Self-Love is for Everyone

Collectivistic cultures don’t know how to manage forming a single identity.—Dr. Shainna

For many, love means couples buying each other gifts, going out to expensive dinners, and making sure all of it is captured on Instagram for single people to see and spiral into self-loathing because no one “loves” them. 

Sounds about right?

I’m Indo-Guyanese. I didn’t grow up in a very affectionate household, which is something I think a lot of us can relate to. For instance, I believe my parents acknowledged Valentine’s Day after we moved to the U.S. because it was a thing in school to share Valentine’s Day cards with everyone in your class. My mother always bought chocolate for me and my sisters. My father, after we were old enough to form the opinion that this is the holiday where husbands are supposed to give their wives presents and so we prompted him to, would buy my mother flowers and/or some other sort of small gift. 

[Read Related: Self-Hatred to Self-Love: A Brown Girl’s Journey to Accepting Her Brown Skin]

The point is, I didn’t grow up thinking this was an incredibly significant holiday until high school and everyone somehow paired off specifically for this day and the halls were overcrowded with girls and their boyfriends’ gestures of “love” aka balloons. I, of course, never participated because I wasn’t allowed to date. I still didn’t completely understand it but I did think to myself, “great, yet another reason for me to not fit in.” My self-loathing was strong back then. 

As I got older and social media took hold of everyone’s lives I started to see things targeted at making single people feel terrible about themselves. Everything from ads to the captions in people’s posts made it seem like if you weren’t booed up by Valentine’s Day there was definitely something wrong with you. Then I saw the single girl retaliation (Galentine’s Day). The movement didn’t feel uplifting though. It felt like it was an us-against-them scenario and that didn’t feel right to me either. [I had started on my own self-love path at this point.] Couples should be allowed to celebrate and flaunt their celebration if they choose to. There’s no reason to send them hate. Likewise, single people should be allowed to want to celebrate and flaunt with the people they feel closest to as well. 

In general and especially within the Indo-Caribbean community, singledom is not celebrated. Questions on why you aren’t married, why you can’t find someone, and on and on are especially triggering during the month of February. But why should it be? Why can’t we, as a community, celebrate self-love? Conversely, marriages are often seen as a final commitment that cannot be altered, no matter how abusive the people within the marriage are. So again, why can’t we, as a community, celebrate self-love, not just amongst single people, but amongst all of our people? 

[Read Related: How I Chose Self-Love in the Face of Racism and Oppression]

I sat with Dr. Shainna, an Indo-Caribbean mental health therapist, educator, and advocate, based in Florida, to discuss this topic. Dr. Shainna works as a therapist within a private practice, runs a blog via Psychology Today, and has published a workbook entitled The Self-Love Workbook. Her areas of research and practice have included identity and culture, and how the two affect our mental health. 

She notes that in collectivist cultures self-love is seen as narcissistic because the community does not know how to manage individual members of the community forming a single identity. 

To break this mindset she first asks, “How do you define self-love?” It’s important to remember that there is no single, all-encompassing definition of self-love because self-love is multifaceted and different for different people.  

Delving further, to shape self-love within a collectivist paradigm, Dr. Shainna recommends that you ask yourself the following, “What if you invested in yourself so you can be a better [sibling, parent, spouse, etc.]?” “What if you treat yourself with the same respect as you would your [sibling, parent, spouse, etc.]?” It’s a matter of using terms members of the community understand, which is something she emphasizes in her workbook.

So if it’s Valentine’s Day or simply just another day of the single interrogation, remember to practice self-love, as defined by you. Also just as important, remember self-love isn’t a “single person thing,” it’s an everyone thing because we all need it in order to try to be better versions of ourselves.

By Vijaya Singh

Vijaya was born in Guyana but moved to Long Island as a child and has yet to visit Guyana since. … Read more ›

My Meaning of Dharam is Different From my Mother’s

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? 

[Read Related: Jainism and Mental Health: How my Renewed Faith Made Me Stronger]

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

By Vashali Jain

Vashali Jain is a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University. In her spare time, she likes to experiment in the … Read more ›

Ramadan is My Spiritual Sanctuary for Healing in a Chaotic World

This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.

This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.

For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.

The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.

Siyam in community

The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.

When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.

During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.

[Read Related: How I Create Everlasting Ramadan Memories as a New York City Mom]

The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.

I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking. 

Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.

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In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11.  During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day. 

Ramadan as a space to heal

These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment. 

During Ramadan, I find myself closest to my faith and to myself. Just as the Quranic verse says, “so, surely with hardship comes ease”,  I am reminded of our resilience and how obstacles can be overcome through spaces of community and prayer. 

I believe that the healing we need in the world begins from within. My community needs the sanctuary of Ramadan now more than ever to reflect and rebuild, away from the violence. 

Reckon is a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.

Feature Image courtesy: Aysha Qamar

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By Aysha Qamar

Aysha Qamar is a writer, poet and advocate based in the tri-state area. She currently serves as BGM’s News and … Read more ›

Fireside Chat With Debut Author Sophie Jai

sophie jai
sophie jai

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

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

 

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

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

 What inspired you to write “Wild Fires?”

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

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

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

Did you always want to be a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why explore the psychology of a house?

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

What makes a family?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Featured Image Courtesy: Sophie Jai

By Usha Sookai

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