All I ever want to do is write," Naseem Jamnia told me over the phone one morning as we chatted. They were describing the stage of transition they're in, career-wise: they're about to start a Ph.D program in a different field and are giving it a year-long trial to see if it's what they're passionate about. At the same time, they said, "If I could afford to write full-time I would do that."
Naseem is a Chicago native who still lives in the city. They are married to Gabe Aliaga, whom they met on OkCupid and with whom they bonded over previous issues they had both struggled with.
Gabe, who described himself as an "extreme introvert" who doesn't really like being around other people, said, "My wife stands out because [they are] the only person I could spend everyday with. [They are] my best friend. My bestest best friend."
He added that the two fell in love "almost immediately, and without any sense."
Naseem's childhood was on the unconventional side, as they lived in what was essentially a "church," or religious center, for Sufism, a branch of Islam that "is much more more a spiritual path than a religion," they said.
In addition, their younger brother was diagnosed with autism when he was three. Naseem says their childhood was very influenced by the two separate yet equally unconventional experiences of growing up in a religious center and having an autistic brother.
"I had a great childhood though," they said. Their mother eventually returned to school to get a Ph.D, and Naseem said of her, "She’s an inspiration, she’s a great, strong woman."
Like many children who grow up in atypical homes with parents dedicated to maintaining as normal a life as possible, Naseem said the irregularity of their life didn't strike them until college.
They credit their parents for this.
"If I can be half the parent they were, I’ll be a good parent. They were really awesome. I didn’t always see it that way when I was a kid," they said, trailing off and laughing. "Now I realize they were really amazing parents. I’m really grateful."
Naseem is a freelance writer who publishes personal essays online as well as a novelist who aspires to publication. The first story that really sticks out in their mind is a composition they wrote as a child, about a girl named Golden who was saved by a guitar-playing-and-wielding prince named James.
Today, that story has morphed several times into a totally new story that's still based on the composition Naseem wrote as a child.
Toward the end of college they began to write things online and realized that people were responding favorably to her words.
"It took me a few years to realize that writing is something I could do," they said. "I had a crisis of faith a few months ago realizing that I don’t want to do what I’m doing and I want to write more."
Naseem's friend, Misha Grifka, met them in a creative writing class. He said they were two of the only speculative fiction writers in the class, so they were able to bond over that connection.
Of Naseem's writing, Misha said, "[Their] work ethic is incredible, and it's driven by the kind of passion I've rarely seen. I know a lot of writers — I am one myself — but [they're] one of the most dedicated and disciplined."
On the other side of things, Gabe, who emphasized that he is not a writer, is a huge fan of Naseem's writing.
"I'm [their] biggest fan, and I think [their] nonfiction is poetic," he said. "I actually think [they] develops a strong voice and style in [their] nonfiction."
Naseem's stories usually begin with a character, they said.
"It might not end up being the main character, but it’s always a character that’s like, 'hey I’ve got a story to tell you,'" Naseem said. "I wish I could say 'I come up with these ideas,' and I suppose in some way I do, but the characters are usually a composite of things I’ve been reading or watching…or [a story I want to tell]."
While speaking of his friend's writing, Misha said he admires the way Naseem becomes fully immersed in the stories they weave.
"[They] care deeply about the worlds and characters [they] create," he said, "and [their] fiction is one of a kind, influenced by [their] unique experiences without being too self-focused."
On the other end of things, Misha has noticed a trend in Naseem's writing as they begins to write and publish more nonfiction.
"I've seen a shift towards more nonfiction and more personal narratives, which I think speaks to a growing confidence and ability to talk about difficult topics in public," he said. "In [their] nonfiction, [they] are clear, persuasive, and concise without sacrificing any of the emotion and personal vulnerability that makes [their] writing compelling.
In February, Naseem published a piece on Medium about an emotionally abusive relationship she was in. They say it is one of the hardest pieces they've ever written.
"I have no problem writing about my depression, talking about my suicide attempt in college, but sitting down and writing this piece about being in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years…I still get triggers from it," they said. "That was definitely very tough. I’m glad I did it."
You shouldn’t date him because I don’t want to pick up the pieces when it inevitably ends, he said in our third year of college, about my first boyfriend. You were pretty before, but now that you’ve lost some weight, you’re really gorgeous, he said in a Facebook message, after I admitted aloud that I had an eating problem. It’s one of three complements he gives me throughout the course of our five-year relationship. I’m not really sure I can feel, he whispered on Halloween in 2010.
— Excerpt from Independence Day — P.S. I love you..., published on Medium
What compels Naseem to write such personal things and publish them? The reactions from people their writing has helped, they said.
"I think as many writers and artists and people in general do, I have huge impostor syndrome — what am I doing, why am I doing this?" they said. "And then I put out a really personal piece and get a half-dozen to a dozen messages thanking me...That’s why I keep writing and especially why I keep writing personal things."
They added that they have a profound belief in art's ability to heal.
"I really believe that art saves lives and that if I hadn’t had the fanfiction community when I was in high school I would have killed myself at that age," they said. "Even if there’s one person who’s affected by your writing, it’s worth it. It doesn’t matter if you’re not well-known, it’s worth it because you’re doing something meaningful for that person. I have to remember that more often."
Naseem's writing can be found on their website, which has an affiliated blog. You can follow their journey on Facebook, Twitter or Medium. In addition (and this is very exciting) you can sign up for their newsletter here so you'll never miss a thing.