My grandmother “was kind of a bad-ass”

I gave two of my blankets to Mosley – both soft microfleece throw blankets I used to curl up with on the couch and were covered with my scent, so our new puppy instantly fell in love with them.

They smell like dog now, and sport multiple holes where Mosley chewed them, determined to make the hand-me-downs his own. It sent me on the hunt for other blankets we might have in the house and I remembered putting a pile of stuff up on the top shelf of the closet in the guest room when we moved.

I have a guest room.

It’s a luxury I can only credit to Quebec City’s low cost of living. I never thought I’d have a guest room. When we first moved in, I decorated it with artwork I’d mostly collected in Saskatchewan, a few oil paintings my father-in-law created of the Quebec countryside and a pile of books from some of my favourite Saskatchewan authors, like Lynn Armstrong and Zarqa Nawaz.

“My grandma passed away a couple of years ago and apart from the fact I miss her a lot, I’m having more and more difficulty remembering her.

Listen to my conversation with artist Shazlin Rahman on the art project she’s created in honour of her grandmother. 

I spent a lot of time on that room so I was surprised to find, when I searched that top shelf among the spare sheets and the girls’ old comforters, my grandmother’s afghan.

She knit it for me while I was in university. I remember being particular about picking out the right shade of cream wool and had to go to several stores to find enough. In my apartment in Saskatchewan, I had it on my bed all winter in case of cold nights. I thought I must have left it there when I moved to Quebec City a year and half ago.

I took the afghan down to our couch and curled up in it beside the electric fireplace, smelling it – hoping it would maybe still smell like her. It didn’t, but it reminded me of her nevertheless.

Photo Courtesy: Shazlin Rahman.
Rahman’s grandmother in one of her many colourful sarongs in her home in Malaysia before her death.

A few days after I arrived in Ghana, my mom’s mom passed away. I had spent two full days travelling, my first major voyage; I was 21 and I was panicky to call home. The wait at the store for a Ghana SIM card was unbearable.

When I finally got one and called home to Canada, the sound was tinny, but surprisingly clear. I thought there was something strange in the way my dad answered the phone. He didn’t talk long and then passed me to my mom. I could hear in her voice that she’d been crying and I knew.

My gramma had been sick for months. When I left she was healing from surgery and the doctors were optimistic. But several days later, things took a downturn. My mom told me they were having the funeral in a few days – even if I could have gotten a flight right then, I wouldn’t make it back in time.

I went to my hotel room that I was sharing with another Canadian journalist, Shazlin Rahman. She was just about to do afternoon prayers next to the bed. I fished my rosary out of my suitcase and sat cross-legged on the bed. I wasn’t in mourning yet; I was still trying to make sense of the news I’d just heard and the fact I would not be able to go home to be with my family.

Artist Shazlin Rahman

I wasn’t close enough to anyone there to even tell them what happened, but in the humid hotel room with a light breeze coming in from the open window, my roommate and I both faced Mecca and mumbled our own prayers in our own languages. Her quiet presence comforted me – I didn’t feel alone so far away from home.

Five years later, Shazlin and I have lost touch, except for social media, which is how I learned her grandmother passed away. Shazlin had started an amazing art project in honour of her.

“My grandma passed away a couple of years ago and apart from the fact I miss her a lot, I’m having more and more difficulty remembering her because I’m in an environment in Canada where I don’t get a lot of reinforcements to my memory. If I were back home, different things that are part of my culture, part of her life, and part of my upbringing would always help me remember (her).”

Things like the traditional food her grandmother would make, or speaking her native dialect of Malay. She barely speaks it in Canada at all, even with her mother.

And then, there are the sarongs her grandmother left behind, 12 long pieces of material, decorated in bright, colourful patterns.

“I landed on those sarongs because it’s such a quintessential piece of clothing in my culture.”

Before she started using them as inspiration for her art, Shazlin says she used to just take them out and look at them.”

Just like me with my grandmother’s afghan, Shazlin said they would stir up “this vivid memory” of sitting with her at night, where she would take out her sarongs and talk about them, and the family members who bought her each one. She’d let her old the ones that had gotten soft from being worn so often.

“Their kind of like a document or record (of her)”

That’s how Shazlin got the idea to make abstract art based on the patterns and vibrant colours of the sarongs. She says it’s a also a meditative process. The result is Hersarong that also includes short stories.

To me it’s an act of preservation.

“The other thing is as a woman of colour, a Muslim woman, an immigrant” (she’s been here 10 years), “I’ve faced specific challenges and I find myself turning inwards, trying to find other sources of strength and inspiration as to how I could face those challenges. And I find myself turning more and more to my grandmother.”

It’s an ongoing investigation. Most of what she knows about her grandmother’s life she learnt from her mom and two aunts only recently. She knows her grandmother grew up in poverty in Malaysia. Neither she nor her husband ever learned to read or right, but they still managed to educate all three of  their daughters, in a time when girls didn’t usually make it past primary school.

Shazlin also knows she lived through the Japanese invasion of Malaysia: “It was really short but really brutal” – and she calls her grandmother a “bad-ass.”

Like her grandmother, he project goes against the grain in many ways. There’s a stereotype, she says, that Muslim women are forced to cover themselves “and forced to wear drab colours.”

“If you google ‘Muslim women’ or ‘Muslim women covered’ you will find a lot of women covered head to toe in black, even though that’s not really the norm for Muslim women,” she says.

For the record, I did. Here are the results:

It’s a stark contrast to Shazlin’s colourful drawings.

“This started as a really personal project; I just wanted to remember my grandmother; I wanted to do something that would cement her memory in me. But as I started sharing some of the things that I’ve done…I’m getting positive feedback from people and I can see that it resonates with people.”

She added, “I’ve been stuck at different moments in my life, and looking back at where my roots are and where my grandmother came from, and her resilience has really helped me move through those difficult moments.

“I can say this as a woman of colour – certain narratives tend to be attached to very specific groups of people, where narratives of resilience, and love and ingenuity is actually universal to all groups of people, women of all colours, women of all different backgrounds.”

Shazlin explains the process of how she makes the art in our conversation here. She wants to make art that promotes making art in our daily lives.

They’re not only historical artifacts. They’re pieces of art that you carry with you.

“If you look at old architecture, you know, the whole house is a piece of art. If you look at the bannister, the gables, it’s all carved with different carvings. So the art is not just something you put up on the wall, or something that you put on a table to admire it – art has function, it’s something that you interact with.

“In general, my appreciation for art is to be functional and for it to be part of our daily lives.”

“Like your grandmother’s sarongs,” I add at the end of our conversation.

“Yeah, yes, absolutely, you’re totally right. I see these sarongs as artwork,” she says. “They’re not only historical artifacts. They’re pieces of art that you carry with you.”

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