“Darling, you feel heavy because you’re too full of truth. Open your mouth more. Let your truths exist somewhere other than inside your body.”
—Della Hicks Wilson
Inside the organic food store, the musty scent of ground cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin comforted me. It smelled like home. The owner of the shop locked the front door and placed a dilapidated sign in the window: “Back in five minutes.” Leaning over my mother as she sat on a wooden stool, he said he wanted to try something.
I remember him gently rubbing her shoulders, telling my mother to scream the toxins out. Get it out, Farideh. Aren’t you mad you have tongue cancer?
My mother opened her mouth. No sound came out.
It was 2015, and I had taken a leave from hosting my radio show, in Vancouver, to fly back to Toronto and drive my mother to various appointments after her cancer had been diagnosed. Always another appointment, now. When I arrived at Pearson airport, I discovered she was wearing an oversized fuchsia blouse and black tights in my size, around a four. She was previously a size twelve. At this point, she could no longer chew or really speak. We had turned to texting and coarse hand gestures to communicate.
Tears rolled down my face. “Mom, please,” I pleaded. “Try, try.” I could feel all the things she wanted to say. Her hands trembled in mine. She tried to scream. A piercing howl suddenly emanated from her mouth, like no other sound I had ever heard before. Like a baby’s wail, but almost primal. I stood behind her, shocked into silence. How could that sound come from her body?
I remembered the words of poet Rita Wong. “Habitual placement of the tongue changes the mouth. When the tongue is still, are you quiet enough to hear the dead? Quiet enough to hear the land stifled beneath massive concrete? Quiet enough to hear the beautiful, poisoned ancestors surfacing from your diaphragm?” All the stories of my ancestors, buried in my mother’s mouth, stories I would never hear again.
For years, I saw my mixed-race self as solid proof of the promise of mending. Now, my body felt torn apart: voice, sound, soul gone fugitive. My mother was a poised, sophisticated Iranian woman. Her skin was light and she was Muslim. My South Asian father was dark skinned and Hindu. These descriptions do nothing to fully capture their characters, of course. But this is what people wanted to know, always want to know. People knew I was something different, exotic—that awful word—they just weren’t sure what. My mother’s presence had always steadied me, provided me with the faith and sanctity to honour my family’s complex and colonial histories. What would I do without her voice?
Early in my career, I worked hard to find a place for myself in white-dominated institutions—both journalistic and academic—all while staying relatively silent. In graduate school, I would grimly tolerate the racist comments of my professors, scrawling my poisoned thoughts about them angrily against the pages of my notebook, scribbling so hard I would break my pencil lead. The number of times I clamped my mouth shut, suppressed a thought—it made me wonder how many aggressions my mother had swallowed all these years. I landed a fellowship, then another. I mastered the art of playing the part of the professional mixed-race girl, diverse enough to be invited to pose with a smile for the university’s glossy promotional materials and transactional enough to count as a useful merit point for the university’s equity, diversity, and inclusion plan. Smile for the camera, sweetheart.
But, in between jobs, my phone rang. A friend had recommended me to host a midmorning radio show at a new commercial station in Vancouver. Would I go for it? I wasn’t sure if I had the courage to take this on. I knew a little about television, having worked in the national television newsroom at the CBC, but not radio. Still, I recorded a rough audition tape and emailed it to my mother, with whom I checked in on just about everything: how much haldi I should stir into warm milk when I had a sore throat; whether this J.Crew shirt goes with those jeans; which dua I should say when I’m feeling particularly low.
“Junam,” she called me. “Junam, what a wonderful job you’ve done. Mashallah.”
I said a small prayer—“Bismillah, al-Rahman, al-Rahim”—and sent in the audition tape.
I got the job.
At first, I sounded stiff. I berated myself for my poor performance. I phoned my mom. “Beti,” she said in her beautiful singsong cadence. “Be patient with yourself. You are so hard on yourself.”
What does patience look like for the racialized body? Minelle, be patient; change takes time. I heard this refrain repeatedly. I’d spent my careers in both academia and journalism being told to stay quiet. Your time will come. But what does patience look like when one is asked to carry that excess freight, that empty excuse, for minutes, hours, years? Let’s not rush to repair, they always say. The mind-numbing refusals from people in power to make real change. Let’s not promote a senior woman of colour. She just needs . . . we’re not sure . . . maybe just a little more experience. It will just take . . . time.
After consulting with some friends of colour and with the help of a strong producer, I slowly gathered a constellation of key columnists with far reaches into their own trusted communities to come and speak on the show as cohosts: a brilliant Tahltan lawyer, a Muslim community activist, an acclaimed Asian-studies professor. They brought on guests of their choice. The trust created a more intimate space for conversations.
I also turned to Toni Morrison for inspiration. She once said that her project is “an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.” She reminded me that I am not here to provide a voice for the voiceless. That is not my job. To do so assumes there is a “they” who don’t have a voice and that “you” do. It assumes individuals do not have agency and sets up a hierarchy between you and them. Arundhati Roy tells us: “We know, of course, there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
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I was elated, terrified, thrilled—I finally felt like I was bridging theory and practice. I called my mom, in Toronto, to tell her how excited I was. It was then that she told me she might have tongue cancer. Just as I was gaining a voice, she was losing hers.
“Salaam Junam,” she said. “I went to see the doctor about a cold sore that isn’t going away . . . . I am sure it’s nothing.” I mimicked her, trying to reassure her, to reassure myself, “I’m sure it’s nothing, Mom.” But I was not convinced. My great-grandmother had died of tongue cancer, and that knowledge hung pregnant in the air, between us, unsaid.
My mother never worried about her health. A yoga buff, nonsmoker, nondrinker for years, she downed a putrid mixture of oregano oil and water at the first sign of a cold and brought an extra helping of her daily steamed organic broccoli for a beloved student at her Montessori school. I was unnerved by her anxiety, struck by it, and I tried not to think about it while I was on the air. But how could I not think about it? At work, I tried to be detached, disconnected, focused—but I still found myself sobbing in the bathroom, hoping like hell that no one would catch me.
A few days later, my boss told me he may cancel my show. He said I sounded too dull and dry. “You’re not performing enough,” he complained. I had been copying the voices I heard on NPR and the CBC. Articulate cleanly, adopt a colonial tone and cadence. Wasn’t that enough?
Briana Barner: “The standard public radio voice is objective, void of distinct cultural identity and discernable accent. It is white. As objectivity is favoured in journalism, our racialized voice can reveal our identity, our heritage, our background. It can connect us with the people where we’re from. This is not often welcomed. The standard voice is a white voice.”
I guess, with a mic in front of me, I wanted to hide my difference by hiding my voice. I had been working so hard at sounding white that, I realize now, I sounded like nobody at all. But what does it mean to sound like yourself when you’re not sure which side of yourself is safe to share on air?
I had no answers, only more questions, but I did try to rely less on my carefully crafted scripts. I attempted to laugh on air. First, it was forced, then it became more natural. I tried to forget the piercing words of a colleague who once told me, late at night when we were furiously working on deadline: You look so funny when you laugh. Your teeth are so crooked. From them on, I covered my mouth when I laughed out loud so nobody would see me.
With these changes, slowly and surprisingly, I started to receive accolades: a community-builder award, a profile in a glossy magazine. I received handwritten letters, on thick manila paper, from authors, telling me how much they appreciated my unusual take on the interview process. I interviewed Colson Whitehead, Ann Patchett. Our numbers climbed a little. But nothing felt like enough. Half my mind was on the interview, the other thinking about my mother. I imagined her sleeping in her bed, her patterned quilt tucked up around her ears, snoring sweetly.
By December 2015, she was getting weaker and weaker. I flew back to Toronto when my mom finally got her coveted specialist appointment, and I drove her to Sunnybrook Hospital’s Edmond Odette Cancer Centre. Maybe you know it—I hope you don’t. We waited to see the oncologist. All around me were mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles, sons, some sporting knitted caps to warm up their balding heads, all of us waiting in ridiculously uncomfortable chairs. I heard a smattering of Farsi, Arabic, and Mandarin around me. My mom, still dressed up beautifully but a shadow of her former self, looked so fragile.
We finally got in to see the oncologist. He seemed hurried, but of course he would be. Seeing him in such a rush, I quickly peppered him with questions, using techniques sharpened from months behind the mic. I was careful to enunciate clearly, to not duplicate questions. What is the prognosis? What is the surgery he recommends? How long will the recovery period be? What should she be eating? Will Ensure provide her with enough nutrients? Enough to keep her . . . alive?
I kept asking questions and kept scribbling his answers in my notebook. His answers were never enough. There was no answer that would explain this cancer away, no answer that would make me feel more settled, safe, able to breathe again. I flew back to Vancouver and felt the sting of leaving my mom behind.
When I got back into the radio studio, I cleared my throat nervously and tried to ask my guests questions that deserved to be answered. And, through the pain of being in that studio, so far away from my mother, my mother who could no longer speak, I recognized how speaking would never be enough. In between checking my texts, hoping to hear from my mom, I often found myself unable to speak, tongue-tied, forlorn, and furiously flushed with my lack of fluency. What questions could I possibly ask? What questions would open up the floodgates for my guest? What questions would make them feel welcome, secure, able to speak?
I realize now, of course, that it’s not just about the questions we ask. It’s also about our refusal to listen. I know now that I just didn’t listen to what she didn’t say. I will never know how she got that tiny scar on her right little finger. Why she loved the scent of blooming bougainvillea. I think she told me once, but I don’t remember now. With a youthful and arrogant indifference, I had brushed away her memories. Now, I will never hear her utter the histories of my ancestors or learn the names of those anonymous faces in her old-fashioned sepia-toned photo albums.
I’ve asked a thousand guests a thousand questions on the show, but I never got a chance to ask my mother the questions I now long to hear the answers to.
“The coloniality of the interview,” I remember scribbling in my journal. The format of the interview, question and then answer, doesn’t speak to the complexity of the relationship that actually emerges between interviewer and interviewee. One of the most overused questions in a journalist’s arsenal is, “What do you mean by that?” We ask it over and over until we hear what we want to hear. The perfect clip. Questions as a cage. For a long time, I thought this was a brilliant question, but after years of doing interviews with Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people, I’m not so sure. What do you mean by that? The burden of extraction impossibly placed upon our interviewees—because, of course, they are seen as our interviewees, naturally, our property—with us forcing, dragging, pulling the information we demand from them, wrenching it out from under their tongues like blood-stained molars from their mouths, that process of extraction at the heart of colonial practice. We refuse to meet them on their own terms. Instead, we insist that they meet us on ours. We refuse the risk of having anything be unclear to white audiences and, in turn, we often frustrate communities of colour.
Every morning, I heard my voice cheerfully announce, “Welcome to Sense of Place on Roundhouse Radio, 98.3 Vancouver. I’m your host, Minelle Mahtani.” Even while saying it out loud, I wondered what I really meant. Host? Host to whom? How can I, as a settler of colour, be a host on stolen Indigenous territory? I am not the one doing the real hosting here. What about my guests—were they really mine? I knew they weren’t. How could I acknowledge that they were gifting me with their stories daily? I yearned to dissect the binary of host/guest because the very dynamic reflects a form of colonial violence. Yet I still spoke those words, so easily tripping off my tongue.
How could I escape this trap I was caught in? It was an anticolonial question that deserved more than a colonial answer.
Then some hate mail turned up on my desk. Listeners complained that my perspective was biased. Too many people of colour, they said. For every ten letters congratulating us on the uniqueness of the show, we got one piece of hate mail, and the intensity of that hate mail garnered attention from my boss. I reluctantly interviewed a reformed white supremacist—he was now committed to making the world a more beautiful place, he said. But he became a little aggressive after I asked a pointed question about his past. During the break, he spat out a derogatory comment about Muslims. No one caught it but me. At the end of the interview, my voice broke and I started to quietly cry. I was mortified. My boss looked up from his desk, having caught the furious posture of the ostensibly former white supremacist as he stormed out of the studio. My boss became deeply concerned about my safety and started to look into getting me a security detail. We are so glad that the studio is encased in bulletproof glass, he said. Who would have thought that would come in handy?
I said nothing. Instead, my body spoke for me. I developed heart palpitations at work and hyperventilated when I opened the heavy glass doors to the building. Shingles appeared on the left side of my body. Was this from my mom’s illness, the stress of work, or both? The bleeding blisters told a story I was not yet ready to tell. My hands shook during interviews and I tried to keep them down on the desk, hoping no one else could see them fluttering.
My mother got worse. By mid-January 2016, mere months after the diagnosis, she could no longer talk. My brother and I, running out of options in Canada, struggled to find her alternative care in Frankfurt, Germany, after googling various treatment centres that purported to heal stage-four cancer. I would have done anything, taken her anywhere. What good were all those scrupulous journalistic research skills if I couldn’t solve this problem for her?
I flew from Vancouver to Frankfurt to be by her side. I prayed on the floor of the airplane, near the toilets. A Muslim family in first class saw me bending down and lent me their beige head covering to pray. Before I got off the plane, they gave it to me to keep. I still use it sometimes, the soothing fragrance of agarbathi enveloping the supple satin gown.
The ride to the clinic felt long. When I arrived, it was all white, brisk, and clean. My mother was lying in bed, thinner than I’ve ever seen her. She couldn’t talk anymore. She smiled, luminescent.
I spent hours with my mom at the clinic, watching her get vitamin IVs and hoping like hell the treatment would work. The last words I remember from the dazzling, handsome, perfectly coiffed specialist after my mom had been there one month were, “When she goes, it will be quick.” That was all that the clinic gave us in the end. It gave us hope.
Months later, my mother would be dead.
What do I choose to remember from that time? What prayers can I say now?
I think about the sound of her voice now—the soft, lilting tones I took for granted all those years. I think about how her last words to me really held no sound, just her mouthing “wish come true” as she drew a heart in the air with her fingers. Wish come true—the Arabic translation of my name.
I wonder if it is now time for me to open my mouth. To both listen more and speak my story. To take the risk of ushering those stories into a space where they may or may not be welcomed hospitably. Can my truth finally exist somewhere outside of my body? Can your truth exist somewhere outside of yours?