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Interview with Tara Sonali Miller

By March 15, 2019 No Comments

Tara Sonali Miller (she/they) is a writer and educator living in Portland, Oregon. Tara’s current work is at the intersections of racial equity and community engagement in higher education, writing and celebration by and for queer and trans Black, Brown, People of Color, and Indigenous communities, community organizing, and political education. They direct the SEEDS Community Engagement Office at Reed College, are the Editor-in-Chief at Art for Ourselves, serve on the boards of two Portland organizations, and organize with a local collective. Tara’s current projects include reclaiming the pronunciation of her name, returning to their creative writing practice, exploring their affinity for spiders, and sleeping. In this issue, Overachiever Magazine got the chance to sit down and chat with Tara. 

 

What is your favorite thing about your culture? How do you stay connected to your culture?

Culture is such a general concept that my truest answer to this is: by just being, and moving with intention towards what I love. My culture is the channa recipe that’s been passed down for generations from my ammamma to my amma to me, for sure, my big Indian earrings and reclaiming ancestral yoga practice with my mom, but it’s also astrology aka queer religion, caring for the plants in my apartment, hosting friends for dinner, and organizing meetings or Art for Ourselves retreats in living rooms. It’s creating rituals, and laughing, and watching “One Day at a Time” in bed with my partner. Staying connected to my ancestral roots, though, I mostly do through whatsapp texts and calls with my ammamma, who lives in South India, and channeling ancestors who have passed or who I am disconnected from, physically. My incredible desi counselor and intuitive, Kirin Bhatti (of Brownswell Healing) has been a big part of allowing myself to connect with my roots, energetically.

 

What do you think the biggest problem facing Asian women today is?

Honestly, I think the biggest problems facing Asian women today are the ways in which white supremacy makes many of the folks who fit into that very general category (of Asian women) feel and think they should be privileged over more marginalized members of our societies and don’t always feel complicit in systems of anti-Blackness, colorism, homophobia, cissexism, and classism. I strongly believe that every Asian woman’s liberation and self-determination is dependent on creating systems in which every member of our society has those same rights. I am simultaneously disturbed by the ways in which cis Asian women center our own discrimination and experience of racism without acknowledging and working to dismantle the oppression that our communities perpetuate and inspired by those who center fights against racist immigration policies, anti-Black and classist incarceration and policing systems, anti-trans and queer violence, and for domestic workers’ rights and collective liberation.

 

Have you ever personally encountered discrimination?

Of course! White supremacy makes it so for all Brown and Black people. I would say, too, that I’ve certainly been personally discriminated against in many contexts, and I’ve also encountered discrimination of other folks – friends, family, colleagues, strangers on the street or at the grocery store. A fucked up thing about racism and discrimination is that most of us have to do a lot of internal work and political education to really understand when we are experiencing it. I’m so grateful to the peers, elders, and youth I’ve been in relationship with who are constantly co-educating and learning about how racism and white supremacy manifest in both big and small ways. This education can 100% be an issue of accessibility in the way it is often facilitated between and among folks who have had access to the academy. But it doesn’t have to be this way! There are lots of examples of communities of color around the world who have acknowledged multiple ways of knowing and being that have not relied on racist, classist institutions to facilitate political education. I think the Zapatistas in Chiapas and All African People’s Revolutionary Party are organized movement examples of centering accessible political education & action. We also do this at Art for Ourselves by explaining terms as much as possible, through our glossary, and more generally by accepting submissions based on the relevance of the content or issue being addressed, rather than the writing style or grammar. Our editing process is also super fluid and extensive – nothing gets published without 100% approval from the writer; we’ll go back and forth until we both feel like the piece is as clear and relevant and poignant as possible. And we’re always paying attention to accessibility around timelines, and the fact that each of us is a real human within and outside of our roles at AFO. A big part of this is also educating ourselves on White Supremacy Culture in Organizations and the ways in which each of us can embody Whiteness in our work, even as BIPOC. We don’t pay much but we are 100% committed to doing the fundraising work necessary to pay each contributor and interviewed artist $25 per piece.

 

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

Allowing myself to fall in love. I think this actually fits well with the premise of your magazine; as the eldest daughter in a mixed desi-Jewish family with a strong and successful Malayalee mother, I was very much raised to focus on my career, not boys or marriage. That served me okay when I thought I was straight, causing me to put up thick walls between myself and my romantic partners, have lots of bad casual sex, and prioritize academic and career opportunities over finding a man (LOL). Even after I came out when I was 21, though, I found it nearly impossible to let my guard down and actually let my partners know me in relationship after relationship. It wasn’t until my dad suddenly left my mom and many of the stories I had told myself about love and relationships fell apart that I finally let myself be vulnerable enough to let another person see me and invest my trust in them. During my first year out of college, I had the opportunity to move to the city where the person I was falling in love with lived or take a career-making job at a public interest law firm and I am so proud of myself for prioritizing radical, queer love over everything else. Allowing myself to love in this way has taught me so much beyond romantic love – I have learned about radical communication, growth, boundaries, my own needs and the joy of trust and vulnerability.

 

What advice would you give to Asian women looking to work in creative fields?

Move towards the spaces and creative communities where you feel home. There are so many great publications out there right now where I could find alliance with my identities–some are specific to desi folks, some specific to queer folks, some specific to people of color, some to Asian folks more broadly. Each of us may feel home in one or more of these spaces. I return to Art for Ourselves over and over again because our focus on queer and trans people of color is what resonates most deeply with me. I love that our focus allows me and our team the freedom and specificity to address both the real conflicts and power dynamics that exist within and between communities of color, queer and trans folks AND the ways in which we are resilient and worthy of celebration together in our queerness and common experiences. It feel like that applies to your preferred medium too – if you want to write creatively, find a space where that is celebrated; avoid pushing yourself into a type of journalism that doesn’t resonate.

 

What is the best thing about what you do?

It’s hard to pick, honestly! I think the best thing right now is being able to clearly identify and feel the alignment between all the things I do. It’s when my work creating engagement opportunities for students aligns with the ways in which community partners want to engage with students, aligns with racial equity on and off campus, aligns with the community organizing and political education I’ve been learning through with Portland Asians for Black Lives, aligns with centering queer and trans people of color at Art for Ourselves, aligns with my creative writing, aligns with my interpersonal relationships, aligns with my new board of directors commitments at local arts and youth organizations.

 

What is the worst thing about what you do?

It’s the flip of the last question – when one of my commitments isn’t aligning with my values, or even when the mission of the org or group or collective does align, but the practical ways in which I’m being asked to contribute aren’t aligning with the practice of how I’m being called to live out those values. I run into this a lot with non-profit commitments; organizations have a real need for administrative and fundraising and operations support. As a Virgo sun Virgo rising super-planner, I can be really GOOD at that and can volunteer myself for those roles, but I am feeling drawn more and more to roles that call on my creativity in project management and systems analysis, relationship-building, and writing. I learned a lot from adrienne maree brown about prioritizing commitments (something I struggle with and another place of alignment with your magazine!) when she talked about how we only have a certain amount of time in a day and we gotta spend a good portion of it sleeping, and pooping, and eating, and the rest of the time that remains is small and precious. So if we really want to care for ourselves and our people and our world, we have to be intentional about what we do with that precious time. I’m working on that.

 

What is your go-to coffee order?

Black coffee.

 

Describe yourself in one word

At the moment I’m writing this: grounding.

Find Tara here:

 

Instagram: @tarasonali

Instagram: @artforourselves

Twitter: @tara_sonali

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