Julia Zarina: How to tell a true story

By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published February 24, 2014

I guess it was around the end of high school that I stopped sleeping. I don’t mean entirely, of course, but for a month or two I existed in a state of deliberate insomnia.

Julia Zarina

When the sounds of telenovelas faded from the walls around me and the men downstairs breathing smoke with practiced cool had drifted off into their own corners of the evening, I would open my window to let the moon in. From the top floor of our apartment building, my own domain was infinite. I felt solitary in my knowledge of the hours I would sit at the window, watching the eyes of the city blink slowly from deep within a jungle of black steel and concrete. I felt the heartbeats at the centers of a million different curtain-drawn pupils lined neatly in brick rows along city streets. The silent rush of the wings of millions of prayers whispered into dark rooms — millions of stories never retold in the daylight — scattered the gray and drafty holding patterns of my own thoughts.

I was wondering how to tell a life story that was completely true, because sometimes the facts are incidental and all that really matters is character development — how you are different at the end of a series of events than you were at the beginning. Some people spend their entire lives learning how to love; others are born in love and spend their entire lives learning how to fall out of it. I didn’t know quite where to place myself.

Self-reflection is an exercise in what it means to risk everything you know in the name of growing up. Self-doubt is a risky venture and self-confidence is no less perilous. When approached without balance, either can prove to be both perpetuating and debilitating. Without a measure of confidence, a person will never attempt to succeed, but without a measure of insecurity, they will never question their potential to improve.

My life up until that point could be divided into two distinct segments: the desert and everything that came after. I grew up barefoot in a city of dirt roads, banyan trees and crowded busses. Cairo to me was muddy ankles and leaves you forgot were green until the rains came and the soldiers sang monsoon songs in the streets. It was our windows without glass in them, khamsin and jinn and night air that was always sweet and dusty with bougainvillea and reconciled kitchen fights.

America was where I spent my lunch breaks in the bathroom, hot tears of shame running down my face each time I was reminded by ignorance, innocence or plain fact, that maybe I was born to be the odd one out. That no matter where I moved or the kind of person I tried to become, we all carry reminders, heavy at times, impossibly light at others, of where we come from. That even though the sand is gone, I can’t shake the desert out of my shoes.

Growing up, I was inclined to speak in absolutes because life is easier to learn and understand when the universe is not implacable and events can be neatly categorized like in the movies and books I loved. People were good or they were bad; they were vulnerable or they were calculated. Happy endings found those who deserved them and no true love was unrequited. I was resolutely American or I resolutely wasn’t, depending on who asked. I was fiercely loving or chillingly distant. I was eager to prove that I wasn’t just another passing face, eager to prove that I was every bit the parts of my past I had handpicked and placed on display, delicately tended. I was more eager to prove that I was resolutely not the parts of my past that I had disassembled and left behind.

I spent a lot of time trying to make my life imitate art, to fit neatly into the outline of a novel or the frames of a Bollywood movie.

Back then I had the tendency to arrange the events around me with a degree of intentional literary significance. My life had character web complexities and thematic arcs like I thought only dead Russians knew how to write. Even as I collected the details of my friends’ lives obsessively — what they wore, how they spoke, what they believed — I rejected the details of my own as wholly and resolutely as a body rejecting a transplanted heart. In my imagination, I was dark and beautiful and loved completely, separated at birth from a perfect, perpetually happy family that believed in what I believed and wanted to be what I wanted to be. Falling into these thoughts was a long way down, and I walked that edge precariously. It was a fault of innocence. I was too young to understand that some tears are not yours to cry. I was too naïve to understand that love is a family who cares for you in their own way — even when you are young and it is a painful reminder of a culture and past you are desperate to leave behind — because it is honest and true and the best way they can. I did not understand that real stories aren’t linear and neatly bound in covers to sit on shelves gathering dust, though that doesn’t make them any less interesting or worthwhile.

From my window on the city, I stopped trying to sleep and just watched. The streetlights became the stars in my own galaxy. In the hours between days, I began to remember things that I did not know I had forgotten. I had sand between my fingers, desert nights in my soul, lost words on my lips and past days on my mind. I had spent every second up until then wondering how to tell the story of my life, and it was only in that moment that I finally knew what I would say. If I had forever, I would write about my parents and my home and the Big Bang and everything that defines who I am, whether I’ve grown to accept it or not. If I had a book and wanted it to be critically acclaimed I would write it in tears, and if I wanted it to be factually accurate I would write a physics textbook, but even then nothing is certain.
But if I wanted it to be entirely true, I would plan none of it and tell it entirely in the present, in single words. And if I had to choose just one, I would say “Urgent,” because whether it is “I love you” or “I accept you” or “I’m sorry,” everything you need to tell somebody is.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.