A Salon of One’s Own
Two Decades of the South Asian Women's Creative Collective
Twenty years ago, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City was on St. Mark’s, in a space that was once, according to legend, Jimi Hendrix’s apartment. Somehow this was important, the idea that Jimi Hendrix’s misfit creative spirit might be lingering there for a new type of misfit, the Asian American writer.
On certain Fridays in the late years of the last century, you might see a group of South Asian women out front, trying to decide where to go after the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective monthly salon. The format of the salons was established early. Two artists, usually from different disciplines, presented work within a circle and then participated in a free-flowing discussion about the work, a discussion that could range anywhere from visceral reactions to post-colonial cultural theory.
In the late 90s, a generation of 1.5 and second-generation South Asian immigrants came into adulthood. I was among them, a product of a wave of immigration brought on by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. In our twenties we started to seek each other out and congregate. Inspired by South Asian communities in Canada and the UK that were older and more established than ours, we formed our own progressive groups hoping to create a new culture of inclusion, debate, and solidarity. New York in the 90s suddenly bloomed with these formations of South Asian activists and bohemians. Everyone had their primary groups, their most intimate and politically like-minded friends, but we all saw each other everywhere, at meetings, marches, late night hangouts and parties. There was no social media. Everything happened through word-of-mouth, through flyers and newsletters and banners and conversation.
The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective came out of this ferment. Jaishri Abichandani, a Queens College graduate whose family had emigrated from Mumbai to Corona, was hanging out with artists from the Black Photographers Circle when she realized she wanted a space for South Asian women to explore the centrality of art. At that time, her identity as a visual artist and photographer was slowly emerging. “My whole entry into photography was through this Black Photographers Circle. I saw what a strong community they had and how much they benefited from dialogue. There would be slide slams where in the middle of a party, people would be showing their work and talking about it, and it was incredibly inspiring and rich. That was the vision I had for our community.”
There was also the important influence of Desh Pardesh, an arts festival in Toronto that centered the voices of LGBT South Asians. DJ Rekha Malhotra, who has had a long career of bringing a bhangra club scene to the diaspora, says Desh was a precursor to the art and activism that happened in New York. “I don’t think anything like that has existed since, not even in New York. I think it was a spark. We saw a convergence of art, activism, and community there, and for me the queerness of it was important. I didn’t realize at the time how important it was, but it ended up being very important.”
“Either you don’t exist or you do for the purpose of telling a very specific narrative because whoever is in power has decided that you are the token person who can tell that story.”
Once the monthly salons started, word spread through the community. Writer Bushra Rehman said she attended her first SAWCC meeting after going to Sakhi for South Asian Women to find a pro bono lawyer for a woman who needed a divorce. “It was just one of those karmic coincidences. I went and my whole life changed at that moment.” My own entry into SAWCC was through a group of activists doing solidarity work around police brutality. I was a public school teacher in Manhattan and going to meetings in the evenings. What no one knew at the time is that I had secret aspirations to be a writer. Though I spent my free time writing and longed for more solitude, what I actively sought was more community, this time with South Asian women artists. I went to the monthly salons and soon joined the SAWCC board as the collective grew from a group of women Jaishri had rallied together to an organization that gave South Asian women a space and forum to be artists. The first time I called myself a writer in public was at a SAWCC salon.
Over the last 20 years, many of the artists who participated in the SAWCC salons have become established in their fields and are continually doing thought-provoking work. From the first generation of SAWCC women, painter Chitra Ganesh’s bold, striking canvasses confront the viewer with a rebel, punk sensibility. DJ Rekha Malhotra has become a cultural icon for many South Asian Americans. Jaishri Abichandani moved from photography into sculpture with her powerful anti-patriarchal figures. Swati Khurana went on to study with Colum McCann and Claire Messud in the Hunter College MFA program and is now a Center for Fiction fellow. Bushra Rehman is working on a young adult novel for Tor/MacMillan after her debut novel, Corona, received a groundswell of praise. I first heard of Mira Jacob, the critically acclaimed author of Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing, about 16 years ago when she read an essay at a SAWCC salon, and I still remember particular performances, readings, photographs, paintings, videos and films presented by artists such as Sharbari Ahmed, Fariba Alam, Geeta Citygirl, Tamina Davar, Yalini Dream, Safiya Fatimi, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem, Purvi Shah, Shazia Sikander, and Saba Waheed.
In the years since SAWCC began, the world changed in ways we didn’t anticipate. After 9/11, South Asian immigrant communities, particularly Muslim and Sikh communities, began to receive unprecedented amounts of scrutiny and racial attack. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, US drone strikes in Pakistan, and increasingly polarizing religious fundamentalism all over South Asia has created conditions that have deviated so far from the future we envisioned as young artists and activists in the late 1990s, it’s hard to look back on that time without a feeling of loss. “I felt this excitement around the convergence of worlds,” says Rekha. “I had a community of artists and activists and academics, that translated into a lot of thinking people. I was 26 when I started [Basement Bhangra] in ‘97, so the work up to that was finding my tribe. I don’t know if in the moment, I could have seen what would become of it. We were just working from passion.”
With the election of Donald Trump and the xenophobic hatred his campaign stirred up, South Asians and particularly South Asian Muslims are more vulnerable than ever to waves of scapegoating and attack. Within the South Asian population, a single individual can feel targeted in multiple ways, for being an immigrant, being Muslim, being undocumented, being gay, being a woman or being transgender, and there is an overwhelming feeling that what Trump campaigned on was the silence and suppression of these various identities and communities. South Asian progressives are again figuring out how to respond to the dangers of the current moment. Before 2001, we took for granted the idea of perpetual forward motion and progress. We couldn’t have imagined the challenges we would face in the next century.
There are a lot of complicated reasons for marginalized artists to be drawn to identity-based organizations like SAWCC. For writer Bushra Rehman, finding a few literary organizations for women of color helped her redefine her notions of what an American writer is. She had spent years in her early twenties traveling around the country with her poetry, “doing the beatnik thing decades too late, hanging out with guys who jumped freight trains. I guess I was thinking ‘If I’m an American writer, I need to hitchhike and do these things that American writers do.’” After she found SAWCC and began performing her poetry to audiences of predominantly South Asian women, she discovered an exhilaration that comes from a commonality of experiences. One of her early poems was about the Bollywood actress Zeenat Aman. “I could read that poem in other spaces and people could say, that’s interesting, that was an old Bollywood icon, but if an audience member had seen her, they would have a gut reaction or even some kind of memory release or flashback or sigh of relief of recognition, and that type of audience response meant so much to me. It was a collective memory experience.”
For many of us, the fact that South Asian writers could produce work for a more particular audience, that spoke to a certain set of experiences and allowed us to see ourselves in the art—that in a sense freed us from the loaded expectation of universality—was a radical and liberating idea. But there is also an irony that in that identity-based space, we could finally be something besides our most visible identity and allow other identities, in this case, our identities as artists, to take primacy. To go into a space and exist as something other than the only Muslim or person of color or woman in the room can be exhaustingly rare.
Chaya Babu, a journalist and former Buzzfeed Emerging Writers Fellow, has consistently found that in more mainstream spaces, “you’re one or the other. Either you don’t exist or you do for the purpose of telling a very specific narrative because whoever is in power has decided that you are the token person who can tell that story. It’s always a reductionist version of a certain identity or a narrative about a place. To be around other South Asian women in a space like SAWCC, where they encourage a particularly a feminist art practice, it’s grounding.”
As writer Kavita Das explains, “For young and emerging writers of color, there are so many ways in which the real world and literary world and publishing sector do not seem to value your stories, your voice, your perspective, or if they do, they often want to exoticize them, while also reserving the right to tell you that your work is not ‘accessible enough.’ These experiences are destabilizing and demoralizing. To be able to walk into a room where your South Asian female identity is accepted at face value, as a starting point for a discussion about craft rather than a dissection of culture, is incredibly empowering.” Kavita joined a writing group through SAWCC in 2005 called Brown-Eyed Girls, led by writers Amna Ahmad and Beena Ahmad. “It was a lifeline to me at a critical moment when I otherwise might have stepped away from writing because I lacked a writing community I identified with.”
Often, critiques in mixed workshops are based on stereotypes or a dominant narrative of South Asians. “Even recently,” says Amna Ahmad, “someone I know got a critique about whether her story was authentic enough because not all of the characters were wearing saris. This is the kind of pigeonholing that Brown-Eyed Girls was a haven from.” She started Brown-Eyed Girls as a “collective of South Asian women writers who took each other seriously as writers and thinkers.”
Part of Jaishri’s initial vision for SAWCC was to develop a space within the community “where our voices could individuate and flourish. There are nine other women in the room who are using the sari as some sort of marker, and you’re forced to make your own use of the sari and go beyond it. Within the sameness you have to develop your individuality in a way that is completely different from your experience in an art school where just by being the only fucking Indian in the room, whatever you make is different. When you put yourself in a context with your peers, you’re forced to ask yourself what is I can say that goes beyond just this point of identity. It functions dually because it allows you to individuate but it also allows you to understand that your voice isn’t the sole voice. That it has an echo and a resonance and an audience.”
Last May, I participated in a SAWCC event called, We Have Arrived: From Bollywood to Badass, a “powerful convening where the pen is celebrated as a tool of radical activism and democracy-making.” Listening to my fellow panelists read from their works of witness and resistance was a profoundly emotional experience. Deepa Iyer read a tragic account from her book, We Too Sing America, of a 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Marina Budhos shared the voice of her young Muslim protagonist navigating post 9/11 surveillance in her YA novel Watched, and Yashica Dutt read a heartbreaking essay about a missed Facebook connection before the suicide of a Dalit activist in India. It was heartening to see SAWCC still doing the difficult work of serving artists at varying points in their career and providing forums for dialogue around their work. Throughout 2017, as SAWCC celebrates its 20th anniversary, there will be numerous opportunities for discussion about the role of artists in society, along with ongoing discussions on class, caste, religion, sexuality and gender within the South Asian community. Considering, for example, how much our understanding of gender has evolved in this century, embracing these changes will allow SAWCC to help a greater diversity of artists to develop and refine their practice.
All of this is important to creating a rich artistic culture, which can’t exist without the development of individual artists. Throughout the country, there are organizations doing the work of supporting underrepresented voices, with some institutions and more established arts programs slowly offering more formal opportunities. If my own experience is anything to go by, the development of a single artist can be a decades-long process. A proliferation of community-based organizations is an absolute necessity if our overall goal is an artistic legacy that truly reflects the diversity of experiences in our country. Whether or not these voices make it into the broader culture is not entirely up to the individual, though, or the organizations that have supported them. That depends largely on the imaginations and commitment of the gatekeepers—the publishers, agents, curators, and institutions whose job it is to maintain and develop the arts. And none of these efforts exist outside the workings of our economic system, which makes it nearly impossible for artists to make a living or invest the resources necessary to develop a consistent practice.
However SAWCC decides to navigate the unknown challenges to come, it has survived as a valued space for twenty years, developing artists who are documenting and responding to the times in which we live. As important as that was in 1997, it is exponentially important now.
SAWCC’s 20th anniversary exhibit, Archival Alchemy, runs through May 10th at the Abrons Art Center.
Feature photo:Yoni ki Raat 2015, co-sponsored by SAWCC, by Iqra Shahbaz.