Huda Hassan is a writer and researcher living in Toronto. She is currently completing her PHD at the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. Her work considers the meeting points of race, religion, and gender. Her writing calls upon her own experience of being a Black Muslim woman in a rapidly gentrifying city, and often, having to work in predominantly white academic spaces.
VSP chats with Huda about her favourite places in Toronto, and more specifically Scarborough (the east end suburb where she grew up), her writing practice, and a selection of her essential films and books.
What are some of the themes of your work?
I’m always trying to think about the relationship between power and culture through my writing. I’m also thinking about these things as a student through theory (I’m currently a doctoral student in a gender studies program). I’m interested in theorizing the news—specifically, the relationship between news media and criminality—and more broadly, how news media articulates larger ideas around cultural identity, nationalism, and belonging.
What recent writing has impacted you the most lately?
What I’m reading that has impacted me: I’m currently preparing for my comprehensive exams, so my reading has been (more so) theoretical in recent months. Black cultural theorists, like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, have been shaping some of my thinking and feeling lately, specifically in relation to Black cultural production in Toronto. Although I have a pretty tight reading schedule, I’ve been sneaking in bits of Theory by Dionne Brand on my subway rides for the sake of experiencing some fiction. There’s a lot going in that piece that I can deeply resonate with. I’ve also been reading, as suggested by a friend, Javier Marias’ All Souls. I've also been thinking a lot about Rawiya Kameir's recent personal essay in Vogue, a really thoughful piece calling to question the connection between citizenship and identity.
What I’m writing that has impacted me: I’ve been allowing my work to become more personal lately (or, am trying to). I’m practicing how to theorize from the personal, and am increasingly more interested in roman à clef as a style of radical writing. I’ve been thinking a lot and writing about my recent travels from Toronto to London, and Somalia, as a Somali woman from Scarborough living in a city undergoing a violent gentrification process. I’d say that’s been a recent writing that has impacted me the most lately.
Writing can be so exhausting, what are some things you do to unwind from your practice?
It took me some time but I’ve recently learned what helps me unwind and relax: bike rides; cooking good food with good friends; turning off my phone, and generally saying no to people (and work) more; spending time alone; visiting my mom and brothers in Scarborough; dates with my sister-partner, Milca Kuflu. My writing and my research is deeply connected to my lived experiences, so I’ve learned that unwinding for me is actively practising self-care.
I took a vacation this summer to visit Europe and East Africa. During that trip I decided to explore Toronto more, with a disposable camera, as an unwinding practice. I’ve lived in this city for almost three decades. I’m a Scarborough girl, through and through, but I’ve lived in, or become deeply familiar with, different parts of this large, but also small, city. I’ve been here long enough to see how much shit has changed. And I try to be intentional about seeing this place that I love in the way I want to see it, or remember it—even if large parts of it are currently missing for me. It can provoke a lot of emotions and reflections in me, but the practice of documentation, an active remembering, brings me a sense of calm—for now.
What are some essential films or books?
I think Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth are three essential readings I would recommend to a stranger. I think all three can provide some necessary reflections on power, the nation-state, the personal, and how the past (and the future) are deeply connected to the present.
Some films I would suggest are Concerning Violence (2014)—it’s a reading of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (another recommended reading), with Lauryn Hill as narrator, and visuals of decolonial revolutions in 1960s and 1970s Africa. I would also recommend Paris Blues (1961), a Black political romance film that has appearances by jazz classics, and a young Sidney Poitier. I love a young Sidney Poitier.
Where are your favourite places in Toronto?
I’ve always enjoyed the benches at Withrow park (near Blake) in the spring, summer, and early fall. They let you see a nice skyline of the city. The late night 102 Markham bus ride to Malvern is a nostalgic ride for me; I pass through a lot of the locations and areas and buildings I grew up in. I adore the back of Rhum corner, for good food and a really, really great music selection. The Scarborough Town Centre Cineplex for any major film. The Scarborough Bluffs on summer nights for a backwood.
Most of these places are sentimental to me in some way or another.
Describe how you came to forming your personal style.
I grew up with all brothers so I grew up pretty tomboyish. That influenced how I dressed in my earlier years. I always admired and loved my dad’s delicacy with clothing, especially his socks and shoes. I think the combination of the two developed my adoration for sneakers and Oxford shoes. In recent years, my style has definitely become more intentionally femme. Sometimes I blend the two.
I don’t know how to describe my style per se, but I do think that the Instagram photo of Rihanna in the Molly Goddard blue ball gown and white sneakers is the final stage of my style journey.
Photos, text and styling by Marlowe Granados