Good Indian Girl, Sort Of: Sonya Soni

Sonya SoniWhat’s your name? Sonya Soni

Where do you live? Brooklyn, NY

What is your favorite hangout in New York? Jackson Heights has always gifted me my most profound sense of home in New York. Every time I step out of the train at the intersection of Roosevelt Ave and 74th Street, I am transported back to my motherland of India. And while the jalebi wallahs and dhurrie vendors fulfill all my longings and nostalgia for the homeland, it is also considered the most diverse neighborhood on earth, which comforts in me all the multi-hyphenated identities I hold. I am just in awe of how one zip code holds over 160 languages and is proof that immigrant communities thrive alongside each other in all our complexities. I feel as if I am eating at my Punjabi dhabas at Angel, and Fuskahouse is a close second to the pani puri stands of Bombay.

What’s your current gig? Director of the Prison Justice & Writing Program at PEN America.

I do this because I believe that artists are the truth-tellers and translators of our movements and that supporting incarcerated writers and artists is one of the most powerful ways to confront our prison industrial complex. I sincerely believe that our prison system reveals the darkest and most oppressive shadows of our country’s racist, capitalist identity, and I strive to do anything to confront the way carcerality lives in our systems and in our bodies. Incarcerated folks have been my greatest teachers in what it means to truly be free, to love without condition, to question the labels we are taught to assume of people.

What are some Indian traditions you still follow? Having spent a significant portion of my twenties immersed in life and work in India, along with cherished memories of childhood summers in Delhi and Dehra Dun, I’ve made it a point to infuse elements of my motherland into my daily routines here in Brooklyn. Despite grappling with the complexities of Modi’s India and what his right-wing Hindutva movement has done to my strained connection with Hinduism, I find solace in small rituals, like lighting a diya and agarbhati each morning to honor indigenous spiritual traditions.

Inside my apartment, photographs of my ancestors—my Dadi, a freedom fighter against the British empire, and my grandparents, whose love story survived partition and migration—serve as constant reminders of my roots. The ritual of making chai from scratch grounds me, accompanied by the soulful melodies of Urdu ghazals and classic Bollywood tunes playing in the background. And I eagerly embrace every opportunity to celebrate holidays, from Holi to Diwali, with full gusto.

Also, living in a city where South Asian culture thrives, I’m grateful to be surrounded by a vibrant community of artists and activists here in Brooklyn. Nearly every day there is a chance to attend a South Asian musical performance, art exhibit, or thought-provoking lecture, and being part of this community is a privilege.

Bollywood or Hollywood, and why? Since childhood, Bollywood has always been my escape and refuge–the one place that matched my wild imagination, cheesiness, hopeless romantic ways, poetic heart, and idealism for a world where music, dance, and celebration were always centered. As I grew older, the complexities of Bollywood came to light, from misogyny to colorism, but now there is an entire genre of South Asian artsy, socially conscious, quieter films like Sir and 12th Fail that are confronting the traditional Bollywood genre and forcing the Bollywood film industry to be conscious of the inequities they often perpetuate.

Favorite movie? I can’t choose between Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess (a little girl who loses everything uses the magical surrealism tales of India to find wonder in the orphanage she is forced into) and Water by Deepa Mehta.

What’s your favorite thing about Indian culture? I am in love with every inch of what it means to be South Asian– from Urdu poetry and ghazals to our textiles and spices. It is such a privilege that I was gifted a template of how to move in the world in a decolonial way from a young age, where I had a language, colors, art, spiritual practice, ancestral stories, and music that I was raised in where I could constantly question Western ways of living, forming community, thinking, dreaming. I love South Asian sisterhood and the divine female spiritual traditions and ancestry we come from. Most importantly, I deeply appreciate the duality and complexities that South Asian culture and philosophy invites and embodies.

What’s one piece of advice your parents have given you that you should be or are abiding by? My mama named me after the character Sonia in Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment,” in which Sonia, by society’s standards, was seen as an immoral commercial sex worker. Still, few knew she did it to support her family and had the purest heart. I think my mama named me after her because she wanted me to embody the notion that we shouldn’t worry about the labels and assumptions people place on us and focus more on who we aspire to be and how we treat others without needing validation and affirmation from the outside.

Good Indian Girl? I used to strive to fit the mold of a “good Indian girl,” until I stumbled upon Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion. It was a game-changer. Discovering the stories of South Asian women who defied societal expectations and carved out their own paths was truly eye-opening. Embracing my identity as a South Asian rebel girl has been empowering, and I aspire to inspire my nieces by showing them that there are countless ways to navigate the world as young South Asian women.


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