VBB's upcoming publication...

Now more than ever it’s important to push past rising walls. In a few weeks, Voices Breaking Boundaries’ latest publication, Borderlines Volume Three, will be available. The publication, containing writings and art from Bangladesh, Canada, India, Mexico, Pakistan, the US-Mexico border and Houston, is a labor of love driven by a team including: co-editors, Margot Backus PhD, Maria Gonzalez PhD, who donate their brilliance for the sheer joy of creating memorable publications; Joshua Turner, who has been designing all Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) books even as he moves between jobs in New York and Houston; and Anna Saikin PhD, who juggles emails from the editors, contributors, readers and me and keeps track of all deadlines. As VBB’s Artistic Director, I’m involved in all levels of the publication.

Borderlines Volume Three is VBB’s final Borderlines publication and features art and writings by: Julia Villaseñor Bell, Britto Arts Trust, Jimmy Castillo, Oui Chatwara S. Duran, Claudia Cerrucha Espinosa, Sonya Fatah, Os Galindo, Victoria Paige Gonzalez, Paul Hester, Gelson Lemus, Sayantan Boka Maitra, Kabir Mokamel/Peace Street, Carolina Monsivais, Delilah Montoya, Veer Munshi, Minerva Reynosa, Bruno Rios, Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Sehba Sarwar, Mikaela Selley, Masooma Syed, Sukhada Tatke, Roberto Tejada, Charisse Weston, Sebastian Varghese, Stalina Villarreal, Gemini Wahhaj, Ilona Yusuf and Pablo Gimenez Zapiola.

The cover image is a photograph by Veer Munshi (whose interview by Sukhada Tatke is available in the book) and cover is designed by Angela Martinez, who has been working with VBB and me for almost a decade.

Stay tuned for the release date!

15 Jan 2017 · 07:30:11 PM

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a saturday night virtual playdate…

“I’m at 10:21 seconds,” calls out Minal.

“I need to catch up—I’m at 10:24 seconds!” Minal’s friend’s voice ricochets from Minal’s video phone that’s propped up in front of our television screen.

“I’ll pause,” replies Minal.

Minal and her friend are participating in a “virtual playdate,” through which the girls—one in Pasadena, California and other in Houston, Texas—are watching the same Amazon Prime TV show. Speaking on video-phones with their I-pads projecting the show onto larger screens, the girls have timed their viewing so they can experience each episode at the same pace. Last night was a practice session, but tonight is a marathon.

During a break, I ask if they would call their virtual visit a “playdate” or a “hangout.”

Minal’s friend pauses and then responds: “A playdate!”

“Yeah,” agrees Minal. “I’d feel weird saying ‘hangout.’

“We’re not there yet,” her eleven-year-old friend explains.

14 Jan 2017 · 09:38:08 PM

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learning more every day…

This week, poet, performance artist and educator Christa Forster, who I met in Houston more than two decades ago and have remained friends with ever since, visited her hometown San Juan Capistrano, where her mother still resides. Undaunted by the sixty miles between Pasadena and Orange County, René, Minal and I head south, so we can spend some time with Christa and her family. After catch-up conversations, Christa gives us a tour of Mission San Juan Capistrano, a site that one of Christa’s California friends tells me I must visit with Christa.

The mission, which was founded in 1776 by Spaniards, was largely successful in its goals to convert members of the indigenous community, and remained active until 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain. Once the mission system was dissolved by the Mexican government, Mission San Juan Capistrano—like other missions around California—was abandoned, changing owners several times.

In 1844, the Mission property was purchased at a public auction by Christa’s ancestor, Englishman John (Don Juan) Forster, brother-in-law of California’s governor, Pio Pico. Using the Mission as a ranch, John (Don Juan) Forster and his family resided in the building for twenty years until 1864 when Abraham Lincoln reclaimed the property and returned the site to the Catholic Church. (Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano operates as a non-profit organization, offering tours and exhibitions and running a chapel.) Inside the Mission property, a room is dedicated to Christa’s family, showcasing photographs of John (Don Juan) Forster, his wife Ysidora Pico and California governor Pio Pico. After our Mission tour, Christa walks us to the O’Neill Museum where a plaque honors her father, Tomas “Tony” Forster.

Though Christa has conducted research and created a performance piece about her ancestor Ysidora Pico—which I experienced several years ago—I didn’t comprehend her background until I witnessed how deeply her family roots are intertwined with San Juan Capistrano’s history. Given my own family’s movement from India to Pakistan—and now to different parts of the world—I’m especially appreciative of how Christa’s family history is preserved in one region.

The Mission courtyard

29 Dec 2016 · 10:08:14 PM

Note added on 16 Jan, 2017 When I tell my cousin Samina Hasan, who used to live in Dana Point (a beachtown close to San Juan Capistrano), about our visit, she sends me an email: OMG! Zoha [my daughter] went to Marco Forster Middle School, probably named after a relative of your friend.

And sure enough, a few hours later, Christa confirms by email: Marco Forster MS is named for my grandfather (my dad’s dad).

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an alternate planet…

I’ve spent most of my life protesting. As a teenager, I marched on Karachi streets in support of women’s rights, after which I went on to college to join divestment rallies in support of an Apartheid–free South Africa and Take Back the Night marches in New York. While based in Houston, I created art productions that focused on race and gender equity.

This month, though, I’m adjusting to being based in a part of the US that’s led by a progressive government where ”lawmakers announced bills that would provide attorneys to immigrants in the country illegally, refuse assistance to any proposed registry of Muslim immigrants and require any wall built along the Mexican border to first be approved by California voters.”

California feels as if it’s located in an alternate planet, especially as I read updates from spaces as close as Texas, and as far as Aleppo, where desperate citizens await evacuation.

14 Dec 2016 · 04:49:12 PM

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an award for minal…

At ten thirty this morning, I receive an email from Minal’s English teacher with a subject line: We WON THE GRAND PRIZE!!!!!!!!!!!

Over the course of the day, details unravel and we learn that Minal’s essay, “A Friendship Created by a Sequin,” won first place in a national writing competition in which Minal’s English teacher, Ms. McLaughlin, submitted essays produced by her students.

As a result of Minal’s first place win, author Kate DiCamillo is scheduled to visit Minal’s classroom in February 2017.

06 Dec 2016 · 10:35:58 PM

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graffiti in the canyon...

Pink graffiti on a rock along my path as I hike in Eaton Canyon.

28 Nov 2016 · 06:33:02 PM

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reminders and a respite…

After spending five days in Houston, Minal flies with me to Washington DC where I’m invited to attend a National Endowment for the Arts convening. With a free day before the conference, I ask Minal what she wants to do on her first trip to DC.

“Visit the White House,” she tells me.

Once we reach the white-pillared building, I notice that construction for the January inauguration has already begun. There are no protests on this warm, sunny afternoon.

Pushing back sadness, we turn toward the Mall, where we sight the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened in September 2016. Though the museum is free, I’ve heard that the earliest tickets aren’t available until late spring 2017.

Taking a chance, I wander up the guard at the entrance and ask if there’s a chance for entry.

Without a change of expression, he says: “I have extra tickets today. How many?”

For a moment, both Minal and I think that the guard might be trying to scam us, but he reaches into his pocket and pulls out two tickets, which he then punches and drops into a bin. Gesturing for us to enter the steel framed four-story building, he steps aside.

Taking a deep breath, I hold Minal’s hand and we walk into the open space. We spend the four hours wandering through the different levels, starting from the lowest basement wings, as the docent recommends, to examine exhibits about slavery and the emancipation movement. When we emerge and take the elevator to the fourth floor to move through the arts and culture section, our minds are already soaked with images and ideas. The sun has dropped and is piercing through the steel. I know that I will return to spend more time in this space.

The next morning, the energy at the NEA convening is low; no one knows what to expect, how arts funding will change with the start of a new US administration, and how the backlash will affect progressive forces.

Today, our Uber driver who takes us to DC’s National airport is from Afghanistan, though technically he is Pakistani, since he was born in a refugee camp in Abbottabad.

“The Pakistani government won’t give our people citizenship,” he tells me as we chat in Urdu. “They are sending my people back to Afghanistan, even though many of us were born on Pakistani soil.” He shakes his head. “And now my family is in the US…but we don’t know how we long we will be here once the new US President is inaugurated.”

National Museum of African American History & Culture basement levels

20 Nov 2016 · 10:26:52 PM

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revisiting “home”…

Minal and I spend five days in Houston, where she couch-surfs at her friends’ homes, while I find refuge at my friend Jacsun’s house as I prepare for VBB’s November 14 archive celebration, Responding to Our World, at the University of Houston’s Library.

The day after the archives celebration, our friend Oskar drives Minal and me to the east Houston so we can revisit the house where Minal spent majority of her life. René and I recently sold the property after recognizing that the home required more upkeep than we could undertake at this time.

The construction workers allow us to enter the house, which was purchased to be “flipped”. The inside is unrecognizable: the kitchen and bathrooms have been torn up with toilets, sinks and tubs removed. The walls of our master bedroom are gone, so we can gaze out at the bougainvillea in the backyard, and the garage has been flattened.

We drive away wondering what the space will look like in a few months. Though the electric and plumbing systems will be modernized, I’m glad that the overall structure will be maintained as will the wood floors.

“My old room is the only one that looks the same,” Minal says in a low voice.

As we drive away, I remember how Minal’s green bedroom was the space I transformed in remembrance of my father, Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, for Voices Breaking Boundaries’ fall 2009 living room art production, Honoring Dissent/Descent in which I introduced my father to Houston. More than 400 people wandered through our home that night, experiencing installations, watching videos, meeting new people and eating fresh food. Audience members left with a better understanding of my father’s work. Thanks to filmmakers Yunuen Perez Vertti and photographers Eric Hester and Ben Soto, the work is documented and can be revisited, even though the house no longer belongs to René, Minal and me.

image from 2009 Honoring Dissent / Descent in our backyard under the garage

Flattened garage

15 Nov 2016 · 08:42:28 PM

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hangover after drinking a lot of water and watching television…

I wake up with a hangover this morning even though last night, I drank only water. But I watched television for a long stretch.

In the morning, I drink more water peppered with coffee. On our drive to school, Minal and I discuss the outcome of last night’s US elections, and she confesses that she was texting her Pasadena school friends until ten o’clock at night. By then, she and her friends knew who was going to win. Her Houston friends don’t learn the news until they awaken.

Afterwards, on my daily hike, I process how we are living in a country where our neighbors, our police officers, our grocery store cashiers, our mechanics could well be part of the 47 percent of the US population that clicked a button to vote for a man who has been charged with sexual assault by 12 women, who wishes to create a wall between this country and another nation, and who has expressed a desire to deport a group of people who practice one religion. This is just a short list about the victor.

I want to raise my daughter in a world where women leaders serve as majority of those leading nations, even though I understand that like their male counterparts, some women will be progressive while others will be reactionary. According to Pew Research Center, 63 out of 142 nations around the world have had women leaders, but few governed for long periods. (A list of women leaders can be found on Wikipedia.)

Still, I am grateful that Minal learned about the possibility of women leaders when Minal was just three years old even though the circumstances were devastating.

09 Nov 2016 · 03:45:39 PM

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familiar sights in new surroundings…

Today, on my hike to Eaton Waterfall, right as I duck into the shaded trail, I notice a silver-haired man ahead of me, who keeps turning around to look at me. Because we are the only ones on the trail, I feel nervous. But after I take a turn, I don’t see the man any more, so I continue to the end of trail. On my hike back to the parking lot, I pass two park guards on the main trail. I mention the man to them.

“He has long hair, right?” they ask.

I nod.

“He’s harmless,” one of the guard responds. “He lives in the cement hut that was part of a bridge leading to the waterfall. He’s never hurt anyone. …”

They continue rambling upward as I descend. Even though park hours are from sunrise to sunset, they seem unconcerned that someone is residing at the park. Houston security guards were never so relaxed when learning about people using public space for their housing.

Currently, according to the LA Times, Los Angeles has the largest number of people living on streets. Many live in Skid Row, others place tents below freeway bridges, while still more camp out in parks. In another LA Times article, the reporter points out that women comprise one third of the city’s homeless community.

As I read the story, I think about the shopping cart laden with blankets and plastic bags that I pass whenever I walk around Victory Park. The cart rests behind the baseball field net, just a few yards from where the weekly Farmer’s Market is held. On a Saturday morning just a few weeks ago, I notice a woman reposing on a chair beside the cart, her body wrapped in green blankets. We exchange glances, and then, she looks away, her blank gaze resting on the US Marine headquarters behind me.

As I get familiar with the landscape around me, I begin to notice that beside the double-storied houses and tree-lined streets, beneath the mountain ranges, and in the canyons reside men and women who sleep on pavements and in crevices. Once, at the entrance of a grocery store parking lot, a man greets me. He stands against the wall with his wife and two children, holding a sign: hungry – please help. Another time, a woman walks up to me with her six-year old daughter by her side, and asks for money—an encounter that remind me of women and children thronging Karachi streets.

04 Nov 2016 · 04:32:20 PM

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memory: a hatchback transformed…

I step out to our street today and freeze at the sidewalk. In front of me rests a red Honda Civic Hatchback, identical to the first new car I bought in 1993. I drove my hatchback up until 2010, after which Eric Hester and I created an art car together, Digital Meets Pakistani Truck Art.

With nine screens, a microphone stand, truck art stickers and reflectors from markets in Karachi, the car won an Art Car Parade award. The car was dedicated to artists that inspire me: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Patti Smith, Iqbal Bano and Liz Alexander, who had just passed away.

In 2013, just as I parked the car at Ken Crimmins’ The Silo – “a resting spot for art cars” – my hatchback’s timing belt broke. I have not seen the car since then.

25 Oct 2016 · 04:51:17 PM

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more explorations and a bear on the loose...

A couple of months ago, when we first landed in Pasadena, California, I began my days with neighborhood walks, but lately, now that the weather has cooled off, I’ve begun hiking in Eaton Canyon instead. Located just a mile from where we live, the park is a “190-acre zoological, botanical, and geological nature preserve” at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

And though just twenty minutes from downtown Los Angeles, hikes in the canyon are a quiet escape. My walks are punctuated by the crunch of gravel as my shoes and those of others move across the trails, the rustle of dry branches as squirrels and deer hide from humans, and the whistle of bluejays, thrushes and other birds I don’t recognize. I hike alone, but some walk in teams, and languages such as Armenian, Chinese, Spanish are part of the ambient sound. Sometimes, all other noises are drowned by the hum of a helicopter that we never see.

Often instead of taking the uphill hike, I choose a two-mile trail to Eaton Waterfall, a shady hike along a path where a stream once flowed, and one that ends at a shallow pond that’s shadowed by rocks and a “waterfall.” The cleft in the rocks and the rug of green moss indicate how strong the water surge once was, but now, with California’s drought in its third year, there is only a soft trickle of water.

Today, when I return to the main trail, I start a chat with a hiker, also a writer and mother, who informs me that she was unable to park her car where she usually does because the street entrance was closed. “There was a sign informing people that a man was attacked by a bear,” she tells me.

12 Oct 2016 03:40:10 PM

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a whirlwind visit...

Our friend Oskar visits from Houston for just five days, and in the short amount of time that he is with us, we manage to visit a range of spaces including: Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center, where we view a short-term exhibition London Calling; WiSpa, a 24-hour Korean body spa in downtown Los Angeles; Matador Beach along Highway 101; and Watts Towers. We also dip into a Sikh-owned grocery store, where we purchase the best mithai I’ve tasted on this side of the Atlantic—or the Pacific, for that matter.

04 Oct 2016 · 07:44:17 PM

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minal closes out her twelfth year...

Last Wednesday, Minal turned twelve. I surprised her at her all-girls after-school choir practice with a chocolate cake and candles. Her choir group sang happy birthday, and her teacher allowed me to light candles so Minal could make a wish.

Even though twelve years have passed since Minal’s arrival, her early birth feels as if it happened recently. I spent a week in the hospital waiting for her, and thanks to my friend Michael Woodson, who showed up with a recorder the day before she was born, we can still listen to her heartbeat as it was transmitted from my stomach to speakers.

Minal’s birth and the recording of her heartbeat served as inspiration for new art that I created. In Fall 2008, when Minal was just four, Eric Hester who’s always up for adventure, found a way to help me obtain underwater footage. Using zip-lock bags and sand to protect the camcorder, he captured images of Minal and a friend’s daughter swimming. Using the underwater footage and Minal’s heartbeat as backgrounds, I created a short video collage, Seeking Solidarity interspersed with a conversation about race between Robert Pruitt, Ivette Roman and myself.

Also in 2008, my essay, “Heartbeat” was published in Calalloo, in which I wrote about the only time I was ever escorted to a police car. In the essay, I reflect on Minal’s future in a divided world.

Unintentionally, both my essay and video are about race and belonging. And today, twelve years since her birth, borders, race and ethnicity remain intertwined with varying scales of repression and violence; in Kashmir, the death toll rises, while Palestine remains isolated and in struggle, even as the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement escalates.

Sadly, these are just some struggles of our times. What will the list look like by the time Minal circles around another dozen years?

28 Sep 2016 12:23:47 PM

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i can’t find goat meat…

When making the rapid shift to Pasadena, I began a list of the replacements we’d have to uncover. And now that we’re here, the list has grown:

General Practitioner
Salon for pedicure
Desi salon for waxing & threading
Hair stylist
Car mechanic
Tire shop
Printer cartridge replacement shop
Desi shop for toor daal
Larger quest for community, personal and professional
And I still haven’t discovered a halal meat shop that sells goat cut just the way I like!

19 Sep 2016 02:05:37 PM

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discovering the perfect markets…

Even though Pasadena is a small town, its proximity to Los Angeles and border-less connections to nearby townships means that one has a range of markets where different purchases can be made. Closeby are the usual Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other grocery stores, but thanks to recommendations from fellow parents, one morning we walk over to Pasadena Certified Farmer’s Market that’s set up each Saturday in the parking lot of the nearby high school. There, we purchase okra, tomatoes and grapes.

Another afternoon, we venture into a Super King and find a range of fruits, vegetables and daals/lentils, even though the market caters largely to Spanish-speaking residents. In a conversation with a friend, we learn that the “international store” is run by an Armenian family, a community that is visible throughout Pasadena and nearby Glendale.

One afternoon, we wander into Ranch 99 that caters to the Chinese-speaking community. We are hungry, so we order a Chinese shrimp tempura roll that’s prepared and served much like a Mexican burrito. Only $3.50, the roll is delicious, giving us the energy to wait in line to pay for the snapper we find.

06 Sep 2016 · 08:18:05 PM

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daily sights and pedestrian's rights...

Each morning, stepping out – rather than driving – for my daily walk is refreshing. In most places where I’ve lived (Karachi, Austin, Houston) I’ve usually driven and parked at a spot before starting my walk. But in Pasadena, our condo is next to Victory Park, a green space next to a high school that’s surrounded by football and soccer fields and a baseball stadium.

Temperatures are cool in the mornings, so after dropping Minal to school, I step out to walk; the ritual helps me stay centered as our family deals with transition. My trails takes me through Victory Park to another nearby park Eaton Sunnyslope. After circling residential streets, I return toward our “home”.

As I walk, I’m struck by the respect drivers offer pedestrians. I don’t need to wait for cars to slow down before crossing. Instead, the moment I stride forward, cars obey the yellow sign placed in the middle of the street and halt. (A side note: I’m still adjusting to Minal’s school, where middle and high school students cross a main road without the assistance of crossing guards.)

At the edge of Victory Park is a community center, a volleyball court, swings and a play area. In sharp contrast stand the fenced-off building and parking lot of a US Marines battalion center, an unexpected addition to a park area that attracts dozens of families and students each night. As I walk on the cement trail between the headquarters and the high school parking lot, I catch sight of parked camouflage Hummers and small tanks. But in the distance, always, to offer perspective and beauty is the San Gabriel mountain range that has recently been designated a national monument.

01 Sep 2016 · 02:18:02 PM

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viva la causa...

While visiting a local bank, I catch sight of a wall filled with drawings by children. Each poster is a reminder of history; this one is a remembrance of the farm workers movement.

18 Aug 2016 · 04:47:23 PM

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unpacking boxes...

We have to pay the city of Pasadena to obtain a parking permit, so the company that moved our belongings from Houston Pasadena can deposit our pods on our street. Though we manage without our boxes and furniture for a week, we are relieved once the pods are delivered. I call a moving company to get help moving our boxes and furniture into the condo that we rent.

The next morning, two young men – Aziz and Andray from Uzbekistan and Russia – arrive at the door. They spend two hours clambering up the stairs with our boxes, Minal’s treasure chest, and other random pieces of furniture.

“I have a college degree,” Aziz tells me. “But it is not recognized here. So, I work full-time moving furniture.” He nods toward Andray. “He is in the same situation.”

This evening, a day later, we move and unpack some boxes and set up the dining room table. René works on his schedule, Minal tackles homework, while her cat offers company.

17 Aug 2016 · 07:54:24 PM

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the first day of school...

By sheer coincidence, we find a public school in Pasadena that is much like Minal’s Houston school – the program is International Baccalaureate and also offers a Spanish-English dual language stream. I drop her off in the morning. She lugs a heavy backpack, but seems calm and ready for new adventure.

As I walk out of the building, I notice how curling flags drop from the circular verandah and that the Pakistani flag dangles from one entrance. I wonder if during the course of her day Minal will hear a conversation that India is celebrating its Independence Day today and that Pakistan’s was yesterday.

15 Aug 2016 · 08:23:06 AM

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