Category Archives: Interview

Interview with Gwen Benaway

passage

Context:

I reviewed Gwen Benaway’s poetry collection, Passage, which was published recently in Arc Poetry Magazine’s Canada 150 Reconciliation issue. The review started with a reference to Neal McLeod’s book, Indigenous Poetics in Canada. After the publication of the issue, I posted a photo of the review on Twitter. The photo led to a Twitter conversation with Gwen where she informed me of the problem that lay in invoking McLeod in a review of her work, given his history of domestic abuse of Indigenous women. The news of his abuse had broken publicly a few days before I posted the photo on Twitter, while it had been common knowledge within the Indigenous community. While I acknowledged the news as something recent and something that I had been unaware of, I also began to defend the review itself. Instead of being a productive conversation, the conversation became a disagreement. Doyali Islam, the reviews editor for that particular issue, stepped into the conversation, but the conversation ended without any resolution.

The next day, after I had a chance to reflect on the Twitter interaction and the actual issues raised by Benaway, I reached out to her via email with an apology. Over email, we were able to unpack the problems raised by the presence of McLeod’s name in the review. The following interview rose out of that initial email conversation. Benaway and I met in downtown St. Catharines during Queer Canada, and over lunch, unpacked some vital issues plaguing CanLit in relation to Indigeneity, today.

The interview is now on The Rusty Toque. You can read it here.

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Deepak Chopra (and I) at ideacity 2011

With Deepak Chopra at ideacity 2011, Toronto

I took a few hours out of my temporary exile today to interview Deepak Chopra at ideacity, Toronto. How could I miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

I had interviewed Dr. Chopra’s daughter, Mallika Chopra, last year at ideacity as well (you can check out her interview here). So when I received a media invite from ideacity this year about Dr. Chopra’s upcoming talk and a possibility to interview him after, I had to go.

To know more about what he said at the conference and what he thinks about how social media impacts collective consciousness, keep your eyes peeled here. The interview and more pics will be up by mid /end October. Till then, back to my temporary thesis shelter made out of photocopied articles, academic books and tons of paper covered with my writing.  Aah, (grad)life!

Photo credit: Mariellen Ward (although, all the fancy editing stuff was done by yours truly!)

Update: So, I never actually got around to writing and publishing the interview. Life sort of took over. And, by the the time I became aware of what I should have done, a year had passed. For now, the interview resides on my digital recorder. 

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Good Indian Boys Do Not Cut Hair for a Living

Posting an old interview that was published by South Asian Generation Next on 7th July 2010.

Gay, Proud and Successful: Sunil Prakash on his Life as a South Asian Hairdresser

What happens when your first-born son comes up to you and says, “I want to become a hairdresser”? Do you blink rapidly like a goldfish and wonder to yourself that maybe he is joking? Or, do you balk and then give in to your urge to scream?

Then...

Suave, sexy and a true gentleman, Sunil Prakash, the co-owner of ‘The Lid Lounge’, a high end salon in downtown Toronto, and a hairdresser himself, had the following reaction from his Indo-Canadian father: “Any idiot can cut hair!” Not one to take things lying down, he answered, “Well, if any idiot can cut hair, then you go cut mum’s hair, and we’ll see who’s an idiot!”

... and now

With a far-away look in his eyes and a tiny smirk, he says, “I got cut off financially… I didn’t know what [my father] was trying to do at that point… I got student loans, did my own thing… and (with some pride creeping into his voice) [have] been quite successful ever since.” And, indeed he has, since his salon boasts of famous clientele like Shyam Selvadurai (author of Funny Boy).

Of course, becoming a hairdresser and admitting his desire for an alternative career (as a South Asian) was not the only concern for his parents. When asked if he had a difficult time ‘coming out’ to them, he glibly responds, “Yeah, absolutely… and, as a first-born son too!” He admits that his relatives back in India were more “okay” with it than his parents. He further goes onto explain why most South Asian parents may be reluctant to open up to the idea of homosexuality as a reality within the South Asian community, “Most South Asians here [in Canada] are immigrants or have come with an immigrant mentality, meaning, their socialization has sort of stopped… They are not socially current as Indians [in India] are. You go to India today and Indians of the same age as my parents are far more liberal. My dad left India in the 1950’s and his Indian values are of that someone from the 50s. But (he adds hurriedly) [he is] all cool enough… now.”

However, he admits that it wasn’t easy for his two younger very-straight brothers either, “When they started to go out with their [girlfriends,] my parents started with ‘These Canadian girls’. They had a problem with that too… I don’t know why! (Laughs)” Thinking for a second, he offers an explanation, “Think about it. My father’s Indian. Mother is from England. My brothers and I are all biracial. [We] are both of our parents and neither of our parents. They could relate to us on many different ways but in some ways they couldn’t relate to us because we were slightly culturally different from them.”

Talking about his partner, with whom he co-owns his salon, he says, “My partner and I have been together for twenty years… My parents really respect us for being together for so long. We owe the longevity of our relationship to the example which my parents set for us. And, my partner’s parents have been together for… forever [as well]. We have pretty strongly rooted families… Time is a great leveler, so it all worked out in the end”.

And, are you guys married? He shakes his head and replies, “By the time they changed the same-sex legislation, we had already been together for such a long time that [it didn’t matter]… The commitment is to each other. [Marriage] would be an afterthought at this point”.

Sunil ends with his words of wisdom that maintains its hold on me as I walk alone to the subway to catch my train back to Mississauga, “Never be afraid to be yourself. I haven’t and it’s worked out for me”.

For more informaton on Sunil Prakash’s salon, visit www.lidlounge.com

Photographs: Copyright Sunil Prakash

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Amber Dean on Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group

I conducted this interview on 15th November 2010. It was published by The Ally on 24th January  2011.

An exhibition held at the end of summer in 2009 at the You Me Gallery in Hamilton sparked controversy and gave birth to Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group when it showed photographs of street based sex workers taken with surveillance cameras. Amber Dean, founding member of Big Susie, explains further about the exhibit that sparked the idea for the group, “The owner of [The] Pearl Company… put together an art show that exhibited photographs and surveillance images that he had taken of women doing street sex work outside of his gallery and theatre. And, he exhibited these [photographs] without their knowledge and… consent”.

The artist in question is Gary Santucci, whose exhibition was described on the You Me Gallery website as “turn[ing his] lenses on the city’s underbelly and [his] mind to the immense question of how we can make positive social change”. Dean, who has done academic work in the area with her PhD on representations of women doing sex work in inter-city neighbourhoods elsewhere in the country, considers that Santucci could have been “well intentioned but he ha[s] absolutely no analysis about sex work”. He had “no concern for the kinds of risks that he was exposing these women to when he… put up these pictures”. 

The uglier picture behind Santucci’s “well intentioned” art exhibit lies in his personal agenda to secure zoning permits for his art gallery and theatre. Santucci wants to be seen as a “moral crusader… who wanted to shine a bright light in the dark corner of Hamilton that nobody wanted to look at”, but either fails or refuses to take into account the consequences of his art show. According to Dean, “[t]here has been a real increase in hostility towards these people who do street based sex work in Hamilton, especially in the last year that started with [Santucci’s] art show, but has mobilised with some neighbourhood groups that have gotten involved organizing with the police out of a desire to just displace street based sex workers to push them out of residential areas into somewhere else”. Big Susie aims to counteract the negative attitude that has been in place since Santucci’s exhibition. Dean contends that “there… was nothing in Hamilton that was specifically doing advocacy for sex workers on a sex positive basis and was advocating decriminalizing”. As recently as last fall, Big Susie came into being with their five board members and a mailing list of a large number of supporters drawn through their past two events, and through support and funding from CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees).

But coming about even as a small collaborative group wasn’t easy: “We received some positive… and negative press. Some of that negative press suggest[ed] that by promoting sex work, [we] are also promoting violence against women”. However, after having received funding from CUPE  and overwhelming turnouts at their last two public events, Big Susie has been optimistic about their growth. Currently, the group hopes to have new people join their board and help build the organization, as well as, hold workshops specifically for street based sex workers on “harm reduction” and “basic safety and first aid”. 

To know more about Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group, or to get involved, email bigsusies@live.ca.

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Artists Can Make it Big: A Conversation with Upcoming Photographer Meera Margaret Singh

This interview was published in South Asian Generation Next on 22nd September 2010.

Flipping through a local newspaper, I was arrested by a woman’s photograph. She sat with her back exposed and her eyes lowered. She wasn’t young, like those models on magazine covers with saucy bodies and delicious curves. Yet, there was a serene beauty in her aging body. The name of the photographer was even more intriguing- Meera Margaret Singh- and hinted at untold stories.

A week later I find myself sitting at a tiny nondescript cafe in downtown Toronto, sipping teeming huge glasses of hot drinks with the artist herself. I had expected a little proud artsy type, with an air of pretence. Instead I find all my stereotypes slipping away in the face of Meera’s candidness and down-to-earth personality.

She wasn’t born a photographer, she reveals. It was only a six week photography class that she took “for fun” after her graduation with a BA in Anthropology that introduced her to her true calling: “I had this euphoric feeling… I felt like my perception had shifted and I felt that I couldn’t stop once I picked up the camera.”

Faced with opposition from her father, she decided to pursue photography through academia: “I think my father’s perspective was more of a pragmatic look at career. Of course… you have to make money…  And definitely at first, I was discouraged. I think my father wanted to see that I had… financial stability and independence and that art could be a hobby. The way I kind of approached entering into Fine Arts was that at the end of [my degree], I will be able to teach. To my father, teaching was a profession. And, what I had to negotiate was that [art] was something I couldn’t have on the side”.

Going back for another BA, this time in fine arts, was a decision that put her on the path to becoming an artist. She believes that “academia is not for everyone in so far as art is concerned [however] what academia granted me was an immediate community… it helped me grow as an artist. Especially in Winnipeg, I had an incredible mentorship there. Through school, as well, I was allowed more access to opportunities. I learnt there how to apply for shows… for grants… What school provided me was a space to how to talk about my work and I think that’s important”.

Coming from a mixed background of an Irish mother and an Indian Punjabi father, Meera had always been caught between two worlds. When asked if she ever felt a cultural disconnect, her face lights up for a moment with her sudden laugher as she says, “Yes!”, but then she sobers up and continues, “It’s almost like a gift that you can feel a sense of belonging in multiple contexts, and at the same time, you belong and you don’t belong.” Not being introduced to her South Asian roots growing up in Winnipeg, Meera felt an urgency to access those very roots as an adult, “We didn’t have a lot of interaction [with my father’s side]… I wasn’t taught the language… [and] I had met my [paternal] grandmother once when she had come to Canada”.  While on one hand, she was able to “envision” her mother “as a young girl in Ireland” due to the healthy dose of stories that she was fed by her mother, on the other, she felt that her ‘Indian’ part of herself was a “blank”, since her father was silent about his past. She felt that she “needed to fill that part of herself”.

Currently one of the most sought after photographers on the Toronto art scene and a professor at OCAD, her philosophy on success appears to be unselfconscious: “I don’t gauge my success in the same way as my parents would… I think it’s about feeling fulfilled with yourself and your accomplishments as opposed to ‘do I have a job?’ or ‘do I have an income?’. I always struggled financially, regardless (laughs); that is the nature of being an artist half of the time”.

For more information on Meera Margaret Singh and her work, visit www.meeramargaretsingh.com

Photographs: Copyright Meera Margaret Singh.

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Falling Star with an Attitude: A Minute with Raghav Mathur

I interviewed Raghav on 27th June 2010 after the Boogie Woogie Canada Finals. It was an unscheduled, impromptu interview. An edited version was published in The Weekender on 16th July.

When Raghav crooned “Can’t Get Enough” on my television screen back in 2004, I got little goosebumps. At 18, I was infatuated with this handsome, sexy newcomer whose tiny smirk and lilting voice jolted my heartbeat every time I watched him on MTV. The world became smaller, and only he and I existed in my tiny living room.

 Back in 2004.

Then he pretty much disappeared from my life. I moved on while he vanished into the melee of the many pop star faces of my teenage years.

Until the evening of 27th June 2010, when fate brought us together at the Boogie Woogie Canada Finals. While he assumed the role of one of the judges, I was a reporter covering the event (with a secret hope raging in my heart to sneak backstage later for an unscheduled interview). With mild anticipation tinting my adult eyes, I looked forward to the evening.

Not for long.

The rude awakening came when Raghav took to the mike and started to compliment the participants. His constant habit of falling back upon generic stock adjectives crushed my teenage image of this youth icon of yesteryear. This dream guy from my puppy love days emerged as a cocky full-of-himself wannabe with a limited vocabulary. Could it be true? Had he actually fallen from grace?

Not wanting to admit it to myself, I decided to head backstage after the show, just to watch him up-close and personal. With renewed hope in my heart, I chose to pursue my desire to grab an interview.

At first, it is difficult to get his attention, as the participants and their parents mob him. The many excited attendees who were eager to grab a pose with Raghav for their Facebook profiles and family albums obscure my tiny frame. I have to wait patiently for my turn. At one point, I yell out: “Raghav, I am from the media. Can I have an interview?” He glances at me, and imperiously replies, “Just a minute” and continues to ignore my presence for the attention of his many admirers, all the while reminding me of my inconsequential existence.

Finally, feeling slightly miffed, I walk up to him, hold out my recorder close to his face, and repeat my request. His eyes unreadable behind his dark sunglasses, he answers carelessly, “You have one minute.”

What follows next is a rapid fire round of a quiz show.

A household name in 2004, alongside Rishi Rich Project (made up of Rishi Rich, Juggy D and Jay Sean), Raghav maintains that Jay Sean is a household name now because he chose to do mainstream music unlike Raghav: “I make music in both Hindi and English so for me to chase is not to have a big record in any one territory. I wanna make music that I wanna make. And, Jay [Sean]’s done very well and he should be very proud of his success, and I am very proud of him as well, as that’s the kind of music I have always wanted to make. But I am always gonna go on making more obscure Hindi records because I am a different kinda artist”. Funny this coming from the guy whose newest single “So Much” (in collaboration with Kardinal Offishall) reeks enormously of mainstream music.

When asked about his plans of expansion as a comeback artist, he responds, “I would love to do a tour, but maybe in a couple of months. I think we still got to do some more tracks.” You mean some more mainstream tracks, as opposed to “obscure Hindi records”.

Giving his two cents of advice to new artists venturing into the big bad music industry world, Raghav says, “Make sure you do it because of the arts of the heart. Do it for the right reasons. If you are chasing fame and fortune, you will be very sadly disappointed. But if you love making music, then just follow it”. Sounds like Raghav is still following his dream of walking into the footsteps of Jay Sean, as I notice a tinge of regret when he answers that in 10 years, he sees himself as “Hopefully just happy”.

He ends with a brief “Thank you”, before heading off into the crowd of parents and children whose steady refrain of “Raghav, one photograph!” sounds hollowly all around me.

As I make my way to the exit, with my heart crushed with this newfound encounter with my past love affair, I find cold comfort in the knowledge that if I were to challenge him to a game of Scrabble, he would probably end up losing.

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Intent and Inspiration: Mallika Chopra’s Mantra to Life

I conducted this interview on June 18th at the ideaCity conference in Toronto. An edited version was published in The Weekender on July 2nd.

Mallika Chopra. Deepak Chopra’s daughter. Their names are almost synonymous. Almost.  But there is more to her than her father’s name.

Mallika Chopra and her daughters, Tara (left) and Leela, 2002

Mallika Chopra and her daughters, Tara (left) and Leela, 2002

Recently at the ideaCity conference held in Toronto (June 16th – June 18th), Mallika Chopra’s presentation talked about her inspiration from her family, her ‘intent’ blog (now, www.intent.com) and her journey from a girl in her twenties to a woman who quit her glamorous job at MTV Asia to find her true intent in life, as well as, the constant inspiration that she draws from her two daughters.

As Deepak Chopra’s daughter, she reminisces on stage about how Dr. Chopra taught her and her brother, Gotham, to set intentions for their lives on a daily basis. He urged them to say, “I am responsible for what I see, I choose the feelings I experience and set the goals I want to achieve. And everything that happens to me, I asked for, and receive as I have asked.”

She further divulges that it was her job at MTV Asia at the age of twenty-three that opened up her vision to the realization that the power of media can change the world. And voila, the germ for the idea of her intent blog was born. Co-founded with Gotham Chopra, Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur, the blog asks people to post their intent for the day, an idea very similar to what her father cultivated in her and her brother at a very young age. When asked about the idea behind the blog, Chopra answers, “Basically we started writing. My whole family [is made up of] writers. We started blogging. It was really a hobby that took off and became something… The power of intention has been such a foundation in my life. It was actually a very slow process. I am a mother with two kids. I stayed at home with my kids. It kind of evolved over time. Overseeing is the power of social media to manifest change and it’s been more inspiring to see other people who have taken it on”. 

Despite being a successful spiritual guru in her own right (as many would agree), she is proud of being her father’s daughter, “I don’t mind being labeled as my father’s daughter. I am proud to be [Deepak Chopra’s daughter]. My brother and I have been blessed to be brought up in an environment that was surrounded by love and compassion versus an environment of hatred. I think we were very lucky. I think my father does great work. And he’s touched so many people which to me is an inspiration. Absolutely; we embrace it completely”. And, do you think your father’s fame has been key in your own fame? She laughs and answers, “Definitely, there’s no question about it”.

Mallika Chopra at ideaCity 2010

Mallika Chopra at ideaCity 2010

When asked about her mother’s almost non-existent mention, she clarifies that her mother has been (and is) “the complete rock and foundation for our family and our extended family”. Her absence from the media is a deliberate move on her part, as she “hates to be in the press and she… shuns it”. Chopra feels that this is “wonderful” as according to her, her “mother is the person in [her] family who has kept [them] all grounded”. Chopra adds that her mother “keeps us down to earth and not to take ourselves too seriously. She is the reason my dad is so successful because she made a lot of sacrifices”. The pride in her voice is perhaps a little more than when she talked about her father. In fact, being a mother herself has further changed Chopra’s life “on every aspect”. Not only did maternal joy make her a writer, but she believes that her “whole life is based on [her] children”.

And ten years down the line? She bursts out laughing and answers, “People keep asking me that question! I have to be honest… I talked a little bit [at my presentation] about how I found my voice when I became a mother. And, that’s been so transformative for me. I have always been interested in children and  children’s issues. So, I hope that in time I can become more of an advocate for children’s issues, because I see it through the lens of being a mother myself”. 

As a youth icon for today’s generation, Chopra has some sound advice for newbies aspiring to find their voice, “Frankly, I meandered and have done so many random and different things. There is a kind of fear of being on a path… It’s ok to take time and figure out who you are [and] what you want… Find something that you truly love to do and with that, you will find success.”

Photograph of Mallika Chopra at ideaCity 2010: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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