This item is an audio file.

Oral History Interview with Bishakh Som

Bishakh Som is the author of the graphic novel Apsara Engine. In the oral history, Bishakh describes growing up in Ethiopia and New York, studying and practicing architecture, "hatching" as a trans person, and storytelling through illustration.

Gender & Sexuality

Duration: 00:59:54

Date: April 16, 2020
Subject(s): Bishakh Som
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Transcriber: Anjali Nair

(0:00) Bishakh Som (BS):
So I was born in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. So we were a part of a community of Indian and South Asian folks who were affiliated with the United Nations, which is where my dad worked. He worked in the population division for the United Nations at the time. And he had been stationed in Ethiopia after doing various statistical jobs in India, like the Indian statistical Institute. He landed a job with the United Nations and they flew him off to Ethiopia to work. So my family had been there. Actually, I don't even know how long they'd been there before I came along. But I was born in 1968. And yeah, my brother was there too, my older brother who's 10 years older than me. And we lived there until 1974, which is when I was six, when there was a lot of political unrest in Ethiopia. which forced us and I'm guessing a bunch of other UN folks to move or to be relocated by the United Nations into New York. So we moved to Manhattan.

(1:13) Mustafa Saif (MS):
So do you have memories of your time in Ethiopia?

(1:17) BS:
Yeah, I do. But they’re very fragmentary. They're just bits and pieces. I have photos of that time. And I'm actually writing – well I actually finished a memoir. It's kind of hard to explain, but there are bits in the memoir that travel back to that time, in which I attempt to retell that part of the story. But yeah, I have memories of that time of like, going go kart riding with my brother, sort of the sound of the coin going into the little slot that activated the go kart. I was brought up by two Ethiopian nannies who I loved very much. I don’t know, I remember like little details like snatches of music or like the sort of glass ashtray that was very heavy that we had that my dad would put out during parties, this kind of thing.

(2:16) BS:
During that time, we would also travel back and forth to India because the UN sort of - well, they forced you in a way, but they encouraged you to visit your home country every two years. So we would do that. And I would go anyway, after I was born, to, you know, like naming ceremonies and things like that we had to go through. So we went back for those things, but I really don't remember those visits very well. What I do remember is wanting to come back to Ethiopia and not wanting to stay in India very much, like wanting to get back to my nanny. Um, I think it was like very olfactory, like that sensation had to do with smell somehow. But I don't know why.

(3:03) BS:
We came to New York in ‘74. I went to the UN School, which was right next door to where we lived in Manhattan and went straight through from first grade to 12th grade there. And that was a pretty like stable time because my dad was at the UN and I was at the UN school, and everything was sort of just like proceeding as it should.

(3:25) MS:
Do you remember what it was like moving to New York? Do you remember any feelings that you had? Or was it you were pretty young?

(3:32) BS:
I was too young to know what was going on. I mean, I had like vague ideas of what America was like, but those were all informed by like comic books. I do remember like, you know, we didn't get our apartment until later on in the year. We didn't have– just this complex that I lived in called Waterside had just opened. So we put down like, or like we reserved an apartment but it wasn't ready to be opened. So for a while we lived in a hotel in midtown Manhattan, the Roger Smith hotel. And I do remember that for some reason. It was a very weird but sort of fun, you know, like Eloise kind of existence, you know, just going from school back to the hotel and like, living out of a suitcase and stuff. It was, I don't know, it was strangely bohemian.

(4:21) BS:
One thing that stands out in my memory because it relates to what I do now is that me and a bunch of other kids loved to draw. And we actually used to do a comic together. And we would just take like sheets of newsprint, like 11 by 14 newsprint, like divided into nine or 12 squares, and we'd make up characters and they’d have little adventures. So it was like me and three other kids and we like, invented sort of a cast of characters that we would have doing just like ridiculous things. There would be no plot or anything, it was just a sort of outlet to draw and make up funny stuff. And you know, just kind of fall, we would fall over laughing just inventing dialogue for these characters, right? But that's what I do now, not so much to make myself laugh, but my life's calling is art and drawing comics so that thread ran all the way through my life. So yeah, those kids I loved very much and we would like hang out at each other's houses and have sleepovers and stuff.

(5:32) BS:
I also remember one of my very first friends was this Japanese kid. I would go over to his house and I don’t know he told me like all sorts of fantastical stories like how him and his dad had like a rocket ship in the basement, and that they would go off to the moon on weekends. And I was like, well, why don't I get to do that? That sounds fun. And also it's funny. It's not funny. Well, it is in retrospect, but like he would always want to play, one game he wanted to always play with me was Wonder Woman. Right? So then I didn't quite understand why. But I was like, Sure, let's do it. And then he would always get to be Wonder Woman. And he's like, okay, you be the guy, the colonel or whatever his name was, Colonel Steve. So he would get to twirl around and like, transform into Wonder Woman and I'd just be sitting there watching him do this, right? And I'm like, okay, there's some imbalance here that needs to be, you know, addressed, but I didn't understand what that was. He eventually came out. But as a queer, cis man. I met him much later on in life, in Cambridge, in the UK, in the market and was like, oh, what, what are you doing here? I'm like, I'm doing a semester abroad. And he's like, Oh, that's amazing. Um, and so we hung out and then he was like, so when did you come out and I'm like, Come out as what? And he's like, you know, he's like, oh, you're but you're a gay, gay boy, right? And I'm like, No, I'm not. But I didn't know what I was back then. It only took like me, you know, 20 more years before I had the language to talk about what I was. But anyway, that all stems from this Wonder Woman trick that he played on me.

(7:29) BS:
I remember my dad playing a lot of old Bengalimusic like Rabindra Sungeet and then really old Hindi film music. And you know, really scratchy records and tapes and stuff. Cooking was a really big deal in our household, which, you know, is like, not surprising for, you know, people from South Asian diaspora but like, especially for Bengalis, it's like, a lot of talk about food especially like, what kind of – what you're going to prepare for dinner, you know? And if there's fish involved, then that's another like, you know, that's an epic saga in terms of like, dialogue, right? Like, what kind of fish are we going to get? How are we going to prepare it? Are we gonna steam it or fry it and so on and so forth. And I was like, okay, well, I wasn't so interested in that. But it created this kind of very, almost tangible atmosphere, in the house mingled with like, you know, the sense of cooking and stuff.

(8:36) BS:
I spoke Bengali but they would, they also wanted to teach me how to read and write Bengali. So, there was a bit of that. Sometimes I’d go to visit my dad at the UN at his office, which seemed very exotic to me, like very adult, very exotic, all the like, office supplies and, and files and stuff, you know, that seemed like a world I would never get to engage with. You know, also during this time that enforced to your “home leave”, as they called it, kept going. So we would always every two years, we would always, we'd go back to Calcutta in inevitably the hottest time of the year, like July and August and we'd be there for, I'd say, don't remember, it could have been a month. It could have been a month and a half. But yeah, I was so unhappy during those visits, because it was, it was sweltering, it was humid, and I was just so... I don't know, I was happy to see my cousins and aunts and uncles, but I was very, I was very unhappy in terms of like being away from my friends and being sort of stuck in this very tropical situation, which I still to this day cannot deal with, but I don't know, you know, bratty kids. What are you gonna do, right?

(9:56) MS:
I'm curious. You've mentioned several times now it seems like olfactory experiences are really really central to your description of your memory. Like why do you think that is? And are there other dense memories that you associate with this time of growing up?

(10:14) BS:
I guess that's important because like isn't that the most I mean, scent, the sense that lingers the most and sort of like triggers memories the most? But yeah, I guess mostly it has to do with food. Like even, even to this day, like if I cook with mustard oil, that's a very strong sense memory of like when the mustard oil heats up that smells to me like Kolkata, you know, that's a very distinct smell. It's kind of like the first thing that hits you when you get off the plane there is like, the smell of the heat and the like thickness of the air. And then the further like, as you go into the city, then then it's more like a sense of, of frying and oil and, and fish, things like this. I don't want to veer into like cliched territory, but that those were very strong sense memories for me. Something that like, that my mom and dad were were able to sort of transplant into New York with, with their cooking and stuff. So um, something I still tried to like replicate which is actually what I was doing before I started talking to you today. I was like cooking and you know, kind of drawing on their recipes and stuff, but like embellishing them a little bit. But I can never get back to that...could never get back to that certain specificity of food-ly aroma.

(11:40) BS:
I graduated high school in 1986 and I went to Cornell University and I was supposed to be on a pre-med track.

(11:47) MS:
Why were you supposed to be on a pre-med track?

(11:52) BS:
Because I was a good Indian Child. And my doctors... my parents…(laughs) My parents said, Well, you've got like, one of two kind of options. It's very, it's a story that's been told so many times, but it's, it was the truth. And they were like, yeah, well, you know, what you should do is study medicine. I'm like, I don't think I'm going to be good at that. But you know, I was just not prepared. I wasn't mature enough to defend myself and say, you know, I'm not interested, I won't be good at letting, why don’t I try something else? So I spent a year studying, I did like a bio, you know, major, I studied biology and chemistry and stuff. And I was terrible at it as expected. I just, my heart wasn't in it. And I just didn't know how to be any good at something that I had no interest in, you know. I just, it was a, it was a trap. So eventually, I transferred to another program. Yeah, still at Cornell at the design and environmental analysis program, which, for all intents and purposes is interior design. It's not something I could really. I mean, I told my parents what it was, right? But they were like, oh, you're studying interior architecture. I'm like, sort of, not really, it's interior design. They're like, no, we can't tell people thought so they just like, called it something else, like interior architecture, you know. But the way I sort of placated them was to say, you know what, this is a stepping stone towards architecture. And that was something they could be on board with, because that's a “serious profession” or whatever.

(13:39) BS:
So you know, I held them at bay for a while saying, you know, what, I'll go to graduate school and study architecture. So they left me alone for like, the remaining three years while I studied interior design. There was quite a bit of culture shock when I got there, you know, from the UN school. The UN school was a very diverse population of kids from everywhere, you know, from South Asia, from East Asia, from Europe from, you know, so many countries in Africa, South America. We had the best soccer team because all all the kids who liked to play soccer were from the rest of the world, right? And not America. So we, you know, we were like, sort of a powerhouse. I had nothing to do with that. I'm just giving an example of how it was like. It was more global and not very American. So when I got to Cornell, I just signed up for this random dorm. I think it was like music oriented. And I was like, Oh, I like music, but I got there and it was so homogenous, and so white, you know, and at the time, I don't know, I fancied myself sort of like a punk or like a new wave kid or a goth or whatever. And that combined with my Indian background did me no favors, you know. The other kids were homophobic, I wouldn't say racist. Just because I never...I never received any racist abuse, you know that when they would call me other things that was combined with a degree of racism too, right? So it was very like, it was a shock for me to be in a situation or environment like that that was so hurtful and very vanilla and very, like aggressively vanilla and very intolerant. I remember thinking I couldn't make it in the combination of like having to study biology, which is not what I wanted to do, and this kind of racist atmosphere made me want to go back to New York or just escape so I applied to Columbia, thinking I would do architecture there.
(15:56) BS:
But the second semester I was there I transferred to a dorm which was the like, Performing Arts dorm or creative arts dorm, and that saved my life because I met other like, I don't want to say like weirdos because I don't consider myself a weirdo, but like, you know, people who weren't part of that mainstream of, of college, you know. People of different backgrounds races, not genders. Because everyone I knew was pretty much cis at the time, but yeah, different, like, you know, sexual orientations and stuff. And I remember like, the very first day I got there, you'd like put up stuff on my door, sort of like signaling who I was. So, you know, like, little images of musicians that I liked, like Kate Bush or whatever stuff that used to get torn down at my old dorm. So I was like, you know, taping all these images of, of Kate Bush or the Communards and stuff on my door and people would walk by and they're like, Oh my god, I love Kate Bush, who are you? And you know, we get to like talking and I was like, okay, I finally found a little bit of a home here amongst all the queers and artists and, you know, just people who weren't rushing to be in a frat or sorority. So I was very happy. And that actually made me want to stay at Cornell. I found out eventually that I got into Columbia to study architecture in an undergrad situation. But I said, no, I'm going to stay. And I'm glad I did. I met a lot of like, really cool people at that dorm with them, you know, we stayed close. And eventually when we weren't at that dorm anymore, we would like go on have our little – we’d like rent a house somewhere off campus and create a little safe haven for ourselves. You know, I'm still like, very close to a lot of the people that I met. I'm married to one, my best friend from, I think junior year, someone I hung out with all the time and we became really close and now we're still together. So Yeah, I'm very happy that I stayed there.

(18:04) BS:
I wasn't out yet as anything because I didn't know who I was. And yet I was still friends with a lot of mainly gay men. Right? And it's interesting like that, sometimes they would see me as one of them. And sometimes not, even though I was in such an open environment, it was– it was hard for me as a trans person to know what that was, because there was no language for it. There was no culture that kind of would, like let you know that this was a possibility. You know, I had no idea. We never discussed things like that. It just wasn't part of the culture at the time. So it was like unsaid that that was not a part of the conversation back then. But better late than never! I would have been, it would have seemed very alien to me to consider myself a trans person because I, I guess whatever ideas I had were, well, they were very old fashioned, but they're also very misinformed. And I'd had no idea I could be without some kind of radical departure from myself. But it's also not something I thought about, even though I always felt a little bit kind of nebulous, like, who am I? What am I? And I was like, well, I guess it's not important to have a genre attached to yourself, but that's only because there weren't that many genres at the time, you know. I sort of like hid within subcultures instead. So I was like very much and still sort of, you know, kind of a goth and that's what– that's what my identity was. So yeah, I mean, and that was a really healthy place to be a goth cause you know, there were like minded people.

Thursday nights there was a like goth and industrial night at the nightclubs. So we would go there and dance and I felt like sort of a sense of liberation. Even though it was a slightly fuzzy time for me in terms of like, identity, it was still a good time.

(20:20 ) MS:
You mentioned there were a lot of cis gay men who there was a question like, are you one of them? And then you also mentioned the story earlier about your friend whose house you would go to. Can you talk a little bit more about like, what your experience of like being presumed to be in that category was like, or how you understood that?

(20:41) BS:
I didn't understand it. I just avoided it you know. I was like, I'm not I know I'm not. Well, I didn't have the language right then, but I knew I was not a cis gay boy, right? But I'm also not one of those people. You know, I'm not part of the straight community either. But I was just like, Oh, well, that's too bad for me. There is no language that accommodates someone like me. And I thought, well, that's just the way it is. And there was a certain kind of resignation that that's the way the world works and you know, suck it up, basically. I had no way of processing it or reacting to it. So I just kind of– whatever those feelings were, I would like channel into other things like artwork or music. Maybe that came out a little bit in comics or art that I made at the time. Actually, maybe they didn't now that I think about it. There are a lot of like, I drew a lot of, for lack of a better way to put it, androgynous characters, you know. I guess that was the beginning of that kind of notion. But still, they were like very kind of– they're almost not human, right? They were like– the characters I drew were like, elves or they're kind of like science fiction-y kind of otherworldly beings and stuff. Or they were like, they were like goths or something, like goth fairies. Still in the realm of a fantasy for me. But that I guess was one way that I was working those things out without knowing about it.

(22:11) BS:
I fell in with a bunch of other cartoonists at the time and we produced an ongoing comics magazine called Strip. So it was really great to meet other people who are doing the same, if not the same kind of work, doing the same, engaging with the same medium. So that was very empowering to have other people to bounce ideas off of to talk about, you know, how to make comics, what, which comics artists we liked. You know, comics we grew up with and stuff. But yeah, that went on for– until I graduated, but also well beyond that. It became a small like– it was a literary magazine. It wasn't just like, you know, a bunch of dumb comics. It was, it had some kind of heft to it, and some value, so. And I met a lot of great people through that as well that I'm still friends with who still, you know, I still have conversations with like we did back then.

(23:08) BS:
Right after Cornell, I applied to and got into Harvard Graduate School of Design. And I studied architecture there. That was a four year program. So I moved from Ithica to Cambridge. And that was really intense. That was four years of really intense work. Actually, I really loved it. I'd never been in an in an academic environment like that, that was so rigorous, so serious, so intense, and the stuff that–the kinds of ideas we were immersed in, stuff I never thought I would be engaged with in architecture, you know. There's a lot of like theory, deconstruction was still kind of like prevailing aesthetic at that time. So there was a lot of talk about structuralism, post structuralism, and deconstruction, both in architectural theory and stuff. So our heads for swimming with all kinds of like really cloudy notions of what the relationship between theory and architecture. And the whole thing was very like, even though I say it was an intense there was a there was that this aspect of fantasy to it, like a lot of just crazy dreaming that it went into these buildings that we designed that sometimes weren't even buildings, you know, they were just like these structures that were very phantasmagoric, you know. They make no sense being part of this world. They were just like– it was big conceptual dreaming, and I didn't think that's what architecture school was about, but it was a lot of fun, to be in that milieu and to be part of that. And actually, there it was even more almost queerer than university but yet again, I was pigeon holed into a category and I didn't know how to fight back or be like, no, that's not what I am. But I don't know how else to...I want to participate in the queerness. I just don't know how, you know. So I went along with it to some degree, but not really.

(25:20) BS:
There was this funny thing that happened to me, like the first year that I was there. Our professor was this gay man. And he immediately read me as a gay boy,a cis gay boy, right? And we have these desk critiques where they come, the professor comes and sees what you're doing at your desk and gives you a short critique. So this was the first semester I was still like figuring out what was going on in terms of like, what studying architecture meant. So he comes over to my desk, and he's like...and I'm building a model of this building that I'm designing or proposing. And he's like, oh, why don't we take it over here where the light’s better? So we move over to closer to the windows and we're looking at this model. And he's like, so are there any more if you and I'm like, any more of what? And then he's like, any more people like you. And I'm like, What? I don't understand what you're saying. And eventually, he just got me to agree or to say yes. And then like, I don't know what I agreed to. But okay, um, but it turned out like, it wasn't really... it was quite odd actually, that like, even though a lot of people eventually came out, and they were all men. They were all men who like, came out, much later, after grad school. I was the only one who was perceived as being that way from the beginning, you know? And even though I didn't know it, like I was like, no, I'm not. But I guess I'm some kind of Ambassador or something, like I'm an ambassador for queerness even though they wanted to station me in, in a country that I didn't belong in, you know, so I was like, Alright, whatever, I'll go along with it.
v (27:16) BS:
But a lot of the out there a lot of the professors were gay. Somehow I ended up in this, this like class that was very straight and very white. Again, I don't know why it kept oscillating back and forth in my life between these two poles. But yeah, it was a very kind of dull class. And I was the only like, kind of exotic bloom in the whole, in that whole situation. So I guess I got picked to be the token queer. But again, the wrong kind of queer. Actually, I didn't have time to think about that too much because there was so much work. You know, we were like up all night and up for like, 36 hours sometimes just working on projects. It was very intense so I kind of like stop thinking about things like gender or you know, whatever those possibilities may have been just because I was like, too entrenched in like studio. Just intermittently cis gay men would assume things and kind of call me on it, and I stopped thinking about it for a while and you know I like, I say I refused to be something I wasn't. I remember like being out at a party with someone and her gay roommate was just like, why don't you just admit it, you know? And I'm like, admit what? You know yet again one of these situations where he was just like trying to like, make me out myself and I'm like, you're the one you're the one who's like... he's got some very narrow ideas about what is possible in terms of what it's like to be not one thing or the other as far as I was reading it. But yeah, at that time, you had to be like, have a sort of label on you. And I was like, I don't know what my label is yet so I can't be part of this game.

(29:13) BS:
I moved into an apartment on the Upper East Side with my friend, which was great. It was really cheap like $600 for the share. And I worked. I started work at I.M. Pei’s office, which, again, gave my mom and dad some bragging rights. So that was nice. And a bunch of people from grad school had come, were also at that office. So it was a bit like, almost like we hadn't quite left that academic environment because we're still like, you know, a bunch of us who are friends, were still together. So yeah, we'd spent a lot of time just hanging out on weekends and partying and stuff. I was in my 20s so it was like, it was hard work being at that office but it was also it almost felt a little bit like a vacation too because it was like, seemed very carefree. That went on for like three years or something, then things really started to change. My mom got sick in like 1998 or ‘99. And I was at that office, but I had moved. I was at I.M. Pei’s office but I'd moved to a sort of offshoot of it. Not as like, not as corporate an office but like some of the same people. So sort of it was sort of like a spin off. And I was going home on weekends to my parents house at Waterside for a while and it was almost like that same atmosphere of like, the comfort of home was still maintained until my mom got sick, and she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. While that was happening, I don't know it seemed to– time seemed to speed up and at some point in 1999 actually, um, my dad and my brother and I all decided to– that it was best for my mom and dad to move back to India so that they would be able to afford to have people look after my mom 24 hours a day, which is.. and for her not to be in a nursing home. So that was my dad's primary motive. And he wouldn't, you know, obviously, we wouldn't be able to afford that here. So, that decision was made and in 2000, we all flew to Calcutta with a, you know, layover in Jordan. It was an epic journey. My mom was like, yeah, she started to go downhill pretty quickly. But eventually we got to India and settled them in and I thought, okay, at least now there's some sort of support structure, support system with the nurses and the, you know, all their families were right there and stuff. But um, so I was a little bit relieved but that didn't last long either.

(32:09) BS:
I would, I would go back to see them every year and every year my mother's health declined. And every year, that same like support system seemed to collapse a little bit further, and she died in 2003 after succumbing to all of the traps of Alzheimer's. I kept going back as did my brother every year to visit my dad. He died in 2006, even though he was, he had his relatives there. He was living pretty much on his own in this flat in Calcutta. And, you know, there were people coming to visit and everything but I think it was a very kind of lonely time for him. And we would only visit once a year, so it was very difficult for him to keep going and eventually decided, I guess, to stop.

(33:05) MS:
Can you talk a little bit about what your relationship was like with your parents before the move?

(33:12) BS:
It seemed to be going okay. When I was like in a sort of, you know, corporate architectural environment and coming to see them on weekends and stuff, it seemed to have like, settled into a rhythm. And it dad had retired. My mom had done a degree from Columbia, at the Teachers College, so she was going to teach English as a second language. So oh, everything's kind of hunky dory and I was happy and they seemed to be happy. And I was like, Oh, this will go on for another 10 years or something. I wasn't even thinking that far ahead. But no, it it almost was like an extension of my sort of, of the coziness of childhood and like, you know, the same kind of familiar smells and sounds and everything. It sort of like drifted along very, very nicely until, until disease came down and pretty much wiped that all out of the way.

(34:15) BS:
I came back to New York enough and moved to Park Slope. Not this apartment but a couple of blocks that way. And my partner moved in with me after she finished grad school. So I don't know, that was my first little like vision of my own home and it was um, it was pretty, pretty smooth sailing for a while. I was still at that small office doing architecture. Oh, incidentally another yeah, this firm the boss was another gay man, a cis gay man– keep showing up in my life. And he was a very special– his character was just so riddled with vicious, you know, he was a very vicious person and a very toxic person. I still, to this day have dreams about him as a sort of like toxic father figure. All that, that situation sort of slowly devolved, and became very untenable to the point where the office pretty much shut down. And I, I didn't know what was going on, he wouldn't even tell us that the office was shutting down. He just sort of let things fall like fall apart without really informing anyone about what was going on. And I was like, so what is going on? And he said, oh, nothing, nothing. I mean, I'm like, well, do we have an office? And he's like, no, we'll just work from my apartment. And I'm like, that doesn't sound right. And I'm like, are you gonna pay us? He's like, oh, we'll see about that. I'm like, no, no, that's not the way this works. But I didn't know what else to do. You know, I was– I was scared. And I was just like, I didn't know how to figure things out, how to deal with it at that moment. So I was like, alright, I don't know why I agreed to this, but I was like, I'll keep working for you, but you have to pay my health insurance. He's like, oh, what do you need health insurance for? Anyway, so I did that for a little bit until for like, a month or two, until, you know, it got to the point where he was his toxic personality. I saw the full extent of it, you know, and I was like, okay, this is a sort of turning point for me. And I said, after one particular interaction that really went wrong, I was like, You know what, I'm done. And I just got out of there and I quit. And he's like, I don't know why you're behaving this way. Again, another example of him thinking I was something I was not and me, playing along with that. And at that point, the dam burst, and at that point I was like, No, that's it. I got out of there.

(37:02) BS:
And this whole time, while I was doing architecture, I'd also been drawing comics but very kind of, as a hobby. And there was that point when I quit that job when I thought, maybe I could actually make this thing that I'm, like, interested in, that I'm good at, have that be a serious part of my life, you know. I wasn't ready to call it a career, but you know, it's like, I should make an attempt at like, putting together a book and seeing if anyone's interested in publishing it. So I took a year off to do that. Eventually that project, which I worked on when I quit my job is now the book that just came out two days ago, was released two days ago, called Apsara Engine and a collection of eight stories. Half of them were written around that time that I'm talking about when I quit my job, or before I quit my job. So they're comics that I'd worked on, on weekends and in the evenings and stuff. And after I quit my job, I thought I wanted to, like explore more longer form stories. So I started writing and drawing three more stories that were, the narrative was a little more extended, like they were, each one was like 40 pages, like 40 page stories. And I thought, okay, well, this is an exercise for me, though. Most of my other comics were shorter. So now I had the time to sort of explore these other narratives. And so I spent a year doing that. And well ok, things happened in the interim, but you know, however, like eight years, seven years later, this book is out through twists and turns. It got to this point.

(38:47) BS:
What was interesting to me, but also something I took for granted was that most of the characters that I was writing at the time were women, right? And I just sort of accepted that that's the way it was, even though I at that time, I didn't consider myself a woman. It was like, Well, why shouldn't I be able to because that's those are the characters that I'm drawn to. And those are the characters that I'm able to write. I was just unable to write very well, from a man's point of view. But at the time, I thought, well, that I don't know what that means. Just why shouldn't that be a possibility? But again, at the time, I had no idea of the ramifications of that. I was shopping it around after I finished or you know, made a little mockup of the book and shopping it around to various publishers. And over the course of the years that followed, you know, kept getting rejection letters from them. But that wasn't...that was over the course of like, six years or seven years that I went through. Other things happened in the interim. I was doing freelance work, but I was doing stuff I actually enjoyed doing like illustration and graphic design and comics. I was doing like, you know, some comics that I could get paid to do. So that was interesting. I was also doing some freelance architectural work, like small offices, but nothing that I felt like I had to commit myself to, which was a nice feeling, you know, to not be stuck in a situation to say, you know what, I have no obligation to you. And I'm just sort of here to do this work and I'm clocking out and then doing other stuff and emotionally It was very liberating to be able to do that.

(40:32 ) BS:
I guess in maybe 2016, I started doing some work for the Immigration Defense Project. It was going to be this Choose Your Own Adventure comic book. So I got to know some people there and I got to know people who are their friends. Through them I got to know people, at SRLP the Sylvia Rivera Project, and other queer Social Justice organizations and you know, there was overlaps between all these organizations and these circles of people. Still at the time, you know, I didn't know where I fit in, but I wasn't, I wasn't gonna sweat that. You know, it's like, I'm just gonna worry about, like, how I can make my art work. But at some point through those circles of people, I finally like, you know, I got to be friends with a trans woman, and she immediately assumed I was trans. I had let my hair– my hair grow out after my parents died, just because it's always something I've learned to do. But at some point, I'd have to, you know, before they get to interact with it, I'd have to cut it off again. And this time, I just like, let it go. And with no real clear agenda, but I don't know somehow that was the sort of key to unlocking something like a door to This other world where this trans girl was like, well, I mean, she didn't say it in so many words, but, you know, you're like, you're one of us. And I'm like, Am I really? And that's when, you know, so many years later, that's how things opened up to me in terms of understanding the possibilities of queerness and of trans-ness and of like, what it means to be trans and I had such a rigid idea what that meant up until that point. It was really great to, to be able to, to say, I don't have to, you know, I am, I don't have to, like do anything to be this way, or to be trans. I just, that's once someone recognizes that in you, it's like, essential, you know, it's part of your essence. It's not like something you have to do to yourself. So it was like, it was a very mind opening moment for me. It just felt right you know, and it felt like all the things were leading up to it made sense like my always engaging or like drawing women in my comics, you know, just even like sort of feminine qualities of the way I used to dress which was, you know, in a very goth kind of style. Those things that were supposedly subcultural became very focused into something that was clearly more than that, you know, it wasn't like, adhering to a little fashion or cult it was like, No, this is actually part of who I am. But it also made me understand that like, being trans is not a question of like, reinventing yourself, necessarily. It's like, if you can see that all the things that are causing kind of all the misreadings in the past there was something to that you know, there was something to that dissonance. It was like static, that suddenly becomes a tone. And I, you know, I just– I got to learn more about through this person and through other trans folks that she introduced me to that it's like the varied and multiplicous quality of transness is something that accommodates a lot of psyches. And I thought that was an amazing thing after this sort of rigidity, like you were saying, of, of the kinds of queerness that I grew up with. It was so liberating to be like, in this kind of multicolored world of like, of possibilities. Yeah, it felt like suddenly, you know, I was on another planet where I belonged.

(44:50) MS:
And how does that planet compare to the worlds that you were creating in your comics?

(44:56) BS:
Those are things I'm only starting to think about right now. In terms of what it means to, to make the work that I'm making now and how that relates to the kind of geographies and architectures and landscapes that are in the work that I do now...what those might mean in terms of their queerness or their trans ness, you know. There was always an element of the fantastical in the stuff that I was doing, and it keeps coming back, but I wonder even – I mean, I'm still processing it so I'm wondering – like, how much of that has to do with a queer imagination, or trans imagination, you know. Sort of kernels of stuff that I grew up with, that I was always drawing are starting to become, I don't know, there's more blossoms of of, you know, there's like fruit growing. I don't know if it seems like a very, like I said– I still don't know where that's headed, but at least I'm in the right direction now, after having been waylaid, you know, more than once in my life in terms of identity and in terms of recognizing my own essence.

(46:17) MS:
Once you sort of started identifying as trans, were there conversations you had to have, or you chose to have with folks about that? And how much of it was like how, how important was it for you to have, to be able to pin, to be able to use that language now, as opposed to previously?

(46:35) BS:
It became very important, I guess even though I was still kind of navigating those waters. I didn't know quite where I was going. Like I started off using gender neutral pronouns, because I didn't think even though I was like... Well, I'm still not... I won't be accepted as a woman or whatever. So you know, it took a while for me to like, fully embrace the fact that I was not gender neutral, that, um, that my pronouns are not gender neutral. And I'm not like, clearly on one end of the spectrum, so, but that was a process of unraveling, I guess. Yeah, it was, I guess it was difficult for a lot of people at the beginning, especially people who I've been friends with for a long time to get on board with the language. For a while, I was just like, not being too rigorous about it and letting things slip or like slide. But the more I got, the more time went on and more entrenched I became in terms of thinking about my own identity and my and the, and the language that defines that and to some degree, so I kind of became a little more militant, asking people to respect my pronouns, and my gender, you know, and it's been a long, slow process. I think I mean, I'm at the point now where pretty much everyone knows who I am. So it's a lot easier. Strangely, not strangely, even before I kind of hatched, like, came out as trans, people started reading me, as a woman like at bars and restaurants and stuff. Which was interesting, but I didn't realize the full impact of that. I don't know, it felt like it was sort of happening organically without my knowing it or without my even advocating for for myself, you know, things. I felt like I was being pushed in that direction by something or somebody, which may be magical thinking, but I'm happy to consider that as a possibility.

(48:51) MS:
Um, can you talk a little bit more about this six, seven year long process of your book coming out?

(48:58) BS: ​​
I was shopping the book around to very mainstream publishers, in terms of like comics publishers, you know. There's like the top three of comics, indie comics, publishers who I thought I had a chance with, but they didn't want to do the book. So you know, I was kind of like a little heartbroken by that. I tried some smaller, even smaller places that did both like art books and comics. And they didn't want to do it either. At one point, I got an agent. And I was really psyched about that because I thought that was like, instant sort of entry ticket into the world of publishing and of acceptance. That didn't work out either after a while. Bit by bit, I got very like dejected about the whole thing and I stopped sending the manuscript out to publishers and you know, once in a while somebody would mention a publisher that I would be like ah god, you know? Alright, fine now, I'll take a chance and send them a PDF, but I really didn't want to deal with it anymore. I just didn't even want to look at the book anymore because I thought it wasn't going anywhere. And I was doing other things that at the time, I was like, contributing to other anthologies and things. So I had work. And I was like, Okay, I can– I don't have to, like fully immerse myself in a sulk about this book.

(50:29) BS:
But yeah, there was one time I was... I started to do work with my friend, Viddhu Agarwal, who is a poet. And so we were doing these, like collaborative comics together, where I would like, you know, she would have some poems that I, she would give to me and I would like do some drawings based on them. And then sometimes we do like, I’d do a comic that had her words. So we were doing some collaborative work and she teaches at Rollins. So I went down there to do a reading with her and one of her students, you know, afterwards we went out for drinks and stuff and got to talking with one of our students who had done an internship at Feminist Press, and said, you should totally send your book. The one that I was like hiding under other books, so I didn't have to look at it. She said, you should send that to Feminist Press. And I'm like, why would they want to publish a graphic novel or comics? I don't even think they do that. She was like, no, you absolutely should, you know, just tell them– send it to me or, you know, tell them that you met me or talked to me. And I'm like, okay, fine. And I didn't get around to it for a while, because, you know, I still didn't want to have to think about the book at all. But when I did, you know, I sent it off and I was like, well, here comes another rejection letter, right? I don't remember what year it was. Maybe it was 2018 that somebody got back, an editor at Feminist Press got back to me. And they were like hey, this is really interesting work, do you want to talk about it sometime? And I was like, what?! First, like any inkling, like from anybody that they were, thought that this book had possibilities? And I was like, yeah, sure. But also I wasn't, I was already you know, like preparing myself for disappointment. But over the course of 2018 to 2019, I guess, it became much more serious and I met with them a couple of times. We talked about the work and what things they thought I could revise and stuff. And I was like, well, this is great, at least they're taking it seriously, you know, and this was after I hatched. So, you know, I think that a lot of the work that I had in the book previously, was queer, but a very slightly quiet, way. It was very like, an undercurrent of queerness, or undertones of queerness, but it wasn't like, in your face, let's say. But at some point, you know, after letting the book gestate in the state that it was in, during that time, you know, that's when I discovered my own transness. There was something, I felt there was a little gap between the work and myself, right, because I'd very clearly embraced something that had been nebulous before. And that was reflected in the work to some degree. And Feminist Press came back to me and very rightly said, would you mind writing another story for this book, one that is more explicitly trans? And I was like, yeah, I can do that. And it was also a project I really, I'm so glad they did, because otherwise you know, this, this book kind of would be a sort of only half accurate mirror of, of who I am. So I wrote a story, another like, 40 page story, which is called Swan Dive, which I have been so happy that I got to do because it really tied together so many threads of my life, you know. My love of drawing, my coming into trans-ness, my architectural education and how that intersects with drawing as a, as a tool or as a practice. And what that means to be in terms of how drawing and creating worlds through drawing is almost like analogous or a parallel strategy to creating your own world as a trans person. So I think doing the story really brought all these things together for me in a way that I had not been able to do before so I was really happy to be able to do that.

(54:57) BS:
I was on a Zoom call yesterday with a cass that my friend, Mckenzie Wark teaches on trans aesthetics. And that was one of the first times that I've gotten feedback from students who are younger, obviously much younger than me. But I'm really happy that a lot of these themes resonate with them. And it's not just like me, you know that my ideas and aesthetics aren't just like, sort of a relic. Or you know, like that they don't think I'm some old Auntie who's like, just kind of either working stuff out or that these ideas are of a certain time or of a certain age or generation. But things within the stories seemed to have, like I say resonated with these these students. And that was really heartwarming for me to see that. Yeah, some some of these images and ideas are clearly universal.

(55:54) MS:
Through this process of hatching, how important has it been – how important or how has your South Asian identity factored into that? And has it been important to meet other trans South Asians?

(56:05) BS:
I'm so happy when I do. Yeah, it's absolutely like, and to be able to do things like the South Asian Queer and Trans Coalition, you know, the, the talks and stuff, it's very, you know, it's amazing to see how. Well now I'm gonna sound like an old Auntie, but you know, it's like, I wish I'd had trhat when I was growing up. But to see, you know, South Asian kids who are, have those resources and the language to say, this is who I am, that makes me very happy, and a tiny bit jealous. But it's amazing. I've been, the kind of intersection and confluence of the two things has been very enriching for me.

(56:48) MS:
What do you think would have been different in your experience if you had had the language at a different time point?

(56:56) BS:
When I say I'm jealous, I mean, even if I'd had the language at the time, I wouldn't have had the guts to do anything about it. Because I was always confined and bound by what my parents would think and what they wanted me to be and who they wanted me to be. So it would have been out of the question for me to embrace anything like trans-ness or queerness. Like a lot of– I mean, that's not an unheard of story, right? I mean, you just keep a lot of things hidden. I guess in some ways I was, I was lucky that I didn't know who I was, because that I had nothing to reveal. I had nothing to hide. Because I didn't know myself right? At that time… And in a way, I'm lucky that all the hatching, and the coming into being happened after my parents were no longer part of the equation. Maybe it's better than I didn't know at the time, but that's very specific to me, not to anyone else, you know. It's like a delayed mechanism that was also partly a survival technique.

(58:01) MS:
What do you see looking forward for yourself? What are some of your visions and hopes moving forward?

(58:09) BS:
I think I would have been able to answer that question a little better if this, if we were talking in January, or February. I'll be very honest, I don't know how to answer that or what to say. because if I think, if I start talking about what I want, it's going to like either set myself up for disappointment, or it's going to jinx every– like those possibilities. But more than that, none of us knows what this new world is going to look like. And maybe that's paranoia or exaggeration, but right now I'm playing it safe and not projecting too far and not having you sounds kind of cynical to say, but I think I'm not trying not to have too many hopes. That's a terrible thing to say. But I'm just trying to dampen my level of expectation. Maybe in a month or two months or three months, I'll be able to have a little more kind of aspiration, or I'll be able to dream a little more fully. But right now, I'm not willing to do that. And I'm sort of clamping down on it. And I kind of want to keep it that way. Just for the time being. If we were talking in January or December, I would have said, Yeah, I would love to, you know, imagine that one of these stories will be adapted into a Bollywood film. A movie, starring all these fabulous trans actors – South Asian trans actors, and then there’ll be like musical numbers. But I'm not gonna say that.

Collection: Mustafa Saifuddin Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-07-17 (created); 2024-05-26 (modified)

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