Queer Coded: Interview with Kimia Eslah

Today marks the date of our first Queer Coded interview! We’re thrilled we got the chance to talk with Kimia Eslah, author of Sister Seen, Sister Heard (Roseway Publishing), about how queerness is reflective in her writing process and how representing forms of systemic discrimination is important to her. 


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Interview with Kimia Eslah 

ALU: How is your queer identity reflective in your writing process? Does it influence the development of the characters?Kimia Eslah: About the same time I began to identify as queer–during my adolescence–I also started writing for a public audience. Belligerent and naïve, I wasn’t fussy about readership. In Muff Divers, my indie queer zine, I published my ideas and experiences without stripping my identity of its layers. I learned to write to please myself and to recognize when I was unmoored and writing for others. By the time I began to write novels, I had developed a keen understanding of my self-identity. How I saw myself was central to how I interacted with others and how I lived my life; I wanted that degree of realism for every character I developed. In Sister Seen, Sister Heard, each of the four main characters–mother, father, and two daughters–is confronted with a violent assault on their loved one. While their emotional responses are predictable–grief, fear, anger, despair–the psychological machinations that generate these emotions are variable, dependant on identity and self-identity. This is how I have learned to avoid reproducing stereotypes, avoid stripping layers from identities, and avoid writing for anyone but myself.ALU: Forms of systemic discrimination are represented in your writing, why is it important to you to include this?Kimia Eslah: Like climate change and other social problems, systemic discrimination prevails when we disregard its existence and discount its impact on humanity. In darkness and silence, it prospers. Only the light of truth and reconciliation can diminish its magnitude and deliver justice to its victims. I have dedicated myself to shedding light on systemic discrimination because I feel suffocated by its weight and I have the privilege to advocate without jeopardizing my quality of life. Every day, I witness the injustices inflicted by systems founded on white supremacist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and ableist beliefs. It takes the form of police brutality, human trafficking, sexual assault, food insecurity, social isolation, the criminalization of mental illness and drug use, and the persistent overrepresentation of white, cisgendered and heterosexual men in positions of power. What can I do? I write. In Sister Seen, Sister Heard, I presented systemic discrimination that sanctions violence against women. In my upcoming novel, Enough, I describe systemic discrimination as experienced by racialized and queer women in the corporate workplace. Like my other work, it does not hold back punches. In every novel, essay, and interview, I call out the oppressors and their tactics. I remind my audience about the unethical underpinnings of our society, the same systems that disparage and discriminate against our children–those racialized, Indigenous, queer, trans, female and/or living with a disability. I speak up because I can.ALU: In Sister Seen, Sister Heard, Farah knows things about her sister Farzana that their parents don’t but is held to a standard to be like Farzana. What can be said about the struggle of grappling with multiple cultures and identities at once?Kimia Eslah: Discussions about culture and identity have piqued my interest from a young age. For generations, every member of my family was born in Iran but each person self-identified with stereotypes about their hometown. Born in Shiraz? You were demure and refined. Born in Tehran? You were modern and chic. When we immigrated to Canada, the criteria for comparison changed: we were all from Iran but some of us were more Iranian. The youngest, who acclimatized quickly to Canadian customs, were considered less Iranian. Decades passed and waves of immigration resulted in a complex social stratification of Iranian culture and individual identity. According to their own criteria, the eldest members of my family are no longer the most Iranian, since young newcomers possess a better understanding of present-day life in Iran. In fact, many of my eldest relatives know more about what’s happening in Ottawa than they know about health care or education in Iran. That’s life. Culture and identity are evolving reflections of our knowledge and experiences, past and present. And, none of us exists apart from culture and identity, including white settler Canadians. While the characters in my novels are typically people of colour and I explore the friction between cultures and identities, these topics are not unique to racialized people, queer people, or immigrants. Presently, white settlers are receiving an education on white culture; a campaign that also seeks to increase awareness of othering tactics that relegate culture and identity to the realm of racialized people. In Sister Seen, Sister Heard, the two sisters are immigrant women of colour; they are also young adults exploring their independence. They grapple with shifting identities–dependent to independent, girl to woman–and shifting cultures–suburban living to downtown life, working jobs to pursuing careers. There was never an intention to imply a clash of East-West cultures.ALU: Is there anything you would like readers to take away from Sister Seen, Sister Heard?Kimia Eslah: Sister Seen, Sister Heard explores the relationship between patriarchy, violence, and trauma as one family struggles to help their youngest member following a violent attack. My favourite character is the father, Mustafa. He is lovable and infuriating at the same time. He represents all the men in my life who have worked diligently to be good citizens, good spouses, good fathers, and good friends. They were also debilitated by patriarchy; stunted by toxic masculinity that limited their display of emotions, shamed their need to nurture, and denied their right to be afraid and uncertain. Mustafa wants to help his daughter but he doesn’t know how. This novel is intended for every person who wants to do better by victims of violence.

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Kimia Eslah is a feminist, queer writer who lives in Ontario, Canada. Born in Iran following its revolution, Kimia spent her early years as a refugee in New Delhi, India, before emigrating to Toronto with her parents and three siblings. Her formative years were spent downtown, in the valley and on the sidewalks, where she played pool, read classics and took up other bad habits. Later, Kimia found her calling as an instructional designer, producing training programs and course materials in various sectors. She dedicated her thirties to raising her son and community building. Today, she spends her days writing and thinking about writing. Kimia lives with the love of her life, Andrew, her son and their three cats.