The Practice of Self Care with Sundus Abdul Hadi

Hi Sundus!

Hi Fariha!!!

I’m so honored to be doing this with you! I was just thinking back to the first time we met, which was (I believe) on your radio show in Montreal… and you had me on as a guest and we talked about self care! So it’s kind of a full circle now. I get the sense that that’s kind of what our relationship is like, that there’s these universal themes we traverse through different mediums, and we’re in constant dialogue with one another through different platforms. I find your work around “self care” so profound and important. Can you tell me a little about how you first started to think about self care and how did it develop into what it is today?

I remember that day so well. Actually, I had given you the catalogue for the Take Care of Your Self exhibit, which was only a few months old at the time. Speaking now makes it all feel so full circle indeed. I actually just finished reading Like a Bird—I read it in 3 days, and was eager to finish it before we spoke. I can’t wait to speak to you more about that too. It was so beautiful in so many ways. Congratulations for this work of (he)art. 

I just received the first copies of Take Care of Your Self: The Art and Cultures of Liberation. I spent the past three years writing it, and it is rooted in that exhibit, featuring the work of 20 artists whose work intersects with the concepts of care and struggle. The book is about the transformative potential of art, and how care, community and culture are intertwined in the journey towards lasting, decolonial, liberatory change. I’d say that the starting point for all my exploration of self-care was definitely through writing and illustrating Shams, my children’s book about trauma and survival, based on a little girl made of glass, named Shams. I wrote it because I needed a book like that when I experienced my own trauma(s).

It’s funny, with self-care, and my whole body of work around the practice of it, it is always rooted in my lived experiences, in the self. Recently, I have been coming back more and more to terminology and the words we use. I have started to drop the word “self” from the phrase, because I am realizing how that is really just the starting point for care. Approaching everything from the space of moving from microcosm to macrocosm, I feel like care as a concept has so many layers…

I want to unpack that with you. Could I ask you for more explanation? 

I would say moving from my work as a visual artist to being committed to making books – a more accessible medium – I started to think much more about the idea of community. My lived experience is unique to me, but once I started thinking about how this experience can become a source of knowledge for others, it shifted my perspective from one that is centered on myself, and more about what the collective experience is, particularly for those of us who have experienced systemic injustice rooted in colonialism. I started to see the importance of changing the narrative around some of the universal experience that we have all been trying to face and heal from. Trauma is a universal experience that is at once extremely personal yet wildly relatable. Writing and illustrating Shams was my first offering in this journey. Simplifying the very heavy concepts of trauma, loss, displacement and collective suffering through a character made of glass, and the idea of putting yourself back together again after shattering is a reminder of our potential to heal.

I really feel that looking at and reading your work. It’s so holistic. Studio Ananda is trying to do a similar thing, talking about healing as art — trying to expand what that means, how that looks? I feel like the more we can unlayer it the more we can heal… and I get the sense you feel similarly, which is why you wrote Shams as well as Take Care of Your Self. I was watching an interview with Michaela Coel about I May Destroy You earlier today and she was describing the feeling of being a mirror, and how honorable that work is. How noble it is to excoriate yourself to write and think about trauma and how it lives and thrives in us. What made you want to transition from making art for the market into art that is more accessible, like books? I don’t know if that’s correct… but what was the catalyst for that transition?  

Well, first I want to acknowledge that we – as in me and you, and our peers, our communities – and I’d say a lot of people around the world, are experiencing a pretty significant collective consciousness towards healing intergenerational trauma like never before. It’s a decolonial force. I see it, I feel it. I think the revolutions we are witnessing around the world are drawing from that energy. I think that is partly due to the stars and the planets, as we are moving into a planetary dynastic shift, and also something algorithmic, in both an ultra connected tech sense and in a spiritual sense. 

I also want to mention that I never saw myself as making art for the market. The capitalistic aspect of being an artist was never appealing to me, in fact, I was always really critical and aware of the ills of the art industry. I’ve carved out my own space as a fiercely independent artist since the very beginning of my journey. I also found a really beautiful community along the way – other artists who were engaged in the same independent practice, often working along the lines  of care and struggle. Moving into writing was very… interesting. Although I was drawing from the same creative space, and had been writing for self-expression since I was a preteen, I had never identified as a writer. Coming into that space was not easy, but because my work has always been so transmedia, writing just felt like another way to communicate intention, knowledge, and critical thought. It’s another conduit for imagination. I’ve always been obsessed with books. Books as an object, and a medium for knowledge. They are accessible, and the written word is one of the oldest media in the world. Books become legacy, they are for the future, as much as they are about our past and present. 

I totally feel that presence and commitment in your work. I’m a Capricorn stellium, lol. My Saturn is in Capricorn, it’s annoying. So I feel like I really struggle between wanting to be identified with traditional forms of power while simultaneously wanting to critique them. That’s why I wondered if there was a hurdle in coming from one world to another, but you’re right — it’s sort of almost like you adapted into another medium, and it’s breathtaking. One thing that I felt immediately when reading Take Care Of Your Self is that I rarely felt seen in such specific ways… and I mean mainly in Muslim ways, I guess? There was such a relief to read lines of the Qu’ran, or an explanation of nafs. I see so much of your own consideration of Islam in my own life, and I wonder how that plays into your work and into your own conception of self care?

Thank you Fariha, for engaging with my work as you have. It means so much.

A little note about industry… in the beginning of my “career”, I was trying to get “accepted” by the art industry, hoping for opportunities that simply didn’t exist for a young independent Iraqi female artist. At a certain point, I realized I need to stop seeking out validation from an industry that so vividly suffered from a lack of care. Our creative industries, as they currently exist, can be so hostile, so exclusionary, and so damn colonial. They don’t reflect my community, my beautiful, rich, diverse community. That’s why I started curating my own shows, creating our own opportunities, outside of the so-called industry. The way I saw it was, if they won’t give us space or the validation to craft our own narratives, then it’s up to us to create those spaces, and if we go at it for long enough, they start watching. By then, we won’t need their validation anymore.

I felt the same way reading Like a Bird… definitely, this feeling of being seen, and narratives that I can relate to having the full space to breathe, is so rare. It’s not marginal anymore. It’s centered. And that’s the way our experiences should always be. I even stopped using the word “marginalized” or “colonized” because I feel so disconnected from the idea that we have to be labelled as secondary, inferior or compared to whiteness. By we, I mean the deeply rooted people. I think that’s the root of being empowered… not trying to share just the little bits and pieces of what makes us ancient and wise, but all of us, all of our ancestral glory.

While writing Take Care of Your Self, my friend and fellow artist/writer Suhad Khatib reminded me that my experience was worth writing about. She encouraged this idea of the book becoming an accumulation of knowledge that I had been gathering over the years. Actually, even before I was born. I chose to write about the wisdom of my ancestors, my spiritual heritage, my culture. Stories about the matriarchs in my family, and of Iraq are a well of knowledge that I wanted to share. As for the role of Islam in my life, I’d say it always reminds me to be intentional, whether its in my daily life or in my creative practice. I’m so grateful that it came through.  

Thank you so much for saying that babe. Yes! I want to talk to you about Like A Bird! I can say that it’s such a lonely experience to put out this kind of level of work for me. I felt so many things as the book was coming out… and despite genuine (positive) surprises so far, I’m still processing so much grief. So much isolation. 

I want to bring this back to what you said about ancestral glory. When you access that kind of deep place it becomes a very arduous process on the soul. I feel like that’s something I try to contend with. It’s a dark thing having to retrieve a lot of my familial secrets which are all about power and sexual abuse. So much sexual abuse. There’s been such a shift I feel like in the Muslim World about the concept of abuse, and I feel like there is such a community reckoning happening when it comes to that, as well as anti-blackness. But that work is deep work, and not everybody has the capacity for it all the time. Yet, for us, we have to keep going. I don’t personally feel like I have a choice. It would actually hurt too much if I couldn’t let these things out. I really think I’d kill myself if I couldn’t. It’s dark, but true. Recently I was praying and I started to thank God for giving me writing, for showing me how to use this tool so early on. I’m trying to look at my own despair less, and maybe reorient it to see how I feel about it upside down… what if I could feel gratitude all the time for being this vessel? Rather than being upset by the burden of it?

I want to ask you who you wrote Shams for, and what did it mean to put it out into the world?

Thank you for sharing that vulnerability with me. Inshallah writing will always be a tool for you to dig out of the darkness into a space where you feel held. I hear you.

I think that you and I are the only people I know that put out two pretty significant bodies of work in one year, and during a pandemic, no less. The isolation is real. I was supposed to go to Palestine for the Arabic book launch of Shams the week after the global lockdown. I was really nervous about putting Shams out into the world, and having to travel for the book launches. In a way, I’m kind of relieved that I can do all that public work in the privacy of my home. 

My creative space is full of light and shadows. Reading Like a Bird, I kept thinking about how much work you have done. Not just work as a writer and creative thinker, but as a spiritual being, as a descendent of your lineage, as a survivor of trauma. It made me think of all the young people who would read your book and how it will transform in their own hands, and how these printed words become weapons, tools, wisdom for their own path. I hope that will make it feel less isolating, because books truly have this incredible transcendental power. You may never know the people who have been impacted the most by the work, but it’s enough to have put it out into the world. 

I feel exactly the same way about Shams. I wrote and illustrated Shams for the youth. For the next generation. I wanted her story to become a tool for others who need to know, innately and intuitively, that healing and survival is within us. That dark space is not always our enemy – as you and I know, we can draw much creative energy from it – but the trick is not to let it retraumatize us, or traumatize others. There is this idea of trauma sometimes leading to a point of transformation, where we literally evolve, as beings, spiritually. I think I’ll never be free of the mental or physical anguish that I experience when I’m visited by my shadow self, but if I can keep my soul, or spirit, in the presence of God — light —- and practice gratitude, even when things are absolutely terrifying, then I’ll be OK. 

Shit, that was really deep. Too deep? Haha… that’s all my pisces moon for you, and my twelfth house cluster!!!!

Hahaha, babe you know I love this shit. I’m a Cancer Moon and Cancer Stellium. My Jupiter in Cancer is in the 12th house and Venus Aquarius is in the 8th house… so I’m just so happy we can go here with each other. I absolutely feel you. 

I think as you were explaining the concept of shadow self something clicked… it was all in the phrasing “I’m visited by my shadow self…” that’s so uff, it’s so real. And it also made me realize how much autonomy we really have over ourselves but how difficult it is to maintain that level of integrity with yourself at all times. I’ve been feeling that a lot. Loss of friendships when you’re living your truth and putting up boundaries is something I’ve been dealing with a lot, and it’s a painful examination to accept that standing in your truth comes with casualties. Not everybody wants to see things objectively. Ironically, for as a society that prioritizes “science” and “fact” so much I wonder why we’re ruled by such pettiness and misplaced emotionality as a species. I’m also a North Node Aquarius in the 8th House LOL. 

Ok, I don’t want to keep taking up your time, this conversation has been so healing for me actually. One last question I wanted to ask, however, is what are the active ways you take care of yourself everyday? 

I’m loving this conversation. And I’ve moved back inside and I’m being able to do this while my kids are playing and it feels just right. 

I’ve always been a private person, because my partner is such a public figure. I keep my circle really really tight, and since the pandemic, it’s gotten even smaller. I’m critically aware of how much and what information we consume and share on a daily basis can impact our mental health, especially on social media. I’m really close to my family, and my world revolves around my children, who are both homeschooled and at home with us. I never sent my children to daycare, either, as a personal choice because I gratefully had the choice, so my pandemic situation hasn’t been extraordinarily different than before 2020. I do my creative work at night after they sleep. I’m very much in my own little bubble, but with Shams and Take Care of Your Self I feel like I now have antennas reaching out into spaces I’ve never visited or reached before. All this to say, the active way I take care of myself every day is by protecting this sacred space of self, home, family and motherhood, and by practicing gratitude every single day, even on the hard days. More than anything, I’m still constantly learning my own boundaries again and again. One thing I’ve done for myself recently was downgrading from an iphone to an old school nokia flip phone. That has been so liberating, and has given me back a sense of agency I was extremely worried I was going to lose completely as the world becomes more connected, and more dependent on algorithms and surveillance. I want my kids to see that we don’t need to have that constant connection to exist in our daily lives.

I don’t know what else to say I think 🙂 Not sure that’s a very strong ending from me…. 

I actually love this ending, because it’s just refreshing to talk about boundaries, and the need for privacy… which I deeply relate to. I don’t really like my life as a “public figure” and don’t gain much from that in a lot of ways, but there’s a certain accessibility to art making that necessitates that I keep going. Having said that, I also have a really hard time writing about trauma sometimes… and battle with people’s assumptions of me and all that wild shit where people start treating you as if you have any power… and you’re like mate I’m barely surviving, lol. I’m still broke. I’m still getting by… so this question of “caring for oneself” is just always on my mind. My therapist asked me how I care for myself last week. I realized I just work as a way to care for myself because it’s actually where I gain the most… which is kinda fucked up. I found that the pandemic made me a workaholic but I was always feeling like I was on fire and I had to transmute that into something. So it was a big surprise (but not really) to realize the reason I was exhausted is because I’m literally exhausting myself. It’s kind of ironic for a person who writes about self care and wellness so much that I’m actually constantly trying to be well, and learning how to care for myself… like I haven’t arrived anywhere.

But, maybe I’ll ask one last last question though, has there been a quote, or anything you consumed over the last few months, that pertains to self-care, that really struck you? 

OMG Fariha. I feel exactly the same. After submitting the final copyedits for Take Care of Your Self, I definitely went through a classic burn out. Well, it was more like burn out after burn out. Its so ironic, isn’t it? I need to get better at taking my own advice.

The other day, I was doing a pre-interview and the person described me as an “expert” on care and trauma… and I was like, NOOOOOOO!!! First, I still struggle with my own practice of self-care, being a mama to two small children. Time is a privilege I don’t have access to like that. Secondly, I am so uncomfortable with the idea of anyone being an expert, an authority figure or influencer on anything. Even the word “author” is connected to authority, authoritarian, words I really don’t connect to, in fact, I resist these ideals. For true care to exist in our society, we need to be able to practice free and critical thought, intentionality, bringing ourselves closer to our spirits and our roots to actively decolonize our care practices, our industries, and our archaic racist systems.

The interesting thing for me coming into this conversation on care as a new writer on the topic is that I don’t have that kind of huge social media following. The publishing world has shifted into publishing books mostly by people who already have thousands or millions of followers on social media. The pressure is huge. They’re trying to guarantee their sales, I get that. So, I’m an anomaly in that sense. Social media platforms, the algorithms, and the industries that rely on them… they don’t care about us as real human people. It can be so harmful to consume, and to be consumed. I even toy with the idea of completely defecting from social media, for my own self-care, which makes books, as objects, even more of an important medium.