One of the first questions that strangers usually ask me when they meet me is, “Where are you from?” If I’m feeling cheeky or contrary, I shoot back, “Where do you think?”
I’ve gotten answers ranging from Colombia, Mexico, Lebanon, India (close), Pakistan (closer) and sometimes, when I’ve spoken Hindi in front of them and they’re Hindustani themselves, Fiji(-ian Indian… jackpot!) And if they know my last name (Khan) then they probably know my religion as well: Muslim. It’s something that comes up surprisingly little in conversations outside of my home. Although it’s an integral part of myself, it’s not written on my skin. Moreover, there’s no visible identifier because I don’t wear the hijab. However, it comes up in discussion when I talk about my dietary restrictions, holiday plans and the reason I avoid alcohol.
The first taste of Muslim rep I had was Does My Head Look Big In This? in year 5 (age 11). I was enthralled by it, by the familiarity of the character and the language. I read it over and over again. Same with Born Confused, which is a brilliant coming-of-age YA novel centering an Indian-American teen. I read it at least three times and shared the library book with my friends, giggling at the jokes and the aching familiarity of traditional parents setting up rishta meetings like I’d seen in Indian films.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002) was one of the few on-screen representations I had of South Asians and I clung to it with a desperate fervour. It was so gratifying to see someone like me, a brown girl, having fun with her friends and pursuing her passions. It joyfully celebrated diasporic Indian culture while also acknowledging the difficulty of juggling two lives and two identities. When I got older, there was also the possibility of a relationship between Jess and her best friend Jules… that was unfortunately vetoed because of possible negative reactions from the audience *cue Rolling in the Deep* WE COULD HAVE HAD IT AAAAALL~ (Queer desis make some noise!!) For me, personally, it’s a movie I go back to again and again because of its relatability. It’s a movie I watched with the whole family that had us all cracking up and pointing out references we got (the ‘round rotis’ bit had me shooting several glances at my mother over the years).
Bride and Prejudice (2004) was another film that I adored and rewatched. It featured Bollywood superstar actress Aishwariya Rai in a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice with an Indian twist! It’s no surprise that it’s from the same director of Bend It Like Beckham. This is another movie that had me side-eyeing my mum, especially when Lalita’s mother warns her not to say anything ‘too intelligent’ to avoid ruining her chances at a good prospect. Lalita is bright and headstrong, wears traditional clothes proudly, and butts heads with Darcy. I saw so much of myself in her as a preteen, and looking back on it as an adult, I love her even more.
So we haven’t had more Bend it Like Beckhams and Bride and Prejudices — and why is that? Is it that the teenage coming-of-age films are dying out (hint: they aren’t) or that rom-coms don’t sell anymore (second hint: also not it). I have seen one or two Indian and Pakistani films about teens in the desi diaspora, but nothing with the sheer star power of the two previous films. There is a gap that will hopefully, slowly, be filled with more brown girls and Asian voices. I hope so. I remember being 8-years-old and wishing, desperately, that I was more like fair-haired, blue-eyed Stephanie because she was normal.
I was a teenager during the peak age of white YA. All those girls in dresses on covers, countless YA paranormal fantasies with witches, vampires, werewolves, faeries, angels and ghosts — the most popular all featured white protagonists. I grew up with these books, thinking that white was the default.
When I was younger, someone told me never to write about my own experiences. I don’t know if I read it — or someone actually said it to me — but all I know is that, because of what was said (or what I read), I never used my own emotions or situations when writing fiction. My stories were filled with white-skinned protagonists who spoke English. They had relatively liberal families, with a nebulously agnostic upbringing — which was as far from my own upbringing as possible. When I wrote (terrible) Darren Shan fanfiction, my thinly-veiled self-insert OC character was white. But why? Because no one had really shown me how to write my own voice into media, how to own my own voice. Two or three books out of the dozens — or even hundreds — didn’t help when I was drowning. I thought: ‘Who’s going to relate to me?’ and ‘Writing a character like me is too hard.’
Only now do I realise how wrong that was. You write to expand your horizons and fill your world, yes, but you don’t do that at the expense of cutting yourself out of the writing process. Who you are, what you’ve lived through, contributes to the process.
Herein lies the problem, however. How do you get all those diverse Asian voices to Asian teens? And even if the media was there, how are they going to find them?
Most teens don’t have a credit card. They don’t even have debit cards, let alone Paypal accounts. I didn’t have an older sibling handy as I was the older sibling. The books I read were bought from Big W, Kmart and Target, or borrowed from the library. There were books with Asian characters but not about Asian characters.
The craving to be known — to be seen — was so strong that I was constantly searching for facets of myself in almost all media I consumed (and don’t even get me started on queer Asian content). I survived that barrage of white-centered and white-produced media by headcanoning my favourite characters as non-white. Karou was East Asian (because of one stray comment about the shape of her eyes and the darkness of their colour). I headcanoned racially ambiguous characters in books as Asian. Voicing my personal headcanon that Harry Potter was British-Indian — and seeing people agree — woke something in me. Just having that little bit of representation opened up a new way of seeing. And suddenly, I wasn’t content with the books I read, the TV I watched, the mere crumbs I’d lapped up over the years if I didn’t see myself.
Growing up in a conservative Muslim household with migrant parents and being darker-skinned all my life has made it hard for me to connect with characters from a privileged, white background. I am Fijian-Indian, desi, South Asian, Muslim. I’m angry now that anyone made me feel ashamed and afraid to write about my own culture and my own experiences. Upset that anyone told me my thoughts and feelings didn’t matter because that’s not what you’re supposed to write about. I’ve been tentatively trying to explore my own experiences in fiction — the interplay between culture and fiction that enriches whatever it touches, whatever it meets.
I want to write about people like me, girls like me, so that others have something to relate to. I write about my experiences as a South Asian girl growing up in a majorly white, Western country. I write about alienation and straddling worlds and the clash of cultures that occurs within the soul. I write about reclaiming my identity and post-colonialism and feminism. So you know what? Write those Muslim Vampires, draw those Asian fairies, produce those POC enemies-to-lovers stories. No trope is too overused or overexposed. We’ve had a lifetime of consuming white stories and characters. Now is your — our — time to shine. Find your voice and write it into the tale.
Augvocate for the Day
Sabiya is a twenty-three year-old masters student from Sydney and a former weeb. She struggles to articulare her love for morally grey female characters and political fantasies. She loves to rant passionately about books, the necessity of diversity, LGBTQ rep and #ownvoices on her blog, vengeance & starlight.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Do you agree with Sabiya that it’s about time for marginalized identities to find their voices and to start writing these voices into their stories?
🌻 Did you also grow up with white-centered, white-produced media? Could you see yourself in these white, privileged characters? Could you personally relate to them?
🌻 What are your thoughts on the necessity of #ownvoices stories and media content in this day and age?