“The only thing we need to belong to is ourselves.”
As a writer, Nadia's creative work flows out of her awareness and understanding of her story as someone of Afghan and Italian descent. Two geographies, two cultures, two religions, and yet Nadia is resolving her identity in belonging to herself and her unique experience. Through this conversation, we are gifted with a perspective of an outsider looking in, an individual who is embracing and dwelling in her uniqueness, and perhaps most importantly a preserver of compelling narratives that will live on for generations to come. On the light side, we hear of her appreciation and love for Afghan dance, how her nerdy side comes out when understanding her Italian history, and how her father's loving advice when she was pregnant sparked a yearning and desire that only food could satisfy :)
You can read Nadia's beautiful writing at nadiashahbaz.com and follow her @nadiashahbaz_writer
If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity. Last week, we met Janey who honours her roots by being unapologetically who she is through and through. She has harnessed all the learning of all her experiences to recognize subtleties in her individual definition of her identity. She believes there's a sense of completeness if you know where you're from, and we love that she has taken that knowledge and turned it into a platform for immigrants to thrive, creating bridges for underrepresented talent.
This week, we talked to Nadia, an award-winning author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has been illuminated on buildings in New York city's Union Square, featured in literary journals, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She credits her understanding of her own complex identity as being the catalyst for her finding her voice as a writer. We think that the way that Nadia uses her family heritage to balance and ground herself in both the happiest and most trying times in her life is an incredible way of honouring your roots. Nadia has a rich background where a mix of ethnicity and religion very much form her identity. Her father is from Afghanistan and her mother is from Sicily and they immigrated to the United States where Nadia was the first member of her family to be born. This also means that she grew up in a house that was both Roman Catholic and Muslim. Nadia helped us realize that not only is everybody's story super unique, but their perception of their upbringing is unique, the so-called lived experiences. I start off a beautiful conversation with Nadia with her recalling the effects her extended family had on her early life.
I spent a lot of time with my family, both the Italian and Afghan sides. I grew up in their homes. They all immigrated to the United States., And it was a household that had many languages running through it. I think the most perhaps affirming experience was, growing up and having my Afghan family arrive in our home and live with us.
They were refugees, they did escape Afghanistan as we're seeing today yet again…people flooding out of that country, unfortunately. They escaped in 1982. I was two years old and they all lived with us and it was my grandmother and five of my father's six siblings in our little three-bedroom home. It was very much a childhood that was very loving, we were very intimate and close and at the same time, I was different in my family. I didn't speak the language. The food was different. I wasn't used to it. I was American. It was something to grow up in an environment with those dynamics running through it. And I see it now as a real privilege because I think my identity confused me for a while because it was just not linear, not clear, but within that confusion, I think over time, I've really found my place within it. How I was both an outsider and an insider and being in that place is very unique and special. And I think very American actually, or North American and therefore I kind of felt at home with.
And I think affirming in that when I was growing up, as we all do, we are shaped by our surroundings and blend in with our surroundings, I'd say. And as we blend in we do of course lose certain parts of ourselves whilst we strive to fit in and build our castle, build our career, build all the things we want. And yet when we go through a period of disorder or chaos or stress. I think we reach into things that need to ground us. It's survival and having gone through loss….grief at a young age when I was in my twenties. My best friend died suddenly and a variety of other things. I think a big thing also was having children….where I needed to find ways in which to ground myself again. And for sure that story, that narrative of my family, came to the fore and that experience of understanding how they formed me at a very young age, and that experience was so unique, I think just, it felt affirming. It felt like I know who I am…this is who I am, and I don't need to feel as though I'm kind of alone or outside of myself or certain experiences. And really wanting to dwell there and own that. And I mean, that's really where my creative work flows out of….it flows out of those stories and kind of reflecting on that and seeing the ways in which that is particular to me, but also universal. So trying to tread that line and really explore that.
Affirming is such an incredible term. And we love the idea of reflecting on significant and memorable moments in one's history and sorting and sifting to determine what is affirming super thought-provoking. Nadia has so many beautiful pieces of writing, but one piece named “Both Sides” was particularly noteworthy and relevant to our conversation. In that article, she reflected on a moment when observing her Aunt prey in a mosque for the first time. She captured the event perfectly in her reflection… she wondered, and I quote, “where does peace come from? When she cups her hand in front of her face and closes her eyes, or when she lays her torso down on the rug, transferring all weight onto the soft, warm surface underneath her”. End of quote. That story particularly resonated with me. I remember often watching my elders pray and perform rituals and not fully having a sense of what they were doing and why they were doing it. Were they seeking peace….resolve? Were they asking for something? In some ways I felt jealous because I didn't know what role it played until I've gotten older and more aware. I appreciate the fact that Nadia's writing brings awareness to that part of me. Next, she expands on the meaning of that event in her sense of self.
Yeah. I think that writing that piece was about feeling outside of the culture, feeling outside of the religion, and wanting to come inside of it. And then hopefully at the end, in these years later, realizing that there's something very authentic about my experience. That it’s beautiful as the observer and also this idea of being both inside and outside of the experience allows for a way of seeing and a lens that I think invites questions. And allows space where there can be something, the sense of spaciousness that allows for something true to come forward. You know, sometimes rituals are just done so blindly, we just do them. And I do them. We all do them because that's what we learned as a kid. And, and we just go through the motions, but then to have space and see it, like have presence against, it means we are taking it in, I think in a different way and really reflecting on its meaning and allowing for it to integrate into us more deeply. That I think is what I've learned about prayer. For example, I think I felt as though I had to choose between doing a Muslim prayer or a Catholic prayer. And instead, you know, just really dwelling in where those things come together and how beautiful that is. And how other people would connect to that as well and not feel like I need to belong to something outside of myself, but instead dwell within something that is so uniquely and specifically speaks to me on a different level. And everyone I think has that available to them and I think especially during COVID people are really exploring that because things have been turned upside down and the normal. We can't just go through the motions we've actually had to stop and kind of take stock and really lean into….what is the meaning of all of this? How am I going to change and adjust? We've had to force ourselves to change and understand that the things that I need right now in this moment of uncertainty are things that ground me and now, I mean, it's beautiful. I do feel like our culture is allowing for nuance, allowing us to redefine things, explore, go beyond these labels and try different things. I just, I think I've come into a place where I'm just owning that and loving it.
What a beautiful way of expressing a relationship with her diverse background, the idea for-going having to choose and instead dwell in what makes her unique is such an interesting notion. Next, I asked Nadia a question about what she loves about both sides of her identity and her playful side shined through.
Oh, sure. For sure. The Afghan side, the dancing. So fun and such a wonderful expression of the culture and its people. My experience of my Afghan family is that they are extremely passionate, loving, expressive people. And when you see them dance that just all comes out, the music and the beat, you can't help, but want to dance. And I have a great story. , about my Scottish Canadian husband who found himself meeting my family at a huge Afghan wedding and, of course, to be indoctrinated, he had to dance in front of everyone and you know, just let himself go and allowed himself to connect with the culture on that level. And they in turn connected with him, which was such a beautiful thing. , so I would say dance and music in the Afghan culture is the greatest, the best. In my Italian culture, I just love history and I just find when you really go into it, especially Sicily…the history there, it just takes you on a journey because it's an island with a deep history of….and one that is so diverse with so many different civilizations that have moved through it, you know, when the Mediterranean was the center of the world. And so without getting too geeky here, just saying that (my nerdy self is coming through here), but I just love exploring that country and really diving into its history. I always learn something new and it always makes me feel connected to something that's bigger than me.
Now that Nadia has explored both sides of her identity in such a deep and thoughtful way. I asked her how she planned to inspire others, particularly her children, and the next generation with her gained awareness.
I think the main way beyond cooking the food and dancing Afghan-style in the living room is through my creative work. And right now, I'm writing this novel. And so I think, I really think about how these stories will hopefully live beyond me, with some long-lasting presence, and also those stories, as I said earlier, do go beyond the stereotypes. I think that we need to feel again with the heart, feeling a connection through the heart and, and seeing all the nuances and complexities to our family stories and our culture. Understanding where that comes from and I hope that drives a real connection that goes beyond me. Because there is a feeling that with each generation it gets diluted and I really worry about that. I think I see myself as being to a certain extent diluted of Italian-ness or Afghanistan-ness but really kind of the evolution of identity and how we revisit them. And again to be that observer when you're out of the group, I think there is some power to being the observer and bringing something new to defining what this is.
My one son is very curious. And he's really interested in history. And I remember at school, he was asked about Remembrance Day to write something about Remembrance Day. And he wrote about Afghanistan, which was so interesting to the teacher because she didn't know about his Afghan roots and I didn't specifically tell him anything or make any connection very concretely to Remembrance Day and Afghanistan, he made those connections on his own through just being in an environment where we talk about these things. We had been to Washington DC with my father to walk around and explore these different monuments. The significance of all of these things, there were some quotes about war and we got into a discussion about how meaningful this is to my dad and how he's not able to ever go back to his home country and the significance of countries such as Canada or the United States, which takes people in who had to escape their countries. And so therefore the meaning of this moment with your grandfather. The other funny story is we took my children before COVID to Sicily and to experience that side of their culture and that it's important to me and for them to have that experience with my parents and it was interesting to see them to feel….I think I'm trying to form a familiarity with it, for them to feel like this is familiar. And this is something that feels like home because they will always be connected to it.
Wow. We are so grateful to have Nadia in our community and to share her story and her language around making these things feel familiar with the next generation. It feels intentional and like a real gift given that she has resolved so much of her identity, I wondered and was quite sure that she herself was surrounded by thoughtful and strong figures. So I decided to ask her one of my favourite questions from our newly launched web app. I asked her what's the best piece of advice or lesson that you've ever received. Nadia’s answer will be sure to have you salivating.
There's something to be said about language and food. The sensory details that I think provide a sense of safety and security and connection that we all need and we don't even understand why., I don't know if that makes sense, but it makes me think of the experience of when I was pregnant with my first child, feeling ill, feeling completely out of sorts, out of my body, out of my head, out of everything. In a state of complete unknowing, an uncertainty and my father always wants to give me tips and advice, and he said, go to an Afghan restaurant. You'll feel better. And I decided, okay. I can always eat! I loved eating when I was pregnant, eating as much as possible. And I entered the Afghan restaurant nearby and just the smells just gripped me and brought me to a whole other place in my spirit. I think that grounded me and made me feel safe. And, I just said, I just felt alive again. It's interesting how these…I think just reflecting on these cultural touchpoints, no matter how many generations removed we are, is significant and important.
Okay, to be honest, this was such a deep conversation, I wouldn't blame you if you needed to listen to this one twice! It's a natural assumption to think that a writer would be so articulate with thoughts, but we were seriously blown away at how crystal clear yet raw and revealing Nadia's story was. Her cultural identity is definitely not clean-cut, but after embracing it and understanding it, she learned, and I quote, “the only thing we need to belong to is ourselves” End of quote. This revelation comes with some complex emotions, a lot of uncertainty and even challenges as one navigates their story. But after hearing Nadia's story, I think we can all agree that it's worth it.
Honouring our cultures doesn't always come out in the most obvious ways. We are loving each and every one of our guests this season, I cannot believe that it's time for our Season Two finale already. Next week in our finale, we talked to two sisters who share an incredible story of reclamation and how their public journeys of honouring their true heritage was done loudly and proudly.
Root & Seed is hosted by me Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
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