south asian

Quarantine Queries and the Complexities of South Asianness

Hi Fabliha!

Hey! I just finished up dinner. 

What was for dinner?

Fish head curry and rice- typical of me as a Bangladeshi but fish is delicious. Can anyone really blame me for wanting to have seafood everyday? 

MM I’m drooling. Do you cook a lot?

Before quarantine, the only “dish” I could make was instant ramen with some chopped veggies (I know it’s considered a “struggle meal”, the concept itself inherently being classist and elitist, but to be completely honest, I find myself craving it sometimes! Instant ramen is delicious when it’s done right!) but now that I’ve been home all day, I found myself wanting to learn how to cook. My mother and I have spent so much time together in the kitchen recently and it’s one of my most beautiful memories I have from this past year. Together, we made shingaras from scratch and so many other delicious Bangladeshi dishes. I never wanted to learn how to make Bengali food because of how stressful it was. So many steps and spices, it all seemed so intimidating. But there’s such a beautiful ritual that comes with it. Cooking now is such a joyful act of nourishing oneself — physically and mentally.  

This is so lovely to hear. You write a lot about your relationship or your dynamic with your mother, so to know that you’ve spent the last few months connecting through food, a shared act of care is so moving. What was it like initially being in quarantine with family, and how do you feel about it now? I just moved back to Sydney but I was in Brooklyn till September – I moved back home with my parents for two months and there were so many moments of joy and frustration that I’m still moving through. How are you feeling about it all at this present moment?

I feel like I’ve been preparing all my life for quarantine. Throughout my life, I didn’t have many friends. I was always considered a loner and made my first friend group when I was 18. I remembered spending all of my summers throughout my youth indoors, scrolling away on Tumblr, binge watching angsty coming of age films, and watching my peers in envy as they relished themselves in adventurous girlhood which I desperately craved. So from middle school to early college, the majority of my life was always spent indoors. When quarantine first began, I watched my friends struggle and felt suffocated. But to me, it all felt so familiar. I adapted quickly because it was all I’ve ever known. 

When it comes to my parents, my relationship with them became strengthened but also strained. I believe it’s because this past year, I have transformed into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I wondered why I was able to drastically change, but I think it’s because I have allowed myself to be confident as I am away from the public eye. I am no longer subjected to the public’s perception or conditioning. But that also comes with extreme anxiety, as the person I’ve dreamt of being, is not the daughter my parents have always hoped for. In my time in quarantine, I came to terms with my gender, my dreams, and what I want from the world — all of which are things my parents are most fearful of. 

When quarantine first happened, my desires for the world, my gender identity, and so much more had started to piece together — all of which are things my parents fear the most. At first this realization had made me become distant from them as a way to survive and protect myself. However, months later, the sadness, frustration and the grudge I held against them dissolved. For the very first time in my life, the difference in our opinions of how I should live my life made me look at my mother and father as humans, not my parents. Like me, they too have desires. When desires are not met, it is extremely painful and bitter. All of which I am dealing with as well. I have been able to recognize that we’re not so different after all, a realization that is beautiful but gut-wrenching all at the same time.  

In this present moment, I’m still processing how much I’ve changed this past year.. A part of me, like my parents, is a bit fearful of how much I transformed. However, I feel so incredibly invigorated as well.

The confidence you move with, be it through your writing or the way you’re able to organize various community initiatives, is so inspiring – Fabliha. I remember coming across your work years ago, even before I moved to New York and thinking, wow, it’s cool to see this mirror being held up through Fabliha’s work and presence online. And now to see your evolution, it really gives me so much hope and comfort knowing that other queer South Asian folks have blueprints they can hold on to. 

It’s always so jarring how the anxiety we feel as we become more fully ourselves is one that arises as a protection mechanism – protecting our parents from, as you said, what they are fearful of. But in the background of understanding and coming into yourself, you’re not only nourishing your own journey but also the journey of others – and here I’m thinking particularly of your work with the South Asian Queer Trans Collective (SAQTC). Can you tell me a little about this organization and how it has evolved? And what does your family think about your organizing work?

Thank you so much! It means so much coming from you. I mainly use social media to just speak into the void, so sometimes I forget that real people actually view what I post online and that they’re not pixels or Sims living in my phone!

As for SAQTC, the creation of the collective begins with the journey of coming out. I came out when I was 18 to my closest friends and basically the whole world online. I am still currently not out to my parents so the Internet became a way for me to express myself and find community. 

To celebrate this identity that I finally came to terms with, I decided to start getting out of my comfort zone and go to South Asian queer artsy events in New York City. For me, this was a huge step and was a way to not only find community but also hopefully find more of myself. But instead, I was met with extreme judgement. This experience was also around the time that my mother became sick and my family had become the poorest we have ever been and we were being flooded with medical bills. I had just taken a gap year from college as I had to step up to take care of my mother. As a result, I became the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life and my skin was filled with large pores and acne. My physical appearance was a reflection of the stress and turmoil my life was overwhelmed with. 

However, I never knew that this would act as a barrier from love from the community I yearned for the most. Time and time again, at every event I would go to in hopes of making friends and finding comfort, I would find myself isolated from other South Asian queers. I vividly remember them looking at me up and down, judgement lingering in their eyes as they stared at my acne, stomach, and stains on my sweater, their lips pursed in disgust. I had realized that their respect and kindness was only reserved for those that fit into their agenda or aesthetic. When I came out, I had imagined that I would be celebrated and have queer folks accept me with open arms. But purely based on how I looked, I was rejected, yet again. 

Months later, I had started to become closer with another Bengali girl that I had met in a summer program in high school. We had become each other’s first queer Bengali friend and it transformed our lives forever. I finally found someone that had understood me and for the first time, I wasn’t alone. Our friendship made me yearn for more, but I was unsure how to, as going to community events was no longer an option for me.

Since then, I have heard numerous stories from people that have faced the same judgement and isolation that I experienced and I realized this was a recurring pattern. The rejections and my first queer friendship inspired me to organize the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective , a space where everyone could feel like they belonged. Through SAQTC  I wish to spread tenderness, unconditional love and warmth, something that my closest queer friends have taught me. As for my parents, they have no clue what I do! Whenever I have a virtual meeting or am hosting an event, I just tell them I’m hanging out with friends — which isn’t exactly a lie!

Wow ok. So much of what you’ve just shared is heartbreaking and exhilarating because of how resonant it is — and, I am so sorry you had to deal with such vile behaviour. It’s so strange how intergenerational the gatekeeping goes within the South Asian community. In the same way that we are surveilled by aunties, we are surveilled by our peers who we assume are on our side and moving towards collective liberation.

I’m so glad to hear you have a close group of friends who have been able to sustain and nourish you. I guess with the case of South Asia, we have so many layers of oppression to deal with. Which of course does not make any of the current behaviour exempt – but we’re talking about folks in the community who have been raised in families marked by caste, class, gender and racial trauma. What do you think it’s going to take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping, to become cognizant of the repeating patterns within our social circles? 

I think about collective liberation all the time and wonder if the revolution will ever truly happen in our lifetime. It’s so easy for us to talk and have discussions about our steps towards liberation, but it’s another to practice the steps to make it happen. It’s so painful to look inward and escape the gatekeeping or systems placed onto us when it has been engraved deep into our spirit since birth. I don’t feel anger towards those that have projected their conditioning onto me, because I honestly feel like they can’t help it. It’s what we’ve been taught and the systems we live in continue to uphold it. What does it mean to break it? What does liberation even look like for all? Am I like the people that have hurt me too? I ask myself this everyday. 

I can’t help but feel so fucking frustrated. I think as a marginalized community living in the West, the Western society has placed us in a box and subdued our identities. The reality is, our communities have historically savagely murdered and enslaved each other. Even right in this moment. So while knowing all of these things, what does community truly mean when there’s so much pain and loss involved? What does healing even look like living in the diaspora while I am in community with other South Asian identities whose family members are the reason for my pain? I’m still grappling with all of these things. I think what it will take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping and move forward is to acknowledge where their behavior stems from and take accountability for the histories they were involved in. 

This makes so much sense. How are we expected to move forward together when we can’t look back with responsibility at all the chaos caused by our own communities against each other? I think even lumping ‘South Asian’ into a whole can be so flattening at times when there isn’t room for nuanced explanation. It’s so sticky because we are humans searching for meaning, searching for community and belonging and I think for me personally, my journey through spirituality has really been a reckoning with understanding our ancestry for all of it’s good and bad – and seeing how we can learn from the failures and successes with the next generation. These are some really huge realizations to be having and facing daily, what are a couple of things you’ve been turning to, whether it be a book, a meal, a ritual, that have helped you stay grounded amidst moving through these reckonings?

So true! Our South Asian identity is so complex and painful. I’ve had these realizations this past year, which I guess happens when you’re home all day and no longer have distractions from your deepest thoughts. To be frank, the journey of these realizations had resulted in a lot of messy feelings — mostly anger. But I have come to understand that anger is one of the most pivotal and powerful factors in healing. Anger has such a vital role towards individual and even collective healing. It’s frightening but exhilarating as well.  

To ground myself from this inner reckoning, I’ve been turning to journaling and writing. I’ve been journaling since I was 13 years old. I think this became a habit of mine out of loneliness but I stopped journaling last year when I started to make a close group of friends. This year in quarantine, I started writing again and remembered why I loved it so much. It allows me to purge and cleanse my spirit. The ritual in writing my thoughts away is so satisfying because I know that I could write whatever I want without the public’s perception. I could be as messy, unfiltered, embarrassing and pathetic I want. It’s such a cathartic feeling that I will never get over. It helps me express my anger and sadness without ever having to wonder if it’s too much for people to handle, which is something I always fear. Being unhinged in private is such a grounding experience for me. 

I have also been playing around with clay art! There’s something so magical about forming something with your very own hands. It’s wonderful to make something that was originally a blob of clay transform into something magnificent! I usually watch a movie in the background and make a wonky creation. Tonight, I’m making a dalmatian print clay pot while watching Perks of Being a Wallflower for the millionth time 🙂 

Fabliha Anbar (she/them) is a 21-year-old writer and community organizer based in New York City. They are the youth coordinator for Arts & Democracy where their main focus is cultivating a safe environment for immigrant youth to creatively express themselves through art and culture. Fabliha is also the founder of the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective, a grassroots collective for the South Asian and Indo- Caribbean lgbtq+ diaspora. They have been featured in multiple publications such as Teen Vogue, Vice, NBC News, Rookie, and more. Fabliha utilizes the many facets of their identity in their writing and believes storytelling is a powerful tool to heal souls.

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