Like a Queen: Interview with Sameena Azhar
“In terms of my own scholarship, it's all boring academic stuff,” Sameena Azhar says, but then she starts unpacking her job as a clinical social worker with monolingual Hindi/Urdu-speaking immigrants and what she’s writing about as a PhD candidate at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Sameena is also a Fellow with both the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Council on Social Work Education's Minority Fellowship Program. “I am generally interested in international social work research that investigates the intersections between HIV, gender, and mental health,” she tells me, and I am not bored.
This fall, Sameena will begin a position as Assistant Professor in Social Work at Fordham University in New York City. In this interview, we discuss her research, other artistic pursuits, and what it means to be a woman of color in academia.
Kristy Lin Billuni: Tell me about how you got into the HIV world.
Sameena Azhar: Working in HIV has been a long-term interest of mine for several reasons. I lost a junior high English teacher to HIV in the early 90s, when I was 13 years old, and this made a big impression on me.
KLB: What an impact his death had, inspiring you at such a young age!
SA: Absolutely. My first volunteer job was working at a phone bank to raise money for the AIDS Services Foundation in southern California. It was a dark time in the fight against AIDS. We had lots of candle light vigils, lots of funerals.
KLB: After that?
SA: In college, I studied philosophy at UC Berkeley and was surrounded by the flurry of social activism in San Francisco during the late 90s around AIDS. It was an exciting time and place to come into my own.
KLB: And that led you to social work?
SA: Yes, I have had the opportunity to work with compassionate people at amazing institutions, including Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia, where I met my husband, and Ward 86 at San Francisco General Hospital, where I met your wife.
KLB: Yes, and Helen is so proud of what you are doing now. Please talk about your current research.
SA: My dissertation research, which I am hoping to develop into a book, explores issues regarding HIV stigma among people living with HIV in Hyderabad, which is a city in south India. Specifically, I look at how cisgender women and hijra, a group of third gender people in South Asia, differentially experience HIV stigma and depression. This is an issue which has received little attention in scholarship.
KLB: Can you talk about your own identity in this context too?
SA: As an Indian Muslim American woman in academia, there are many times when I am the only person of color in the room. The higher you go in academia, the fewer people of color, and definitely the fewer women of color, you see. This can be challenging in so many ways.
KLB: Yes, can you unpack that a little more?
SA: You become tokenized. You unwillingly end up speaking for multitudes of women as if brown skin connotes a universality of anguished human experience. These are the obstacles of trying to come up in academia, a setting which has always been organized around the interests of upper class, cisgender, white, heterosexual men.
KLB: How do you create community in that kind of setting?
SA: Because I am interested in the ways in which gender is socially constructed internationally, it is important for me to be in the company of writers that hail from different cultures. For me, this means prioritizing the voices of women of color in writing spaces. Through my international research, I have found a supportive community of scholars who provide me feedback on my work.
KLB: That’s so important.
SA: It really is vital. Everyone is so busy, but we all make time to give each other comments on our manuscripts. This process is really special and important to me. Specifically, I have made great colleagues through the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality; the IPAK Summer School for Sexualities, Cultures and Politics in Beograde, Serbia; and the Faber Residency in Catalunya, Spain.
KLB: And what about inspiration?
SA: I take my inspiration from a league of postcolonial feminist writers, namely Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Gayatri Spivak and Saba Mahmood. No doubt my greatest writing influence has been Sara Ahmed's scholarship on diversity, inclusion, and feminism.
KLB: Those are some powerful shoulders to stand upon. What else do you like to read?
SA: When I read for pleasure, I adore poetry and novels. I've always had a dark streak and love the macabre. Magic and fantasy have always been my heart.
KLB: Such as?
SA: I can get so lost in the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rupi Kaur, Mohsin Hamid. I just love that kind of decadent, enchanting writing. My favorite authors growing up were Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte, Lewis Carroll, and Roald Dahl.
KLB: What else supports you as a writer?
SA: I think it is really important to invest in the things that matter most to you. As a doctoral student for the past six years, I've made very little money. But I buy books and travel and eat incredible food and hear live music, like a queen. Travel is unquestionably my vice.
KLB: Experiences over creature comforts?
SA: Right. I've always relished this quote from Sartre: "Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more." I just love that. Let's accrue experiences and sights and sounds. I don't crave ruby rings or fancy cars or picket fences.
KLB: Tell me about your writing schedule.
SA: Writing is a very solitary process for me. I write for hours before my husband wakes up and before the sun comes up. Because I also work part-time as a clinical social worker during the day, the morning has become my focused time to write. When I still lived in the Bay Area, I would drive to the beach for inspiration. The rhythm of the ocean relaxes me and helps get me in a good mental space to write.
KLB: So, you write in the morning?
SA: It fluctuates. I used to write very late at night, but my writing habits have changed over time, largely because of my frequent travel. I am nocturnal by nature. My peak writing hours were always between midnight and three in the morning. Over the past year or so, I have been going to bed very early, like before nine in the evening, then get up around three in the morning and continue to write for a few hours after the sun comes up.
KLB: Wow, three is early. How do you do it?
SA: I start the day with an extra-large mug of coffee, usually followed by another. It's a ritual for me to make Peet's in the morning, listening to music in the kitchen, with my cat Fuego patiently waiting on the sidelines to be fed.
KLB: And where do you write? What kind of environment do you need to write?
SA: I generally write at home though my best inspiration for writing is traveling. Regardless of the setting, music is absolutely essential to my writing process.
KLB: Anything specific?
SA: Thelonious Monk's album, Straight No Chaser, is the soundtrack to the writing of my dissertation. I really love putting on something with a strong backbeat, like stuff from Topaz Jones, Duckwrth, Anderson .Paak, Remi, Princess Nokia, Jamila Woods. A strong beat helps me focus somehow.
KLB: What is it about music and writing for you?
SA: I relate words and rhythms very much together. I have played piano since I was five. I begged my parents to take me to piano lessons as a kid. Like lots of Indian parents, they thought it would be a distraction from academics. And while I grew up performing at recitals, today I very rarely play the piano in front of others.
KLB: Have you played for an audience since childhood recitals?
SA: I went through a period as an undergrad where I played jazz at a piano bar for tips. It was this little Italian restaurant called Cafe Bocce on Green Street in North Beach. I loved that place; sadly it's closed now. I tossed around as a keyboardist in a few bands for a minute. I also took lots of classes in Javanese and Balinese gamelan at Cal, where I learned how to play sarons or Indonesian metallophones. But I never made any real money playing music. Now I don't play for others. It's a special treat, just for me.
SA: I feel like playing music in front of others is as revealing as being naked. That is really my most raw self and I only let very few people into that space. I feel the same way about sharing my non-academic writing too.
KLB: Sounds sexy.
SA: That is spot on. There is something so revealing about writing. Words and music and art—these beautiful things that we create—are so intimate. Reading someone's work or listening to their music is like a portal into their soul.
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