By Rita Banerji @Rita_banerji
Rita Banerji in Conversation with Artist Soraya Nulliah
Soraya Nulliah grew up in Natal, South Africa under the oppressive political regime of apartheid. It was an environment rich with varied experiences; the hot African sun, politics, Nelson Mandela, peacocks and mangoes. While her early memories are colored with her Indian heritage combined with African culture, it was the politics of South Africa that stays with her the most.
Growing up in the midst of the stifling oppression of apartheid has given her a lifelong appreciation and passion for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. Soraya immigrated to Alberta, Canada when she was 12 years old. She started painting in her teens and in Alberta, she attended middle and high school and later completed a B.A. degree from the University of Alberta.
It was a four-month life changing pilgrimage through India when she turned 30 that brought her face to face with her dreams of art. While her earlier works were heavily influenced by Indian aesthetics, her art today is more universal in nature.
Activist and author Rita Banerji, had the chance to talk to Soraya in this eye-opening interview:
ON BEING AN INDO-CANADIAN WOMAN AND MOTHER
RITA: Your family is of Indian origin. You were born in South Africa, grew up in Canada, and now live in the United States. Which of these cultures do you most identify with?
SORAYA: My identity has myriad influences — Indian, South African and Canadian. They are like threads coming together to form a rich and varied tapestry. I feel equally comfortable sitting barefoot in an ashram as I do marching at a gay rights parade.
RITA: Basically, you are saying you would feel at home in both eastern and western cultures?
SORAYA: Yes, but in a way I have also felt like an “outsider” to each of these cultures, not assimilating completely into any of them. Being an “outsider” has been a very painful and isolating experience for me at times, but it has also afforded me innumerable gifts.
RITA: What kind of “gifts?”
SORAYA: There are a number of advantages when you grow up between cultures trying to find your place and identity. In my case for example I realized a certain freedom because:
1. I decided there is no one road to follow so I am free to make my own.
2. I can be true to mySELF because I am not looking for approval in any culture to fit in.
3. I am free to take what I want from each tradition and reject what I don’t want. This freedom gives me enormous power to build the model of my own life.
4. I can also dare to be dangerous! I can speak my mind and tell the truth.
5. I can make a unique contribution to the world because I am forced to think outside the box.
RITA: You’ve never lived in India, but you’ve visited. What are some of your most memorable experiences?
SORAYA: When I turned 30 I spend 4 months traveling alone through India. It was a turning point for me in so many ways because it led me back to my true SELF. Some of the things I easily related to were customs like eating food with my fingers off a banana leaf, visiting temples and listening to Indian music blaring everywhere. These may seem like superficial things but far from it; they connected me to my earliest childhood memories and to my ancestors.
RITA: Was there anything about India that felt totally alien and discomforting to you?
SORAYA: What I found strange was the lack of women in public spaces. Everywhere I went, women were hidden and not a part of public interactions. Another thing I was horrified at was how some men would come up to me in public and start groping me!!! Even though I was always dressed very conservatively in Indian clothing, because I was alone in public, this seemed to be acceptable behavior.
RITA: What has motherhood meant for you?
SORAYA: The experience of motherhood has been a powerful and deeply transformative one. It has been far easier for me, throughout my life, to express anger than it has been to show my pain but all that changed after the birth of my daughter. The alchemical combination of turning 40 and giving birth all at once changed me completely!! It brought me to my knees, opened me up in ways I have yet to discover and gifted me with vulnerability.
RITA: Do you think you would have experienced motherhood differently if you had a son instead of a daughter?
SORAYA: I tend to be quite concerned because girls are more vulnerable than boys to all sorts of things: child molestations and abductions lowered self esteem, lower grades and interest in math and sciences at a certain age etc. But I also feel having a daughter gives me the opportunity to raise a strong and powerful woman. I know she is going to learn how to be a woman by closely watching and emulating me. This encourages and inspires me to be stronger.
RITA: In 2006 you held a solo art exhibition titled “Shakti,” at the Nina Haggerty Centre in Edmonton. Most of your paintings depicted Indian women. But, as one review of your exhibition pointed out: “Under the rich textures and colour, there is a sad theme: the reality of violence against women…” So what was the inspiration for your art?
SORAYA: I am an Indian woman and a survivor of an abusive and violent childhood. While it is personal to me, I also know it’s a common experience for so many others, especially women in the Indian community. Every single friend I have in the Indo-Canadian communities either came from an abusive family or was in an abusive marriage, or both.
Rita, I remember this clearly even now, so many years later. One day, when I was about 17 years old, after my “father” had beaten me up, my “mother” came into my room later and said “Soraya, we have to put up with this. We are Indian women” And I said to her “you make a choice to put up with it…I don’t!” I spent about 4-5 months at the Youth Emergency Shelter because “home” wasn’t a safe place for me (I was still in high school). Here was my mother who was supposed to be my protector, telling me to accept abuse!! This pivotal experience changed me because I realized that my silence does not protect me; it weakens me. Violence is an everyday reality for Indian women everywhere, yet we are taught to suffer it in silence, probably thinking (hoping?) it will save us; it does not.
RITA: So if you were taught to put up with violence silently, as indeed other girls in Indian communities whether in Canada or India are taught, what made you different in your response? How do you break the cycle?
SORAYA: It would be very difficult to describe the violence I experiences in my “family” of origin. It left me shattered, broken and carrying the heavy burden of shame that was not mine to carry. I made a solemn vow to mySELF very early on that, once I was able, I would not live my life that way. Because I had no mentors or role models in my life, I actively sought them out beyond my family and community, women like Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Their writings showed me a different, braver path and another way to live.
RITA: Do you relive the violence of your childhood through your daughter? Does it reflect in how you raise her?
SORAYA: I certainly relive my childhood through her in ways both positive and negative. On the one hand it makes me acutely aware of how abusive and lacking my childhood really was. It opens up layers of memories and abuses that I had locked away in the deepest recesses of mySELF. It also magnifies the lack of nurturing and connection I had to my biological “mother”. On the positive side, because I never got to experience the positive aspects of being a child — I am a true child at heart, and adore creating magical and wondrous worlds with Tara.
RITA: How much of your life and experiences will you share with your daughter as she grows up? What do you hope for her?
SORAYA: I will tell Tara the truth about my journey when she is older. My husband Tim and I want to raise Tara to be a strong and independent woman with a strong sense of self, and understanding of her roots in both cultures, Indian and African American. We want her to know that she is loved unconditionally. She will make her own mistakes and, though my inclination is to protect her, I know it is the path to individuation and empowerment.
RITA: What are some of the things all mothers must tell or do for their daughters in context of dealing with domestic violence?
SORAYA: I think it doesn’t matter what mothers tell their daughters about violence if they tolerate, deny and make excuses for it in their own lives. Children pay closer attention to our actions than they do to our words. Rather than holding up the sanctity of marriage at all costs, our goal should be to create a safe and nurturing environment for ourselves and our children.
I also think it is imperative that women have lives and identities separate from that of mother and wife. I think it’s crucial to building up our self esteem and sense of purpose which will, in turn, carry over to our families in general and daughters specifically. So in fact while I would like to think that being educated would make a difference to how women respond to violence, I don’t think it does. Because I think the real problem stems from being dissociated from the true SELF.
Soraya Nulliah, is an Indo-Canadian artist, who now lives in the U.S. with her husband Tim and their 3-year-old daughter Tara. In 2006 Soraya held a solo art exhibition titled “Shakti,” at the Nina Haggerty Centre in Edmonton, Canada. Her website is http://www.sorayanulliah.com/
Rita Banerji is the author of Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, (Penguin Books), and founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign working end India’s female gendercide. Her website is www.ritabanerji.com
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This interview brought tears to my eyes! I can totally relate, although my childhood was not nearly as difficult as I imagine yours was. The feeling of being an outsider, and the cultural acceptance of abuse and violence against women is horrific. You and the beautiful art you create is an inspiration!
You speak with such eloquence, but I’m sure it is not easy. The violence women have to suffer from people intimate to us — family, husband, etc. are the hardest to deal with because these are the people who we expect to protect and love us. That is universal! So thank you for being so brave.