Serena Lukas Bhandar is a Punjabi/Welsh/Irish transfemme witch, youth worker, and facilitator living as a settler on Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ lands. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated writing has appeared in print in Nameless Woman and Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture, among other places. She is currently working on a novel and a hybrid collection of essays and poetry.
Interviewed by Caley Byrne
Caley Byrne (BC): You contributed a chapter in the book Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture, by Nora Samaran. I’m so excited to read the book; I’ve just ordered a copy from AK Press! For folks reading here, what struck a chord for you about nurturance culture?
Serena Lukas Bhandar (SLB): When I first met Naava (Nora is her pen name) in the summer of 2018, I had just spent a year recovering from working in an incredibly corporate government job that, while paying lip service to supporting me through the first steps of my transition and other life changes, had made it very difficult for me to feel like a human being. Naava and I had connected through the workplace I had entered after that, the Anti-Violence Project at the University of Victoria, a space in which I’ve felt incredibly nurtured and have been provided space to flourish as a writer and as a person. What struck me about Naava’s understanding of nurturance was that it captured all that I had needed in the past year—ground to grow from, rather than a ceiling to be limited by, encouragement, rather than control, and the confidence that, given room to set my own priorities outside of capitalist (and dare I say, white supremacist) ideas of productivity, I would create something wonderful. I think that’s the beauty of nurturance culture, it recognizes that if we take away systems of punishment and control, people of all genders can genuinely be accountable members of their communities, and heal themselves, in their own way. I’m grateful to have collaborated with Naava on her book, and I’m very excited to take what I learned from that project into my own writing, as I explore what nurturance, family, and cultural patterns of abuse and healing mean for women like me.
CB: Does writing about and telling your stories about gender ever feel too heavy for you? If so, how do you balance caring for yourself with that emotional labour?
SLB: The thing is, being transgender is heavy. This world is heavy. Trans women of colour like myself disproportionately experience homelessness, intimate partner violence, street harassment, murder, and a host of other societal ills. I sometimes wonder if writing about my identity keeps me too submerged in the oppressions that myself and my sisters experience, but I know that I would be thinking about this stuff regardless of my career. My writing has always guided me towards my place in the world, connected me with community and creative lineages, and illuminated that women like me have always been here. Knowing that, and having people in my life who understand and relate to that, is what helps me care for myself.
CB: In a podcast you and Nora participated in about your book, you had folks take part in a writing exercise where they had to answer some questions. So now I will pose one of them to you! What brings you joy?
SLB: Good question! I’ve found myself very touch-starved this year, like many, and I’ve very much appreciated sharing space with my family and close friends. With spending so much time inside with the pandemic and now with the smoke from the wildfires, it’s easy to get lost in binge-watching shows, but social disconnect and isolation has always been the worst for my writer’s block. I’m looking forward to continuing to spend time with my loved ones this fall.
CB: You mentioned in the podcast that you love to swim… are there any parallels for you between swimming and the writing / creating process?
SLB: I do love swimming, and I’m grateful that there’s so many good swimming spots in Victoria, even as the weather gets colder. I think it comes back to becoming more grounded in and attuned to myself. When I swim, I become simultaneously more conscious of my body and dissociated from my mind and the world around me. It’s the same way with writing—when you get into a flow, your surroundings fade, even your thoughts slide away, and all you feel is the sleek keys beneath your fingers, or the firmness of the pen and the texture of the paper as the words move through you.
CB: In the article “What Else Might Be Possible?” you talk about wanting audiences to embrace the disconnect they might feel “when exposed to art that doesn’t speak to their experiences. I want you to be comfortable with not having every word translated into your worldview.” Oh my goodness, these lines sang to me! We hear a lot about ‘being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’ in discussions and awareness-building around race and class and sex and gender difference. How can art help us embrace that disconnect? How can art play a role in healing the deep and divisive chasms in the world right now?
SLB: I think the best art challenges us. It makes us sit with our discomfort. When I read my fellow panelist jaye simpson’s new book, I sat with the poems, returned to certain lines again and again. I’m privileged to not have experienced direct violence in my home life growing up, to have always had love and care from my parents and sibling. Reading jaye’s poetry affirmed how much I’m grateful to be their friend, how much I care about them and want to see them succeed.
As for how art can heal the chasms in our world—I don’t know how to answer that. As wildfires rage in California because cisgender society is obsessed with assuming the gender of fetuses, as this pandemic continues to ignite the most horrible vengeances of white nationalism both here and in the States, and as Black and Indigenous trans women are attacked, harassed, and murdered at increased rates every year: what can art do in the face of such apocalyptic times? I don’t have much hope for the world, and the faith I do have I place in my queer, trans, and two-spirit BIPOC siblings. Their words and actions inspire me every day.
CB: You talk about the importance of storytelling in your portion of that article. This so resonated with me! In my work (in diversity and inclusion) it’s really the storytelling that makes so many folks ‘get it’. You invite readers to ask themselves: “What stories do I tell about the art that I experience?” What stories do you hope folks see and hear in your writing?
SLB: Storytelling continues to be the place where I can find and make a home for myself, discover my ancestors, and inscribe messages for future generations. I know I’m not the first trans woman in my family, and I certainly won’t be the last. When white and cisgender folks discover my writing I hope that they can appreciate that, though they can relate to the universal experiences of belonging and identity I address, I rarely intend them as my target audience. At the same time, my writing is not niche. Today I read that a recent survey from Statistics Canada found there were around 75,000 trans or non-binary people in Canada, but even with that sizeable number, I know there are so many more of us out there. We’re all around you, and we’re never going away again.