Hana Shafi (Interview)

Words by Tania Peralta.

There are over five million posts on Instagram tagged with #healing and #wellness hashtags. Often it looks like a few pretty words over an image of a sunrise you’d love to wake up to. Or, it’s a colorful vegan breakfast with ingredients you’d have to spend two of your pay checks to afford. Not often enough does it resemble the dreaded morning of a relapse and the sinking feeling of having to start your healing process all over again. Hana Shafi, an Indo-Persian Canadian illustrator and writer from Toronto, is changing that one positive affirmation at a time. By pairing soft colors with the raw and ugly truths of the push and pull that happens while healing, she helps create an alternative space for daily messages of wellness. She provides a voice that speaks especially for women of color recovering from various traumas.

TANIA PERALTA: How do you pick the messages in your series, Positive Affirmations?
HANA SHAFI: I have to reflect a lot on the reminders I need to hear based on what I’m going through at the time but I also think a lot about the things that I don’t need to hear. My issue with a lot of positive rhetoric and wellness talk online is that a lot of it is inaccessible. It sort of encourages this enormous growth without actually understanding and accepting that you’re going to relapse, you’re going to slip, and you’re going to feel like shit.

Your work features the darker yet inevitable components of healing that we often try to ignore for the sake of being positive. Why did you start sharing this alternate perspective?
I really stray from that positive rhetoric of “smile be happy and don’t let other people’s mean words hurt you.” That’s all easier said than done. I’ve been told those things before and not only has it not helped, but it has made things worse. It’d end up filling me [up] with shame, rage, frustration, and hatred. It made me feel negative emotions towards that person.

One thing that I wanted to do with my art, because I have personally experienced those things, is express that it’s okay if you’re crying, it’s okay if you feel bad right now, it’s okay if your trauma hurts you.

Illustration by Hana Shafi.
Illustration by Hana Shafi.

For example, [there’s] a piece I did that says “I respect your sadness. I respect your anger.” I wish people had said that to me because I’ve had situations where I’ve been angry and people want to say, “don’t let it get to you, just ignore them. Oh, it’s not a big deal. You can’t be so sensitive.” That kind of talk really invalidates people and it comes from a place of privilege. I’m very critical about this particular rhetoric and that’s why I’m taking my art in a different direction. I want to have things that say, “it’s fine. Sometimes things are bringing you down and that’s inevitable. There’s no perfect recovery. There’s no perfect healing story. It’s an up and down thing. It will be an up and down thing your whole life. You just get better and better at coping and understanding why you may slip sometimes.”

Your past work has a harsher feel to it than the affirmations, but they still carry a trace of those raw images. How did you find this perfect balance between soft and harsh?
The first row of pieces of affirmation I made was just a few drawings for the trending #webelievesurvivors hashtag. It was going around sort of in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi case, so I made those. It was very far stretched from what I usually draw. I had never really drawn things that were so soft and soothing, usually the things that I draw are a little bit more harsh. I still value [and] create that [type] of art, but when I made those few #webelievesurvivor pieces, the reaction that I got from people was really interesting. They were connecting with it in a raw and vulnerable way, and it made me realize that you can make art that gets this intense emotional reaction from people; it serves as healing for yourself and for others, so that encouraged me to make more like that. After the one piece went viral, it was really surreal to see how big it had got, but it also reminded me that people do need to hear this, it resonates with them a lot, and I need to hear this too. Healing is not a linear piece.

Illustration by Hana Shafi.
Illustration by Hana Shafi.

Your artwork illustrates and gives a voice to an audience that is often forgotten in other online health and wellness narratives.
A lot of positivity artwork is very much centered around white [people], and you can tell because it’s some vegan cookie recipe and suggestions [of] traveling more. And yeah, those things are great. It’s great to eat well. It’s great to travel; that’s all wonderful, but you know those are very exclusive experiences and not everyone can do that. I can’t find myself through a trip and make a Spirulina smoothie every morning. How is that accessible to a large chunk of people? How is that accessible to women of color that have mental health challenges every single day, just by the micro-aggression they get from morning to night? How is that accessible to people with mental illness who are unable to leave bed in the morning or who struggle to just even take a shower? You know? How is that accessible to a large majority of generation Y that doesn’t have money, that can’t get a good job, that’s underpaid, stressed, anxious, and in debt? If what you are creating about wellness is only accessible to this exclusive privileged group, then what you’re making is bullshit. If it’s not accessible, then it is simply not helpful.

I wanted to make art work that resonates with women of color because I am a woman of color, and I have these unique struggles that are not being addressed on social media.

For women of color, it can get hard to stay on track with our own wellness and healing when we go back into cultural settings. How do you deal with facing these moments?

Illustration by Hana Shafi.
Illustration by Hana Shafi.

It’s definitely a challenge for women like us, who are immigrants to the country or children of immigrants. We come from communities that have a complicated relationship with wellness and healing because they tend to depict those things as inherently Western. When talking about mental illness and engaging in healing artwork, they feel that these ideas are foreign to us. The truth is that they are not. Our cultures and communities have a lot of history with healing but they have been erased and displaced because of colonization, poverty, conflict, and war, and for several reasons. In my community, a lot of healing has been erased because of the geopolitical tensions that exist where I come from.

Our cultures and communities have a lot of history with healing but they have been erased and displaced because of colonization, poverty, conflict, and war.

Some elders in my community seem to have a dated [sense] about these ideas of healing and think that they’re foreign to us. I’m trying to insist they’re not, they are part of us too. We need to value those things because we need that healing even more. They may see healing as a Western thing, but a privileged, upper middle class white Western woman is not going to have as much of a strong relationship to healing as a woman who has left a country that has been ravaged by war and is now in a society where she is seen as lesser and is struggling against an institution. That woman needs wellness and healing. She needs her words to be celebrated more than anyone else.

I definitely feel like I’m caught in between two worlds. I try my best to make my art relevant to women of color and to infuse bits of my culture so that they don’t feel like healing is alien to them. Our communities need to heal, our communities need to learn about wellness. There are way too many people in our communities who are silent about mental illness because it’s stigmatized. There are way too many people in our communities who are silent about trauma because our communities are not talking about the misogyny and the violence that happens among us. I really want to encourage people from my background to talk about it because if we don’t, we are hurting ourselves.

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