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On Having Courage, and Finding Your Own Voice

I spent my life hiding. Now, I’m stepping forward. An excerpt from 'Radiant Voices,' a new collection of 21 radical writers.

Tasha Kaur 10 Oct 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Tasha Kaur is a settler of Punjabi descent living in Vancouver on the unceded territory of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Peoples. She is passionate about exploring how creativity and social change overlap.

[Editor’s note: 'Radiant Voices' is a collection of 21 different essays that originally inspired EMMA Talks, a speaker series that’s hosted a wild and thrilling range of different women creators — writers, singers, academics and activists. The original intent was to offer a platform to amplify the voices of women, trans and gender-nonconforming people.

In her introduction to this collection, editor carla bergman sums up the ethos of EMMA Talks and the book it inspired: “I believe that sharing and listening to our stories can fuel action, connections and new possibilities. The brave voices, like the ones in this collection, are essential to our survival — together, we are many, and we can change the landscapes of our lives.”

I had the pleasure of attending EMMA Talks over the years and was very proud to contribute an essay along with this remarkable group, which includes everyone from Kinnie Starr, Silvia Federici to Chief Janice George. These are major writers and emerging voices, all gathered together, along with Julie Flett’s wonderful illustrations.

Tasha Kaur’s essay 'Telling a New Story,' excerpted below, is a perfect embodiment of the collection — vulnerable, heartbreaking and ultimately brave. As she says, "This essay is my offering to all the courageous storytellers. I hope to hear more of your voices." — Dorothy Woodend, culture editor]

As with most people who grew up in families that do not fit the mould will understand, I learned from an early age to split myself into different parts. The divide between the me that existed with my Punjabi family and the me that existed at my predominantly white elementary school was stark. When I was in Grade 1, a few white girls in my class asked me if I believed in Jesus. I was confused by the question. I had never been asked that before. Then they asked if I believed in the devil. I did not know who the devil was, nor what it meant to believe in him. I eventually told them I did not, but it did not matter. The pause in my response and confusion on my face gave me away as different. I felt hurt and embarrassed. My sister describes these events in our lives as the constant humiliation of being the other: the feeling of knowing you have done something to reveal the myriad ways you do not belong.

I was a smart kid, though, and figured out a life hack for this situation. I quickly learned the separate rules for existence: though they were only a five-minute walk from each other, home and school had different languages, foods and ways of being. I figured out how to be normal and acceptable at school: don’t talk about your non-Christian god, don’t speak Punjabi, ignore it when someone is confused by you living with your grandparents, aunts and uncles. I studied whiteness and became good at appealing to it. But I shed that way of being when I got home. Quite literally as soon as I walked into my house after school, I would go straight to my room and change into my home clothes. I performed the two separate parts of myself with such ease that even I did not notice when I switched. It was only when my two worlds collided that I felt jarring discomfort, as if a secret was being revealed.

When I was eight, I injured my toe playing at home and developed a slight limp when I walked. My grandmother, loving as she was, thought I would have trouble walking home for lunch that day, so she brought my lunch to school. She showed up in my classroom doorway dressed in a brightly patterned Punjabi suit, carrying my lunch in steel dishes on a metal tray with a large steel jug of milk covered in tinfoil. All my classmates ate white-bread sandwiches from Ziploc bags. I rushed to the door and told her in Punjabi that we had to go home. I was upset at her for coming to school. She did not understand why and thought I was being so strange for not wanting to eat at school. I could not explain I did not want her looking like that in my school. I made up an excuse — I cannot remember what. I still worry she felt rejected. I did, after all, reject her in that moment, her offering of love and care and what she revealed about who I am. These kinds of betrayals come from the impossible dance of hiding half of yourself.

From this early age, like so many women of colour, I learned how to read the expectations others would set out for me and meet them. This was how I tried to be “good” and make people happy. I was, for the most part, a “good” daughter and granddaughter at home. And I was a “good” normal kid at school. This early training of putting others before myself has never left me.

It is not all bad. In fact, there are many aspects of this characteristic I quite like. In our hyper-individualist capitalist world, being conditioned to think about others helped quiet the me first voice that might have otherwise taken over. There is much value in putting others first. I like that I grew up with a practice that says hosts only eat after all their guests are well fed. Or that even as a kid, I was expected to check if any grandparents, especially those with mobility or health issues, needed food before I served myself. While I did not understand it this way at the time, an analysis of power underscores this behaviour. If I am a young, able-bodied person, of course I should check with older members of the community and help them get their needs met first.

As I grew older, I learned more about power and justice. I was drawn to justice work. The intimacy of being the other has served me well in this area, too. While I hold privileges of class, citizenship, able-bodied-ness, a cisgender identity, and being a settler, my life in this marginalized body has helped me stay present with what it means to be betrayed by allies I thought I could trust. I know what it feels like to think it would be easier for everyone if I could just keep my emotions to myself — be quiet, go along with the crowd, let myself be erased. I carry that pain and do my best to avoid enacting that violence on others. Even though I have fucked up, I put a great deal of intention into being in solidarity with people whose struggles are different from mine.

I am far from perfect in this journey, and I am committed to learning and growing. I recognize that this learning and growth comes from people who have trusted me with their struggles, and I hope to live up to that honour. I have been fortunate enough to take on leadership roles in communities and organizations working for social justice — we are all leaders, but I am referring to ones acknowledged by hierarchies. Even within those positions, I have been happy to stay in the background. In part, this comes from a healthy intent to be mindful of my privilege. I try to ask: Is there someone whose voice is more important here? Part of this motivation, though, comes from a less healthy comfort I find in hiding. Speaking in public is not personal for me. It is about supporting a community, campaign or direct action against injustice. It is not this story — me and the details of my life. That is something I reserve for intimate conversations in small rooms without cameras and an audience of strangers.

Writing this piece was deeply frightening. I fear being an imposter. I fear revealing this much of me so publicly. I have been told I am a good storyteller. I know how to combine humour, drama and vulnerability to tell a story that is entertaining. For most of my stories, I calculate how vulnerable I want to be — just enough to make me authentic but not so much I feel scared. While many social spaces claim to value authenticity, we fail to recognize that the ability to be honest is a privilege. The more privileged and valued you are by society, the less cost there is being yourself. If you have this kind of privilege, you know what it means to be desired — social media and social capital amplify what is desirable. The authentic is not easily separated from a selective performance of authenticity. I cannot say for sure where this story sits on that spectrum.

Writing this story was unbelievably challenging. I had to push myself to stop thinking about what other people want to hear and start thinking about what I need to say. Thinking about what I need is like using a muscle that has atrophied after a long period of lack of use. Writing this story required new kinds of vulnerability and admitting things I have never talked about. It involved taking up space I am not sure belongs to me — space just for my benefit. I take comfort in the idea that this is an experiment: I am trying something new, a new way of being. I am unsure if it will be a permanent change, but I am glad to have taken the risk. I also take comfort in knowing that my vision of justice includes many more people taking up space with their untold stories. I want to hear their stories. Meaningful relationships require reciprocity. This essay is my offering to all the courageous storytellers. I hope to hear more of your voices.

Reprinted with permission from 'Radiant Voices' by carla bergman, 2019 Brindle & Glass, a literary imprint of TouchWood Editions. Copyright 2019 by carla bergman.  [Tyee]

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