Origin Story: Gabrielle

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I’m not the best with words.

It’s been that way since I was a little kid struggling with talking properly even after kindergarten. It was simply another symptom of autism spectrum disorder that would also shape the person I am today and how I see the world. The combination of my race and being autistic made me look back on my life for more than 20 years and look real hard at how the combination of the two affected me.

Beyond struggling with English words, there’s the fact that I can’t struggle with Filipino words. Simply because I never learned the language. It’s not uncommon for children of immigrants to not learn their parent’s mother tongue when they’re busy working full time for financial security. But nonetheless, the language barrier along with the fact that I never grew up the “Filipino” way in the Philippines speaking Filipino made me feel like an outsider in a group of people tied together because they’re Filipinos. My own Filipino co-workers, who grew up in the Philippines, have said to my face that I’m not “really Filipino” because I only speak English.

It’s hard for me to comprehensively knit the words I need to describe the situation of being considered the “other” in overly-white Canadian society, while also being seen as “not really Filipino” among other Filipinos. My written words can’t do justice to the stories I want to tell, and yet those long 23 years of self-reflection have shown me that I don’t necessarily need only words to say that.

I’ve realized that my own path is to utilize my passion of illustrating to say the words that I can’t necessarily write. And that the splashes of lines and colours will inspire others to say their own words their own way.

Origin Story: Heba

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The fall I contracted carpal tunnel I used to cry myself to sleep, thinking that at 21 I was kissing the cadence of my handwriting goodbye. Most people with whom I speak about my writing are familiar with this vanity: that I love the look of my handwriting as much as your enticement with oven-fresh cookies, and that to me, flipping to a random page of a notebook and finding my script in fine graphite is one of the warmest comforts.

How I began is this: in 2005, I christened my first writing notebook, a white-and-yellow spiral 1-subject in which I wrote—what else but—Harry Potter fanfiction. I've been in love with story for as long as I can remember, but this journal was the first to be officially named (an apt "#1," of which I am now nearing 40) for creative purpose. I was in sixth grade and class time stretched too long, so I spent every period with my writing companion in front of me and my actual subject notes open on the corner of my desk. During break or at lunch I would pass around the notebook to my friends, who would read it and support me with bright eyes, and then pull out paper to write something, too. Inspired. We wrote, we shared, we spread.

By the end of that year I found my tools of the trade: FiveStar Advance Spiral 5- or 1-subject, Zebra M-301 mechanical pencil, white Staedler eraser. Come the inception of our writing club a year later, my friends joked that my pencil had written more stories than anyone else present, including myself. Actually, I should include my friends in the list, too, because even as they changed they were just as integral to my writing as any instrument.

It would make for a good story to say that I write because I have something to say. That early on I was left wanting for lack of myself in the things that I read, that I wanted to push through the crowd in the library hall of mirrors and chance upon a reflection that fit.

Not so. To be honest, I wrote then because it was fun, and it was something I was good at it, and because I liked it when the gang yoinked my notebook before I was finished. I liked that validation, and I liked the speed of it, and I liked it when somewhere along the line the hobby became ingrained me, when I started to not just write but think and dream in prose, to find story in every little thing, to, eventually, need voice memos while driving. I confess that sometimes I exist somewhere meta, thinking about real problems more as things to explore in a narrative than something with which I, you know, actually gotta deal.

I write now because turns of phrase are my lifeblood, because this is as necessary to me for a fulfilling life as love. Without it I feel half-dead, incomplete. Both satiation and depravity remind me that it was not a waste of time and energy to invest here.

It is only incidental that I happen to be Muslim and American and South Asian and whatever else before my ancestors immigrated there. This is all a selfish pleasure: I love prose and poetry and their mingling and I love sharing and being shared with and I love the look of my handwriting and my own literary cadence and to admire and analyze that of others, and I love to be Muslim and American and South Asian no matter the strife it causes me. And I love to amplify that love with and in others.

There is so much to be played with here. To write, to share, to spread. And so here I am.

Origin Story: Allyson

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When you attend an elementary school where POCs are the majority and racism is used as an effective form of bullying, because Russell Peters is the shit, you learn a thing or two about power.

We were the majority. We were represented in the classroom. We were supported. We were the norm. We joked about rice, curry, and pasta to diss each other, and we relished each other’s creative ways of twisting our cultures for our amusement. We were ignorant of many things.

I never understood that I was part of a minority until I reached university. Even though the signs were there in high school and other aspects of life, I was too caught up in books, band, and friends to process them. I knew what racism was, Grade 10 history taught me that, but something wasn’t clicking.

It wasn’t clicking because in elementary school I felt the freedom of a dominant culture where I was represented, where I wasn’t compartmentalized into a stereotype; except when we were dissing each other, of course.

In first year university, our teaching assistant said that one person in our tutorial group had achieved a perfect grade while handing back our midterms. Conscious of being the only POC and having an extensive knowledge of stereotypes, I got up. I wasn’t confident in my grade, so I was more focused on passing than being Southeast Asian. As I glanced at my passing mark, I returned to my seat, relieved. I heard one of my classmates whisper to another, “She’s the one who probably got it.”

Power is a hell of a drug.

When you realize that your elementary school disses were nothing new and used in propaganda to demonize an entire group of people, you start to realize your own ignorance. When you’re supposed to be smart because of your race, you realize to some, you’re of one dimension. When you’ve grown up in a space where you were the majority, you will do everything you can to empower the minority.

Everyone should have a space to feel empowered. Everyone should have a space to feel safe. Everyone should have a space.

Origin Story: Tasneem

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Books have always been a huge part of my life.

I learned to read in kindergarten and almost got bumped up a grade since I was already reading full novels by Grade One. During grade school, my bedside table held a stack of books so when I finished one, I could immediately pick up the next in the series. Recesses were spent wandering around the playground daydreaming about my Hogwarts letter, or wondering if I'd ever get to join W.I.T.C.H.

In high school, it was no different, though my choice in books changed and I realized stories weren't just exclusive to the written word. Manga took over my life, and I became enthralled in series like Fullmetal Alchemist and Fruits Basket, among many others.

I loved books so much that in university I decided to be an English and Classical Civilizations major. I would study books in one program, and Ancient Rome and Greece in the other. I thought it would be fantastic.

It was probably my first mistake.

Academia suggests that the only books worth studying in any capacity from any time period are written by white people. Usually white men. I read so many books that denied or ignored the existence of anything other than white, that it was actually exhausting. If they did somehow have a person of colour in the cast, they were usually unimportant or there to prove some sort of stereotypical racial point. History from books is fascinating, since you can learn a lot about a culture at any given time by reading their books. But sometimes, you want to hear a different perspective. A non-white perspective.

Reading about the "otherness" of Africa (as a whole continent, not a specific country or area), or reading about the "barbarians" of India was... disappointing. Yes, these books were written in a period of colonialists who thought they were bringing these people of colour civilization and manners. But with stories, shouldn't we always get to hear multiple sides? Fiction can do that. Fictional books can be written by anyone. Not just the victors.

It was pretty clear in university that books back in the day (and sometimes even now) only exist to perpetuate a status quo.

At least in manga, the characters for the most part are East Asian, unless based elsewhere. Some characters in Harry Potter were casted in the movies as black, and there's no way you can tell me Parvati and Padma Patil aren't some sort of brown. Even in The Hunger Games, there was an important black girl character (despite there being an uproar about her perfect casting choice in the movies).

But even now, in a globalized age, there aren't enough of us in stories.

My bookshelves remain a constant in my life. I've packed them to the brim and then built more just to make room for all the novels and stories I've collected through the years. Video games and movies have made the cut too, because they're stories too, presented to us in a different medium. I love all of them, but something always feels missing. So, another constant remains: There aren't enough of us.

KROS Magazine was an idea I had at the start of my Publishing program at Centennial College in 2016.

It started with wanting to see more South and Southeast Asian authors in bookstores, with stories that aren't toned down or diluted for a generalized audience. With stories that vary just as much as all the stories I had to read in university, but with people who aren't white leading the way.

One thing I learned during the program is that the publishing industry is primarily made up of white women. That means that when stories or authors are needed, they go to their friends who are other white women. It's not necessarily a biased structure, but rather a networking structure that is in desperate need of some diversity. I'm willing to help speed up that process by being part of your network. Like your foot in the door to what sometimes feels like a closed-off industry. An editor and publisher for your stories, to make sure they eventually see the light of day.

While there are successful authors from our demographic (like Sandhya Menon with When Dimple Met Rishi or Sabaa Tahir with An Ember in the Ashes, whose books I love and adore), I think there could be more of us. More whose stories add to the diverse nature of our cultures and backgrounds, so that the narrative we have isn't so homogenous.

Most of the time, our stories are lumped in with the narratives of the Middle East, or East Asia, because we're all considered to be "other," so it's easy to do that. But our stories aren't theirs.

I moved to Toronto, Ontario, in August of 2016. Until then, I lived in a city where the population was mostly all white. There was an Indian community, but because I was so whitewashed growing up, I didn't fit in at all. I didn't have the same cultural or religious restrictions. I didn't even know a word of my parent's language, Gujarati.

But all that meant to me was that there couldn't be one way to view me or my people. If I was so different, then surely others were too. So why were the Indian characters in TV shows and books so... the same? It was probably easier that way, to keep us all stereotyped.

Some people speak up in defense of their exclusively white-casted stories by telling us they're "more realistic," because some cities and towns "don't have minorities."

I don't believe that's true. If my hometown had an entire community of Indo-Pakistani people hidden in plain sight, then other places have us in them too. However, I do believe that in the pursuit of realism, we should be able to see more diversity within the characterizations of ourselves.

That means more stories, by us. And if the usual publishers won't print them on paper because they don't fit a sales target or keep the status quo, then I will. With KROS Magazine.

The program at Centennial gave me the knowledge and tools to make that happen, so why not use them for this purpose? There's no reason not to, and there's too many reasons why our voices need to be heard.

I will be the captain of this ship, and I will make sure it sets sail.

All aboard!

Detached

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Filipino folklore was never introduced to me as a child. My heart was never filled with fear and wonder by fantastical tales from the Philippines before bedtime. I knew that bruha meant witch—that was about the extent of my knowledge of the lore.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I researched Filipino legends for a project in Grade 12 and found out that there’s an entity that detaches its upper torso from the rest of its body and flies around after the sun sets, favouring pregnant women as its prey.

No.

In Grade 12, I thought the aswang, a shapeshifting, vampire-like creature, was the manananggal; the names are used interchangeably in online sources, and only recently did I find the name of the detachable monster that has since fascinated me. I researched a bunch of other myths and legends for my Grade 12 project, but to this day I can only remember the manananggal. It was such a strange creature, with an oddly specific taste for the fertile.

Allow me to take you to a barangay in the Philippines, surrounded by dense, rich forest. Its inhabitants are asleep or are resisting the urge to close their eyes; although the sun has just set and the night brings new pleasantries, the roosters will wake you up at 4:00 a.m., regardless of how late you stay up. Within the swaying emerald mass the manananggal detaches its upper torso and leaves its bottom half concealed by the wild and the moon. Its bottom half remains standing, the only static object in the forest, waiting patiently to be whole. The wings of the manananggal unfurl and it eyes the barangay, its entrails exposed to the elements, dangling above the homes of its potential victims.

Peering into a home, it sees a pregnant woman who is fast asleep, hand clutching her stomach, and another under her pillow. Its tube-like tongue slithers up to her and sucks out her unborn child, leaving her barren. Satisfied for the night, the manananggal assumes flight, and becomes whole in the forest.

Again, I never grew up with Filipino folklore. So, when I described and commented on the “aswang” to my mom, there was a brief silence between us.

She then replied with, “How did you know that?”

raat ki rani

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october is spooky. october is scary. and the spookiest, scariest islamic stories are always about the jinn.

jinn are beings made of smokeless fire, unable to be seen by the naked human eye. they live among us with their own daily lives and communities. they're everywhere and nowhere, completely common in every way (in the way that anything out of sight and out of mind would be).

however, close encounters of the third kind have nothing on the jinn when it comes to scaring muslim children all over the world.

except me, of course.

black magic is something very real in islam. it's used to summon and control jinn, for a price of course (your sanity).

whenever i was told a jinn story, i thought they were the coolest thing. straight out of fiction, except they were real. the best stories always have some truth in them.

one day, while my mother, brother, and i were vacationing in alberta with some family friends, we went on a seven hour hike at waterton. it was exhausting, but worth it. however, there was a slight problem. my mom really needed to pee. she refused to the nth degree to do this "just anywhere" and sought out a location with no fragrant flowers, just dirt and weeds, and let us all go on ahead while she did her thing.

when i asked her about this later, the drama she threw at the situation, she told me a story. it takes place in malawi, where my grandmother's family comes from. they were sitting on their old-style wraparound porch. meat was sizzling on the long grill. the adults were chatting and laughing and having a "merry ol' time."

until one of them saw a spectre, initially thought of as a trick of the light like a heat wave, circling around the most fragrant flower in the garden, the raat ki rani, or the night-blooming jasmine. they immediately shushed the rest of the attendees and ushered them all inside.

the last thing you want to do is disturb a jinn.

according to my mom, jinn are attracted to flowers, and the most fragrant ones can be their homes. if you dared used their home as a bathroom, well... she doesn't even want to think about what kind of horrors she'd suffer because of it.

we know family members who've had to be exorcised because of jinn possession, and that's not something mom (or i!) would ever want to cross off on a bucket list.

so it's like i said, the best, scariest stories always have some truth in them.

(too bad i'm still not scared) 

the crossroads: prince ali, salman rushdie, and me

Aladdin was my Disney Prince. I had a crush on him for as long as I can remember; as a kid I watched the library's copy of Aladdin and the King of Thieves enough not only to internalize every scene and song, but to run the VHS tape beyond repair. He was my Prince because he was kind enough to offer his bread, because I had a penchant for rogues (or perhaps for this he and Peter Pan are together to blame?), and because he was painted familiar: Tanner skin, black hair, shalwar, and Robin Williams's suggestion that we "brush up [our] Sunday salaam for Prince Ali" while he rode on "Abu."

(Incidentally, my father's favorite way to annoy me was to pronounce my boy's name "Al ad-Din," to which I'd immediately stomp my foot and correct, "No, it's Aladdin." Embarrassing in retrospect.)

But while Aladdin was my Prince Jasmine wasn't my Princess—the honor belonged to Mulan—excepting in small, clear moments: Her tiger's name was "Raja." Her father was the sultan and swore by "Allah." One time, she hid her harem dress in a brown cloak and covered her hair, and that image—she—was familiar. Not to say that your Disney Prince or Princess must look or act like you, but it was nice and felt good to see these people who sort of looked like me fall in love, especially since the closest thing to me in Disney was actually Shere "Khan" from The Jungle Book, which was only fun to watch because I liked to hear them call the bear "Baloo" and the elephant "General Haati."

It was that familiarity that drew me to Aladdin and, I think, Mulan, a tomboy who feared being a disappointment as a daughter, who valued her family's honor, who was coded a bit foreign. These were the Disney classics that always felt like mine (and, I should note, in a way The Jungle Book didn't).

Then the truth hit when I was older, slowly, after a course in which I studied the origin of Aladdin and the summer after I finally read Ala ad-Din and the Magic Lamp: the "original" Ala ad-Din was kind of a dick. He was lazy and his story was racist and creepy and translated from and to Arabic by men called Orientalists, and Disney's Aladdin, in some ways a welcome departure from its source material, had nothing to do with me. I'm not Disney's target audience. "Raja" and "salaam" and "abu," "Jafaar" (a name I'd come to associate with evil),"Prince Ali" and "by Allah" are flavor text, not so much for authenticity as for a hint of spice.

And, years later, the original flavor of Prince Ali has gone from adoration to something more complicated, something just shy of betrayal. Because in a way I am the American child it was written for, and in a way I'm not. Because I am a crossroads.

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It was in the same course as The Arabian Nights that my professor had us finish off the semester with Salman Rushdie, whose given name I still read like the fish instead of al-Farsi. I didn't know much about Rushdie except that he was a subject to be avoided; something about slander, something about a fatwa. Our class, meanwhile, was subtitled "Storytelling in the 'Muslim World,'" and just before we cracked open our final novel, she challenged our notion of the quoted sphere with the question of whether writing in English from an Indian man in the United Kingdom, who had both offended and cast-off mainstream Islam, could count under the banner.

With that in mind, we plunged in.

I had to read Haroun and the Sea of Stories carefully at home. Years later, my cousin would mail the book back to me having borrowed it, and my parents would be upset for the second time at its presence in our house.

The verdict?

I told my professor after our first discussion that I loved the book and that I wished I'd read it as a kid. Here was the land of "Kahani," and it was called that because that's what you call Storybrooke for a kid named Haroun. Here there were "Guppees" who talked too much and "Chupwallas" who never spoke, and the antagonist was "Khatam-Shud," the end. Here the protagonist rode a hoopoe, not a phoenix, and his father was the "Shah of Blah," a title that's magic on its own, being a rhyme of two languages, and I got it. My professor was Egyptian and she assumed Princess "Batcheat" was a pun on "batshit" but I understood her name immediately to come from "batjeet," from "conversation," and God, how I was breathless. Even the things that I didn't know—this time from the other end of the spectrum, such as the mythology of the hoopoe—felt familiar, puzzle pieces I didn't realize were missing and for which I was eager to find a place.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books. It sits next to Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Wein, and J. K. Rowling, all of whom have brought changes to my writing and excitement to my writer's heart.

But I can't actually put it on my shelf. And that's not because I have to hide it from my parents—it's because I'm not really sure if I myself am okay with how much I like it. Rushdie is a talented storyteller and we tick off similar boxes and I'm intimidated by his skill and respect his bank of knowledge, but I am a proud Muslim and I'm not okay with some of the things for which he stands.

Does his novel "count" as a story from the "Muslim world"? Is Haroun and the Sea of Stories written for someone like me? It's intimately entwined with the corresponding mythology from a man who lived and clearly studied it. It's not a translation or an adaptation of anything; it sits at a crossroads and makes the most of it.

All I can say is I want more. I want more of this, of writers who don't translate or adapt but intertwine. No footnotes, no glossary, this is what it is and spices are added not for additional flavor but because they're intrinsic to the recipe. One of my protagonists divides her day into seven pieces: fajr time, morning, dhur time, 'asr time, maghrib time, isha'a time, dear-god-I-should-be-asleep-my-parents-will-kill-me. It's a personal and synaptic rule of which she's scarcely aware; it always has been and will be, whether she is going through the mundane routines of adulthood or tempering a crisis of faith or saving the world with a talking bird on her shoulder and sword in hand. She won't be explaining it to anyone, but if her readers find it familiar, or eventually internalize and understand, that is success.

A crossroads is, after all, a meeting of roads, not their terminus. A hub for rich activity; teeming with knowledge and creativity, exchanged and the best exalted.

There are a lot of roads in North America. I'll be in my car.

The Effects of Filipino Culture on Canadian-Filipino Youth: A Case Study

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Growing up in a Filipino household with hardworking parents and grandparent, and being the eldest child and only daughter creates some intense intersectional expectations. My father’s side of the family had doctors, architects, teachers, and artists; my mother’s side had generations of domestic workers, store owners, and farmers.

There seems to be an overwhelming consensus in Filipino culture that to be successful you will need to be a nurse, domestic worker, teacher, or anything that will pull you out of poverty.

I’ve been pushed and pulled into several directions based on the expectations of my elders to the point where I decided to fight fire with fire. A nurse? Nah, I’ll be a doctor.

Being the first of both families to attend university in Canada, everyone had high hopes. I was to become a psychologist and open a practice of my own—I would meet expectations and then some.

But, sometimes your passions cling to you like burrs on a finely knit sweater. In third year, I wrote a manuscript for National Novel Writing Month, and fell in love with a craft that I buried in a concerted effort to smash familial expectations.

Instead of deciding to take a fifth year to do a thesis, I applied to a publishing program. I decided to drop everything and read. There was a great deal of confusion and a lingering sense of doubt within my family, but there was something within me that knew if I didn’t take this chance, if I didn’t see what I was made of, then I would’ve been an artless doctor for the rest of my life—if I ever made it to grad school, that is.

After I was accepted into the program, it was strange walking into psychology classes every day, looking at the crowd of students who were invested and determined to make something of themselves in the field. It was as if I was swimming in another stream and watching everyone else float by me, unaware of the academic waters that they resided in.

I met one person in my program who was also applying to something other than psychology. We spent a good 30 minutes before an exam talking about how psychology was interesting but wasn’t for us, and how tradition and culture almost messed us up. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to take a chance and invent a new path for myself rather than following one that I knew I never wanted.

#ownvoices don't have to be complicated

We don't need our stories to constantly be dowsed in politics for them to be #ownvoices stories.

Our racial and religious identities don't always need to be front and center. Sometimes a brown character is just that: a brown character. There doesn't need to be a reason for them being brown. Their parents don't need to be doctors or own a corner store, nor do they need to be breaking the stereotypes so dramatically as to become the complete opposite.

They just are, just as we are.

Whether your stories want to make a statement or not, it doesn't matter. Because an #ownvoices story just needs to be written by one of us to qualify.

It's already tiring enough justifying our existence in the real world, going through the politics of immigration, of DACA, of why we came to be here in the first place. Why do our characters need that same kind of justification?

It's fiction. You can do whatever you want, however you want, as politicized as you want.

It's up to you.