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