Essay by Khadeeja Syeda Safdar
Why this "Bug Queen" Became a Writer
Nothing in my past indicates an impulse to write.
During first grade, I even forgot how to speak English after an extended stay in my birth country of Pakistan. Although my parents tell me I relearned it quickly, my language skills lagged for a year.
Teachers described me as spacey, aloof, lost in another world.
In the second grade, I was known as the “Bug Queen.” I would run around the playground with a plastic cup collecting ladybugs. (My parents make fun of my insect obsession to this day.) I’d spend recess alone collecting ants for the ant farm I had constructed for our classroom.
I found insects more fascinating than immunizing myself from cooties—an infectious disease afflicted on the “uncool.”
Later, I became a math nerd in the most all-encompassing sense of the word. I was well known for my ability to perform computations in my head. As a sixth grader, I was too excited about qualifying for my school’s competitive math team to realize I was probably committing social suicide by joining the geeks who congregated on the weekend to solve algebra equations.
Yet, if I was ever slighted, bullied, or picked on as a child, I never noticed. People rarely interested me.
I didn’t see a need for writing until high school. Even then, I didn’t write for the sake of writing; I did it to speak. I attended a debate competition in ninth grade on a teacher’s recommendation, because she said it would be good preparation for college.
The experience was terrible. I felt nervous and uncomfortable; I couldn’t keep track of what I was trying to say. I mumbled what should have been a twenty-second introduction for at least a minute, concluding my speech without providing a single argument.
None of my fellow representatives asked any questions, probably out of pity. On the ride home, I received my score: 1 out of a possible 6.
Still, my pride forced me to attend the next event. I began writing out my speeches and reading them verbatim. It was ridiculous to read papers at a speech competition—I felt like I was hitting with a plastic bat in the major leagues. Nonetheless, I learned to articulate my thoughts. I became strangely comfortable standing in front of a group. And suddenly, I became interested in the world, in people, in what they had to say.
I sat glued to my desk, impressed by the talent of the other speakers. The arguments they presented, even if they weren’t quite viable, seemed ingenious after hearing their speeches. These debate issues—ranging from capping medical malpractice suits to the need for the death penalty—contrasted sharply with the abstract math problems I was accustomed to. The arguments tugged on my mind in a new way. There weren’t any black-and-white answers; each side depended on the circumstances of human lives.
When a judge told me my arguments had him sold, I felt profoundly satisfied. By the end of that year, I’d racked up trophies, and I no longer needed to write my speeches. I could speak off the cuff with ease. My language skills improved. I joined my high school newspaper; I ended up majoring in philosophy and political science in college.
I was writing.
But so far I’ve related how I came to write, not why I do it now—and the why is what makes me a writer. More than anything, I write to engage with other people. I write because it keeps me out of ant piles. I write because I can’t do everything in my own head. I write because I’ve realized that communicating ideas matters more than esoteric visions I can’t describe to anyone else.
During my last trip to Pakistan in 2011, I worked on a story about girls going to nonprofit schools in developing countries. The story was for a journalism class, and I ended up writing about Maria, the eight-year-old daughter of a house servant in Pakistan. Maria copied math problems from the textbooks of older children during recess at her primary school, because she couldn’t afford to buy books of her own.
I was so inspired by Maria’s drive that I told her parents I’d pay for her to attend middle school. Months have passed since I wrote Maria’s story, but I’m still in touch with her. She saves up a couple of rupees at a time to call me in America every month and to update me on her progress. Her phone calls remind me to be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, for the schools I’ve attended, and for the books I’ve read.
And for the gift of writing.
The act of writing forces me to make the abstract concrete and then more concrete and then even more concrete. Sometimes it’s painful. But it seems to work. I do it because concrete things are more easily shared with others. I finally know what it feels like when someone “gets” me, and I like the feeling.
Now, when I’m excited about a new idea or experience, I feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness until I write it down. Writing it gives me the hope that someone somewhere might read it—and understand.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Khadeeja Syeda Safdar is currently a writer based in New York City. She studied political science and philosophy at Columbia University and journalism at Harvard University. This piece began as a "Why I Write" essay in Martha Nichols's magazine writing course at the Harvard Extension School.
During her free time, Khadeeja enjoys nothing more than getting lost in new places, chatting with strangers, and snapping photographs of anything and everything along the way.
She blogs at the right words, where she posts excerpts from literary works that speak to her (by Mary Oliver, Joan Didion, and many others). Sometimes, her quotes get re-blogged. About a year ago, one stranger left this note:
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in the text and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of The Metamorphosis by Kafka in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from The Metamorphosis at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Family Ties
One of the saddest aspects of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is the fact that young Gregor genuinely cares about his family. From the opening of the story, he is shown to be a person who works hard to support his family, even though they do little for themselves. When Gregor morphs into a cockroach, however, the limits of familial loyalty and empathy are tested. Gregor is rejected from the family and Kafka seems to be making the point that there is no such thing as unconditional love.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Character Analysis of Gregor in The Metamorphosis
From the very opening of The Metamorphosis, Gregor is portrayed as a somewhat pathetic character. He works hard for his family in a job that he detests, and receives little, if any, recognition for his efforts. He wants the best for each of his family members, and he wants desperately to be loved by them. When Gregor turns into a cockroach, he is unable to live with the fact that his family will never love him and will always ostracize him. Unfortunately, Gregor does not experience a profound transformation of his character in the same way that he experiences a transformation of his physical body. Although he recognizes that his family will never embrace him, he has difficulty living with this fact. For more information on this topic, check out this extensive analysis of Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” and look for thematic ties on this and other topics listed here for more focus.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Symbol of the Cockroach in The Metamorphosis by Kafka
Kafka’s choice of a cockroach was said to be random and unintentional; however, the fact that the author selected the lowest and most hated of insects, portrayed as dirty, disease-ridden, and disgusting, is profoundly symbolic. By turning Gregor into a cockroach rather than another creature, Kafka sets up a situation in which it is impossible for Gregor’s family to accept him and even more importantly, this makes Gregor feel guilty and trapped. There is no chance for catharsis or connection, and the symbol of the cockroach permits the tension of this psychological dilemma to be exploited to its maximum.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: Irony in The Metamorphosis
The reader does not fail to notice the profound irony in The Metamorphosis. Although Gregor has been transformed into the lowest of all creatures, he actually is more human in his thoughts and feelings than any of the other characters in this tale. Kafka seems to be making an astute observation about the nature of humanity in The Metamorphosis, namely, that human beings are not necessarily the most evolved of all creatures.
For more assistance with “The Metamorphosis” the following articles may be helpful to you :Character Analysis of Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka • The Themes of Claustrophobia and Guilt in Kafka’s Metamorphosis•Transformation & Narration in Metamorphosis, Gulliver’s Travels and The Death of Ivan Ilych
This list of important quotations from The Metamorphosis will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from The Metamorphosis by Kafka listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of Kafka's Metamorphosis they are referring to.
“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." (64)
“Ah, well, I haven’t given up hope yet; once I’ve got the money together to pay back what my parents owe…that should be managed in five or six years…I’ll make a clean break. (65)
“That gentle voice! Gregor gave a start when he heard his own voice coming in an answer…." (66)
“Gregor was still here and had no intention at all of deserting his family." (70)
“… of course it was the uncertainty that was upsetting the others and that excused their behavior." (70)
“It was true that the words he uttered were evidently no longer intelligible, despite the fact that they had seemed clear enough to him, clearer than before, perhaps…." (73)
“The chief clerk had to be stopped, soothed, persuaded, and finally won over; the very future of Gregor and his family depended upon it!" (76)
“No plea of Gregor’s availed…." (77)
“If only it hadn’t been for that intolerable hissing noise that came from his father! It made Gregor lose his head completely." (78)
“[T]hey stood in a circle round Gregor’s corpse, with their hands in their pockets…." (110)
Here is a link to a great animated telling of The Metamorphosis… Very Cool!
Reference: Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. New York: Crown, 2003.