Americanism: A Space for the Marginalized
A conversation with Maya Minhas on her collaborative book along with its impact on opening up spaces for vulnerability and storytelling of society's marginalized.
K: How would you describe the book and what does it mean to you?
Maya Minhas: In the beginning, I described the book as being similar to a yearbook for those marginalized in American pop-culture. I struggled to explain it for the first few weeks but even those who didn't completely grasp it, still had faith in it. As time went on, I ended up having 40-minute discussions with people who were so invested in learning more.
I think one of the most reassuring parts that came from the book's ideation to completion is that in explaining it to people, they really trusted it as a work whether it was funding, telling someone in conversation, or asking someone to be a part of it. It resonated with them and almost immediately they were like, "Yes. I get what you're trying to do and if this is something that elevates voices and touches people that are rarely seen and tells narratives that we haven't heard enough, then we're on board with that."
That really carried the book to completion, but also really helped to make it as authentic as possible as well.
K: How many people were involved in this project?
I think it was maybe around 30 people. I'm sure you remember that you were one of the first people that I had called and our conversation really helped shape the project.
I was also interviewing people who didn't have their portrait or writing included in the book because I was just trying to collect as many stories as I could. I had conversations that lasted 15-20 minutes and I had conversations that lasted four and a half hours. They all turned into these long therapy sessions in my living room, that were also really connecting and powerful stories. There were people that I didn't really know that well and also some I had never met and didn't even know their names, but they would come in and spend two and a half hours speaking to me about some of the most vulnerable parts of their identity and background.
So as I was collecting these stories, I knew pretty quickly that I didn't want to transcribe them and have them in the book because one, I wanted the portraits to speak for themselves. Two, I didn't want to give everything away from such vulnerable conversations and three, I wanted this book to be accessible and one that any person, anywhere, could pick up and understand the story for themselves.
I didn't want this book to be about me. I wanted it to be about everybody's stories.
Going Full Circle
After I'd captured all of these stories, I was thinking, "Okay. I have hours and hours of audio with people who have said these incredible things. Maybe I'll create a series." I had so many ideas for it, but because I was so incredibly busy with graduation and moving and then traveling, I never got the time to review the audio or to download it onto my hard drive.
When I was in the UK, I woke up one morning and my entire phone had just broken. I lost absolutely everything. I've been to every Apple and phone repair store. There's no way to get that audio back. I was so distraught. I didn't know what to do with myself for so long because I knew how valuable it was. But now over time, I'm learning to be grateful that it happened because I feel like I was the only person who needed to hear those conversations in order to make this book. I personally feel that everything said to me during that time was part of the process that needed to happen in order for me to produce it the way that it was. I'm reminded of those conversations when I review the book and I feel that you don't necessarily need to have heard those conversations for the book to resonate or make sense.
K: There's honestly something kind of beautiful about it losing it all.
Yes, in retrospect, when I came home to the U.S., I started thinking about it more and more because I didn't even have a working phone. There were these seven months between January all the way to the end of July of just madness where I was all over the place. So when I came home and reflected that I didn't have a working phone and had to start all over, I realized that it was a really interesting time in my life to have lost all of that. In the most literal sense, I still had messages on it from three years prior that I had never deleted because I was just holding onto stuff.
K: When I looked at the book, there was something very nostalgic and carefully put together about it. I feel like losing all of that footage created this perfect circle especially since the book essentially captured snapshots of people's lives at a very particular time.
What has been the feedback?
My professor who has also been my faculty mentor since I started at the university was really happy with it. I got incredible feedback from him. He actually ordered six copies of the book for the head faculty within our college right away.
Initially, I was naive about costs. My budget for the entire project was not ideal so I didn't have the ability to give everyone a copy, but I also felt like I couldn't ask people to pay for them because I wanted it to be accessible.
I was shocked because I gave people the option to pay for them at cost value and sold at least 20 copies pretty quickly. I received really thoughtful feedback as well which meant so much to me whether it was from people who were involved or people who didn't know much of the project at all and just really enjoyed it. The thing that has impacted me the most is that there has been a handful of people who knew nothing about me or the book at all, but found it and ordered it.
I think that meant even more to me because it was somebody who has no idea who I am, the process of the work and had no real context for it but still wanted to engage. The fact that it was able to successfully inspire the discourses that I wanted the book to inspire so diversely is what made it successful to me. I've been really grateful and humbled that it has resonated and been so warmly and well received as much as it has.