‘Pure’ American Stories of Immigrant Life

Shaheen Pasha (Photo courtesy of Shaheen Pasha, via Bklyner)

University of Massachusetts at Amherst journalism professor Shaheen Pasha, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, has written about experiences her family had with mental illness and homelessness, and is writing a memoir about immigrant life in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Zainab Iqbal profiles Pasha in Bklyner.

For Pasha, her father’s schizophrenia was a taboo subject for many years, until after his death when she asked her immediate family members, including her mother, if it was OK with them if she wrote about her father.

Although her mother agreed, she was “very, very emotional” on reading the published piece.

“What would people think? What are they going to say? They’re not going to like us,” was what her mother said after reading her story.

“The reason I wrote it was for that very reason,” Pasha said. “That mentality is so prevalent and I’m done with that. I am proud of my father and my mother and didn’t want to consistently have this image of us being perfect because that was never there.”

“I think for most of us in the Pakistani community, that is not true but yet we hide behind [that image] anyway, and I felt like that does a disservice to all of our stories and creates this false reality.”

But the article, published in Narratively, struck a familiar note with many readers, and Pasha said that it turned out many families had had similar experiences. And Pasha’s account of the family’s experience with homelessness and being taken in by a “kind woman” also grew out of a desire to explore the ways in which immigrant families are “part of the American thread.” She told Bklyner that “we need to have these stories out there because these are very, very pure American stories.”

In January, Pasha was named a 2018 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Her plan is to create an immersive teaching and reporting model for university journalism programs to partner with prisons in creating a journalism curriculum for inmates. At UMass, she and a colleague offered in the fall of 2017 a course entitled Social Justice Journalism: Mass Incarceration, which brought together  journalism majors and incarcerated students to report and write explanatory journalistic articles on mass incarceration.

Go to Bklyner to read more about Pasha and learn what she has to say about other topics, including the #MosqueMeToo movement.

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