Eyes right: Montclair Public Library’s Open Book/Open Mind presents ‘Watched’
Presented by the Montclair Public Library and the MPL Foundation
Open Book/Open Mind
Performed by Theatre 167
Friday, May 19, 7-9 p.m.
Montclair High School Little Theatre
141 Park St.
Author Marina Budhos in conversation with Arun Venugopal and Imam Kevin Dawud Amin of Masjid Al Wadud
By GWEN OREL
There are 167 languages spoken in Jackson Heights, Queens.
That’s why Ari Laura Kreith named her theater company “Theatre 167.”
The artistic director moved to Montclair two years ago, and continues to make work that examines cultural intersections.
Maplewood author Marina Budhos writes stories that deal with immigration and cultural adjustment.
Originally from Queens, Budhos had set her book, “Watched,” in Jackson Heights.
When the two women met in 2015, at Montclair’s Bnai Keshet when it hosted a Jewish Syrian Christmas dinner, they knew they had a shared aesthetic, and were moved by the same stories.
“Watched,” published in 2016, tells the story of 18-year-old Naeem, who gets in trouble with the police and becomes an informant on his own Muslim community — in Jackson Heights.
On Friday, May 19, Theatre 167 will present scenes from Budhos’ novel “Watched” at Montclair High School’s Little Theatre. Afterward, Budhos will talk with Arun Venugopal, a WNYC/NPR reporter, about surveillance issues in Muslim communities in America. Imam Kevin Dawud Amim of Masjid Al Wadud in Montclair will also participate in the program.
“Watched,” said Budhos, is a follow-up to her 2006 book, “Ask Me No Questions.” In that book, set in the era of the Patriot Act and the Muslim Registration Act after 9/11, a Bangladeshi family tries to flee America for Canada, and becomes separated. Two sisters end up having to fend for themselves.
“Watched” is about surveillance, the author said.
The book has won several awards, including the 2016/2017 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature YA Honor; and Honor Book for YA, The Walter Award.
For Budhos, a professor in the English department at William Paterson University, the nuggets of her books always come from something real.
She had worked in nonfiction and journalism before she wrote her first published novel (she wrote her first unpublished novel at age 9, at summer camp).
She and her husband, Marc Aronson, wrote the recently published “Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro & the Invention of Modern Photojournalism” together, and discussed it at last month’s Montclair Literary Festival.
Her book “Tell Us We’re Home,” focuses on three daughters of immigrant nannies who live in a suburban town a bit like Maplewood, Madison or Millburn, and was chosen as the Essex County Young Adult Big Read book.
“I’m often writing about immigration,” Budhos said. Her own background is multicultural: her father is an Indian from the Caribbean, and her mother, who is Jewish American, spoke Yiddish for the first six years of her life, she said. Budhos grew up in an area of Queens called Parkway Village, that was built for U.N. families. The families she knew growing up were “mostly foreign born families. It was what I knew and felt comfortable in.”
When she spoke to us last month, Budhos was working on a new YA novel a novel set during the late ’60s and early ’70s, during the period of integration battles in the schools: “My characters are mixed race, caught in between what’s swirling around them.”
In October, when “Watched” launched, Theatre 167 put on an event —“not quite theater, not quite a book reading, something that sits
somewhere in the political action arena too” — on the streets of Jackson Heights, Kreith said by telephone from her Montclair home. “In light of everything happening in our country, how do we enter into a diverse community and catalyze conversation?”
Kreith said she is interested in “how we come together and sometimes don’t.”
When Theatre 167 performed “Watched” in Jackson Heights, “People would stumble on it. There were actors playing undercover cops. We had a permit, so there were police there, watching us do a performance with undercover cops. At a certain point we realized the police watching us thought the undercover cops were real. Here we were in a neighborhood where the police were patrolling but had never been invited into the conversation in this way. It was exciting to watch them hear the story and share it with them.”
Next Friday’s event is part of the Open Book/Open Mind series by the Montclair Public Library. Holding it at the high school makes sense, because the story is about a high school student, Kreith said. One of the things the book makes clear is “the universality of this story.” Everyone struggles with questions of how much of their family’s culture and tradition to be part of, and what to do with their own ambitions, she said.
“We live in a time when there is so much division, prejudice and fear. The understanding of family and prayer and connectedness are all very beautiful to me.”
The watching, it seeps into everything in our neighbor‑hood. It’s like weather, the barometric pressure lowering. Before the monsoons came in Bangladesh, you could feel the air thicken and squat on your head. A constant ache behind your eyeballs.
For the past few years there’s been another kind of pres‑ sure: a vibration around us, the air pressing down, muf‑ fling our mouths. We see the men, coming down the metal stairs from the elevated subway, or parked in cars for hours on end: clean‑cut guys, creased khakis, rolled‑up sleeves. The breath of Manhattan steaming off their clothes. They aren’t from around here—that we can tell. Not like the young couples with their big padded strollers. Or the girls with peacoats and holes in their black tights, who moved to the nice part of Jackson Heights, carry yoga mats in cloth bags from stores I’ve never heard of. No, these people are different. They stroll into stores, finger the edges of the newspapers in their racks, check out flyers taped to the side of the fridge.
One day two of them came into my parents’ store, pre‑ tended to buy some gum, and then asked a few questions about the travel agency upstairs. Where is the man who runs the place? Mr. Ahmed? How often does he come in? Does he stay after hours?
Abba shook his head. “I do not watch my neighbor so much. He is from Pakistan, that is all I know.”
“Yet you hold packages for him?”
“Yes, but that is because they are not open all the time.
It is favor.”
The man consulted a tiny notebook. “You attend the same mosque? Al‑Noor Masjid?”
At this, Abba froze, fingers resting light on the regis‑ ter, staring at the door. “No, we are praying at different place.” It hurt my heart, hearing this. Abba’s English, when he spoke to strangers, was halting, yet proper. He’d studied some English in Bangladesh and hated sounding unedu‑ cated to Americans.
“Abba?” I whispered after the detectives left, and touched his arm. “You okay?”
He stirred and blinked. “I am fine.” But his voice was rough at the edges.