For a while, I have been wondering what kind of an aunty I am.
In South Asian culture – although this expression is pretty much universal – the aunty figure is usually the busybody, and sometimes meddlesome older woman who gets into young people’s business.
There are cool aunties, of course. Open-minded women who can give you advice on dealing with annoying boyfriends or girlfriends. Women with a chic sense of style who can school you on being confident. Women working unconventional jobs who can broaden your perspective on your own career prospects.
But the word “aunty” most often signifies that original definition. And thanks to Maria Qamar, I’m closer to realizing the aunty categories I fall into.
This month, the Toronto-based pop artist published the hand-dandy Trust No Aunty (Simon & Schuster). It’s essentially a guide for young South Asian diaspora women (and men) who find themselves in the crosshairs of two cultures – and intrusive aunties – and need advice on how to achieve their dreams without pissing everyone off.
Along the way, Qamar also dispenses hilarious anecdotes, recipes and cultural observations.
You may have already come across Qamar as Hatecopy via her popular Instagram account (which has nearly 107,000 followers). She’s famous for artwork that marries Roy Lichtenstein-style comic drawings with melodramatic South Asian soap operas characters – especially aunties.
Her followers and fans include comedians Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham, and her artwork – and that of her friend, roommate and co-conspirator Babneet Lakhesar (aka Babbu The Painter) – has appeared on season five of Kaling’s Fox series The Mindy Project.
“I got an email from the set designer while Babbu and I were in London [England] for an exhibit. I totally freaked out, and sent them a bunch of posters. Next thing I know, Mindy posted pictures on her Instagram,” recounts Qamar, who was watching season one of The Mindy Project as research for an upcoming TV-related installation when NOW called. “Mindy is like my role model didi [older sister or cousin]. It’s nice to know she’s watching what we’re doing.”
Even though her parents – never mind aunties – were not thrilled with the prospect of having an artist daughter, Qamar has long found refuge in art.
She immigrated to Canada from Pakistan with her family in 2000. A year later, when she was in middle school, her world changed. 9/11 happened, and over night she felt a shift in attitude. She was bullied and picked on, and even though her parents tried to help her and her brother adjust to their new lives, it wasn’t easy being called “paki” on a regular basis.
For a while, Qamar didn’t want anything to do with her culture – even her beloved Bollywood movies.
So she started filling her sketchbooks with comic panels one frame saw her avenging her tormentors with bird poop.
As Qamar explains in Trust No Aunty’s chapter titled Professional Life (in which we encounter the “CEO Aunty”), her return to art was kickstarted when she was fired from an ad agency job.
Despite “being broke for a little while,” she continued to draw, posting pictures on Instagram with captions like, “I burnt the roti!” and “Do you know how much that is in rupees?!” People started to notice – and ask for prints.
Many of her illustrations get a knowing nod from other South Asians.
I’ve chuckled at her “Fuck, I’m an aunty!” poster, and I’ve sometimes caught myself doing a quick conversion from Canadian dollars to Indian rupees. Her Bad Beti [bad daughter] series, in collaboration with Lakhesar, is another example of owning the challenges that came their way.
She originally had the idea to do a book two years ago. Not convinced people would be interested in her life, she envisioned a quirky and beautiful coffee table book. But then Qamar started keeping a diary about “the past, present and future of what it meant to be a desi [South Asian] in Toronto.”
Beyond the fun bits – like a budget-friendly recipe for daal or rookie-versus-boss methods of dealing with the Matchmaker Aunty, who is continually on the lookout for marriage prospects – there are plenty of uncomfortable truths. For example, she devotes several pages to skin bleaching and colourism within South Asian communities.
“My hope is that [readers] are able to take that back and talk about it in their social circles or families,” she says. “Having an opinion about an issue like this is better than staying silent.”
However, the book is not an explainer for non-South Asian readers. Chapters that deal with the ways white people appropriate cultures, use offensive accents to make jokes or revel in redundancies such as “chai tea latte” or “naan bread” are part of conversations among South Asians.
“I am done explaining my culture to other people,” says Qamar. “If other people want to lean in and learn, that’s great. But this book is not aimed at them. I wrote this book for someone like me.”
Despite her success, part of her still worries what her parents think. There’s an extended anecdote about the time she hid a boy in her closet after bringing him home during her high school lunch hour for a video game competition.
“I mailed my mom the book. No feedback yet,” she says. “I don’t even want to know what my dad thinks.”
As for what aunty she might become, Qamar thinks she is a mix of the Soft Aunty (the chillest aunty), Online Stalker Aunty (she keeps tabs on her nieces via Instagram) and the Overfeeder Aunty (“I always want everyone to eat – in a slightly aggressive way”).
Although I recognize parts of myself in the Soft Aunty and the Overfeeder Aunty, I think Qamar should do a sequel featuring the Agitator Aunty and Handlooms-Only Aunty. After all, all the Bad Betis eventually become aunties, and maybe I will find myself in those pages.
Until then, I am going to channel the aunty who calmly says, “Don’t cry over spilt chai.” Indeed.
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