The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Literary Programs and World Voices Festival Coordinator Viviane Eng speaks with t. jahan, whose cross-genre work “Any Day Now” is featured in the anthology Somewhere We Are Human (HarperVia). Amazon, Bookshop.

1. What is an early experience that got you interested in writing and storytelling?
In grade school, we created our own journals out of those ordinary marble composition notebooks. We got to customize them with magazine cutouts, stickers, and the like. I remember adding a Spice Girls sticker from an overpriced lollipop, and a cutout from my Pokemon 2000 VHS tape. 

In these journals, we got to write whatever we wanted. And that’s what I did. I wrote whatever I wanted, from the mundane to the fantastical. I wrote about how I can hear music in my mind. Or my thoughts if Snow White turned out to be a horror story. Sometimes I wrote page after page retelling a story in my own way, like I did with the fantasy film, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.

I’ll never forget when one of my teachers enthusiastically shared a poem I wrote called “Transportation” with our school librarian. Our librarian seemed thrilled and quickly decided to type up my poem. My teacher then posted it up in the classroom. I was astonished that there was such hubbub over a poem. Maybe that was the first time I understood what it meant to be published!?

But when I wrote that poem, it wasn’t about the response from my teachers. Writing it just made sense. I still remember how I was sitting on a wooden subway bench at Steinway Street, staring at the train moving on the other side of the platform, and how the poem, rhyme and all, just came to me. I was young enough to keep the poem in my head until I finally got myself back to my journal. I still remember some of that poem… “On a bus, people ride with us… On a train, with a metal chain, Read a book, and then look! A _______ passes by.” Feel free to fill in the blank, haha. My memory can only take me so far!

Looking back on it, my writing process has not changed all that much. Though I admit my memory isn’t the same anymore… so it’s imperative for me to keep a pen on me and write things down, or record my thoughts through video or audio as soon as possible.

2. What is a book that had a profound impact on you at a young age? Do you find yourself continuing to go back to this text? 
Arthur’s Nose by Marc Brown.

When I think of childhood, I always remember Arthur the aardvark. I love Marc Brown, and his books about Arthur and his friends, and the wonderful messages about humanity through such amazingly fleshed-out animal characters. The very first book I ever bought was an Arthur chapter book. The very first library book I ever lost was an Arthur picture book (I later found it behind my bookshelf and returned it immediately). 

Arthur taught me and my classmates the value of kindness, of being ordinary, of being different, of being a kid who is just trying to be in this world and figure things out. There was always something so peaceful and humble about those stories. 

I have fond, comforting memories watching the Arthur series on PBS. I never had cable television so those stories really helped to deepen the lessons I was already learning at a young age. I still go back to Arthur every so often to remind myself of these basic, foundational lessons. I am always learning from Arthur. Thank you, Marc Brown, and everyone involved in this wonderful world.

“Regardless of how we identify, in the palms of our hands we have these important memories, and we are trying to understand why we remember them in the first place: Why, of all the things I could have remembered, do I remember this? Is there a pattern? What do I do with these memories?

3. Somewhere We Are Human is an anthology that centers narratives of migration, survival, and new beginnings. It features poems, essays, and stories from 41 migrants, refugees, and DREAMers who are or formerly are undocumented. How did you get involved in the project and why did it feel important for you to be featured?
In November 2020, I found out about the anthology through several people at PEN America while I was part of the DREAMing Out Loud program. I submitted some poems from my vault and honestly forgot all about it. A lot of my writing, prose, poetry, and even professional work and research, revolve around migration. So I think it was just natural for me to contribute. 

One of my DREAMing Out Loud teachers suggested another writing workshop at Lewis Latimer House which focused on the themes of race and immigration. There, I worked on pieces revolving around my understanding of migration in this country. One night, I had an intense, very necessary writing session which became the first draft of “Any Day Now.” The Somewhere We Are Human editors reached out to me shortly after to ask if I had any more pieces to share, and that’s how it ended up in their hands. It wasn’t even part of the original submission! Such is life. 

I’m not sure if I felt it was important for me to be featured, but I do think it’s important that others understand that children experience, feel, and remember so much more than adults can ever imagine. It’s also important for me to convey that children have their own ways of understanding the world and this inevitably shapes them. Many children become adults who are putting together the puzzle pieces of their lives. “Any Day Now” is just an example of putting those pieces together and coming to a resolution in order to keep moving forward.

4. Your cross-genre work, “Any Day Now” delves into hope, resignation, and the lack of autonomy that many immigrants feel—especially the ones that are children. The narrator of the piece is constantly waiting for the next plot point of their life, which is born of decisions and rulings by adult strangers, many of whom are police officers and judges. As someone who writes often about immigration experiences, I’m curious as to how you chose to submit this particular work for this anthology.
“Any Day Now” felt very complete to me. It was a story that felt like it told everything it could tell. I think it represents a physical and spiritual journey that many of us take and/or may be on. Regardless of how we identify, in the palm of our hands, we have these important memories, and we are trying to understand why we remember them in the first place: Why of all the things I could have remembered, I remember this? Is there a pattern? What do I do with these memories? 

So “Any Day Now” is a synthesization, in a way. I also chose to submit this work to the anthology because it is more than just a story. For me, the piece represents the water-like consistency of our minds and memories, and how dreams can become just as important as reality as we find our bearings in this world. 


5. Viet Thanh Nguen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, writes, “In order to become American, to participate in the American Dream, to be a part of American exceptionalism, the newcomers often and unfortunately have to undergo rites of initiation that range from contempt to brutality.” Nguyen continues, posing questions that become the guiding framework for the anthology: Where will we be human? Is it in the United States? And if our humanity cannot be realized in these places, then why not, and how can we make that necessity happen? 

Of course, these are some weighty questions without easy answers, but I was wondering whether you might have some thoughts on them. Where will everyone be human—regardless of immigration status? What are some places (physical, emotional, or spiritual) where humanity is already recognized, in a way that feels uplifting and dependable?
I wish I had the answer(s). I wish I had the knowledge, capacity, and perhaps confidence, to traverse this journey to true human-hood on a community level, on a universal level. 

Right now, these are my thoughts… I think we become human when we realize our collective mortality. I think we are human in the eyes of a cat watching us carefully and cautiously from afar. Spiritually, I think we will be human when and where we are technically human no longer.

As I reflect further, I find myself drawn to Rabindranath Tagore’s book Sadhana: The Realisation of Life. In its conclusion, I sense something that feels like a response to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s question: Where will we be human? And the answer as I understand it is this: The Across. So I shall take this quote and raise another… Here is what Tagore says:

“I can never forget that scrap of a song I once heard in the early dawn in the midst of the din of the crowd that had collected for a festival the night before: ‘Ferryman, take me across to the other shore!’

“In the bustle of all our work there comes out this cry, ‘Take me across.’ The carter in India sings while driving his cart, ‘Take me across.” The itinerant grocer deals out his goods to his customers and sings, “Take me across.’

“What is the meaning of this cry? We feel we have not reached our goal; and we know with all our striving and toiling we do not come to the end, we do not attain our object. Like a child dissatisfied with its dolls, our heart cries, ‘Not this, not this.’ But what is that other? Where is the further shore?

“Is it something else than what we have? Is it somewhere else than where we are? Is it to take rest from all our works, to be relieved from all the responsibilities of life?

“No, in the very heart of our activities we are seeking for our end. We are crying for the across, even where we stand. So, while our lips utter their prayer to be carried away, our busy hands are never idle.”

“I came in [to DREAMing Out Loud] unsure of what it meant to be a writer. I was a bit nervous, feeling like I was sharing chaotic drafts and free writes, and that I needed to apologize for the things I was sharing. But I always left feeling emboldened and more determined to keep writing and sharing in a meaningful way. Within months, DREAMing Out Loud felt like a home base to me.”

6. As you mentioned earlier, you’re an alum of PEN America’s DREAMing Out Loud writing workshop, which serves New Yorkers who are immigrant writers, primarily those who are undocumented, DACA recipients, and/or DREAMers who came to the United States when they were children. What led you to apply for the program? What were some takeaways you got from it?

I am very grateful for PEN’s efforts to reach the immensely diverse CUNY community. I applied for the program while I was working on my graduate studies at Queens College and knew I had to fuse my love for writing with my efforts to advocate for migrants.

I understand immigration to be a huge factor in the power and control dynamic in many abusive situations in Asian immigrant communities. I have been working with the immigrant South Asian community for most of my professional life, so while studying at Queens College, I was also doing human rights work. Before that I was working primarily with Bengali migrants that may be identified as domestic violence and sexual violence survivors. I specialized in working with human trafficking survivors, as well. PEN America’s mission complimented my own mission well.

I came to this country very young, when my family applied for political asylum, so I am just so grateful for all the generous, kind people I have met through the DREAMing Out Loud program who accepted me for who I was. I came in unsure of what it meant to be a writer. I was a bit nervous, feeling like I was sharing chaotic drafts and free writes, and that I needed to apologize for the things I was sharing. But I always left feeling emboldened and more determined to keep writing and sharing in a meaningful way. Within months, DREAMing Out Loud felt like a home base to me.

7. You’re currently working on a novel set in 1970s post-liberation Bangladesh. How is your writing process going? How do you get through moments of frustration in your writing?
It’s going! I usually just trust that something will flow out of these fingertips. The cool thing is that I am about to revise a children’s book that came out of the novel itself! I was writing a short story in which two characters were reading within the novel, and it suddenly took on a life of its own. 

To be honest, as an emerging writer, I have questions regarding what my next step could be. So (again!) I am grateful for the people I have met through PEN who I can easily consider my mentors. It is usually during these times, I knock on someone’s door to ask how they went through a similar experience. I also pray, and meditate, and keep my ears perked to listen to that little voice. Sometimes it says, “Take it easy.” “It’ll be fine” “Take a walk.” “Read it out loud.” “Rest.”

I have somehow convinced myself that I have all the time in the world. And I remind myself often that some works just take time for reasons I may never understand. So I know I have to be patient. And in the meanwhile, I do my best to honor the characters. They have a lot to show and teach me too.

8. What is one critique of your work that you have really learned from?
One useful critique I have received is that I don’t need to state the obvious through my characters or narrator. There is a lot of beauty and insight in subtlety. The characters’ mannerisms, the setting, the tone, the mood, can convey so much to readers. I am learning to trust that my intentions as an author are being communicated even if I am not saying it outright.

“We need stories to know ourselves. We also need stories to empathize. Stories are an accessible space to come to a place of true understanding.

9. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
I am always ready to read Haruki Murakami’s work and whatever he puts out. For me, I suppose, it’s the equivalent of people who wait for the next iPhone, or Beyonce’s next album.

10. Why do you think people need stories?
When I was in middle school, I remember being in my local library, and stumbling upon a book in the Young Adult section. And in the book there was a line that hit me to the core. I quickly wrote what I found word for word in my journal. And then, right next to the quote, I wrote something along the lines of—“That’s exactly how I feel… This is how I see it!”

That one line, that one moment in the story helped me to feel seen regarding my queerness when I was pretty darn confused. It was honestly such an amazing moment because I finally felt like someone somewhere understood. I never could talk about it. It’s still hard for me to talk about it. But I knew someone out there got it. And at that time, that was more than enough. I wish I remembered the name of the book so I could thank the wonderful human being who wrote it!

I think people need stories to understand themselves. I think they’re beyond entertainment. I think they identify something inside yourself that is core to who you are. We need stories to know ourselves. We also need stories to empathize. Stories are an accessible space to come to a place of true understanding. Because imagination can be the link to reality, and vice versa.


t. jahan is working on a novel set in 1970s Bangladesh, two children’s books, as well as narratives, poems, and memoirs to bring awareness to Asian immigration and diasporic experiences. Their work has been published in The Margins, the Gagosian Quarterly, Guernica, PEN America’s DREAMing Out Loud anthologies, and more. Perhaps equally important and relevant, they are teaching themself piano and take aphorisms on satchels of tea very seriously.