In Conversation: Hana Shafi

An image of Hana Shafi and her forthcoming book, Small, Broke, and Kind of Dirty

“I think storytelling is almost an instinct of mine. It’s what brings me joy in life, even when it’s just telling stories among friends, which is sometimes even more powerful.” —Hana Shafi

Today, we’re excited to celebrate the publication of Small, Broke, and Kind of Dirty, Hana Shafi’s beautifully illustrated essay collection. Congratulations, Hana! Small, Broke, and Kind of Dirty might not be a self-help book, but its affirmation of brownness, radical self-love, and so much more—the stuff you won’t find in a Hallmark card—makes it medicine for modern life. As award-winning author Vivek Shraya writes, “this is the book that Frizz Kid/Hana Shafi fans (and new fans) have been waiting for.” We talked to Hana about people-watching, storytelling, and the witchcraft of brewing tea.

What are you currently reading?

I recently got back into reading fiction—I stopped reading fiction for a while because I just couldn’t get into it for some reason. Then I picked up The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker, because I love the movie Hellraiser and I really enjoyed reading it. Now I’m reading the sequel, The Scarlet Gospel.

Why do you write?

Writing feels natural to me. I’ve been writing little stories and poems since I was a little kid—they’re all pretty embarrassing. I think storytelling is almost an instinct of mine. It’s what brings me joy in life, even when it’s just telling stories among friends, which is sometimes even more powerful.

Who, where, when, and what influences your writing?

There’s a lot of things that influence my writing, so much so that it’s hard to even pin it down. One thing that hugely influences it though is just people watching. Observing people, their movements, their conversations, the emotions in their faces—I realize how creepy that sounds so I totally don’t mean it in a creepy way, but just that even though people watching sounds mundane, it’s actually kind of fascinating. After a while, I start to make different stories about people. Weaving little tales about a stranger’s life is a great mental exercise in imagination.

Where do you write?

The pandemic has really changed where my writing happens. Normally, I always needed to remove myself from my apartment, because when I’m at home, I get so easily distracted. Instead of writing, I’ll just turn the TV on, or I’ll clean, or take a nap. So I’d always leave the house, go to my favourite coffee shop and work. The pandemic and being in quarantine has completely altered this. Now I don’t really have a choice but to write at home, and this has been a difficult transition for me and quite a lesson in self-discipline.

How did you know that your most recently written book was finished?

It was hard for me to let go of it, to be honest, because I kept feeling like it wasn’t quite good enough. Eventually I felt, OK I need to let it go. Sometimes when you’re reading your work too much, you begin to obsess over your work. So I had to set boundaries with myself to just stop critiquing it.

Do you drink tea, coffee, neither, or both?

I love both, but I like to think of myself as a tea witch. I absolutely love making tea concoctions for myself and my friends, and I’ve got a huge collection of dried herbs and fruit for tea. Making tea is spell work sometimes!

Do you have a preference for fiction, nonfiction, or poetry in your reading or writing?

I love coming up with the loose plot of a fictional story, but I’m never actually able to write fiction. I really wish I could write fiction, but I find it too hard. So it’s nonfiction and poetry for me.

Describe your favourite article of clothing.

My favourite article of clothing is this very tattered t-shirt of The Clash. I found it in my sister’s room as a teen, and was totally confused because it’s not her taste at all. She said a friend must have left it there years ago. Anyways, no one ever came for it and I’ve basically cherished it ever since.

Hana Shafi (a.k.a. Frizz Kid) is a writer and artist. Her visual art and writing frequently explores themes such as feminism, body politics, racism, and pop culture. Her first book, It Begins with the Body, was listed by CBC as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2018. A graduate of Ryerson University’s Journalism Program, she has published articles in The Walrus, Hazlitt, THIS Magazine, and Torontoist, and has been featured on Buzzfeed, CBC, and in FLARE, Shameless, and The New York Times. Known on Instagram for her weekly affirmation series, Shafi is the recipient of the 2017 Women Who Inspire Award, from the Canadian Council for Muslim Women. Born in Dubai, Shafi immigrated with her family to Mississauga, Ontario, in 1996. She lives and works in Toronto.