The Beauty of Conflict: Growing up Sassy in an Indo-Caribbean Household
Written by Ayesha Khan
Sunday April 2, 2023
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been called argumentative.
When I was a little girl, my mom used to say “yuh mouth hot.” If you’re Indo-Guyanese like I am, you’re likely familiar with the term. It means you have, as they say here, a sharp tongue. An answer for everything. Wit. Attitude. It’s usually a pejorative, but it’s sometimes used in awe. It’s a way of saying, especially to young women, that you’ve noticed they are talking back and that is out of the ordinary. It was used on me a lot.
I grew up in righteous indignation, feeling that talking back was my one form of power. If I didn’t agree with someone, I probably couldn’t change much, but at the very least I could stun them and shock us all into silence. I’d ruin dinner, the function, the hangout, whatever it was. To be honest, the times it happened were many and often—probably more than it should have. It was awkward, and some would argue it wasn’t right, but I never shied away.
I knew early on what it meant to disagree on a soul level—before I even had the words to describe it. The topics on which I disagreed with people around me were wide-reaching; from politics to clothing choices, to diet, to religion (all of which you could argue are a form of the first.) The consequences differed based on who I disagreed with, but the lessons I learned were largely the same.
I grew up in a socially conservative, Muslim household. This isn’t a polemic about my natal religion, or my father, but there were heavy restrictions imposed on me as a child. I had little freedom to determine my own interests, activities, programming or dress. Looking back as an adult, I understand that there were many dangers abound and this was an attempt to shield me from them. The overwhelming majority of the time, our parents love us deeply. They are flawed and multifaceted people, just trying to do what they think is right to keep us safe. But at the time all I could see was a cage, and all I knew was the misery of life inside it—regardless of how safe I was.
There were many facets of my identity I encountered in abrupt, misaligned, and often cacophonous ways. Realizing I was queer before I knew that was an acceptable way to be, for instance, left an indelible mark. Or being relegated to a corner behind a barrier in the back of the gym for martial arts class because I was a girl child, while the boys got the whole thing. I had so many questions, and whenever I asked them, I was admonished.
At first, I hated this. I used to feel so alone. But as I grew, I came to find within conflict a relentlessly unfolding poesis. A beauty in the rich substrate of development that conflict forced me to fertilize my thoughts with.
If I disagree with you, I’m presented with two options. I can change my own mind, perhaps. Or I can bear down into my position in defiance. I can work to better understand where I’m coming from, so I can present that to you. I can argue, even if I won’t win.
This isn’t always a benign fight, either. The stature you have matters, too. Are you my friend, my teacher, my dad, my boss? Do you have final say? Are you entitled to use silencing tactics on me, like exile or physical violence? What does it mean for me if I disagree, and I still have to move forward with your wishes?
I never found a good answer to that last question. But, I found a sense for what I could and couldn’t accept, regardless of what I could change. And I learned through trial and error, through big losses and small victories, through vehemence and discomfort, that sometimes a punch can land even if it comes from a tiny fist.
In many ways I feel as though I fought to be who I am, and present the way I do. The sources of internal and external conflict were great. Models don’t often go on to work in politics. Seeing a Muslim name on an openly queer person might come as a bit of a shock. A person who is both Hindu, and Muslim to boot. Many times I have been warned about my comportment, voice and proclivities. For some, I am too conformist. For some, too radical. If you let it, life can become a never-ending game of trying to please everyone. I’ve decided to abstain.
I do, however, know that nothing is given. We both fight and work with the powers that be to arrive at destinations. Once upon a time, the weekend was a socialist dream. Children worked in factories. Generations of trailblazers decided things weren’t right and fought to change them. So too, the next generation is charged with the same thing.
I am not grateful for oppression, but I will say this: fighting for my own right to be human equipped me with the tools to fight for the human rights of others.
As far back as I have memory, that’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do.
Insofar as we are human, we have been given the ability to open our eyes and take a wide gander at the world around us. And those of us lucky enough to live in relative political freedom have the God-given right to speak up about it if we don’t like what we see.
For the previous generation who came here in search of a better life, vocation was out of reach. Sacrifice was the baseline, and that’s what they did. By and large, they have slaved away to carve out better lives for their children.
As the children of that generation, we were given the job of self-actualization. Those of us trying to win that battle know it is not a straightforward one. There are times when we must be the first in our line to do something. To tackle a beast. To win a fight no one else had time for. That is a difficult, and scary task.
If you met me at the ICON convention, you know I’ve said this before. I will say it again, and though I am writing here, know I say it with my chest. If you look ahead and the path seems like it’s on fire, it’s because you are meant to be a trailblazer. Do not tread that path lightly. It is the only one by which anything real has ever been achieved.
About the Author
Ayesha Khan is a resident and activist in the Jane and Finch community. A child of working class Guyanese immigrants, Ayesha was raised with understanding of the many barriers immigrants face in Canada, as well as the importance of labour and the fraught histories of slavery and indentureship. She now works as a Constituency Assistant to Member of Provincial Parliament Tom Rakocevic, and is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy, Administration and Law. She is one of the Vice Chairs of the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association.