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Maria Qamar Dishes Up Desi Pop in 'Trust No Aunty'

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

Aunties, beware — Maria Qamar's got your number.

If you think the new wave of South Asian humor is led by men — from The Big Sick's Kumail Nanjiani to Master of None's Aziz Ansari to No Man's Land's Aasif Mandvi — it's time to reckon with women like Qamar. With Trust No Aunty, her new book of Pop Art and satire, the 26-year-old Pakistani Canadian brings the experience of desi girls into the comedy limelight.

And if you know Hatecopy, Qamar's Instagram feed, you've already seen her take on the irritation of getting set up with the neighbors' eligible son, or seeing white girls sporting bindis at Coachella. If, on the other hand, you're wondering what "desi" means, Qamar has the answer — along with advice on how to dodge a chappal, shape the perfect roti and cope with the meddling older women in your life. "An aunty is any older woman who thinks she knows what's best for you," Qamar tells me. "She can be someone in your family, or one of their friends, or just someone who lives down the street. My mom's family is huge, so I have a million aunties. They've always got advice, and you think, 'Well, this person is my mom's age, so she must be right. She's helping reinforce tradition.' But some aunties give bad advice, like telling girls to marry at 15 or to bleach their skin. We need to discuss these things in the community.

An aunty is any older woman who thinks she knows what's best for you. She can be someone in your family, or one of their friends, or just someone who lives down the street.

You classify aunties into various types — there's the CEO Aunty, the Bollywood Aunty, and the Aunty in Training. What's your favorite kind of aunty?

The Soft Aunty. That's what my mom is. She used to be a Bollywood Aunty. She was always having dramatic reactions to things, and she'd quote dialogue from movies to express her feelings. We kids would be like, "Uh, we saw those movies too — we know where you're getting that from." But now she's more laid back. She's learning to accept things more. And I love her home cooked meals. I love my Mom.

Have you ever had aunties, or others in your community, criticize your art?

I've been confronted by aunties about my work, sure. One aunty told me art was a white people's thing. I hate when people say, "That's just our culture. That's just how we do things." I do understand where aunties are coming from to some degree, though. I'm an aunty myself. I'm an aunty to little kids, to the generation coming after me.

How did you first start thinking about becoming an artist?

It goes back to when I was a kid. We moved from Pakistan to Mississauga, Ontario, when I was 9. I was bullied a lot — for being brown and similar things — and I dealt with it by drawing what happened in little comic panels. In the last panel, I'd always show myself telling the bully off or winning in some way. In high school, I juggled two identities: I was half desi — which is someone of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi birth who lives abroad — and half Western-style punk. Actually, I was kind of punk and kind of goth. One of my best memories is getting to see Iron Maiden live, which was awesome.

Did your family support your art?

I was bullied a lot — for being brown and similar things — and I dealt with it by drawing what happened in little comic panels.

My parents were completely, completely against the idea of me being an artist. To them, art was Da Vinci or Monet, something hung in a museum. And it was definitely a man's job. They said, "If you do get famous, it won't be until after you're dead!" Growing up, I had no idea there were all these careers open to artists — that you could be a commercial artist or an illustrator, for example. In my parents' world, you got a job and then kept it for the next 30 years. There's a Hindi saying, "Naukri tik jai," which means basically, "Once you get a job, stick with it."

How did you settle on your artistic style?

I was copying a Roy Lichtenstein panel — it wasn't the one that says, "I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!" but it was a similar one — and I realized it looked just like Indian soap operas. They're always zooming in for super-dramatic closeups of faces. And when I looked down at my drawing I realized I hadn't drawn a white girl, I'd drawn a girl who looked like me. The features were rounder, the mouth was fuller. I knew this girl wouldn't be thinking about Brad. So I put in the caption, "I burnt the roti!" and started laughing. It was a great moment of feeling cocky about how funny I was. I thought, "I could do this forever."

You frequently use your art to skewer Westerners' assumptions about your culture. You even have a section in the book called, "Actual, 100 percent, totally not-made-up things a brown person has heard at the office." Do you experience a lot of racism in your day-to-day life?

I've had some amazing encounters. Recently I was in an elevator with a guy, just standing in silence, and as he was getting off at his floor he suddenly turned to me and said, "Namaste." Why would you ever say that? Also, the advertising world [where Qamar worked for many years] is very white, very much a boys' club. If you're a woman who speaks up about sexism you're labeled a bitch or bossy. It's even riskier if you're not white — just like the stereotype of the angry black person, there's a stereotype of the angry brown person. I could never manage to bite my tongue. That's probably why I got fired a lot.

Many parts of your book will get a laugh from desis and non-desis alike, but some sections seem to have a lot of inside commentary, like the Desi Workout and the section on skin bleaching. Are you worried about leaving non-desis behind?

Actually, I mostly feel like I'm talking to myself ... I think of the book as something for us, by us. I deliberately didn't translate some terms, for example. I think of it as a collection of inside jokes shared with 100,000 cousins.

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