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Coming-of-Age through Poetry and Art: An Interview with Hana Shafi

Hana Shafi is a writer and artist who illustrates under the name Frizz Kid. Both her visual art and writing frequently explore themes such as feminism, body politics, racism, and pop culture with an affinity to horror. A graduate of Ryerson University’s Journalism Program, she has published articles in publications such as The Walrus, Hazlitt, This Magazine, Torontoist, Huffington Post, and has been featured on Buzzfeed India, Buzzfeed Canada, CBC, Flare Magazine, Mashable, and Shameless. Known on Instagram for her weekly affirmation series, she is also the recipient of the Women Who Inspire Award, from the Canadian Council for Muslim Women. Born in Dubai, Shafi’s family immigrated to Mississauga, Ontario in 1996, and she currently lives and works in Toronto. Her first book It Begins With The Body, was recently chosen by CBC books as one of the best poetry books of 2018.

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I am interested in what came to you first. Was poetry your way into art, or did art come first?

I was actually writing poetry for a lot longer than I was doing visual art. I got known for the visual art first, so I think a lot of people think that’s what I started with, but it’s actually the other way around. I was writing poetry, and doing poetry slams since fifth grade. I was really bad back then!

I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s the learning process!

I wrote shit poetry back in the day! [Laughs] I didn’t get good at it probably until after university. The whole thing with It Begins With the Body was that I wanted to combine the poetry and the art – they are both my big passions… to have a way to combine them was a big deal for me. What I wanted was to have a complete hybrid book, and have full page illustrations that were just as much as part of the narrative as the writing is. I wanted the drawings to be their own stand-alone pieces because they are telling their own story.

And they seem to be, especially the poem, “Avocado Toast”. You have an illustration right after which is an avocado with a line that states “This triggers my IBS but I like it anyway,” which is a whole other story than the poem.

Yes [laughs], that was definitely my goal with it. I am glad that it came through!

I want to understand a little about your artistic process. How do you conceptualize an idea in your head – is it the writing or the art that comes first, or both?

It’s a little bit of both. There never really is a standard formula in terms of how a concept would come to my head. It depends on the medium, content, or what the inspiration is. Sometimes I am inspired by seeing something on the street, and obviously that’s a very visual form of inspiration. And when I am thinking a lot more of the experiences that I have had in my life, or being a little more introspective, that will come in the form of writing. I have never been able to find a constant way of doing it.

That’s probably a good thing.

Yeah! It keeps things different, right? It kind of breaks up the monotony of creating content, because it’s really easy for people to start imitating themselves in the work that they do… It kind of prevents that from happening.

Tell me a bit about your online moniker, Frizz Kid. What’s the story behind it?

When I started my visual art, I wanted it to be separate from my writing. At the time, I wasn’t doing a ton of creative writing per se… I was in the journalism program at Ryerson, so when I started doing art, I wanted to have this artistic identity that was away from – what I felt were – the pressures of being in [the journalism] industry. Frizz Kid was kind of born out of wanting to keep this kind of playful, fun identity, from wanting to separate my boring real life self from my art, kind of wanting to have my art be this fun, cool thing? [Laughs] And of course, my name “Frizz Kid” was because of my really frizzy hair. It was connected to a kind of reclamation [of myself] in that sense.

Let’s talk about the book. How was your process of editing with Vivek Shraya? Is there a moment that stands out in your memory?

It was a huge deal when I started, because Vivek is like [lowers voice] – she is a big deal [laughs]… When I first kind of met with her… I was so intimidated [laughs]. I felt so embarrassed to show her my work! But she was a very thoughtful and helpful editor. She really helped me work on my poetry voice, because I was bringing in too much of my journalistic voice. She helped me become more deliberate with how I choose my words. I think some of the special moments were when she would be editing my work – we had a shared Google doc –, and occasionally she would comment on a passage being like “Yes! Love this!” I would feel so happy whenever that happened because it was such a big deal! Also, having phone calls with her when I was anxious about how the book was going to turn out, and having her reassure me… That meant a lot to me.

I was really intrigued by the structure of your book which is divided into “chapters.” What was the idea behind the structuring of the collection?

The way that the book goes, is that it is very much a coming-of-age story. I was like, okay, it begins with the body, so that’s the first chapter as everything starts with the body. And, the last chapter is all about healing and reconciliation. The parts in the middle, they very much lead up to [the healing and reconciliation]. A lot of those experiences in the third chapter – about anxiety – were in high school, and [the rest] I got, were in and out of university. So, there is very much a timeline that’s happening in the book. Not everything is with that linear timeline however [in chapters five and six]. Those experiences vary. Some are from my childhood, but asking those questions about my identity and faith were questions I started asking myself in my adulthood by reflecting on childhood experiences. So, there is very much a growth of the character throughout the book.

This brings me to your illustrations. Throughout the book, the depictions are grotesque, almost Bakhtinian in tone. However, in the last image, there is joy in here. It almost mellows down the entire book.

I wanted everything else to be uncomfortable, because coming-of-age is uncomfortable. The whole point of the book was to bring a narrative that was difficult, and weird, and awkward, and uncomfortable, rather than having a coming-of-age [story] that was “Oh, this is such a magical experience.” For the most part, it is not a magical experience. For most people, coming-of-age is very bumpy. Adolescence is very bumpy and weird! Puberty is weird and gross. And so, I wanted to make certain images that would make people uncomfortable to look at, because I think that when you present people with really honest depictions of reality – that are not romanticised –, that’s what it is! But in the end, having that sort of joyous feeling image, was supposed to be a way to bring it full circle. Yeah, [the book] begins with a very difficult, hard-to-manage body, and it ends with a very peaceful acceptance of it. I mean, when you look at the last image, it’s a self-portrait… I drew the scars and acne all over my back, and me wearing that dinky little tank top with the tag sticking out. So, there are still these imperfections… it is very much looking in the mirror and [thinking that], “Oh, I survived this, and now I can breathe.”

And those flaws don’t seem larger than life anymore. They seem to be a part of the person.

Yes, because that’s what flaws are. They are a part of the person. And in the other images, they are very exaggerated, high contrast, intense line work… it is so-in-your-face, which is often how we see our flaws growing up.

“Aati Kya Khandala?” still from Ghulam (1998). Image source: YouTube.

I was interested to see the depiction of Bollywood on your Instagram, and even in your poetry. You refer to Devdas (2002) a lot, and there is that Halloween photo where you and your friend dress up as Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee from the iconic song “Aati Kya Khandala?” What is your relationship with Bollywood?

I have always loved Bollywood! I grew up watching a lot of Bollywood. – So, now [the movies] are all in the main cinemas. But when I was a kid, that wasn’t [the case]. We would have to drive to this one particular cinema, which I think was in Scarborough, and my parents would drive us all the way there to watch a Bollywood movie. And as a child, I hated it because it would start late at night and it would end at 2 am. All the Bollywood movies were four hours long, plus there was an intermission –

They weren’t four hours long! Three at most!

In my childhood sense, I felt like it was taking six days to watch! And then, there would be an intermission, right? And everyone would go out to this dinky, badly lit court in this obscure mall, and it would have just one guy selling samosas in that entire food court. It was such a bizarre experience. I remember when Bollywood movies started coming to mainstream cinemas, I remember thinking, ‘thank god, I don’t want to go to that [obscure mall]’…

But I also have this complicated relationship with [Bollywood], in that I lost my mother tongue growing up. In the videos of me as a toddler, I am speaking in Hindi. And when we moved here [to Canada from Dubai], my parents stopped speaking to me in Hindi – they were concerned, they wanted me to fit in… wanted me to lose my accent, focus on English, because they saw those as barriers on themselves and they didn’t want their children to have the same barriers. So, I lost my mother tongue, and I became reliant on subtitles. Like, I can understand some Hindi, but I am not great at it. I cannot watch a whole movie [without subtitles]. So, that always felt really complicated for me, and I was always really embarrassed about it, because a lot of my other desi friends could understand [the language], and I couldn’t.

My family speaks a lot of languages, because we are Indo-Iranian… we also speak a dialect of Farsi, it’s not pure Farsi. – But Bollywood was a big part of my childhood, like I remember learning all the dances… Bollywood is very glitzy and glamour-y, and tacky for most of the 90s and 2000s. Now, Bollywood is a lot more sophisticated, which is a bummer, because I miss [the movies of 90s and 2000s]… The last movie I saw was Bajirao Mastani (2015), and it was a massive budget, beautiful film – Sometimes, I miss the really stupid movies. When I was a kid, I loved Duplicate (1998)… and I rewatch Main Hoon Na (2004) all the time. It’s my happy movie. I rewatch the Dhoom movies (2004, 2006, 2013) a lot too [laughs].

Let’s talk about the medium of art that you use. What drew you to digital illustration?

In my book, or in general?

In general.

The art in the book is not digital at all, actually. It’s all hand drawn on paper… There is a lot of possibilities with digital illustration. It’s also a lot easier in terms of colour, even in terms of accessibility… and trial and error is a lot easier to do digital, to get rid of things you don’t like. There is accessibility for artists who are just learning to do things digitally. For those hyper detailed line work [like in my book], I like doing it on paper. There is a feel to [hand drawing] that is a little bit sloppy which I like, but when I want to do something a little more clean-cut, a little bit more vibrant, I will do it digitally.

So, was it your decision to hand draw for the book, or the publisher’s decision?

No, it was my decision, because the initial drawings I pitched to my publisher, I showed them my hand drawings in a notebook.

Who are your inspirations? Who do you read?

Obviously I was reading a lot of Vivek Shraya before I met her. While growing up, I was reading a lot of comics… Right now, I have been reading a lot of poetry. One of my favourite books of 2018 was Sedley by Chelsea Coupal. She’s a Canadian poet who wrote these beautiful nostalgic poems about growing up in the prairies, in this tiny town called Sedley. I also read Artificial Cherry by Billeh Nickerson, which was so over-the-top, silly but still profound. I would say my biggest poetic inspiration before my book came out was Sex Magick by Ian Young. I found [Young’s] book just by chance in a used bookstore when I was in my first year of university, and it blew my mind, because it was me seeing contemporary poetry for the first time. In high school, you read a lot of Shakespeare’s sonnets and oldie stuff like that – when I read Sex Magick, it was so vulgar and so crude in parts, and yet really beautiful. It opened my eyes to ways in which poetry can be casual but also profound.

In an interview with One Million Wild Hearts, you mentioned Frida Kahlo and Maya Deren as artistic inspirations. In terms of contemporary artists, whose art do you follow?

One of my big influences is a big underground comic book artist, R[obert] Crumb. I mean, he is not really a good person, and I don’t agree with a lot of the content of his work.… But I was very drawn to his work throughout university. [The work] is very grotesque, hyper detailed, intense, and sometimes very uncomfortable to look at. In terms of recent artists – on Instagram – I was really drawn to Polly Nor’s [@pollynor] work… She has this demon character – she draws these devils that wear women suits… Other artists that I follow and love are @blackpowerbarbie, @sonialazo, @lubadalu, @bettyturbo, @heartovercrown, @hibakhanart, @sam_madhu, @heleenatattoos, [and] @not__sari.

What is “queer” to you?

“Queer” to me is… fluidity, resistance, chosen family, unconditional love for one’s self by not adhering to heteronormative or cis normative default.  

What I have seen in fiction or art, queerness seems to automatically translate into sexual attraction… and that’s not always true for what “queer” is.

I don’t really talk a lot about my personal sexual preferences–

And you shouldn’t have to.

– [nodding] and I shouldn’t have to. It’s private… Also, talking about it really explicitly jeopardizes my safety as a queer Muslim woman. A lot of white authors don’t realize how difficult it is for queer Muslims, or queer desis in general, to be super vocal. We are navigating shark infested waters in a lot of ways. So, when I depict my queerness, I depict it in terms of showing different bodies, showing resistance, showing self-love in the face of adversity, because to me that’s what my queerness has given me.

And your entire book is queer!

My parents have read the book, and they don’t know. I feel like queerness is a coded language that we have with each other. A straight person could read this [book] and have no idea of the intense queerness of it. And when other queer identified folks read it, they know automatically. I do like that about queerness, it’s a secret language. It’s a coded beacon searching out fellow queers in darkness [laughs].

One of your poems, “Vanilla,” talks about Canadian boys being a certain way, which to me read as being small town white cis-het boys in Canada. What does “Canadian” mean to you?

It’s a complicated identity, right? I am an immigrant here, a settler on occupied land where there is ongoing genocide and suppression of Indigenous peoples. I am thankful to be here, because I know that my life wouldn’t have been the same had my parents not moved… I don’t think I could have published the same book was I still in Dubai. And, I would have lived a completely different life there. I couldn’t get citizenship [in Dubai] – my dad’s Indian – so, I would have always been a second-class citizen. But being Canadian comes with its complications too. I mean, there are people who are never going to see me as fully Canadian because I am an immigrant, a brown person. When you are a woman of colour, your identity is disputed a lot… Canadian-ness is complicated because it’s a country of immigrants and settlers, all trying to find shared meaning in what it is to be Canadian, [even] though the actual culture of Canada is the Indigenous cultures. There is this weird type of nationalism  in settler colonial states because everyone is trying to find shared meaning in a place that is not really their ancestral home… Sometimes, I feel Canadian, and sometimes, I feel like I am an alien.

Final question: Are you working on something right now? What are your future projects?

I am slowly but surely working on another poetry book – a follow up –, but that’s a later project. The current project I am working on right now is compiling all of my affirmations [from Instagram] – or at least, the ones I like the most – into a book with accompanying essays… [The affirmations] is a really popular series, but a ton of people don’t know what has gone on behind [the scenes]. It has been going strong for almost three years. I have done over 160 affirmations, and I want to see some of that immortalized in a book.

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This interview was conducted in person on January 15th 2019 at Bloomer’s, Toronto. The interview has been edited for length. 

Photo of Hana Shafi by Jessica Laforet.

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