October 11, 2022October 11, 2022 4min readBy Puja Shah
As a first-generation South Asian American girl, I remember questioning ways my culture didn’t fit into the worldview my parents were raising me in.
“So why do women need to serve men their dinner first? Can’t we all just eat and enjoy together?”
“Why would people ever drown their infant girls in other countries?”
My mother, aunties and the strong South Asian women around me often understood these questions. Yes, it is unfair. Yes, it‘s not right. It’s why we are raising you here, beti.
The sacrifices my parents made, like so many immigrants who came to America on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’70s, are what awarded me and many of my fellow brown first-generation sisters the freedom to question openly. To aim high.
It’s why days like The International Day of the Girl Child are important for WOC writers, creators and artists to rise up and support those who are speaking up and advocating for many girls that are just like us; just like our own daughters.
International Day of the Girl Child, declared a decade ago by the United Nations, celebrates the importance, power, and potential of girls around the world. It also highlights the barriers they still face to get there.
For My Sister is a novel that follows the journey of light and darkness with Amla and Asya: twin sisters trafficked into India’s notorious Sonagachi district. Can the power of poetry, mindfulness, and sisterly love bring them back home and to each other?
What I learned is that while fiction, the story of Amla and Asya is all too real.
“Bravo! Puja Shah writes an emotional issues-focused fictional novel centered on the story of twin sisters Amla and Asya, whose attempt to escape a child marriage fails and they end up being trafficked anyway. The reader will find themselves vested in both sisters’ lives while gaining insights into the realities our fictional sisters endure — realities millions of real girls across the globe face every day. Puja Shah is precisely the fiction writer the literary world and global readers need to transcend to an empathetic place to finally begin understanding the plight of women and girls across the globe who are sexually exploited and abused, forced into unwanted marriages, and trafficked, by those they may trust the most… It is happening right now, as you finish reading this sentence.”
So often as artists, we express ourselves through the medium that we are called to. For me, this was writing. What started as a story, became a deeper calling for me. A cry for social change. A commitment to awareness.
So why write for social change?
1) There is a purpose behind your vision.
Writing for social change doesn’t mean you will change the world overnight, but it adds to the larger collective efforts toward social justice by helping those who have been second-class citizens of the world to feel validated and understood. Even if you are not an expert on the topic you feel called to share about, align with the causes that are doing the work on it. Like Gandhi believed, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
2) Your self-expression contributes to meaningful conversation.
You’re generating thoughts for important discussion around social issues. As Roxanne Gay states in her course on social change, “when your work starts this conversation, you are setting the framework for productive cultural critique.” Discussions are where questions like the ones I had as a young girl can arise. There is a sense of inquisition when someone is confronted with something that does not feel right. What isn’t working? What isn’t fair? Who is being marginalized? What do we need to understand to elevate society as a whole?
3) You are giving voice to those who may not be able to express themselves.
This is the heart of why I wrote my novel. When you share a story of someone whose experience has not been heard, you are providing a place for others to understand this experience.
4) It comes down to compassion.
Your work is the vehicle of compassion that can bring forth awareness which can lead to change. As a yoga and meditation instructor, this inner place of compassion is one that reminds me we are not all that different. The girls across the world that I write about, could love the same music as my best friend, and have dreams like my sister. So share your work for them. It’s why I did…for my sister.
“For My Sister is a novel with a social conscience illuminating the epidemic of human trafficking. It will break your heart, open your soul, and ignite a fire within to become part of the solution. Share it far and wide with all of your sisters.” — Arielle Ford, International bestselling author of The Soulmate Secret
Want to be a bigger part of the conversation? Check out the causes Puja highlights as ways to help trafficked girls globally by visiting her mission page here.
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.
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.
“How could the British bring the Indians without the cows?”That’s one of the jokes you’re very likely to hear at comedian Priya Guyadeen’s show. In fact, the 53-year-old just wrapped up a set of shows with her troupe: Cougar Comedy Collective. The Guyanese-born comic spearheads the group of mostly women of “a certain age,” as she puts it.
She says the group was formed in 2021 but she started dishing out jokes back in 2020 during the pandemic, over Zoom. She was always labeled the “funny one” in her family and decided to take her jokes to a virtual open mic, hosted by her friend, where she says failure was less daunting.
Cut to 2023, and the comic was able to take her show on the road. Guyadeen and her fellow performers recently hit the East coast for a set of shows called “Cougars on the Loose!” The shows even featured two male comics.
Guyadeen’s comedy routines touch on her Indo Guyanese background, highlighting stereotypes and a clash of cultures. In one of her jokes, she tells her audience that her Guyanese mom is bad with names when she introduces her white boyfriend, Randy, and he gets called Ramesh.
Out in the Bay Area — where she spends her days now — she tries to connect the sparsely Caribbean population to her jokes.
That includes talking about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre which had ties to San Francisco and ended in Guyana. She uses this as a reference point — trying to connect her audience to her background with historical context. She says this does come with its challenges, though.
The single mom also practices clean jokes. Once she finishes up her daily routine with her eight-year-old son and day job as a project manager for a biotechnology company, she tries to find time to write her material.
It’s a balancing act. I’m like the day job-Priya for a few hours or for a chunk of time. And then I’ve got to put on my comedian hat and do that for a period of time because with comedy, I’m not just performing. I’m also producing, managing the shows, booking talent, seeking venues.
Though it’s not easy, she says she’s learning through it all — the business side of comedy and discipline.
Guyadeen, who’s lived in Brazil and Canada, says her young son really contributes to her comedy. A lot of her material focuses on jokes for parents, and single parents like herself, because she feels:
[We live] in a society that doesn’t really create a support system for single parents.
Her nonprofit, Cougar Comedy Collective, was born out of all the great reception she received. She noticed a “niche market” of women in their 50s who loved to get dressed up and come out to the shows to hear jokes that related to their own lives that aren’t typically touched on. These were jokes about menopause, aging and being an empty nester. Guyadeen says her nonprofit,
…bring[s] talent together in our age group to celebrate this time of life; celebrate this particular juncture in a person’s life.
As Guyadeen continues her comedic journey, she says she hopes she’ll be a role model for other Caribbean women to follow their dreams despite their age. She also hopes to see more Caribbean people carving out their space in the entertainment industry.
Featured Image of Priya Guyadeen taken by Elisa Cicinelli Photography