March 13, 2019 March 13, 2019 < 1 min read By Brown Girl Magazine
Born out of the lack of minority representation in mainstream media, Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South … Read more ›
In her new book “Dear Durga,” author and life coach Shanita “Shani” Liu takes a different approach to self-help. Liu guides readers by providing a courageous framework. She writes to the Hindu goddess Durga Ma, who is a symbol of courage to Liu. Durga Ma represents power and protection in Hinduism.
Liu ties together the personal. She shares her experiences in witnessing fear-based patterns from her own Guyanese family and culture and noticing them in herself as a mother while proving coping strategies as a life coach. In this candid conversation, Liu explores the journeys of motherhood, writing, overcoming fear and leading future generations by example.
It came from a diary entry I wrote in 2018 or 2019. I wrote that I was going to write a book called “Dear Durga.” I created a folder on my computer and it said “Dear Durga Book” and it was almost like I was setting the intention. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, but I did know that Durga and writing to her was an important part of my journey. And so I just had this intuitive feeling that I was going to be able to share this story one day.
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In 2021, we were going through the pandemic, I just had my third child, and Durga was very much like, ‘okay, now you’re going to go write your book.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m sorry. I’m, like, trying to navigate motherhood again and my business and everything else that was going on.’ And she was like, ‘no, you’re going to participate in this writer’s workshop. You’re going to learn how to write a book proposal. You’re going to enter it into this contest. You’re going to win the contest, and you’re going to write a book.’ And I thought she was nuts. And all of my fears started coming up – who am I to do this, I can’t do this, I’m not enough, what am I writing about?
I had to muster up the courage to write this book. And so Durga was a catalyst for me to call on my courage and say, ‘it’s time.’ This moment made me realize what I’ve been doing professionally for the last seven years is walking folks through my framework to help them activate their courage. So even though I was terrified, I realized this book can take the personal and the professional pieces of this puzzle and really put it all in one place.
For everything, yes—emotionally, spiritually. In 2015, when I was falling apart and embarking on these major life changes in my life, she came through. It was the catalyst for me to say, “I have to start breaking myself out of these fear-based mindsets and really start entering these new phases of my life with courage and disrupting old patterns.”
Definitely writing to Durga. Knowing that the book was going to be about this journey of me connecting with my courage, I had to accept the challenge. I’m a writer by training. I’ve been writing my whole life. I was an English major, so I knew I could write, but I had to sit down and excavate six years of my life. I had to go into my journals from 2015 up until when I started writing the book at the end of 2021.
It was wild to re-experience myself going through these various obstacles, these discouragements, these discomforts and then find the strength through this courageous energy I had within me, to take these small steps and overcome each obstacle. The excavation of my own life was an interesting part of the process for me to get clear on the themes based on what I remembered.
The writing process was very spiritually and emotionally transformative because I’ve been doing all this work with my own courage that I sort of had to channel it with my own creativity to write and to marry what I had been doing professionally and what I had been going through personally. So, once I formed the book proposal, the blueprint for what I was writing, and submitted it to the Hay House contest, I then learned I won the runner up prize, I was able to write the manuscript pretty quickly. At that point, I was like, ‘okay, I know what I’m writing about now. I know I have the courage to do it.’ Durga was right, after all.
I have a Courage Kit framework, and I’ve had to walk my talk through it, but I’ve used it with hundreds of clients. It’s a four-phase process to support you with activating your courage and keeping it alive. The first phase is activating your courage and calling it in, identifying your courage metaphor, how to access that energy and how to commune with it and build a relationship with it. The second phase is about aligning with your needs because, as mothers and women, we don’t ask ourselves what we need due to this societal expectation and cultural conditioning. That’s an important part of emerging victorious. Victory is important because it means to attain fulfillment. Being victorious means having the courage to honor yourself so that you can be victorious, whatever that is like for you. The third phase is alleviating stressors so you can feel your best. Then the fourth phase is taking action so you can start making baby steps towards your goals.
The role that my culture plays is huge. In the book, I talk about the legacies of sacrifice that I come from because of indentureship. I’m three generations removed from that history of colonizers exploiting indentured laborers. When you come from these legacies of sacrifice, fear-based mindsets and behaviors accompany it. When I was acting from a place of martyrdom and sacrificing my own needs, I realized I learned that from the women who came before me, who learned it from the women before them.
When you zoom out you realize this has happened across cultures. Why are women in our culture asked not to use our voices? Why are people telling us to shut up, play small and don’t cause trouble? Our voices have been collectively suppressed, and over the last few decades, we’ve been liberating ourselves. We’re going to honor all parts of ourselves and express ourselves as we need to, and we need courage to do that.
I had to dedicate this book to my Little Shanny because her voice was suppressed, and due to cultural and societal expectations, she wasn’t allowed to be her fullest self. She’s very lively and creative. In the book, she is writing and we make rap songs and other things to call on our creativity. This book is an honoring. As I was honoring all parts of myself and healing my own emotional wounds, I was liberating her at the same time.
Regarding Durga and myself, I don’t say, ‘I got this courage metaphor, now help me.’ You have to build a relationship with it. In the last eight years, I’ve been able to build a solid relationship with her where my courage is almost automatic. If I feel or think about fear, my automatic courage alert starts going off. The stronger connection I build to her, the stronger our relationship becomes, and the more self aware I become about making courageous choices.
But, in the introduction of the book, I clarify that folks can use the Durga archetype or work with Durga whether they are Hindu or not. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from because she embodies victory over evil, maternal protection and an unapologetic courage that we need for fulfillment. So I encourage folks to connect with her because people who are meant to resonate with it will resonate with it and if Durga doesn’t resonate with you, you understand you have this courageous wisdom inside you. If telling my story about the way it looks for Durga and I, inspires somebody to ponder a relationship like that, that’s great! In the end, I just want folks to walk away feeling comforted and equipped with tools to be their most courageous selves.
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We’re human beings and I think sometimes we just need something visual or tangible to hold on to. Sometimes I need an idea or person to help ground what’s coming up for me, so the metaphor is really helpful because I can visualize and interact with it.
The metaphor offers information because when you’re scared and fear is clouding your judgment, it’s easy to default to doubt. Your courage metaphor offers information, encouragement or directions – targeted guidance. As long as you connect, communicate with and build a relationship with it, it will help you. That’s why I use “Dear Durga,” channeled writing, as a common thread throughout the book, it’s one modality that works. If this modality doesn’t work for you, then try interacting with it differently. But at the end of the day, regardless what modality you find, you can leverage that metaphor’s information to inform your next step.
I started life coaching when I became a mother. I was pregnant while I was in my Life Coaching Certification Program, and Durga Ma showed up just a few months before I found out I was pregnant. I think she knew I was going into the next phase of my life, and I couldn’t continue on my own anymore. So motherhood was a huge act of courage for me. I left a toxic job so I could embark on motherhood and begin making professional choices that would support me once I became a mom.
The beautiful thing about motherhood is that you become a different person – you change. Your ability to care, give, create and grow changes. Motherhood informed the work that I did with other women in their mind, body, spirit wellness and it forced me to focus on my own wellness. Also, Durga Ma just happens to be this maternal archetype, so maternal protection and nurturing felt important to my process as I was healing wounds. This is a powerful energy that can support other moms because we need support. We’re caring for little human beings and, as it is, most moms are under-resourced. Courage is a resource that doesn’t cost any money, that can help with life’s challenges.
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I don’t think anyone around me discouraged me. The battle was within myself and having the courage to say, ‘I’m this life coach who’s going to focus on courage.’ I had to get over my own impostor syndrome, self doubt and fears that were weighing me down about coaching with this mindset among many other coaches. When I started, I was focusing so much on self care, but then I realized it’s so hard for women to self care because we have a fear of doing it. Everything goes back to fear. That’s why I realized the root of all of this is coming back to our courage.
Absolutely. Most moms are givers, especially those of Indo Caribbean heritage. We saw our moms constantly sacrificing everything so we can have high-quality lives. But this trajectory of motherhood and bringing my courage in through my own framework forced me to ask for help, set boundaries and put my needs first. Obviously we put our children first, we’re always protecting them. But I began to honor myself. To realize I can honor myself and my needs while managing motherhood felt really important. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to do that because we’re breaking out of old patterns from our family’s example. This is why, in ‘Dear Durga’ I tell a lot of stories about my grandmother, because she was a major influence in what I thought motherhood should look like.
Absolutely. You’re a demonstration to your children. Your children do not do what you say, they do what you do. I have daughters and a son, and I don’t want my daughters growing up thinking that when they get married or have kids and start a family, they have to clean the house all the time and never experience joy. I want them to see that Mommy can experience joy and fun and she can work, and she can do these things. It may not look perfect, but they can see that I can do all of these things without it costing my mental health and sanity.
It’s not my favorite, but the story about my grandmother’s death and the shock that my family and I felt stands out the most. She was the matriarch and anchor to our maternal line. So, when she passed away, it created chaos. As a little girl, it wasn’t until she passed away that I questioned: ‘Who was she? What was her life like?’ It allowed me to see what my grandmother was like outside of being a grandmother. When the funeral happened, I heard stories about how she sacrificed, whether it was for her education or her family. It gave me perspective on everything that went into my family coming to the U.S. But it also made me think, now that I have the privilege and the opportunity to change things, am I going to take advantage of that?
Liu champions personal growth and overcoming fear, emboldening us to find our courage, be vocal about our needs and refute the age-old myth that Indo Caribbean women must struggle to be successful. “Dear Durga A Mom’s Guide to Activate Courage and Emerge Victorious” is now available for purchase.
Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too.
I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.
It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.
I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.
Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.
Comedian Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, when interviewed on NPR’s “Code Switch,” says:
Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?
This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.
Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says:
Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.
The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?
Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece by Ruchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).
I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.
And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.
Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.
Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist!
It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.
I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me.
I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life.
It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished.
It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”
We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?
I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself:
People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.
Image courtesy: Casimiro PT via Shutterstock