Tom Sykes: Your new one-woman show Me, My Mom and Sharmila is partly inspired by the Bollywood actress Sharmila Tagore. What do you admire about Tagore?
Fawzia Mirza: Firstly, she is from the same era as my mother, so my mother’s look, style of dress and the way she does her hair resembles Tagore back in her heyday of the 1960s and ’70s. Secondly, a there was a song that I heard a lot growing up called ‘Queen of My Dreams’ from the film Aradhana (Adoration). It was a huge hit in 1969 and won the Indian equivalent of the Oscar. While driving through the Kashmiri mountains, her co-star Rajesh Khanna sings this song about the love of his life. It’s so iconic for me and influenced my ideas about romance, love, womanhood and what I felt love should and could be. My play is based on the shared love my mother and I have for this Indian film heroine and I use Tagore as a way of exploring my relationship with my mother, my background and my identity.
TS: Was writing and performing Me, My Mom and Sharmila a different challenge to the other kinds of work you’ve done?
Everything I write is based on a personal experience or on my own political outlook. I write stories I want that I feel are lacking in the mainstream media.
FM: The play was unique because the character’s name is Fawzia and it’s very personal; there’s a lot of real-life stuff in there taken from my own upbringing. The challenge was how to write about my relationship with my mum, which is always evolving, always changing. It can be emotional because sometimes you don’t want to deal with certain issues or revisit events in the past.
TS: What did your mother make of the play?
FM: Even though we love and support each other very much, my work is not something I share with her. That issue’s still evolving too and who knows whether the situation will be different in a year. She’s never seen the show. There are parts of it she would enjoy and other parts she’d find difficult, I think.
TS: You’re probably best known for your web series Kam Kardashian. How much of you is in the main character?
I wanted to create a strong queer woman who challenged the idea of the model minority that you see so much in the mainstream. You know, if you’re gay you have to be rich or funny. If you’re South Asian you can’t be angry. If you’re lesbian you have to have long hair. I didn’t want Kam to fit these moulds.
FM: What’s fun about her is that I get to explore parts of myself and not be apologetic about any of it. She’s gruff, she loves to drink, she gets herself into predicaments. But she’s loveable too. In the series I’m not constantly talking about being gay or brown-skinned, I just am. I don’t have to explain anyone why you are drinking whisky neat – it’s just part of the character. Do I like to drink neat whisky in real life? Yes I do.
TS: The response to Kam has generally been positive. Have you had any criticisms?
FM: Most of the criticisms have been about the Kardashians, from people who hate anything connected to them. The idea behind the show is that Kam is a sort of long-lost lesbian sister to that family. Other viewers think it’s real funny, just as if it turned out that Margaret Thatcher or the Clintons had this secret sibling who was gay!
TS: You’ve also acted in more traditional TV shows like Chicago Fire. How does working on a bigger production like that differ from the web series you’ve done?
FM: Chicago Fire is such a large-scale production and event. There are fire trucks and cars exploding and special FX and jigs and dollies. Everyone’s role is very important, but you are just one small part of a big system. It’s wonderful and I hope to do more, but I love making my own work with my friend and collaborator Ryan Logan. I call him my “Platonic life husband”! We co-wrote Kam and he directed and edited it. There’s something so organic about being there from start to finish – from having the idea to the creation process to production to post-production to the editing phase.
TS: Do you think LGBTs have come to be more accepted within the South Asian community in the US?
FM: I think the phrase “coming out” is problematic. Growing up in an immigrant family that has conservative religious and cultural traditions makes coming out a much more layered, nuanced and difficult process. For example, I remember dating someone who told me that I just needed to tell my mum I was a lesbian. I said that it really wasn’t that easy! When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to date or go to dances or proms. You can’t drink in our family house and nor can you wear certain kinds of clothing. Am I supposed to suddenly say, ‘Hey mum, I know you didn’t allow me to date guys when I was younger, but now I’m having sex with women’? It’s quite a leap. I’m still at the stage where it would be tough enough to tell her that I like a drink or that I don’t really agree with her religious views, much less come out to her.
I look at LGBTs in Africa and Asia and our struggles are different. I’m privileged to live in a country where, regardless of my family dynamic, I can live in a city where I can feel comfortable walking down the street holding hands with whomever I want. It makes all the difference that I belong to the Indian diaspora in the US as opposed to living in India and trying to love a woman there. I can empathise with people in that situation, but their fight is not the same as mine.