A Conversation With Sufi Malik

Photograph: @simrahfarrukh

After going viral in the middle of 2019, Sufi Malik and her girlfriend, Anjali Chakra, were suddenly everywhere. The beautiful relationship between a queer Indian and Pakistani, both brought up in the States, fascinated many, and in Sufi’s own words, log pyaase ho gaye the.

Since then though, things have changed, and Sufi has finally come to terms with blasting through the internet, and is trying to use her platform to share her art and be the representation she needed when she was younger. This, along with navigating through the attention that her relationship gets, is difficult, she says, but it’s something that she has to figure out for herself.

In person– or on the laptop screen as we talk– Sufi is warm and brilliant, much like her Instagram username, @sufi.sun. She is articulate and reflective, determined to say the right things, thinking over her answers carefully each time. Talking to her is easy, and wondrously inspiring.

Q. Growing up as a Pakistani in the states, was it ever difficult for you to fit in? In your opinion, what are the biggest clashes between Western and Desi culture?

So I grew up in a predominantly South-Asian neighbourhood, and so it was easy for me to feel accepted in spaces where I was surrounded by family and friends– Pakistanis, Bangladeshis. And I think that not feeling accepted culturally made me, by default, always want to be around that one group of people. So in any space that I was in, whether it was primary school or high school or college, I would just like, try to find close Desi friends whose experiences I could relate to. I don’t think that I’ve experienced prejudices against Desi folks as such, but I think it’s difficult to fit in, in different ways, in terms of, like, diaspora. Also– and this is in my subjective experience– that Western and Desi cultures are worlds apart, right? It’s a total 180°.

In Western cultures, I feel like we’re taught to build ourselves up for our own futures. And I think in Desi culture, we’re taught to build ourselves around the futures of others– for example, our family. And there’s a clear distinction between collective and individualistic cultures. I think that’s where the clash comes in. So, I’m trying to navigate around that, growing up as a Pakistani-American who is also queer, and living in a conservative Sunni household.

Q. And today, do you think it is difficult being accepted and represented well as queer and Muslim, in both Desi and Western society?

I think that in Western society, it’s an unorthodox experience to understand someone being queer and Muslim– but once I’ve explained it, I’ve never felt any weird energy or prejudices from folks who aren’t Muslim. But I grew up in the States, I grew up in New York, and the only representation of queer families or queer relationships that I saw in films or TV shows, were just white women. I never saw anyone like me– Desi and queer– actually, there’s this one film called I Can’t Think Straight– I don’t know if you’ve heard of it? I think I was eighteen when I saw the film, so I had like, figured myself out on my own, until I saw two brown women in a queer film. So, there was such a lack in that experience.

Within Desi society, I dealt with a mix of reactions and emotions like, I’m not accepted by the neighbours that I grew up with, and even the majority of my family views me being queer as, somehow, a conscious choice that I’ve made. Sort of like… I just choose to love women, or I started to love women at a certain age, and I think that will definitely take a lot of unlearning, in terms of Desi societies being able to navigate around that. Also, it’s interesting because once Desi societies realize I’m queer, the fact that I’m queer and Muslim becomes the only thing they can fixate on, when there’s so many different aspects of my personality that could be examined. But it just becomes like this weird obsession, I guess because there’s not enough representation.

Q. The next question is actually related to this. What are the implications of being queer and Muslim, and do you have to deal with ignorant questions a lot because of your identity?

Yeah, I deal with all kinds of hate and opinions and internalised homophobia, mostly on the internet, nowadays, with my relationship being public. I get a lot of conservative Muslims trying to tell me who I am because I identify as queer Muslim and I also happen to be dating a Hindu woman. Most of the time, they’re vulgar and disrespectful– but other times, people try to give me unsolicited advice, saying things like I should convert to another religion because it doesn’t make sense for me to still be a Muslim, etc. And I think it’s hard for a lot of people to understand that my identity can exist within both, and being gay and Muslim can interconnect.

Q. I wouldn’t think that you have to deal with so much negativity because your community of people seems so positive on the internet.

Yeah, it’s also just like– I’m not going to be taking every mean and rude DM that I get and blocking them on social media. But you’re right– the majority of the comments that we get are quite nice. I think it’s mostly just like, the DMs that I get, that are more negative.

Q. And does that affect you, or have you learnt to sort of block that out?

I think, in the beginning, it was kind of an uncomfortable thing to deal with, but now I’ve definitely gotten used to blocking it out. It was really weird at first, though. And I think that it was just something that I had to work through on my own, and feel comfortable around it. ‘Cause you know, people are going to talk. People have opinions, and I can’t stop them from having opinions, but I can learn how to make the process easier for me.

Q. I was attacked for something I said yesterday on Twitter, and it obviously wasn’t as bad as what some people go through, but it was still really rough. I thought I wouldn’t be affected by it because it’s a bunch of random strangers, but I was pretty upset.

Yeah, it does take a toll on you! I’ve just experienced it so much that I’ve become kind of immune, or desensitized to it. Because ultimately, these are people behind a screen– I don’t know them, they don’t know me– I’m not going to dwell on what they say. It’s just going to bring my mood down, you know?

Q. The next question, again, is sort of connected to this. You were suddenly everywhere when you went viral after Ek Ladki Ko Dekha. Do you think the sudden attention impacted your work in any way?

I’ve actually thought about this question for quite a while. Ek Ladki (with@simrahfarrukh) was actually the tip of the icerberg. I think things really went off the charts when we collaborated with this clothing company called Borrow The Bazaar for a photoshoot. Those were the photoshoots that really circulated, and people thought that Anjali and I were married and those were our wedding photos– for the record, they’re not. So, we literally went viral overnight because of those and I think that it was a lot for me to process. I think I got distracted in different ways after going viral, and I also felt like I didn’t have the time or the emotional capacity to get creative and dig deep into my art because there was so much going on. But a lot has changed, and I feel a little more settled since then, so I’m beginning to feel more connected to myself creatively. I feel like my block is over for now.

Q. Was there, sort of, this pressure to make better art, now that you had a bigger audience watching you?

I think that actually made me more excited– that I finally had the audience that I had craved for so long! I feel like I did have an audience before too, but this was just something beyond my expectations. I don’t think that I felt insecure in sharing my art, or how it would be viewed because of the audience. I think it’s just me within myself. When I put out art, it has to be good enough for me first. So if I’m not proud of it, I don’t want to share it. And I wasn’t completely in tune with myself at that point, so I knew that I wouldn’t be able to put my best foot forward and make art that really came from within me.

Q. Have you changed since it all happened?

No. I think my experiences have changed, but I don’t think that I’ve changed.

Q. Do you feel like some people focus more on your relationship with Anjali than your work? What are your feelings on this?

I actually thought this was a really good question because I’ve thought about this a lot.

So, I had a show in LA– I think about a month and a half ago? I showcased some of my pieces, it was a collaboration with loveclosely (@loveclosely), which is a clothing brand based in Toronto, and that was the first time after we went viral that I was featured in an art show. I’ve been featured in plenty before, but this was the first after going viral. And I think I felt this question apply to that experience a lot– because Anjali was there too, and so I felt like that was our first big social event together like that. We actually had a fan come out, and she brought like a whole duffel bag of snacks and I think the majority of people who did recognize me there knew me from before. So I did feel a little– I don’t know if it was uncomfortable or uneasy, or disappointed? Because I know that me having this platform is really good for me because I have my foot in the door, but in that setting, it felt like more of “you and Anjali” than “you and your art.”

I don’t think I feel that online as much but I think I do feel it in person, when I have a show. I haven’t had a show since then, and I don’t think that was necessarily a negative experience, I think it’s something that I will have to learn how to navigate around. Because I think that it’s cool that these folks are coming out in support of me and Anjali, and they also get exposed to my art and see that, and you know, I’m just so much more than what my relationship is. And I think it’s cool that I get to express that through my art, and folks can see that, even if they come to an art show because Anjali and I are there.

Q. Would things be different if there was more representation for LGBTQ+ couples?

Yeah, for sure. Definitely.

Q. You directed a series of photographs that focused on expressing your masculinity by shaving– which was my favourite series on your Instagram, actually.

Thank you! I’m really proud of that series, that means a lot.

Q. According to you, what is the best part of women being comfortable with their masculinity?

So, growing up, I always felt like I had a 50:50 ratio of having, like, very masculine qualities but also very feminine qualities? But now that I’ve grown older, and had more experiences, I think I have 60% masculine qualities and 40% feminine qualities. I think everyone has a different ratio when it comes to that.

I think the best part of women being comfortable is being able to expressyour masculinity, right? I’m privileged enough to live somewhere where I can dress how I want, and I can live on my own terms, even if the people around me don’t agree with it. I have the liberty to do that, and I think I’m very fortunate that I can do that and not receive negative feedback from the society that I’m in. I know that a lot of women in parts of South Asia or East Asia can’t do that.

So, in my experience, I think, the best part is to be able to freely express your masculinity, whether it’s through fashion, or any other way.

Q. Is that difficult for you when you go back to Pakistan?

I’m a completely different person when I go to Pakistan, and when I’m around my family. I’m kind of just like… I’m here to spend time with my family, and I’ll do that, and then I’ll be on my way.

And I think that– and this goes back to my family being a little conservative– so I think that my personal opinions that I do express are kind of seen as yeh ladki toh bahar se aayi hai, and what does she know of our experiences. So whatever I say always becomes misconstrued, so I try not to… say anything.

Q. Do you go back often, actually?

I went back a lot when I was growing up. I think I went back almost every summer. We would try to spend either our winter or summer breaks there.

Photograph: @sarowarrr

Q. As a writer, do you think there was enough queer poetry or literature for you to read when you were growing up? Is this changing today?

I don’t think I read any queer poetry when I was growing up. I don’t think I was exposed to it. I honestly read whatever was accessible to me, so I read, like, Charles Bukowski– he was an awful man, but his poetry isn’t all that bad– I read Sylvia Plath, the majority was white poets.

But I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Fatima Asghar? She’s a queer Pakistani poet, and her poetry resonates with me so much. I actually think she’s one of my favourite poets. She also has a web series, which is really cool.

Q. My favourite queer poet, actually– he’s called Richard Siken and I love his work so much. I think I get emotionally very invested in all of my favourite artists.

Yeah, I think that’s– maybe it’s because you’re also an artist, right? You’re a writer. I think not being emotionally connected to an artist and not feeling the same things that they feel is weird to me. Because I feel like… I feel so much that… that’s just a foreign concept to me.

Q. In one of your poems, you wrote, ‘Disobedience is not an act of disrespect, instead a revolution– when our thoughts are constantly put to rest.’ How do you think the position of women in Pakistan has changed in the last few years?

So, I can’t speak on the behalf of the experiences of women in Pakistan as a whole because I haven’t grown up there. I have visited it quite often, but I still don’t think that’s the same thing.

But I’ve grown up around women who see themselves as secondary to men, or are made to believe that they are secondary to men. And I know that there’s parts of Pakistan like Lahore and Islamabad that are more liberal and secular– and we have powerful women like Malala who are changing the world.

I still think that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I think the majority of the oppression of women comes from cultural values instead of religious values, and, in my opinion, if folks are educated enough to know what Islam is and if they read the translations, which I have, women are given a lot of rights. And it’s just difficult to see that… I know a lot of Pakistani families who want to regulate the women in their families by telling them where they can go or what they can wear, and it kind of just gets misconstrued, and falls back onto Islam– when it’s not like that at all, and it’s more of a cultural thing.

My family is from a small town in Pakistan, and I think that has to do with a lot of the views that they have– so, when I’ve gone back, honestly, I haven’t seen any difference.

Q. In the Gupt Gyan series, you talked about having to let go of the domination in your personality. According to you, are the dynamics of queer relationships depicted differently in mainstream media than cis/hetero relationships, and how do you aim to depict queer relationships in your work?

I was actually pretty surprised that you knew about the Gupt Gyan series. That was something I did with my friend Pragya (@cobraeye), and I hope that she continues to do it. It was a really… deep and interesting interview with her.

I think that the queer relationships that I’ve seen in mainstream media– it’s always like there’s no in between. It’s either, like, a really posh couple that travels a lot, looks like they have their entire life together, or this group of like, all-white gays, which there’s… there’s a lot of them.

I think that’s why me and Anjali went viral to the extent that we did– it was just instant, happened so quickly because I feel like log pyaase ho gaye the. It’s like, where are my people, you know? I don’t see myself in any of these couples. And then there’s this other part of the community that’s like queer to the core– not that that’s negative or anything– but it’s just the way that different queer couples express themselves, it’s like they’re all in all these different pockets of the world and social media. So, I think that there is a variety.

There’s something that I’ve been thinking about, especially after blasting through the internet: I want to do a photoseries that visually depicts my experience as being a queer Pakistani woman. And there’s this artist– Samra Habib (@samra.habib), she’s Pakistani-Canadian, and I knew her before going viral, she just came out with an amazing book, and she also has a collection of photos that she’s taken of queer Muslims around the world. And I really admire that work. I think I want to take that, and put more of an artistic twist to it? Where I can, in terms of visuals, maybe, add colour or play around a little bit. Like with the shaving series, there was a back story behind that– I think that a lot of my experimental photographs that I do, I directly relate it to an experience that I’ve had in my life that has shaped me, and made me who I am. So, I definitely want to be able to do that in my work.

Q. Do you think that the work of a lot of queer artists is now considered to be mainstream media, or is there still time for that?

I think there’s definitely still time for that. I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

Q. I think queer people look for other queer people, so they know that these spaces exist, but people outside the community don’t.

You’re absolutely right– queer people do seek other queer people, I can totally say that I actively look for other queer people, to be friends with them.

I think that there is work being done, in terms of seeing queers in mainstream media, but it’s years of unlearning, you know.

Q. And was the movie Ek Ladki Ko Dekha a big step towards that, in the Desi Community?

I do think that it was a really big step, especially in the South-Asian community. I know that it came out in India but I know a lot of Pakistani folks who have seen it. And it definitely is a good first step. I do think that there can be more films that are centered around queer relationships and more… normalized.

I think I have some mixed feelings about Ek Ladki, just because I know that the queer experience in coming out isn’t something that could fit into a happy ending box. It’s something that is constantly moulded and changed and developed, and a lot of parents need counseling or a lot of time to begin to understand because there’s not only an age gap but also an experience gap between people who come out to their parents, and what their parents grew up with. So, I think Ek Ladki was just scratching the surface of that.

Q. What could’ve been done differently in the movie, in your opinion?

I just don’t think that I agreed with having a cis male helping two women to be in a relationship, but also, the cis male was in love with one of the women? I don’t know, I’ve never seen that happen– it kind of made it feel like it was more centered around him being the saviour. Like, this queer woman has to depend on this man to get out of this situation. She couldn’t navigate through it on her own– so, I think that could be worked on.

Also, how her family had a really difficult time understanding it but then, within three hours of the entire film, they all come around and support her, I just don’t think that happens very often.

Q. What is your biggest purpose as a creator?

I want people to live their truth, whatever that looks like for them. In living my own truth, I hope, that I’ve somewhat inspired those who don’t have the courage to do the same thing. And everyone has their own truth, right? Like, my feelings are my truth. And my art directly stems from my emotions. So many different parts of my identity stem from what I feel, and I feel so deeply that I wouldn’t be who I was today if my feelings and emotions didn’t express my art.

So, I kind of see my feelings and emotions as my superpower.

Q. I actually read something like that in a book once– that it’s better to feel too much than to not feel anything at all.

Yeah, I mean– I feel like it’s a double-edged sword because I think, growing up, I’ve experienced friendships and relationships where I feel so much that it kind of overwhelms the other person because they’re not used to feeling that much? Also, I’m very empathetic and intuitive so I know when something is wrong, so it does make me so much more aware, but also brings conflict out sometimes.

Q. Do you think nostalgia is a big push, when it comes to your art? Because it is for me.

I think, for me, it’s different. I think, when I’m experiencing something and I begin to write a poem, if I don’t finish it all in one go, I lose that feeling. It’s hard for me to, like, pick that back up.

Photograph: @sarowarrr
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Saachi Gupta is an LGBTQ+ activist, animal lover and the author of 'With Love, or Something Like That.' She is a strong believer in equality amongst mankind.
Saachi Gupta

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