It began as a project for MTVDesi in 2013: comedienne Radhika Vaz and writer/performer Nadia Manzoor debuted the humorous musings of two hijabi Brooklyn implants, Shagufta and Fatima, in a show called “Shugs & Fats.” The project is now a web-based series highlighting their “quest to reconcile their long held cultural beliefs with a new life in ‘liberated’ Brooklyn:”
You’ve probably seen Radhika and Nadia’s alter egos pop up on your Facebook feed: two South Asian abaya adorned women humorously working out in a gym, or stumbling on a mail order vibrator, interrogating people’s definition of feminism, or reverse cat calling in Central Park. The series is comedic and political, offering satirical and humorous insights into issues facing South Asian women – and Muslim women, in general – through a creative forum normally dominated by men.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS): How did Shugs & Fats evolve into an MTVDesi feature and then into a YouTube channel?
Nadia Manzoor (NM): My comedic partner, Radhika [Vaz], and I pitched the idea to MTVDesi after laughing about it a lot, and they loved it! Those first few episodes were us just playing around with the characters, figuring out who they were and what made them engaging. After some consideration, we decided we wanted to fully create the world of Shugs & Fats. We decided to independently produce the first season. Then we did what everyone with content tries to do — put it on YouTube and get as many eyeballs on it as possible!
DKS: In your one woman play, BurqOff!, you highlight the challenges of being in-between two cultures. How much of personal and identity politics encouraged your move towards writing and performance?
NM: A great part of my creative process comes from my own need for storytelling, my own need to find myself through the sharing of my own internal conflicts and questions. I started writing when I was pretty young to try and reconcile my understanding of Eastern and Western value systems. Or, as I saw it at the time, to better understand why none of my friends at school seemed to care about the rules set out for me my by family in my home. It didn’t make sense. And so I tried to figure that out on the page. That process has definitely evolved for me personally. I write to understand myself and hopefully me putting my cognitive dissonance out there is an entry point into the conversation for others.
DKS: What is the process like when you and Radhika Vaz write an episode? How do you determine the topic? How much of the sketches are improvised?
NM: We essentially start with the ideas that make us laugh… brainstorm a bunch of scenarios, turn them into outlines and then share these ideas with friends and creative thinkers to get feedback. Once we feel we’ve explored the possibility of various arcs for each scene, we start hammering out dialogue. Sometimes, we improvise in the writing process in order to get a feel for how the character might say something. And then we leave space for new changes and improvisation within the script, so that the characters can still have the freedom to craft the scene.
DKS: What audience did you have in mind for Shugs and Fats?
NM: After a recent performance of Burq Off!, two twenty-five-year-olds Pakistani Canadian women told me that they considered Shugs & Fats role models because there is no mainstream media in which women are portrayed in this way. I think young South Asian women are the target audience because it speaks to their lives and their questions, in particular.
DKS: Are you receiving positive feedback?
NM: The response has been largely positive. We’re getting some great comments on the videos…people telling us it’s the best thing on YouTube. Obviously that’s not representative of every opinion, but for the most part people are excited because it’s not something they’ve seen before, and it’s funny! Of course there’s the occasional offended viewer, but then again, most good comedy offends someone.
DKS: There seems to be an emerging critical mass of Muslim cultural creatives, both in the West and the Muslim world, producing innovative work that speaks to a global audience. But, there aren’t mechanisms in place to globally market these voices. What can be done to engage what is a huge, seemingly untapped, global Muslim audience?
NM: That is a question we’re asking all the time. Every time we bring Burq Off! to a new venue and city, we research and reach out to as many Muslim and South Asian arts and community organizations as we can. I think the best way to grow awareness is through collaborating with other artists. Finding media partners has been really successful for Radhika in India, but it’s definitely a challenge.
DKS: What are some challenges in developing Shugs & Fats characters? Are there any topics you feel the series isn’t ready for just yet?
NM: We spoke a lot about cultural appropriation and mis-appropriation in the creation and development of the characters. Is it OK to play women in hijab even thought neither of us wear hijab in our day to day? To what extent are we opening the space for dialogue vs. polarizing? We want to be conscious of these things, always. But figuring out where the boundary is, and how we want to push it is an ever-evolving process.
DKS: It seems like you’ve probably had to fight your way through multiple barriers to find that authentic space as a writer and performer. What were some of the challenges? What advice do you have for Muslim artists?
NM: One of the greatest challenges had been believing that what I have to say is valuable –that people want to hear it, and can learn and grow from it. It took me a long time to understand that. And of course, there’s the challenge of finding the time to allow for the creative process to happen. My advice for all, artists and non-artists, Muslims and non-Muslims, is to trust your story, take the time to find it, and to tell it, regardless of whether or not you’ve ‘figured it out.’ We have this idea that we have to have all the answers before sharing ourselves, but we never have all the answers and it’s important to tell our stories–conflict, confusion and all.
DKS: Your father, in particularly, has turned out to be supportive and attended some of your Burq Off! performances. What is your family’s reaction to Shugs & Fats?
NM: My father loves it, and has become my biggest fan and supports all my endeavors. I’m so thankful for that. Other members of my family love it and send me messages telling me which episode is their favorite. Some people haven’t understood why I’m doing it, and haven’t been as supportive, but it’s all part if it!
DKS: So…what is your favorite: tiramisu or gulab jamun?
NM: I will never say no to some warm gulab jamun and a cup of chai!
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a writer, ghost hunter, and digital storyteller. She is the author of Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts and Hauntings, Spooks and Spirits (Llewellyn 2011). Her work has appeared in the New York Times featured anthology, Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. She is also the producer of A Little Podcast, an audio series highlighting intersections between story, personalities, and community.