cycles of violence...

Once again, just a week after the bombings in Lebanon and Paris, the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hype in Europe and the US is escalating. In the meantime, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! radio show announced the premier of a new documentary, Drone, and she interviewed four US army veterans who are speaking out against using drone attacks as weapons, actions that have led to the deaths of not just marked “terrorists”, but also innocent civilians.

Stephen Lewis, a former US Air Force office who spoke out against using drones said: And there’s an old saying in Texas: You don’t back a scared animal up against the wall. And if you do that, he’s going to come out fighting. And that’s exactly, I think, what’s happening now.

As I reflect on the cycle of violence erupting around the globe, I’m thinking about the remembrance that will be held in one month in Peshawar to mourn the lives of 141 people, including 132 school children who were killed when suicide bombers stormed a military school. I also reflect on how Boko Haram’s violence and torture of women often goes unreported while the Palestinian death count continues to rise.

As a reaction to one wave of violence, an entire group of people, who have no connection to each other – let alone to the extremists – are lambasted when the US Senate votes to block Syrian refugees from entering the US. And smaller petty actions increase such as the vandalizing of a mosque outside Austin, Texas, and the burning of another one in Toronto.

This is just one short list of incidents. Many more die every day, and mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are left grieving for the rest of their lives, while their losses are unreported. Most of us know that the killings have little to do with religion, and are about complex issues that cannot be explained with a simple hashtag.

Today, I’m reminded of what Minal said a few months ago. She and her friends are ten and eleven years old, but she can express wisdom when she comments on the difference between grownups and children: “We own up and apologize, but grownups get mad and start wars…”

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Oskar and René at TC drag show

When I first told Minal that our friends Oskar and René were getting married and that Oskar invited me to serve as his Best Wo-Man, her first response was: “What’s the big deal?”

I had to spell it out to her that the US Supreme Court had made a ruling for sex marriage to be legalized around the US: “That’s a big deal. That means that GLBT couples can offer health insurance to each other, and they can legally parent the same child.”

She thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes, that’s a big deal.”

The wedding took place yesterday and I haven’t had time to reflect on the experience of immersing myself in a western wedding: co-hosting the bachelor party, being part of a “wedding party”, standing at the altar with Oskar and passing the ring to the pastor, joining the other best men/women at the party and making a toast to the married couple, decorating their car with shoe polish, and so much more.

Though their wedding was untraditional – just because two men were getting married – in other ways, Oskar and René held close to western rituals for their ceremony. And even though I’ve been in the US for half my life, I had never until now experienced a Christian wedding from so close. Through the entire experience, Harbeer, Oskar’s other best man, and I kept joking with Oskar: “Why did you pick two desis to plan everything for you? We’re clueless!”

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a passing conversation...

I don’t go to Home Depot very often, but I dropped by today to exchange a toilet seat.

As the woman behind the counter processed my exchange, she threw out a comment to another woman working behind her: “I heard they closed down Planned Parenthood!”

“Really?” responded the other woman. “I think the federal government cut the funding, but I don’t think Planned Parenthood is closed.”

I jumped into the conversation: “I’ve been involved with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. They’re not closed – they’ve lost federal funding. And many women around Texas don’t have access to safe reproductive care. They have to drive hours before they can get support.”

Both cashiers were young women of color. They shook their heads at the same time. “That’s terrible,” they said.

I didn’t want to lecture, but I couldn’t stop myself: “It’s urgent that young women like you take action. You can sign petitions, join protests, writer letters – visit the Planned Parenthood website to learn more.”

Again, both women nodded. “We’ll do something.”

I drove away, feeling hopeful after listening to two women discuss an organization, one that’s almost taboo to mention in US public spaces.

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a bachelor party..

MC Alexis Nicole Whitney

Despite my years of being entrenched in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, I’ve never attended a drag show. But last night – even as I received flash flood alerts – a small group of us assembled at our friend Jaspal’s Montrose home, for a bachelor party that we organized for our close friend, Oskar, who will marry his long-time partner, René, in just two weeks.

After dinner, we grabbed our umbrellas and loaded into Jaspal’s car to drive toward TC, one of Montrose’s oldest GLBT bars where there’s a drag show every Saturday night.

Inside the dark club, René along with his mother, sister, nieces and friends assembled at tables directly in front of the stage. The table seemed cramped, so I perched at the nearby barstool.

A woman in a sparkly green dress walked onto the stage and sang karaoke to a song I didn’t know – not surprising, since I don’t listen to pop music. After she exited the stage, another woman, who served as MC, picked up the microphone.

“So the rain’s cleanin’ us up, isn’t it?” she commented. “All our dirty minds need scrubbin’, right?” She made a joke about body parts, one that I’ve already forgotten.

I took a deep breath, wondering how long I would need to listen to vulgar jokes before I could leave. But then I remembered the rain and our car-pooling system. At the urging of René, I joined everyone at the table.

As I listened, I learned that the MC, Alexis Nicole Whitney, was blind, but she navigated the stage and the mic with perfect ease. After her song ended, another older black woman shifted up to the mic to sing, and Alexis commented on how the performer needed extra love because she had experienced partial paralysis.

In between the performers, Alexis shared stories, talked to us, even directly asked me how I was enjoying the show. Without being able to see my face, she could tell I was at TC’s for the first time.

The longer I sat and listened, offered money to a singer and in return received a kiss and a smile, the more I wanted to learn about the performers and their lives.

Our group was the last to leave. By the time we stepped out, the rain had ended. I drove away from my friend’s house knowing that the performance is one that I will remember and will return to experience – not for the singing or the dramatic visuals, but for the stories.

Note: Alexis’ statement on the JC website reads:

I was born on May 7, 1976 in San Antonio. Although born in San Antonio, I now live and reside in Houston and call Houston home. I have been pursuing the art of female impersonation for 19 years. I have been visually impaired for 15 years and visually impaired meaning completely blind. During my career I have captured many city, state, local and national titles, some including Miss Unlimited, Miss TX Unlimited, Miss Tx EOY, Miss Oklahoma USofA, Miss Gulf Coast USofA at Large, Miss Dallas USofA, Miss Energy USofA, Miss Austin USofA, just to name a few. I am the Show Director here at TCs where I have been employeed 3 years. I work 5 nights a week and you can catch me as your hostess and emcee every weekend. I love to help individuals learn and grow and anyway I can help you please let me know. I look forward to hearing you here at TCs.

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Yesterday, my mother, Minal and I drove to my friend Yaksha’s house where more friends joined us. After tea and a short visit, we piled into two cars to head toward BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, so we could experience a new space.

Once we parked and began walking along the man-constructed pond toward the multi-domed temple, I commented on how, though most of us in our party of seven were from India, Nepal and Pakistan, only one of us was from a Hindu background. The temple/mandir was festive, since Sunday marked the birthday of the Hindu god Krishna.
Inside the temple were sculptures and and mosaic floors, and I felt transported to another continent. After walking through the temple, we walked to the side store and purchased South Indian snacks, which we then took back to Yaksha’s house to eat together.

Once back at my house in Houston, I once again remembered how all around us mosques are being camouflaged while churches and temples are increasing in size and quantity.

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As we drive to school, Minal, who will be 11 in just a few weeks, says to me: “Children are more honest and peaceful than grown-ups.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Children are honest. If they do something wrong, they own up to what they did, and they apologize.”

She shares a story from pre-school when she accidentally pushed another child into the mud. “His clothes got messed up, and the teacher was telling him that his mother would be upset. And then I said, ‘Actually, it was my fault.’ I apologized. The teacher scolded me a little, but she also said: ‘Thank you for being honest.’”

After finishing the story, Minal says: “That’s what children do. We own up and apologize, but grownups get mad and start wars…”

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from sydney...

Dr. Ruqaiya Hasan, Hong Kong, Feb 2015; photo by Lexie Don

When our flight lands in Auckland, I turn on my phone to find messages from my sister, is in Sydney helping with my aunt’s cancer emergency — informing me that my aunt is in critical condition. Prepare for the worst reads one text, after which there are no more messages.

Because it’s four in the morning in Sydney, I can’t phone my sister to find out what is happening, so I call my cousin in California.

“She went fast and her death was not connected to her cancer,” my cousin tells me. “She passed away the way she wanted. Without pain.”

Though the flight from Auckland to Sydney is less than three hours, the experience feels as if Minal and I are flying around the world several times over.

Once in Sydney, we are together with family so we can comfort each other, and my mother, Minal and I are present for Ruqaiya Hasan’s pre-cremation ceremony.

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photo by Minal

The month of ramzaan started today, but this billboard popped up on Houston’s interstate highway I-45 just a few days ago.

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photo by Paul Hester

A month has floated away, and I’m still processing my What Is Home? project. What Is Home? production, one that months to prepare and perform.

People ask me: Were you happy with how the show turned out?

I nod, unable to explain, even to myself, why I have yet to write about the experience. Everything went almost the way I expected. The gusty wind meant that my blog interviews that OS designed had to be strung along exterior walls instead of under the pavilion as we had planned, and in the end, I couldn’t stray the ashes from the notebooks I had burned. And my fabrics remained hanging, except for one that drooped a little.

My interactive performance in the glassed-in room evolved the way Christa and I planned – audience members helped select What Is Home? excerpts through questions that I posed. Everyone listened, including children, babies, senior citizens, friends, strangers, fellow parents, health experts, fellow artists and writers. Not every single student who participated in my project was able to attend, but Purnima and Hemangi compensated well by sharing their stories and engaging audience members in a string-tying ritual. Meanwhile, women who participated in my workshop offered massage, face-threading and home-made chai and snacks.

And once my performance ended, I relaxed under the pavilion with Reggie and Liliana, and anyone else who happened to stay.

For more photos by Paul Hester, Reggie Young and Christa Forster, visit my Flickr site.

photo by Paul Hester

In the program for the afternoon, I shared a long list of thanks for all the amazing people who helped with the production. These include VBB Board President Yolanda Alvarado and board members Gordon Anderson, Oui Duran and Lauren Zentz for attending and helping, VBB Associate Director Ana Laurel for support on too many fronts to list; all Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center staff including Ana Mac Naught, Adonias M. Arevalo, Khalid Dadani, Carlos Soto for space, time and resources; Lisa Gray, Sarah Gish, Duane Bradley and Jenni Rebecca Stephenson for marketing; Jordan Astrich and Copy.Com team for donating printing services; Jennifer Can, Amanda Madrigal at Westbury HS for connecting students and Barun, Hemangi, Kali, Purnima, Sagar and Suk for sharing resilience and hospitality; women workshop participants for their honesty and bravery; Shirin Herman for introducing me to Westbury; Lorraine Wulfe for introducing me to Baker-Ripley; Renée Stern and Lauren West and PAIR staff for transportation and promotion; Ana Laura Guzman and Yaksha Shah for coordinating snacks, body-care and storytelling; Yunuen Perez Vertti for helping, even from afar; Paul Hester for photo-table and for documenting; Helmut Ehrmann for designing table; Eric Hester for support; Heydel Cepero, Michelle Garcia and Just News team Jeremy Martin and Sean Quitzau for documentation; Jaspal Subhlok and Yaksha Shah for blog brainstorming; blog interviewees for sharing splices of their lives: Sorayya Khan, Stephanie Chapman, Lacy Johnson, Shirin Herman, Zeba Shah, Maha Khan, Kairn Klieman, Asad Ali Jafri and eL Seed, Masooma Syed, Veer Munshi, Yunuen Perez Verti and Kalyan, OS, Zakia Sarwar, Beena Sarwar, Sunita, Ana Mac Naught, Shaista Parveen, René Rodriguez, Yolanda Alvarado, Beverly Robinson and Sally Russ, Gordon Anderson, Zarana Sanghani, and Karen Martinez; Reggie Young and Liliana Valenzuela for making treks from different cities; Carmen Pena Abrego, Stephanie Chapman and Jasmina Keleman for participating in my notebook-burning ritual; Wharton K-8 families including the Fentons, Martinezes, Pelherts, Stravatos and Wongs for helping out; Karen Farber and Mitchell Center team for funding and promotion; Christina Dotterweich and all M-AAA staff for funding; Mel Chin for sharing his time and art; writers Lacy Johnson and Jacsun Shah for editing; Christa Forster for fine-tuning my performance; OS for being who he is and René R. for loaning him to me; Beena Sarwar, Salman Sarwar and Zakia Sarwar for listening; and René Saldivar and Minal for offering understanding and love as I worked on a project that has consumed me for years.

My project was supported in part by an award from Mid-America Arts Alliance, the National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. What is home? is developed in part through a residency with the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and is cosponsored by Neighborhood Centers Inc., and Voices Breaking Boundaries.

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one more day...

laying out final excerpts from my memoir before documents are sent to Oskar to layout

The last few weeks have been filled with meals as I spend time with friends to help me plan for my What Is Home? production, One night, Minal and I visited Christa Forster’s home, so she could work on my performance with me, and then a week later, she came over to our place, took notes as I cooked brussels sprouts, daal and chicken, and we continued more brainstorming while her daughter played with Minal,

Another night Eric Hester and Josh Turner came over to for a meal. I prepared in front of them, and together we brainstormed ideas about how to hang printouts from my blog posts. A few days later, mother friends Carmen, Jasmina and Stephanie dropped by my house (usually we meet at a bar) to share chicken karhai and mattar-pulao. We ended the evening by sitting in the back patio. There, they watched me burn old notebooks, ashes for which I will use for my performance. Jasmina read the covers of one of my notebooks and said: “I didn’t know you were in Rome?”

I can’t explain why I have to burn those memories, even as I struggle to retain others. After all, how many notebooks can a person save if one has been writing for more than 30 years? And what’s the value if some notebooks are only recordings of night dreams?

All through the past few weeks, Oskar came over and made lists while I prepared meals that nourish me and others around me. Before and after eating, we brainstormed segments of the installation / performance, figuring out lighting, ceiling height, poles in outdoor pavilion and more. Yet another night, Ana Laurel came over and I cooked kale, eggplant and potato sabzi, and she helped stitch a sari to see if it could hang from the ceiling rafter.

And then there was my quest to borrow a five-gallon tea thermos from Royal restaurant. Each time I phoned, Rahim told me, “It’ll be here tomorrow.”

Today, twenty-four hours before the production, I was able to procure the thermos and drop it off to Zehra’s so she could fill it with fresh chai. “Should I add sugar?” she asked. “How about cardamom?”

The installations are now up. Oskar is back on his computer creating more templates to be printed, even as I scribble this last-minute blog post. I then need to review my performance and field text messages from students asking about times and transportation.

This time tomorrow, the frenzy of the last year will have melted away in just a two-hour experience that took months to prepare. There will be more blog posts about what unfolded and there will be more to process.

notebooks burn in my back patio

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essay in gray matters...

An excerpt from my longer essay “That Long Monday Afternoon” was reprinted in the Houston Chronicle’sGray Matters under a new title: “Skyping My Father Goodbye.”

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people don’t talk about the necessity of crossing…

Karen Martinez, a filmmaker and a recent college graduate, talks about “home” and crossing borders:

Houston is my home. I was born in Tula, Hidalgo – Mexico – and my family moved here when I was ten. I haven’t been able to go back. It’s my parents’ home, but it’s an unclear memory for me. I’m still nostalgic for the place. My boyfriend Stan and I had conversations about where we come from. He was under the impression that we come from the same space. But we don’t. His father is Vietnamese and his mother is Chinese and he was born in Dallas. Cowboy!

He asked me if Tula is my home. I first said I didn’t know but then realized Houston has shaped me. I had a ticket to New York and I was about to go, but I cancelled my flight at the last moment, and I am still in Houston.

I am part of the DACA program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This status has helped make me feel more welcome. Before being in the DACA program, it was difficult not being able to work legally or drive, even if other people can’t tell the difference. I went through DACA in January 2013 and every few years I have to pay more than $450 to remain in the program. And I still can’t cross the border, not officially. But I can work.

I remember being in Austin and talking to a senator and we were having drinks. I told him: “DACA is shit. It’s doing nothing for the parents.” Yes, I’m glad and grateful, but this was not promised to us. Obama could have done a lot better. He could have passed a different bill in his first two years, Obama promised amnesty or (a comprehensive immigration reform). The bill that was passed in 2012 does nothing for our parents.

My parents still deal with being undocumented. My father is one of the best. But there’s fear. My parents just tell me to work hard and they made sure I went to college. I do tell people around me that I’m in DACA, but I also say that I’m undocumented.

My parents left Hidalgo for financial reasons. Violence was starting. They didn’t want to see it. A lot of our family members had already crossed over into the US and that’s what my parents chose.

People don’t realize how hard it is to leave the place you call home. My parents they talk about the foods, the smells, the scenery but for me, the memory is hazy.

I find it so difficult when students around me backpack to Europe, Asia, but no one talks about the necessity of travel, the necessity of crossing. —Karen Martinez

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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an earthquake and student voices...

Sagar’s apartment ceiling

After a sleepless night, I wake up to read a text message by Hemangi, a Westbury High School student who participated in my storytelling workshop: Did you hear about the earthquake in Nepal?

In just a few hours, I need to be at the apartment belonging to another Westbury High School student Sagar, where he and his family will host a gathering for fellow students to share their parent interviews.

Unsure of how the earthquake is affecting his family, I email Sagar: Are we still on for the gathering? Is your family in Nepal okay?

When I don’t hear back from him, I load up my car with a tray of samosas and head towards southwest Houston. Whether the social gathering takes place or not, I can at least drop off the samosas for him and the other students who are supposed to participate in the program.

But once I reach Sagar’s apartment, a group of students and their family members have assembled. We talk about the earthquake, and we also listen to the students share stories in Nepali to their parents and in English to us.

The gathering closes with a meal: Nepali chow mein, jalebi, pakoras and samosas.

On May 9, the students and their families will join me at my final production What Is Home? at Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center and they will participate in more storytelling.

But today, as we celebrate Sagar, Purnima and Barun, I am thinking of Sabeen, of the thousands dead in Nepal, and loss, even as we live.

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another assassination...

photo by Reuters

My mobile phone ringer goes off while I’m at a lunch meeting. I glance at the phone and see that Beena is on the other side. Rather than have a clipped conversation, I tell myself I’ll call her after my meeting ends. Only later, after I drive away from Royal Restaurant, do I pick up my phone to notice more missed calls from Beena and my mother, as well as many text messages, all of which convey the news: our friend Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated in Karachi.

I spend the next twelve hours—in between more meetings—on the phone and on email with friends and family and together we grieve our loss and express rage. Since the moment Sabeen was murdered, there has been an outpouring of support for her mother, for T2F and for the extended community that Sabeen left behind. Her friends have created a Tumblr blog where anyone can leave comments for Sabeen. Some online and print stories include pieces by columnist Ghazi Salahuddin, my sister Beena Sarwar, writer Uzma Aslam Khan, artist Yaminay Chaudhri and many more.

So much to left to say, but tonight I weep.

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a lesson i learned about being desi and american is that boundaries are made up…

Zarana Sanghani, who recently returned to Houston after graduate school and working New York, talks about the issue of “home” – a subject that’s close to her heart:

Feeling at home is where I can turn off and don’t have to think of presenting; home is when you don’t have to think about what you say. In many ways, home is with my parents: I didn’t have to dress up around them. I felt at home with them and didn’t have to filter too much. But there were certain conversations I reserved for my friends, talk about romance, ambitions… And in the end, there’s no one place for me that’s home.

I get attached to places. The first space I think about when you say “home” is my parents’ living room. And then I think about Alief where I was born and the people around us, my neighborhood, and then I think of every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.

When I was living in Brooklyn, I would always tell people about places in “my” Brooklyn neighborhood and I’d say: “You gotta check it out.” But I would also come back to my first home: “In Alief there’s this special place and it was so awesome…!” And even when I was just working in the South Bronx, I got so attached …I would tell people the best place to eat tacos there. If I adopt a neighborhood, it stays with me.

I always feel refreshed when I have a new environment. In a weird way, I’d gotten into a rut in New York, and so when I got back (to Houston), it was good to have a fresh perspective. I like new places and new changes.

My parents are living in Sugarland now and I’m staying with them. But I don’t yet think about Sugarland as home. I’ve found a few special places that I like. And I’d show those to you. But I haven’t adopted the neighborhood. The things I like about Sugarland is that it’s child-centered and it’s green. But as a single person without kids, I do ask whether I fit into the neighborhood.

I haven’t given the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) label much thought. What’s more important are my values and principles and what is important to me. As far as identity – it’s more about love – whom I love and how I love. It’s personal and I never got into the identity question.

And ultimately, home is more private. I feel at home when I’m with my friends – who are Indian, black, Latino/a and everything else. If I go a week or two without meeting or talking to some, it makes me feel not at home. From time to time, I let them know how much they mean to me.

And though I don’t think about the Indian label, I do talk about being Indian. A lesson I learned about being desi and American is that boundaries are made up. The more I can wear different identities the more I can be free. I like not being bound in labels. That’s what makes me feel at home, basically having the freedom to just be myself. So don’t make me choose one identity!

The question of home…? It’s difficult.—Zarana Sanghani

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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you have to find home within yourself…

My friend Gordon talks about his sense of home as we drink tea and sip smoothies just a few blocks from his house in Freedmen’s Town, where he and his wife Christine hosted my 2012 VBB production:

Feeling at home for me is to not have feelings of anxiety and feeling that I am safe and secure – that wherever I am physically or within my own head, everything is okay. That I can relax, that I can — metaphorically and literally — take my shoes off and stay awhile. I can also feel at home in a room with the doors closed – just being in isolation. Being at home doesn’t necessarily mean being in Houston, my birth home, but that I am okay.

Houston is home in that familiarity is one part of feeling secure, which is important to me. The Third Ward, which is located near the epicenter of downtown, was where I grew up. This neighborhood makes me feel at home although I haven’t resided there since 1972. My mom still lives there, which is my current connection to the area.. If she leaves the area, I don’t think I would see this area of Third Ward as a place of maintaining permanent roots.

Strangely enough, I can feel at home even as far way as Delhi, India, where I’ve been three times – even though it’s a crazy place to be! I’ve gone on a Gandhian study tour years ago that ended in Delhi. We started in Mumbai, and took a train and bus to Delhi with stops in various villages along the way. On my second trip, I went for an auspicious Jain anniversary, and I was invited to stay in homes of family members of several Jain Samanis. And the third time, I went for an Anuvrat International Conference.

Fourth Ward is where I currently reside, but when I was growing up, Fourth Ward was another planet in that I had no familiarity with this area at all. These office buildings that we see today were not here and the Sheraton Hotel on Louisiana Street was the demarcation line between the Fourth Ward and downtown. Even to this day however, having grown up there, the Third Ward is home. I went to elementary school there at Dodson Elementary and also to Ryan Junior High – both exist today in name. I attended Stephen F. Austin High School which was close in proximity but on the East End.

The reason I live in the Fourth Ward is more related to circumstance – and not moving to the Third Ward is more about economics these days. If I had a dream choice, I’d move to the Sixth Ward (which is even more expensive that properties in the Third Ward) close to MECA and the East End would be second. I am drawn to the Third Ward, always because of the demographics, which is a part of what makes me feel comfortable. Fourth Ward/Freedmen’s Town is not my ideal neighborhood because it is growing to a point where the infrastructure of the neighborhood is being over stretched by the sheer number of people being crammed into this neighborhood of narrow and. one-way streets. Fourth Ward is gone, in the same way of the original peoples of this area. I didn’t grow up with this history and the history of Freedman’s Town that remains is “heralded” with plaques along one side of the road, which is a travesty. The true history is held on to by a generation that is aging and will soon be gone. When they pass, Fourth Ward as “Freedmen’s Town” is simply another reality that is relegated to the memories of those who care.

I’m raising multi-racial children now. My daughter is being taught and groomed in both cultures of her own DNA. She knows her Mexican side and the Black American side – which is simply an extension of who we are as a family. Black people (among our own) are acknowledged as multi-racial and although this cultural pride should always be foremost, that should no impact on how society relates to my daughter. She is being raised up to be among the best and brightest – from child to adult.

These kinds of questions help me reflect and visualize some of the experiences I’ve had and that I rarely if ever think about anymore. In the end, I think home is important but having the feeling of home is more important. What used to be home could change, so you have to find home within yourself. —Gordon Anderson

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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i think of windows when i think of home...

I meet up with my friends Sally, Beverly and Yolanda, who I know through many Houston-based spaces and organizations including Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and the University of Houston’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to view Sally’s new apartment on Kirby Drive, which she and her husband have procured while placing their current house on the market. All three are interested in learning more about my May 9 installation/performance and about my blog. I take notes as they talk about the subject of home:

Sally: When I hear the word “home” I think of people that make your life, people that you want to spend time with — which makes it a bit difficult because I’m in between spaces since my kids are in Santa Barbara and we have a house there and here!

Yolanda: For me, the word “home” brings up family, safety and where you can be yourself, sheltered from the outside world.

Beverly: I think of windows! You don’t give yourself permission to be still. I miss looking out of a window, at a bird-feeder, at greenery, the experience between inside and outside… And of course, family is part of home.

Sally: To me, the people I care about and the food we eat together is what makes you feel at home. I have things that I love, and my home is my own personal culture, the culture of a country or a city. Home is our own culture, and is filled with the things you do in that space and how you decorate: textures, spaces, culture. It’s our personal style. And we surround ourselves with what we’re most comfortable.

Beverly: My memories are on the wall, which is an altar feeling. On one wall is my grandmother’s needlework, the thing that she did. When I walk in, I see that. A lot of cool stuff is in that space. On the wall, we place clumps of ourselves.

And of course, Houston is home, although when I rent a place for a month that place becomes home.

Yolanda: The spaces at home are what make one feel comfortable: the kitchen where you do things together, cook together. And in terms of spaces, the Hill Country is not a city, but it’s an area that I enjoy. And the MFAH’s sculpture garden is another space I love.

And of course, Houston is home. I was born here. When you’ve gone out of town for a while, you come back and you always say: “Aaah, I’m home.” My grandparents are from here, though they’re also partly from Mexico…

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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for me, everything is here: friends, family, health, doctors…

Most of the interviews I’ve undertaken for my project have been with friends and family who were born in spaces other than Houston. For the next month until my 9 May installation/performance, I’ll post conversations with friends who were born and/or raised in Houston. During one such visit, my friend René P. Rodriquez jumps in with responses even without my what is home? questions posed to him:

Houston is home. But it’s not that way for most people. But for me, I have history. I went to the same elementary (Looscan), junior (Marshall), and high school (Jeff Davis) as my dad. When Dad went to Jeff Davis, it was mostly white— Kathy Whitmire, Kenny Rogers — went there. When I was there, the school was a mix of Hispanic and black.

And I’m proud in a way, but I don’t know anything else. The only way for me to know something else is to travel and visit. But for now, everything is here. I have had the desire to explore outside of Houston, but I don’t know. I would always keep coming back to this city. And it is crazy that I’m the first person on your blog who was born and raised in Houston. A lot of people say that there aren’t many people like me, but then you do start talking to people and find out that they are from here.

For me everything is here: friends, family, health, doctors. I’d be afraid to go somewhere else. But then, I have a partner who probably doesn’t want to be here.

And I know I’m in the minority in this city. When I think about people moving into this city, I think of diversity. I’m a people person. I’m all for growth. From the neighborhood that I come from, we knew we wouldn’t go to college unless we paid for it ourselves. Recently, I saw a photo on of our skyline and I was so proud of it.

If you still go by my neighborhood, Northside, it’s still the same. (Those of us from the neighborhood refer to Northside or Near Northside as just Northside. Nowadays, when you say Northside people think of the north side of town, like 45N and the Beltway, but those of us from the neighborhood know what we mean.) The biggest change is the housing and the people — and the ethnicities. There are new housing structures, but mainly the neighborhood is the same.

For me, the whole city is home, but I enjoy going back to Northside. It’s familiar. The housing and the rail and all of that is — wow! But that doesn’t erase the history of the neighborhood. It just adds to it. And I believe that it (the neighborhood) won’t change. Not everyone will be pushed out and it will be a mix.

I was 10 or 11 years old when the Moody Park riots happened. It was scary. I remember standing on our front porch and seeing the sky red from the fires. And I was glad to be home. My mom still lives in that house. They bought the house when I was a baby. I used to play baseball there. But after the riots, I didn’t go back (to Moody Park). And when I did, it was the first time in a long time. After the riots, my friends and I hung out in our front yards. We didn’t talk about what happened in Moody Park. Everyone knew of it. It was something we experienced together.

It was about the ‘hood, living in Northside. After I left the first time, I went back to live in a garage apartment and I enjoyed it very much. But I haven’t lived there since 2001.

I came out to my good friends in high school. And word got around. I was ready for it. I had already been through so much. I wanted to see who my real friends were going to be. I had a difficult time from ages 16 to 23 and I had to leave “home”. It saved my relationship with my parents. The goal was to leave the nest and now I enjoy going back. It’s home. My family accepts me and my partner. They were there when I found out I was HIV positive in 1988…when doctors told me I had 10 years to live. I’m now coming up on 27 years…

A project like this makes me proud of where I come from; I’m a proud Houstonian. I’ve never done this before, you know. No one has asked me these questions. I’m proud to be part of your project. — René P. Rodriguez

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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shukria / thank you...

Today is a special day. One of the storytelling workshop participants, Sunita, has opened out her Crescent Oaks apartment for a final gathering. This past spring, during the workshop I held in the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center, I became familiar with southwest Houston’s Crescent Oaks apartment complex, but I never learned its street address. Only when giving women workshop participants rides to the apartment complex, I found that I had to drive west on Rookin Street, take the first left turn, pass by a large mosque on my right, and the apartment complex entrance appeared after the first cut in the road.

For this final spring session, everyone has committed to attend, including Shirin Herman who will bring Anjali, a woman that attended the March student presentation and who talked to many of us about her difficult marital situation.

We begin the gathering with greetings and hugs. After gift exchanges, we settle on the sofa and chairs, and I pass out the feedback forms so we can take care of business. Shirin and I transcribe feedback from Sunita and Naila (Hindi/Urdu speakers), while Nandita and Ana, Baker-Ripley’s UH-Downtown intern, scribble notes on their sheets. When feedback is shared, all participants say the workshop helped them feel part of a community.

By then, Sunita has served up dhokla and tea. As we nibble and sip, Nandita reads her story, one she has shared with us but has not been able to write until now. We know her narrative — marrying in Mumbai, moving to Houston, being abandoned by her husband and then finding her footing and completing graduate school — but seeing her words on paper and hearing her read is a new experience. When she closes, we applaud not just her writing, but where she has arrived.

The workshop ends much later than I plan, but that’s what always happens. Nandita will give Anjali a ride to her apartment and help her connect with Daya.

As we leave, we know the connections we have struck up will remain strong. Everyone offers to help me with my May 9 production, and we talk about ways to extend the workshop further down the road.

* all participant names have been changed.

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i think i’ve given up on the idea of one place being home for me…

photo by Salma Qazi

Spending spring break at our family friend Shaista’s home in California’s Bay Area is a welcome break from our hectic Houston schedule. One afternoon, as we recover from our long drives along the coastline, I chat with Shaista about my “home” project. Given her movement from Karachi to Houston to Lahore and now the Bay Area, she has given the concept of “home” a good deal of thought:

I haven’t had that “at home” feeling for such a long time. Every time you address that question, you’re so conflicted to find an answer.

I think that the way I feel in Pakistan feels more “at home” than here (California’s Bay Area). When I feel “at home” is when I can accept whatever is happening at face value. Like, you know, you interact with outside your world, when you’re almost forced to interact with people and things in the normal course of the day, like going to the market. That’s when you completely understand that everything around you is happening — even if it’s bad — you completely understand the reality you face. Here, that feeling only comes up when I’m with my own community.

That feeling of finding spaces or cities that feel most “at home” is a fleeting feeling that’s not very consistent. It can happen. It happens probably most in Karachi, but that’s not necessarily only in Karachi. I can be anywhere in Pakistan and feel like that.

It’s only when I feel part of a group or an event. And when it’s an event, the experience has to be mixed with certain things. It’s not only with things… I’ve thought about. I’m convinced I get that feeling when I have actually understood something about myself, like you know, some kind of music and certain kind of people. When you feel like the people around you are completely in synch with you…

I just feel like it’s not logistically possible to be in Pakistan right now. It’s more work, partly because once you live outside so long some practical things aren’t so easy. I don’t even know the streets of Karachi any more. Practically if I try to live there past a certain point, it becomes hard. In that way, the city is not familiar – like here, it’s familiar and maybe familiarity does give you that sense of “home”.

Also, I think I’ve given up on the idea of one place being “home” for me. I’ve just let that go. Intellectually, I can’t justify always expecting to feel at home. I can’t justify that necessity of being at home. I live with the knowledge that I can have that feeling – sometimes – anywhere. To articulate this is a struggle and it’s such an important issue because you can get into some sort of mission to create that feeling, so you have to deal with these feelings very carefully.

I think I’m at peace with where I’ve landed…I think so. — Shaista Parveen

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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