18 Most Memorable South Asian Feminist Moments of 2014

by Sheena Vasani

In collaboration with Trisha Sakhuja

Given that South Asian countries are listed as some of the most dangerous places to be a woman, every action and voice – however small or big – is a much-needed step forward. We salute every South Asian feminist taking a stand, even if you didn’t make our list of advocates.

1) Mindy Kaling’s spot on Glamour’s 2014 Women of the Year and her hit rom-com sitcom “The Mindy Project” makes her the perfect fit for the number one spot on our list.


I’m a f*cking Indian woman who has her own f*cking network television show,” Kaling said in March at SXSW in Texas. “I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.”

Hats off to Kaling for being so outspoken because she did indeed manage to make it in a male-dominated industry with very few South Asian faces.

More inspiring was to learn that her show is fueled by feminist principles. In an interview with Glamour magazine earlier this year, she said, I am a feminist. So if that leaks into every episode of the show, I (a) like it and (b) don’t do it on a conscious level. That’s just our standpoint.

Kaling is modern-day proof that a show inspired by feminism – in other words, one that respects women – can do really well, thereby hopefully establishing a new precedent. We know we will continue to see Queen Kaling rock the TV screen for years to come.

[Check out Mindy Kaling’s amazing sense of style]

2) Bollywood film actor-filmmaker-singer Farhan Akhtar, the South Asian ambassador to the United Nations, stood up for women like a real man.


Akhtar, also the founder of the gender equality campaign Men Against Rape and Discrimination [#MARD], released earlier this year, became the first-ever male U.N. Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia in November. 

I am honoured to serve U.N. Women as the Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia,” Akhtar said in a statement released by the U.N. “This gives me and our MARD initiative an added impetus to work together towards a more gender equal India and world. I am a supporter of UN Women’s HeForShe campaign and the role men and boys can play in stopping crime against women and girls, and working towards gender equality. Through this new partnership I want to call on all men and boys to be a catalyst for change and, through our actions, create a value system to end gender disparity.”

And that’s not all. This month, he also fiercely stood up for actress Gauhar Khan after she was slapped by a man on stage for dressing in revealing clothing.

In an intensely patriarchal culture, it takes guts to stand up for women the way Akhtar does. If we ever want to see a gender equal world, men’s participation in the movement towards ending discrimination against women is of utmost importance. So, for an established and well-known man like him to take such a stance gives boys and men – both South Asian and not – a role model to look up to. We need to see more and more men stand up in solidarity, and in fact, become feminists. Dare we say that? #SorryNotSorry

[Read more about Farhan Akhtar’s mission to empower women]

3) The #EmBODYIndia campaign conveyed simple but mindful messages about women’s rights through powerful photos and blunt captions.

[Photo Source: Embodyindia.tumblr.com/]
[Photo Source: Embodyindia.tumblr.com]
Harvard students created the viral #EmBODYIndia Campaign to combat the “unwanted sexualization of women” in India. As Disha Verma, 15, one of the 16 students involved with the campaign, said in a statement to The Crimson, “As an organization in the U.S. there’s usually not much on-the-ground impact we can have, right? But where we can make an impact is in social and cultural issues and how people think about things.”

Such a campaign is necessary to stamp out the roots of violence against women, by emphasizing one global message: a woman’s body is her own and her clothes are never an invitation.

[Read more about the #EmBODYIndia Campaign]

4) Parineeti Chopra schooled a male journalist for making a sexist joke, and we loved every second of it.

A male journalist deservedly became a laughingstock after making a disgusting rape joke during a press conference stating, “When girls are young, they like ‘it.’ And when they are older they scream and shout that the boy exploited them!”

Bollywood actress Chopra fiercely struck back, and rightfully so. Not only did she shut down the entire laughing audience, she also caught the world’s attention by receiving more than 840,000 views on Youtube for her response, as of date.

Rape jokes like these perpetuate and reveal sexist attitudes in the media and society that allow rape culture to flourish. In a country like India where rape is the fourth most common crime against women, it is insensitive at best – disturbing and dangerous at worst. Rape is not a joke. Well done, Chopra, for standing up and shutting him down.

[Read more about the time Parineeti Chopra shot down a journalist for being ignorant about menstrual health]

6) Children’s rights activists Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize as of October, has her own day, “Malala Day,” dubbed by the U.N.


No article honoring South Asian feminist moments is complete without mention of the great Yousafzai. Being that she is a young girl who was shot and nearly killed by Taliban at the age of 14, for advocating for education, her life is a powerful feminist message in itself. To top it off, she refused to miss class to receive her prize.

The terrorists tried to stop us,” Yousafzai said to the room full of dignitaries at Oslo, Norway, when receiving her prize with Indian Kailash Satyarthi in early December. “Neither their ideas nor their bullets could win. We survived. And since that day, our voices have grown louder and louder.”

[Read more about Malala Yousafzai’s power to inspire others]

7) The Oxford-graduate and entrepreneur Ruzwana Bashir, brought up in a British-Pakistani community, publicly shared her story of being shunned for abuse.


After it was revealed that more than 1,400 children of Pakistani heritage were sexually abused in Rothertham, England, Bashir – named by Forbes as “30 Under 30 in Technology” – eloquently wrote about her own experience of being sexually abused by a neighbor at the age of 10. After a decade of remaining quiet to protect her family’s name, she found the courage to speak and testify against her abuser. Even though she and other victims alike received lots of pressure to drop their cases, their perpetrators deserve to be convicted and shunned. It’s evident from Bashir and other silenced victims, when reporting abuse or rape, too often in South Asian cultures, woman are either not believed or blamed, traumatizing and isolating them even further.

I am and always will be proud of my Pakistani heritage, but I firmly believe community leaders must take responsibility for the fact that the taboos that prevent others from identifying perpetrators and supporting victims enable further abuse. And those taboos must be challenged,” Bashir wrote on The Guardian.

Following her brave confession and her list of mandatory steps communities need to take to save young girls from abuse and shame in their communities; it inspired many others to come forward with their own stories and fight against stereotypes that this is just a “Muslim-Pakistani” problem.

8) Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone’s open letter to The Times of India speaks volumes about the way media objectifies female celebrities and blurs the line between their “reel and real” life.

Deepika Padukone attends a Press Conference for 'Happy New Year' at Montcalm Marble Arch on October 5, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)
[Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images]
After the big Indian media house TOI resurfaced a video on their Twitter feed titled, “OMG: Deepika’s Cleavage Show!” Padukone and many Bollywood celebrities stood in unison to support her with the trending hashtag #IStandWithDeepikaPadukone.

…At a time when we are striving for women’s equality and empowerment. In a time where women should be applauded for making headway in a male-dominated society…Digging out an old article and headlining it ‘OMG: Deepika’s Cleavage Show!’ to attract readers is using the power of influence to proliferate recessive thought,” Padukone writes in the letter. 

A well-known and respectable celebrity with many hits under her belt took immediate action to send a powerful and much-needed message to all South Asian women: In the face of misogyny, stand up for yourself.

9) Indian film director and mom of three Farah Khan broke records with her movie “Happy New Year,” starring Sharukh Khan.

"Happy New Year" Photocall
[Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images]

Farah Khan’s film,”Happy New Year,” broke records this year– both for garnering millions at the box office and for having a female director.

Nobody is expecting a 200 crore ($33 million)(£20.85 million) hit from a woman director, which in itself is very sad and very patronising,” Khan told Reuters about her stellar achievement.  The movie isn’t exactly a hit with the critics, but the director has obviously struck a chord with her audience. I hope more women come and break this record. I think it will help every woman who wants to go out and make a movie, if our movies end up making as much money as the male directors.”

We are sure Khan’s achievement in the male-dominated film industry will inspire many more female filmmakers to step out of their shell and stand behind the camera.

10) Actress Freida Pinto’s comments about feminism and gender roles are a much bigger deal than her recent break-up with co-star Dev Patel.

fpFeminism’s often deemed a derogatory term, synonymous with anti-male sentiment. The 30-year-old star of Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” used her voice to clarify this misperception to the Press Trust of India earlier this month.

Feminism to me is equality. There is no man over woman and vice versa. Feminism is a very misconstrued and misunderstood topic. As soon as we say feminism, it does not mean all men should become subordinate and women should be the ones who rule the world. The only way we can have a progressive and successful country or world is when men and women treat each other as equals.”

She also highlighted the need to battle outdated gender norms contributing to a sexist society:

There are certain roles that men play and others that women play. Our reproductive organs are different and clearly there is a reason why women carry the baby but that does not mean the man cannot help out with the caring of the child…Father is as much a nurturer as the mother. I grew up with that equality so I can say people who understand feminism understand that men and women are equal but have different roles to play.”

Well done, Pinto! More so, Pinto made headlines when her and superstar Priyanka Chopra joined hands to become the new supporters of the Girl Rising movement, a film and campaign designed to educate more girls, so that cycles of poverty can be broken in just one generation.

11) Filmmaker and New York-based journalist Habiba Nosheen won an Emmy for her documentary “Outlawed in Pakistan.”

Nosheen, a busy mom to a baby boy, filmmaker and journalist with 60 Minutes and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is one of the very few South Asians in history to win an Emmy. Her award-winning documentary, “Outlawed in Pakistan,” tells the story of a Pakistani gang-rape survivor’s struggle to receive justice.

Despite being a highly accomplished woman and fervent activist, her Twitter biography reads her most important accomplishment is being the “mother of an amazing little boy.”

I hope we’ll have more South Asian women entering journalism and bringing unique perspective to news outlets,” Nosheen said to Brown Girl Magazine. “I get asked all the time, ‘Who is watching your kid when you are traveling?’ — which is so funny because the assumption in that question is that dads are not able to be in charge of childcare.”

Feminism isn’t just about activism and external achievements, while discarding and minimizing conventional female roles, it is about being allowed to be a whole human being – men and women alike. Thank you for embodying genuine female empowerment, Nosheen.

[Read Habiba Nosheen’s full profile]

12) M.C. Mary Kom—five-time World Amateur Boxing Champion and the only Indian woman boxer to have qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics — rose to support The Taj Must Smile campaign, advocating for behavioral change and encouraging awareness about feminine health needs.

[Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]
[Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

We need to break this taboo and teach our daughters that it is okay to have periods and it should not weigh them down mentally or physically or hold them back from accomplishing their dreams,” Kom wrote in an article on the occasion of International Day for Rural Women.

This September, Kom’s Bollywood biopic, starring Priyanka Chopra, chronicled how she defied cultural gender stereotypes and the odds to rise from poverty to become a champion boxer. What is even more inspiring about the movie and Kom’s story is how the men in her life supported her dreams. And of course, it was great seeing Chopra play such a strong female character so well, adding to the commercial popularity of film.

[Read more about the Taj Must Smile Campaign and Mary Kom’s support]

13) When Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari jumped on board the feminist train.

“…Because if you look up feminist in the dictionary, it just means someone who believes men and women have equal rights. And I feel that everyone here believes men and women have equal rights,” Ansari said on The Late Show with David Letterman in October.

Best of all, Ansari said this awakening comes from his girlfriend, who pushed him towards the realization that he already was a feminist. As many look up to Ansari – for his comedic talent and the fact that he is one of the few famous South Asian American entertainers – this is truly inspirational. Why is his appearance on the show so memorable? With lots of poise, Ansari easily demonstrates that it is not only cool to be a male feminist, but it is also cool to have a supportive and understanding relationship with your girlfriend.

14) New York-native Nina Davaluri’s reign as Miss America 2014 proves the face of America has changed.

Nina Davuluri, Saris to SuitsWhatever your opinion may be of beauty pageants, one cannot deny how historically significant it was to see the first South Asian American to be crowned the title of Miss America 2014. It is no secret that the Miss America pageant represents the “ideal American woman,” so her win is not only a huge step forward for South Asians and other minorities in the country, but also for South Asian women and our visibility in the world.

Minutes after Davaluri was crowned Miss America in September 2013, social media sites exploded with vile Twitter abusers shamelessly calling her a “terrorist.” She faced her racist attackers with dignity and class.

I’m so happy that this organization has embraced diversity. I am thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America,” Davuluri said at a press conference following the pageant.

A year later, with tons of press, service and sponsorships under her belt, she proves she deserved the prestigious title with her hard word and dedication to it.

[Read about the time we met Nina Davuluri]

15) Rani Mukherjee is in fact the hero of a Bollywood film. Who else was surprised?

mardaaniYes, that is Mukherjee devoid of her usual glamorous attire doing hard core push ups. This year saw Mukherjee, one of Bollywood’s most famous actresses, play the rare, strong female role in “Mardaani.”   The Indian crime thriller, directed by Pradeep Sarkar, tells the story of a female cop whose interest in the case of a kidnapped teenage girl leads her to uncover secrets of human trafficking by the Indian mafia. Kudos to Mukherjee for being the protagonist and the hero of the film.

16) The acid attack survivors who showed the world their courage through an empowering photo shoot, thanks to Indian photographer Rahul Saharan.

Rahul Saharan acid attack survivor photo shoot
[Photo Credit and Source: Rahul Saharan]
The photo shoot, shot in New Delhi, featured five young acid attack survivors, named Rupa, Laxmi, Ritu, Sonam and Chanchal. Saharan, who never expected the global response, initially shot the girls to not only show the beauty of the survivors, but as a way to display the hard work of Rupa’s collection, Rupa’s Designs.

India needs feminism, it’s the right of every girl and she doesn’t need to fight for it and despite of that she is still fighting from a small village to a big city,” Saharan said to Brown Girl Magazine.

[Read the nine things you need to know about Rahul Saharan’s photo shoot]

17) A new comic book character is a super hero named Priya Shakti, a gang-rape survivor, inspired by Hindu mythological tales.

One of the creators, Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni, said he thought of the character following the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Nirbhaya on a bus in Delhi.

I was in Delhi at the time when the protests broke out and I was involved in some of them,” he said to BBC News.” I was talking to a police officer when he said something that I found very surprising. He said ‘no good girl walks alone at night.’

That’s where the idea began. I realised that rape and sexual violence in India was a cultural issue, and that it was backed by patriarchy, misogyny and people’s perceptions.”

This game-changer comic, downloaded worldwide for free and printed in Hindi and English, was recently available at the Comic Con Mumbai in December. While this one-of-a-kind project creates awareness and attempts to change social attitudes about victim blaming, stricter laws and regulations need to be placed for real change to occur.

[Stay tuned for our interview with Ram Devineni and Dan Goldman, to be published soon]

18) When you, in your own way, stand up for women’s empowerment, everyday.

Brown Girl Magazine

Finally, and most importantly, we want to salute you – the “average” South Asian man and woman. Whether it is through fearless activism, refusing to internalize societal pressure, respecting the women in your life, writing and creating awareness about women’s rights, or simply supporting “Brown Girl Magazine” (shameless promo here, yep), THANK YOU. Your actions are needed because change is happening, whether you realize it or not. You are the solution. Never let anybody make you think otherwise.

Feature Image Caption: India’s newest comic super hero Priya Shakti|Photo Source: Ram Devineni

Sheena VasaniSheena Vasani graduated with a degree in International Relations from UC Berkeley.  She is a self-described compassion, gender liberation, and mental health activist, and has worked with various social justice initiatives, including V-Day.  In her free time, she ironically enjoys exploring various religions, cultivating her creativity, and cuddling her kitten. You can follow her on Twitter, and on her personal blog.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Book Review: The Freelance Mindset by Joy Batra

“What you do is not who you are. Our capitalist society spends a lot of time trying to convince us that we are our work, but we don’t have to fall for it.” 

When I first met Joy Batra, she wasn’t an author. She was a multi-hyphenated individual who floored me with her charm and her aura. Joy not only had gone to business school and law school at one of the most prestigious universities in America, but she also valued her hobbies and her passions that were completely extraneous to her working persona. Her nontraditional career path was one that, at first glance, confused me. “I’m a dancer and freelancer,” she had said, and I batted my eyes as if she was talking in a foreign language. What’s a freelancer? Why and how did she come to identify herself as a dancer, when her degrees all point to business and law? 

[ Read Related: Indra Nooyi Talks ‘My Life in Full’ and her Journey to Becoming PepsiCo’s CEO ]

Joy Batra’s therapeutic and timely book “Freelance Mindset” provides relevant stories, guidelines, and motivation to take ownership of your career and financial well-being. Particularly, the book is centered around the pros and cons of life as a freelancer and practical advice for how to get started as one. At its core, the “Freelance Mindset” encourages diving deep into the relationship between career and identity, and how the balance of both relate back to your life view.

In the words of Batra:

“Freelancing is a way to scratch a creative itch that is completely unrelated to their day jobs…Freelancing harnesses that independent streak and turns it into a long- term advantage.” 

Batra’s older sister’s advice is written with forthright humbleness and glaring humility. Batra leads us through the fear of facing our existential fears about careers, productivity, and creativity. She leans into the psychological aspects of how we develop our careers, and reminds us to approach work not just with serious compassion but also with childhood play: 

“You are naturally curious and passionate. As a child, before you needed to think deeply about money, you probably played games, had imaginary friends, and competed in sports. Those instincts might get buried as we grow up, but they don’t disappear altogether.”

[ Read Related: Learning How To Freelance in a Cutthroat Industry ]

Batra also provides us with a diverse cast of inspirational freelancers who provide their honest perspectives across a wide range of domains from being a professional clown to actors to writers. Especially noticeable is the attention paid to South Asian women through notable interviews with Vyjayanthi Vadrevu, Saumya Dave, and more. On social media, it’s easy to find these women and immediately applaud their success, but behind the scenes, it takes a lot of grit, persistence, and determination to reach the successful level of freelancing that you see. Batra encourages a spiritual way of thinking that is marked by rational needs (ex. Maslow’s hierarchy): not to seek immediate gratification and corporate climbing, but rather to view life as a “jungle gym” as coined by Patricia Sellers. Taking risks is part of life, and just like entrepreneurship, freelancing is just as ambitious and off-the-beaten path, despite stigmatization.

“One of the strange paradoxes of the working world is that entrepreneurship is fetishized and freelancing is stigmatized.”

I recommend the “Freelance Mindset” to anyone who is starting out their career in these economically uncertain times, as well as seasoned workers who are looking for inspiration or a shift in their career life. Whether or not you are considering becoming a freelancer in a certain domain, this book is the practical wake-up call that workers and employees need in order to reorient their purpose and poise themselves for a mindset of success. I view this book as a “lifer,” one to read every few years to ground myself and think critically about the choices I make and where I devote my time. 

I leave you with this quote:

“We can adopt the new belief that no single job will meet all our financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs…We have one self, and we must figure out how to integrate it into the various situations we find ourselves in.“

You can purchase a copy of the Freelance Mindset here. Follow Joy Batra on Twitter and Instagram for more content!

By Anushree Sreedhar

Raised in Edison, NJ Anushree is an avid reader, imaginative creative writer, dramatic storyteller, obsessive shopper, experimental yogi, and a … Read more ›

The Futility of Trying to be ‘That Girl’

Social media has stretched a number of news headlines:

“Social media rots kids’ brains.”

“Social media is polarizing.”

Yet those most affected by social media ideals are the teenage users. Apps like Instagram and TikTok perpetuate an image of perfection that is captured in pictures and 30-second videos. As a result, many young women chase this expectation endlessly. “Her” personifies this perfection in an unattainable figure the narrator has always wished to be. These ideals deteriorate mental health, create body dysmorphia, promote a lack of self-esteem, and much more. Even so, social media is plagued by filters and editing—much of what we hope to achieve isn’t even real. Therefore, young women, much like the narrator of “Her,” strive for a reality that doesn’t even exist.

[Read Related: The Emotional Roller Coaster of Getting Your Legs Waxed for the First Time]


When she walked into my life
Her smile took up two pages of description
In a YA novel.
My arms could wrap around her waist twice
If she ever let anyone get that close
Her hair whipped winds with effortless beach waves
And a hint of natural coconut
Clothing brands were created around her
“One Size Fits All” one size to fit the girl who has it all
With comments swarning in hourglasses
But when sharp teeth nip at her collar,
She could bite back biting back
And simply smirked with juicy apple lips
Red hearts and sympathy masking condescension
“My body doesn’t take away from the beauty of yours”
“We are all equal, we are all beautiful”
A sword she wields expertly
Snipping, changing,
Aphrodite in consistent perfection
Cutting remarks with sickly sweet syrup
And an innocent, lethal wink
When she walked into my life
She led my life.
My wardrobe winter trees
Barren, chopped in half
Unsuited for the holidays
Mirrors were refracted under in my gaze
Misaligned glass was the only explanation
For unsymmetrical features
And broken hands
Still I taped them fixed
Over and over
Poking, prodding
Hoping to mold stomach fat like wet clay
Defy gravity,
Move it upward
To chest
Instead of sagging beneath a belt on the last hole
In the spring
She would stir me awake at 2 AM
“You need to be me”
Lies spilled from her tongue but
Solidified, crystallized
Fabrication spelled dichotomy
And I drifted farther out to sea
When she walked out of my life,
I was drowning.
Reliance had me capsized
Others witnessed
Furrowed brows and glances away
Like spectators of a shark attack
They can watch but the damage is done
They clung to my mangled pieces
Gravestones spelled
But I was mourning too
Today I looked back at my mirror
But glass turned into prism
Broken pieces rainbow
Colors coating clothes
She didn’t pick
Perception changing
She wasn’t perfect
Just lost at sea

[Read Related: Finding Freedom from Gender Roles Through Poetry]

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Kashvi Ramani

Kashvi Ramani is a writer, actress, songwriter, and singer from Northern Virginia. She has been writing songs, poetry, scripts, and … Read more ›

Fireside Chat With Debut Author Sophie Jai

sophie jai
sophie jai

 I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. — Sophie Jai  

“Wild Fires” by Sophie Jai is a story about one Trinidadian family’s journey through grief, identity and memory. Jai’s debut novel takes readers on a journey of a past Trinidad and present-day Canada. 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Sophie Jai (@sophie.jai)

In conversation with Jai, we talk about Caribbean stories, the psychology of a house and what makes a family. The following answers have been abridged and edited for clarity and concision.

[Read Related: Author Kirtie Persaud on Representation for Indo Caribbean Girls, Motherhood and Balance ]

 What inspired you to write “Wild Fires?”

I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.

When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?

It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.

How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?

Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community. 

Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?

My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience. 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Sophie Jai (@sophie.jai)

Is the rest of the book based on a true story?

It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my  life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.

The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?

I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.

One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?

For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.

Why explore the psychology of a house?

It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.

What makes a family?

I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.

The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?

Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.


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What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”

I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of  these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.

Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.  

“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.

Featured Image Courtesy: Sophie Jai

By Usha Sookai

Usha Sookai is an undergraduate student at New York University, studying Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis. With a passion … Read more ›