Mysara: I think the biggest challenge would really be trying to figure out what I wanna say. When you first get into realising that “Oh, you know, you really enjoy writing cos there’s a lot of things you wanna write about!”, that's a happy problem, Right? You don’t run out of ideas. But it gets to a point where whatever you’re writing gets a bit confusing. So you need to kind of set back, look at your writing again and re-write.
Another thing is, try not to box yourself up into one idea of what a writer is. Sometimes, Brown women, we police ourselves. Like, “Oh, I am not a writer! I have to publish this many books!”. Very conventional ideas of what being a writer is. It’s a bit challenging to break out of it such that it doesn’t restrict the way you write. For me at least, my background was in film but I enjoy writing. So to move on to writing, it’s complementary. I feel like I won’t be able to do what I do now if I didn’t delve into writing.
I think one of the other challenges is trying not to be too hard on yourself. I think that’s the biggest challenge actually. Because half of the time, we are just comparing ourselves to cis-Chinese men, not even White writers - I mean, yes White writers - but in Singapore’s context, cis-Chinese men and Chinese women. It's trying to break away and telling yourself that it’s okay to not follow their styles and do what you wanna do. Don’t let the inferiority complex get to you.
Mysara: Nuraliah Norasid, who wrote The Gatekeeper! I mean, she’s one local Brown, Malay writer that I look up to and am very honoured to call her a good friend of mine. She’s very encouraging in that sense. Her writing delves into science fiction and you don’t see a lot of Brown women going into that genre. It’s really inspiring to see. And then there’s Diana Rahim as well! Diana is amazing. Of course, you know, there’s Pooja Nansi, there’s Alfian Sa’at. I try to also look beyond fictional writers. I’m also a fan of Sasitharan - he’s like a veteran when it comes to the theatre scene. These are the names that are on the top of my mind when it comes to who I look up to.
But also of course, I think to look beyond local Brown writers so I’m trying to consume a bit more of Black writers as well. You have your feminist writers like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Roxane Gay. These are some names that I tend to refer to.
Mysara: I think from the top of my head, and this is something that I refer to often when I’m working on my projects, it would be Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at. I think why I go back to it is because it's really important to be able to write stories that need not necessarily engage in very flamboyant vocabulary - something that everyone can read. And what I like about Malay Sketches is that it's a compilation of short stories, so it’s very engaging. It’s a very easy read if you want to start getting into local literature.
Naila: I agree, actually! The idea of reading - people think it’s only for “smart people”. I think that’s a huge barrier. I have a lot of friends who see books about race or politics and think, “Oh I’m not ‘woke’ enough for this”, you know?
Mysara: Of course, you know the “Oh, you're not a typical Malay!”. What is a “typical Malay”? What's wrong with being a typical Malay? I think at the end of the day, I'm like a typical Malay, right? We are all typical Brown people, we all love the typical Brown things.
There was once, I got into a Grab and I was still working with CNA at that time. The Chinese uncle was like, “Oh, you work there ah?” I said yes. So he thought I was working in admin - I was like, “No, I’m a journalist and a producer”. He was like “Oh!”, and was very impressed. He asked about my educational background, my ethnicity and my race. So I was just like, okay lets play along, right? I have nothing better to do, it's a long ride. So he was like, “Oh, you’re Malay?” I said yes. When he found out that my grandma is Chinese, his response was: “Oh, no wonder you're successful!” You know, that my success is only determined because of my Chinese grandmother. I have like, I don’t know, one quarter or whatever - I don't know how people calculate it.
I grew up Brown and Brown, you know. Of course, you get that kind of backhanded comp- okay, I don’t think that was even a compliment, right? That was a compliment for himself, like “Oh, we made you successful”.
It’s important how we look at our achievements. Things like, “Oh, you’re successful for a Brown woman! You're pretty for a Brown woman!”. Over time, I’ve gone past just ignoring. I will call them out, because at some point, I don't want this to be an internalised thing. That it’s okay for me to say that to other Brown people or other Brown women. I think I'm in a position where people are slowly getting to know me as someone who does race-related work. I think it is my job to explain to them why that is very racist and problematic. Which is kind of pathetic lah! Like it's not my job, I wasn't paid to do this - it’s basic empathy.
Naila: I guess it's also tiring when Brown women have the responsibility and onus to break problematic mindsets, you know? Like, why do we have to teach you that?
Mysara: My biggest frustration is when they try to intellectualise everything. Because everyday experiences are racism and should be tackled, you know? I think it comes from this idea that I don’t know what I’m talking about - I’m just being emotional, right? All brown women are emotional. And that I always have to present this very intellectual front for them to listen to me - which I'm also trying to break. It’s ironic because my master’s thesis was about race.
If you’re not worth my energy. I'm not always gonna explain to you and I have a right to say no. I think a lot of people have been blatant about speaking up against racism, so it's your job to educate yourself.
Mysara: I think everyone goes through a self-hating phase, right? For me, it's a constant journey of not doubting myself. Telling myself that I am just as capable as another Chinese or White person - or more capable, sometimes! When Brown women do that, we are seen as arrogant. Even though we have the talent, we’ve gone through school, we’ve gone through training - still, we are not good enough. Especially for a Malay woman, where your whole identity is tied to your success in school. For me, it’s telling myself that whatever I do, it’s for myself - it’s not to prove anyone anything. I don't have to prove to this Chinese person that I am capable of getting into NUS or whatever. I’m not here to prove that I am just as intelligent as you are, I'm not here to prove that I am here ‘cause I can be successful. My success is not determined by your guidelines - how I am as a Malay person would not be not determined by your guidelines.
There’s also a lot of questioning my relationship with Brown men - especially dark-skinned men who may have internalised this self-hatred towards their own dark skin and tend to go for lighter skin girls who are palatable. Of course, you know, if you're a Brown man who only dates Chinese or White girls, it's a red flag for me.
It’s also about the compliments you take. “Oh, she's not White and she’s not Chinese. But she’s Brown and she’s light-skinned and successful!” That’s not a compliment either. I'm not your trophy Brown girlfriend. Brown women shouldn't carry the label of educating Brown men who have internalised such sentiments. I mean, it's not always easy, you know? That means your dating pool is very small, and it also means educating your Brown male friends. Being very self-aware with who you mingle with. If a Chinese and White man only asks me out because of their Chinese or White guilt, or because I’m very ‘exotic’ to them - things like that.
It's a lot of questioning and realising where you stand in society. It is exhausting - it is honestly very exhausting.
The care I give myself also comes in the form of my relationship with Brown women - forging good relationships with Brown women. I’m very lucky to have a group - whether I know them personally or not, which includes you too - of Brown women I know who just get it! Having that group of Brown women who are friends or acquaintances, whether it's online or offline. That support system is very important.
Mysara: For Brown is Haram, it's definitely a project that I hold dear to myself and one of my favourite projects for two things. Number one - it was a platform for me to kind of just experiment with different mediums. Also, I would never applaud men for doing the basics, but one of the things I really hold dear is my co-performer, Kristian. He's really been an amazing friend. It’s so funny ‘cause how the project started was that we were both doing our residency at The Substation as we were both participants of the Concerned Citizens Programme. He was looking at Brown masculinity, and I was looking at social mobility. We were the only ones who had not started our final presentation yet, so we decided to collaborate.
Over time, our friendship deepened and we had honest conversations. He’s seen me through bad relationships, bad old dates. He has allowed me that space to kind of air my grievances about being a Brown woman in Singapore. I think that is very important. For me, doing this kind of work requires a certain level of feeling safe and I think that he has allowed that - I hope that I allow that for him as well.
Also, Kris and I are very careful to not paint ourselves as the voices of Brown people. Kris called in Yan from Checkpoint Theatre, who helped us in his own free time. He's a great director, who became a good friend. He helped us - that's where having a director coming in is very important - shape our writing into something that people can see. But also, for people to realise, “Okay, there are some stories that Kris and I share that are very personal”. It's just us - some parts are just conversations between us, and the audience just watches. I have to admit I was very nervous at the start. But after a while, I think with Yan’s directions, I became a bit more confident about performing, a bit more sure about myself.
Scrutiny from the Brown community itself can be harsh.
Mysara: If it wasn’t for The Substation, I wouldn't have had the chance to collaborate with Kris, I wouldn't have had a chance to work with Alfian. I wouldn't have had a chance to work with Tini Aliman, with her amazing music skills.
Knowing that we had an independent space that, whatever the politics is, you know they will give you that space. Knowing that space has shut down feels like one less ally, to be honest.
Mysara: That was part of an exhibition that I did with Objectifs to support this short film that I did. It was about the online and offline spaces shared by women who grew up in Muslim households. So one of the physical spaces was Penawar, and another was Beyond the Hijab. It wasn't so much of a sacrifice but rather trying to find that balance. Because on one hand, you wanna talk about issues like racism but you are also concerned about how that might perpetuate Islamaphobic comments. I had to find that balance.
I think how that balance came about was actually through setting up that space I was given into looking like a bedroom - just like another Muslim girl’s bedroom. So the idea was that when you come into the room, you have to take out your shoes, there's a mat, there's books, a table, a mirror, a TV and curtains with my writings. I wanted to create this effect where you come in and you are invited - but you know it’s not your space. Which also I think is what I was hoping my works would translate. You come in, you would consume my work but also know that if you are not part of the Muslim community, it’s not your space to kind of interject with your remarks. My work is not a place for you to demonise Brown Muslim man either, especially when you don't understand the dynamics of it. So I think that was my biggest concern. There were obviously concerns like, “Oh, would this get flagged from the conservative parts of our society?”
I have to be honest, my parents - especially my mum - know what I do, but she doesn't know know what I do. So there are some things I don't share with her. She has not seen most of my works, actually. Maybe if I get married and move out then I can start talking to her about it! But yes, negotiating my identity as a Singaporean Brown Muslim women, and also as a daughter. Wanting to fully express yourself, but knowing you can't. I guess I’m slowly pushing boundaries and seeing where the boundaries lie before I get into trouble with my parents.
There was this photo which I retweeted which I felt like it resonated with me a lot. it said, “Against all authority except my mother”. I was like that is so true! I can write things that pisses off certain people in power but if my mum says no, it's a no.
Mysara: I make it a point that all my works have to incorporate my mother tongue in it for two reasons. Number one: I see it as a form of - I won't say resistance, but - embracing myself. When you're a minority in Singapore, you are forced to accept that things only have to be in English or Mandarin. So I feel like I should, or Brown people should do work in their own mother tongue.
There are also a lot of things that I can't express in English that I can in Malay. Some things just don't translate well in English. That kind of expression that I feel I can’t get if I write it in English.
You take the word ‘sayang’, for example. Sayang. General Singaporeans would know it as the makcik calling you sayang or your Malay girlfriend calling you sayang. But also, there's another meaning where it’s like “Aiya, wasted! Aiya, sayang lah”. That one word has different connotations, tones - it brings out a lot of meaning. I’ve always appreciated that about the Malay language and certain keywords especially.
The idea of Brown care and Brown love, is also in the terminologies that we use. Sayang can be used for lovers, between parents and children. But when you use the word cinta, you can't use it with [your] parents. You only use it for lovers. But I guess, in the English language, it's just ‘love’. That's something I wanna explore - how language creates boundaries between people that you would not get in the English language.
We always say that Asian culture is very reserved, but when you look into the languages of it, I think it's very fascinating that it's not! I think Brown languages are languages that encourage a certain kind of love that you don't see in English texts. [Writing in Malay] has been important. I definitely see myself continuing using Malay. Not so much like, “Oh, look at me! I'm a Brown writer!” Rather, it is a part of me - it is part of my culture, it’s part of my everyday life so I'm gonna use it.
Mysara: Just do it! Nike didn't pay me to say that, but just do it! I think especially if you’re Brown, don't doubt yourself. Take your steps to just do it. Expose yourself to Brown and Black writers, and see how they write and how they express themselves. Try to find something that would resonate with you. I think it's very important to find a genre of writing that makes you comfortable first and foremost. Sometimes, I think as creatives in that field, there's always that expectation of you putting yourself out there. Whatever it is, the care for yourself should come first. If you decide to write something that relates to your community and identity, self care is very important so that you don’t get mentally challenged. Kris and I talked about it all the time because it does get to you sometimes. Like, “Oh no, am I doing things right? Are people gonna start commenting and discrediting my work?” Especially when you’re working with someone else. But when you realise that if people can’t see you as a human being, that's on them. Basically, whatever you decide to choose to do - whether it be a writer, a filmmaker, an artist - your value as a person is not just by your work.
Naila: Perfect ending! Chills!