transnational literate lives in digital times: chapter 3.2

cultural designs for writing digitally: from Urbana, Illinois, and afar
Gail E. Hawisher, Cynthia L. Selfe, Patrick W. Berry, Maria Lovett, Shafinaz Ahmed, Sophie Dewayani, and Yu-Kyung Kang

Shafinaz Ahmed Banner Image

Images of Shafinaz Ahmed including stills from her writing process video. Click
on image to view images and words from Shafinaz's digital portfolio.

CHAPTER 3: Shafinaz Ahmed

Shafinaz was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 11 November 1981, but has spent much of her school life in either Dulwich, England, a suburb of London where she moved from Dubai in 1983, or in the United States, where she moved with her family in 1993 from Dulwich to Champaign, Illinois. She attended both undergraduate and graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. With a master’s degree from the TESOL program at Illinois, she now lives outside of Chicago, Illinois, where she teaches English-language courses to non-native English speakers at the College of DuPage, a two-year community college.

She is passionate about teaching English to other immigrants like herself, she notes, and she herself speaks and writes English fluently, having been brought up in English-speaking countries since the age of 2. She nevertheless still recognizes herself as an immigrant and was proud when one of her students stopped her to say, “You don’t talk to us like a teacher—you are one of us, and that is why you are good.” At the time she composed her writing process video, she was working on her M.A. TESOL degree. (Click on either of the images below to activate the movie.)

Images from Shafinaz's video.

Images from Shafinaz's video. Click on image to access video <transcript>.

In this video, we see Shafinaz eating, as many of us do as we prepare for and begin writing, although she chooses to be unencumbered by the Western custom of using a fork. Metaphorically, the dish out of which she eats plays on the confusion Shafinaz encounters among those outside of Bangladesh over her homeland's name, and she points to such misunderstandings by titling her video "Born-in-a-Dish." Writing on her bed, books at her feet, while she also reads, Shafinaz's video presents viewers with Bangladeshi music in the background as we focus on Shafinaz, who now sits at a computer screen. Then, as the music stops, we shift to Shafinaz's voiceover describing scenes from Bangladesh, though speaking from her apartment in the United States. As she brushes and braids her hair as her grandmother once did, Shafinaz tells us that her grandmother would say "a woman is like a braid, simple yet complicated, delicate but strong, plain but elegant." Her grandfather, on the other hand, would insist that "a woman's true beauty is not what lies on top of her head, but what she possesses beneath it." We also see in Shafinaz's video a 1950s Western representation of "Babe In Total Control of Herself"—that is, a BITCH—an image in direct contrast to the concept of womanhood that surrounds Shafinaz at home. The contrast of Shafinaz's Bangladeshi bedspread with the illustration of a BITCH lying atop it suggests the conflicting cultural expectations with which Shafinaz has grown up. Throughout the narrative, we watch and listen as Shafinaz composes her poem "Born-in-a-Dish," which underscores the cultural conflicts she often feels between her love of her homeland and her young classmates' misunderstandings of Bangladesh.


Bubble gum pops,
doodles begin.
A head settles
on the desk…

I stand before them
and speak of a land,
far away,
where cinnamon women,
with sapphire eyes,
and coconut hair,
that flows,
like a river dancing in the moonlight,
gently lull their children to sleep. 

Sing something in Abudda Budda!

I tell them of mangos, guavas, and jackfruit.
rubies laughing in your mouth.
Of children playing the juice game;
the sweet golden fruit,
a squeeze of its flesh,
the tickle of the tongue
chasing the juice as it slides down the arm.

They ask me if people drive elephants.

I tell them of the red earth of sorrow
through which the lotus blooms.
Of sons who gave their lives,
daughters their blood and honor.
We waited through the long night
to rise again in the fresh air
to say we are free.
We are not India! We are not Pakistan!

they still ask me if
Born in a dish is the capital of India.

Unlike Mirza and Gorjana, Shafinaz did not always prize her ability to speak more than one language and often resented, especially when she was younger, the fact that her mother’s English could not keep up with her own. As she puts it:

“I was incredibly impatient with my mom and would get mad at her very quickly when she didn’t understand something. On many occasions I would speak to her in English and she just wouldn’t understand me. This frustrated me and made me reluctant to talk to her.  I remember thinking 'My mom doesn’t understand me, so why should I talk to her? Why should I even bother?'"

Here Shafinaz expresses some of the difficulties students with transnational connections face as they try to cope with the competing demands of multiple worlds and inevitably bump up against the language and customs of their family while trying to adapt to a different homeland from that of their parents.

Shafinaz also admits to bringing to the classroom a perspective on literacy and learning that differs from that of many of the students in the United States and that of many instructors in writing studies classes as well. Shafinaz explains that she's "never been a big fan of using technology—it scares me because I have no idea how to use it. The thought of doing anything dealing with technology makes me cringe; it’s foreign to me…and if I had my way, it’d stay like that. However, I know this cannot be." Despite her resistance to, even fear of, working with new computer applications, she takes pride in what she has been able to achieve. As she says moments later:

"The process of doing the [writing process video] itself was hard, but extremely rewarding. Deciding which images would best represent my writing process was time-consuming. But I am happy with the end product. Once again, I proved to myself that I can work with technology!"

The dual challenges that Shafinaz takes on—negotiating a collegiate setting in which she’s expected to take risks and, at the same time, make use of digital media in doing so—are issues with which Shafinaz contends in the university setting. She finally concludes that her mother’s struggle with and resistance to English is not unlike her own resistance to new technologies. She explains:

"I see many similarities between my mother’s linguistic abilities and my technological ones. My apprehension about technology is the same as my mother’s about English. She doesn’t like using it because it’s foreign to her. But she does it. Every day my mom interacts in a foreign language in situations that make her uncomfortable. She may not do it perfectly, but she does it with dignity."

If her mother is a “foreigner” because her English is not what her daughter at one time thought it should be, then Shafinaz herself claims outsider status through her resistance to taking on digital media. Over the years, however, she has come to respect her mother’s attempts to straddle two worlds and now sees the dignity inherent in her mother’s efforts to "fit in." Shafinaz is proud, too, of her own efforts with digital media as she notes above.

In writing about and reflecting on her video, Shafinaz talks about the “unique perspective” she has as one who claims “a multi-cultural background.” She admits, however, that when she was growing up, first in the United Kingdom until she was 12 and then in the United States, she “hated the fact that [her] culture wasn’t the same as everyone else’s.”

As she has come to take pride in her mother and her family heritage, Shafinaz tells us that there are many images from Bangladesh that she tries to incorporate in her writing, especially when she’s writing poetry outside of school.

When she crafted her writing process video, she began to bring together some of these disparate strands of her life. She chose to represent her own poetry—her passion when it comes to writing—and also to touch on Bangladeshi life in her video through the poetry she had written. In the stanzas of the poem, Shafinaz writes of her difficulties in trying to talk to speakers of English in her adopted home about a country that some don’t even recognize as a nation state. In doing so, Shafinaz’s passion for her homeland comes through in this writing that began outside of school but made its way into the classroom and onto the Web through the use of digital media.

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