There are long tones of loneliness, self-discovery, and memory in Seema Reza’s lyrical memoir. You can hear these same tones holding a conch shell to your ear, the ambient noise of ocean life bouncing against the emptiness. Her prose is smooth and blurred at the same time, like tears spilled on a manuscript page. The words are powerful enough to reach past the lines and gut-punch us. Abuse, selfishness, loss, all of it is hidden within her text, whether broken up in fluid experimental stanzas or rigid static prose. Like water, When the World Breaks Open takes on many forms and shapes to articulate Reza’s journey into adulthood while navigating motherhood at the same time.
Trauma is an essential thread in Reza’s writing; every section highlights the everyday violence and anger that frames the narrative. She confronts her personal and private fears: her sons’ resentment and anger to her absence and the divorce, her vulnerable triggers and desires as a woman, her loneliness coexisting with the overwhelming grip of motherhood. The loss is at times unbearable. Reza’s prose is spare enough to reveal the bare skeleton of grief, yet still provokes the imagination:
While I was inert, a tsunami in South Asia caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and left families devastated. I avoided the news [. . .] so the stories never reached my ears. Against my will, it put my woes in perspective, all these people drowning on land. But inside my body my child was withering, the amniotic sac clinging to its limbs like a plastic bag.
Her grief repeats throughout as if the world is breaking open and getting torn apart. Between losing an unborn child, leaving an abusive husband, and mourning her father’s death, trauma is everywhere. Reza looks to any direction in her memoir for hope and becomes convinced of the subtle shades between right and wrong, good and evil. “I think maybe there are only good guys, all caught in the crossfire,” she writes, seeing more in the crossfire than just a simple war. To her, life is the crossfire – it is where she has to make the tough decisions between serving those that need her talent and attention (the veterans she works with) to those that need her mothering and love (her two sons).
It isn’t a straightforward memoir. Instead, When the World Breaks Open drifts in and out of its reverie of life as Reza recalls moments and fragmentary scenes (the title itself comes from a fragmented question). Slowly, she recoils from her unhealthy marriage in a stunning breakaway to become centered in her own life. From a fulltime ‘PTA Mom’ sewing costumes for children’s school plays, Reza transitions to part-time writer and creative counselor to war veterans with PTSD. In a way, both Reza and these men have trauma in common: interpreting it into art, translating the pain of memory into activity. She shares custody of her two young sons, coexisting in a struggle to balance motherhood and the self, the role of parents (she is careful to separate mother from father as two very distinct—yet essential—roles), and her own hidden vibrant personality.
Reza attempts the impossible by being super mom and star worker: “I make a plan to have it all,” only to fail predictably, cosmically. Her failures and flaws are like many veils falling from her body: affairs, neglect, anger, frustration, intimidation, fierce judgments held against herself and others. In a larger way, we witness Reza becoming a complete human being. She traces the line between her grandfathers to father to husband the same way children would for a drawing: innocent, seeking, unaware of the patterns hidden within her own history. It is her self-reflection which empowers this memoir; her responsibility to take action for herself and not to languish as she was. She asserts that “in order to survive [your life] … [you] must learn to recognize [your] emotions …” and the “trauma that brought you here will not be the last one you face. Life will keep hitting you.” Reza seems determined to hit back.
T.m. Lawson is a writer and poet in Los Angeles. She has been published in Los Angeles Review, Poets.org, and other magazines, and is a 2015 Academy of American Poets Prize winner. You can find more of her portfolio at tmlawson.com and casual writings & illustrations at lawsonisawesome.com. She is working on her debut novel and poetry collection.