What it means to live “in the hyphen,” between identities

Zaira Pirzada

Being multicultural with three national identities has come with challenges for this author, but it’s in the space between that she’s been able to thrive.

by Zaira Pirzada


I observe, create, learn, and evolve in the hyphen—that dwelling space, that island between absolute identities and their connected experiences rooted deeply in the soil of their respective origins.

My father is from Pakistan and my mother is from India. They both arrived in the United States when they were just five or six years old, only faintly remembering the motherland. The motherland that was partitioned only twenty years before their arrival in the United States.

For some brief background: India and Pakistan split in 1947 and have since then continued their conflict, but somehow my parents found fertile ground for reconciliation of these two states in the United States when they found love in each other. The conflict couldn’t follow two young souls that felt none of it.

That’s what the United States gave us, gave them—a new start. Though this came with a cost.

The United States, a country birthed from and rooted deeply in the history of imperialism and racism, has a long history of discrimination, to which South Asians were and still are victim. Although my family found a new start, assimilation was trying in a country that refuses to fully accept them. Why does conflict follow the uprooted? I often question this.

My father and our family had to tread carefully in this country from the start.

The “Dotbusters” movement in New Jersey from the 1970s to the 1990s led to multiple attacks and shootings—square in the head—of South Asians, and South Asian women especially, making their bindis into targets with the intention of inflicting hate and taking lives.

The hyphen, that is where my art comes from, where my becoming happens. That is where I am “from from,” if you happen to wonder and ask.

During the Gulf War, my family was reminded of how much they did not belong, according to the slurs and fists of the offspring of Imperialist blood and traumas. That was reinforced after 9/11 when my brother suffered the same slurs and fists in the back of a yellow school bus. We were too young. Too weak. Too different. Outnumbered. This was a side of America I experienced in my mostly white, American, Long Island town.

To live in the hyphen is not to brandish one flag more strongly than the other. It is to hear the politics of every respective state and wish that they could feel the blood of the other coursing in them so as to find the meaning of compassion. It is to be a chameleon, forming the right colors of your being to meet the environment you are in. It is to never be fully whole anywhere. It is to always long for a home until one finally accepts that it’s always been there in family, in welcoming community, and especially within.

I observe, create, learn, and evolve in the hyphen—that dwelling space, that island between absolute identities.

We learned to be chameleons with thick skin. My family reminded me that in India, being Muslim would continue to get more difficult, and it has. They reminded me that the comforts my sister and I have here to practice our femininity in whatever way we choose would be trying in comparison to the Pakistan they could give us. They weren’t wrong about that either.

It’s not all bad.

My parents, in their mutual struggle to find and reconcile identity, gifted me with hip-hop, classic rock, R&B, NY slang, American customs, and a taste for international cuisine in one breath. In another, they gifted South Asian flavors and sounds, customs and traditions, wear and language, and our beautiful South Asian brown skin. Simple things to list, but I hold them dear. Even today, in their late fifties, they are still searching for meaning in the hyphen. That search was also gifted and passed down.

This is why I sometimes question the barter from here in the hyphen while observing the similarities and contradictions, mixing languages and words, wearing hybrid garments, reveling in the beautiful parts and cringing at the uncomfortable parts. What struggles have we traded in? What would have been better? Forming an identity and accepting what is, is no simple task.

This is the only journey I have known throughout life: a diplomatic reconciliation of identities as a mediator in the hyphen, observing, creating, learning, and evolving. It’s a neverending journey that I have been gifted to walk and no amount of words strung together in any pattern possible could explain this path.

The hyphen, that is where my art comes from. That is where my becoming happens. That is where I am “from from,” if you happen to wonder and ask.

Zaira Pirzada is a multilingual poet, an artist, a technologist, and an academic. Her art is inspired by her wide range of professional roles and the double-conscious experience of being an Indian-Pakistani-American woman. As a Meisner-trained actress from the world-renowned William Esper Studio, she counts acting and performing her poetry in spoken word form among her greatest artistic passions. When she is not writing poetry or practicing her many arts, she is advising large and small enterprises in the data and cybersecurity space, and in furthering their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Zaira holds an M.A. in International Affairs focused in security, intelligence, and crisis communications, and is in the midst of furthering her education by pursuing an M.S. in Engineering in Data Science and Security Informatics from Johns Hopkins University. Zaira has worked at leading think tanks, and appeared in international media and television for her experience in acting and intelligence gathering.

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