Prying Eyes

Iman Husain


I am not one to pry. Rather, I hold great respect for mystery, for elusiveness, for keeping some secrets to myself. Most sacred are those hours spent lounging, alone and unobserved, in my room at night, illuminated solely by the red glow of a table lamp. It was in those hours that I completed my most recent journal, flipped to the first page to note its start and end dates (June 11, 2022–June 25, 2023), and unsheathed a fresh red Moleskine from its plastic.

I seek a certain refuge in the nightly act of writing. A mere few months out of college, I am once again under my parents’ roof in Tempe, shrouded by the strange malaise that accompanies living as an adult in the childhood bedroom. I am desperate to keep my secret life alive. It feels like a matter of life and death: remember myself or lose her entirely to the daughter, the sister, the unsure girl who once lived within these walls.

I respect the secret lives of others. But this time I could not help but pry. This time, I surprised myself. And I must place the blame on one simple thing: that there is a locked briefcase sitting softly—tauntingly—on the closet floor, in the bedroom next to mine, the bedroom where my grandmother, my Dadi Jaan, used to stay.

The briefcase is bound in leather and somewhat battered. Its surface has been dulled by a powdery white film, evidence of spilled paint that was quickly wiped away. The leather has worn out completely at the corners, and on either side of the handle are two brass clasps, both sealed shut and guarded by ancient (yet functional) combination locks. The notion that this object has a history far exceeding my own terrifies me.

I discovered the briefcase tucked away in the darkest, most tender part of my grandmother’s closet, surrounded by a trove of the things she left behind, some vintage, others purchased not long before her death, but altogether transformed into a miniature mausoleum, a small summation of her life. There is a teetering selection of paperback and hardcover books (Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields among them); plastic bins swollen with fabric scraps—many sequined, some pink, one olive green, most satiny, or embroidered, or made with a delicate weave; a wicker basket of assorted sewing materials, including spools of braided, beaded, and metallic trimmings; four soft chiffon sachets holding tarnished jewelry and a single tasbih; a small, round cloisonné box with a blue velvet inner lining; address books thick with slanted handwriting and names I don’t recognize; cardboard shoe boxes filled with photo albums, the largest of which was dedicated, solely, to my grandparents’ garden in Pakistan; sepia wallet-sized photos of my young father, which I stare at for longer than what might be considered acceptable, searching for the moment the father might seep through the boy, betray him; small glass bottles full of of oily perfumes (they’re all floral—some in a sharp way, but most in a musky way); a square box made of capiz shell and emblazoned with an iridescent orange hibiscus; so many items with rose and heart motifs, I’ve lost count; a pair of beige slippers; two copies of a glossy magazine published by the Islamabad Horticultural Society, of which, to my surprise, my grandmother is named as the editor.

Since being back home, I’ve been stealing away to Dadi Jaan’s closet most nights. That is where, after she died, I sat on the carpet among all of her things, and cried. I still do, sometimes. Each night, almost ritualistically, I leaf hungrily through the softening papers she saved, as if attempting just to see everything just once before time runs out, before it all turns to rot. Even the government-issued documents, in their old age, are keen to return to their original form—to fiber and pulp.


Last summer, on a whim, I bought In Memory of Memory, by the Russian poet Maria Stepanova, from a small Brooklyn bookstore. It opens with the narrator visiting her recently deceased Aunt Galya’s apartment, sifting through her belongings, which are now robbed of the lustrous meaning they once enjoyed when she was alive. Their meaning seems to lie only in their culmination, in the fact that they were obtained, organized, and saved by one single person—for reasons unknown to the outsider—at particular points in her life. There are colorful trinkets, heaps of discolored clippings, and copies of classic novels that loom in the narrator’s memory of Galya’s life. But something is noticeably missing amongst these inanimate objects: proof of the written word. Or rather, as Stepanova puts it, proof of life having been lived.

When the narrator eventually uncovers boxes of Galya’s meticulously kept diaries, she is eager to read them; perhaps there is meaning, in the form of narrative reflection, to be found. But instead, the diaries are strangely rote. Galya writes of placing the towels and nightgowns (except dark colors) in to soak. Galya writes of peeling and chopping pumpkin to be put in the freezer. Galya writes of taking her hypertension pills.

The diaries’ only real intimate value for the narrator is derived from their materiality; the marks on the page are, of course, of Galya’s own hand. Yet, rather than laying bare the vulnerabilities of her inner life (as diaristic writing is often expected to do), the text forms an austere and unmoving record of the quotidian.

Here, writing takes on the role of the cold and silent witness. It is diligent in its exactitude. But, while Galya’s writing rarely moves into analysis, it is fascinating all the same. The narrator presumes that the diary, devoid of an external audience, would coax the writer into plainly expressing her innermost thoughts, her secret hopes, her unspoken fears. But Galya does not use her journals as a forum for thinking or confession. Instead, she fashions them into a private archive: a space dedicated to storing those things she fears she might forget. Perhaps Galya felt that if these details of daily life were lost, a specific version of herself would cease to exist. What is more intimately human than the attempt at self-preservation?

Galya’s writing makes me wonder what someone might think after reading my diary. My journal is mostly confessional and reflective, though it slips, at times, into what Stepanova considers list-making. Nestled among long lines of slanting prose are lists of songs that I feel might encapsulate the moment, books I’m currently reading (or hoping to read), names of restaurants and cafes I’ve been frequenting:

June 11, 2022

Book I am reading: In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova. I also found a copy of Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy in a box on the street near Fort Greene Park today. Music: A lot of Strawberry Switchblade.

The song of this era: “Maktoub Aleina” by Hamid Al-Shaeri.

I go to Little Canal for coffee almost every day. It is just down the street from my office. I finally watched Bend It Like Beckham. I hate how much I loved it.

In this way I suppose I can relate to Galya. I am (at least partially) motivated by fear. I feel that by cataloging the quotidian, I might dogear this version of myself for later, flip back through the pages, trace the undulations of my life as they’ve passed me by, and say with conviction (and without doubt—if I do it right): I lived.

Through the diary, I split myself from writer into reader, into timekeeper. The illusion of preservation persuades me that meaningless minutiae matter. It placates me. Oblivion is not yet at the doorstep. I can stretch time, just as long as I can find the means, as an individual, to remember better. So I outsource.

The journal swells from leather and paper into a kind of pulsating, extrasomatic organ—one that has the capacity to store that which I cannot: proof that I was, and that I am now, changed.


I took the briefcase from the closet and a butter knife from the kitchen. No one saw.

Safe in the sanctuary of my bedroom, I first tried shimmying. I slid the butter knife between the locked brass jaws and tried to pry, but the blade of the knife began to bend. I could no longer bear to be out in the open, so easily discovered, so I locked myself in the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, feet dangling into the shallow tub, I furtively searched for a YouTube tutorial, landing, eventually, on “How to Open a 3-Dial Combination Lock Case in 6 Minutes or Less.”

It was a great tutorial. I braced myself for an intense next six minutes (or less) and pressed outwards on the two squarish buttons on either side of the locks; then, I slid each dial to read 0-0-0. According to the video, this was the first combination of dozens that must be tried on each lock, in quick succession, until the correct combination made itself known.

So I took a deep breath and began my work, and almost instantly, with two soft thuds, the latches flew open and the briefcase sat in front of me, innards exposed. Of course, someone had already reset the locks.

The contents of the briefcase were organized in layers: on the very top, two pinkish, palm-sized, and fraying booklets, their stamped covers identifying them as Pakistani motor vehicle licenses issued in the year 1967; a leather wallet lined with small black-and-white photographs of my grandparents as young adults with twinkling eyes and a silent kind of nobility; a mini white envelope with a clipping of black fabric inside, the significance of which I cannot ascertain; and, filling out the middle, stacks of empty manila folders.

My fingertips hit something solid at the bottom. Something heavy. From within the briefcase emerged two journals; one deep green and bound like a hardcover book, the other a flimsy, spiral-bound notebook—like the ones I used for so many years in school—that would have otherwise easily escaped my notice. Between their covers, lines and lines of my Dadi’s handwriting curled across the page, exactly as she had first written them, perhaps in the red glow of her own bedroom at night, after my grandfather had turned his back and fallen, finally, asleep. I imagined her writing, sometimes in bed, other times at her desk, her journal reaching out and enveloping her like a room within a room. I imagined her looking upwards, toward the ceiling fan, pursing her lips in thought, just like I do, before finding the right word to continue on.

I had always known my grandmother to be a reader. But I hadn’t considered, before her death, that she had also been a writer, one who wrote to keep her secret life alive, to split herself, just like I do.

I wouldn’t tell anyone about what I had found. Not yet.


In her foreword to Cuban-Italian writer Alba de Céspedes’s 1952 novel Forbidden Notebook (which has recently been translated into English by Ann Goldstein), Jhumpa Lahiri writes that “diaries and notebooks…are all dialogues with the self,” regardless of the precise form they take. They can be, in one sense, a space for writers to develop their literary practices, a low-stakes playground for experimentation that eschews the typical notion of audience; the self is presumed both writer and reader. And, in another sense, the journal is a vessel of confession through which the self can be expressed, examined, reflected, and, inevitably, through the brutal task of writing, transformed. Lahiri continues: “[Diaries] are instances of self-doubling and self-fashioning. They are declarations of autonomy, counternarratives that contrast and contradict reality.”

Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook, set in Rome in the early 1950s, became an unlikely textual mirror to my actual, clandestine readings of my grandmother’s notebooks. The novel takes the form of a collection of diary entries belonging to a forty-something woman named Valeria Cossanti. One fateful Sunday morning, Valeria walks the sampietrini paved streets to the tobacconist’s shop to purchase a pack of cigarettes for her husband. There, she is greeted by an unexpected impulse—the intoxicating urge to buy a small, deliciously glossy black notebook. The whole affair is devilish from the start: the store owner tells Valeria that, on Sundays, he is forbidden from selling quadernos. Still, somehow, Valeria walks home with the illicit little thing hidden underneath her coat.

Valeria’s early entries are saturated with a burning feeling of discomfort; she describes at length her constant need to hide the diary from her husband and two grown children (in the pantry, inside a biscuit tin; in the kitchen, snug within a pile of rags she humorously notes her daughter will never touch). Members of the Cossanti family can’t fathom that Valeria, the ever-maternal figure of devoted wife and mother, would have use for a diary—her selfhood is eclipsed, entirely, by her role within the household.

Even Valeria does not realize the power of her voice (made manifest by the pen) at first. But as she begins to sneak away from her marriage bed late at night in order to write, she gradually comes to terms with the fullness of her autonomy. She continues to write, even as her awareness further alienates her from friends, family, and society.

In Céspedes’s telling, self-knowledge is a double-edged blade, slowly unsheathed with each secret, self-affirming act of writing. And it can never truly be returned to its previous state of dormancy. For Valeria, rejuvenated selfhood comes with the bitter pill of seeing clearly just how much domestic life has diminished her. All the while, her blooming desire for self-distinction grows louder and louder: “I dream of having a room all to myself,” she writes. This Woolfian wish is repeated throughout the novel; and, perhaps, it is the diary itself that extends itself into the room for which Valeria wishes. But the text also warns us: writing is not always a place of sanctuary and comfort.

Then I was seized by an irrepressible desire to possess [the notebook], I hoped that in it I would be able to fulfill without any guilt my secret desire to still be Valeria. But then, instead, my restlessness began. My memory was weak until that day, maybe out of an instinctive defensiveness: it’s useful to ignore the fact that life is only a long, difficult path on which, hour after hour, a hope stays with us that we’re never able to transform into reality… In this notebook the volume of my life entirely spent for others is present to me almost materially, with the weight of the pages, with the marks of my dense writing.

Though Forbidden Notebook was written 70 years ago, when my grandmother herself was a girl, its continued relevance is deeply disturbing. The moralizing demands of domestic life change with each generation, but, at the core, the message to women remains the same: forget yourself. When Valeria imagines her daughter coming upon her diary she concludes that “if she read it, she would discover that I am different from what she thinks.” Have I done to the women in my family what Valeria’s family has done to her?

My Dadi once confessed that she was known to others as, first and foremost, a mother. She was known to me as my beloved Dadi Jaan. But she was also Shamima. Just Shamima:

August 2, 2002

78, Bahadurabad was sold this month. I’ll never be able to go back to the warmth of my dear parents’ home—ever or relive the fond memories of my dearest Abbu sitting in his usual place, smiling at me. But then there are mountains of memories I had to bury deep down in my heart after moving to USA.

Shahab asks me thru email what should he do with my share of the money. I don’t know myself. How can I tell him?
February 16, 2007

I didn’t feel like writing earlier. I’ve had two chemo treatments now. Two days before the 2nd chemo my hair started falling & now they are almost gone. They keep falling everywhere. Most of the time I am picking hair from my clothes. I look so ugly it is hard to look in the mirror. I pity my dear husband who has to put up with all this, but he is very brave about it. I am amazed at the difference your hair makes in your looks. In a way I feel Allah is telling me how He can change anything He wants. It is my body but I have no control over it.

It is rare for a maternal figure in my family to speak of herself so plainly; this is part of her sacrifice.


I have woken up, meditated, and misted my plants. I bought this journal a month ago. I was nearing the end of my previous one, and after seeing a woman at a café with her gorgeous, glossy red journal, I knew I had to have one in the same color. I finished that journal last night and took this one out of its wrapping. It was so crisp and new—something that will surely change the more I use it.

I begin this journal at home in Tempe, Arizona, in my bed. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the fact that I hope this journal might outline my journey out of here, to another place. My last journal began in Brooklyn, at the beginning of a journey. This one feels different, more desperate and internal. I feel less obligated to record my life as it is—something I spent hours doing diligently while in New York, because I wanted to preserve it, to remember. This period of my life feels entirely unimportant to my personal history, though perhaps that is unfair. Daily happenings are at an all time low. I spend my days running errands and buying coffees. But maybe it would be useful to record some of it, alongside my own thoughts and my own fears.

But I fear that in doing so, I might expose to myself how lonely I truly am. Is that really worth capturing?


If I hide myself from others, why wouldn’t I, at times, hide myself from myself? I have been neglecting my journal as of late, particularly since I began working on this essay. I think I might want to write, I trace the spine of my red Moleskine with my finger, and I am filled with dread. So I read. I water the plants. I paint my nails.

Perhaps my avoidance comes from the underlying belief that the duller moments in life aren’t worth remembering. Or perhaps it stems simply from the naked discomfort of being seen. One of my closest friends, Miranda, often says: The wish is the fear and the fear is the wish. The wish is being truly seen; the fear is just the same. To be witnessed in my entirety is frightening and vulnerable, even if the person doing the witnessing is me.

The daily performance of self is malleable, shaped by external expectations, and thus it is dishonest in some ways. At home, I am daughter. Sister. Sometimes niece. Granddaughter. Naturally, I mold myself to fit into those parameters. My digital self is dishonest, too, even if I don’t mean for her to be. When I post for the purpose of being viewed, or write for the purpose of being read, I am projecting those parts of myself I deem worthy of being witnessed. My diary, then, might be the place (aside from my Notes app) where a genuine inner life can flourish. Maybe something about the act of writing by hand, lines sloping across the page, draws truth out of me.

But what does it mean to write for myself? I hide from myself; I avoid looking myself squarely in the eye. I struggle to take myself seriously as the subject of my writing; I leave things unsaid. Lately, I feel queasy about writing and so I shut the journal, stow it in the one drawer in my nightstand that still has a knob attached. Who’s to say that in my diary you’ll find the truth? I’ve come to find that there is no truth in the feminine experience. I conceal things without thought. It’s second nature—and, at times, the only way to function in a way that is acceptable.

Even when writing in private, no woman can truly be free, untethered from the mores of her world. She is bound to, and, at times, reflected through them. Many of my Dadi’s diary entries detailed how much she agonized, in darkness, over the lives of her children. Would her youngest daughter, newly married and pregnant and living overseas, be able to handle the difficulties of becoming a new mother? How would her older daughter fare after finalizing her divorce? How would she explain this upheaval to her young children?

My own journals are anxious along the same lines, inverted. Will I be able to fashion a life for myself that will not require losing myself in the process? What will I have to sacrifice? Do I really have a choice?

And perhaps this is what makes the diary a distinctly feminine form. Cataloging or confessing, preserving or divulging, omitting the painful details or laying them bare. The diary gives space for meticulous attention to be paid to dark and hidden material—that tender stuff that is produced away from prying eyes. Material that might otherwise be considered unimportant, frivolous, or irrelevant. Maybe hysterical. Unnecessary to dwell on. Not useful.

vii. 8/29/23 

I have been writing an essay about diaries; and yet, I haven’t written in this journal consistently in weeks. I have been pushing pressing matters to the side, avoiding certain questions—they feel too big and all-encompassing to answer, so I just shy away.
I think that writing it all down by hand might help. The cold, bright light of the computer screen tranquilizes my thinking and makes me dull. A stream of consciousness free from my nitpicky editing may be the freest, most honest way to get it all out there so that I can fully grapple with the questions I have posed.
Jhumpa Lahiri argued that all diaristic writing is, at its core, a dialogue with the self. It is a private form. The presumed audience is the writer herself. But, is privacy even a possibility in the face of oblivion, in the face of death? Every word, once it is written, is begging to be read. The hidden notebook is begging to be found. The locked briefcase sits, burning, in the closet.
Valeria’s diaries in Forbidden Notebook allude to the fact that being a woman means having to forget yourself so that you may dedicate your life in service to others. A woman must sacrifice for  her family. And, the more a woman ages, the more her selfhood seems to disappear from sight. So, Valeria keeps a forbidden diary where she, through the unsparing act of writing, stores her inner, secret self. But isn’t part of hiding oneself within the pages of the diary the secret wish (and fear) of being found? Is there a secret part of Valeria that wishes maybe her daughter or son or husband would find her quaderno, read it, and truly see her, Valeria, no matter what the cost?
And there is the story of Galya, who recorded day to day happenings in an act of self-preservation. She produced proofs of having lived. But did she ever look through old diaries, read through the intricacies of how she once did her laundry, whether or not she called the clinic, what she prepared for dinner on some Tuesday evening all those years ago? I can’t be sure whether or not she did. So, perhaps, in some underlying, subconscious way, she wrote with the secret hope of being read, by someone else, in the future.
So there exists some unquestionable problem of audience. If the record exists, the journal sits, a physical object in the world, the logical conclusion may be that someone will read it. In some strange way, this possibility is what makes diaristic writing such a high-stakes form. Concealing yourself comes hand-in-hand with the desire to be discovered, understood, witnessed, known.
I began working on bringing these threads together because I discovered (some of) my grandmother’s diaries after she died. I asked myself, honestly, how I would feel if my metaphorical granddaughter came across my own diaries after my own death, teased out whether or not I would want her to read them. It’s an undeniably uncomfortable thought. But almost instantly, I knew that I would want her to read them. I would want her to crack open this very red Moleskin, trace my handwriting, and discover I am different than what she thinks. I would want her to see pieces of herself in me, holding the page like a mirror to her face. I would want her to look me—and herself —squarely in the eye.
 In private, I write with the hidden hope that my words might multiply me, expand me beyond the rooted fact of my body, my identity, or my having been alive. I can only hope that in the future, when I am gone, someone might want to witness it. ( Back to top )

Iman Husain is a writer, visual artist, and fact-checker based in Brooklyn. Though she holds great respect for mystery and elusiveness (and is often described in such terms), she also deeply admires vulnerability.