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Interview: Maria Qamar, author of Trust No Aunty

Maria Qamar talks to HT about dysphoria, cultural appropriation and desi culture, among other things

books Updated: Dec 01, 2017 22:31 IST
Avantika Mehta
Avantika Mehta
Hindustan Times
Trust No Aunty,Canada,Roy Lichtenstein
Maria Qamar at her Toronto workspace. Qamar's South Asian influenced pop art first gained attention on Instagram.(Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Maria Qamar (26) or @HateCopy as she’s known on Instagram and Twitter deals with issues like mixed-marriages, dysphoria, and cultural appropriation through art. Maria, who now lives in Toronto, Canada, moved there with her parents — a Bangladeshi father and a Gujarati mother — in 1991 when she was nine years old. She’s been navigating the world of endless aunties, and being desi in a country that’s predominantly Caucasian since.

On Skype, Maria appears down-to-earth but, like many millennials, very aware of her image. “We can do an audio call. I don’t look too hot right now,” she says. An advertising major, she is a pro at marketing herself — part of which includes regular posts and Instastories of her looking amazing in cute clothes, partying with her best friend and art collaborator Babbu the Painter, and cooking, one of her favourite activities.

After years of receiving unsolicited advice from well-meaning desi women and Caucasians too, Maria released her first book: Trust No Aunty. It’s a quick read filled with some of her most recognisable art and satirical observations about the desi diaspora.

Here, she talks to HT about Trust No Aunty, cultural cross-appropriation, hiding young boys in her closet, pop culture, and Justin Trudeau.

Trust No Aunty by Maria Qamar; Rs 599, 178pp, Simon & Schuster

What was it like moving to a new country and confronting racism at a young age?
When I moved here to the West, I didn’t have a concept of racism. I came from a country where everyone is brown so being discriminated for being a different race wasn’t a concept that I knew until 9/11 happened.

As a kid from an entirely different world, an entirely different mindset about how life is supposed to be, going through things like being called names just because you’re darker than white was really, really shocking.

What’s the inspiration behind Hatecopy?
Bollywood for sure. But also, back when I was a child, nobody was really fighting against racism or cultural appropriation. Everyone was like, that’s just how it is. Now, when you are as young as 11, they’re out there and talking against all that. They’re talking about what it means to be a person of colour, especially as immigrants. How we’re treated. These kids come to my exhibitions sometimes, and I find their passion inspiring.

There’s always this idea that this country (Canada) is a melting pot or a mosaic or that this country can live in harmony and peace. But that’s kinda bullshit. We have to fight for our rights really, and it’s not just brown people -- those of every race that’s not white has to fight for visibility here. I decided to use art to express those experiences of mine.

How did Hatecopy start?
Well, I got fired as I mention in my book. But that was probably for the best. It gave me a chance to focus on my passion, which is my art. I was only doing this job in advertising that I hated to have a stable income, which is something we’re always told to prize over everything. In my family there’s a saying: bas naukri tik jaye. Just have a job. If you have a job, then you’re good. But then, why do you have to stick to something?

What is your average day like working as a self-styled entrepreneur-artist?
It’s something that I can’t imagine would be a life choice for everybody. Instead of doing the nine-to-five, I wake up at seven or eight in the morning, or maybe sometimes noon, but then I stay up till seven in the am to work on my art. So, really, when everyone leaves work at 5, that’s when I start working.

On the plus side, I have my hands in everything I do. It’s very refreshing because when I was working for somebody else they had the power and they decided what I was worth. This is a nice change, but it is also a lot of hard work.

Do you think more young people are gravitating towards working freelance or at least out of the nine-to-five box?
I don’t know anyone in my social circle who has held a job for over two years. It’s just facts at this point. Nobody in our generation is going to have a job for 30-40 years as our parents did.

Why is that, you think?
It’s just not a realistic way to do things anymore.

Is that because of social media or employer practices?
Speaking strictly from a creative or even advertising perspective: it’s a very, very competitive field and a lot of it is dependent on awards. So not only was I competing to create this brand but also competing to be one of the best ad campaigns that I can make against other people.

It was really funny when you think about it because you’re pressured to be the best but not actually getting compensated for being the best.

Throughout the book, you’re very open about marketing yourself “as a commodity.” Was that empowering — to take back the commodification of women’s bodies and experiences?
I studied advertising so this is something I was trained to do. Plus, I’m very open about what I do because every time I’ve tried to do something -- especially as a woman of colour -- everyone likes to tell you what to do: with your body, your time, your work. Everybody has an opinion about a woman. And, I think, if you’re going to judge me anyway I might as well be completely open with you because I don’t care. At the end of the day, I make my own decisions, and the way I choose for you to perceive me is how you’re going to perceive me. I really believe that if I’m a 100 percent honest in everything I do, nothing can harm me and nothing can hurt me, and nothing can surprise me.

How do you deal with the cultural difference between the Canadians and desis overseas?
Canadians are pretty soft spoken. It’s a stereotype but a good one. But everyone has this idea that this country is a giant melting pot and we all live in harmony. That’s not the case. The way we are represented here — even though things are getting better — we have to fight for visibility.

I do think just the way things are happening in the States, it transfers over to the attitudes in Canada. In terms of speaking out against racism or things like that, a lot of the younger generation (even my generation) is a bit more vocal about that.

You speak out a lot against cultural appropriation, does that stem from personal experience?
All through my elementary school, I used to be called a Paki dot . And I would think, ‘What is a Paki dot?’ That’s what they called the bindi. Later on in life I realised that this Paki dot that they were calling me, now they’re wearing it to Coachella. The problem really is that people have to check themselves and the way they consume our culture for their benefit and wear it as decoration. I think that’s something that didn’t sit well with anybody.

Appropriating Indian culture doesn’t seem to bother desis living in India. For example, most people reacted with joy to the Beyonce/Coldplay video. Why do you think it’s not such a big deal here but a constant conversation among desis who live in the West?
I think it’s because of the way we, as immigrants from India, live here. We are made to believe that we are not equal. For example, the standard of beauty here is blond, thin, blue eyes, white. Anything that wasn’t that was considered ugly. So when you’re raised to believe that you’re not good or everything you’re doing is not ok but then when a white person does it then it’s okay... That’s what we live with every day, and that’s what we’re trying to fight. It’s like, OK sure, you can go to an Indian restaurant and really like Indian food and our culture, but don’t dress up as an Indian person on Halloween. That’s not a joke. This is our life, and this is something people get hurt over. This is what we deal with every day living here. If we were living there, we might have that disconnect.

I have to ask: who is Brad?
(Laughs) Brad just symbolises the innocent non-desi white guy. He means well but ends up saying some dumb shit once in a while.

That’s like a Dave (a desi slang for a typical white man who knows nothing about any culture other than his Caucasian roots)?
Yeah, I like Daves better than Brads though.

You love Bollywood and desi culture. Have you been to India or Pakistan recently?
No, I haven’t been to either country. In India, I work with Saavn so my art is on billboards in Mumbai and I think Delhi. I am planning to come to India, maybe in March. It’s a bit difficult for me because on my passport it says born in Pakistan and so I don’t know how the visa situation will play out. I haven’t been back in a very long time.

I have been back to Karachi once or twice for a wedding or something, but that was a long time ago. Honestly, I haven’t been back after that just because... it’s a long flight!

Here’s the thing about being here and the way I’ve been going through school and life -- I haven’t stopped working since I came here. I think I took my first vacation when I was 23 or 24, and I had to take vacation days. Even then, I ended up going to Japan. It wasn’t time off but just looking at another country.

So for me, when I go back, I want to go back for an extended period. I want to stay for a longer period like months. I feel like I have to justify going so far by staying here longer. Also it’s such a big country, and there’s just so much I’ve never seen.

In the book you speak of an extremely extended family, does that also resonate with your fans who aren’t Indian?
My family is huge and is dispersed all around the world. I have cousins in Mozambique and Kenya. In a way it does resonate because some of the places I have a family are places no one really talks about.

Recently I got a message from a girl in Zimbabwe, and she was so excited because “no one ever talks about Zimbabwe.”

And I was like, ‘Yo, I know we’re out here.’ I have so many cousins in Kenya, and also there are lots of Kenyans out here.

One of the nicest things about being on the Internet is that there are so many different desis everywhere. Like, I didn’t know there were Punjabis in Trinidad. So there are a lot of little cool knowledge titbits.

Who was your ideal reader for Trust No Aunty?
When I was writing the book, I was thinking about my younger cousins and my younger self. I kept thinking that if I were to read something like this 10 years from now, would it be sad? A lot of it is rooted in sadness, but the way it is worded, or the way that I talk about it is that it’s satire; it’s funny. I don’t want to make a joke out of it, but kinda saying: isn’t it funny that life works out this way?

It’s also good because it makes you feel like you’re not alone. Everything in the book is stuff I’ve lived through -- it is coming from a place of truth. Like, I did hide a Guyanese guy in my closet and got into a lot of trouble for it. But, you know, it’s one of those things: I went through all this stuff, so maybe you don’t have to, or if you are going through all of this stuff, then you can pick it up and have a light read and go, like, ‘cool’.

Would you consider this a self-help book then?
This isn’t a serious self-help book, but it does help you when you’re going through all of these things, and you feel like it’s only happening to you. It’s a comfort read.

Couldn’t help but think that your take on Indians is more Indian most Indians are.Where does that come from?
Some of it may be a reaction to things that happened to me as a child.

As a kid, everything I would do that was inherently desi would be silenced. Like, you know: don’t bring this lunch to class, it smells like curry. Or, don’t wear this to school: ‘Why are you wearing a bed sheet?’ It was a sari. So you spend a lot of your childhood silencing yourself and stripping yourself of your culture, and then you realise that this is who I am. I can’t live any other way or exist any other way. It’s not like I need to talk about being desi 24/7 but people are going to have to deal with it. The fact that we have our own culture and there’s so much difference between it and where I am. In India or Pakistan, you don’t notice it, but here you stick out like a sore thumb. Even if I’m wearing a bindi with an outfit and I go out in public, everyone just turns on you, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my god!’ I love coordinating my outfits with my bindis; it’s something I did all my childhood, all my growing up it was just a thing. But here everybody was like ‘Oh, what are you wearing?’ ‘are you going for a special occasion?’ It’s like, stop asking questions; it’s part of my culture. I think what we’re doing now is to normalise our culture. I want to wear a sari to prom. It should be okay. If anything, it probably costs more than a regular prom dress. It’s fine and nothing that you have to silence anymore.

Definitely, if it’s a Sabyasachi (a brand name that comes up a lot in the book) sari, it will cost more than a prom dress. But we don’t have proms in India.
Yeah, you know when I came to Canada prom was a concept about which I didn’t know either. I was like, what is prom? I didn’t go to my prom because I wasn’t allowed: too many boys.

I enjoyed the Rookie and Boss Move portions of the book -- which one are you?
I used to be a mix of both. My friendship dynamic was always one on one… so I’d be a best friend to one person, and that person and I would switch between angel and the devil. The Rookie move stems from fear. When you’re a kid everybody is trying to scare you -- it’s like learning through fear (you’ll get in troubles etc.) So then I’d be like, ok maybe I’ll keep my mouth shut in this case. As I got older I realised that I don’t have to take things as seriously so now there are a lot of boss moves I think.

Let’s speak specifically of some of these Boss moves. Which of the following have you done?

Aunty healthy?
No comment.

Shot in front of an Aunty?
Yes, who hasn’t though?

Receiving a beating in public?
Ohh! That’s happened. It was in my school actually, in Pakistan. Our teachers were the kind of teachers that would whop you. One of the reasons I was so happy to come to Canada was like, “Oh my God, the teachers don’t hit you there. There’s no public shaming.”

On Canada and Justin Trudeau
I think there’s always a sheen on celebrity, especially in Western politics. Obviously, he looks like a fuc*ing Disney prince but what is that really going to do with the way that we’re living right now, or my quality of life and my present spot?

He is seen as a Disney prince, but Canada doesn’t have the best record when it comes to crimes against indigenous people. Do you relate to that?
Yes, there’s a history of that. We learned about it in the fourth grade. I would learn about residential schools where the government would take children of indigenous cultures, and they’d be taught Western ways and stripped off all their culture, and I remember thinking to myself: well, hmmm, this seems familiar.

Read more: Canada PM Justin Trudeau welcomes all immigrants following Trump’s ban

Do you see any progress though?
There is progress. It is one of those things where we are having more desis in government or higher up positions; we have more representation in the media. Things like Trust No Aunty project made by brown people for brown people are getting picked up by Canadian media. All of this is, I think, progress.

What about the recent incidents like a resort being constructed on sacred indigenous land, or the education programme, or the many ignored cases of killings of indigenous women?
I’m not hugely in Canadian politics like that, but I do know that everything is not as it seems. Things aren’t really great, as they are portrayed so often in the mainstream media.

You mentioned earlier that younger desis are more vocal about their rights than the generation before. Do you base this idea on personal interactions?
The next generation, people younger than myself, are really standing up for us (people of colour), which is commendable. I think the best conversations I’ve ever had about where we are as people of colour, or our culture, or the Indian diaspora and how we’re perceived here and how we’re working with each other are with university students or high school students who have come to galleries to come see my exhibits.

They make their parents drive them to whatever gallery was showing my art and then have these conversations with me about the representation of people of colour in the arts. It’s refreshing to hear other young men and women take inspiration from what I’m doing and put their spin to it. I think that’s awesome because I never had that when I was growing up. I never had a brown artist I could show mom and dad and say look this person is doing well and so I can do well too.

Are most of your audience young desis, or do you think your message has reached an Aunty or two?
I do get young desi moms who bring their daughters and sons to the galleries, and a lot of mixed couples -- desis and non-desis -- who bring their children to teach them about their culture. There have been universities that have picked up the work just to show how Lichtenstein’s work isn’t just limited to white culture, and how modern day pop art manoeuvres through politics and how people are living today. So I’m hoping the message has resonated with Aunties and all.

How you caught my attention was the apparent inspiration you took from one of my favourite artists: Roy Lichtenstein. Was that intentional?
Well, yes. Lichtenstein has inspired me a lot. I liked how he worked. He took images from 1940s war comics and isolated them and simplified them in his style and that was saying something society and women. In that sense, he’s not the best portrayer of women stereotypes.

What about pop art attracted you to explore it as a medium?
I think that one of the good things about pop art is that it’s easier to grasp and understand. Pop art is an easier way to get into art; it’s like a gateway to learning more about the art world, which is a wonderful world to be in.

So pop art as the marijuana of art?
(Laughs) Yes, Pop art is the marijuana of art.

Read more: After the fact book

You came into the limelight after your work was shown on the Mindy Kaling show. Do you get tired of people asking you about that?
No. I love Mindy. Honestly, the Mindy Project is just constant romance and constant quirkiness. It’s like one giant Bollywood movie to watch and with a continuous stream of good-looking male leads. She is what I would eventually do in my life as well. I look at that, and I think this is good career goals; this is goals.

Everyone has an opinion on this, so I have to ask: which of Mindy’s men do you prefer?
I really like Danny Castellano. I like the very macho type: the very ‘Ehhh’ type, you know?

First Published: Dec 01, 2017 22:23 IST