Jasleen Singh is the creator of The Sikh Monologues Project, which “endeavors to record the diverse stories that the diasporic Sikh American community has to share,” promoting narratives about Sikh love similar to our forthcoming anthology Her Name Is Kaur (published by She Writes Press and is available for pre-order at Amazon). The first performance of The Sikh Monologues Project will be taking place in Southern California on June 15 — more information is available at the end of this article.
Below, Jasleen discusses her journey with The Sikh Monologues Project and the value of Sikh storytelling. Also see Jasleen’s online story A Day in Thailand that she shared with us earlier this year.
What inspired you to take travel across the US to hear the stories of Sikhs?
The concept of the “Sikh Monologues” was conceived as a response to the lack of creative means of expressing the Sikh identity to a national audience and as a means of creating an opportunity for the diverse stories the diasporic Sikh American community has to share.
The process of recording interviews and integrating the information shared during interviews mimics the process by which the Vagina Monologues was created. Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, sought the stories of women across the world in order to create monologues that are real, honest, and make the female story an accessible one. I participated in the Vagina Monologues on UC Berkeley’s campus during my senior year last year. I have always felt proud of my identity, but being a part of the Vagina Monologues journey enabled me to better articulate and contextualize what it means to be a woman, and especially a woman of color, in America. I wanted to bring this kind of empowerment to Sikhs as well.
I find that storytelling is a powerful means of communication. Integrating stories into a published monologue format ensures that these stories are accessible and immortal – each individual’s narrative will not only be hers or his, but will be connected to the larger community, to be available as a shared community resource.
Why do you think it is important for Sikhs to hear other Sikhs’ stories and for other cultures to hear the stories of Sikh Americans?
Through this project, I hope to bring the stories of children and grandparents and parents from all different parts of the United States to the homes of every Sikh American so that we as a community know that we are not alone in our struggles, in our triumphs, in our failures and in our successes. I want to educate our own community about our shared narratives and open our eyes to those whose struggles we cannot imagine. There are too many things that divide our community – gurdwara politics, socioeconomic disparities, gender politics, what defines a “real Sikh” – that I wanted to create something that would bring us all back to a shared narrative; to remind us all that we’re not so opposite and that at the end of the day, no matter how we choose to practice a faith, we come from the same part of the world.
However, more than building community within the faith, it is crucial to me that these monologues can build bridges between the communities that surround our own in the United States. Instead of brochures laced with hard facts or website pages, these monologues will be conveying the Sikh American story and the Sikh way of life with information from real people, presented by real people. Thus, not only will non-Sikhs learns about Sikhs Americans and Sikhism, but they will learn that we too are a population riddled with nuances and not a homogenized “Other.” Through this creativity and accessibility, the Sikh Monologues hopes to create a less hostile environment for Sikhs in America.
Why do you think it is important for Sikhs to share their stories?
It is powerful to speak and it is powerful to be heard. Storytelling is a means of keeping history alive, of articulating our memories so that we can still remember our own stories. The concept of Sikhs talking for themselves is beautiful to me because so many times, the “Sikh story” is pre-packaged for media and devoid of the nuances and experiences of actual people of the faith. The interview process of the Sikh Monologues enabled aunties, uncles, kids, couples, new immigrants, old immigrants, to tell their own stories and give insight on the ways in which gender, socioeconomic class, geographic location, and education can play a role in experiencing America.
I also hope that through the questions I asked, individuals were encouraged to reflect on their own lives and think about how they identify, what is important to them in their lives and what it means to them to live in diaspora. These are topics we often don’t take the time to think about, but I believe it’s truly important to sometimes check in with ourselves and our environment.
How has listening to these stories expanded your understanding/view/perspective on what it means to be Sikh?
I made it a point to interview individuals who in any way identify as Sikh. Sometimes that meant people who go to gurdwara religiously every Sunday, sometimes that meant kids participating in local Sikh activist networks, and sometimes that meant it was the religion someone’s parents practiced while growing up. Some people knew a lot about the history of the faith; others knew the basics of the 5Ks. The point is that I was able to discover that “Sikh” truly means learner, disciple, student. I found Sikhi to be first and foremost a faith that offers values, a lifestyle, a guide to living. Even before discussions around hair, drinking, dating, taking amrit, or eating meat – the shared understanding between people on either side of each of these issues was that Sikhi has been a strong value guide in their lives. And I think that is a beautiful realization; a realization and seemingly a fact that we often forget when categorizing the “types of Sikhs” around us.
What is the greatest message/lesson you want others to learn from the Sikh Monologues?
If someone reading or listening to the monologues could walk away with one thing, I would hope they understand the concept and necessity of non-judgment. Everybody on this earth has their own right to practice a faith or to not practice, to make their own decisions, to let certain influences into their lives and to block out others. Judging others on their life paths gets no one anywhere;it discourages those who might be open to learning about Sikhi but don’t “look the part,” it stops others from having open dialogue with those who may be farther down the path of Sikhi. And perhaps most obvious to many Sikhs is a desire to not be judged by non-Sikhs. Non-judgment is essential when we’re trying to connect as human beings. Respect and understanding in the place of judgment can go a long way to create bridges and bonds both inter- and intra-communities.
How has the Sikh Monologues impacted you?
I have friends and connections around the United States and I love it.
I am so excited to announce that the first performance of the Sikh Monologues is happening June 15, 2014 in Southern California! See the stories come to life and view photos from the journey.
Flintridge Preparatory School
4543 Crown Ave
La Canada, CA 91011
June 15, 2014
Doors open: 6:30pm
Show begins: 7:00pm