She writes plays, directs and acts in comedy mime skits, moshes in punk pits and reads lips. Sabina England is a 20-something Midwest girl that fits no typecast. I stumbled across Sabina on twitter as the @DeafMuslim when all Taqwacore scenesters would retweet her plays and videos. I was already curious about the Deaf Desi community since meeting a few in DC, but was even more intrigued after checking out her site, her comedy skits and reading the stories and plays on her blog. How could I not be? I sat down (virtually) for a fascinating interview where she talks about acting as Helen Keller in a high school play, to having a Mohawk and wearing hijab, to prejudices against the deaf community by fellow Desis.
You have written a few plays, with some relatively controversial content. How do people react to your plays?
It varies. No matter what Muslims do, every time a Muslim makes a film or writes a play or whatever about Pakistanis or Indians or w/e who aren’t “typical” they still get hate about it. It makes me so mad. Some Muslims ask me why do I write about “Muslim whores” and I’m like, why the fuck not? They exist. My sister hates my plays and always complains why am I “weird” and why can’t I write “normal” plays. Some feminists are offended by my plays, but I get mostly great feedback from women about my plays because I tend to write strong, interesting female characters.
I don’t have any of my plays on videos; my videos are just comedy sketches. They’re very different from my plays, my plays are very dark; I call them “tragicomedies”. I had a play run in London on late September to early October for 3 weeks. The next project I have, my play (the same play, called How the Rapist was Born) will be staged at East 15 in England on May 2010 with a different director and cast. I am trying to get my plays produced in NYC, but the truth is NYC’s theater scene isn’t as vibrant as London so I’ve had my eyes and heart set on London for a long time. Recently I read an article some weeks ago, a lot of critics and journalists have declared that this is The Golden Age of British theater right now in London. I want to be part of it. Did you live in England?
Yes, I spent my childhood in England, but spent my teenage years in the States and went to high school in the Midwest, so I had a British childhood, but then I became American.
I feel like plays have an audio element that as a deaf person it would be hard to grapple with and in a play, deaf people would not be able to hear dialogue. How did you get involved with plays?
I had always been a very lonely person since I was a child. I had gone to deaf schools as a youth and these were some of my happiest times – I had friends and I had a great blast. But after I turned 13, a deaf school decided that I was “ready” to go into a mainstream hearing public school so I graduated from the deaf school and went onto a hearing public junior high school. It was HELL. ‘Being ready’ means that I’d become good at reading lips, I had great reading and writing skills.
I was lonely and alienated as hell. A drama teacher took notice of me. She took me under her wing and encouraged me to enroll in her drama class. She opened me up and introduced me to many plays. The following year in 8th grade, I won the leading role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker a play by William Gibson. I really connected to Helen Keller, her life story was so touching and inspiring.
Ever since then I’ve been in love with theater. But it was all attributed to the fact that I had always loved old films and vaudeville shows and circus shows as a kid so I was naturally attracted to theater.
Now that you are older and writing your own plays, do you find yourself writing for the deaf community?
I really would like to write a play for the deaf community but I don’t know what, when, or how. I’m not even sure if any of my plays could be performed in sign language because the dialogue is so heavy on language – you have to say it out loud, you can’t sign it. I read a lot of books and plays and watched so many films as a child and teenager, so I was heavily influenced by language, dialogue, and words.
Don’t deaf people dialogue too or do they communicate the heavy topics differently?
Well, sign language and dialogue (as in spoken word) are two very different things. My plays, such as How the Rapist was Born, or A Black Whore A Jewish Philosopher and a Muslim Terrorist, won’t be good in sign language because both plays have a strong emphasis on dialogue, repeated words, and chants that are very theatrical. I’d have to write a totally different play that could be performed in sign language, without emphasis on the language (and wording) of the dialogue.
Totally. So let’s talk about another community – the punk one. I kinda want to ask what your favorite punk band was growing up but not sure if that’s appropriate…
I loved The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and X Ray Spex. I listened to music with my hearing aids, but I was more attracted to the lyrics, to the visual elements of punk culture and the punk politics and gender issues along with it. I can hear music okay, but I can’t really make out the words. For other punks, they were in it for the music. Not me. For me, going to shows, it’s more about socializing and being with my friends and meeting other people, having a good time and bonding. it’s not really about the music for me at all, you know?
I was always a feminist, and I think being a feminist pushed me into punk rock at an early age. I liked the anger and the “fuck you” attitude of punk rock. I loved the independence and fierce attitude of punk females like punk vocalists in all male bands.
Right…who were you favorite female punks?
I was never a girly girl and I never liked girly girls at all. Poly Styrene from X Ray Spex and Siouxsie and Beki Bondage. I was also in love with strong female characters in films, like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 Judgment Day. I admired females in Hollywood such as Lucille Ball, who is still one of my biggest inspirations.
So did you have a lot of punk friends in England or the midwest?
I got into punk rock when I lived in the Midwest. But as a child in England in the 80s and early 90s I had seen some punks around in London and other cities, and their style always attracted me. I knew it was something I wanted to be part of it.
And the Mohawk, when did that happen?
I had a Mohawk for 2 years, it wasn’t too long ago, about 3 years ago. It was cool, I’m gonna grow my hair long again so I can shave my sides and have a Mohawk again. It was so weird, though, I always got different reactions and treatments from people. So in a way, having a Mohawk taught me about people. I had hot pink hair once and my father was furious, he wouldn’t speak to me for 3 weeks. I told him to get over it. I can’t stand that patronizing bullshit from parents, especially Desi or Muslims. They are making judgmental remarks about people who dye their hair or get tattoos or wear revealing clothes. What the fuck does it matter to them? It’s their lives and their bodies, it doesn’t hurt anyone else.
I also used to wear hijab, too, you know. For about 3 years in the late 90s to early 2000s.
Well one day, I had a wake-up call from a goth girl who was sitting next to me. She was the only one in the entire college who was nice to me, while everyone else were extremely nasty toward me. I stared at her hair and her outfit and then I thought to myself, “what the fuck happened to me? I used to be a punk and now I’ve become this?” and then I realized how wearing the hijab is such an artificial thing to do. I don’t want to piss off any hijabis here. But I truly felt that wearing the hijab was a slap in the face for women’s individuality and their bodies. Someone once said that wearing hijab is saying “YES, we women are sex objects, so we HAVE to cover ourselves to protect ourselves from men’s lustful glances!”and when I sat next to the goth girl I thought about how some Muslims would call her a “whore” because she was wearing a short skirt. But she was such a nice girl. And I felt dirty. I felt like a hypocrite. I still wore hijab for 1 more year after that goth girl incident and then I took it off.
Was it liberating to take off your hijab?
Actually, yes. When I wore the hijab, sometimes I was under the pressure to be a saint-like a proper Muslim who had to be polite and be on her best behavior all the time. Some people said that we hijabis were REPRESENTING Muslims and we had to be on our best behavior. That was a lot of pressure. When I took it off, I no longer felt that way. When I wore hijab, whenever I’d cuss or make sex jokes or whatever, people were shocked and looked confused. They would say, “Why are you talking this way? I thought you’re a good girl.” I hate that shit. Hijabis should be allowed to cuss and talk about sex and watch porn if they want to. They shouldn’t have to be saints for everyone else while they all go get drunk and have sex! Hijabis are humans, too.
How was your family through all this?
I guess it’s weird in my family. I never really felt belonged in my family at all. I was the black sheep and I still feel like the black sheep. My parents wanted the best for me, so they put me in a Deaf school at a very young age, because my dad was determined that I don’t become “deaf and dumb” like a doctor in England said I would be when they first found out I was Deaf. I am definitely grateful to my parents for putting me in Deaf schools and demanding the best from me, but all the same, I don’t feel belonged at all.
They never learned sign language? How did you communicate with your family?
No, my parents don’t know any sign languages. It’s frustrating. It doesn’t bother me, but I feel more at home with Deaf people than with my own family. My sister knows the ABCs of ASL so sometimes she’d finger spell for me. I read lips so I read my parents’ lips. I read everyone’s lips.
But wow… as a little kid? That must have been tough.
Yeah, I guess so. I never really thought about it. I was angrier about being alienated by Desi people and by Muslims. At least my parents were trying to deal with me as a kid, while Desi and Muslims shunned me or they treated me badly. Desi people, whether Muslim or Hindu, always treated me like I was a retard. They would stare at me. THAT kind of stare. With Muslims, it was the same thing, whether they were Desi, Arab, Black, or whatever. The first time I remember being treated kindly by Muslims, were white Irish Muslim converts who used to be Catholic. They actually taught me to read Arabic.
And then you mentioned when you would go to India it was more of the same too…
Yeah. My mother explained to me that Deafness (along with other disabilities) were seen as curses, afflictions, or whatever, in some circles in Indian society. But my relatives in India, they were always so kind and loving toward me. But these days, it is changing. I hear that access for Deaf people in India is much better. Probably because Indian society is experiencing a huge economic boom.
So there’s no particular internet community for Deaf Desis?
I was friends with a Deaf Indian Hindu student at college, but we didn’t talk much because she was a college senior when I was a freshman. I never really got to know her well. I really don’t know. I do talk to some Deaf people online but it’s just a large Deaf community online. The Deaf world is VERY wired.
To read the rest of the interview, check out the full interview over at the Taqwacore Webzine. To follow Sabina’s work, check out her YouTube channel for her comedy mime sketches and her blog for screenplays and stories. If in the UK in May, you can check out her play at East 15. And of course, follow her tweets at www.twitter.com/DeafMuslim.