Fifth grade health class was the stuff of nightmares; it was a proxy for prodding parents with questions that you don’t want to ask and they don’t want to answer. It was also the reason my family invested in a Barnes & Noble membership card. Teenage self-help books became my parents’ one-and-only method of home health education—books like The Care & Keeping of You and Is This Normal? were a comfort compared to the hours I spent figuring out how to word my questions appropriately. I used to think my parents’ tactic was an experience that every young person could relate to, until I started watching television. TV parents were giving their kids the “Birds and Bees” talk, whatever that meant. Middle school lunches were filled with friends squeamishly recounting awkward conversations from pushy parents, enough for me to get the crux of the talk without anyone noticing that I never got the talk myself. It felt lonely picking up bits and pieces of others’ education, supplemented by books for which I wasn’t the target demographic.
My twenties sometimes feel even more confusing than my fifth-grade health class. Barnes & Noble has versions of Is This Normal? for me at this age now, too, but I’m far more self-aware of how much they’re not meant for me. I’m walking on a tightrope, trying to find the balance between being Indian, American, and Indian-American. To strip away my ethnicity from my growth just doesn’t work for me anymore and thus, neither does the American Girl book franchise and its ilk. And although my conceptual understanding of women of color in the West is no longer as barren as it had been in my homogeneous youth, there are so many elements of who I am that don’t quite reconcile with my ethnicity. I don’t get the luxury of seeing myself as a worthy contradiction through traditional coming-of-age media.
Instagram has taken the place of the self-help industry and completely reformed the way I carry myself. My late-in-life confidence bloomed from watching other brown girls indulging in their niche through social media. Dark-skinned girls wearing a bindi while doing makeup tutorials, mixing their grandma’s old fabric with Adidas, and donning big nose rings while showing off their highlight-powdered cheekbones line my feed with a subtext of experiences in the diaspora that validate my own choices. I feel a sense of security in marbling my own identity. Before Instagram, I did not have the vocabulary to praise brown women without stripping away my acknowledgement of their struggle for self-acceptance—one I knew well myself. Now, agreed-upon words like glowing, goddess, and radiant serve as proverbial hat tips to melanin. Compliments are no longer despite color; the warm cocoa tinge which luminates from my skin is now the center of the compliment itself. The breadth of being brown and female is being forcefully expanded and validated by the sheer will of those at the center of the intersection.
Hatecopy was the first fusion brand I ever followed on Instagram, immediately after I came across a pen sketch of a traditionally adorned mother telling her husband: “Our daughter didn’t pick up the phone, Vinay… she could be dead! Dead, Vinay! DEAD!!!!!” Maria Qamar, the artist behind Hatecopy, adopts Roy Lichtenstein’s style of satirical and dramatic pop art to etch out ridiculous scenes from her own life. Qamar’s art is decidedly for desis, by desis—as shown by speech bubbles that often include Hindi words and topics reminiscent of an immigrant household. The term “desi” is a catch-all term for anyone of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bengali, or Nepalese descent. In a way, Qamar is unforgiving—if you don’t understand, you can either take the time to figure it out on your own or get left behind—but it only serves to further her brand. As Qamar writes in her book, Trust No Aunty:
Until I started putting my art about the South Asian-American experience in the world, I didn’t know just how many others had gone through the same confusing culture clash while trying to find their way.
Since my first exposure to Qamar in 2015, she has filled art galleries, boutique stores, Mindy Lahiri’s apartment in The Mindy Project, and her own book with desi diaspora art—and I feel like it’s as much my victory as hers. After all, the Renaissance period for the young, brown, and feminine emerged from our collective consciousness.
Qamar plays the role of the cool, older sister as she helps the reader and a younger version of herself navigate the seemingly endless landscape of aunties in Trust No Aunty. This Choose-Your-Own-Adventure survival guide to the types of bad advice desi girls encounter reads a lot like a personal diary as Qamar’s message shifts effortlessly between art and words. Using different aunty tropes, Qamar explores the dynamics of embracing some aspects of your culture while escaping others:
As the advice becomes more and more contradictory and the world shifts further and further away from traditional practices, you might realize that the person you need to trust most is yourself. And me, of course.
What started off as a coping mechanism to deal with the widening generational gap within immigrant families, Qamar has shaped into a new philosophy for cultural in-betweeners. In her book, there are personality sketches of at least seven different desi females—which is seven more than I’ve ever read in hardcover.
Amongst dorm-friendly recipes for daal, the plot of her ideal Bollywood movie, and that time she hid a guy in her closet, Qamar speaks to truths that are meant to be discovered in your twenties. One of the lessons she shares comes after she reconciles her romanticized notions of love:
I rejected men online, I rejected them on the street, I rejected them over the phone. I was rejecting so much I started to believe that I was the hero, looking for someone I would fall in love with first. It felt great. I began to take charge of where I would go to eat, how much space I needed, how much support I was willing to give and accept, and ultimately how and when I was ready to take things seriously.
As much as this personal victory does not seem exclusive to desi girls, it is not wrapped in the same generic packaging encasing stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul. Qamar’s romantic ideals do not exist in a vacuum. The contradictions stapled to our culture—a painful reverence for arranged marriages despite industries feeding off the desire for illusions of sweeping and forbidden love, to name one—color her yearning for an affection that empowers her. When forced to mediate between two cultures that taunt each other’s lifestyles, Qamar gives herself space to love in her own way. She gives herself the freedom to accept every part of herself, even if they don’t agree on first-glance. That is a desi win.
To be sure, there were just as many truths that spoke only to the desi girl. In Trust No Aunty, Qamar accompanies her art piece, “Unfair N’ Lovely,” with an anecdote on colorism in the desi community: “It took me a long time to unlearn the teaching that lighter skin is more worthy of love than darker skin and that my Indian features were somehow less attractive, an idea that spans many cultures.” Growing up as a woman of color kind of feels like that gray area when Bruce Banner transitions to Hulk—the values that you were raised with and the ones you garnered are constantly fighting and trying to overpower each other. Her acknowledgement of the internalized racism and self-hatred that comes with growing up brown and female gives me the sense that I’m revealing my freshly-healed scars to women who can show me theirs back.
Above all else, Trust No Aunty and Qamar’s work are not independent of the work of other desi artists. In a section about workplace micro-aggressions, Qamar writes, “The Apu accent is an evergreen tool used by the casual corporate racist to put down those that season their food. My family did not endure three wars and a genocide for me to sit quietly while some idiot bobbled his head in attempts to “playfully” bond with his new Indian coworker.” Stand-up comic and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu speaks about the consequences of having Apu, a character from The Simpsons, as a cultural caricature while growing up in his documentary, The Problem with Apu—which has Hatecopy artwork both showcased and worn throughout the hour-long feature. Qamar also points out, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard my mother and my aunties scream the phrase ‘LOG KYA KAHENGE?!’ which translates to ‘What will people SAY?!’” Hasan Minhaj, comedian and Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show, jokes about the same phrase in his Netflix special Homecoming King: “I don’t know if you know, but every time a brown father says log kya kahenge, a star actually falls from the sky.”
When artists across mediums, only previously seen together on the convoluted consciousness of my Twitter timeline or my Instagram Explore page, collaborate in actuality because of their shared cultural experiences, I feel as though I had introduced them myself. There are whole episodes, specials, and seasons devoted to lacing the corners of media with inside jokes that I’m a part of. I totally get it now; it feels great to be in the target demographic—a market that now encompasses multitudes of brown hybridity.
Reading Trust No Aunty gave me what I had searched for in fifth grade health class and middle school lunchroom conversations. I wanted so badly to turn my head and catch the glance of a brown girl scrambling to understand herself through words meant for others. Although relatability only recently reached my intersections, I feel a sort of solidarity around growing up with desi girls virtually. Qamar has over 100K followers on Instagram and, with art as exclusive as hers, it also means 100K people are laughing at the same sketch of a white guy saying “Namaste” to a brown girl rolling her eyes. I revel in the fact that Trust No Aunty is a temporal manifesto. My hope is that my children will be raised by the aunties who have read this book and doted on by the aunties-turned-grandmothers who are the subjects of this book. They will find their own slivers of culture to attach to their personhood and their own survival guides to make them feel worthy for the multitudes they contain. For now, Qamar did her part in validating my own seemingly contradictory existence in this cultural moment.