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Oral History Interview with Fariha Róisín

Fariha Róisín is a queer Muslim poet, podcaster, writer and artist. She is the author of the poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost and the novel Like a Bird. In her oral history, Fariha describes her childhood in Australia, her move to New York, writing and speaking on culture as the host of the podcast Two Brown Girls, her work on wellness, and moments of navigating family relationships, queerness and muslim identity.

CW: Abuse

Gender & Sexuality, Arts

Duration: 00:58:36

Date: January 31, 2020
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Transcriber: Tahani Peracha

Fariha Róisín (0:01):
So I was born in Kitchener, Ontario on 10th of January, 1990. I was born on a full moon at 3:55pm. And I grew up being told my father used to always wish my sister and I a happy birthday, exactly the moment that we were born, which was really sweet. He stopped doing that. So I've always known my astrological chart since I was a kid, because I, like, grew up with it- grew up with that understanding, I guess. I was born into a family of two immigrants from Bangladesh, both of them are of mixed descent. But that's- it's a complicated issue, because of the Liberation War, they both feel nationally, very Bangladeshi. Um, because they survived a civil war and a genocide. I did not grow up in a good household, in the sense that I am a child of abuse, under the hands of my mother, which is a theme I think that comes up in a lot of my work and has developed and it's, it's interesting, because reading work from like, five years ago, or six years ago, where I, when I first began this process of healing with my mom, it's such a different perspective to what it is now,

F.R (1:18):
I, for the longest time, just sort of lived in this understanding that she was a multitude of many different illnesses, mental illnesses. And that was what really, I think, defined my childhood and really up until I was 19. But, since last March, I've had like memories that have recovered from sexual abuse that she imposed on my body. So my relationship with her has like rapidly changed. But she's an artist. And when we were young, or for many years, she worked as a babysitter, she still does occasionally. My father is a professor of political science, but when we were growing up, he was a student. That's why we were in Canada. He was at the University of Waterloo doing his PhD in Urban Planning, and, and then we- I'm sorry, I'm going back and forth so much- but, we left Canada when I was four and a half and moved back to Bangladesh. And at the time, I think my father was quite hopeful that, you know, we could have a life in Bangladesh, his whole goal of like going out into the West and getting a Western education was to then come back and reapply it into Bangladeshi society. But he was so radical in his thinking and I think a lot of Bangladeshis are really uncomfortable with, a lot of South Asians are really uncomfortable with like, liberal ideas. Just simply because I think after colonialism, we've just constructed as a society as a larger society so much, so there's not a lot of space to be like Marxist, which is what my father is. He's a Marxist socialist. And just to think more about, more openly about like, the ways in which we can be nuanced and complicated, I don't think that there's a lot of space in South Asian society for us to be like that, you know, what's happening in India, for example, towards Muslims is a very, I think, acute example of that.

F.R (3:24):
And so, there was, I think, like, I don't know if what's the correct term, but I guess like, there was like a uprising and murders of lecturers, and so my dad just got really nervous. And so we emigrated to Australia when I was five as a response to the violence.

Mustafa Saif (3:44):
Do you remember Canada and Bangladesh before?

F.R (3:50):
Canada very briefly, like I'll have moments, but unfortunately, a lot of it's marred, I think, by my abuse, so I don't have like very specific, clear memories. And Bangladesh, I developed a skin disease from the heat and I remember a lot of just like, just like warts and like very sensory feelings of like I had like, like boils on my hands and stuff. And like I remember just like always picking them and just like really gross memories, nothing like you know, nothing beautiful and scenic.Just like me being a kid and being gross. I remember like, there's these things called “tick tick”, which are like these little like, I guess, like, geckos on the wall, like very, like weird memories, you know, like that. Nothing specific.

M.S (4:43):
And where were you in Bangladesh?

F.R (4:45):
In Dhaka, yeah. And then we moved to Brisbane when I was five. And no, we moved to Sydney sorry. And then we moved to Brisbane. And then, at 10, we moved back to Sydney. And then I was there until I was 19. So I did most of my formal education in Australia.

M.S (5:07):
And were there other, when you were living in Sydney, were there other Bangladeshi folks that you were part of the community with?

F.R (5:13):
Not really. I mean, yes. But I think like, given the fact that I think there's like a variety of reasons my mother's mental illness, potentially my dad's like, radicality being mixed, there was like all of these reasons why, like we didn't fully subsume into Bangladeshi culture. And so I really like it when people identify me as Bangladeshi, but it doesn't feel like the totality of my experience. And so I think I struggle with how to identify South Asian. South Asian feels a lot more me, but I don't even know what that means. You know, it's like, it's a very, it's a very interesting toe to line. Toe to line? To line? I think you know what I mean. Line to toe, that’s what.

F.R (6:06):
I think that that vagueness is not something that I've ever really seen before. Like, I have a very vague South Asian identity. My, my parents are, you know, both of their mothers are not Bangladeshi, so I think that it's always been a struggle to fully feel like this is me, but I speak Bangla, I read and write Bangla, and when I see Bengali kids, I'm like, so like, moved by them. But again, it doesn't feel entirely like me.

F.R (6:39):
I did an interview with BBC Asia, like, five years ago, and they were like, how do you identify and I said Muslim, as cultural identity. And they were like, what? like, that doesn't make any sense. And I was like, that, to me, like Islam, and Islam has actually been my main identity, like, the connection that I have to anything is being a Muslim, it varies, you know, from years, tp years. And it definitely, you know, sometimes it's felt like a burden. But the older I get, the more I think I've been able to control and see how like Islam is, is a deeply progressive and, you know, nuanced faith, and it does make space and it does have scope for so much, which I find a lot of comfort in. My Islam was very personal, but we did a lot of, my sister and I, did a lot of interfaith work. And so I would hang around with a lot of like, Sufi Muslims, I grew up more entrenched in Sufi ism. And, you know, even the way that I was taught Islam, it was very cerebral. It was very, almost like intellectual as it was opposed to, like, this is how you do it. Like there was nothing that was, nothing felt like a requirement. You know, certainly there are things like you know, don't eat pork, don't you know, all of those things. But definitely, I think outside of those restrictions, I didn't feel I didn't always feel like I was constricted, and but again, like that has changed over time, because my mother has gotten more religious over time and that has really affected the way that I experienced Islam.

M.S (8:17):
Can you tell me about your home in Australia, or your earliest memories of home?

F.R (8:22):
My earliest memories of home in Australia. My memories probably started forming clearly more around seven. I don’t have a lot of memories before that. So in Brisbane, you know, we lived in this beautiful like bungalow home, I grew up very poor, and that was very apparent. It was always like, told to me, it was you know, something that was like reminded. So I didn't have a lot of pleasure as a child. And so I think I got to know environment really well, like I like to be I got to like play with sticks and stones. And you know, like, really, so like, it's so beautiful. The flora and fauna is just so extensive, and so I sort of made a like a universe for myself outside of my home.

F.R (9:10):
And then when we moved to Sydney, that was sort of stripped away a little bit more, because we lived in a more suburban place. And what correlated with moving to Sydney, my mom got more violent. And so around 12, she tried to kill my sister and I, she tried to stab us. And it was like this whole ordeal. And then I believe I got PTSD from that and was really, really affected emotionally, very affected by her violence. But she's a deeply complicated person. She's extremely talented, and beautiful, and charming. And it's really sad to me that she lost, she has lost a lot of her life to her illness that she's unwilling to face. And so I think a lot of my work is about trying to face the things that she can't.

F.R (10:06):
A lot of my life has been sort of punctured, and punctuated by her violence. It's kind of a moral conundrum, because I often think about what would happen if people that know her read my work. And especially now given like, the latest layer of unveiling with my sexual abuse from her, it's like a very tricky position because I, I sympathize with her and I, I have a lot of compassion for her. We don't talk anymore. So that's, I think it's made easier not to communicate with her. So I don't feel at the burden as much. But um, I don't know, like, when people ask why I chose to write about her, I actually feel like I never had a choice. Like, I think I would have died. Like, I really think I would have died. And I started writing a novel when I was 12 years old, that I dreamt, and it's about a girl, a biracial girl who's gang raped by a family friend, and disowned by her family. And I finished it when I was 15. And it comes out this year.

F.R (11:15):
And when I was 23, my dad emailed my sister and I and I was living in Montreal at the time.Without going into too much detail, he sort of essentially, in this tirade of things that he was telling us about Bangladesh and how beautiful it was, and how, you know, when he was growing up, it was so green and lush, and, you know, his childhood, and I think he's trying to archive his life for us, which is really beautiful. And then like, just like, at the end of this like sprawling email, he just has this like one paragraph of this, this, this story about my mother, and her father, my grandfather, was a socialist and a member of parliament in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh. So partition, after partition, after the Liberation War, and there was an assassination attempt on him. And then when they couldn't kill him, they kidnapped my mother. And she was untraceable for three days. And my dad just said, some things happened to her that were bad.

F.R (12:18):
And it sort of made so much sense to me. I think that something I try and uncover in my work a lot is that a lot of us, I think, are drawn to things that we don't understand. And like, you know, I see my, the way that my life has unfolded at 30. And I'm like, I knew, I knew so much, you know, like, I knew- I knew pain, and I knew trauma and I knew that I wanted to survive, and I made choices to survive. And it's not easy work. But it feels really necessary. Because I don't have a choice, I really don't have a choice. And, you know, I lived with my mom until I was 19. And then I essentially escaped.

F.R (13:07):
My father, like, helped me escape my mom, and I'm the only one that got away, my sister is still very much there, and she's still looking after my mom. And my dad, you know, despite whatever their marriages like, he tries to look after her. And I feel very fortunate, but my life was really, really fucking terrible. And it's, I think, pretty amazing that I've figured out how to live, you know, despite everything, and I think it's not something that people pick up on often. Because it's, you know, not even because I mask it, just because I think it's easier for people to not believe that it took so much to get here. But it took so much to get here.

F.R (13:53):
It's hard to recollect and be like, there's so many gaps. There's so many things that I don't really remember and I don't really know, but then there's so much that I did know, and that's why it's easier for me to face forward and look towards the future, as opposed to like, actively like trying to, outside of my trauma, try and like grasp, you know, at my at my life, because I don't know if there's like any real answers there. It's quite fascinating to be a trauma survivor and to, to remember, to have memory.Because, you know, I have a trauma therapist now and to go back to memories to go back to points of departure or like, you know, emotional departure, disembodiment, all of those things. It's like quite fascinating how we learn to disassociate or how we learn these skills for survival. I think that that's really beautiful, but many of us don't have the luxury to remember everything.

F.R (14:55):
I think nature became really a really great healing tool. That's why everything that's happening in Australia is quite painful, because it's like, you know, Australian landscape really helped me survive. I don't know, my life was really weird. I, I wasn't allowed out. I didn't, I think a lot of Muslim brown kids like probably, you know, had similar lives, especially being a girl, you know, like, I didn't have a social life. And so I had to really find ways to be safe, in confinement, in in a, in a almost like a prison like, I I think that's why I began to disassociate because it was easier. Like I know when things were happening to me, I would just, you know, travel somewhere else. And you know, if you don't have a choice to like go away, when you don't have a choice to run, when you don't have a place to be safe and your body doesn't feel safe and your home doesn't feel safe, then there, there are ways that you have to, yeah, figure out how to be safe.

F.R (15:58):
And I think movies were like a big escape for me. And so I became like an avid movie fan, which is I think, partially why I became a film critic, when I first started writing because it was such a, such a visceral tool for me to, again, like, not be in my body and not be in my pain and not be in my trauma, and music, similarly, books. So like those three things really, were, I think, the most tangible ways that I like, didn't have to be at home. Even when I was at home. You know, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry changed my life. I watched that when I was 15. The Royal Tenenbaums when I was 12, with my sister, we still laugh about it. 18 years later. Lots of like Satyajit Ray, like I grew up on Satyajit Ray, who is an incredible Bengali filmmaker. I actually watched a lot of foreign films, like I remember, there was this place called Video Easy, and I would just go there and get like, six films for $10. And just like watch them, and like definitely things that I shouldn't have been watching but definitely feeling as if like I needed to escape and I needed to see the worlds you know, I needed to see what I was missing. And then books now everything's a little bit blurry. It's hard because there's so much I consumed so much in those ages. I can tell you songs like Jeff Buckley, Jeff Buckley's Grace, I remember listening to on repeat. When I was about 13, we lived in a blue house. And there was like this one spare room or, I shared a room with my sister because I was scared of the dark. So that was technically my room. But it came- became like this office space. And I would sit and listen to Jeff Buckley's Grace over and over and over again, and dream about being saved. And I remember like, lying on this leather couch and one day, my mom called the police on my father and they came, and it was so traumatic, and they just got into a really bad fight, but then she was accusing him of hurting her. And it was just like, the drama of my life just became so inescapable. And I remember just crying on this leather couch listening to Jeff Buckley and just being like, Why? Why do I have this life? Um lots of Radiohead, lots of Coldplay, lots of alt rock. Definitely a huge fan of of those bands.

M.S (18:38):
So during this time, were there any was there a vision for your future? Like did you have dreams for what you wanted an alternative to look like?

F.R (18:55):
Yeah. I might get emotional this entire conversation. Listen, I just love crying. I don't even love crying. I don't- I don't know how,I don't know how I survived. Sometimes I think about being young and always in pain. And I was suicidal from like, the ages of 10. And it's funny, like, you know, I'm coming to this like very interesting end of a cycle, like releasing this book that I've been writing for 18 years that I began writing at such a pivotal time in my life, like literally, the year my mom tried to kill me, I started writing this novel. I have a lot of compassion for myself. And you know, as a, as an adult now and looking back, I think it is so important to talk about the things that I talk about, despite them being very difficult. And I think that I say things with such ease that people assume that it's very easy for me to talk about them. I think people assume, or not even I think, I know people assume. I've had partners tell me this before, you know, friends that it's quite shocking and surprising and unbelievable, really, that I had the life that I had.

F.R ( 20:15):
You know, I started the social justice club. When I was 13 or 14, I joined Amnesty and Oxfam. When I was around the age of about 13, I started canvassing for Oxfam. And I worked extensively in indigenous rights as a young teen, and was very much like that, like, annoying social justice warrior kid, but like, before, it was cool. And I've always been so invested in a better world, and I think we have a great capacity to get there. I think that actually, in this time of climate change, and this impending apocalypse, environmental, social, human apocalypse that we're facing, we're actually being asked by God to evolve. And that was something I just knew, at a really young age. And I never had, like support to believe that I could do the things that I've done, and I still really don't, but I somehow just know, that I have to do them, so I'm doing them. And I think that that's, that's the dream. And that's the dream being realized, like, some kind of like, power beyond me is just like, I'll have moments of grace that I've held on to, but really not a lot of not a lot of softness, and not a lot of love, but have understood that I needed to, despite that, be loving, and compassionate, and good. And that, to me, that's why I came here. I came here on this planet to help humans evolve. And that's what my work is about.

M.S (22:09):
So I guess one of my last questions about this time in Australia, it sounds like outside of the home, when you were at school, and you were in these organizations, were there any connections that you made with other people that, you say you didn't really have a bunch of a social life but were there any connections with friends or other folks that were important, and that potentially you carry with you today?

F.R (22:31):
Lots of teachers, you know, like I, my history teacher, gave me this book that I still have, which is I think a lot of kids maybe potentially got this book, but it's Dr. Seuss’s “All the Places We Will Go”. And she wrote just a beautiful message about seeing me, I think that that was one of the first times that I felt like, I so deeply crave to be seen, because I knew that I was special. And I didn't have that reflection anywhere else. And I really wanted that from the validation from adults. My principal also, I went to the school called Chelton Girls, which actually, funnily enough is no longer called Chleton Girls, now it's called Shelton High School, because they had a bunch of non binary students that changed the name, in like suburban Sydney, you know, it's pretty amazing. But she loved me so much and really, you know, never like wanted to make me I think, never wanted to like, single me out. But I was such a deeply thoughtful kid. And I think that she just really recognized that and when I left school, she gave me a “co-exists” t-shirt. And I remember just being like, Oh my god, wow, like, this is so beautiful. And then I still have two really close friends from high school, Manoj who is Iranian, and Bai and was sort of my co conspirator in a lot of ways, like we did a lot of like events together. And she was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when we were 14, you know, like, definitely, like, just was like such a radical inspiration for me. And then my other friend, Kristin, is a lawyer, and she's half Chinese. And I think having like these non white fellow counterparts really helped me develop my radicality. Even though I didn't fully understand white supremacy as a as a construct. I understood fairness and justice and liberation in that sense. Both of them really helped me, especially man really helped me and still helps me like, create that framework and stick by that framework.

F.R (24:46):
So I wanted to be human rights lawyer, and went to school for it, and somehow knew that law was just not going to work for me. I used to get teased a lot, because of the way that I communicate. I'm not very, I mean, some, or maybe many, argue with me about like this, but I never have felt like an intellectual. I don't sound like an intellectual, and I don't, I don't have a lot of airs. And I don't like perform, essentially. Being an intellectual spaces makes me feel very uncomfortable because I feel like a dumb ass quite often. And being a writer is really challenging when you feel like a dumb ass a lot of the time, I know that, like, my brain is smart. And I know that like I have, I'm able to apply knowledge, but I don't like, I don't you know, I never enjoyed theory, I don't enjoy reading, like extensive theoretical perspectives on like, you know, why torts is interesting, you know, like, those things are not valuable to me. And I don't work well within the construct of formal education. But I needed to leave. And so I pretended to go to school, and essentially left under the guise of finishing my law degree in the US and then dropped out and never told my parents. I moved to New York when I was 19.

M.S (26:02):
And you were not in school…

F.R (26:07):
No. That pressure of academic exceptionalism that doesn't really resonate with everybody, like, I know that I'm smart, but do I have like, degrees to present that? No, not really. But, you know, and I've never, I've never worked within that construct and I really hate that, you know, that there is still, especially in the, the writing world to like, a lot of the brown writers that are known are like, still like Stanford alumni, you know, Columbia alumni, Harvard- like, it's just,I think that that's great. But not everybody has the possibility to do that, because of a host of reasons. And for me,I really suffered from the shame of not being able to just apply myself and just do the thing. You know, like, when I eventually told my parents that I had dropped out of school, they were just so shocked that I couldn't finish my degree. They're like, why can't you just do another two years and you're over, you know, you don't have to be a lawyer, like, you don't have to pass your bar exam, all that shit. And it's like, why would I waste two years of my life performing and being consumed by this bureaucratic engine, when I could just be focusing on my care, and my heart and all the things that I was never given as a child? I mean, that sounds pretty absurd, I think to most people, but for me, it just was something that even at a young age, I understood that there was a real, sincere, important investment in my mental health that I wasn't really seeing anywhere else outside of me.

F.R (27:53):
I don't know the timeline of this exactly, but I remember that before I moved to New York, I did Umrah in Saudi and I did, so I did like this, like spiritual pilgrimage. Okay, things are coming back. So I had an abortion at 18, which was really traumatic. And, you know, being not only South Asian, but being Muslim, and very identifying, like, identifying as a Muslim and not even being like, I fucking hate Islam. Like I, I was actually that like, one kid at functions that were like, that was super defensive of Islam and felt so connected and like, really wanted people to understand, you know, how vital and important spirituality was. But for me to do that, and for me to like, have this like, very traumatic event, at the time was just, like, deeply devastating. It made me question myself, it made me question my intention, made me question my humanity, it made me question, my goodness, all of the things. And I think like leaving was both like me, feeling as if I needed to escape my mother, but it was also meaning to escape the person who got me pregnant. In retrospect, it wasn't a healthy relationship. It was a deeply damaging relationship. Or so not even in retrospect, even at that time, I knew and I didn't really have the answers as to how I could survive or like, I just knew that I couldn't be there. And I guess I manifested certain things and then, in order to sort of like, pay my karmic duty or to pay like an absolution, for my sins, I lived in Granada, in Spain, which was like a Muslim, sort of the last Muslim stronghold and in Spain, that's where the Alhambra is, like, they still have a very large Spanish Muslim community there, you know, seeing the ways in which Islam changed and you know, really made Spain In so much of Europe, what it is, is really, really beautiful and profound for me.

And then I was in Istanbul, in Eyup, which is this very, very, like, intensely Muslim part of Istanbul. And then I did Umrah with my family, which was deeply traumatic, because my mom was just, like, so intense and crazy, and I didn't want to pray. And I like I was struggling a lot with like, the feeling of like, both wanting to be there, but wanting to do it on my terms, and like, I just still will not accept that Allah is gonna strike you down if you don't do things, this you know. Like, I do not abide by that methodology, it does not apply to me, it does not feel correct, it does not feel judicious, it does not feel aligned with the song that I understand and know, the song is not supposed to be a religion that's so strict, it's never it's never made any sense to me. But I did Umrah, and then I moved to New York. And as soon as I got here, I, you know, it was really hard. I felt a lot of shame and guilt for leaving my family and lying to them. That was a huge source of shame for me. And I wouldn't tell them for a long time, I can't even remember how long it took me, maybe like two years. So I lied for a long time. And, you know, as somebody who considers themself “good”, it was really hard to negotiate that, you know, like, I was just like, How can I be good? If I'm, like, lying about something so big? I would call them and they would, they'd be like, health class. And I'd be like, great, you know, like, you know, lots of just like, made up shit. Like, yeah, this professor’s so smart, thinks that I'm great. You know, like, again, I don't really remember, like, the details. But I know that, um I mean, it's kind of like the classic line that you learn as a kid if like, when you go to your friend's house, but you're pretending to like, be at the library or, you know, like, again, I didn't have a lot of mobility as a child. So I had to like, lie, I had to learn how to lie. And I think that that's a really interesting motif in South Asian culture, because it's something that we all do, and yet, and we're all filled with so much shame for it, but none of us really talk about it. And it's something again, that I feel like I really want to talk about and expose, because I'm in a really fortunate position where like, I'm very open about my life with my family now, like, you know, they can literally read everything. And so I don't have the fear anymore to deny myself my truth. And so I can say these, like, really, really awful realities and expose them. A lot of people, I think, you know, whether you're selfish or not, can relate to. And it's a sad reality that we're still like, in these positions of just feeling so guilty about something that we're actually almost forced into doing. And you know, as a young Muslim woman, I wasn't allowed to have a life. And that's not something that I think is like, talked about enough. Like, I wish I didn't do the things that I did, but I was forced into them in many ways. I had an abortion when I was 18 because when I lost my virginity I was so I demonized myself so much that I- I sort of almost like forced myself into punishment. And these things that we do, because we don't understand who we are.

You know, when I came out as queer, man came out as queer when I was 14, but I started sleeping with women when I was about 18. So yeah, around the same time, and I was just so burdened with this feeling of like, this is disgusting and this is, loathsome. And so I must hate this part of myself and hit it. It turned into a disease almost like I didn't have, I didn't have a good relationship with my body until last year. Like there's so many things that we do to shield other people from our actions. But our actions are so normal and so natural, and so human, it's so human to want to have sex. It's so human to want to desire and yet we are perverted. We're like, forced into perversion because we're not allowed to, like explore these things. And I think I can only really talk about Islamic society or Muslim society, but like, you know, there's this great quote in The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, where he, he talks about, you know, perversion of Muslim society and the ways in which people become the ugliest parts of themselves when they can actually explore them. And so that's why rape happens. And that's why, you know, you hear of all of these Muslim school teachers molesting and hurting their students because they're forced into thinking that they can't, like this is wrong and so then they desire it even more and if we just talked about How desire is natural and sex is natural, and you know, wanting to fuck is,is, is can be pure, then maybe we wouldn't turn so in really violent and then like impose that violence on to somebody else I think that's very much what happened to my mother like this feeling of like potentially not understanding why she desired what she desired and then punishing her child for it.

F.R (35:25):
I began writing, so this, this book that I was writing, or am writing, “Like a Bird”. When I dropped out of school, I was like, I don't know, I figured out that that's what I wanted to commit my life to. And so found ways, put myself out there, became an intern at a magazine, and just worked, started working and started just like, trying to get the byline, and thankfully understood, even back then that I needed. I needed that. If I wanted to be a writer, that that's what you had to do. And again, nobody helped me. Nobody steered me in the right direction. But I think it is that Capricorn resilience or something, you know, I just knew that I needed to do X, Y, and Z to have the X, Y and Z life that I wanted. I used to work at this blog website called Style IQ. And that's where I met my very good friend Zeba, and we started to brown girls in 2012, because Zeba is black. She's from a Gandhian family. And, you know, both her and I, again, like maybe didn't have that, or at least I didn't have that kind of advanced language of white supremacy. But I definitely understood that whiteness was, was destructive. And so, you know, we were working at this magazine that was owned by white people.At the time, kind of, they were doing a lot of problematic stuff, you know, wearing like Native American gear, and like, this was before, we had this expansive cultural conversation of like, what is cultural appropriation, and maybe don't wear a dreamcatcher. You know, like, maybe don't do that. But back in 2010, like that was not the conversation that we were having, like, it was a very different climate, my desire to inject myself into culture, was very much about wanting to create spaces where we were talking more expansively about race. Vivek Bald has written this amazing book called Bengali Harlem, and it really does track the exploration of South Asians in America, but you know, being partially Bangladeshi, born in Canada, growing up in Australia, my father lives in Abu Dhabi, these are things that I think are not- I am not one thing I am not, I cannot be distilled, and I'm very much I think, in a lot of ways like this, the child of diaspora, but also like the I'm, I'm global. I'm very much a global child.

There's so much happening in the world that I felt was really important to start to bring to light. And so Zeba and I created this podcast called Two Brown Girls. The catalyst for it was because “Girls” had just come out. And it was 2012, it was a show called “Girls” starring four white girls. And we were just like, What the fuck is going on? Like, what is this world that we live in? That this show could not only get financed, but that people were lauding it and people were talking about how important it was, and in a lot of ways, like, I have a lot of sympathy and compassion for Lena Dunham. And that's a whole other conversation. But I think that for me, that continued with continuous feeling of being invisible in a culture where I existed, um, you know, it's not like we don't, its, we don't go anywhere, we're still there. We're still very much consuming culture, why aren't we being seen in it? And that was like this, this question that I kept returning to. And so we started this podcast, it blew up in ways that I don't think that we fully understood. I mean, the amount of people that still ask me about Two Brown Girls, I think, shows like really the impact that we had. I'm really proud of what we did, we were creating a conversation. And we were creating space and dialogue between two women of color, about culture, and about film and TV, and spaces that were heavily white. We were being told off all the time by white people, and especially white cultural critics, who would easily and happily write about everything that they didn't have any understanding or grasp have to do with black and brown things, but wouldn't ever think about, like giving that chance to a black and black or brown writer. And so like we kept getting sidelined until we felt as though it was really necessary to carve ourselves into the cultural psyche, which is what we did. And it was really cool because I think a lot of, Zeba is now a senior editor at Huffington Post and she's been there for I think, five years. So like, really, like so much has happened from that point. You know, we ended it in 2016, not formally, we gained so much from this experience of just like basically being like, okay, you don't want us but we're here, and we're going to take up space.

F.R (40:14):
One of the coolest things I think that ever happened was in the Zayn Malik profile for the Fader, a transcript, or like a part of Two Brown Girls was said out loud to him, and he responded. And that was like, iconic at the time. When I found out I was like, I am in the Fader article, like I'm quoted in the Fader article. And like, I mean, obviously, for any brown person, I think Zayn is like such an important- I mean, I've written extensively about Zayn. Because I think it's important for us to talk about the lack and the severity of longing that you feel when you you feel invisible, you know, and I mean, Zayn’s a fuck boy, like, I don't, you know, I don't care. It's not that I don't care about him, but like, I don't, he doesn't really feed me, but seeing him, especially in those early days, when like, Hasan Minhaj wasn't here, Riz Ahmed wasn't here. I mean, you know, those are the only ones I really like. You know, like, Aziz Ansari didn't have a show on Netflix like that, you know, Mindy Kaling didn't have the Mindy Project yet. I don't think but like, we are so new, and culture. And yet we, I mean, we've always been here. And I think it's just so frust- it was so frustrating for me to be in my 20s. And to be like, like, holding on to this, like one grasp of this, like, half, you know, biracial brown kid from England, I don't even remember where he's from. But like, being in an all white boy band, it just felt like, it just felt necessary to document that. And I think that that, for me was like, probably the highlight, but like, also just the ways in which people would respond and and listen to us. And we were funny, and we were quaint.

And you know, Zeba and I have had a very interesting, at times arduous relationship, but we've learned so much from one another, and I consider her a close friend, because we have been through so much together. And I think two ground rules really taught us both so much about how to make work. We met at Style IQ, that magazine, blog magazine that we were both working at. And I remember seeing her and being like, Oh my god, she's so beautiful. I still remember just like, it's like very like, cinematic in my mind. And we bonded a lot about movies. And I think that in that bond, we started to then unpack what it meant to not be seen. And then when “Girls” came out, it just made sense for us to then make something out of it. And we actually started off as a web series, we wanted to, like make a web series, but that just felt like way too much work. And so we started a podcast.

F.R (43:07):
I worked mainly as a film, and culture critic, well mainly a film critic, I really, really started to do that in about 2013, I started to make money, barely. The really, really interesting reality is that I've had a lot of backlash in my life to my work from peers, and from people that I would consider colleagues. I think that maybe writing about race, I think I've learned a lot about writing about race, because I started off writing very expansively about like being a woman of color and putting a lot of things under that umbrella, and I don't think that that's accurate or fair to do. And so I learned the hard way that it's very necessary to, to have distinction between like black and brown experiences, which I think when I first started off, I didn't have that nuance. It came from a place of care, it came from a place of like, protection. And I didn't see a lot of people writing about race. And so I felt as though it was necessary for me to say and speak up. Sort of around 2015 I started realizing, because I started getting backlash, that that wasn't really the most effective way to do it. And so I think that's when I really started to pivot from like cultural criticism, into writing more about self care and wellness, because it felt like something that I could, it could just be mine, and it didn't have to be about anybody else, and personal essays became a way for me to explore the violence that I experienced. And that was I think, really what necessitated this kind of like almost career transition, from being a cultural critic, film critic because I am not really invested in the smallness of like, online drama. Like, I don't have any investment in it, if people don't want me to write something, I won't write it. It's as simple as that.

F.R (45:14):
I wrote this piece about M.I.A a couple of years ago. And I really like, you know, I interviewed her and it was such a difficult interview, because I was at the MoMA interviewing M.I.A, one of the most important cultural figures, in not only like South Asian life, but also just period, culture. And then also for me, like as a South Asian them, it was just such a phenomenal experience. But I only did the interview, if I could ask her about her anti blackness, and it was really fucking terrible, and she was not communicative. And I was really conflicted by that experience, because I really, really hoped that she would come around and like, try and understand why people might have like, frustration with her cavalierness, but she wasn't interested in having that conversation. And I wrote about interviewing her, about maybe like, four or five months later, and it backfired. And I was talking about canceled culture, and then I got canceled, you know, and I got dragged online by people I knew. And people were saying, you know, like, you know, she's an anti black racist, and, and I was like, it's not that simple. It's just not that simple. And I still stand behind this, like, if we are not interested in rehabilitating people, what are we doing? Like, what the fuck are we doing? It takes, and I'm not talking about this with M.I.A, because I think M.I.A is a very difficult cultural figure. But if we knew like, I mean, it's as simple as this. And I think I bring this up in the piece, right? If we believe that the carceral state that we live in is corrupt. if we believe the prison industrial complex is corrupt, we then need to invest in rehabilitation. And we need to make spaces to rehabilitate people. And I knew that I was going to get my head on a chopping block, but I did the work anyway, I put myself out there anyway. I mean, my ex and I fought extensively about this. He's a black director, and we like, I think, four months, we thought about it, because he just did not care about M.I.A, he did not give a shit. And I-and I remember, like, coming back from the interview, like crying and being so disappointed by her and so just like upset, but then feeling so much for her at the same time, which is a very nuanced and very human experience. And then just being sort of cutthroat- and that's his experience, that is his understanding of being a black man in America, I get that. But it was the fact that like, again, like South Asians are not fully seen and realized. And yes, a lot of us hold a lot of contradictions, and many of us are very problematic, but we still have to invest in us, and we still have to invest in that care. I don't know what the fuck we're doing. If we're not doing that work.

F.R (48:22):
My vision for rehabilitation is to be a society that actively cares for one another. Um, the thing that really shocked me about her, and the thing that really continues to shock me when any person of color, any woman of color, is thrown under the bus. And it's usually, you know, in a lot of cases, it's it is South Asians like it's, I mean, in this case, it felt very scary to me to see this woman be so easily disposed. And I think, that I was trying to inject a level of complexity to the, to the perspective that I don't think she was given. And I don't think that that's what showing up is, and I think that South Asians are very good at throwing each other under the bus. And my, my desire to talk more openly and then also like, put myself on the chopping block was to say, like, we can't do this anymore. If we want to have a society where we are ending white supremacy, if we are really invested in that future, what does it look like? It doesn't look like us fighting and stabbing each other in the back, and like walking away and not wanting to invest in care. That's not what it looks like for me. It, I think that yeah, I think that it's very dishonest for people to say that they want to end white supremacy and then not give any tools to do that.

F.R (49:47):
I think more than most people I don't have a lot to lose. I was never protected, so I don't necessarily feel like when I don't get protection that it's like, that, it's a huge you know, difference or it's a huge like gap. I think that that's what makes me pretty fearless. My childhood actually makes me pretty fearless. Because yeah, not having love makes you- not all the time- but a lot of the time, face yourself, you know, at least in my life again, I cannot talk about this, like, I can't talk about this, like in an expansive way about other people are generalized. But for me, it's made me look at myself and my flaws, really directly. I'm not afraid of my idiosyncrasies. I'm not afraid of my contradictions, because I've never felt unsafe, I don't know what safety feels like, and that's pretty, it's, it's a pretty bold move to be like this. I know. But it's been very beneficial, as well. I think I've begun to demand more over time, I think it's a very recent exploration that I have a grasp of finally, to, to want for more, I think, again, the sort of like two different scenarios with being a child of abuse and not having safety, the benefit is fearlessness. But then the flip side is that I have no boundaries, and people are often bad to me. And I, and I allow it, because I don't know that I can have more. And so I've definitely had to learn that if I want to give people tenderness and compassion, I need that in return. And so you know, even my ex has been a great support for me, he's an incredible human being. And um is a director and making a movie about Fred Hampton that comes out this year, and I have so much respect for him, and he's intellectually and emotionally been such a great support system for me, but also, you know, my friends and my colleagues, I have a lot of support with people that are in my community, whether South Asians, or Muslims or Queer folks, and I feel really held by them. And that's really, really, it's been really important for me to feel that way. And I'm looking forward to it becoming even more of a support system. As we all like, actively realize that we're at the end of the rope right now and we need each other.

F.R (52:14):
So far, the most significant professional experience I've had is releasing my book of poetry called How To Cure Ghosts. It came out last year. I wrote it over five years, and I don't even know if I had any sincere expectation. I wanted people to read it, and I wanted people to resonate with the work, but the ways in which it's expanded, and the ways in which people have read it and consumed it has been just awe inspiring to me. I feel deeply moved by it, because... I mean, it means that I'm doing something right, and as a child that's always felt unseen, I think being reflected and seen, and that experience being mirrored, and people like writing me sincere testimonials about, you know, how this book helped them, or how it made them feel less alone, and how that it's inspired them to heal themselves. I mean, that is a testament to, again, that dream that I had as a child that I don't quite know how I knew, but I knew I wanted to make work that would shift and change the world. And that is my sincere hope. That we are able to actually understand that we need each other more than we don't. And violence and, and critique and hurting and backstabbing and jealousy and all of these things are just ways in which we distract ourselves from actually evolving, and it's time. It's time for us to push forward the human agenda, we have such great capacity to be bigger and better and to really advance as a society as a global society. And some people might think that that's very utopic. But to me, that's actually the goal for I think a lot of people. I mean, I've been reading a lot of Edward Kissam, who is a philosopher and poet from Martinique. And he has this theory about globalism, essentially, and like how like we're all sort of like, all of our nations are archipelagos of this larger, you know, global system. And we're all necessary. And it's all important and like, our cultural identities are there to strengthen us as a unit. And instead, we just, like, fight each other. And instead, we just like, are small minded. And that's why I do not trust people that go on the Internet and want to talk shit about things without thinking about how to move forward. I just want to make work about how to move forward. I just want to make work about the future. I think I think there is a Muslim Renaissance happening, I think there's a South Asian Renaissance happening, and we are all deeply needed to do this work. And if you're not thinking actively about how to work together, you're not doing the work,period. And that's, that's as simple as it is for me.

F.R (55:05):
So I’ve become very invested in plant medicine. I started last year, it was a calling and I don't even know how it happened other than, like, I just knew I had to do it. Several things, like I started unveiling, it was like, oh, plant medicine. And when I say plant medicine, I mean, specifically Ayahuasca, but also Washuma, Peyote, and mushrooms. They're all, they're all things that I partake in. But I did a deep trauma seven day ayahuasca retreat in the jungle in mid December, and I came back and my whole life changed. And since that point onwards, I have committed myself to prayer in a way that I have only ever dreamt of. And you know, being Muslim, prayer is such a huge part of our psychology and spirituality, obviously, but when you're just doing the ritual, and you're just saying Arabic and you know, you know, you know, all these surahs but you don't know what they mean. Like, what does Surah Fatiha mean, like, what, you know, why are you saying Alhamdulillah? What, what does Bismillah mean? Like all of these things, like, I think that there's so much beauty, and in that and, and in learning that and my the person I'm seeing is, is Muslim, is a queer Muslim, and she was talking to me about learning Arabic last night, and I was like, so excited about this idea of learning Arabic And like, wanting to like actually, you know, speak... to speak the language of the Prophet.

F.R (57:01):
And um- it's really powerful for me, to reclaim that.

F.R (57:20):
Before I had plant medicine, I had God. And I think more than anything, my belief in God is what saved me. And it's really beautiful that it's evolved. It's changed and I have such respect for the Divine. And every morning, I meditate and then I pray, and I pull cards from my Native American deck of Tarot and I, you know, I sort of have synthesized this prayer that makes sense for me. And even though it doesn't look like any kind of prayer that I grew up with, I carry the legacy of Islam with me at all times. And I'm deeply invested in, in being Muslim.

Collection: Mustafa Saifuddin Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-08-18 (created); 2022-01-13 (modified)

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