Shaista Latif was always being asked to write about Afghanistan. Exploring one’s identity is often a starting point for writers, but delving into the subject of her heritage was something Latif initially resisted. It came up often — she took many writing courses — but it was only with her newest show, Graceful Rebellions, that she finally tackled the issue.
“I avoided it like the plague because it wasn’t what I wanted to be known for,” she says from her Toronto home. “But as I kept listening to myself say no, I began to ask why I had this barrier in talking about my culture. At the same time, I was trying to understand my relationship to this culture as someone who was born and raised in Canada.”
The entry point for Latif was Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Young Creators Unit, a program for emerging artists which has produced several nationally touring productions including Waawaate Fobister’s Agokwe and Tawiah M’carthy’s Obaaberima. It was 2012 and Latif had just come out. Though she’d been building up experience in the comedy world and working as a director, creating material for herself to perform was a new challenge.
“It was time for me to start writing my own shows because I can’t find anyone like me in theatre,” she says. “I’m a large woman of colour and I wasn’t recognizing myself in shows I was seeing. So on one hand it was a sort of selfish endeavour to create a work where I could actually see myself on stage. But on the other hand it was also really addressing issues of sexuality and culture that I felt needed to be talked about.”
The resulting work, Graceful Rebellions, is series of monologues, following the lives of three Afghan women over as many decades: Leili is a 14-year-old girl dreaming about her wedding; Wazma is in her late 30s and dresses as a man in order to work and provide for her family; and Zenat is 16 years old, growing up in Canada and about to be expelled from school for her bad behaviour.
While connecting with the cultural history that shaped her identity has been a critical part of the process, Latif’s journey to understanding where she comes from is still missing a piece. She’s never actually been to Afghanistan. Having been in a persistent state of war or military occupation by foreign powers for nearly her entirely lifetime, finding an opportunity to visit the country nearly impossible.
“Trying to align this place that’s so magical and fantastical in my mind through all the stories my parents told me growing up, while at the same time reconciling my own feelings and biases as a result of being raised in the west has been a confusing ordeal,” she says. “But being an out queer writer and a woman means going there safely and being able to venture outside by myself isn’t a reality. I’d love to go there someday, see the mountains, breathe the air, and touch the earth, because I know it will shape how I understand myself. But in the near future, unfortunately, it’s not an option.”