In this interview, we sat down with deaf South Asian writer and performance artist Sabina England and discussed working in different languages and media, navigating multiple marginalized identities, and Sabina’s latest film called “Deaf Brown Gurl.”
As[I]Am: Growing up as a minority, what was it like to be a part of your communities (Deaf, Indian, otherwise)?
Sabina: It was hard, because I felt like I faced isolation from all the communities that I “belonged” to. The deaf community was mostly white, and there were a few deaf black kids, but I didn’t fit in with them. They thought that my culture was “weird” and “strange.” They always made ignorant comments about India. That led to some self-hating feelings I had for myself as an Indian. But it was even worse being Muslim. There was a lot of prejudice toward Muslims, so it was hard being Indian and Muslim in the deaf community. Around Indians and Pakistanis, I felt even more alone. There was a hidden attitude amongst Desi people that there was “shame” in being deaf or having any other kind of disability. Indians and Pakistanis often looked down at me and saw me as some kind of a mentally disturbed individual, or that I was “dumb” and couldn’t do anything right. As for the Muslim community (which was very diverse; there were many South Asians, Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans), I was frustrated by the lack of accommodations for the deaf. I felt angry that there were no accessibility services for me at the mosque, so I was left out of any workshops and classes. Because of that, I never understood what they were talking about during the talks! So, in the deaf community, South Asian community, and Muslim community, it was very hard growing up and I never fit in anywhere. Even to this day, I still don’t feel belonged anywhere, so I am a loner and I don’t have many friends.
As[I]Am: A lot of deaf individuals have experienced audism or the belief that people who can hear are superior. How do you address audism, and how does that tie into other forms of oppression?
Sabina: I see audism as ignorance and even as a form of hate. I see how some hearing people would make fun of us and try to copy us, mocking sign language. These people assume that we deaf people get everything so “easy” because we have accommodation services and that everyone feels “sorry” for us, but that’s not true. When people feel “sorry” for us, they are taking away our power, our voices, and trying to render us as helpless and dependent. We don’t always get accommodated. Often, we are denied our rights. Also, some people out there think that having a disability would never happen to them, but anyone can get affected. Anyone can suddenly become deaf or blind one day, and their lives would change forever, and I wish they would understand that. We are trying to work hard to give ourselves more rights and accessibility so that we are equal with hearing, able-bodied people. I believe this is true for people with ALL disabilities, not just for the deaf. If one group with a disability is denied, we could be next. We all should try to help and support each other in the fight for our rights.
Lastly, I try to show hearing people (and even other deaf people) that their ignorant assumptions about the deaf are wrong, and I try to show them the beauty of American Sign Language and the unity of deaf people coming together as friends and allies. And there is NOTHING wrong with having a disability either. Having a disability might make your life harder, but you can still have a good life.As[I]Am: In what other ways have your intersecting identities informed your life and work? How has your identity developed over time?
Sabina: That had always been such a struggle for me growing up. I was never sure if I was supposed to identify as Indian, Muslim or deaf the most. Even when my own communities treated me like crap, I still wanted to embrace my culture, religion, and disability. Now that I think about the past, I definitely think that being deaf and Muslim were the hardest parts. At least, many people liked Indian culture and were curious about India. But still to this day, there is so much hatred toward Muslims. And some people still look down at the deaf. Sometimes I find it very hard to write about being deaf, or writing short stories with deaf characters. Deafness is such a huge struggle for me and sometimes I don’t know how to express my feelings about being deaf. There are many Indians, there are many Muslims, but there are less deaf people, and there are even LESS deaf Indian Muslims. As for my religion, sometimes I feel uncomfortable talking about it because I don’t want people to think I’m trying to change their beliefs when I’m not. I just want to fight against Islamophobia and educate people about the simplicity of Islam (as a religion) and the great diversity of Muslim cultures all around the world. My identity is being shaped every day; I am still growing and learning every day, so I can’t give you a final answer.
As[I]Am: Who and/or what influenced you to start performing in mixed media, ranging from sign language to mime?
Sabina: I do many projects because unfortunately, opportunities for the deaf ARE very limited out there. So I find that if I do more things creatively through different avenues of expression, it allows me to express myself, and hopefully get more exposure to the public. I do film, stage performance, poetry, and writing because all these allow me to express my feelings differently. I became more exposed to the deaf community a few years ago — I started meeting deaf filmmakers, deaf actors, deaf comics, deaf dancers, deaf painters, deaf mimes, and deaf slam poets. I thought, “Wow! I want to do everything!” because I have always enjoyed trying everything. So that’s why I don’t just limit myself to one area. For stage performance, I am inspired by my Indian culture, Sufi poetry, Islamic spirituality, American Sign Language, and other deaf performers. I like to try to experiment with ASL, mime, physical gestures, stage movement. It’s hard but it forces me to think outside the box and I like that. For film, I grew up watching many films from all over the world when I was growing up. Since I am deaf, reading subtitles was no problem, so I didn’t mind watching French, Mexican, Chinese, Hong Kong, Bengali films! I love writing poetry and short stories, too. I just finished doing “Deaf Brown Gurl” (short ASL film shot in India) and since it took me one long year to make, I am taking a break from film now, and I am focused on writing.
As[I]Am: It’s clear from your works that you have worked in multiple countries and languages. What motivated you to adapt your performances to various languages/cultures? What were the challenges and successes you have had?
Sabina: Well, I grew up belonging to various communities and cultures, so it has always felt normal being interested and learning about other cultures. But I always make sure to be respectful and knowledgeable about other cultures and languages. I do not believe in cultural appropriation. Rather, I want to work with other performers, musicians, artists from other communities and come together to create something amazing and cool.
As[I]Am: Could you talk a little bit about your latest film, “Deaf Brown Gurl”?
Sabina: “Deaf Brown Gurl” was a poem that I originally wrote and performed at a few festivals, including Pride St Louis and Subcontinental Drift in Washington, D.C. I had a trip planned to India, and I wanted to use the opportunity to film scenes there. I was also interested in trying an ASL poetry video that would be intercut with beautiful imagery, like a music video. This took me one year to make. Editing all the film footage shot in Bihar, India was really hard! I filmed at a mandir (Hindu temple), gurdwara (Sikh temple), mosque (where Muslims pray), dargah (Sufi tomb), and a famous ancient Buddhist temple. I also visited a school for deaf girls in Patna. The girls were so excited to meet me and they wanted to show me everything in their school. My goal was to show the diversity of India — India has Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Parsis, etc. And… hey, deaf Indians exist, too! People always forget that deaf people, and people with all kinds of disabilities, exist everywhere in the world, in almost every culture. There are deaf Native Americans, deaf black people, deaf East Asians, deaf Jews, deaf Buddhists, deaf Muslims, deaf Africans, etc… you know what I’m saying.
Anyway, I hired Micropixie, an amazing British Indian musician and singer who lives in San Francisco, to do voice over and sound design. Lastly, I wanted “Deaf Brown Gurl” to be an inspiration for deaf brown girls everywhere, but also for deaf black children and deaf queer kids and deaf people anywhere. This film is for anyone who had always felt alone, different, and not accepted by their own, or by any other groups.
As[I]Am: What can we expect from you in the future?
Sabina: Well, I am in Veracruz, Mexico right now and I have some some beautiful film footage, so I am putting a few scenes together for the future. My big dream is to write and produce an Indigenous film in Mexico and have the dialogue spoken in an Indigenous language, like Totonaco or Nahuatl, and hire Indigenous actors. I also have a performance coming up on September, so I will work on that. I also plan to work on a few more writings, including a full-length feature screenplay, short stories, and poems. You can check my writings at sabinaengland.
SABINA ENGLAND is a filmmaker, playwright, novelist and stage performance artist. She is profoundly deaf. She studied at London Film Academy, and she has a B.A in Theatre from University of Missouri. A few of her plays were shown in London at Tristan Bates Theatre, Soho Theatre, and Theatre Royal Stratford East. She wrote and directed her first film, Wedding Night, which premiered at Tribeca Cinemas in New York City with a sold-out screening. She is a performance artist, using American Sign Language, poetry, music, dance, mime, with strong elements from her Indian culture & Islamic faith, creating a new form of performance for all audiences to enjoy. She recently wrote and published her first book called Urdustan, a collection of short stories.
JESSIE ZHANG is an undergraduate at the University of Washington. She is passionate about Deaf culture/community, poignant narratives in media, and the intersection between art and technology. If she could be any animal, she would be a bunny.