Embrace Yourself And All Of Your Complexities

by Yasmin Ali

Aisha is somebody who doesn’t live life passively. She absorbs every experience she goes through and sees everything around her as a source of inspiration. I had the pleasure of meeting ‘@dottydaughter’ and we talked sisterhood, heritage and creativity…

What does your Instagram handle @dottydaughter mean?

Dotty is my grandmother’s name. Well, her birth name is Lindimora but in Caribbean culture we have a tradition where you adopt pet names or pseudonyms that are completely different to the name you were given at birth. So her pet name was Dotty and that’s how she was affectionately known to everyone around her. For me, when my grandma passed away that was a really defining moment in my life. It was a period in my life when I kind of sat down and said to myself, ‘I have to create something good out of a hurtful situation’. I think that’s when I took my creativity a bit more seriously and when I opened up more, in terms of sharing stuff on social media. I was thinking of what name to use online and ‘dottydaughter’ just came up – ‘Dotty’ of course paying homage to my grandmother and I chose ‘daughter’ instead of ‘granddaughter’ because she was also a mother figure. It was me trying to form an identity for myself but also bringing it back to my grandmother at the same time. 

What makes your grandmother such an inspiration to you?

My grandma achieved so much in her life. To me, she’s an emblem of bravery, an emblem of strength, an emblem of hard work. She was also one of the most charitable people I’ve ever met. All of the characteristics and values that I would want to emulate myself, I see so much in my grandmother. She’s my greatest female role model, she just embodies every single thing that I, inshAllah, aspire to be.

img_1686 What makes you want to share your writing and intimate family photos and do you find it hard to share such personal things?

It was hard at first because by nature I’m a very private, closed person. It was a challenge that I wanted to take because I was at a point in my life where I knew I needed to become more confident in myself and I needed to work on the aspects of myself that I was insecure about. I needed to be a bit more open because I was already writing privately and as a creative, you reach a point where you want to share your work with other people. I think the reason why I share personal stories or photos is mainly because my family history and personal narratives are my greatest source of inspiration. James Baldwin’s first novel ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ was an autobiographical tale that he said he had to write before he could write anything else. I felt that way about myself too. I had to creatively and emotionally process myself and my family and everything around me. I love this quote by Frida Kahlo, she says ‘I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.’ That’s how I feel about my self.  Also, the nature of social media itself made me think. I was seeing the same things, I wasn’t seeing anything different or anybody opening up in this holistic way. I wanted to do that because I also felt very isolated growing up, I felt like there were a lot of things you couldn’t talk about so for me it’s also an awareness that lots of people go through different things but feel the same things I do so it’s all about sharing those messages. 

You mentioned that there were things you couldn’t talk about growing up. On your page, you talk about spirituality and consciousness and share personal experiences that other people may shy away from. Does this consciousness influence your interpretation of Islam?

This is an interesting question. I see myself, to some degree, as a non-conformist so I’ve always been the type of person that goes against the grain of what is supposedly expected. So when faith comes into it, and there are supposed rules or things you have to abide by, I find it hard to practice certain things and growing up I had lots of anxiety about it. There was a lot of ‘this is how it is, this is the only way’ and I think that’s a very damaging narrative to push on people. I also come from a very diverse background. My parents were Christian and became Muslim so everyone in my extended family is Christian. I have Caribbean heritage so I have things from the Caribbean culture that are spiritually very different. I needed to find a balance in myself and a balance in my faith to be able to feel connected to it but in a way that was still true to who I am, if that makes sense? I felt like I was being moulded into something I wasn’t or being pushed into a certain direction that I wasn’t comfortable with. The way I bridge that gap is by keeping an awareness of Allah at the forefront of everything I do but also recognising that I am a very ‘hippie’ person and I do like talking about nature and I like the spiritual, ethereal kind of thing- it’s just who I am and that’s what works for me. What works for me doesn’t always work for someone else. I don’t necessarily see things as black and white or right and wrong – I’m not a fundamentalist is what I’m saying. I’m at a place where I feel comfortable in creating new forms of expression even if they are spiritually different. That may not necessarily be right, but that’s me.

dsc_0017 Recently you said that you feel you’ve lost your connection to Jamaica since your grandparents passed away. How are you dealing with that now and how are you trying to keep that connection alive?

I’m mixed, my father was born in the UK but his parents were from Jamaica and my mum is English but she was adopted by her neighbours who were Caribbean, so she was raised in a Caribbean household. Even though I’m mixed, I’m culturally rooted to my Caribbean side because I just don’t know anything about my English side as my mother was adopted. I was very fortunate to have the luxury of living in-between the UK and Jamaica during my childhood. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Jamaica. The purpose of me always going back to Jamaica was to see my grandparents and now that both of them have passed away, I sort of think well, what am I going back for? I feel like I’ve lost that sense of purpose and I feel like the ties have been severed even more now that their house has been sold off. I don’t even have that physical connection anymore. I recently did a podcast where I spoke a lot more about this but, not only am I mourning the loss of my grandparents, I’m also mourning the loss of that connection to Jamaica. I think that’s a reality that a lot of diaspora children have to face. It’s a reality I’m still facing. You asked how I’m coming to terms with it. I wouldn’t say I’m over it yet, I’m still trying to figure it out but in terms of keeping my connection alive, that’s where my creative platform comes in. A lot of the creative writing or visual arts I do is rooted in my heritage and my expressions of what it means to be Caribbean. Also, as a literature student, I read a lot of literature around the Caribbean which I love. 

You recently took part in Culturing Success’s #Afrohijabi campaign. What was that like?

The campaign was a really refreshing, amazing experience, a really healing experience for me. What was special about it was that all of the sisters who took part, I had been following and talking to and supporting through social media. It was the first gathering where we all met at the same time for the same purpose. Individually, we are all trying to do something inspiring or trying to push ourselves in whatever fields we’re in so it was a really good experience, a lot of fun. It was interesting to see the response as well. It’s been completely positive and I haven’t seen a single negative response. But I would say that since that campaign I’ve done a lot of personal reflection because…well, I’ve already been transparent about it even though I shouldn’t have to defend myself. You’ll see on my social media that sometimes I wear my hijab and sometimes I don’t, its one of those things that I really struggle with. It took me a long time to accept that this is something I struggle with, irrespective of what others think, this is just my journey. If one day I decide not to wear it, it’s my decision, if one day I choose to wear it, it’s my decision. I’m comfortable in myself now and comfortable in that reality. The campaign gave me a lot of food for thought because the hashtag is ‘afrohijabi’ so it just made me think about whether it’s fair for me to represent that term. 

I think it’s fair because, as you say, you do wear your hijab sometimes. But the campaign also represents all sorts of women who fall under that bracket, in whatever capacity.

Exactly, and that was the initial purpose of the campaign. We are all black, Muslim women, and we wanted to show that we are here. Rhinna and Rikki reached out to me and they said that they’ve been admiring the work that we’ve all been doing and we all share the same values in the sense that we care about the same things and we all want to make change. It was also about creating a visual where you see women coming together. Social media is very individualistic and you do not really see this sisterhood. I’m all about supporting other women. 

img_1684Let’s talk a bit about your writing and your process. How do your muses and inspirations come into it?

For me, Instagram is such a powerful tool because it combines the visual arts and gives you space to write. I don’t have Twitter because I can’t express myself in 140 characters so I think your writing process starts from what tool you use, think about what platform works best for you. I always tell people to get into the habit of writing every day, which I know is scary because writers block is a thing! You just have to get yourself into a process even if it is private writing or private reflection. I write every single day, I don’t share everyday but your minds a muscle you need to exercise it. Because I am a creative person, a lot of what I do is informed by what I’m reading or what I’m listening to or watching. I think that’s the same with any creative or artist. It’s also acknowledging that there are a lot of people I draw inspiration from and giving them recognition and showing people ‘here is my work but here is the extensive body of knowledge in what I do’. Hopefully, people will look up these figures and see where my thoughts sort of stem from. I also feel that the people that society put on a pedestal aren’t the greatest of role models and I wouldn’t want my future daughter to look up to them. A lot of the people we ‘look up to’ in society are vain, driven by money, and have an over expression of sexuality. I don’t think any of that is healthy or positive. So I think that if I have somewhat of a platform, and people are watching me, who can I put forward as an alternative role model? People can see the richness of what these figures have done in their lives. Something else that I’ve noticed is that not many ethnic minority or Muslim kids take the creative route and it’s not our fault because our parents or grandparents were uprooted from their countries and came here to give us a better future. They often push us towards the usual fields like medicine or engineering or law. I was always geared to be a lawyer and I actually applied to do a law degree but at the last minute I changed my mind and followed what i really wanted which was literature. This over encouragement is by no fault of our parents either because they just want the best for us and usually the best is financial security. I just think many of us haven’t explored our options. You might have been that creative kid who always used to write stories but it’s been tethered out of you and you were told that there is no stability in it, it won’t get you anywhere. It still happens to me and I’m 22 years old, you know. I was talking to my parents the other day, and my parents support everything I do, I’d never say they have tried to force me to do anything, but my dad still says, “okay, you want to be a writer and an academic but just be prepared for the reality of that lifestyle, that there is no security in it”.  I just want to prove it to myself and to others that you can still have a decent life and not have financial stress. It’s also about trailblazing that path for other people. As well as the creative industry, I’m passionate about academia, I want to become a professor, lecturing at universities. That’s something that many of us don’t think of but when we get to university and all of our professors are white and all we are studying is whitewashed literature or whatever, it’s a problem. We need to recognise that strength within us that we can change the curriculum to reflect who we are. I’m trying to make academia appealing to young girls. Going back to my inspirations, I have so many whether that’s literary inspirations, powerful black women or spiritual figures. I love James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Andrea Levy, Betty Shabazz, Nana Asma’u, Frida Khalo, Khadijah (r.a), Aisha (r.a), who I’m named after, Sade, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Celine Dion, Princess Nokia, Jamila Woods, Princess Diana has recently become great inspiration to me, she was a phenomenal woman. 

Speaking of exercising your mind, you share stories of your own mental health journey and use writing as a release. Why do you think its important to use your platform with something like that?

I don’t want to say I’m a social activist but I think there is a level of activism in what I do. I care very much about society and people, I have always been like that and I have always been very vocal about any issue that is a problem within my community. I’ve dealt with mental health issues myself, I have anxiety, I have panic attacks. I had to take a year out of uni because I was depressed. It was isolating and scary at the time. Like I said, I always try to create a positive out of a negative situation so after I came out of all that and I was able to process it, I was like ‘woah, that was very heavy’ and that was a defining moment of my life. I felt like I needed to talk about it because there are a lot of people silently going through the same thing. I’ve noticed that since I have shared stuff like that I have had loads of people messaging me basically saying ‘thank you’ and letting me know they are going through the same thing. I know about four other people who had to drop out of university because of mental health problems. The conversation around mental health in students is something that needs to be talked about more, mental health in the Muslim community needs to be talked about more, mental health in the black community needs to be talked about more. Because I am all three of those things, I am able to communicate and reach a lot of people. I don’t think there is any shame in these things. If it takes one person to talk about it for other people to become collectively aware of it then I will be that person. There’s a lot of stigma attached to it. When I took time out of uni, I didn’t tell anybody because I felt people would not understand it or think I’d gone crazy. That came from stereotypes that I’d heard about people who were dealing with mental health issues, that they are mad, they are weak. I was able to come out of it and say, ‘no I’m not those things, I can still do really positive things in my life despite that episode’. It gives other people going through the same thing a sense of hope, it is a recoverable thing. I’m glad because it’s not just me who has started talking about it, I definitely think perceptions are changing and more people are talking about it. So it’s just me taking whatever experience I have in life and trying to do something positive with it, trying to find the wisdoms and truths in those experiences and helping other people. That’s what motivates me.

If someone walked up to you and asked for advice what would you say?

In terms of general life lessons, I would say be proud of who you are. Actually grapple or come to terms with who you are and embrace yourself and all of your complexities. Don’t be too hard on yourself, I’ve definitely put myself down in the past. Try to dull that pessimistic voice in your mind that constantly reminds you of your faults and your flaws but be prepared to acknowledge your thoughts and flaws and work on them. Just don’t  beat yourself up over them to the point where you can’t tolerate yourself. Be kind, be conscientious and always try to give back where you can. Put God at the forefront of everything you do. I know not everybody is a believer but whatever your conception of god or something greater is, just put that at the forefront of what you do. You don’t necessarily have to be the most religious person but I think god-consciousness is such an important thing. Once you have that, you have a genuine sense of gratitude for your life despite whatever is going on. Cultivating and developing that mindset will get your far in life. Finally, aim high! Except the afterlife, you have one life so just live it to the absolute fullest, don’t limit yourself, ever. I want that to be my departing legacy or message. 

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