spiritual crisis in pre 9/11 New York. I have a producer, another young, hungry Bangladeshi American, Labid Aziz, and together we are preparing to make the rounds with my freshly minted script.

Our path is made somewhat easier by the Broadway production of Bombay Dreams, the alarming appearance of bindis on more and more white foreheads and the hysterical enthusiasm with which yoga is being embraced. But it is precisely because of these things that we face a different kind of stereotyping, one where we will be clumped together with Indians because don't you know? There is only one country in South Asia and that is India--at least that is what mainstream America seems to think. Very few Indian artists or thinkers are going out of their way to correct this idea because they are relishing their moment in the sun, understandable but disconcerting for me and Labid.

Did I mention that the heroine of Raisins Not Virgins is Muslim and that she is facing a spiritual crisis that has to do with being Muslim and American all at the same time? Well, let me gallop to assure you that this is not another American Deshi debacle. No wearisome straddling of two cultures nonsense here. The heroine knows she is American and Bangladeshi and is happy about it; she's just not sure how being Muslim plays into it.

We South Asian Americans are part of the latest group of immigrants who have caught mainstream America's interest. Next it will be the Eskimos--if they ever bother to move to New York City. Thus, when God opens a door, he can sometimes rig a bucket of paint to fall on your head and my producer and I must face that challenge head on. We will arm ourselves with paint thinner, a tight script, and a sense of humour. I will write stories that are universal-- that are not about being black, white, oriental, or Bangladeshi but merely human. And someday some little girl will be sitting in a darkened theatre, watching a character I created smile or cry or do something brave and her heart will speed up, her eyes will grow wide with recognition and she will whisper, "That's me."

Sharbari Ahmed lives with her fair skinned husband and son in New York. She is a writer and an actor.











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