It took me over a year, almost dropping out of college, and countless nights crying in my freshman dorm room in silence to finally come to terms with the fact that I had been sexually assaulted.
I initially prided myself on my ability to maintain my silence. I saw it as an act of resilience and strength, rather than seeing it for what it was — a coping mechanism. If I pretended that it didn’t matter and pretended like it didn’t happen, then that had to mean I had won the battle. If there was nothing to overcome, nothing to accept, then there wasn’t a problem.
Alas, the human brain is notorious for thinking the exact opposite of how one should be feeling.
I spent my days pretending nothing was wrong and laughing with my friends — but I spent the nights too afraid to sleep in my own bed, where the assault had taken place.
Pretending that it didn’t happen for months on end, seeing my assailant in casual settings, even making eye contact with him, meant I relived every second of that night. I felt as suffocated as I did that night.
I begged him to get off, tried to tell him I was too tired, wanted to repeat myself — until I realized he didn’t care. He thought I was being a tease.
In the days after, just like that night, I forced myself to not say a word. If there were any silent tears, I ensured no one saw them. As if it wasn’t enough the first time around.
Speaking out about assault as a college student is harder than it should be. The added pressure of being a brown girl, with parents who uphold traditionally rigid Indian values made the acceptance of the ordeal even harder. As their daughter, I felt compelled to hide what had happened and not burden them with something that wouldn’t have occurred if it wasn’t for my own actions.
Inevitably, I knew, doubts would arise, questions would be asked, and fingers would be pointed. Had I been a good girl — one who had focused on just my academics and not been so concerned with making friends and partying — would this have ever happened?
I felt many people would think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, and so I never said anything, never raised my voice.
Girls from good, respectful Indian families, don’t get in trouble. They stay silent, speak when spoken to, and never let themselves get in situations like this.
As an Indian-American, I never fail to find people to connect with about my culture on campus. What has proved difficult, however, is finding people of my heritage, who have spoken about their assault, their experiences with it, and their personal victories.
It isn’t easy. You never forget it, and you might not forgive yourself, the assailant, or the universe for letting it happen.
When I finally broke down and reached out to ask for help, my university and advisors were more kind and helpful than I ever expected. It took me a year, more tears than I thought possible, and the unwavering support of my friends for me to come to terms with the assault.
It still amazes me when my wonderful boyfriend allows me to take it as slow as I want, never asks questions, and never assumes I am his to do with as he pleases. It gives me hope to know that men like him still exist in the world.
When sexual assault occurs, it is never really over.
But it’s not a disease that can be cured with medication or time by spending time in a hospital. There’s no healing period, no grace period, and no way to ensure that you’ll ever be the same person again. It’ll hurt until it doesn’t, and you will blame yourself until you don’t. And it’s different for each person.
These are the times to remember that women are stronger than given credit for. Women are stronger through their pain, grit and tears and are capable of handling unimaginable obstacles, fighting silent wars, and achieving monumental victories.
For me, my survival, my voice, and my happiness, is all the credit I need.
Isha is a sharp-tongued, big-eyed, Indian-American woman with dreams larger than life itself. She enjoys writing, learning about animal rescue stories, and aims to pursue a career in defense law to help the underprivileged and fight for those who can’t help themselves. Her dog Simba is her lifetime companion.
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.
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.
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.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.
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.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
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.
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.
When you say that Durga was your driving force for action, do you mean spiritually and religiously, or something else?
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.”
Describe the writing process for this book. How did you find that courage to move past your fears?
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.
Walk us through the four steps for somebody who is just hearing about this and is interested in your way of approaching courage.
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.
How was this journey impacted by being Indo Caribbean? What role did your culture play in this?
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.
Why dedicate the book to your younger self?
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.
How would you describe your relationship with Durga Ma? How can others who are not Hindu achieve that sort of relationship with their metaphoric courage figure?
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.
How do you take this idea, this archetype, and apply it to yourself or anybody?
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.
How did motherhood and becoming a mother play a role in writing this book and also your career as a life coach?
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.
Did you have to endure little battles with people around you to gain support for the kind of work that you do?
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.
As an Indo Caribbean mother, there can be a lot of expectations. Did the courage framework also help with that?
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.
Can this in turn create a healthier experience for the child?
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.
Do you have a favorite story that you use in this book for reference?
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.