By M. Sophia Newman
This month, a nonprofit called Write A House announced the third and fourth winners of its unusually generous Detroit revitalization scheme: whole houses in Detroit, for writers, forever, for free. The project aims to add to Detroit’s literary culture by helping writers settle in the city, and it has worthy victors in Anne Elizabeth Moore, a cultural critic and Belt Magazine columnist from Chicago, and Detroit poet Nandi Comer.
I’m who the winner isn’t.
On the day a woman contacted me last summer to say I was one of ten finalists for the second competition, I was elated — but figured I wouldn’t win the house. No matter. For me, the real value lay in a more unusual victory already unfurling: an unexpected unification of truth-telling and scam artistry that encompassed my writing, the life of the girl whose story had gotten me that far, and maybe even the city of Detroit itself.
* * *The story began with a fire. On November 24, 2012, a blaze broke out in the Tazreen readymade garments factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh, an industrial suburb of the capital. It was a virtual replay of another historic fire a full century before, at the Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911. The building lacked adequate stairs and exits, trapping workers who then suffocated, burned, or leapt from high floors in vain efforts to escape. 112 died.
By chance, sewing assistant Sumaya Khatun, 16, wasn’t among the dead. Born onto the lowest socioeconomic rung of Bangladeshi society, Sumaya had begun working in factories at age eleven. She’d grown up hungry and therefore slight, with the liquid dark eyes and knock-kneed gangliness of a baby deer. But by the time she was trapped in the Tazreen fire, her fragile physique proved an oblique benefit: after she’d tripped over machinery in the blinding black smoke, slammed her face into the concrete floor, and nearly lost consciousness, her equally endangered coworkers had been able to haul her thin body towards a window and out to an adjoining roof. Their largesse saved her life.
Or so she thought. Two months later, Sumaya began to suffer debilitating headaches. That winter, doctors in Dhaka found a mass in her brain. By spring 2013, they diagnosed her with inflammatory myoblastic tumor — an aggressive, nearly untreatable, often lethal disease. Within months, the mass had grown so large it forced her eye forward and permanently open. It had outrun her forbearance, too: her pain had become so severe she sometimes asked to die.
Instead of death, she got unexpected help. In Dhaka, a group of workers’ rights activists were responding to the factory atrocity by pushing for labor reforms. When they heard of Sumaya, they’d taken initiative on her behalf, fundraising for treatment and then checking her into a hospital.
They also called me. Although in Bangladesh researching health on a Fulbright fellowship, I’d begun focusing on a burgeoning career in journalism. One of the small cluster of people aiding Sumaya was a photojournalist I knew. On the August day he went to move Sumaya from her Ashulia home to the hospital in Dhaka, he’d invited me along.
When I look back on what I found there, a connection to Detroit seems clear.
* * *
When I finally stopped driving east last summer, the house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, felt like something out of an interior decorating magazine. “The New York Times should do a feature on this place,” I told Lewis Hyde as I gazed on his leather chairs and fresh-cut flowers. He made a subtle joke about how I’d never be able to afford anything like it.
Yeah, maybe not, I thought. It had been a year since I’d met summer, and my writing career certainly wasn’t off to an easy start. I’d applied for a Fulbright with an unspoken plan to use the fellowship not just for academic research, but as time to launch my writing career. I’d achieved it, but at the cost of loneliness, instability and constant uncertainty in a rough city. For guidance, I’d had just one book: Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World. I’d packed it in my bags for Bangladesh for no reason, expecting mere diversion. It’d been so shockingly useful, though, I’d ended up nearly memorizing it — and eventually, when time in the US allowed, visited the author himself.
Hyde’s no self-help guru. He’s an anthropologist discussing an ancient archetype. “Trickster is a boundary-crosser,” he writes in the book, describing a character that turns up in stories from South Africa to the Arctic. “Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce…. We constantly distinguish — right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead — and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.” Trickster is a transgressor, a traveler, an amoral (but not immoral) social change agent, “out to reshape and revive the world he had been born into.”
Clarifies Hyde, “Trickster isn’t a run-of-the-mill liar and thief.” Corrupt politicians and exploitative capitalists don’t count; Pablo Picasso, Frederick Douglass, the Hindu god Krishna, and wanderers of all kinds do. “Trickster=Bugs Bunny,” Elizabeth Gilbert adds in her recent creativity tome Big Magic.
Trickster=writer, I thought when I read that. In Bangladesh — where the political spectrum ranges from center-right to far right, from ethnic-nationalist death penalty enthusiasts to brutally violent Islamic fundamentalists — I’d seen no other option. I’d managed to start my writing career because the local media was expanding and eager for English content. But it was also often embroiled in the national vice of myth-laden conflict-mongering: Ethnic nationalists regarded the Islamist aggressors of the liberation war as virtual bogeyman, and sometimes insisted that hanging a dozen war criminals would vanquish all the nation’s problems; a right-wing newspaper reprinted the list of people Islamists (not the war criminals, other ones) had black-listed for murder; op-ed columnists in a paper supported by the secular government occasionally cited Quranic prophecies as if they were intelligence on upcoming events. Polarized, entrenched, and facing ever-worsening chaos, most of the country viewed non-participants as untrustworthy.
I was an avowed non-participant, of course. Worse: I was no one’s natural ally. Obviously foreign, stubbornly idealistic, and an adherent to no right-wing tendency on Earth, I fell so far off the end of the Bangladeshi political spectrum that commenters sometimes expressed shock at my articles, or insisted some political party (Which one? It changed daily.) had bribed me to write them.
I was strange off the job, too. In a society that hewed closely enough to conservative family ideals that individualism was often irrelevant, I was unmarried, childless, and thousands of miles from my natal home. Over-educated, taller than 97 percent of Bengalis, and forever growing thinner from stress, I seemed to them a poor imitation of my own gender, too, socially and even physically. I was neither man nor woman, wandering freely, in rapid flux, a radical minority — with an outsized power to speak freely and in public. Trickster=me.
For a while, it felt good. But I’d come to see Hyde because it had grown too difficult to bear.
* * *
On that first day at the hospital in Dhaka — Sumaya lying in silence on a radiation room gurney, holding a hand to her misshapen eye; her tiny mother Amiran discussing huge expenses through betel-stained teeth — I noticed a strange half-truth. The activists were saying Sumaya’s tumor arose from her exposure to the fire — and as a result, they saw her dramatic illness as a rallying point. They hoped to seek legal penalties against Delwar Hossain, the owner who’d mismanaged factory safety to lethal results. If they succeeded, his arrest would be historic; he’d be the first Bangladeshi factory owner charged for harming workers in over 20 years. But that effort hinged on Sumaya’s name and face: the help activists offered the spritely girl came with the expectation she’d become the publicly identified victim in their legal and PR battles. In some sense, Sumaya’s illness was for sale.
Meanwhile, doctors said outright what I’d suspected from the start: Sumaya’s illness couldn’t have come from the fire. The exposure was too brief, the tumor too large; it was impossible to inhale smoke in November and have a brain tumor because of it by January. The activists were turning Sumaya’s story inside out. The fire hadn’t created the illness. It had created a stimulus to help Sumaya battle a tumor she’d harbored before the factory ever burned.
Practical impulses told me to forget the story. Another American journo showed up at the hospital, dismissed the situation as trivial to labor issues, and departed. Bangladesh was dangerous and difficult, the prospects of publication not good, the activists well-intentioned if misguided. Sumaya would die whether or not I wrote about her.
I spent hours with her anyway. Imagined causality, a teenage girl in her last months of life, the unstoppable corruption gobbling even the most noble intention: this was a story of Bangladesh I felt an unstoppable urge to tell.
Much later, I realized that I’d related to this tiny, blind, dying teenager because in her own way she’d played the part of a trickster too. She was a rare apolitical Bangladeshi, but was embroiled in a political battle bigger than herself. She considered the worker’s right activists her dear friends, and they’d made her the recipient of more financial help than every other Tazreen fire survivor combined. Yet she remained poor beyond imagining, and her friends arguably exploited her, too. Among other things, they’d soon mount an effort to get the court to count Sumaya’s death as a murder even before she’d even died. Sumaya was soon so sick she could scarcely rise from bed — but when those legal petitions worked, she became a name and face that stood for change in the garment industry. Dead before she was dead, she’d also had a small but immortal impact. Nothing about it was of her own volition, but Trickster=Sumaya.
* * *
“No one is really a trickster,” Hyde told me at his house in Cambridge. Thank you, I thought. By dint of its complex difficulties, Bangladesh could invite inventiveness, or compel a person to live a tangle of contradictions. But it could exhaust the real human, or harm her, too. As I followed the last months of Sumaya’s life, I also thought hard about whether the joys of being a writer justified the unstable, sometimes dangerous nature of my work. Sumaya’s dying body lingered in mind, solid despite her slow disappearance from the earth; in contrast, my work felt like a slight and exhausted scrap of nothing, a negative balance of risk to rewards forever shrinking before Bangladesh’s intractable, metastasizing difficulties.
In Detroit, my badge of
honor was being understood, lose the mis-.
“Once he was no longer situated at these multiple crossroads,” Hyde concludes, “the trickster portion of his spirit recedes.”
By the time I came to see the author, I was ready for my own trickster spirit to recede. Hyde was little help; he was a professor with a beautiful home, stable, straightforward, a man to whom life on an edge was a matter of academic study only. Still, talking to him brought into focus how sick I was of living between the self I’d left in the US and the one I’d grown into in Bangladesh. I wanted to go home. I wanted to have a home. I wanted to live in a city that might fit the conditions of my life.
* * *
Can a city be tricky, too? Trickster Makes This World gives examples ranging from Marcel Duchamp to the Norse god Loki to the trypanosome virus, but name-checks no metropolis’s boundary-crossing slipperiness. When I pressed for a longer list of who (or what) counted, Hyde told me, “That’s up to you.”If any city made the list, I bet Detroit could. The city is a mass of contradictions: it’s a wasteland and a fresh open space, moribund and on the verge. It’s apocalyptic, it’s post-apocalyptic, it’s “post-post-apocalyptic.” It’s allegedly attained near-Brooklyn levels of cool, and yet it’s chockablock with Polish Midwestern history, which I, as a Polish Midwestern girl, know for a fact is not all that cool. It’s a place where some live lives of paradoxical difficulties and raw hustles. It’s even located on an international border, a boundary.
And it’s home to many people who might qualify for the label “trickster” themselves — or hustler, a near-synonym that fits Detroit better. There’s dream hampton, for instance, the illustrious writer-editor who originated on the east side. “The words you use can be read a dozen different ways,” hampton ghostwrote in Jay Z’s Decoded, talking about rap but effectively explaining how tricksters operate. “They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time. The art of rap is… seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography…. [But] being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap.”
In Detroit, my badge of honor was being understood, lose the mis-. And that came through dream herself. “Sheeeeyit, Newman! That’s a strong voice backing you,” a friend had crowed when he found out it was she who picked me as a Write A House finalist.
* * *The essay hampton liked was the one I wrote about Sumaya. In the two years since that day in the hospital in August 2013, my work on Sumaya had lingered in notes, then drafts — even after Sumaya’s former boss, Delwar Hossain, became the first Bangladeshi factory owner to be arrested in over two decades for harming workers, in February 2014; after Sumaya checked into hospice, and later died at home on March 21, 2014; after I flew home to the US and took an office job out of sheer financial necessity that summer. The story outlasted my discomfort at watching Sumaya die, then my over-caution about hurting well-meaning activists, and then the job I quit when it began to crowd writing out of my head. It outlasted submission after submission and dozens of hours of revisions, growing slowly to 4,500 words. It was my first long-form story, and it finally got published in spring 2015. It was just before I went to see Hyde, just after I applied to the residency in Detroit.
It got no particular fanfare. I felt nothing but exhaustion.
But then one of Detroit’s literary bests approved the version I’d submitted with my application. Suddenly, there was the possibility that my reward would be a whole house — in Banglatown, one of the few neighborhoods in the country filled with people from the country where Sumaya had lived and died. After that nod, I began thinking about how Detroit — where my Polish Midwestern self could speak the same Bangla language I’d spoken to Sumaya, where I could keep my writing but lose the lonely hardships, where a person like dream saw what I was doing and got it — seemed like the place for me to be.
* * *
But I noted the still-low, one-in-ten odds of winning, the ambivalence of my interviewers, the tenuousness of the whole situation. My mind whispered I wouldn’t get it, followed by another thought: it didn’t matter. Truly, the victory lay in how the sudden validation had reenergized my fading heart. This, too, was tricksterish: a moment that drew a line between winning and not winning, then breached it.
Waiting for the final “no,” I spent my time mulling this enlivening feeling, trying to store it in my mind as fuel for the difficult future. I wanted to give a name to the combined rush of memories of crowded Dhaka, blessed Detroit spaciousness, and raw relief from tenuousness so that I could call it back later. When I could find no such word, I borrowed the name of a doe-eyed slip of a girl who’d left long before, the same name I would’ve given the Write A House if it had ever been mine. I call this feeling sumaya.
M. Sophia Newman completed a Fulbright fellowship in Bangladesh in 2013. She has since reported from Ghana, India, South Africa, Kenya, Nepal, France, and the US. See more at msophianewman.com.
Banner photo from the Write A House facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/WriteAHouse)