The Woke Desi has recently renamed to That Desi Spark. This interview was carried out whilst the podcast was still called The Woke Desi.
When Annika spoke to her brother, Shri, about starting a podcast, her brother emphasized that she needed to form a team. After meeting in a Facebook group, Annika and Nehal wanted the podcast to cover a variety of issues faced by others who identify as third culture, dual identity, first-generation, and/or children of immigrants. The podcast The Woke Desi is a cross between Sex in the City, The Real, and late-night discourse among friends.
“We started the podcast because there was a void of brown people and brown voices,” Anikka notes, “We wanted to talk, explore, through a kind of casual, funny lens. It’s definitely grown since then and we’ve been able to tap into a lot more issues like infertility, LGBTQ issues, and mental health.”
At the end of the day, The Woke Desi strives to make space for others to have their identity and experiences talked about because there’s no single way to be “brown.” Annika and Nehal speak about other topics with a sense of nuance, such as global South Asian identity, what it means to be a creative and activist in South Asian culture, and how to actually have a conversation about gender inequality with your family.
The Voices of The Woke Desi
Born a Delhi girl and raised in central Pennsylvania, Annika Sharma followed her Penn State-loving heart to college in Happy Valley. There, she graduated with two Bachelor's s degrees in Biobehavioral Health and Neuro-Psychology. A career teaching young children soon followed. After two years of working in early education, she paused for a summer before embarking on her graduate school career, and wrote her first novel, The Rearranged Life. Shortly after earning her Master's degree in Early Childhood Special Education, she was signed to Donaghy Literary Agency -- a move that landed her a book deal for The Rearranged Life with Curiosity Quills Press. The novel was released in 201 5 earning her a three-book deal. Annika currently lives in New York City, working as a health communications manager by day and running a career as an author at night. Her latest novel, Love, Chai and Other Four Letter Words, is available to pre-order now.
Nehal is an innovative, creative entrepreneur, social media and digital marketing professional established in San Francisco, CA. Highlights of her career include building and executing marketing strategies for paid, display, social, events, print and video in a timely manner and on-budget. She also manages various creative agencies to get her vision across on all platforms and to ensure branding and messaging is consistent on all forms of media. When she’s not stuck in the world of social media, content creation and analytics, Nehal enjoys blogging about her international travels, style, dating advice and marketing tips for the modern consumer at www.nehaltenany.com. She’s also an editor for Brown Girl Magazine. Nehal graduated from the University of Arizona in 2016 and currently works as the Sr. Digital Marketing Specialist at BMC Software.
South Asian Representation in Bollywood and Beyond
South Asian representation even in Bollywood does not accurately reflect the diverse identities that exist.
In the past, it might have been acceptable to look at caricatures of groups of people in films and feel a sort of thrill of just being represented, even inauthentically. And while there can be mainstream identities, there are so many parts that make a person’s identity. “I think when we were watching TV and growing up, if we saw an Indian person, and even though that person usually had a really irritating, completely unrealistic Indian accent, we were so thrilled that we were even in this space.” Annika explains, “But now, I think that the push is to do a little better...There’s layers to browness [and they] should be represented.”
“We're trying to work together and push things forward.” Nehal continues, “ But I think sometimes we forget that there are others behind us that we don't pull up and help out. We're not aware sometimes of other communities standing behind us.”
In one of their episodes, Annika and Nehal covered Indo-Caribbean identity, a South Asian identity that’s not as “mainstream” as British-Indian or India-Americans so it, unfortunately, gets excluded from much of the public discourse.
“We got a lot of messages from people in New Zealand, Fiji, UK, about South Asian experiences that are removed from South Asia.” Annika recalls. Even in media industries outside of Bollywood, there is room for improvement in South Asian representation. While movies, like Bend it Like Beckham, were cultural resets and garnered a lot of attention, they mostly featured a British-South Asian experience. Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding are examples of Indian-American and global immigrant/Punjabi-Indian identities respectively.
It makes sense that the South Asian diaspora in the US and UK dominate the identity discourse since they are the two biggest locations where South Asians have immigrated to. However, the US and UK aren’t the only countries in the world that have a South Asian diaspora. Unfortunately, the South Asian population in places like Fiji and the Caribbean, among other places, have been excluded from conversation or alienated by the diaspora located in other countries such as the US or UK.
Annika: So as much as the immigration process creates trauma, we also put it on ourselves. And we inflict it on our own communities by not including them, and not really embracing them as one of our own. Because we create these differences in these barriers between us. There's also like a pedestal that they put themselves on that says you're not here yet. And we’re here, but you're still kind of beneath us. The episode that we did on Indo-Caribbean identity actually brought that forward a lot. That's something I really, really had to think about and I still do every day: what is our relationship with South Asians as a whole, but then what is it with the broader South Asian community that we never even considered?
Mental Health and Intergenerational Trauma
When doing their episode and interview with Brown Girl Therapy, the complexities of intergenerational trauma came to light. We all might have seemingly conflicting emotions towards our parents, especially if they are immigrants. While these swirling emotions aren’t always bad, Brown Girl Therapy noted that it’s important to realize that many layers exist. We can dissect them, recognize them, honor them, and acknowledge them. “Going through a very tough experience as children of immigrants doesn’t mean that we love our families less.” Annika explains. “[Therapists] talk about these issues and frame them in the nuances in which they exist.”
Intergenerational trauma and mental health are intertwined and important to talk about when it comes to understanding behaviors and mentalities that have existed the test of time and borders. In learning and talking openly about it, this new knowledge and open discourse also provide the space for healing.
Sometimes the common narrative is that younger generations, especially children of immigrants, do not appreciate enough the sacrifices and hardships that parents make if they want to understand their own hardships. In the episode regarding intergenerational trauma, The Woke Desi, along with Sahaj Kohli of Brown Girl Therapy, explores that everyone experiences suffering in a unique way. “Our parents have been through difficult things and we can acknowledge that.” Annika remarks, “Their experiences may be different and have come with a different set of struggles. It doesn’t negate what they have gone through and it doesn’t negate what we have gone through.”
Creativity and Activism In South Asian Culture
For many of us, especially children of immigrants, we know that our parents may have been pushed into certain professions as a means of financial stability and peace of mind. This sometimes translates across generations, with a scarcity mindset being dumped onto children who might not face the same struggles that their parents did. Because of this, the topic of creativity or pursuing your passion is a hard subject for many South Asians.
“[Our parents] didn’t want us to go through the struggle they wen through.” Nehal comments, “I understand what parents are saying; they want us to be stable, so having a side project you [are passionate about] is key.” Nehal emphasizes that pursuing your passion is important, no matter what form that takes: a career change, a side hustle, or a devoted hobby. Nehal also notes that connecting with others is important to expand your horizons as well as creative endeavors. Nehal reflects on how meeting Annika lead to The Woke Desi, “Annika and I met on a Facebook group and [then] started a whole company. One piece of advice I would give people is to start participating in things like Club House, Instagram, Facebook groups and meet new people. Especially during Covid, you’re not going to be able to meet new people. Start building your connections so that eventually you can start something that you have in common with someone. Sometimes you may not have with your existing friends.”
What does it take to normalize pursuing creative routes rather than the stereotypical career choices parents lay out for us? There is no denying the linear predictability that aligns with some careers in engineering, science, or medicine. However, in opening up about the struggles that come with a creative career, we encourage others to open up about their own struggles. “Hopefully you’ll be able to turn it into a full time job if you choose.” Annika says, “If not, that’s still okay too. We don’t always have to put ourselves up on that standard of success and outrageous fame.”
Gender Equality and Feminism in Family Conversations
This year’s International Women’s Day theme was “Choose to Challenge.” We can all choose to challenge gender bias and inequality in our communities. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. For the hosts of The Woke Desi, this statement hits close to home.
Annika: While we still have a long way to go, we have more insights into what inequality looks like. It's not necessarily in your face as someone being male being promoted over a woman. It can also be smaller things like people talking over women in meetings. I'm saying, Okay, this could be tied into other issues. I think what that means to me is also intersectionality. It's not only standing up for women but recognizing that even within women, there are layers of rights and equalities and inequalities that are doled out, based on who you are. And for women of color, that's probably worse, we are at a worse state of inequality than our white counterparts.
Nehal: I think that's super important that we not only have the conversation at the workplace, with our friends but even in our home. We’re two daughters, my sister and I, and we've definitely gotten good treatment from my parents, and I love them. But there are definitely statements that come out, like, “If you were a boy, then you could have done this.” [For example,] there was a table that broke in our house, and my sister was trying to fix it. My mum was like, “Oh, why don't you just wait until this guy comes over?” And my sister was like, “No, I can do it myself. I just need you to hold this up and screw it in.” So, I think it's really important to have those conversations at home.
With many South Asian families, gender inequality can be very apparent in the small, day-to-day interactions that add up over time and become further cemented in our collective experiences. There are different ways to tackle this issue, especially through small conversations with people closest to you: your family and friends.
Annika: At first, it [felt aggressive to me] to say, “Well, this is so stupid!” It wasn't completely coming across the way I [intended.] At some point, I just started questioning, “Well, why?” If my mom was like, “Can you clean the table?” and my brother is sitting there, [I would ask], “Why? What is he doing?” I think there is a proclivity in our family to look at me and say, “Oh, can you set the table? Can you serve the guests if they're there?” And occasionally [I say], “[My brother’s] right there.” And I think [one way] that we have the conversation is to be able to gently call it out each time it happens.
Nehal: I actually also want to add that you can flip the conversation and have a conversation with your daughter or the women in your house. I did an episode with Jitna, one of the founders of She Will Survive. It was a sexual assault, survivor-led, foundation. [Jitna] was saying that she talks to her younger daughters about [consent]. [For example], you don't need to be touched or hugged by uncles if you don’t want to. These are your body parts, and you're in charge of them. Not only are we supposed to have [these] conversations with the men and boys in our life, but also our daughters, let them know, these are your rights.
Annika and Nehal mention that even in these small, yet impactful, conversations, it’s important to cultivate patience as well as creativity. “Occasionally, it has to be a lot more than just, hey, this is sexist. People can be very, very tuned out to certain words so when you call them out on so it has to be a little bit more creative.” Annika explains, “Like, Hey, did you think about this? Why did you make me do that? And after they verbalize it...it forces them to say it out loud. And they go, I never said it that way, yeah, okay, maybe that's not right.”
When we take up the mantle to have these conversations, to question and allow people the space to reflect, sometimes they will not always turn out favorably. The word “feminist” gets a bad rap in many cultures around the globe, but this experience can be very precarious for South Asian women who hold dual identities. You might be accused of losing your way, not being “X-identity” enough, or becoming brainwashed by “the West.”
Annika: It’s making sure that people recognize that it's not the word feminist is not a reflection of the link that you have between culture and being uncultured. It's about finding a voice, having a voice, being able to use that voice for what's right for you, and what's not, and drawing boundaries.
"With lives in New York and San Francisco, the ladies of The Woke Desi came together for one reason: to give South Asians a voice, a place to call home and a friend to empower them as they make their badass way through life. Talking about fun issues like dating and marriage, to the heavier ones like infertility and desi stigmas, The Woke Desi explores the topics South Asians have only whispered about until now, lending itself to a generation unafraid of being bold and fearless. Join hosts Annika (an author) and Nehal (an influencer) as they take a fun, unfiltered, thoughtful approach to all things Desi."
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Michell is an artist, writer and activist based in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is a second-generation immigrant of Fijian-Indian descent who lives with an invisible disability. Michell holds a Masters degree in International Studies and BA (Hons) in History. Her areas of interest include mental health, the intersection of gender violence and trauma, postcolonial studies and intersectional feminism. She is enthusiastic about South-East Asian women connecting and working together to support each other and rise together to have our voices heard. You can check out her work on her Instagram @memo.does.art.
Currently based in Paris, France, Anu Kumar is a neuroscientist, writer, and the Head Article Editor for Pardesi. A first-gen American of South Indian descent, Kumar is a Lab Manager and Research Technician within the Institut du Cerveau and enjoys learning about French culture and language. She is passionate about accessible science education, diversity and inclusion, and encouraging dialogue about trauma, feminism, and identity. You can read and support her writing on Medium.