Plan your creative career 2018 part one: Why and how to plan

“Plan” is an ironically vague term. You can plan to stop by Target on your way home, and you can plan a detailed, day-by-day, hour-by-hour itinerary for a trip. Same word, completely different results.

I think this is what makes business planning such a confusing and sometimes frustrating experience for a lot of people. As a freelancer, what I plan to do and what I’m actually able to achieve are often very different things: I can say that I want to be publish five articles a month, but that’s contingent on whether I can get anyone to bite on my pitches or not, or on what other work I get over the course of the month. When I fall behind (which happens more often than I care to admit), it feels like planning is just an exercise in frustration. It feels like it makes more sense for me to not plan, to just go where life and work take me. If that’s what ends up happening anyway, why frustrate myself with goals that may never come to fruition.

The thing, though, is that any smarmy business magazine will tell you that planning is crucial for business success. And if you’re a freelancer, creative or not, you’re running a business.

(In some ways, the term “freelancer” is kinda subversive because it makes it seem like work is more of a side gig or hobby. If you’re freelancing full-time, you’re an entrepreneur.)

The question, then, becomes what to plan. As I’ve said, having hard benchmarks to meet can end up making you feel frustrated and even angry with yourself. They can be really discouraging if you’re not getting to where you thought you’d be. At the same time, you can’t plan for every contingency. Life happens, and sometimes it can derail you. Hard. That’s not anyone’s fault, but it does undermine the process. So what should you plan, and to what extent?

I can’t say what you should do. I’m not your mom. But I can tell you what I do! My planning process has evolved a lot since I started freelancing in May 2016, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Break up the year in a way that makes sense for your work.

I’ve found that planning month-to-month just doesn’t work for me as a writer. Pitching is a long process that involves a lot of rejection. If you pitch a piece, wait two weeks to hear back, follow up, then wait another two weeks only to be rejected, then you’ve already spent a month on just that one pitch and have nothing to show for it. (Keep in mind that simultaneous submissions are a big no-no in the magazine/digital media world). Publishing takes even longer – you can submit an article, and not see it in print (or get paid for it) for two or three months.

For me, what works best is to plan quarterly. It’s much more realistic for me to write 15 pieces over three months than it is to write five pieces in one month. Ultimately, it’s the same amount of work, but it gives me the wiggle room I need to focus on achieving my goals instead of feeling frustrated at a perceived lack of accomplishment.

You may be asking, why three months? Why not four or six? I will say that sometimes I’ll give myself an extra month to achieve a certain goal, but overall, I find that three months is a sweet spot planning-wise. It’s long enough to give you a reasonable amount of time to accomplish something tangible, but it’s short enough that you’ll still remember what your goals were from start to end. If you’re planning every six months, what can end up happening is that you get to your six month mark only to find that you’ve forgotten half of what you’d set out to do, and now you’re so off track it’s hard to muster up the motivation to recalibrate yourself. Three months is the Goldilocks of planning times.

Plan for opportunities, not idealizations

What I’ve discovered is that planning pushes you to take steps that will ultimately open up new opportunities that will help you achieve your goals. If I want to take on one new client every quarter, planning gives me the opportunity to sit with myself and think, ‘What do I need to do to be able to achieve that goal?’ Networking is probably going to be on that list, so I plan to attend three networking events each month, for example. Instead of getting tunnel vision staring at my new client goal and then beating myself up when it doesn’t pan out, I’m pushing myself to create the opportunities that will get me there. Even if I don’t meet my goal, I’ll have almost certainly gained something for having stuck to my action plan.

Adjust, adjust, adjust

When I create my task list for each month, I reference my quarterly goals. Then, at the end of the quarter, I sit and take stock of what goals were achieved and in what time frame. Sometimes, I’ll find that I’m still working towards a goal – I’m making progress, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Other times, I find that I’ve completely fallen off the wagon with regards to one goal. Maybe I started out the quarter strong, but since then it’s taken a backseat compared to other goals. That evaluation helps me figure out how to organize and manage my time, and it helps me readjust my expectations to match reality. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that it helps me really think about what my priorities are. If one goal has been completely forgotten, maybe I need to set it aside for a while and zero-in on what I’ve gravitated towards over the course of those few months.

This is part of why I prefer to plan quarterly as well – it’s hard to figure out priorities and work trends over the course of one month. Three months gives you a much better picture of what your work life actually looks like, while at the same time being short enough so that you can consistently assess yourself and stay on track.

Ultimately, how and what you plan is up to you, but hopefully my approach will help you brainstorm one of your own. In Planning Your Creative Career Part 2, I’ll be discussing my planning system in more detail, showing you the tools I use and how I use them. In the meantime, check out these new year planning tips and these writing goals (which can totally be adjusted to whatever you do as a creative).

Get crackin’ on your creative career in 2018

It’s hard to believe that it’s already December. It’s true what they say: time flies when you’re having fun, and I’ve been having a ton of fun with Creative Quibble this last year. But December, for me, is a time to buckle down and get serious about what I’ve accomplished in the last year and what I want to accomplish in the year ahead. It helps that my birthday is in January, so the new year always feels like a new start and a chance to redefine my goals as I get older and, ideally, wiser.

Last week, I was interviewed by Rikki Ayers of the Own Up Grown Up podcast about being a freelance writer and teacher on Skillshare. The episode focused on the business aspect of freelance writing: the challenges and the opportunities that come with going your own way. Listen to the episode here.

For the rest of the month, I want to capitalize and build on that episode to zero in on building a creative career, and specifically building a plan for the new year that will help propel that career. So if you’re in the throes of creating that kind of career, or if you’re considering making that shift, stick around! I have plenty of ideas that I can’t wait to share with you, but in the meantime, feel free to share your own advice in the comments!

Here’s to making 2018 the best and most productive year yet!

Putting a hand on pop culture: An interview with Daryl Muncaster of Creature Creation

You know what’s cool? Things. Physical things. You can touch them, activating a sense that’s really crucial to the human experience.

I think this why people like to sculpt things, or why we as a human species invented sculpting. The sensation of running your hand over material, carving it – that’s something special. And that’s what artist Daryl Muncaster does for a living.

I found Muncaster on Facebook and then Instagram (he goes by creature.creation), where he displays the sculptures he makes of pop culture icons like The Joker, Groot, Batman, and Hellboy.

Photo courtesy Daryl Muncaster

Needless to say as a pop culture weirdness junkie, I was immediately fascinated. Muncaster was nice enough to share some of his experiences as a working artist and the inspiration behind his unique pieces.

How did you get into sculpture? Where did you learn?

As I kid I always played around with bluetack, making little sculptures of creatures and animals. I later had a play around with more traditional pottery in my college years. It wasn’t until university, studying Fine Art, when I really decided to move away from my painting and focus on sculpture. I pretty much sculpted day and night until I’d taught myself the basics, and continue to teach myself with each new sculpture now!

When people think of sculpture, they usually think of Venus or other Ancient Greek museum-based work. What inspired you to do

Photo courtesy Daryl Muncaster

pop culture icons?

Strangely enough, my favorite sculptors are Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They are mostly known for the wrapping of famous landmarks and buildings, transforming them into some amazing visual art. The sculptures they create have nothing technically to do with my own, but I’ve always admired their ability to take something already existing and change the way we view it.

How do you approach a work? Walk us through your process.

My own creature designs started from a project I set myself in University. I researched folklore and mythical creatures from cultures all over the world and collected text from each of them. I’d read the descriptions of alleged sightings and stories, then sculpt what I envisioned from them. This is a process I still use when coming up with a creature.

You make accessories too, how do you get all that detail on something so small?

Most of what I do is learning by doing. Whether it’s a commission I’m taking, or a project I’ve started myself. Each project has it’s own challenges that are part of the fun to figure out and overcome!

What’s your favorite piece you’ve worked on so far?

I really enjoyed working on my mythical creatures and folklore sculpts. I set them all up as a sort of museum for a show, some in glass cages, some wall mounted. I also made masks so that the viewers became part of the exhibition, it was a lot of fun!

What are you working on now? Any cool projects you can tell us about?

Well, I’ve really been wanting to take some of my sculptures to a convention for the first time. I’ve been working on lots of fan art style works based on characters I love. I suppose this is all one big project for me, with the end goal being a convention stand.

What’s your advice to those looking to pursue this kind of art professionally?

I’m very new to selling my sculptures but I can say that the best thing I did was start a social media page. In my case Instagram seems to be working for me. I started it almost a year ago now, and it’s allowed me to keep an online portfolio as well as attract people that want to buy my work. This pushed me to start my little Etsy shop. In short, make something and post it somewhere! The chances are, if you like it, others will too. It might take some time for them to find you but it needs to be there for them to find.

Interview with actress and director Asil Moussa on The Riveter!

As any conscientious reader (of which I assume there are MILLIONS) of this blog will know, I love me a good interview with a professional creative. As a writer, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing not just other writers, but artists, directors, musicians, and really all creative people, make it in the real world.

So many times we’re told that our passions are just a hobby. And when we’re struggling to get off the ground and make those passions viable sources of income, it can feel like we’re kidding ourselves about our ability to make it work. But there are plenty of people making the dream work every day, and actress and director Asil Moussa is one of them.

I interviewed Moussa for The Riveter, a magazine I’ve had the opportunity to write for a few times so far. She talked to me about her movie, The Card, and how she’s carving an acting career for herself as a Muslim woman:

It is 7:30 pm in Windsor, Canada, when Asil Moussa calls me for our interview, but she’s only just woken up.

Twenty-four-year-old Moussa, an actress, writer, and director, was at a film shoot until four that morning back in July, and came home in the zombie makeup she’d been shooting in.

“My mom was like wow, you look terrible!” she laughs.

When it comes to her looks, Moussa’s are perhaps the first thing a film audience will notice. A Muslim, Moussa wears the hijab, or headscarf, in public.

Way back in the boonies of this blog I interviewed director Logan Leistikow, and I think what both filmmakers have in common is the determination to make it work. Both were willing to trek out to Los Angeles for career-defining opportunities, and both have fully invested in their own projects as a way of bringing their vision to the big screen. I think it’s a lesson that not only aspiring filmmakers, but creatives of all types, can take to heart as they work their way towards their dreams.

Read my interview with Asil Moussa on The Riveter website and let me know what you think!

Writing, war, and Terrorist-ish: An interview with writer Shymala Dason

I’m going to be completely honest and say that I rarely read literary magazines. I have a hard time getting invested in short stories – in my experience, they’re either spectacular or…meh.

Shymala Dason’s “Terrorist-ish” definitely falls into the former category. Dason is an Indian-Malaysian American NASA consultant turned writer (we got one! woop!) and editor. “Terrorist-ish,” which was published by the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in 2015, is familiar in the sense that it covers those scary places where people of color are scrutinized, dug up and around and under. But it’s also completely different from anything I’ve ever read before – how many books have you read that have an Indian-Malaysian college dropout and accidental porn star as their main character.

Exactly.

I talked to Dason about how she found her way to writing, and what familiar-but-different stories she’s planning for the future:

1. You come from a heavily scientific background, and even worked for NASA! How did you make the transition into writing?

Courtesy of Shymala Dason

I’ve written for as long as I can remember, poetry, journal or memoir. The first more or less proper (though dreadfully bad) poem was when I was about eight. I began to play with fictionalizing with adolescent angst stuff in secondary school, and writing remained my sanity mechanism through math grad school and NASA. But always on the side. Then my father died, and I thought about all the dreams he had died without fulfilling. He was a young man during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and instead of going off to medical school he became an ambulance driver, and an Air Raid Warden, serving his family and community. Whereas all I was serving was my 401K, which isn’t all that noble. So I switched my focus. But I’m still not ‘transitioned’ in the sense that I’m not making my living from writing.

 

2. How does your scientific experience influence your writing, whether it’s subject matter or style?

There are two elements I think come from science. One is trying for a fuller picture rather than writing from my own particular perspective and idea. The other is in the method of writing, which is rather like putting together bits of code from a library to make a new program, or working in separate layers in PhotoShop and then merging them.

I always have random bits of text floating around – little bits of dialogue, descriptions of place or atmosphere or character, story sketches… And I put these together and shuffle them around until patterns emerge. That final process, though, is more poetry than science.

3. You’re a manuscript editor as well. How did you get into that, and how does it impact your own writing process?

I’ve been fortunate to have the bestselling historical novelist Beverly Swerling as a mentor for some years. Beverly is the literary half of Agent Research & Evaluation, and she also does critiques for selected clients. A few years into our relationship, I was able to make a useful suggestion for one of her books, “Bristol House” (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!), and some time after that she got a request to critique a science fiction novel. She’s one of many literary people who don’t work with science fiction, but she remembered my science background and that my first couple of short story sales were to Marion Zimmer Bradley, so she referred that client to me. And then he referred another. It’s both exhilarating and frightening to put one’s hands into another person’s work. I’ve received good editorial advice, myself, and bad advice, so I’m very conscious of the responsibility to do it right. I don’t think editing impacts my own writing process. It’s more my writing process impacts the way I edit.

4. Your short story, “Terrorist-ish,” is about an undocumented immigrant with big dreams and a head for songs. What inspired the story?

I was running errands, driving in Columbia, MD one day not to long after 9/11, with the car radio on. First there was the news, which was full of arrests and alarms – wholesale detention of Arab students, and so on – and then when I surfed away from that I hit a Bollywood-Bhangra station which was reporting on the same news, but instead of NPR it was, “Yo, Badmash, be careful out there, yaar! They are simply rounding up people…” It was Hinglish, it was vulnerable, it was incredibly brave despite being afraid, upbeat in a Bhangra-rap sort of way, and the first sentences of “Terrorist-ish” popped into my head. The rhythm of that voice was irresistible. I pulled over in a DSW parking lot and jotted down the opening lines. I had to stretch pretty far back in memory to my high-school days to find people who spoke the way this character speaks to get the rest of the story, but if I’d used a normal voice, the story would just have been depressing.

The [main] character, like me, is Indian diaspora by way of Malaysia, from a community of people who’ve been in Malaysia for several generations. I’m Christian, I wrote the character as specifically Catholic (rather than Anglican/Episcopalian, as I am) so I could be more colorful in the Christian references, and not just joke about Mothers’ Unions but also about confession and penance and so on. All tongue-in-cheek, broad humor to balance the horror of an ordinary guy needing to worry that someone will decide he’s a terrorist.

5. Why did you choose the title “Terrorist-ish”?

It’s a spectacular title, isn’t it? I can say that without being immodest because I had several truly horrible ideas for the title – “Boy-type Illegal with Dark-Dark Skin” was one, so you can see titles are not my strong point – and Anelise Chen, who accepted the story for publication in “The Margins” (and was a spectacular editor), suggested this title, which was perfect since the story is about the post-9/11 paranoia where, suddenly, all Brown people, particular young Brown men, were suspected of being terrorists.

6. You have two upcoming novels, one on the Malaysian global diaspora and one about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II. What are the inspirations for these novels, and what issues will they touch on?

It all comes somehow from the Malaysian community. Probably half of the people I grew up with are now scattered around the world. So that’s the inspiration for the global diaspora story, as well as my short story collection. What drives the expats, what it’s like being strangers in a strange land and having no ground under your feet at all except the ground you create, and even then – as the present times are making clear – we are only welcome on sufferance that may change at any moment. And then there’s the strain in family bonds, the chasms between people who once ate out of the same dish and now, values shifting with time and movement and location, we look at each other, stay-at-homes at expats and vice versa, or from one generation to another, and everything is simultaneously as familiar as one’s own face, and yet totally strange.

The Japanese invasion of Kuala Lampur, 1942

As for the WWII novel, I wanted to tell the story of Malayans in WWII Malaya. Not British, not Japanese, but the local people. It’s their story. My father’s story, the story of that entire generation. One out of 25 Malayans died of the war. That’s a lot of dead. And for the rest, from 101 recipes for tapioca and water spinach so they didn’t starve, to a resistance as heroic as anything in France and against an Occupying force that decorated the streets with decapitated heads to maintain ‘discipline’, it seemed a story worth celebrating. I want to tell the survivors’ tale before time washes it away.

6. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

I’ve never thought, “This is what I want to achieve.” It’s always, “These are the stories I have to tell, how do I tell them?”

I suppose all my writing is about disagreement and reconciliation, or hardship and reconciliation, even if it is reconciliation as the wartime generation had to do it, reconciling themselves to irreversible loss. I would like my work to contribute somewhat to reconciliation – between peoples, between generations, between expats and stay-at-homes.

Connected with that is the impulse that is making me write the WWII book. True reconciliation means nobody gets written out of the story. So, telling forgotten or overlooked stories is important to me.

You can find out more about Shymala Dason at her website, and read “Terrorist-ish” here.

Using Instagram to market your art: A guest post at Nevue Fine Art Marketing

Last week I got the chance to write a post for Dave Nevue of Nevue Fine Art Marketing. Nevue is a professional graphite artist committed to helping professional artists achieve success, and as a supporter of professional creatives, I was happy to collaborate with him. I dug into my experience in online and social media strategy and wrote a post on Instagram marketing for artists on his blog, which you should absolutely check out because it is chock full of helpful tips for up-and-coming artists looking to turn their passion into a profession.

From the post:

For artists whose media are inherently visual, Instagram offers an excellent opportunity to capitalize on an engaged user base to market themselves and their work. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re using your Instagram to its greatest capacity.

If you simply post photo after photo of your art, your audience may get bored – and it’s not a very good use of Instagram, either. The platform is a great place to promote sales and giveaways, announce new products or projects, and, perhaps even better, show off your art at work!

Social media is a great way to connect with people and take charge of your own media presence, but it needs to be part of a wider strategy. Make sure to include a link in your bio to your website where you can collect email addresses, make sales, and demonstrate your knowledge and skill. If you primarily sell on Etsy or a similar platform, include a link to your profile there.

These are just a few pearls of wisdom Nevue was kind enough to allow me to share on his platform. Read the whole post here, and be sure to leave me a comment and tell me what you think!

 

 

Science fiction digs deep in Haris Durrani’s “Technologies of the Self”

I have a complex relationship with science fiction. On the one hand, few genres are as exciting or have as much potential; on the other hand, the tendency for novels to devolve into “let me explain my theories on particle physics in excruciating detail” is, in my experience, high. So when Haris Durrani told me about his debut novel, “Technologies of the Self,” I was intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was relieved.

Courtesy Haris Durani

Durrani’s novel is really an exploration of law and the state via the medium of time-travel and other futuristic weirdness. It’s already won an award – the Driftless Novella Prize – and (interview spoilers!) may just be the first in a series. Durrani gave me the scoop on how this all came about.

 

You’re an engineer. How did you get into writing?

I cannot remember a time when I was not a writer. My interest in science and robotics arrived hand-in-hand with stories I read about them, and I was immediately drawn to producing those kinds of stories myself. I fell in love with writing after my cousin gave me “I, Robot” and “Ender’s Game” in fifth grade, and the rest is history.

I’m now in law school, a path I probably would not have foreseen as a young reader and LEGO tinkerer. But in retrospect it is a natural progression, since my interest in technology and its stories has always revolved around social and political issues, to which law is fundamental. I like to think my obsession with Isaac Asimov’s “Laws of Robotics” had a lot to do with it too.

Is there an intersection between engineering (or technology) and writing? How is that reflected in “Technologies of the Self”?

Writing is itself a technology…I often think of a provocative passage from “Phaedrus,” in which Socrates tells Plato of the myth of the Egyptian god of writing, Theuth…There are interesting stories about Islamic scholars’ reticence to write down the Qur’an and of scholars who did wudu’u [Islamic ritual ablution] before writing down Hadith, because they viewed the written word as an inferior form of communication. All of this goes to say, the written word is a technology, a result of or catalyst for change. I tend to be a Luddite about these things, but I reluctantly succumb to the necessity of putting words to paper.

“Technologies of the Self” cover, courtesy Haris Durani

Law is also technological. This is at the heart of “Technologies.” The title is a reference to a line from Wael Hallaq’s “The Impossible State,” in which…[he] compares Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self” – the social and legal mechanisms that regulate the inner self as a means of maintaining order in the modern state, from schools to hospitals to prisons – to Al-Ghazali’s “techniques” – the practice of Islam, from dhikr to prayer to other socio-legal obligations. The story in “Technologies” is an attempt to grapple with the tension between these two kinds of technologies: the external regulation of the self by the state and the internal regulation by practices of faith.

Also, engineering, writing, and law all require creative processes. They operate from and produce innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

The protagonist of “Technologies of the Self” is an engineer with the same background as yourself. To what extent would you say the character is a self-insert or a way of exploring your own identity?

Yes, the narrator, like me, has a Dominican mother and a Pakistani father and is also a Muslim. But this story is a fictionalization of the experiences of myself and my friends and family. I’m wary of calling it a memoir or a self-insert as much as I am of calling it fiction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story is about the nature of reality, as much as it may be an attempt to capture it. Junot Díaz once said in an interview that his recurring narrator, Yunior, is not the same person that he is but is “drawn from the same cloth” (I’m paraphrasing), and I feel similarly about my relationship with the narrator of “Technologies.”

Still, it is true that “Technologies” is a way of exploring my identities as well as the lives of my family and friends. In part, I wrote the book because I had never encountered their experiences on any screen, page, or stage. On the other hand, everything I write is an exploration of my identity, regardless of whether I’m conscious of the fact, because I am the writer; who I am inherently shapes the narratives and assumptions that underlie my characters and stories.

You write a lot about science fiction. How do you think the genre can best encapsulate issues of identity for PoC?

I’ve never set out to write so much about the genre but, somehow, that’s what’s transpired…Although science fiction, as much as mainstream literature, has problems with representation, the genre as a whole has mostly fallen outside the mainstream, rejected or neglected by the literary elite. Growing up amidst Western-centric curricula and as one of the few Muslims and students of color in class, this quality attracted me. The average science fiction novel often felt more attuned to social and political issues than the average literary novel. The genre gave birth to authors with radical ideas about race, colonialism, politics, and technology, like Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut.

I think there is sometimes a concern from PoC readers and writers that science fiction is escapist, that it deviates from “real problems in the world” and retreats into “allegory.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The genre has the remarkable ability to reveal what is most true – and perhaps most horrifying – about our society and to force readers to confront these truths, no matter how brutal, unnerving, or uncomfortable.

What’s your take on the rising trend of novels around Muslim identity? Is that something that comes naturally because the 9/11 generation is now at adulthood, or is there something else going on?

Your observation about the 9/11 generation is probably true. I think there is also an increasing thirst within the literary community for these narratives. I’m not always sure that this is a good thing. While there are several great novels about the Muslim identity, most of the successful ones hardly ever relate the experiences of practicing Muslims. There are either “secular Muslims” (Muslim in name and perhaps in belief, but not practicing Al-Ghazali’s “techniques”) that appeal to the liberal idea of what a “moderate Muslim” ought to be, or irrational, militant fundamentalists, which also appeal to the liberal notion of what “religious” ought to be. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of those kinds of characters, because they do exist in the world, but…I am hard pressed to think of more than a few widely-known, popular novels that truly dive into the experiences of a practicing Muslim. This is the group that suffers the brunt of Islamophobia today.

Rather than critique from the sidelines, producing my own work is the best response. I also co-founded The Muslim Protagonist, an annual literary symposium at Columbia University that seeks to give a platform, mic, and audience for Muslim and allied writers. The symposium is now entering its sixth year.

What’s next for you?

I just came out with a novelette, “Champollion’s Foot,” in Mithila Review. It’s about a crew of failed rebels, from a colonized planet of Dominican Muslims, who discover alien detritus in deep space – with jinn. I have a short piece on space law and global economic inequality forthcoming from the exciting new journal Poet’s Country. And I’m Guest Editor for the upcoming Special Space Opera Issue of The Fantasist, an important new journal for long-form fantasy, broadly defined.

And, “Technologies” is only one chapter in a much longer saga…

You can purchase “Technologies of the Self” from Amazon.

This interview has been edited for length.

Arabic lyrics with Southern music: KUWAISIANA lead singer talks about his mashup of Arabic and indie rock

A while back I connected with musician PlusAziz, a musician of Kuwaiti origin based in New Orleans. I listened to some of his band, KUWAISIANA’s music – and let me tell you before we get any further that I am not a music buff by any means. But even I can tell when a song is cool.

Cover art for the KUWAISIANA Willow Show – courtesy PlusAziz

The interesting thing about KUWAISIANA is that it is envisioned as a mashup of jazz and blues music and Khaleeji (Arab Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, etc.) dialect singing. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I lived in the Gulf region for a decent chunk of time as a kid, and when I was there in the early 2000s, Khaleeji music was pretty much all there was to listen to on the radio. You didn’t get a lot of Egyptian or Lebanese songs until maybe 2004 or 2005.

As a result, Khaleeji music has a special place in my heart. The thing, though, is that it has a very specific, traditional beat to it. There’s an underlying drum rhythm that lends itself to traditional Khaleeji dance that exists in pretty much all my favorite Khaleeji songs, and it’s really not something you can recreate in blues music.

Naturally, therefore, I was interested in getting PlusAziz’s input on his band and why he does what he does.

What’s behind the name “KUWAISiANA”? (Is it Kuwait-Louisiana?)

Yes! It is Kuwait-meets-Louisiana.

KUWAISIANA, as a name or title, comes from the recognition of cultural parallels between Louisiana and my hometown of Kuwait. When it comes to music, both of their musical traditions evolved out of exchanges with foreign cultures coming together and forming something cohesive. The collective nature of a New Orleanian “2nd line” is, from an anthropological point-of-view, similar to the Kuwaiti “samri” or a Bahraini “jalsa.”

Both are also crippled by high obesity rates, poor infrastructure. These linkages are very subtle at the moment because the band is not even a year old, but this is the cultural trajectory I would like KUWAISIANA to work within.

New Orleans emerged as the turnkey solution for me when I was considering a next step after New York, where I recorded a debut EP as a solo artist titled SoHo Sprit (2014). I wanted to move to a “music city” in the American South because it’s a region I romanticized since I was a teenager. Oddly enough, the band was supposed to be a simple rock trio with me singing in Arabic. But the makeup of the band took a life of its own and I was suddenly dealing with seven other musicians who augment the sound and bring in different varieties of world music grooves. Luckily, I’m still rocking out in Arabic but the sound palette has undergone a poignant evolution.

What made you decide to start an indie rock band?

The short answer to that is music videos. Growing up in Kuwait, I would wake up around 3-4am to watch and record music videos on VCR. 16 tapes later, I was sold on the dream of forming a rock band. In particular, Smashing Pumpkins’ music videos were very compelling (visually and lyrically). After that, I would fall in love with a few other bands like Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta, Gorillaz, and Deftones.

KUWAISIANA at Howlin’ Wolf – photo courtesy PlusAziz

My musical intention in moving to New Orleans is to address the problem that Khaleeji music has virtually no presence in “world music” (a catchall genre which captures all non-Western music). The most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India. Basically everywhere across the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula. These regions have set a standard that independent Khaleeji musical artists have yet to meet in my opinion.

I initially wanted to do a stripped-down alternative rock trio where I sang in my Kuwaiti dialect. In typical New Orleans fashion, I kept the door open for other musicians to join and now I have commitments from eight people, all of whom bring their own influences. My goal now is to try and sustain KUWAISIANA’s big band sound and tour around the US in summer 2017.

How exactly do you combine the style of indie rock with Arabic music? Who do you look to when you’re composing and writing?

 

There’s a ton of great bands coming out of Amman and Beirut who are combining indie rock and Arabic music in the best of ways; I’m not sure how / if I fit into that family. I would love to leverage maqam [a set of traditional melodic patterns commonly used in Arabic music] in my singing scales or Khaleeji pearl diving music ensembles, but that’s more long-term for me.

I’m less interested in Arabic music and much more interested in the Arabic language. When I work, for example, I may be watching Arabic content on YouTube. From Khaleeji TV shows and indie comedy shows to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about.

In terms of the tone of my music, I feel akin to other Kuwaiti creative acts, which have a cold sarcasm and dark humor about Khaleeji identity. You can find good examples if you look into the Youtube comedy series like Shino Ya3ni or the art exhibits of GCC Collective.

I use to have more control over my music when I worked alone, but now there are numerous influences at play in the band. My drummer plays a huge role in shaping grooves and we work as a team to identify what the song is asking for. It may be a Brazilian samba, afro-beat or any number of other ethnic influence. I hope that the band will evolve into a more democratic KUWAISIANA where I am not the only one driving decisions and shaping our songs.

Check out KUWAISIANA’s song “Murra,” sung in Arabic, and the English “Say Yea.”

Diversity of cultures and characters: Sajidah K Ali talks “Saints and Misfits”

When it comes to writing, Canadian author Sajidah K Ali’s story is one of perseverance in achieving your dream.

Sajidah K Ali, courtesy author

Sajidah was born in South India and is Muslim, and is currently living in Toronto. For a while, her Creative Writing degree sat in the background as she pursued motherhood and a career in teaching, but she returned to her first love (don’t we all?) a few years ago. Now she’s getting ready to release her debut novel, “Saints and Misfits,” a young adult story. I talked to Sajidah about the book and her experience as a writer.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue being a professional writer?

I majored in Creative Writing in the early 90’s. Yes, that long ago. While I had every intention of become an author, I instead embarked on other journeys – that of becoming a mother, a teacher, and so on. It was only about ten years ago that I decided to put my all into something I’d wanted to do from the beginning: write stories.

Tell me about “Saints and Misfits.” What is the book about? What was the inspiration behind it?

It’s a story about a Muslim fifteen year-old who finds her voice and, essentially, meets herself, in the midst of something painful. I like to call it a Muslim girl power story. But it’s not told in a dark way; the book is peopled with characters that provide the main character, Janna Yusuf, an opportunity to see the absurdities, hopefulness, and humor of life in the different communities she moves in.

I can’t say there was one inspiration behind it; it was more like I wanted to explore several threads (some that are not frequently explored, like that of how religious messages of “patience and forbearance” may be internalized wrongly, especially by Muslim women) and in weaving them, I found this story.

What was the process of getting published like for you? Did you struggle to find a publisher, or was it a fairly smooth process?

My experience of getting published will seem short ‘n sweet but I have to tell you that it took me five years to write “Saints and Misfits.” After I had finished writing the story, I spent ONE WHOLE YEAR on just rewriting the first chapter! Once I was satisfied with the manuscript (after five years, remember), I looked for a literary agent – which is the only way to approach one of the big publishing houses – and once I found the wonderful John M. Cusick of Folio Literary Management, I worked on the manuscript a bit more with his feedback and then went on to submission. The amazing Zareen Jaffery at Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Salaam Reads, showed immediate interest and we had a deal. This process of finding an agent and selling the book took about three months.

So, long story short: it was a blessedly smooth process after years of being that quintessential writer tapping away at a keyboard, ready to throw in the towel but not doing so only to prove to my 12 year-old self that you have to try your dreams.

What do you have in the works now?

I’ve finished a picture book, working on a second and in the drafting and outlining stages of another YA novel.

What inspires your stories generally? How does your background as a Muslim Canadian influence your work?

Ah-ha moments inspire my stories. Those moments that something becomes clear to you and could only become clear to you because the juxtaposition of all circumstances in your life allow it to be so. They occur throughout our lives and I like to capture that in writing. I think that’s what my short stories & narrative essays (that I write under another name) and “Saints and Misfits” are all about: that moment of clarity.

I’d like to think my background as a Canadian allows me a sense of ease when I’m writing about diversity within diverse communities. Multiculturalism is an important aspect of our Canadian identity and that plays out in our daily lives, which then spills over into my writing: the easy friendships between my diverse characters in Saints & Misfits is an example of this. And, as a Muslim, I’m naturally inclined to explore the diversities within the Muslim community – and not just the diversity of cultures, but diversities in religious understandings.

What’s your advice to young novelists trying to get published?

First, the one everyone says: read, read, read. Artists need a medium to make art and for writers, that medium is comprised of a palette of words and sentences and voice and forms and so on. The more you read, the more you have up there to work with to make your own art, your own stories.

Secondly, find your writing rhythm. Not that it will stay the same throughout your career, but read about how different writers do their job and try different things out. For years, because I was a very successful pantster in university (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, relying on inspiration, fueled by the fear of deadlines approaching), I thought I had failed because that style didn’t work for me later on in life. But then, every time I’d try methodical outlining and plotting, that didn’t work either (fall-asleep boring!). I found out my way was to balance the two: pants & plot, pants & plot, pants & plot…repeat until the book is done.

And lastly, don’t write to trends. Write the stories you want to tell, using the palette you’ve assembled (that will be unique to you because no one else in the entire world is the sum of all things you’ve read & experienced) and your audience will find you.

Actually, another lastly: don’t give up. That’s the common thing that all published writers have – they didn’t stop trying.

Johnny Perez talks fantasy and diversity in art

I originally came across artist Johnny Perez on Twitter. A quick visit to his site and I was hooked. His work is surreal and colorful (you know how much I love color) and is inspired seemingly by otherwordly creatures – the women are fairies, mermaids, supernatural beings, and yet still intensely human.

Johnny was recently in Mexico collecting references and inspiration for a new project. He gives us the scoop here, as well as his creative process.

How did you first get into art?

I’ve been drawing pictures since I could hold a crayon. But I didn’t think of it as a career until around 6th grade, when we began looking at our futures for a class project. I have always been told I would be an artist, but I wanted to be many things before I chose to use my talents for work. My family was always nurturing, so I never had to fight to become an artist. My sister has great talent and helped me improve as a child, and then my own research took over from there. Plus I don’t sing very well, so that was out.

What inspires your work?

I have no lack of inspiration! My constant sources are mythology, folklore, animation, and comics. I find inspiration in nature, in people around me, and colorful environments like my recent trip to Mexico. I love authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s no secret I love “Harry Potter”! I love directors like Guillermo del Toro and Baz Luhrmann, and old fantasy movies like “Dark Crystal”, “Labrynth”, and “Legend”. My childhood influences I believe are very strong in my work and come out in my color choices, my subject matter, and the fact that I really like to have fun with an image. Probably because I’m a big kid.

Your website mentions that your work features “figurative fantasy and cultural diversity.” What does that mean to you? How do those two things work together in your art?

To me figurative fantasy is a play on the traditional figurative model. In my work I don’t just want to portray the figure as it is in reality, because I believe there is so much unseen mysticism. I want to capture something that speaks more about who they are perhaps if dreams could be realized. For instance I painted one of my favorite singers, Erykah Badu, and instead of a traditional portrait, she is painted as a siren atop a jukebox in a sea of records with speaker-head fish, and a crane carrying a microphone. There is a nod to fantasy, and a bit of surrealism there. I believe in the veil between our world and others and I believe they are always influencing one another.

As far as cultural diversity, I try not to limit myself to what I know, but I want to heavily lean on ambiguity when it comes to cultures. Living in America I still hope for peace because I truly believe we are a melting pot of the world, and I find it so odd when people forget that. I want to express my cultural heritage from Mexico and Native America. I want to express my upbringing with Hip-Hop/African-American culture. I want to express the excitement of learning about cultures from all the continents, because it’s all so fascinating and it should be celebrated.

Courtesy Johnny Perez
Courtesy Johnny Perez

Beyond that broad sentiment I want to bring what I know to be a serious lack of diverse entertainment and imagery to what I do. I look at what other people are doing and I can’t help but see that I’ve been blindsided by popular media. I use my work to correct that. I’m not just talking about Hollywood, because sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t. But on TV, in movies, and on the internet, fantasy images (and images in general) are often devoid of colorful, unique characters. For a few years I took a break from American movies, because I got tired of the lack of flavor and tired repeating stories. I was missing some imagination. I was inspired by anime movies by Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and those series that really pushed boundaries on what the medium could do. I try to do the same with my work.

What message are you seeking to impart with your art?

There is more to us than the skin we’re in, and there is more to life than what corporations would have us believe. There is more to the world than what we are taught. I bring myself, a lover of fantasy and traditional media, and introduce these foreign concepts. Many are hot political buttons, like religious freedom, racial equality, and gender ambiguity. I still work on bringing these things together. I aim to expose my viewers to diversity in all its forms, racial, cultural, sexual, religious because I feel so much sheltering being forced. Because we only have two genders in our society when so many more exist. Because we have oppression of races because our society is built on it. Because we have interference of freedom from all sides who seek to have THEIR way because they believe it is right. I’m asking questions and seeking answers every day, [and] so should everyone else in my opinion.

I often paint the fantastic, but it does mean more to me than a fairy tale. In a sense they are what fairy tales used to be, cautionary tales. “Don’t hate, appreciate!” as the saying goes. I was in a bubble as a child, and when I drew, my mother asked me, “where is the color?” referring to the pale skin and blonde hair of my subject. I was immediately offended, but something in me opened that day. And from there I realized the world I lived in. It is clear in recent events that many people want to remain in a bubble, and I hope that if any see my work, perhaps that will burst, in a good way. More importantly I hope to help fill the void along with other artists, that shows people of color are just as beautiful, fantastic and full of magic as any other.

Courtesy Johnny Perez.
Courtesy Johnny Perez.
Tell us about your latest project in Mexico.

My project [that] I’ve been referring to as Urban Sketches and Landscapes of Mexico, and sometimes “Viva Mexico!” is about my exploration of the country’s natural beauty as well as urban environment and graffiti art through photo and painting. Many things in my childhood and later my love life led up to this project. First I grew up in a mainly English-speaking household. I always felt I was Latino/Mexican in race, but as I learned more about my roots, I realized how out of touch I was, and what I was missing out on. My elders spoke Spanish, and we ate Tex-Mex daily, but that was certainly not enough. I hated the Spanish music my family listened to, I didn’t particularly like molé, and I was positive everyone south of the border was wearing ponchos and sombreros. I mean, I had so much to learn! That chance [came when] I was about 10, and I went on a trip with my grandmother to Acuña, Coahuila just south of Del Rio, TX. She was conducting bible school classes there with a church group from Haskell, TX. I immediately felt the sting of the privileged life I had led. But I also fell in love with the landscapes, the architecture of buildings, and the small neighborhoods of the residents we visited. There was so much color, and history!

After that trip, I became friends with someone at my school who was from Jamay, Jalisco. From his family I learned what Gorditas were (real ones!), how to play Lotería, how to make Horchata, what chile seasoning goes on Duritos, and so much that my family never did or ate. We also connected over the music and death of Selena. Because of it, I listened to Spanish music, and learned the words. I learned her story, and probably watched the movie of her life a million times, all the while gaining the inspiration to connect with my roots in the same way and someday have my art be as admired. Not long after, in high school, I lost my grandmother to liver failure from diabetes. It was in the back of my mind that we would take another trip someday. I thought I would never go back unless it was on my own, but I was always told it was too dangerous.

My boyfriend of two years now got a great opportunity to perform professionally there, and I of course had to tag along. It was a time of connecting for the first time with his immediate family that still lived there in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. It was also a time of reconnecting for me to see what I couldn’t before, and appreciate what I didn’t understand so many years ago. It was my intention to paint plein-air [meaning outdoors, so that you recreate the source as it is while you paint] but that was nearly impossible with everything we wanted to see. So I took every photo possible. I was able to tour the city with his family, which was a far cry from the poor villages I first encountered. I was able to eat the home-cooked Mexican food, that was so different and yet familiar. It was almost instantly a home away from home that I had been away from for too long. This was my first chance to see Mexico both as an adult and as an artist, to connect the dots, and capture the experience to reference for future work.

When will the project be available to the public?

I’ll be releasing artwork as it becomes available through my website: JohnnyPerezArt.com/vivamexico I will also be posting progress on my blog, so its a good time to message me if you see a piece in progress that you want! Prepurchase is no longer available but links will be provided to buy each work through PayPal, or in person if local.