Hana Shafi vividly remembers the day she argued with her mom about waxing her unibrow.
“I begged her, fought with her, and I even wrote her a letter,” the 24-year-old Toronto artist recalled with a laugh. “I used every method of negotiation until she said ‘OK, you can get rid of it… when you’re done middle school.’”
This is just one of several awkward, weird and humorous stories she retells in her new poetry and illustration book, “It Begins with the Body.”
“My idea for it was to basically create something that felt like a diary, and that was very raw and very personal,” said Shafi, who also goes by the name ‘Frizz Kid’ because of her frizzy curls.
Shafi, who graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 2015, gained popularity on Instagram by posting her own illustrations that portrayed humans in their most intimate forms, such as a woman posing proudly with body hair.
Raised in a Muslim household in Mississauga, Ont. by an Indian father and Iranian mother, many of the stories Shafi tells are rooted in her experiences growing up as a “brown girl in a Western world.”
“Some topics are universal,” she said. “But when you’re young and you’re consuming a lot of creative content, you start to notice a gap.”
As a South Asian woman, Shafi said it was important for her to put together a coming-of-age book for brown women. According to the writer, brown women are not represented in that genre.
A University of California report published earlier this year stated Asians made up a measly 3.1 per cent of Hollywood film roles in 2016.
Shafi said that South Asian women may have Bollywood movies, but they rarely touch on the diverse stories of being a woman – particularly a brown woman.
Like any teenager, Shafi said she wanted to fit in, wanted to be popular, and wanted a boyfriend in high school. But when looking back on the time she had a little hairy patch between her eyebrows, she realized it was “such a quintessential hairy brown girl thing.”
“I have a few chapters that are universal – that are about body issues, mental health, employment – but I have one that’s specifically about brownness,” she said. “The other chapter is pertaining to my identity and my faith because I was raised Muslim.”
This intersection of race, gender and identity is a constant theme in Shafi’s work.
“I care about those things because I have to,” she said. “I can’t really imagine myself not being apathetic to [them] because they affect me directly. I want to see myself thrive, and when I see other people who are more marginalized than me, I want to see them thrive too.”
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Shafi’s book also goes beyond the memorable quirks in her life and addresses serious topics that are not often discussed in the brown community.
“Some of the things I am talking about are taboo,” she said. “Our community hasn’t had conversations about the issues that affect South Asians of the diaspora who are living in the West, because we’re just a couple generations into our lives here.”
According to Shafi, these taboos also include gender non-conforming people in the brown community.
“I think there’s that struggle where you’re too brown to be white and too white to be brown,” she said. “In exploring my own brownwood, it’s trying to reconcile with the fact that my brownness is multifaceted. It’s okay for me to pick and choose which aspects of my heritage I want to adopt.”