At the glorious, gawky age of ten, I came upon a red-cloth covered book at the bookstore titled, The Girls' Book: How to Be the Best at Everything. I excitedly picked it up to read through and see how I, too, could be ridiculously smart, make a million friends at school, and be super popular. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that there was a section on how to deal with bullies – something I contended with on a regular basis then, having an Indian accent and looking less than polished compared to the other popular kids at my private, international school in Malaysia. I quickly flipped through the book to get to the bullying section, but felt sorely disappointed that amid advice on standing up and alerting your elders that someone's being mean to you, there was nothing about how to deal with kids who made fun of your kajal streaming down from your eyes and what to do when people made a mock, smelly-face sign about your coconut-oil-slicked hair.
I wish Maria Qamar's book, Trust No Aunty, existed when I was fourteen, which could have easily screamed from the covers The Desi Girl's Book on How to Avoid Being Shamed About Everything That Makes You YOU. I would have clung to it day in and day out – and it would have made my tortured teenage years a lot more palatable.
Having been a fan of her work since discovering her through a friend in 2015, I've kept a keen eye on her Instagram page (@hatecopy). I silently cheered on from the sidelines as her work gained more mainstream popularity and ended up in Mindy Kaling's self-titled television show, and was elated when the new book came out – and didn't disappoint.
Maria's signature art – the Roy Lichtenstein-inspired comic panels juxtaposed with overdramatic desi aunties expressing Hindi/Urdu 'auntyisms' – mirrors exactly the kind of cross-cultural advice and experience Maria aims to impart in the book. The book, written for those who identify with the South Asian diaspora, constantly navigates the experience young women have to go through living in betwixt and between worlds. Maria identifies as being a South Asian from Pakistan and aims her work at an audience which understands the insider references. Maria recreates the particular situations desi women find themselves in, from hiding a boy in your closet to dealing with casual racism at the workplace. Her book offers desi women navigating a complex culture the reassurance, "I get it, and you got this." It offers a voice not commonly seen elsewhere that tackles both the often conservative nature of South Asian diasporic communities and the difficulties of fitting in with Western norms and standards.
Much of the art in the book is new (not featured even on her Instagram page or website), rebellious and framed for a desi reader to recognise precisely 'those' moments when you too, have heard an aunty call you 'badtameez' or overreact to hearing that you've gotten a B+ in your end-of-year report. The brightly illustrated, self-referential and witty book is styled to help avoid aunties and their disapproving missives and touches upon major life moments of school, career, love and lifestyle. The book borrows elements of Maria's own love for video games, where each aunty has their own trading card-like profile, along with a spice rating based on the ruthlessness of the particular aunty type, and advice on how to deal with each aunty type. Aunties mentioned in the book include The Weight Watcher Aunty, the likes of whom in my own personal experience, have thought its okay to pinch my cheeks when alluding to how 'healthy' I've become, and The Soft Aunty, who you can truly confide in and count on to take your side when those epic Mahabharata matches go down with your parents. My personal favourite, however, is The Online Stalker Aunty, who will 'ooh' and 'aah' her way through your Instagram page and likely tell your parents all that you're up to. Maria's cheeky advice follows along with sarcastic commentary on race and how to correctly identify our own foods and customs.
Trust No Aunty shines in the sections Maria has addressed to young women on navigating those moments where life seems just that much more difficult, where finding someone to relate to seems that much more impossible, and when it seems like this is a battle that will rage forevermore. One portion of the book that I found profoundly impactful was on success and failure. Maria's own experiences of being fired, choosing art as a career choice, struggling to make rent, and succumbing to the inevitable judgement of all and sundry, strike a personal note.
As part of a society that is so afraid of the F word [failure], it helps to hear intimate, vulnerable accounts from the author that you can and should try to fail, because doing what you love, and truly enjoy, makes the most important person happy at the end of the day – you. Maria's brand of middle-fingered feminism, even when trying to get young desi women to take off their Bollywood-tinted glasses about love at first sight and romance, strikes a rebellious chord in desi female readers, assuring us that we are resilient enough to get through this, and will be the best at making the right decisions for ourselves.
Maria's love-hate relationship for aunties is apparent and rings true to the protective desi way of being against those from outside the culture – "I will criticise them as much as I want to, but you if you so much as offer a critique on them...." Maria is honest about the fact that the book's core desi female readership will inevitably end up becoming aunties. Acting and reproducing aunty-like commentary, she offers a gentle guide to steer the commentary away from casual racism and colourism, so that we too, can be the best aunties a girl could ask for.
This book offers the desi reader that sense of familiarity and home, but is also accessible for a non-desi reader in North America looking to navigate South Asian cultural quirks. I just wish that in between the pages dedicated to the magic of coconut oil, there was also advice on how to get it out of your hair without having to resort to lye shampoo – no aunty's ever been able to hack that for me.