Stubborn and Powerful

An Interview by Lily Dao

Background

Sujaya graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree. She double majored in the Professional Writing and the Communications, Culture, and Information Technology programs at the Mississauga campus. Sujaya also graduated from Sheridan College with a certificate in digital communications and worked at Sheridan College following her graduation as a teaching assistant for the ICCIT program in design fundamentals. Sujaya later worked for the Faculty of Animation, Arts, and Design at Sheridan College as an Instructor for the Media Fundamentals program. Sujaya is currently in her final year of the Master of Information program at the Faculty of Information. Sujaya is now a Design Research Team Lead at the University of Toronto’s Innovation Hub, where she and her team work on the Student Life Project with the Division of Student Life.

In this interview, Sujaya goes into stories with each question, about her family, her gender, her writing experiences, and how it warps into this unique book she wants to tell the world about. She has on a winter coat, black turtleneck, and faded jeans. The usual tire for Toronto’s winter. One of the highlights Sujaya shared with me was what Professor Guy Allen advised her and her classmates about as she crafted her book. He said, “if you have stories that you’re unsure about putting in your book, I’m going to suggest putting in your book, because years from now, you would have wished you put it in.”

Sujaya grew up as a Trinidadian-Canadian. She experienced a lot of discrimination by the time she was twenty, whether it was from strangers or her family. Her stories don’t shy away from everyday moments where she felt lost or confused about why discrimination happened. She said, “there’s a lot of subtle discrimination against women or people of colour that we don’t realize. I wanted to show that this is still happening, and we need to do something about it, not just post some banners and think it’s resolved.”

The book mixes between light-hearted stories like how her cousins used to mixed oil and milk together for “spidey-senses,” with more serious ones about female empowerment, body image, and questioning the idea that everyone needs “someone.” She’s the oddball in her stories yet, it’s relatable for readers who can understand and follow along with her journey from childhood until now. Sujaya wants to set an example through her work and raise the attention of readers to tell them, “this is still happening.”

***

I stand by the cashier and spot Sujaya entering the coffee shop. I hand her the cappuccino I ordered for her ten minutes ago. We walk into the “quiet” room that lies at the end of the coffee shop. Tables fill with people jabbering, laughing, and sipping their coffee.

“Shall we?” Sujaya asks.

We sit down at a table by the window, in the corner of the room. The atmosphere warms up. I thank her for agreeing to meet me so last minute. I take a deep breath and begin my interview.

***

On Writing

Was it fun writing the book?” I ask.

“It was all kind of things,” Sujaya replies. “The stories I originally had in the ‘Making A Book,’ course, I hated them with a burning passion. So, I started jotting down everything I could think of, and forced myself to write a biography. I had to ask myself, ‘what can I offer?’ as an author, to distinguish myself from other authors in the world. I scrapped everything I wrote before, except, I kept “Egg” and repositioned it in a different timeline. I didn’t want to show [the full story] or make myself seem fragile. There are fun moments like how to get back at all those creeps that bothered me, or serious ones where I talk about racism and gender inequality.”

She stops, takes a deep breath, and repositions herself.

“There are nights where I miss my grandfather because he isn’t there anymore. I wrote these stories about him and I wanted to tell him, ‘come back and let me show you what I made.’ Maybe he would be proud of me. It’s difficult, it’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s painful, like every emotion in one.”

A question popped up inside my head. I don’t have it in my script.

“I had the sense that your writing style was similar to WRI203. Did you follow the 203 guide when you wrote these stories?”

“I really enjoyed the style and structure I learnt in 203. My original collection of stories, I hated, also, I had stories related to boys in it, and after that course, I made a promise to myself that boys are not worth my words, and my words are worth money, so I ditched those stories. I wrote what I really wanted to share and used the structure of my WRI203 stories as inspiration and my guiding force. You can see a lot of the structure is mimicking Showing the Story.”

“Did you find it hard to remain authentic or reliable since the stories are based on your life?” I ask. “It’s hard not to butcher or downplay something and to find the right balance when writing.” I say.

“It’s difficult to portray people accurately because I think we all have biases,” she says.  “As an author, trying to remain objective is impossible, but I want the reader to draw their own conclusions. I don’t want to tell them ‘this person is good/bad,’ but present it like, ‘this person did something weird.’ To know which detail to include or not is hard. Sometimes, I had to take a step back and think if my stories would get me into trouble. Professor Alan actually said, “If you have stories that you’re unsure about putting in your book, I’m going to suggest putting in your book because years from now, you would have wished you put it in,” and that was one of the best pieces of advice. That’s where “Egg” came in. Somebody might relate to it, and if it makes others uncomfortable, YOLO.”

I chuckle. What a brave woman.

“There were stories where things were more serious than another. Like “Wrong Ingredients,” where it’s just you and your cousin drinking a weird dirt drink to get Spidey senses, but you also have “Laundry.” What was the author choice you made to bring this balance to your book?” I play with the straw in my cup.

“One of the main questions for my book came from my editor asking me, “Who are you?” and “What can you bring?” I have lived through things that others have experienced too but not through my perspective, so I just tried to present myself as I am. This is me, always stubborn from kindergarten, growing up knowing I’m different, and I just went along with it. ‘I’m just going to be myself.’ My stories are basically that.”

If you are the same constituent as everybody else out there, then what’s memorable?

Who did you want to write this book for? (Besides your family and friends) What was your mindset going into this?”

“Young women of colour.” She pauses. “But, in a way, it is for everyone. I want to be a person my kids can look up to someday and I want my work to teach them something. I want to lead by example though my life, and it’s challenging at times. I want to compile everything and go, ‘Here’s a handbook of my life and what I’ve learnt,’ hopefully you can learn from it too.”

***

On Womanhood

I absolutely adore Chapter 9, “Laundry”, especially the quote, “I’ll relax once queen-sized beds are bigger than king-sized beds.” The chapter shows the argument you had with your parents when they didn’t let you go out with your friend because you’re a girl. As a young Trinidadian woman, how did it make you feel? Did you feel angry (or upset) writing it?”

Sujaya puts down her spoon, her brows furrow.

“I remember writing that chapter. Being angry, sad, frustrated, and it’s the reality for not just me but for so many young girls that I know, so I debated publishing it for such a long time. I put it in, I took it out. I asked myself, ‘am I going to get into trouble?’ But it reached a point where I realized I have to lead by my own values, by my own example. If I want to be a role model, I have to embody those values, even if I do get into trouble for publishing it. Hopefully, by exposing this, people can wake up and realize this is an issue.”

“Were there more [of these instances]?” I laugh. “As I finished the chapter, I went, “tthere must be more.” With “Laundry,” it was just one small fight, and there must be stories that you wanted to add in but couldn’t.”

“That was one of the comedic fights…. But there were so many other fights where doors would be slammed and words would be said, and things could not be unsaid. Even after the book was published, we still had arguments and my family would think I was belittling them with my degrees, but I just wanted to show them that I’m aware of how the world treats me [as a woman].”

I tell Sujaya about my experiences, how I was treated differently because I’m a girl. We jabber about how we’re both too stubborn to accept the gender norms within our homes.

My anatomy doesn’t prevent me from doing certain things.

“There were more instances you had in Write Left where you show how gender discrimination feels, not just in your household but everywhere. For example, in “Hide and Seek,” you show how men in different scenarios were invading your personal space and it made you feel so uncomfortable. You had Day 1, Day 9, to Day 51, what was your purpose when you wrote it?”

She chuckles and munches her Tiramisu.

“It was a progression to show a glimpse of my every day of school, for the whole year. They were arbitrary numbers, but they were points in the semester that really stood out to me. It was written differently originally, without so much descriptive text of the guys in it, but my editor wanted to know more about these characters. Which strengthened the story later on. Yet, I didn’t want to expose too much. I was like, whatever. People needed to know. Every time something good is happening, these boys pop up and ruin it.”

***

On Culture/Race

“In your chapter “Paper Flames” where your Caucasian friend Margaret tried to celebrate Diwali in their home when you came over. How was writing these stories and bring in a cultural context?” I laugh mid-sentence, struggling to finish my sentence.

“I think they meant well.” She covers her smile. “I believe they tried to do the cultural thing to be understanding. I just laugh because what happened was so racist, but at that age, you don’t know what racism is. I was sitting there thinking ‘why is she doing this?’ ‘What is going on?’ I would tell my parents when things like that happened and they would laugh. In this one instance, they were trying [to fit in with Sujaya’s culture], and I’ll give them that.”

“Growing up Trinidadian, how has your identity affect you daily life?”

“I’m an only English-speaking person and I was put into ESL in First Grade. I kid you not. I was put in ESL because I had brown skin and a brown name. That was the clearest case of racism that could have happened to a student. Every Christmas and spring, they would pull me aside with 4 other brown students to perform this special performance because they wanted to be ‘culturally inclusive.’ It. Happened. All. The. Time.” Sujaya replies.

We laugh at the stories we tell each other on how race stereotypes force people to act in a weird way.

“In “Scribbles,” you’re just sitting by yourself and do your thing and the other moms were trying to include you. You were hinting at us that because you’re a brown kid, people felt like they needed to include you. Writing these stories with these tensions between ethnicity and races, were you aware of how this is still happening?” I ask.

“I had a lot of fun being sarcastic and exposing these things, but at the same, I’m frustrated because… why is this the reality? Why are we still dealing things that should be common sense. There are still cultural biases, assumptions made in all of these settings. Even in my family, there are things that we knowingly or unknowingly ignore, and I question that. Why are we so passive about these things? It bothers me.”

***

Sujaya’s Future Plans

“Besides world domination, obviously,” she laughs, “I want to have a second master’s degree in writing, maybe. Possibly a PhD in Education. Who knows? If not, I need a creative break. I’ve always wanted to pursue photography. It gives me so much relief from life and it’s something I really enjoy. I think it may have been fate that I got this new job with the Innovation Hub. I get to hear true student stories and help translate those perspectives into the potential for change.

I’d love to somehow turn this knowledge, my perspectives, and my creative experiences into a syllabus someday. I enjoyed teaching at Sheridan, and it taught me a lot, but I hope to eventually teach at the University. That way I can dive into these social issues even more and learn from students too. It might be years ahead of me, but if it’s something I want to do, I figure I should put it into the universe from now.”

Sounds like one hell of a plan. I think to myself.

I thank her for an amazing evening, and we part ways.

______________________________________

Written by Lily Dao | Instagram: @jiejine

 

 

Scarlit Slam: shining light on mental health

Written by: Yashleen Jhand

“Published author and designer, Sujaya Devi, performed four of her short poems. They dealt with a variety of issues, like romantic relationships, being objectified, being manipulated, and the danger of society’s preoccupation with perfection. Devi’s poetry elicited nods, snaps, and “ohhh”s at nearly every line.”

Read the full article here.

I’m happy ‘cause of me

It’s been one year and one month since my last blog post, “Perspective of the Day.”  While my writing style changed up a bit, my sentiments remain. I seek contentment through my everyday interactions, yet I’m still human, imperfect, and I have days where positivity escapes me. There are days when I feel like I’ve consumed too much of everyone else’s lives and not enough of my own. I tap through the videos, the photos, the tweets, the snaps, only to feel like I haven’t done enough. It seems natural to compare yourself to the people you connect with, but it’s not always healthy.

 

I’ve given myself permission to share frames of my life with my circle. I’ve also given myself permission to be selfish, at times. I love helping others, but I know I often agree to too much. I start putting everything and everyone else above myself. My bedtime disappears and 4:00AM rolls around and I’m still up. I get home exhausted, drained, happy, yet hollow because I put my own ambitions on hold. I see my friends running solo, self-sufficient, and successful. I wonder if they’re doing it alone.

 

But for me, it always comes back to, “what makes me happy?” I’m happiest when I’m helping people. If I can teach or inspire someone in whatever small way possible, that’s what I want to do. When I compare myself to other people I often fail to recognize that my intentions and ambitions are different and always have been. I’ve never been in this just for me. I don’t want my life, my work, or my words to be a selfish endeavor.

 

This reflection places me back in a positive perspective because I remind myself of why my achievements look a little different from those around me. I seek out ways of connecting people. When I plan my projects, I’m often the most annoying person in the building because I think, rethink, and refine each element of the project, including meaning. I ask questions and I stress over perfecting minor details that most people never notice. But why? I think I’m like this, in part, because I see the way people react when I present them with a depiction of how I see them, whether it’s through photography or through writing.

 

On my best days, I see the best in everyone. On my worst days, I see the worst in myself. But the truth is, the moment I doubt myself, and vocalize it, I’m surprised by the reassurance I receive each time. It’s happened enough times for me not to be surprised when it happens again, but the love and support is always there, always strong, and still surprising. The hardest part was detaching myself from my pride to admit that I felt low and that I couldn’t see anything within myself to appreciate.

 

We absorb much of what we see, but there’s a question of whether we retain it. I realized, looking back on the “posts I’ve liked,” that I didn’t recall “liking” many of them. The action became instinctive. It was no longer a glance or a gaze, it was a thoughtless habit. I realized that while I didn’t remember seeing these posts, they still had an impact on me.  I sat there, watching the news, sipping my tea, scrolling my feed, and thinking, “look at these places where I could be.” But, in the words of my favorite band, The Neighbourhood: “happiness is figurative. I’m happy ‘cause of me, doesn’t matter where I’m living.”

Perspective of the day

It may seem that everyone else has it easy. Maybe it’s just my perspective at the moment. No one tells you that your whole life will change after one day; one incident. I’m not one to share my personal life with anyone. I’m usually the quietest one in the room. The discourse in my mind constantly debates whether I have it hard or whether I should be thankful. The truth is no one has it easy. Everyone goes through different things and we’re surprised with new challenges every day. There are some days I struggle to stay positive and I find that to be one of the biggest challenges of my life.

I’ve been hard to contact and harder to see these days. Everyone keeps telling me that I’m too busy for them. I really wish I could stretch the time. I wish I could duplicate myself so I could be in two places at once. Reality is harsh at times and there’s no way around it. We learn as we go through it. We find out who is there to support us. We learn who truly empathises and understands. I’ve been told countless times that it can’t be all work and no play. I laughed in response because I didn’t want to share my life story in explanation as to why that hasn’t always been an option for me.

I always tell myself not to complain. I hate negativity. I hate complaining. I hate complainers. I mean, what good is complaining if you’re not working to change anything? It feels good to get that out of my system. I try to see the positive in every situation. I try to share that positivity with everyone. I listen to everyone. I will try to help as much as I can. All I ask in return is that you stay kind, you stay loving, that you stay positive. I don’t care about the material. I just want to be happy. Show me that you care. Show me that you can empathise. Show me that you think before you speak. Speak softly and lovingly.

I struggle with religion. I wish I could say that the act of prayer could make you a more virtuous person but that would be a lie. I’ve met “religious” people who seem to lack human values. They don’t know what kindness is. They don’t understand what peace is. They don’t understand what right conduct is. This frustrates me. When people try to preach religion to me I look at their behaviour, at their life and whether they can follow those exact teachings. If what you’re teaching is to find inner peace, then why are you complicating simple things? If you’re teaching love, why fight with everyone?

I’ve been described as “calm”, “too quiet”, “too critical”, and “too analytical” and I neutrally accept that. I see things differently than other people and it frustrates me to see injustice. I know that I could have it much worse. I am thankful for what I have and for everything the universe has given me. The obstacles have made me stronger and each experience teaches me empathy. There are one or two people who know exactly what I’m dealing with right now and they ask me how I do it without breaking down. The only way to get through life’s greatest challenges is to keep a positive focus.  Regardless of the people you deal with, whether they are discriminatory, hateful, rude, or negative, if your focus remains positive, their negativity cannot affect you.

Be there for people when they’re too proud to ask for help. Empathise with people. Learn to celebrate successes with one another and to share your happiness with everyone you meet. I write this vaguely of course because I don’t like people knowing the exact details of my life. I’ve gotten quite skilled at hide and don’t seek. The truth is I don’t want to explain.

CCT205: Digital Innovation and Cultural Transformation

RESET from Sujaya Rampersad-Singh on Vimeo.

A short film on technology and communication.
Produced for CCT205 at the University of Toronto.