Scrolling through Fariha Róisín’s Instagram, you can find endless inspiration. She is a self-possessed, confident, and creative human being working her best to make our world a little more caring, a little more comfortable, and a lot more honest. I first stumbled across her work through the Managing Editor of Conversation X, Sara Kloepfer. Sara shared Fariha’s wonderful pieces about art and Islam and South Asian teenagehood. Since then I have remained in awe of Fariha’s dedication to writing about race, colonialism, Islam, sexuality, and activism. She has consistently served powerful critiques of politics, art, and white supremacy. Fariha’s frankness about the challenges she faces is a nourishing form of intimacy that is hard to come by these days. We caught up and discussed the internet and religion, her inspirations, how she takes care of herself, and what solidarity means to her.
Efe Igor (Editor-in-Chief): I have read some of your insightful perspectives about the multiple dimensions of faith. You write so elegantly about the diversity within Islam. How has the internet helped you understand your religion?
Fariha Róisín: I’m not sure it has. I was lucky, because I was raised with such beliefs, so they’re not really original. I mean that in the sense of Islam being a way of life, or a philosophy, as opposed to a faith with a particular system of strictures. I had a very spiritually Muslim upbringing, so I was always cognizant of this very holistic idea of Islam. My dad raised me on watching documentaries about Cordoba, and Muslim Spain, and the Golden Age of Islam where people like Ibn Sina were these renaissance men who were able to be philosophers, as well as physicians and poets. In high school, one of my final papers was on the contributions of Islam to the West, which we like to forget when we talk about the “Muslim problem.” The West is built on Muslim thought and findings. It owes a lot of its legacy to the Muslim empire, and Muslim thinkers. The internet never really taught me any of this, though, as I started using the internet pretty late in the game, and by then I had formed a lot of my spiritual/political praxis.
EI: You shed critical insight on Islamophobia in the United States and Canada. What is your current understanding of politics in the Canadian context? How does discrimination get undercut by the myth of multicultural cohesion?
FR: Yeah, well that’s Canada’s largest export, right — its happy-go-lucky, faux friendly sensibility. Canadians love juxtaposing themselves to Americans, and it’s this weird superiority complex that’s prioritized kindness as a virtue — which is a virtue, it’s just a fake one for Canada. There’s still a history of slavery in Nova Scotia, and maybe because they assume it’s not as heinous as the American South (which is a ridiculous argument by the way), Canadians have managed to not face the same excoriation. I also look at Canada’s sustained legacy of its (mis)treatment of Native and Indigenous folk, and the fact that the deaths and rapes of missing Aboriginal women are still so common shows how far Canada has to go to heal and properly equip itself to protect its Indigenous population. When I was in law school, Canada was upheld as some kind of example, and then I lived there, and I saw racism seeping through the pores, it was deeply upsetting. Also, what is wrong with Quebec? What is wrong with the French and their imposition of paternalistic ideas of egalité? Its total lack of perspective and responsibility for colonialism is jarring. But the Quebecois values of equality are very much aligned with Canadian values of fairness — it’s for some, but not for all. It’s pandering to a white liberalist idea of Canada that is hollow and boring.
EI: What kind of work inspires your writing practice? Where do you find the courage to be so honest to strangers?
FR: Radicality is what inspires me. Honestly, most of the people I look up to are people that spoke out, and spoke truth. People like Arundhati Roy, John Berger, Angela Davis, Asma Lamrabet, Noam Chomsky, Etel Adnan, Assata Shakur, Gayatri Spivak. They’re thinkers that are invested in truth, not some false notion of equality. I love Oprah, but as Shailja Patel recently pointed out, she was also a huge supporter of the Iraq War. Yes, Natalie Portman called out all male directors at the Golden Globes, but she’s also a Zionist. I mean, it’s pretty transparent to me when Hollywood elite espouse human rights, because it’s always so messy and hypocritical. Even someone like bell hooks, who I grew up loving, I’ve had a hard time digesting recently. I don’t think bell is open to important issues in “feminism” like the placement of trans women, and how their voices are equally important as cis women in feminist narratives. She’s also said mad shady things about Beyoncé, and you can say what you want about Beyoncé and Jay Z being capitalists, but I’m not comfortable with that being a reason to dismiss all the work they’ve been doing since Ferguson. They’ve rallied thousands of (non-black) people and taught them about things like #blacklivesmatter so openly and compassionately. Those are dualities I think we should accept, because why should people of color not want money? I mean as long are you’re not Ajit Pai. My parents are Socialists and it makes me mad that they’ve always shamed me for wanting more. Yes, capitalism is nefarious, but I think it’s what you do with your art that matters, what you do with your voice, with the money you acquire. I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out.
EI: Because of lot of the work you do is about care, I was wondering what your self-care routine is. How do you take care of yourself on your down time?
FR: I take time off. Not having a phone, or not allowing people to have access to me, being a public person, has been an important and necessary implementation. I’m realizing, a lot of people will say a lot of mean things about you, they will claim untrue things about you, or to know you when they’ve never met you, because somebody they know said something about you, people you once loved will hurt you, and you will lose them. It’s important to remember this but still remain warm and open, whilst remaining protective of the fact that not everyone wants you to be happy. Be invested in yourself.
EI: On Instagram you mentioned that this year is about thriving, instead of just merely surviving. What does thriving look like for you?
FR: Being able to create the work I want to make, without having to worry about money, ever. Being an artist that doesn’t come from money has been a very ambitious pursuit. I’m still lucky, as my parents helped me out in the beginning when I needed them, even though they couldn’t afford to, because it was hard to maintain my stability as a freelancer — but afterwards I was on my own. I was suicidal one year because I was so broke because of late cheques, and being unable to save, because I live from cheque-to-cheque, but I still didn’t ask anyone for money. I know that I chose this path, and my parents made that clear that I have to do it on my own, that it’s no one else’s responsibility. So, for years I’ve been independent, and it’s a struggle. So thriving is not just getting by. It’s winning. It’s being able to feel comfortable, and not be afraid to spend on something that you want, out of fear that you’ll be hungry.
EI: I love the horoscopes you do for them. I am a Cancer and can totally identify with the energy you were writing about. How did you get involved with them? How does it fit in to your other online work?
FR: Well, Phillip Picardi contacted me to write for Teen Vogue years ago when he was just starting there. We’ve been friends since. During Orlando, we talked and mourned, and cried for about an hour on the phone. I was in Montréal at the time, and was really devastated by the attacks, for obvious reasons. Gender and sexuality are really important things for me as a Muslim femme, because I never had access to think about them openly as a young person. Even still, I figured out I was bi really young, around my early teens, and went to an all girls school, so it was tricky to be open about those things. Gender conversations with myself came much later, but I’m so proud of what them stands for, and the platform it gives so many people. When Phillip was in the process of figuring out them he contacted me and told me he wanted me to be involved. Then one day I gave him a reading, and a few days later he offered me the column. Astrology has always been a part of me, it’s not a fad for me, as I’ve known my full chart since I was a teen (I got my first full reading at 18) so it’s definitely been a lens through which I view the world. The column itself is healing, and healing work is hard to come by, but so necessary.
EI: You were waxing poetic on representation, whiteness, and tokenism during the How We Write Now: Cultural Criticism in an Era of Deconstructed Whiteness event. What does representation look like to you in this political climate?
FR: Solidarity. Solidarity. Solidarity. Amongst everyone. But also, less performativity. I’m tired of people espousing something on Twitter and not self actualizing those politics in their actual lives. I’m tired of women of color talking about protecting women of color online, and not doing that IRL. I know I’m going to sound like an old grump, but it’s infuriating to see people who’ve fucked you over criticizing the very things they’ve done to you. It’s so easy now to have the right vocabulary, but what are people doing with their hearts? Where’s the integrity? We need to actually be the change we tell other people to be.