Books Interviews

London Shah feels compelled to tell stories: an interview with the author of Journey to the Heart of the Abyss

London Shah has been dreaming about a submerged world for years.

The British Muslim author, who is of Pashtun ethnicity, said in an email interview that she specifically dreamed of a submerged Britain. Not that she wants the current world to be flooded; just that it’s an image that has hovered near her for much of her life.

And now London’s sophomore novel, Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, the second in a duology about a 16-year-old submersible racer named Leyla who goes on an epic adventure to save her father and discover the secrets the government is hiding, is about to release. It’s set, fittingly, in an underwater version of Great Britain.

“The setting came first, long before any characters,” Shah said. “I cannot recall a time when I did not fantasize about our world carrying on beneath the surface of the seas. I imagined a submerged world as aesthetically close to our current one as possible, and nothing too hard sci-fi.”

Shah was mesmerized by the idea of a realistic underwater world, not one populated by mermaids but one where humans could watch present-day sea creatures — a huge whale, maybe an octopus — living their lives right outside our spheres of existence.

The first book in the duology, The Light at the Bottom of the World, was published in 2019 and the closing book publishes on Nov. 16, 2021. 

“Every feeling and thought I had ever held about what life might be like living deep underwater, I have explored in these books,” Shah said. “All the wonder and magic, all the constant, suffocating perils, and of course all the endless possibilities! I explore them all. I have lived with this fantasy forever, and I am excited beyond words to finally share it with everyone.”

Shah said that growing up she loved studying English, writing fiction for assignments and telling stories, but that she never considered that “author” could be a viable career option. 

“As a South Asian Muslim, back then I never believed writing was even an option for people like me,” Shah explained. “I have always loved creating with words but was never exposed to the idea of doing anything with that passion. Nobody I knew was a writer, and I knew exactly nothing about the publishing industry.”

Despite this, Shah said she is filled with ideas, which compel her to write. She has a vivid imagination and has been envisioning different worlds and stories since at least kindergarten. As much as creating new worlds to play in can be difficult, Shah said she loves doing it.

Worldbuilding is intoxicating,” she said. “It is a lot of hard work, but watching your very own creation come to life—this whole other reality!—makes all the challenges worthwhile. It is exhilarating.”

She is motivated to write as well to tell the stories of characters of color. As a woman of color herself, Shah said she loves to fill her stories with main characters whose backgrounds and ethnicities reflect real-world people who do not often get to see themselves in the pages of their favorite books.

“To provide representation for those who have rarely seen themselves in the pages of a book, rarely experienced those like themselves going off on epic adventures and leading amazing quests, is the best motivator,” Shah said.

And in fact, because she writes for teens, Shah indicated that their reactions also propel her forward and motivate her. Her first book was a Battle of the Books selection and she’s been blown away by the reception among teens and students.

Another demographic who’ve embraced her book? German readers.

The book has been translated to German and published by Loewe Verlag, and Shah said she has loved seeing the book’s reception in that country.

“Its reception has been heartening and affirmative, and readers in Germany have been so enthusiastic and positive and lovely,” she said.

In order to write Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, Shah said she planned the book out scene-by-scene. Famously among writers, the second book in anyone’s career is notorious for how difficult it can be to write. Shah said she worked to overcome this slump by planning the whole book and by focusing on her craft, including by reading.

In fact, Shah believes so much in the power of reading to a writer’s craft that it’s what she recommends to aspiring writers.

“Expose yourselves to the art of storytelling whenever and however you can,” she said. “Recognize the things you feel most passionate about and that way if you are ever stuck for ideas, you will already have a rich source of details to pick from. Using and exploring what we feel an intense connection with ensures the story remains exciting to us, and has plenty of heart.”

In addition to Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, which is an anticipated conclusion to a fantastical debut, Shah recommended several other books she’s loved.

Currently, Shah is reading The Silver Tracks, which is book four in the Mirrorworld series by Cornelia Funke. She described it as, “remarkable.” In addition, she recommended Ciannon Smart’s summer debut Witches Steeped in Gold, saying, “It is different and fierce, and I loved it. Smart’s worldbuilding is to die for; it is rich and original, and you completely lose yourself in its ferocious heart,” and adding that book is a “thrilling, unpredictable read.”

Finally, Shah recommended the entire Bone Season series by Samantha Shannon. “Despite the heavy themes throughout, there is a tenderness to the narrative I have rarely encountered elsewhere in fiction,” Shah said. “The result is an enthralling experience. I barely took any breaks between the books, hardly breathed for fear of being rudely dragged out of that mesmerizing world. The next instalment in the series is my most anticipated book.”

Shah can be found online or on Instagram, and Journey to the Heart of the Abyss releases on Nov. 16, 2021.

Sexuality Love + Sex Love

I learned about sex through fanfiction, and it’s a bit questionable

I love fanfiction. I think there’s something about it that you can’t find in published novels or tv shows, it’s unique and hard to explain. And while it might sound odd, there’s a lot you can learn from fanfics.

Most people don’t realize what’s out in the vast web to be discovered. For example, you might be scrolling through the works of your new favorite tv show and finally decide to brave the uncharted territories of mature-rated fanfics. You’ll click on one with a funny summary and then fall down the fascinating rabbit hole to continue reading more. And in doing so, you might actually learn about sex through fanfics.

That’s what happened to me anyway. You see, I never really had the opportunity to learn about sex in my family. My culture treats sex as taboo and then expects girls to grow up wanting to have babies and get married into a life of pleasing their husband. And all this without telling girls about potential dangers that come with sex or trying to make sex sound appealing.

I went through the basic sex ed in school, but that didn’t explain a lot. Most of what I remember was the teacher telling us to use birth control if it came down to it, but we should abstain from sex. Senior year Biology was where I learned about my body properly; I was finally told about the many changes that the body goes through due to our hormones. But most importantly, I learned about male anatomy. At no point before this had anyone explained what sex is. I knew it was performed between males and females, but not how. Before that class, I thought it was code for lying in a bed with a member of the opposite sex. 

And all this without telling girls about potential dangers that come with sex or trying to make sex sound appealing.

And while that class helped clear up some of my more significant questions, it wasn’t enough. But I had nowhere to turn to for learning more. My parents weren’t an option, and asking someone seemed awkward. So I turned to the internet. For the first time in nearly four years of exploring fanfiction online, I dove into what I thought was the dark side and looked at the selection of M-rated fics. 

Thinking back on it, they weren’t even particularly spicy fics that I stumbled across. I was jumping back into the PJO (Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan) fandom for like the third time, and I had exhausted my supply of tried and true teen and lower fics. These fanfics primarily served as a way for me to learn specifically about sex and what it was, how it worked, in a setting that wasn’t overly scientific. It was all very vanilla, but that was fine back then.

Then I jumped into some Yu-Gi-Oh fandoms and looked around at the selection there as well. And that was the first time I learned about sex being possible between same-sex couples. Then I switched from my usual fanfic website to a more known and better one, Archive Of Our Own. And this was where things got interesting because there were tags for everything. If I wanted to explore a specific kink, I could check the tag for it and look at all the options in every fandom. 

And I did exactly that; I jumped through different fandoms and checked out every type of M or E rated fic that was unique and then added the new knowledge to the ever-growing list of things I knew about sex. I explored lots of different kinks. When Fifty Shades of Grey was coming out, and everyone was complaining that it didn’t show BSDM accurately, I went to fanfics to learn what they were all talking about. I’ve read many an ABO fic and several femdom stories. And I thought by reading all these fics; I suddenly knew everything there was to know about sex.

Then one day, an online friend talked about a time that she was sexually harassed and how some of these fanfictions we read lead her to think that it was normal. And I started to rethink the fics I was reading. 

It occurred to me that a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading wasn’t always safe or consensual. These were works of fiction, and therefore not always meant to be an accurate reflection of reality, but I had spent years normalizing the lack of consent that came with some of these stories. I didn’t even realize until a month ago that it isn’t normal for someone to cry during sex or for most people to get off to that. Many of the kinky fics I read also never really detailed much about the relationship outside of the sex, which made for a very twisted view on things. 

None of this means that I plan to stop reading smut fics. I’ve come to recognize that most of what is in these stories is simple fantasy. I should have never expected it could replace the learning that comes from talking to people about their experiences or having sex myself. 

But if anyone else out there is like me, then now is as good a time as any to look a bit more critically at the fics you read and made the conscious distinction between them and reality. I know it’s awkward to talk to others about sex, and let’s not lie on the internet, it can be dangerous

I don’t claim to know all the answers, and there’s no right way to learn about sex. But at the very least, I think it’s better not to put all the eggs in one basket. When you want to learn about something you should look at several different places. I’ve begun taking a more thorough route to my own learning, one which involved properly researching whatever sexual topic comes to mind in fanfics but outside as well with the help of google or asking some very close friends who I can trust.

This new system has been working so far, and I find myself enjoying some of the conversations I can have with people about these topics as well.

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Career Now + Beyond

Why switching from STEM to the arts worked for me

If life has taught me anything, it’s this: your interests can change. For me, switching fields from the sciences to the arts was both very difficult and very easy. I always loved reading and writing. As a kid, I used to spend hours sitting on the floor behind the curtain in our living room, reading whatever I could find. When I was 15 years old, I read a book called A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It contained literally what it said on the cover: a history of the world as we know it, how scientists made their discoveries, and what prompted them to do what they did. This book was one of the main reasons I went into the sciences in the first place. I felt a spark of excitement and wonder. I was ready to explore the world.

But many things were lost in the translation of my dreams to reality.

In the Indian school system (as in many others) you pick your specialization in 11th grade. I picked science over commerce and humanities. This was a no-brainer for me. The last two years of school were hard. I had spent many stressful nights crying about low grades and the sheer difficulty of the coursework. But now and then I would feel that spark again, and that was enough.

Choosing a college major was another challenge. I had a vague interest in coding. People said that if I studied computer science engineering I would get a job easily and it would pay well. Another no-brainer.

Here’s the thing about no-brainers though: at some point, your brain kicks in and you realize it should have done so sooner. At least, that’s how it was for me.

The four years that I spent studying computer science engineering in India taught me a lot. The most important lesson it taught me was that I was not made for this life. Have you ever felt that sometimes you have to try things just to realize that you never want to do them again? I trudged through classes, desperately trying to stay afloat as the boredom and lack of passion overwhelmed me. Every class made me realize I just wasn’t interested in coding anymore, that what I felt before may have been a passing fancy. I was terrified that I couldn’t feel the spark anymore. Nothing felt worth it. I spent months trying to regain my interest before realizing that the smart thing to do was to quit.

It takes courage to keep going, yes. But it takes so much more courage to quit. This time, it was far from being a no-brainer. I took my time researching different possible career paths. I knew I had to go back to the roots of what excited me as a kid. Books, for sure! But what related to books? I found out I could do my master’s in creative writing and publishing, so I jumped at the chance to change fields.

My master’s experience could not have been more different. I felt the spark again, every day this time. I did work that I could point to as something I was proud of. I was happy. But sometimes I would think back and wonder what happened. Whose fault was it? Mine, for not trying hard enough? The system’s, for making a 17-year-old choose and making them believe that that choice was irreversible? I don’t know. What I do know is that the decision to leave tech and the sciences was difficult. I have doubted my choice many times–when it was too hard to find a job during the pandemic, and when my friends in tech found jobs and started earning way more than me. But you know what? It was also so easy. I just needed that spark again. It made me feel like myself, made me feel alive. And look, here I am! I could be happier, but I’m pretty happy as it is.

I hope 15-year-old me would approve. She didn’t understand that it is ok to switch around until you find something you like, but I think she understood the spark. I think she would be happy that I feel it again.

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Life Stories Life

Being creative doesn’t need to be performative or productive

My hesitance with being creative started with a set of simple words on my screen: “Now is the perfect time to write your book!” I encountered variations of these words on Twitter, against the scenic backdrop of a forest in an inspiration post on Instagram. They seemed to follow me everywhere I clicked. These words became a trickling of an inner voice in my head that demanded one thing: write a book. Write the book. 

At the time, we were all in our first few weeks of the world-wide lockdown. There was a wave of posts that encouraged people to look at the bright side of staying home. After all, we had the many privileges that came with being able to have our own spaces during this time. We didn’t have to share a common eating space with colleagues and we could work in our pajamas. It wasn’t all bad, right?

Not to mention, while we self-isolated and stayed inside, our schedules had significantly cleared up. These reminders and gentle pushes served as an incentive for us to sit down and do the things we said we’d do if we had more time. My current circumstance, if I would have let it, could have been inspirational. This was the time I had been waiting for, so why wasn’t I typing away? 

I imagined myself as an artist who was finally in their own element with nothing but time and energy to create. Cocooned away in blankets, frantically typing away at her next screenplay, she uses the time she would have spent commuting to work to instead perfect her craft. Or perhaps I’d relate more to a woman whose hands dance in the warm light streaming through the window. There are paint streaks on her cheeks and the coffee in her mug has gone cold.

Then, there is also the image of a struggling artist who perseveres against all odds. Their hand is shaking, but resolute, as they photograph minute details of their surrounding, working with what they have. This artist scrapes the barrel for their inspiration, regardless of the clamor outside. Fair. But we need to remind ourselves these are heavily romanticized ways of approaching creativity. 

Reading the pandemic was the perfect time to ‘write my book‘ made me feel discouraged. I felt bogged down. I was in mourning for the perfect end to my senior year that now would never be. Trapped in my room, I felt the need to escape. Writing allows me to delve deep into myself – something I could not have been bothered with before the pandemic hit. However, as any writer can tell you, it is an incredible feeling to share your work, but writing can be a terribly lonely and internal process.  

I wasn’t partaking in much leisure creativity in those early days. Even writing my college senior project, a creative fictional piece, felt like a chore. All my energy went into listening to the voices that streamed out of my laptop during the last of my online courses.

All I wanted to do was scoop out my mind and leave it in a warm tub to rest. I watched movies, listened to music, and chatted with my roommates, using up the energy I had left on reserve. I didn’t feel inspired to produce some great masterpiece. But I had all the time in the world to do it. Since I wasn’t going anywhere, why wasn’t I writing my book?

Weren’t the arts meant to be those places where we could escape from capitalist expectations of labor and product?

Over time, I felt myself spiraling. I didn’t have an idea of what I would write. I just felt like I had to make something productive out of my time. I genuinely felt I was going to disappoint myself either way, whether I chose to pick up my pen or not.

This is all sounding gloomy, but actually, there were times when I wanted to be creative. When I felt that sudden urge to set off and start working on a new piece of writing or pick up painting as a hobby. I knew when I started working I would feel good about it, but the benchmark had been set so high that I felt discouraged.

When I was packing up to move back home, I stumbled upon a product of my literary past. I had written up a small outline of a short story sometime in January. Immediately, I wanted to drop everything, move aside the boxes from my desk, and bring the story to life.

I had an epiphany- this mindset of creating perfect art was (and is) toxic. Creativity doesn’t have to be productive. Weren’t the arts meant to be an escape from capitalist expectations of labor and product?

I am not wasting my time even if nothing comes of the writing– I am perfecting a craft.

Art didn’t need to be performative either. It didn’t have to wear the fancy label of a ‘novel’ or perform for an audience. I didn’t need to parade around and place a glossy cover over the pages. Instead, I needed to give myself permission to not even have to finish whatever project was in my drafts. Ultimately, I must accept no creative pursuit is ever wasted. I am not wasting my time if nothing comes of the writing. Rather, I am perfecting a craft. As for talent, there is no wasting that unless I don’t use it. 

The sooner I realized I could follow my creative instincts without oppressive expectations, the sooner I felt creatively liberated. Whether it be through sporadically writing a scene of a story or picking up (and putting down) a paintbrush when I feel inclined, I shouldn’t have felt pressured to fully pursue my creative urges if I didn’t want to. I should be allowed to surrender to that flurry of excitement and passion to simply express myself. Then, when the passion was over, to let it go. Truly, I didn’t even have to show my creative work to anyone or look at it ever again. 

I am teaching myself creativity isn’t meant to always be translated into something productive. The funny thing is I often did return to those pieces and paintings and continued to work on them. But that was only possible when I didn’t feel the heavy benchmark of producing a bestseller or a museum-worthy mural on my shoulders.

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History Historical Badasses

How Mildred D. Taylor’s stories can teach us how to be hopeful throughout hardships

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.

When I was in seventh grade, my English class was assigned to read a book titled Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I can’t remember the exact moment I learned about racism in school, but reading this book was an eye-opener. To this day, I can still recall two vivid scenes from the book: Cassie Logan describing the worn-out textbooks meant for Black students and her Papa’s leg being crushed by a wagon during a racist ambush.

Mildred D. Taylor began writing about the Logan family in 1975 with her first novella, Song of the Trees. Her historical works are about the hardships faced by African-American families living in the Deep South. Taylor was not the first author to narrate such moving stories. Yet, to me, she stood out for the sense of hope and resilience she breathes into her characters.

Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but moved north with her family when she was just three months old. Despite not having a Southern upbringing, she insisted that the region held pleasant memories for her as her family’s home. They eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio as her father did not want her and her sister to grow up in the racially segregated society of the South that he lived in. When Taylor started school, she was the only black child in her class. Yearly trips to Mississippi and firsthand stories from family gatherings helped her become familiar with the South. Taylor would eventually use some of the stories for her novels.

Taylor attended the University of Toledo where she majored in English and minored in History. By age 19, she had written her first novel, Dark People, Dark World. Sadly, due to revision disagreements with a publisher, the novel was never published. After graduation, Taylor joined the Peace Corps and taught in Arizona and Ethiopia. She then attended the University of Colorado School of Journalism, where she worked with university officials and fellow students to curate a Black Studies program. It’s inspiring how Taylor maintained the respect from her roots and encouraged for others to do the same in education.

In addition to all those accomplishments, Taylor kept writing. In 1973, Taylor entered a contest funded by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. “I tried writing [a story] from a boy’s point of view because the story was based on my father’s life, but that didn’t work,” Taylor said in a 2006 interview with the American Library Association. “So I decided to retell it from the girl’s point of view. It won that honor and got my foot in the door.”

The story was eventually published as Song of the Trees, and won first prize in the contest’s African-American category. It was also listed as an outstanding book of the year in the New York Times.

In 1977, she also won the Newberry Medal for the sequel to Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and several other literary recognitions.

“I wanted to show a different kind of black world from the one so often seen,” she said of her characters, the Logan family. “[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] will always be the most special book I have written.”

Black stories are often heavily centered around trauma. There’s a common assumption that Blacknes and suffering go hand in hand. While the Logans are a disadvantaged family, what we learn from them is their ability to make the most out of situations. Cassie and her brothers are a strong unit who have a solid relationship with their parents and appreciate who they are surrounded by. If anything, Taylor has shown us the importance of family dynamics in the face of constant trauma.

In an interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Taylor commented on the backlash of parents who felt her work was too painful for children to read. “As much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write,” she said.

Sometimes, even if it can be uncomfortable, writing about pain is necessary. It can help others become more attentive to voices that are often silenced. What I find heartbreakingly relatable is that the Logan children instantly learned that they were living in a different world than their white peers. How Taylor writes about pain from Cassie’s perspective lets readers know that children are never too young to start understanding the world around them.

In the same interview, Taylor discussed receiving letters from students like myself who read her books as required reading. The students, however, said the books weren’t just about history. Rather, they are about the values they wished were more a part of their world today.

In Taylor’s words, “[It] is so uplifting to find there are still those who read my books and not only feel a greater understanding about our past, but feel the relevancy of that past to apply to the great turmoil of today’s world.”

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Tips & Tricks Life

Journaling lets me remember my self-growth journey

I have been journaling for as long as I can remember. Occasionally, I like to skim through the top shelf of my cabinet and pull out one of my journals to read. Do I cringe when I read my younger self’s entries? Yes. But it’s all a huge part of self-growth. 

Journaling has proven to have many benefits, particularly for mental health. For me, the biggest benefit was the reduction in stress. As someone who is prone to have stress-induced panic attacks, journaling – whether it’s small doodles or a novella – has helped by giving me clarity and a place to express my emotions. A 2005 study found expressive writing to be therapeutic, noting that participants who expressed trauma, stress and other emotions through writing decreased their chances of getting sick significantly. In the long run, people who journal are less seriously affected by trauma as opposed to their non-journaling counterparts. Although I wouldn’t consider myself completely unscathed by my experiences at school, I do look back at my journals and applaud myself for the strength I mustered to get through it. 

So what does journaling do for the soul? Reduces stress and anxiety as well as boosts your immune function. Well, there are other benefits. One great one I have noticed in myself is the ability to put things into perspective. Journaling is a great regulator of emotions as when you write down how you feel, everything becomes comprehensible and once you have the chance to figure out your own emotions, you are presented with the amazing opportunity to be able to process other people’s too. It is a great way to promote self-growth and confidence as many people, myself included, read over their past personal struggles and either laugh at themselves or marvel in awe at the inner strength they didn’t know they had. 

And the best part of journaling? There are so many different styles you could go for. Days where I am feeling more creative, I’ll do some art journaling or bullet journaling. Some days, it’s easier for me to do an electronic journal (I highly recommend Notion because you type or record videos straight into the app). And you don’t have to do the typical ‘dear diary’ stuff. Make it yours. Of course, there are other tidbits people concern themselves with before they start writing, namely,  what do I write about

My easiest tip is to start writing about anything. There was a class exercise one of my lecturers used to do with us in my first year of university and that was writing for the first 15 minutes of class. “If you don’t know what to write, write ‘I am writing’ until the thought, any thought, comes into your head.” Although this is not a piece of advice I had when I first started journaling, it is something I would pass on to new journalers. Start where you are. The great thing about journals is that they are private to you so they can be two words or a whole novel if you want it to. Even if it’s just a single line, or what you had for lunch, write it. Don’t censor yourself. This is for you and it’s your personal journey. There is no right and wrong when it comes to journaling because it’s an experience so personal and tailored to the individual. 

So unlearn anything you had learned about ‘keeping a diary’ back in the earlier stages of education and go with what works for you because you don’t get graded on how you feel. I’m sure that you would appreciate the nostalgia and growth that comes with looking back at your journey in your journal as much as I do.

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History Historical Badasses

Savitribai Phule was the feminist teacher from the 1850s we wish we had in high school

Because of British colonization, women’s rights were nonexistent in 19th century India; women were largely confined to domestic roles and were not allowed to receive an education. Despite such patriarchal restrictions, Savitribai Phule, an Indian teacher, and feminist, established the first school for girls in India in 1848 with the help of her husband, Jyotirao Phule. Savitribai’s trailblazing in women’s education is a testament to the resilience of feminists. 

Like most other married Indian women, Savitribai was not literate at the time of her marriage at age nine. After being educated by her husband and his friends, Savitribai enrolled herself in training programs for teachers at two institutions, the Normal School and an institution in Ahmednagar. 

Later, she began to teach alongside Sagunabai, another revolutionary Indian feminist. Eventually, the Bhides and Sagunabai founded their own school at Bhide Wada, the home of Tatya Saheb Bhide, a man who was inspired by the work of the trio. 

During this time, education was limited to male Brahmins (a caste) and involved the teachings of the Vedas and Shastras. Savitribai’s school was unique in that it taught mathematics, science, and social studies instead of Hindu texts. It was also open to people of all castes, including women. 

However, not everyone supported Savitribai’s endeavors; Savitribai would carry an extra sari with her to school because people would hurl stones and dirt at her while she was walking. By educating people of lower castes and women, Savitribai was radically changing the status quo. Knowledge is power, so her work empowered hundreds of people from historically marginalized communities in India. 

After being kicked out of their house by her husband’s father for their work in the community, the Phules lived with Usman Sheikh and his sister, Fatima Sheikh. Fatima is known as the first Muslim female teacher of India and opened a school alongside Savitribai. Their friendship exemplified feminist sisterhood and empowerment. 

Outside of her educational accomplishments, Savitribai was also a staunch feminist and poet. She authored two notable collections of poetry, Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892. Through her writing, she was able to encourage people from marginalized communities to break free from the chains of oppression by getting an education. 

Later, she founded multiple organizations to raise awareness for women’s rights, infanticide, and caste-based violence. The Mahila Seva Mandal forged gatherings between women of all castes and encouraged all of the women to sit together on the same mat. In her house, she created the House for the Prevention of Infanticide as a safe space for widowed Brahmin women to deliver their babies and leave them there under her care. At the same time, she campaigned against child marriage and lobbied for widow remarriage. 

After her husband’s death, Savitribai chaired a session for the Satyashodhak Samaj, an organization that serves the interests of non-Brahmins. At this time, a woman chairing an organization was unprecedented and revolutionary. Through these efforts, Savitribai also initiated the first Satyashodkah marriage, which is a marriage without a dowry, Brahmin priests, or Brahminical rituals. 

Savitribai also founded a clinic to take care of patients with the bubonic plague. She passed away in 1897 while taking care of a patient with the bubonic plague in the clinic. While she passed away more than a century ago, her legacy is honored annually in Maharastra on January 3rd, known as Balika Din (Day of Girls). 

Balika Din is a holiday dedicated to educating people about legislation that protects young girls and is dedicated to the welfare of young girls in India. Women are still actively discriminated against in India through sexual assault, sex-selective abortions, and patriarchal gender roles. Savitribai’s work was the first step towards promoting gender equality in modern India. 

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History Lost in History

So you know Mozart and Beethoven, but do you know any female composers?

When I was in college, one of the best courses I took was a class on women and music.  During one of the first sessions of the semester, my professor asked the class to write down as many male composers as we could name on a sheet of paper. Then she asked the class to write down all the female composers that we could name as well on the same piece of paper. Many of us could name a decent number of male composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. However, most of the class could not name even one female composer.

Historically, female composers have often been overlooked and underappreciated. This is something that needs to change.

Their work is often lost in history. Let’s take a look at the life and work of Cécile Chaminade, so when someone asks you about female composers, she can be first on your list!

Throughout her lifetime, Cécile Chaminade composed over 400 pieces. She was born in August of 1857 in France. Her upper-middle-class family loved the arts, as both her parents were musicians. She began taking piano lessons from her mother at a very young age. Then she began composing music at the age of seven, can I get a wow?

At the age of eight, Chaminade played some of her composed pieces to George Bizet. George Bizet was a French composer for operas in the Romantic Era. He is most known for his four-act opera Carmen. I am sure you would recognize the Habanera and Overture from Carmen, even if you are not that into classical music! You must at least have heard them in a commercial or two. Google it, I dare you!

Bizet was impressed by Cécile Chaminade’s talent and recommended that her family make sure that she received a music education. Despite her talents and Bizet’s suggestion, her family did not allow her to study music at the Paris Conservatoire. Going to the conservatoire would have allowed her to network with other music professionals. However, her father believed that it would have been “improper” for a young lady of her social class to formally attend school. At least she was instructed privately by instructors from the Paris Conservatoire.

A black and white head shot of Cécile Chaminade. Her dress has a high neck line and she is looking slightly to the right.
[Image Description: A black and white head shot of Cécile Chaminade. Her dress has a high neck line and she is looking slightly to the right.] Via BBC
She performed her first recital at the age of 18 and began making a name for herself.  By 1878, she began traveling and performing across Europe, in Austria, Britain, and Belgium. When she toured in the United States, she performed at Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall, among other venues. Her performances across Europe and in the United States were received well, she rose in fame and became internationally renowned. In the United States, many musical performance clubs were named after her during the time of her performances.

Despite her the admiration that was received abroad, her work and accomplishments were ignored in France during most of her life. Her compositions her mainly character pieces and melodies. These pieces were popular in other parts of Europe and America, but they were referred to as mere “salon music” in France. In the 19th century, the salon referred to the gathering of elites for intellectual conversations away from the masses. Elites and aristocracy would meet in salons and listen to music that was romantic piano music. Salons were typically associated with the gathering of elite women as well. Critics of Chaminade’s music used the term to suggest that her music was too emotional and meant for the “simplistic” entertainment of women.

Critics unfairly judged her music. Ultimately, to me, they seem to have ignored Chaminade’s talent for sexist reasons. They coded her work as “feminine” in an attempt to degrade it and dismiss her talent. Her work was described as dainty, lacking variety, and sentimental. Those critics chose to disregard the character, accessibility, and aspects of the French Romantic Era in her music that made her music popular. They were focusing on the fact that she was not male. Thankfully, later in her life received some of the recognition deserved for her work and performances. In 1913, she was the first female composer in France to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

Cécile Chaminade’s compositions and work is something that should not be forgotten in history, and we should be listening to her music. With over 400 compositions, you have plenty of material to listen to! I recommend her Flute Concertino Op. in D major, Op. 107, which she composed in 1902 if you are looking for a place to start!

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Movie Reviews Movies Pop Culture

Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” (2020) taught me to live on my own terms as a woman

I watched Josephine Decker’s film Shirley (2020) at the behest of a friend who was preparing to move to Seattle after a lifetime of living in their home state. I’ve recently left my PhD program as well as my fiancé, and it feels like we’re both taking boundless risks in pursuit of the life we truly want to live. They’re a filmmaker, I’m a writer, and there’s certain reciprocity of understanding that the creative life is all in – and then some.

Shirley is not unlikeable- she is riveting in her uncompromising productivity.

Decker’s film Shirley, written by Sarah Gubbins and based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, confirms such a belief. It’s a feminist homage to the creative inner life of the titular character Shirley Jackson, best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House.

The film follows newlyweds Rose and Fred who are invited to stay with Shirley and her husband Professor Stanley Hyman as Fred situates himself assisting Stanley at the University. Rose is in the early stages of pregnancy and auditing classes when Stanley implores Rose to take care of the house since Shirley isn’t up to it. “How’s your rump roast?” he asks before Rose can agree to or decline his invitation. “I love hot food in hot weather.”

While Rose is the fresh, young ingénue, Shirley (played by a terrifically acerbic Elisabeth Moss) is briny and bitter. Rose first glimpses her at a house party where Shirley holds court with a group of guests, regaling her audience with anecdotes of writing the most “reviled” short story for The New Yorker.

When one of the men asks what she’s writing now she retorts, “It’s a little novella called none of your goddamn business.” It’s evident that Shirley’s an alcoholic (she leaves the party early clutching a liquor bottle) and suffers from agoraphobia, and while the Dean’s wife dismissively states that “she’s gone sick in the head,” Rose (and we the audience) know that “no, she’s working quite hard.”

Decker inserts multiple shots of Shirley writing in her study, surrounded by her books and her typewriter, completely subsumed in her work: nothing or no one else. She’s consumed by the novel she’s writing which centers around a young woman who has mysteriously disappeared. The woman haunts Shirley, infiltrating her dreams and her reveries.

While there are shots of Shirley’s stockings sinking around her ankles or listless in bed, Decker makes clear the ferocity of Shirley’s drive and dedication as a writer. “A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” she quips to her husband early in the film. She may be everything else, but the perfect 1950s housewife she is not.

Shirley Trailer: Elisabeth Moss Goes Mad – /Film
[Image description: Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson.] via IMDB.

I’ve often gravitated to women writers who shunned conformity (Sylvia Plath, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Virginia Woolf) and gender expectations. While in my teenage years I might have aggrandized Plath’s suicidal depression and, mistakenly, thought that a life of great suffering led to good work, I now know, watching Shirley, that it’s not the ceaseless drinking or depressive tendencies that inspire me.

To make art as a woman often comes at the cost of good manners.

What riles me in watching this film (and speaks to this juncture in my life where I am more alone than I have ever been before) is that to make art as a woman often comes at the cost of good manners, of making nice. To write, and to write well, requires copious hours alone. Solitude is not loneliness when you’re a writer: it’s part of the job description. That kind of dedication isn’t always easy for others to sympathize with or to understand. It’s a brutal truth that the brass tax of writing happens when you’re alone. Of course, company helps with inspiration; but inspiration only gets you so far.

I want to be clear: I didn’t leave my ex or my PhD solely because I wanted to devote myself to my creative writing. These decisions were fraught, and complicated, and riddled with contradicting impulses. But wrapped up in both major life-changing decisions was the needling fear that if I wanted to be a writer on my own terms, I needed to make space so that my artistic soul could loosen and expand.

I can never settled for the role of someone’s woman.

The glaring disparity between Rose, the dutiful housewife, and Shirley, the ferociously talented writer, affirms my intrinsic belief that I can never, ever, settle for the singular role as someone’s woman – but I can keep reaching to be my own kind of writer. To summarize the actress Katherine Hepburn’s famous adage, if you always do what you want, at least one person is pleased.

While some may claim Shirley is an unlikeable character, it’s a moot point because she’s riveting in her uncompromising productivity. When Rose clutches her baby toward the end of the film, you can see her inner life diminishing as she attempts to creatively bond with Shirley in ways that feel increasingly desperate. To experience inspiration is to be inflamed with a plurality of possibilities; Shirley reaffirms the importance of this fire. But beware – it burns.

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Culture Family Life

I long for the day I get to finally meet my mentor

When I was 15 years old, I became friends with a popular girl in my school. She was everything that young people wanted to be back in the day. Intelligent. Beautiful. Confident. Over the years, I got to know her more closely. And that’s when I realized she had someone guiding her through it all. Someone preparing her for life. She had a mentor—her older sister. She looked up to her. She learned from her. I wanted to have the same kind of relationship with someone…anyone. I just didn’t want to be on my own.

Over time I realized, most people around me had found their mentors. When I was in school, my friends found teachers who believed in them and guided them. Some of these teachers are still in touch with their students—appreciating them, supporting them, feeling proud of how far they’ve come. I envied my friends for having found people that they could turn to for help. I felt left out because I had no one that I could reach out to on days I felt at my lowest. Or when I simply needed to hear a few words of encouragement. 

For me, finding a mentor almost feels like a distant dream. 

I don’t know how many days I’ve spent in a haze of yearning, emptiness, and gloom; desperately longing for someone who’d give me the courage to move on and fight my battles. For me, finding a mentor almost feels like a distant dream. 

As a little girl, I read a lot of books. I liked immersing myself in fiction, metaphors, and descriptions that were a work of someone else’s imagination but resonated so closely with my own life. I believed the heartbreaking, mind-numbing stories that I read. It felt like the writer had deliberately scooped up pieces of my life and scraped them together. Almost as if they knew me. Almost as if they had lived my life. I took books and everything they told very seriously. 

My obsession with reading continues. And it still affects me deeply. Almost to the point that I even envy characters in books who find someone who prepares them for the world. I last felt this inexplicable feeling when I read Perks of Being a Wallflower. Mr Anderson believed in his student, Charlie. He helped him grow out of the darkness that consumed him. I thought so many times while reading the book that if someone would ever believe in me in the same way.  

I always dreamt of being a writer. I started by writing stories. Fiction. And I felt so close to my dream. I thought I could be anything I wanted to be. The world was my oyster, and the only limit was my imagination.

But then I eventually realized that I couldn’t do it all alone.  I needed appreciation. I needed acknowledgement. I needed validation. I needed someone to tell me that I was doing okay. 

But no one ever did.

Anything that I ever wrote was dismissed. I showed it to my teachers, my friends, my family—but they weren’t interested in reading my work. They never had time. They had ‘better, more important things’ to do. And after each dismissal, I wilted a little more.  

But I persisted, even if there were days when I felt like giving up. 

I can’t help but think what would everything look like if I had a mentor that I could reach out to and seek guidance from. 

When my name first appeared underneath my writing in a publication, I felt like the happiest girl in the world. But when I broke this news to the people I loved, I only received weak nods of encouragement. Almost as if they didn’t care. And then my excitement dried up.

So often, I find myself submerged in a gloom thick with longing for a person who doesn’t exist. I feel so consumed with hopelessness that I want to stop right here and let go of things that mean everything to me. What’s the point of success if I don’t have anyone to share in its joy with?

My life seems so empty sometimes. It holds so much space for a person whom I’ve never met. And who knows if I ever will meet them.

Even now, some of my friends drop comments beneath my writings without reading what I’ve said in them. It’s their way of showing support. But to me, their threadbare attempts to make me feel better are meaningless. Their words feel hollow because they’re not real. They’re not borne out of the need to say something to me on what I’ve written.

Each time I find myself incessantly clacking at the keys of my computer in a darkened room, I can’t help but think what would everything look like if I had a mentor that I could reach out to and seek guidance from. 

Would life be different? Would my work be different? Would I be different? 

I’ve been trying to hold on to writing, despite the lack of encouragement and support. I’ve been trying to find my way, even if all alone. There are days when I feel like I’m swimming in the dark waters, trying to stay afloat, but failing.

Mentors are important. And I’ve only realized their importance by never having found one

But I’m hopeful that I’ll find someone one day. I’ve lasted so long without a mentor, I can wait a little longer.

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Mental Health Life Stories Life

This is why I write letters to myself in my journal 

“Pablow, do you know what it’s like to be unimportant, invisible to the world. A dried-up leaf that people walk over and crush under their feet?
It’s my birthday tomorrow. But everyone has made it a point to not make me feel even slightly better. Everyone’s mean to me. Because it’s just another day in their life.
But in my life—it’s the day I turn 21.”
27th April, 2020.

Pablow, a beautiful pink mermaid, that keeps all my secrets and listens closely to everything I tell her. My confidante. My best friend. My journal.

I keep a journal. I write in it every day. 

It teaches you. It inspires you. It gives your life meaning.

I recently heard someone remark, “Who even writes in journals anymore?” I rolled my eyes at their ludicrous statement. Over the years, I learned how important journaling is, and I won’t entertain the idea that it is a purposeless act. 

Some people, at hearing the word “journal”, are swept by thoughts of teenage crushes, entries that start with “Dear Diary”, or something that they did in the past. In today’s increasingly digital, paperless world, journaling isn’t commonplace anymore. 

Some people also assume that journaling is exclusively for children or young adults. However, I don’t think that there’s a specific age for journalling. You can be a grown-up and still keep a journal. I’m an adult, and I maintain a journal. 

Journalling has helped me find myself, and I don’t think I’ll ever give it up.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that writing in a journal helped me find my voice. I learned the concept of expression and freedom in writing. My wordlessness surprises some in real life. I’m quiet. I don’t talk much. But my journal carries all my words, enfolded in abrupt effusions of my mind.  I write everything in my journal. 

I can say things that I want to say. I can document what I do and where I go. I can write my true feelings about my family, friends, even people I don’t know closely. I don’t think too much before spilling my thoughts on my journal. Words flow out of me, and I stamp them on to the paper. They are raw, real, and meaningful. Sometimes, it almost feels as if I’m writing letters to myself. 

Keeping a daily journal allowed me introspection—even if just a little—to dwell on who I was on a particular day.

Over the years, I’ve become attached to my journal. I treat it like a person. I have even given it a name—Pablow—and I call it my best friend. (Brownie points for you if you guessed Pablow is inspired by a Miley Cyrus song.)

Pablow is always there for me. She hears me out. She listens to me closely. She always has time for me. I tell her everything. She doesn’t judge me or double-cross me behind my back with the things that I say to her. She doesn’t say hurtful or judgmental things—she says nothing at all. I write to her about my life, family, friends, dreams, aspirations, heartbreaks, happiness, food, people I meet, college, sky, night, summer, stories, interactions, decisions—everything. I divulge every little detail of my life to her, and she listens.  

I’ve written about the time when my mom didn’t buy me my favorite body shop perfume. And when my friends threw me a birthday surprise and I nearly canceled on them. And when I scored low marks on a test. And when I felt like I hated my best friend for saying something mean to me. And so much more. I’ve told her everything.

Journalling helped me in exploring my thoughts. When I recorded all details of a particular day, no matter how irrelevant, I felt inspired. I felt like I was learning about myself. Keeping a daily journal allowed me introspection—even if just a little—to dwell on who I was on a particular day. That made me a more compassionate and empathetic person.

My journal made me see things more clearly. When I felt like I hated someone or something, I wrote about it. When something made me ecstatic—over the moon kind of happy—I wrote about it. Whatever I felt—anger, sadness, happiness, anxiety, depression, shock—I wrote about it. 

Journalling is important because of so many reasons. It teaches you. It inspires you. It gives your life meaning. It helps you clear your head. I learned from it about myself, my life, my family, my friends. Everything made so much more sense when it came down on paper as words. Once you start keeping a journal, you’ll understand that it can become a big part of your life. 

For me, maintaining a journal has almost become a habit. I share a human affiliation with it. I feel attached to it. Pablow is my best friend. And I’ve held on to my pink, mermaid journal for so long that I don’t think I’ll ever let go. 

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History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Meet Armen Ohanian, the belly dancer who defied every stereotype of a Middle Eastern woman

It would be easy to dismiss Armen Ohanian as just a famous belly-dancer, but she was more than just that.

Ohanian was one of the first women to bring Middle-Eastern dancing to the Western world, but most people haven’t heard about her before. Those who have heard of her only think of her as an “exotic dancer” rather than a gifted, talented, and complex human being. So who was this woman?

Armen Ohanian was born in 1887, originally named Sophia Pirboudaghian. She grew up in modern-day Azerbaijan in a wealthy Armenian family, where she received a vast academic and artistic education. Despite her privileged upbringing, she underwent an incredible amount of tragedy at a young age. She survived a devastating earthquake in her early years, which forced her family to relocate. She later witnessed brutal anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, which tragically claimed the life of her father. After a brief marriage, Ohanian lived, worked, and studied in Russia, Turkey, and Iran, learning the art of Armenian and Iranian dances.

She didn’t need to be Western to be modern

Eventually, Armen Ohanian accepted an offer to perform in London, and eventually became a sensation throughout Europe. Western audiences were quick to fetishize and commodify her style of dancing, which they only viewed as hypersexual belly-dancing. They reduced her to a sexual object without considering the traditions and talent behind her dancing. In reality, Ohanian was an incredibly gifted dancer and choreographer.

She revolutionized dance by merging modern free-dancing with traditional Armenian and Iranian dances. Ohanian embraced tradition and innovation alike, proving that she didn’t need to be Western to be modern. Some might say that she embraced Western fetishism to further her career. I say we cannot hold her responsible for the Western reaction to her art. Ohanian danced with dignity and pride in her culture. It’s her audience’s fault, not her own, that they couldn’t recognize her humanity.

Armen Ohanian’s talent extended far beyond her dancing. She was also a gifted writer and poet, as well as a political activist.

In her later years, she immigrated to Mexico where she was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party and translated political literature. She also wrote a number of memoirs and poems, which focused on her identity as a diasporic Armenian in exile. Ohanian was not only subversive politically, but in her everyday life. She was likely bisexual and had numerous affairs with both men and women. She divorced and remarried in a time when that was incredibly uncommon. Ohanian lived her life how she wanted to live it, and that’s beyond admirable. 

As a woman of Iranian-Armenian heritage, Armen Ohanian is a reminder that Middle Eastern and Armenian women have the power to be both subversive and proud of their heritage. I know firsthand that Armenian society can be very traditional. Seeing an independent, liberated, queer woman like Armen Ohanian gives me hope for other Armenian women. She is proof of the resilience of Armenian and Middle-Eastern women. This is someone who survived natural disasters, ethnic cleansing, xenophobia, and prejudice, but emerged stronger than before. She was a multi-faceted and complicated woman who couldn’t be confined to one category.

It’s impossible to define Armen Ohanian as simply a sexually liberated dancer, or a fiery political revolutionary, or a homesick poet living in exile, or an intellectual writer and translator. She was all of these things and more. I find a lot of inspiration in this incredible woman, who refused to limit herself to one art form, one talent, one career, or even one national identity. She was able to create a name for herself in a world that was hostile to the aspirations of Middle-Eastern women, and she did so with dignity and courage.

Armen Ohanian passed away in 1976, but her bold and resilient spirit still lives on in all of us. We could all take a page from her book and live our lives as she did, fearlessly and proudly, always in search of a better future.

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