Friday, April 24, 2009
Artist Interview: Sabina England, Part One
Playwright Sabina England (née Sabina Sobia Iram Alam) was born in London to Indian parents. She studied at The London Film Academy and graduated from University of Missouri-Columbia with a B.A in Theatre-Playwriting, and she has had two plays produced in London. England has been featured in national publications such as Mosaics, The Guardian and BITCH and she posts short works on her popular blog THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD. In conversation England, who was diagnosed deaf as a baby, is funny, raw and expressive, much like her plays. I was having such a good time talking with her that I didn’t realize how long we’d talked, the transcript our conversation was 23 pages... Rather than edit it too heavily I decided to break the interview into two posts. Part one, in which we discuss being ugly, punk rock Muslims, Bollywood, the theater, and white people's fascination with her hair, is below.
Joe: I first learned about your work through an article on you that was posted on the Taqwacore site about two years ago. When I joined the community at Racialicious and you described yourself on the site as a Mohawk-having, deaf, Muslim, Indian playwright I thought: yeah that must be the same girl...
I think Taqwacores has helped open up a new world for Muslims to express themselves in a safe space and not have to worry about being ridiculed or mocked by other Muslims or any other groups.
Joe: You used to blog under the name Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Girl and more recently as Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist... each of these descriptions has a pretty extensive culture attached to it. What is the significance for you of using them all at once?
Sabina: Oh there's no significance behind that, but sometimes I just get bored and I like to change my avatar on the Internet. I liked the name "Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl" because people think, "oh what is that? There can't be ugly Deaf Muslim punk gurls, can there be?" and it's fun to challenge people's stereotypes of Muslims, Deaf people and ugly girls.
I've now started calling myself a "Muslim anarchist" in terms of challenging the Quran and interpreting it in my own way with no rules, which I think is similar to anarchy.
Joe: Yeah, I get that.
When I was going to punk rock shows back in the day we had serious discussions about what Anarchy "meant" ... and what it meant to us. I think it has an obvious political meaning but it is a really great way to describe an attitude toward authority in a more general way too.
Am I getting that right? In terms of the way you are using it I mean.
Sabina: Yes, you got that right because I have absolutely no tolerance for religious figures that try to mix religion and politics together and then try to shove it down our throats. But it's also my hatred for authority in Muslim leaders in the community, like the "elders" that everyone are supposed to look up to. Why should I look up to them and why should I let them tell me how to live my life? I believe in making my own rules and I'll live my life and I'll interpret Islam my way.
Joe: I can see that philosophy in your work. The way you deal with sex for example.
Sabina: The funny thing about sex and Islam, many people, especially Westerners, are under the mistaken impression that somehow Muslims are prudes when it comes to sex and that maybe Islam looks down at sex, when they got that wrong.
The Quran and Hadith clearly state that sex is a beautiful, natural human need and that all human beings SHOULD satisfy it within "legal" bounds, of course.
Joe: Oh sure... I actually had a funny conversation recently where this guy had taken all of his Christian sexual hang-ups and projected them on to Islam...
Sabina: What did he say exactly?
Joe: Oh it was textbook... you know the drill: Blah blah women...blah blah the veil...blah blah men who are secretly gay and/or can't handle sexuality in any sense...
Sabina: There's always ignorant people who are ignorant about other groups. Sadly, Muslims can be ignorant about other groups. Even Indian Muslims and Pakistanis can be ignorant against Hindus and Sikhs, which I just find absolutely sad.
Joe: Well in the west I think that various immigrant groups get pitted against each other in a contest to see who can be the most "American"... And then sometimes the inverse of that: who can be the most "authentic"...
Sabina: I was going to say the same thing about being "most authentic" as well.
Joe: It is really weird when you see both of those things happening at once. I think young women get caught in that a lot. As in: Fit in, be American...but DON'T BE A WHORE!
Sabina: Yes, it is mind-boggling. I'm not sure if many immigrants can realize that you can be "modern," American and still be true to your heritage, but there's always confusion between being modern, being Americanized, and being fetishized, if that makes sense.
Joe: It does to me. I think this is something that almost all immigrants deal with but it is a particular problem for Arabs, South Asians and Muslims.
Sabina: Even I am confused if I'm letting other people fetishize me as an Indian woman, but I don't think that happens.
Joe: Hm. What do you mean by letting people fetishize you?
Sabina: Well, I love Indian culture, Indian fashion, Indian food, Bollywood, and history of South Asia. I love to wear sari's sometimes and I like the old-fashioned 1960s Bollywood movie stars that don't exist anymore, in the similar sense that Americans love the old Hollywood style, but I worry about letting that go out of my control and being turned into some kind of a racial fetish for white guys, which I DON'T want to happen.
Joe: Ah, I see.
Sabina: I like to dress up and look like an old movie star, but at the same time, I feel disturbed, worrying that people would fetishize me into some sort of an Asian fantasy doll.
Old Bollywood star, I mean.
Joe: Well I guess that answers my questions about, why "ugly”?
Sabina: I think Ugly is a beautiful word. Nobody is really beautiful or ugly, and of course it doesn't need to be said, but beauty is REALLY in the eye of the beholder. I have met people who others found ugly, but I thought they were beautiful, and I have met people, who are supposedly good-looking, just shallow and unattractive.
Joe: Does calling yourself ugly make a space between you and the expectations/fantasies of white guys?
...Or anybody really?
Sabina: Nah, Ugly doesn't have anything to do with white guys.
It's about embracing the Ugliness of yourself; calling yourself ugly proudly, and throwing it back into people's faces. When people call me Ugly, I proudly say, YES! I AM UGLY and I don't care, what does it matter to you?
Why are people so obsessed with beauty? Who gives a shit? Because I sure as hell don't. That's the thing, though; I don't consider Ugly to be a bad thing.
I think being Ugly is unique.
Beauty is boring.
There is one particular quote that I love...
Sabina: I think it was Hedy Lamarr who said it, but I can't be sure.
She said something like "anyone can stand there and look beautiful and dumb." that struck a chord with me, because ANYONE can try to doll themselves up and look beautiful, but it doesn't change the fact that you're a bimbo or a moron, whereas "ugly" people have such a lively personality and are just more interesting.
The quote is more "Anyone can stand there and look beautiful and BE dumb," my bad.
Anytime someone cries about being ugly I'll say something like "yes so what if you're ugly? What's wrong with being ugly? At least you stand out in a room full of dumb, beautiful bimbos. Use that to your advantage."
Joe: I had a conversation with a black actress once years ago who said to me "As a black woman I feel like it is my responsibility to find myself beautiful."
Sabina: Oh that's interesting. I haven't thought about beauty in that way.
Joe: In other words: the world constantly tells me that I am ugly, so I must find myself beautiful.
Sabina: Very true.
Joe: I always remembered that because she used the word "responsibility”, which I would normally rebel against…
Sabina: Same here as well, yet at the same time I can sympathize with her…
Joe: Yeah, for some reason it made such sense when she put it that way. I think it struck me because she said it so simply. It wasn't about vanity. Or self-hatred. Its almost as if you are saying the same thing by calling yourself ugly.
Sabina: Yes, that's kind of similar with being "ugly," it's empowering sort of like how queer people proudly call themselves faggot or fat women proudly calling themselves Fat.
Joe: Yeah, I was thinking that as well.
Sabina: Because it is beautiful.
Joe: Right right.
Sabina: There is an Islamic proverb…
Sabina: "Allah is Beautiful and loves beautiful things." And Allah loves Ugly things, too.
Joe: Oh, I really like that a lot.
Sabina: Yes, because surely Allah loves people who aren't blonde, thin and have big boobs, too, right?
Joe: And the thin, big-boobed blondes pretty much nominated themselves as "beautiful” too, right? I mean, I didn't vote for that.
Sabina: Yeah, in this American society being white and being blonde automatically makes you beautiful, even though I've met many blondes who were just hideous, ugly and nasty looking. No offense to any good-looking blondes out there, of course.
Joe: Ha ha... I am not worried about offending the hot blondes, in my experience they can take care of themselves...
Sabina: I think that the white people I find most attractive are redheads and brunettes with really dark hair anyway.
Joe: Ah, me too.
So let me ask how this philosophy of yours extends to your deafness, which is an important enough aspect of your identity to include in your avatar.
Sabina: Of course.
Joe: I have known some folks in the deaf community and it can be pretty insular.
Sabina: What does insular mean?
Joe: Like insulated. Exclusive. Almost to the point where it reminds me of the immigrant family dynamics we were discussing.
Sabina: Ohhh of course alright gotcha. Indeed it does.
Joe: I think a lot of hearing people don't realize there is such a thing as deaf culture. (Maybe hearing people in the theater are a little more aware because there is such a vibrant deaf theater tradition...) But anyway, how does that play out for you?
You've talked about wanting to define your Islamic identity for yourself... does this extend to your deaf identity too?
When I was a child, I was sent to Deaf schools for oral speech training and reading lips… And because I was the only Deaf child in the ENTIRE family clan. I don't even have any relatives with disabilities, NONE, I was the only "disabled" person in the WHOLE family, that includes cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc, all of in India and England, so it made me feel alienated and lonely at home. Whereas I had friends at deaf school who understood me… but mostly everyone at the deaf school were white. And even THEY would ask me questions about being Indian or Islam, so that made me feel alienated from Deaf white kids, while at the same time, I felt alienated from Desi people and from Muslims at the mosque.
Joe: So you were a perpetual outsider?
Sabina: Oh yes, big time. I was an angry Deaf child. I didn't belong anywhere. I felt like a freak, like something was wrong with me.
Joe: Deaf at home, Indian/Muslim at school?
Sabina: Deaf at home and EVERYWHERE.
Joe: Of course, yes.
Sabina: I was ashamed of being Deaf and I felt ashamed for being Indian and Muslim.
Because I had a difficult time communicating with hearing people, it made me feel inferior and inadequate, and then of course, when white people (deaf or hearing) would ask me patronizing questions about my background, it made me so GODDAMNED angry, yet Muslims at the mosque also thought I was retarded, but I'm not retarded.
Joe: Of course not.
So I am curious about how moving between cultures and languages influenced you to become a playwright.
Sabina: Well, as a child and teenager, I was a loner. I did have a few friends. But I didn't have a best friend. Everyone else loved music. I preferred films. I loved watching movies, old classic films. And when I "graduated" from a Deaf school and the authorities told me I was ready for hearing school, I was terrified.
Joe: I can't imagine what a culture shock that must have been.
Sabina: Yes, being put in a hearing school was one of the worst times in my life. There were days when I wanted to go back to the Deaf school and just be with my Deaf friends.
So they put me in a hearing public school and I was required to take a Drama class and the Drama teacher was just so nice and the class helped me open up socially, when I had to go onstage and say some lines.
Also, the Drama teacher decided to do The Miracle Worker (a play about Helen Keller) and she asked me to try out, and I got the leading role, and ever since then I was hooked.
Joe: What grade was this? High school?
Sabina: 7th grade. That was when they told me I was ready and I was just so scared, lonely and confused. Everyone in 7th grade were hearing, white, WASP-y and mostly blonde.
I made 2 new hearing friends in 7th grade; both of them weren't typically "pretty" girls. The two of them were overweight and everyone always taunted them and mocked them for being fat, but they were nice and I valued their friendship.
Joe: Yeah the outsiders find each other, if they are lucky.
Sabina: Yes, I was lucky. I would probably have gone down deep if I didn't find those two girls in 7th grade.
Joe: When did you become punk? Because for me punk was such a refuge.
Sabina: it was a refuge, (for me) too.
Joe: That whole scene seemed like the Bizarro universe, where being a freak was normal and even good.
Sabina: For angry, alienated outcasts who didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere… And what appealed to me about punk rock was that those punkers were saying LOUD and CLEAR, "yes I'm different, I'm angry, I’m an outcast and I DON'T CARE!" It greatly appealed to me because I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere with Muslims, Desi people, or Deaf people.
Joe: So you felt a sense of community as a punk?
Sabina: Yes and no.
Joe: How so?
Sabina: Sometimes I felt like I couldn't relate to white punks, as much as I tried, although they were really nice, warm and welcoming, not unlike white yuppies.
Well, it was their backgrounds: some of them came from working class white backgrounds and they talked about their problems like how they had a drunk father or their teenaged sister was pregnant. I didn't have problems like that.
My parents are normal, moderate Muslims who don't beat me and my father isn't a drunkard and I never had a teenaged pregnant sister.
So sometimes I didn't feel like I belonged in the punk scene 'cos some of them really had fucked up lives at home, but I wanted to be there with them because I didn't feel belonged ANYWHERE else.
Joe: Sure sure.
Sabina: There were also times when white punks would sing in angry songs, railing against the Church and against right wing Christian hypocrites. And again, I didn't face that in my life because well, I'm a Muslim and I had problems with mullahs who were hypocrites but I didn't have any problems with Christian authorities because I never had to face any in my life.
Sabina: Although I did sympathize with angry white punks who hated the Church ‘cos I knew where they were coming from.
But if I'd rail against Islam, they wouldn't know what I was talking about because they're not Muslim and they don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, lol.
So when did you start writing for the theatre?
Sabina: I started writing plays when I was 12. When I was pushed into drama in 7th grade and I began reading plays and I thought, "Wow I didn't know you could write a play like this" so I began writing short plays and stories and stupid poems.
Joe: Talk a bit about your work... how did it evolve?
Sabina: I used to write hateful short stories about Indians who I mocked.
Looking back at it now, I can't believe how much I used to hate myself as an Indian.
Sabina: I would write these awful short stories about how Indians were filthy cow worshippers, while I created white characters who were sympathetic and likeable.
I should also mention that when I was a child, I used to wish everyday that Allah would make me white.
Joe: Ah... well that seems like a story you hear over and over.
Sabina: Of course.
Joe: I used to wish I was darker. Seriously. Darker skinned people hate it when I say that but its true.
I hated being fair.
Sabina: Haha, NOW I wish I were darker skinned.
I always complain to my Desi friends that I am too pale skinned and that I wish I were darker skinned like my South Indian friends.
Whenever I visit India everyone tells me I don't look Indian, which pisses me off because I AM Indian and I WANT to look Indian, Goddamnit. Everyone always mistakes me for something I'm not.
Joe: Yeah, well if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I didn't look like an Arab... I look Lebanese folks... this is what that looks like.
Sabina: Mexicans and Hispanics think I am one of them. Black folks actually think I am half black, half white because of my style. Indians look at me, and they wonder if I could be Indian, but naahhhh I CAN'T be Indian because of my style.
I don’t think I've ever been mistaken as an Arab, but I wore hijab for 2 years, so white folks always asked me if I was from I-ran.
Sabina: When I was a small child I used to have long black hair. People would tease me and call me "Princess Jasmine" from Aladdin, even though she was Middle Eastern and I’m not.
It pissed me off.
Then when I cut my hair off, everyone was like "WHERE DID UR BEAUTIFUL LONG HAIR GO? U DONT LOOK INDIAN ANYMORE" and this was when I was 10 or 11.
White people were upset that I didn't have long Indian hair anymore, go figure.
Now they're all obsessed with putting Indian hair extensions into their hair, it's just so laughable.
I once heard a story from a Native American woman. A full-blooded Native woman, who has long beautiful black hair, just like I did as a child. She complained that white women would go up to her and touch her hair without her permission and then proceed to tell her that she should cut it off for charity, at which she would coldly reply, "no I won't and this is my hair, don’t touch it" and white people would get offended.
Joe: I was at a workshop once with Guillermo Gomez Pena... you know him?
Sabina: No, who's that?
Joe: Amazing theater/performance artist whose company La Pocha Nostra does really interesting work on "border identities."
I'll send you a link.
Sabina: Oh that sounds interesting.
Joe: Anyway GGP was running this exercise and I got there late so I had to sit and watch. Everyone is rolling around on the ground and this performance artist I know--a black woman--was paired up with this young white girl.
Sabina: Uh oh.
Joe: And out of nowhere in their improv the girl just grabbed a hold of her hair and started smooshing it aaaall around.
And I watched all these emotions fly across the woman's face,
And finally she just let her do it because making an issue of it would have stopped the exercise.
Joe: I could see the whole thing because I was sitting on the side. And I knew the woman so of course I thought it was hilarious because I could practically hear her thinking "am I gonna have to smack this girl?" And the girl had no idea. She was having a great old time.
Sabina: Did she talk to the white girl about it after it was over?
Joe: Nope. She didn't say anything.
Sabina: When I had a Mohawk, strangers would randomly pull my hair and touch the spikes, it made me so unbelievably angry. It’s amazing how people think they have the fuckin’ right to violate someone else's space just because they can't contain their own fuckin’ curiosity!
Joe: Yeah. It’s really weird. It’s the rudest thing I can think of that is completely socially acceptable.
Sabina: Although to be fair, some strangers did ask me politely if they could touch my Mohawk and I would answer, NO, I'm not a zoo animal so fuck off.