By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
“I love me some women of colour who are queer,” says Akhaji Zakiya.
The Toronto writer recently launched her new book Inside Her in front of a large, queer people of colour crowd at Glad Day Bookshop, the oldest queer bookstore in the world.
Inside Her, Zakiya’s first book, is a small collection of linked short fiction and poetry focusing on four women of colour living in Toronto.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, tell stories of lesbians of colour living in urban settings,” says Zakiya.
Zakiya follows the writing adage “write what you know”:
“They say writers write what they know. As a first project I definitely kept it in the realm of the familiar,” says Zakiya.
For those who might ask why the focus on women of colour Zakiya says, “That’s my world, the world I’ve chosen for myself is women of colour. The social scene that I’m part of and that I sort of came of age into is diverse women of colour. These are the stories I want to write.”
Such stories are not published or celebrated enough. Publishing houses such as Sister Vision and Women’s Press who focused on women of colour are now defunct. And with the closing of Toronto Women’s Bookstore in 2012 women of colour writers are not featured to the same degree as mainstream writers at big chain bookstores.
Fighting for the visibility of queer people of colour has been big a part of Zakiya’s life. “I’ve been in Toronto’s queer scene for twenty-five years, before people of colour were marching in [Queer] PRIDE, when we had to fight so we can march in PRIDE!” says Zakiya.
Recalling her activist days in the early 90s Zakiya talks of the “Proud and Visible” coalition who fought to include people of colour in PRIDE. “Thos are my origins. You’re gonna see a history of queer culture in my writing,” says Zakiya.
Inside Her is set in Toronto and takes the reader on a journey through the lives of four women: Jaka, Nina, Tashi, and Sean. Love, conflict, and lust run through Zakiya’s linked poems and stories. Controversial topics such as coming out as queer, bi-phobia, and being queer enough are also explored. Zakiya’s dialogue is sharp and challenging. In the story Beyond, Jaka, the book’s main character, lashes out at her friend Nina:
What do you know of the lezzie world? Of adults, I might add. Wanton, random college-girl munching to get back at mommy and daddy is not the same thing.
Zakiya’s poetry is just as piercing. Cleverly linking the poems to the stories, Tashi, Jaka’s love interest, is the author of the poems. “The poems are Tashi’s poems in the context of the fiction of the novel. She’s writing a love poem to her partner Jaka [and] writing about her experiences of coming out,” says Zakiya.
Fictional poems written from a non-fiction mind set by a poet who writes fiction and poetry. Brilliant!
In On Coming, Tashi writes about coming out:
the stillness of self
and spiritual sustenance
Poetry opens up doors that other genres do not. Although written in a fictional context Zakiya uses poetry as a tool for healing just as Tashi does.
“When I came out as a lesbian poetry was a wonderful way to connect with people and share ideas and emotions,” says Zakiya.
Four women, four stories, a few poems, and many layers, Inside Her is a prelude to big plans by Zakiya: “I plan to write a series of novels and a web series telling the journey of the characters through their life.”
What can people expect from Inside Her? “I want people to know first and foremost that it’s fun. That it’s sexy. That their sisters are familiar. That Toronto will be featured as a character…I want people to know that this is a distillate of my life; I love loving women of colour,” says Zakiya.
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For a taste of Akhaji Zakiya see This Lesbian Poem: