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I don’t really know where I’m from. It’s kind of interesting, because we live in such a global world. In America, I’ve seen this really strong sense of nationalism that I’ve not really ever seen anywhere else. I’m coming from Bangladeshi origins that are mixed, then being born in Canada, and raised in Australia. My mother still lives there. My father lives in Abu Dhabi. I now live in New York.
I started writing at a really young age. I don’t know why because I wasn’t particularly good at it. I wasn’t a star English or literature student. I was just always very fascinated by any kind of art form. I felt drawn to the life of an artist. It’s so funny how those things are just implanted into you and you don’t even know why.
I started writing a book when I was 12. It was me, I think, trying to gather my thoughts, and it became a cathartic way to work through a lot of my emotions and depression at the time. My story is not necessarily the story of the lead character of my new book, Like a Bird—a biracial Indian girl who is gang-raped by a family friend, and then processing and surviving this trauma. The story came to me in a dream; I still don’t fully understand why or how.
It’s taken me 18 years to write it. The thing is, I don’t even know if it's any good. It’s 18 years’ worth of my work and my labor and my mind. And I’m finally happy. I don’t know if a piece of work ever feels like it’s fully done, especially when that something is a novel that you’ve been writing for 18 years, but I’m ready to put it out into the planet. It does feel like really great timing. In the post-#MeToo world we live in, we have a very, very different idea of what it means to think and talk about sexual abuse. And I’m really grateful for that.
My career is so split. I mostly make money from modeling and writing, plus I sold some books. I’m in the middle of collaborating on a dance that I want to perform. I’m also painting and I want to have an art show. I don’t pretend to be good at all of these things. I’m just in the pursuit of joy and exploration. I’m trying to expand myself in every way, shape, or form, because I’m really stimulated by that kind of practice.
I came to New York for school. I wanted to be a human rights lawyer. But at a certain point I realized that I didn’t like the atmosphere of a law school, so I decided to drop out. I got a job as a fashion intern-slash-blogger soon after. This was the era when internet writing was really popping—in 2009, 2010.
I really dedicated myself to the practice of writing and slowly began to understand how to find my voice, and then how to do that journalistically, which is so different from writing poetry, which itself is so different from writing essays. I eventually got a position at the Critics Academy, which was a program run by IndieWire to train junior critics. I wrote about film and pop culture for a couple of years and then eventually pivoted into wellness and self-care. A lot of that was because I didn’t feel entirely safe writing about film. I felt as if—well, critics are just assholes, and people who want to consume culture are very righteous about their taste.
Something that felt more holistic for my own heart was writing about wellness.
Something that felt more holistic for my own heart was writing about wellness. I was so curious about it as somebody who has depression, as somebody who comes from a lot of extreme ancestral abuse, as well as a lot of extreme abuse in my lifetime. I was like, why not engage and make critical writing about wellness—thoughtful, interesting writing about looking after yourself, as well as the idiosyncrasies and the nuances of even trying to look after yourself when we live in capitalism.
I’m not an artist that comes from money. Right now, when things are really, really up in the air, it’s very difficult to conceptualize my future because it’s impossible to make work when you’re like, “I’m barely surviving.” I have a lot of shame about that. I want a good life. I like pleasure. I have a nice apartment. I have nice things. I’ve been really thoughtful throughout the years to invest in myself.
But if we want to democratize art and if we want to democratize these spaces of wellness and healing and the environment, then we have to talk about the real life difficulties that some people face because of class. It’s hard not to feel bitter about those things. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been dealt a rough hand, but in so many other ways, I am such a privileged person. It’s complicated and that’s why it’s important to be transparent. I think, for me, being really frank about money is the first way to do it.
If we want to democratize art and if we want to democratize these spaces of wellness and healing and the environment, then we have to talk about the real life difficulties that some people face because of class.
It can be done subtly, too. I just try to bring it up in interviews, or I try to bring it up in my work, if it seems relevant. I don’t have to be carrying around this banner of, “I’m poor.” But a lot of people tweet things like, “All artists are rich” and I think that that’s so destructive because it creates this feedback loop and misunderstanding of the hardships and also the real-life work of making art.
I was raised really, really beautifully within Islam, like 100 percent. My dad is just such a cool person and he really gave me the flexibility to philosophize and think of Islam in the way that I think it actually should be, which is to consider it as a way of life. It’s not actually called a religion within people who actually practice it. It’s seen as a way of life.
That in itself should explain the essence of Islam. Just use it as you will. Don’t hurt other people and all that stuff. All the shit that nobody ever listens to. Instead they fight over the dumb shit.
People should be able to have complicated relationships with what it means to be a person of faith.
My favorite age of Islam is considered the Islamic Golden Age, a 700 year period from the eighth century to the 14th century, when Muslims were inventing everything: universities, mathematics, algebra. They’re removing cataracts from eyeballs—just fully conceptualizing this on their own. A lot of the Greek works that we now read, like Aristotle and Plato, were all first translated into Arabic.
The Islamic world and the enlightenment that it brought to this planet is so huge. Take Rumi, for example. People forget that Rumi is a Muslim poet. During this time, Rumi wrote about drinking and the parallels of the intoxication of love and the intoxication of alcohol, and it’s so nuanced and so blended that you’re not really sure which he’s talking about.
To me, we’ve lost that nuance of faith, and we’ve lost the room for the languidness that comes with faith. People should be able to have complicated relationships with what it means to be a person of faith. To have faith means that there has to be some doubt because you’re inherently fighting against something. That push and pull is so interesting to me, because it’s a really blessed and sacred space to be in. There is no way that I can prove this, but I have a sense that I’m going to be okay. That is such a powerful remedy to anything—to just believe that regardless of whether or not I know it’s real or true. I just believe; I just know.
Bad journeys can also have a purpose. You can have one that, no matter what you witnessed and experienced, was for your own good.
My faith has also shifted because I’ve taken plant medicine a lot. And I now have a full-blown relationship with practicing ayahuasca. I can’t even explain how I started. It called to me. It was like a flag went up.
For people who are curious about it, go in knowing that it could be the worst case scenario. As with all plant medicine, or really any kind of medicine, I think it’s very important to have the right intention. This is vital, because if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, it’s not a good exchange with the plant. I think that’s why people sometimes have bad journeys.
But bad journeys can also have a purpose. You can have one that, no matter what you witnessed and experienced, was for your own good. That’s kind of why you’re doing it in the first place. It’s not recreational. There is this beautiful exchange with the plant, and that’s why the lessons are so potent.
I think weed is sort of an alchemizer for me. That’s not a word, I don’t think. But I can use it to alchemize any situation. If I need to write, I can smoke weed and be like, Okay, bitch, you got to focus, and I will write the shit out of what I need to write. Similarly, if I want to be like, I’m just going to chill, I’m not going to worry about anything, I’m just going to watch this TV show for however long, I can also do that really seamlessly.
Then there are some days, like on a weekend, when I just want to black the fuck out. When I don’t want to be in my body or in this space. I don’t want to think about anything. And I’m just like, you know what, I deserve to get high.
Smoking weed in America is so terrifying. I moved from Australia when I was quite young, like 19, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you completely what it’s like there now, but from my experiences, it never felt too dangerous. It never felt dangerous in Canada. I’ve definitely smoked on the street in Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal. There’s just something so palpable about being surveilled in America that I think I’m maybe a little more conscious about it. But ironically, my consumption of weed has skyrocketed since I moved here.
I think weed is sort of an alchemizer for me. That’s not a word, I don’t think. But I can use it to alchemize any situation.
Cannabis is not something that I’ve ever really discussed with my parents. I’m very honest about my relationship with it online, and if they ever wanted to stalk me, it’s all out there. But they’ve never talked to me about it. The closest thing that my mother—and I don’t talk to my mother anymore, so this was a while ago—has ever said to me was like, “Don’t drink. It’s not good for you.” That’s the most I’ve ever engaged with them about it.
It’s a really Muslim experience where your parents pretend like none of that shit is real. What’s that Jake Gyllenhaal movie? Bubble Boy. You’re like Bubble Boy in a lot of ways. That’s why so many Muslim kids, when they’re finally out into the world, are just like, what?
It breeds more dishonesty with yourself because you’re always comparing yourself to the impossible version that your parents seeded in you, and then you feel guilty and ashamed for not being that person. So you almost turn against that person in your mind, and it creates this really unhealthy relationship where you’re not facing the fact that it’s okay to be complicated. It’s okay to be nuanced. It’s okay to not be 100 percent all the time, which I think kids in any kind of faith are not told enough. It’s okay to stumble. You don't have to completely get off the horse.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Fariha Róisín photographed by Meredith Jenks at her home in New York. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.