Waking Up American | R a s m a H a i d r i | Rasma Haidri

Waking Up American

My essay “Urdu, My Love Song” appeared in Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (2005) from Seal Press. The essay was many years in the making. I had been exploring themes of home, belonging, identity in poems, but in the end creative non-fiction was the only genre that let me fully explore my mixed feeings about my father’s Indian background, his exotic ‘otherness’ clashing with the homegrown southern culture we lived in.

Multiculturalism was not a political or social issue when I grew up. No one ever said my dad was not American, even though he was a grown man in his late twenties when he came to the USA to do his doctorate. Certainly no one ever told me I wasn’t American due to him, or my mother’s Norwegian immigrant parents. But I struggled with questions of identity. I yearned to be ‘special’ even as my family's lack of local cultural roots chagrined me. 

What took me years to write was not the entire essay, but just the last paragraph, to nail the epiphany, the clincher, the point of it all. Once I had that, “Urdu, My Love Song” sang. 

I felt like a bit of a fraud sending it to the Southern Women Writers Association's literary competition. I feared a reply to the effect of “Rasma Haidri - who left Tennessee as soon as she was old enough to drive a car north - is not a ‘southern woman’!” 

When the essay won the prize, I was pleased on two accounts. It was a great honor for the essay, of course, but it also allowed me to try on the label of  “southerner”  with more confidence than I ever had growing up there. 

From the publisher:

Waking Up American includes original work by women who are either American-born of at least one foreign-born parent or who immigrated to the United States during childhood. The writers explore what it means to feel caught between two worlds—neither wholly American nor wholly a part of another heritage.

Cultures represented include the Philippines, Germany, India, Mexico, China, Iran, Nicaragua, Japan, Russia, and Panama, among others, and are often juxtaposed with a bicultural reality, having been raised by parents who simultaneously embrace and question American values. Essays trace themes of rebellion and conformity, pride and uncertainty, sexuality and sense of self, and a heightened awareness of what it means to be “other.”

These narratives examine the part cultural identity plays in creating strong, independent, hyphenated American women whose experiences are part of what makes the United States the intriguing cultural amalgamation that so many diverse peoples are proud to call home.