According to the author, “The Hysterical Girls of St. Bernadette’s” is “a book about complicated relationships, about trauma, and about what it takes for girls to be believed.”
FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Storyteller Taz Ahmed
My guest for this week is one of my oldest “digital” friends from way back in the primal ages of Myspace.com, when everyone had a “blog” or a “tumblr” or a “livejournal”—maybe a second coming, of sorts, of the internet.
Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed plays at the intersections of pop and politics through a variety of mediums and actions. Motivated by her Bangladeshi and Muslim upbringing in Southern California, she started her career as an activist by creating a political voice for those most marginalized in the backlash of September 11th. Essayist, poet, podcaster and screenwriter, her media content developed around creating a counternarrative for the communities that she belonged to – whether youth, Muslim, South Asian or counterculture. Since the early 2000s, she’s been writing on the internet – tackling the topics of seeking love, familial grief, South Asian history, Desi music, social justice activism, and finding faith through her essays, poetry, audio narratives and screenplays. For five years, Taz co-hosted the now concluded The #GoodMuslimBadMuslim Podcast – its existence made a political statement that rippled all the way to Oprah and the White House. Though it was just a conversation where two Muslim women re-centered their narrative, the act of storytelling as Muslim women in itself was highly political” (https://www.tazzystar.me/).
“The greatest stories are the ones that are hidden and that aren’t being archived and aren’t being told.”– Taz Ahmed
It’s been really cool to watch both our careers blossom side by side since like 2004, and I’m honored to call her a very dear friend.
(Taz’s interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Shahjehan: What is one of your biggest projects for this year?
Taz: I have so many projects! This is the year where they’re all going to happen. I’ve been kind of hibernating for like two, three years, just making, so this is the year where I’m going to be pushing things out.
So one of the projects I’m working on is … I’ve always been obsessed with South Asian history … and when I was living in the Bay Area, I collected a lot of South Asian Bay Area history for our radical history timeline that we did for Bay Area Solidarity Summer. That’s still a workshop that they’re using. So … for the past year, I’ve been trying to update it for an LA version. [I’ve] been hunting for South Asian history locally in LA and this year I really wanna map it out on a Google Map and then start moving forward on recording stories at each location of the points of history. So I’m really excited about that.
And then I have some movie scripts that I’ve been working on. So I’m hoping this is the year where I can finally get to pitch them and, you know, see if I can actually turn them into real films.
Shahjehan: You mentioned you spent some time “hibernating.” What does that look like for you?
Taz: Hibernation doesn’t mean not doing anything. I think for me, hibernation means just going inward. [For example] I was making a lot of art and then people online were like “Are you selling this?” I was like, “I’m not being a part of capitalism right now. I am just making art to make art for myself and to, you know, write these scripts for myself and … dig into these histories for myself.” I spent two years just doing all the things I wanted to do without having to worry about if an audience was going to appreciate it, if I was going to be able to share it. Like, I was just really trying to figure out what I wanted to do and that was really helpful. I think that giving yourself the room to get bored and to where your mind kind of wanders and you can just think about things and then that turns into other things [is helpful]. I just didn’t have that space when I was in my day job and I was just kind of hustling from one thing, to the next thing, to the next thing, and I was able to just really sink deeply into my creativity for the past couple years. And now I’m ready to share with the world what I’ve been working on.
Shahjehan: Are there examples of history-type projects out there that have inspired you?
Taz: Totally. The first phase was we did this radical history timeline workshop in the Bay Area. Then that turned into the Radical History South Asian Walking Tour that Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh do in the Bay Area, which is a great walking tour. Atlas Obscura covered it in a recent podcast if you want to go listen to that.
And then SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archives, did a walking tour for Philadelphia. And then I was like, “what would a walking tour in LA look like?” Then of course I was like, “You can’t. No one walks in LA, so it would have to be a driving tour. And if it’s a driving tour, how would you construct it?” And I was like, “Okay, you have to have a digital map and have different audio [resources].” … So I was just taking this idea of a walking tour and trying to reimagine it for the city of LA, which is definitely a city where people spend a lot of time in cars.
So that’s kind of where I’m looking towards for this project. Hopefully it works. I’m super obsessed.
Shahjehan: Why is it so crucial for South Asians to tell and construct our own history?
Taz: We have to do it because no one’s going to do it for us. Our histories are always marginalized. Mainstream white history never talks about what’s happening in the South Asian American storyline of what’s happening …
And even then … the South Asian American narrative is being manipulated by the Hindu fundamentalists right? Like there was this huge textbook war that was happening where they wanted to erase the narrative of how Indians were being portrayed in an American textbook. I just got finished reading “The Trauma of Caste” by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and she talks about being Dalit and casteism and how that kind of translates into history.
The greatest stories are the ones that are hidden and that aren’t being archived and aren’t being told. And I feel like if we can capture those stories, it’s empowering. … People don’t feel isolated. That was one of the reasons why we started having that as the first workshop for our youth at Bay Area Solidarity Summer. We wanted people to locate themselves in time and to realize that they’re not isolated and alone in the experiences that they’re feeling, and that what they’re doing now as activists has a long legacy that builds the foundation of what they’re doing now and what they’re going to do. I think it makes such a difference because it’s able to get youth … this headstart that most of us who were involved with organizing in those years didn’t have access to, this kind of history.
Shahjehan: What are the most difficult parts of this work?
Taz: I think one of the hardest things about this project and any of the projects that I’ve been working on is getting paid for it, like making a living and working on these projects. There are people that start projects where they’re pitching an idea, trying to get it funded, and then they work on a project. And then there are people who kinda like, just jump right in, do it, and they’re gonna figure out the funding later. And I feel lucky enough where I’m doing the latter now. I made the choice to step back from capitalism and to really throw myself into being a creative.
That being said, I do need to go find a job very soon and I don’t know if these projects will keep going if I have a job, because you know, working a 9 to 5 takes up a lot of time and brain energy. Hopefully I can figure out a way to make it work. That’s so hard. I feel like everyone has so many ideas within them that they can do, but capitalism really sucks out our juice.