The sound of dominoes being slammed onto a table by the street side sends me flying into a woman walking my way. She shakes her head at me, her hands full of grocery bags, as she walks down Liberty Avenue on a Saturday, while everyone and their grandmother is out buying okra, squash and pumpkin for the upcoming week.
I often quickly make my way down the avenue to get to the A train, pushing past people who have stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to catch up with one another. Today, however, I stop to take in the chatter and commotion. A man selling fish from his van calls out to people yelling “Hassa! Gilbaka! Catfish! Fresh come in yesterday!”
To the right of him the aunties are assessing the vegetables at the Chinese West Indian stores – their carts dangerously close to people passing by. The smell of agarbatti hits my nose followed by Shahs Halal on 121st street. Queens is known to be one of the most diverse boroughs, so here, in Little Guyana, is where many Indo-Caribbeans have come to create their own version of home.
As a family, we have often contemplated moving out of the neighborhood, but are pulled back by the availability of fresh produce and transport. I’m sure that’s what we tell ourselves our reason for staying is, but we know it’s actually the comfort of living near other people of Indo-Caribbean descent.
To be Indo-Caribbean refers to the groups of East Indians who now have roots in the Caribbean or West Indies. We are surrounded by others who understand our foods and our language, which for Guyana is referred to as broken English. It is actually an English based creole, influenced by African, East Indian, Arawakan dialects and the Dutch language. We hear music like soca, reggae, chutney masquerading through the streets. It is a beautiful and valuable day to day experience considering our culture is not always understood by the rest of the world and sometimes even by ourselves.
I am a native New Yorker, born in the U.S. but I have an emotional connection to Guyana. I have visited many times and my dad’s parents used to spend time here during the year though they lived and died in their homeland. I grew up with my mom’s parents and was influenced by all of my immigrated family. I find comfort in our culture and gained an interest in the history of our people during my college career where I met members of the South Asian community who did not understand the Indo-Caribbean placement in the diaspora. The conversation about what we share with our Indian ancestors and how we’re different was hard to discuss without proper knowledge of these things myself.
Pursuing this knowledge has led me to create this photo series entitled “Masala, no Chai,” my second series dedicated to visualizing a celebration of Indo-Caribbean culture. This along with my first series titled “Where My People?” aims to showcase the look of our people and how diverse we are, as well as our food and the vision of unity we portray.
In a time where identity has become more prevalent to all cultural groups, I believe it is important for us to understand the role our history and displacement plays to our current existence. By understanding and appreciating who we are as Indo-Caribbeans and for some of us Afro-Caribbean, Dutch, Chinese and all other mixes, we can continue to work together as a people to build a positive future for our current generation without losing the parts of us that make us unique.
Guyana and Trinidad not only rank number five and nine on the list of total foreign-born immigrants living in N.Y.C. but also rank as the top two countries in the Caribbean with Indo-Caribbean populations. Some Indo-Caribbeans choose to identify with the term West Indian – a term people from the Caribbean use to describe themselves. Even so, we are often grouped together with the South Asian demographic both in terms of statistical identification and cultural norms. Though some Indo-Caribbeans choose to identify as South Asian to reduce complications, our culture is vastly different.
Our history is a culmination of past homelands and ancestors of indentured laborers much of whom were living under similar conditions as slavery. They were given the label coolie which is regarded as an “ethnic slur, a reminder to Indians of menial origins and a subtle challenge to their claim to belong,” according to “Coolie Woman” author Gaiutra Bahadur. The first set of “servants” from India arrived in British Guiana during 1836. The practice of using labor from East India then spread to places like Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Grenada and the rest of the Caribbean.
Jamaica was the first British-owned Caribbean country to gain independence in 1962 and the others followed in the later years of the 20th century. Our ancestors have only recently been freed from oppressive colonial regimes and have looked to one another to patch together pieces of their past as well as build a future in their new lands. CARICOM (Caribbean Community) unites the Caribbean in terms of economic expansion and is located in Georgetown, Guyana. What unites us culturally though is our clothing, food, and love of calypso.
Sonia, featured in the portrait above, is Christian Guyanese and in this image, she is featured with a mala, which is usually hung around the bride and groom’s neck at a Hindu wedding ceremony. Christianity and Hinduism are the two dominant religions in Guyana with Islam following third. I am a practicing Muslim though my paternal grandmother and her lineage were Christian (she converted to Islam before passing), my mother was Hindu before marrying and my father, and was one of the first in his family to begin learning Islam in depth. This mix of religions and ethnic backgrounds is not uncommon for various Indo-Caribbean countries.
We still face colorism issues within our communities as do all people deeply affected by colonialism, but I believe we have come further in terms of marrying between races and religions. In fact, the mixing of people from African to Indian to Portuguese to Chinese to Amerindians (natives to the land) is what has made the Caribbean countries what they are. Our combined practices and cultural customs have led us to become a melting pot of seven curry when wedding time comes around, pepper pot at Christmas and a good lamb curry during Eid!
My clothing choice for this shoot is purposeful, from the makeup to jewel placement to the lone Indian style skirt. When visiting Guyana, Trinidad or any other Caribbean country it is likely that you will find people wearing Westernized clothing. Our elders were not dressed in saris or adorned in bindis. My grandmothers wore a typical frock during the day made of simple cloth. The abandonment of clothing from their homelands is most likely due to the clothing their ancestors had to wear for labor purposes.
Outfits like lenghas and shalwar suits were saved for weddings which meant we did not grow up connecting these forms of clothing to our identity. Our lack of a relationship to traditional clothing has been a dividing factor in other South Asian groups understanding our placement in the diaspora but our shift in the way we dress has shaped our identity in the Caribbean.
For example, clothing is the one biggest factors in Carnival, which begins at the same time as Mardi Gras. Carnival is our expression of freedom from colonization and celebration of our triumph as a people united. It is believed the first one started in Trinidad and Tobago due to the influence of French and Spanish settlers. If you’re playing mas you’ll most likely be found in a frontline which includes the headpiece full of jewels, feathers, wings, leg and arm pieces, and collars or variations of this look. Your eye makeup would be bright with jewels on your face. That’s the look we associate with our people when we picture them out in a fete – enjoying life and having a good time.
The song associated with this photo will make you nostalgic for every good backyard party or wedding reception night! Music is one of the biggest things that unites people in the Caribbean. The song I hear when I look at this photo is by a Bajan soca band called Krosfyah whose iconic tune forever changed the vibe of soca. Soca originated from Garfield Blackman (Lord Shorty) in Trinidad to compete with the popular reggae music at the time –and to preserve calypso. He did so by fusing Afro and Indian beats not only to bring together the sounds of the genre but to unite the people. The song that really pushed the popularity of soca is Hot Hot Hot by Buster Poindexter which is undeniably known by every Indo-Caribbean person and even other people around the world.
In present-day genres like chutney, dancehall and ragga soca it remains hugely popular among the Caribbean countries. Our music is incredibly lively and ignites an emotion that is unexplainable – just felt to your core.
Nailah Blackman said it best, “When I see my people dancing all I hear is soca.” It is the sound of our childhoods. The sound of the warm summer air as your neighbor starts up their BBQ grill and sends the vibes all around. While we may share parts of our ancestor’s cultures, this musical bond is specific to the Caribbean and the land we’ve come to know as home. I believe our music came about to match the overall theme we share of enjoying life despite the odds that are against us. If you ever need to dance your stress away find yourself a West Indian party “cause it’s mad vibes straight till tomorrow morning.”
One, if not the biggest dividing factor between cultures, is food!
When an Indo-Caribbean person wants to take care of you, chances are they will feed you and not take no for an answer. Lots of foods for us have been transformed into something new, taking elements from our old homeland and mixing it into Caribbean flavors.
The first flavors of the lands begun from the Arawak, Carib, and Taino tribes or the natives. They added spices and lemon to their meats and are said to be the ones who created the first pepper pot stew which is now cooked all across the Caribbean, especially during the holiday season. You can also thank the Arawaks for originating the process of BBQ!
They were known to slow cook their meat on a wood fire to produce that smokey flavor we know today. Once Africans were forced from their homes to the Caribbean the way we ate changed again because they were limited in what they could use for meals.
Always innovative even when they are being oppressed, Africans made dishes out of okra, callaloo, saltfish, ackee, and other items slave owners did not want to eat. Now a popular dish at the roti shop is bake and saltfish! Indian and Chinese flavors became intertwined in these existing tastes after the abolishment of slavery when their labor was brought over.
From these influences, we now have things like aloo pie and doubles which is fried dough with either channa or mashed potatoes both topped with tamarind sauce, chutney, and other peppers if you choose.
Our lands have literally become a melting pot of flavors and over time the way we cook and the spices we use have become much different than other South Asian foods. Whether you call it oil roti or buss-up-shut, chicken curry or curry chicken, I know we can all agree that the foods from our lands are plate licking good.
“The name Guyana is an Amerindian word meaning Land of Many Waters. We are known as the country of six people – Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, East Indians, Europeans, and Portuguese,” according to CaribZones — I used this fact to summarize the overall theme for this shoot — that we are a people that come from so much more than we can explain.
Half of my family resides in Guyana and the other half, for the most part, lives in N.Y. which I feel like could be symbolic of how we may view ourselves – half and half. We are a generation placed with burdens that are unique to both our diaspora and migration. Though we have formed identities cultivated around the American culture it is safe to say that most of us have clung onto things that remind us of a home we may or may not have experienced but still feel a strong connection to.
My memories of visiting Guyana are some of my most fond if not my favorite things to reminisce on. We all piled into my grandma’s house in Mahaica sleeping out on the floor, traded scary stories about old higues, fire rasses and backoos, drew on our male cousins faces while they slept, took trips in my uncle’s bus to Splashmins and Georgetown, and rode on sketchy boats across the Demerara to Berbice. I could list so many more things but the basis of it is my sisters and I were blessed to have childhood experiences with our family that I hold onto dearly, and we had a chance to connect with a beautiful land.
There are a lot of social issues that plague our country and the countries of the Caribbean. We have much to build and work on for the current generation, things we can address so our older generation can come to terms with their traumas and shortcomings, and things that we can accomplish for the future of our people as we try to find our place in this world.
We have also come further as a people than we have given one another credit for considering the diverse shifts in placement we have incurred over a small amount of time. In just about 200 years we have gone from lands we can’t necessarily trace, to the West Indies, to places like the U.S. and Canada. Though the people of our diaspora can be found all over the world, we remain connected through the aspects of this photo series and live a life that reinforces the Caribbean mantra of love and unity.
It is officially that time of year—the holiday season. There’s nothing like Christmas and New Year’s in the West Indies. Between the pepperpot in Guyana and the palm trees decorated in lights in Trinidad, the home food, warm weather and laid-back ambiance makes us wish we could escape the cold and head back to the Caribbean. Most of us, however, cannot “take holiday” and find ourselves hungry for fresh dhal puri and doubles. But, thanks to these Indo-Caribbean food bloggers, we can bring the motherland to our kitchens.
From Diwali mithai specialties to curry chicken, Matthew is creating a name for himself as a young Guyanese food blogger. He makes a great effort to incorporate Hindu holidays and traditions on his Instagram account, in conjunction with the customary foods and sweets associated with these religious events. However, his expertise does not end there, with new and alternative recipes for classic dishes such as curry chicken and bhara, Matthew takes center stage sharing both traditional Guyanese dishes as well as specific religious dishes made for festivals. His most popular YouTube video, with 1.4 million views, features his grandmother and focuses on the best tips to make the softest Guyanese paratha roti. In addition, his YouTube account is home to many videos offering guidance to Indo Caribbean cooking. Find recipes at @mattews.guyanese.cooking
Natasha Laggan of Trini Cooking with Natasha is wildly popular throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. With humble beginnings, Natasha credits her love of food to her family’s business. She speaks of the nostalgia home food provides her as she reminisces memories of her grandmother’s cooking and helping her mother make sandwiches early in the morning. Featured by Forbes, Natasha grew her Facebook following quickly throughout the pandemic by posting old YouTube videos. Today, she has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and over 200K followers on YouTube. She uses her passion for cooking and Trinidadian culture to bring easy-to-follow recipes to viewers. Her following has now reached the West Indian diaspora globally as she has also become a brand ambassador to two well-known food companies. Follow the food expert @trinicookingwithnatasha.
With over 100K followers on YouTube, Ria is quite the expert when it comes to making roti. Her dhal puri, sada roti and paratha roti tutorials have over 1M views! However, her expertise does not stop there. Of the 180 YouTube tutorials, her recipes vary from curry to other Trinidadian favorites like macaroni pie and pigtail soup. Just scrolling through her YouTube page makes your mouth water. From doubles to classic Trinidad bakes like pound cake and sweet bread, she provides precision and anecdotal commentary while guiding you through the familiarity of home food. Check out Ria’s page at @cookingwithria.
Known as Chef Devan, Devan Rajkumar embraces his Guyanese Canadian heritage by creating recipes combining flavors of both the East and West Indies. His love of food has allowed him to expand his role to judge in a popular Canadian cooking show: Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. His cooking often blends the flavors of multiple cultures but also creates the classic recipes of his motherland. With a multitude of interests, Chef Dev uses his social media platform to connect with followers by sharing various aspects of his life that go beyond cooking. His most recent YouTube video provides a trailer for an upcoming video “Tastes Guyana” which shows him exploring Guyana from the inside, specifically deep parts of the inner country. To learn more about Chef Devan follow @chefdevan.
Reshmi is the chef behind the growing blog, Taste of Trinbago. A Trinidadian native who now resides in Texas, she uses her love of food and Trinidadian culture to share hacks, tips and easy recipes with West Indians throughout the globe. She finds a way to simplify traditional West Indian meals, that we once watched our elders make with curiosity. From holiday specialties like black cake to Diwali delicacies, Reshmi has brought vegetarian and non-veg recipes to followers in an extremely accessible way. She even posts recipe cards on her IG highlights for followers who may need written instructions. Her IG profile is a mix of various West Indian foods while also sharing bits of her life and even her secrets to baby food. Follow her @tasteoftrinbago.
These are just five Indo Caribbean food bloggers sharing their secrets to easy cooking. The once very daunting recipes and food instructions our parents gave have been simplified by most of these bloggers through video, voice over and modernized recipes. We no longer have to estimate a “dash, pinch or tuk” of any masala. We are just days away from Christmas and this is the perfect time to find the best-suited recipe to make that paratha for Santa.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.
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.