Tag Archives: underrepresented

7 perks of being an underrepresented writer

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum!

How’s it going, peeps? Let’s see…what happened these past two weeks? I wrote 30 pages on a new draft. I realized that I was writing at break-neck speed, not enjoying myself very much, leave alone entertaining myself and felt like my new outline had only minutely moved my project in the direction it needed to go.

I scrapped those 30 pages and went back to that outline. It was unintelligible (most my outlines are), so I wrote a treatment. I told myself I wouldn’t write a word till I was happy with that treatment. I really really challenged myself. This time, it was much much better.

24 pages in, I think Alhamdulillah (by the grace of God), it’s doing pretty good. Though obviously, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

By the way – I made butterscotch pudding pie. Just to console myself.

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It strikes me that there’s a lot of negativity flying around, especially when it comes to women in film-making. I shudder to think what we would unearth if we put as much energy into finding out about people of color in film-making. But one layer of privilege at a time, I guess.

This film-making business – it’s hard. Living on Earth is hard. It’s not heaven. Nothing’s perfect.

But it’s not hell either.

With hardship comes ease, says the Noble Qur’an. Not ‘after’ as some people sometimes quote that verse as saying. But ‘with’. There’s always something to be grateful for, even in the darkest of times.

Right now, I’m grateful that there are no dishes to wash. Is it just me or do dishes just dirty themselves? Drives me up the wall.

Another trigger for this post was the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell details any number of ways that being perceived as the underdog is actually strength, not a weakness. We have less pride, so we were willing to use unorthodox means and circumvent the system. We adapt new skills to hide our weaknesses. So many amazing things – you should really read that book.

So here are my brief musings on how being underrepresented might be good for you.

1. You know how to work hard.

You know that nothing comes easy – you were probably fed that maxim with your baby food. You don’t complain – you  just roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

2. You know how to be comfortable in your skin.

You’ve probably had a few years of self-hatred. By now, you’ve probably learned to accept yourself for the work-in-progress that you are. No mean feat, I tell you.

3. You know how to deal with uncertainty healthily.

If you’ve survived this long, you probably have sustainable healthy habits.

4. You have a good BS meter.

Sorry to curse in acronyms, friends. What I mean to say is, when you’re in a room, you probably can tell within an instant if someone jibes with you or not. You’ve learned not to question that gut instinct – it’s usually always right. Even if the person you’re talking to is Mr. Hotsy Totsy Executive Producer and the words that are coming out of their mouth say they can’t wait to get their hands on your project – you know when it’s all an act.

You probably don’t question why. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

5. You probably know how to hustle.

Or how to ask nicely. Or how to sell. Or how to get under someone’s skin.

6. You know to present yourself i.e. how to celebrate rather than hide your difference.

Often, people look at me and think that I don’t speak English, leave alone write screenplays. I know I’m going to have to be the one to approach them – not easy, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve have come to expect a period of surprise. I know they’re going to have to ‘get over it’ before I pitch. And then that pitch had better nail it.

I’ve practiced. You probably have too.

You and I probably both have our ways of dealing with our difference. Me, I bow, I make a joke. That helps people ‘get over it’. I listen. I show compassion. I have open body language.

You probably do ‘you’ – drama, mystery, juggling…it’s all good.

7. This is probably the hardest skill you’ve had to develop. You know how to deal with rejection, harsh criticism or just plain ole jerkery.

Many of us were bullied at school. Many of us come from families or had social circles who either don’t understand or actively discouraged us from pursuing our goals *raises hand*.

It hurts when another human being treats you like you don’t matter. Like you don’t have a right to sit at the table. And people do that in any number of insidious ways.

You’ve probably recognized your default reaction to that first shock of rejection. I’ve seen everything.  Despair, a nervous joke, optimism, acceptance (that person was literally a Zen master).

For me, it’s always been defiance. I remember this one time when I was a kid, we had a day at school where we could wear casual clothes i.e. not our uniforms. For some inexplicable reason, my mother dressed me in my brother’s clothes. I still remember the outfit – a striped yellow button down shirt. And brown pants.

I went to school, all innocent-like, with my pig tails, unaware what was about to befall me. The girls in the class, in their pretty shalwar kameezes, completely shunned me. Loudly complimented each other and turned their backs on me.

I did what even now seems like the most logical thing to do. I looked like a boy, so I went and hung out with the boys.

They were non-plussed. It wasn’t fun. Arguably the worst school day ever.

That was me. I was defiant. I still am.

I’m going to stick it to that reader. And to all those mean people at my workshop who said “You can’t write this!” Says who? Says you? We’ll see about that.

It’s not healthy to be angry, but at least I don’t lie down and take it. It’s a start anyway. Until I can learn to be Zen.

I hope you feel better about being you. I hope we all stay comfortable with who we are. And keep in mind, if you’re not always perfect, you weren’t meant to be. If you’re not there yet, it’s about the journey and not the destination.

And other daft self-help clichés.

I’m rooting for you.

Much love and wassalam.

Sabina.

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Representing the under-represented, Part 1: Own who you are.

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum wr wb. Peace and love, dear owner of eyeballs.

How do you feel about your work?

Do you feel a little desperate?

Do you find yourself developing ideas that you think an audience would enjoy, but you don’t?

Are you asking, even pining for help, networking like a crazy person, but not really getting anywhere?

This is the real kicker – do you feel the very essence of your being precludes you from being accepted?

Chances are, you might be a writer. Possibly an underrepresented and desperate writer.

It’s okay to acknowledge that.

I’m the second hijabi (headscarf-wearing) screenwriter I know about. Even in the Muslim city of Dubai, I knew only two hijabi filmmakers.

At least I know that I’m not alone. Though oddly enough, it’s hard for two or more hijabis in a male-dominated industry to stand being in the same room together. But that’s another story.

It’s hard. It’s hard wishing people would see past your unusual appearance/life-style choice/belief system/what have you and give your work a chance.

But I’ve learned the VERY hard way. It’s useless wishing. People have to break down their own barriers. People have to choose to listen to your stories. A great story is a thing of true beauty, but people have to open up their hearts enough to let it in. And that unfortunately is a choice.

That said, there are a few things I’ve discovered I can do so that a)I spare myself needless grief and b) I make progress towards getting the work I am doing to the people that would actually appreciate it.

These are the three main steps I am working on.

  1. Own myself and who I am.
  2. Own a professional attitude.
  3. Build a tribe.

This is going to be a three parter. I’ll talk about each one in more depth.

  1. Own myself and who I am.

People rejecting me is one thing. Me rejecting myself is something else entirely.

I am a storyteller. No two ways about it.

I am also a Muslim. DEFINITELY no two ways about that.

It was hard to accept myself in an unsupportive environment, where you can be one or the other but not both.

I tried very hard.

Moving physically and emotionally/mentally to a new much more supportive environment made all the difference.

A world of difference in fact. My productivity is light-years ahead of what it used to be – I am set to finish four drafts and two screenplays this year!

It’s hard enough shutting down the critical voice in your head. Being around critical people makes it SO much worse. Our creativity can only grow if we minimize and if possible, completely eliminate those people from our lives.

But still the shame persists.

I perform the job of critical mother/father/brother /friend myself.

I keep telling myself “I’m never going to be accepted. I don’t look like these people. I don’t talk like them. I don’t have the same beliefs. Gosh, I don’t drink, I pray five times a day, and I don’t shake hands with gentlemen!  What are they going to think of me?”

Answer? Whatever the heck they please.

I am who I am. I’m not hurting anyone. My faith is my business. I don’t need to sacrifice anyone’s pet hamster on an altar to worship God. So really what’s the problem if I cover my head and pray 5 times a day and bow to instead of shake hands with men? (It’s archaic, but it gets the job done.)

My body. My soul. My business. Their brain. Their mind. Their business.

Problem solved.

Once I get rid of the shame, a number of other glaring habits make themselves apparent.

The ‘victim’ story

People love hearing stories about Muslim people who are suffering because of their Islam.

Wife beatings, honor killings, rapes, suicides, persecution – all of these and more are the stories you’ll find if you look for stories about Muslims.

These stories feed social hysteria about Muslims. Worse still, they make Muslims see themselves as victims, that there is always an enemy, internal or external.

There’s absolutely a place for those stories in the Muslim cultural narrative. I might tell one myself if the mood and the inspiration takes me.

But mostly I want to write stories about hope.

Films for me have always been about possibility, not inevitability.

There’s plenty of conflict in my films. But that conflict doesn’t come from Islam.

I’ve made it my mission to seek out real stories about my community. Stuff that nobody ever hears about. And tell those stories.

Empowering myself

This is the problem with being a screenwriter. I write the movies and then I beg for somebody to read it. And then I beg for somebody to make it.

All of that begging – not a good look.

Ava Duvernay’s recent talk at the Film Independent Forum really inspired me.

Because you see, the people that have the power to make movies may not be interested in Muslim stories. If they are, they might be only be comfortable telling the ‘victim’ story.

And if I hinge my ability to get movies made on making somebody else feel comfortable, I might find myself drifting into dangerous territory as a Muslim story-teller. I might find myself telling those ‘victim’ stories or worse, those ‘abuser’ stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to shop my work around. But I won’t cry too hard if nobody wants to bite.

I know that I’m interested in Muslim stories. It stands to reason then that the ball is in my court to get them made.

I don’t know how yet. But one way or another, I’m getting rid of my coat of desperation. I’m now officially on that ‘I’m making movies’ train.

Peace and blessings of God on you, my fellow scribes/filmmakers.