BY F. ASMA NAZIM-STARNES
Born in Sri Lanka during the emergence of one the world’s longest lasting civil wars, I never recognized my love and concern for the Island and its ancient history and culture until I traveled to America to pursue a higher education. Ever since, I have constantly found myself in situations where I am regarded as the 'other' or the 'outsider.' I seem to not fit in completely in this country as well as in my own. In the United States I am often considered 'eastern' or 'exotic,' whereas in my own country, I am considered 'westernized,' no longer looked at as a typical Sri Lankan woman. I have been fortunate to be exposed to Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian cultures, beliefs and ways of life. I was raised in a Muslim family and grew up amongst friends and teachers of various religious backgrounds, which has had a significant influence on my outlook on life—even more so upon living my adult life thus far in the US.
A western individual often identifies me as an eastern woman while my demeanor tends to defy the stereotyping I am often burdened with here and at home. For example, in the US, especially in the southern states, people have asked me, "What are you?" whereas in Sri Lanka, people tend to pass the judgment; "She must have gone to America and got Westernized." I have battled with identifying as woman from a Muslim heritage, bearing an Arabic name in a country that has been frequently brain-washed by the media, politics and the onset of terrorism, therefore bringing upon a judgment from certain factions of society as to being a plausible terrorist. I have faced this numerous times in embassies, in airports around the world, in academic institutions, the corporate world and upon my travels as well.
My travels across cultural borders and languages have been vital in shaping my viewpoints. My experiences, perceptions and reflections have led me to feel emotions sumptuously, which I contemplate on often, and events in my personal life have played no small role. Moreover, the tensions between the familiar and unfamiliar have been a constant conflict. My questions about knowledge, power, identity and the shifting of character are constantly being raised and reflected upon.
Sri Lanka, like many other Asian colonial states, has a diverse society consisting of a number of distinctive peoples, not unlike New York City with its impressive collection and representation of a number of nationalities. When I first arrived in the country, amidst the teeming US crowds, I felt that there was no one who knew me or that I could relate to. With all the anticipation and adventure, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was in fact a visitor, an outsider, in the US only for a few years to complete my studies and return home. I felt as though I was not an active participant, instead simply an observer.
I long for a way in which I can travel back and forth between my American and Sri Lankan worlds inconspicuously and seamlessly, without a sense of alienation in either world, and at ease in both. For a design project, I created a handmade book for which I collected my thoughts in the form of a poem called "Return to Serendib," where I expressed my experiences while traveling home to Sri Lanka. It presents a contrast between the book "Return to America."
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Return to Serendib
From above, she was dressed
in the most luxuriant tropical green,
while cerulean and sapphire waters
Such a wealth of color
was a glorious sight to witness.
This fabled, sacred land
much like Atlantis
that would forever live in my dreams
and hold me there for life.
an island in turquoise waters
has seduced her visitors for centuries.
a tranquil tropical isle
of such intense serenity
has in western imagination
been considered the Utopia of the East.
As I experience her glory
I know this is my home…
yet I feel as though I do not belong.
what bittersweet memories!
Copper colored, bronze hued beaches
a hidden paradise that never ceases
to enchant my sight.
I walk through this land
A land of palms and pearls.
A million seashells strewn on a glittering ocean,
I am far from western comforts now.
But did I ever realize
this sweet, warm paradise?
The fruition of the earth’s labors,
I inhale the scents
of sweet cinnamon, the perfumed lemongrass.
I look toward the emerald plains of tea,
such exotic wildlife,
an ancient culture,
and breathtaking temples,
all around me.
I see a little village girl
sitting with chin to knees.
A child of Ceylon,
her skin coffee-brown
as a wealth of ebony hair tumbles down.
I see myself in her,
but can she see herself in me?
The stars look like diamonds
scintillating the indigo sky,
the silver tropic moon
leans lovingly on high,
breaking the calm of such an exotic night.
All this I feel; I see-
I am afloat, most languidly.
Waves of loneliness wash over me,
yet I am not alone.
The Sun God- blinding, brilliant, true-
His hot gold shine
lights up this grove of pleasures,
of living treasures,
a temple of living ecstasies.
But I am an outsider now…
the morning’s sun wears high.
I must return.
"Return to America" features details of my initial experiences while traveling to the United States for the first time. It touches on the fact that I left my country for an education in the US, as well as for social and cultural freedom, but how I found myself restrained and faced with several formalities and legalities in the country instead. I also discuss how America only reinforced my 'otherness' and the fact that I was in the country with a time limit, for a purpose.
This book, along with, "Return to Serendib" expressed my endeavor to portray the various dualities and dichotomies I faced between the East and the West.
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Return to America
as the Boeing 747 approached touchdown
the land below
an infinite plane
resembling a gridded structure;
blinding, dazzling lights
on endless highways;
I was in awe.
my home for four years–
I didn’t know a single person,
I was by myself,
A strange, unfamiliar place
I had made it to America.
even before I made the 26-hour journey
I was reminded that I didn’t belong.
Did I want an education in the U.S?
Did I want to live there?
Why not stay, get qualified at home?
there was a time
my home felt
I had to get away
I had to be free.
I20’s, I94’s, F1’s, visas
my head swims
as it had swum.
I came here to be liberated,
but once again
I found myself
It was clear
I was here for a reason;
to finish what I came for,
return to where I came from.
to the life I had built
the life I had come to love.
the land of flowers
my home of nearly eight years.
The palm trees
wealth of greenery
I chose this place,
it reminds me of home.
Dynamic, transient, diverse society.
For all the anticipation
and all the excitement,
a sense of distance.
on a time limit
with a purpose.
I came to realize
I was an Indian.
for so long.
just trying to explain
where I am from.
Is it then
Here I am again
as the days
I am expected
My travels to the West have immensely educated me in a field that is not yet acknowledged or professionalized in Sri Lanka. The field of graphic design is shadowed by the world of advertising, and its growth has been stunted due to several factors, which include the unfavorable economy of the country at the time, lack of technological advancements, the absence and unavailability of design schools as well as trained instructors and so on. This has enabled me to explore and create a unique visual language that incorporates and represents much of my Eastern heritage, but can still speak to a Western audience. In this way, I possess the ability to bring the tradition of graphic design to Sri Lanka, as well as being able to represent the distinctive visual language of Sri Lanka to the West.
The designer as author is recognition of the central presence of the designer as a voice and a vision in the process of form-creation and message-formulation. The designer’s personal views and convictions are integral ingredients to the definition of self-authored graphic design. Having a point of view from the vantage point of self is crucial.
It was not until I arrived in the US and lived in the country for a significant amount of time that I realized the many appealing and engaging features of Sri Lanka. With this information in mind, I found myself being inspired by my own heritage and culture in a way that I had never perceived or experienced before. These influences have greatly influenced my design work, and I am now more informed about how to portray my country, and thus my own experiences. Sri Lanka is a unique island, and a westerner would most likely consider it to be exotic.
However, Sri Lanka was never exotic to me until I left the country. At the time, it was the US and other western countries that I deemed 'exotic.' Here again, the US is no longer as exotic to me in the same way after having lived in the country for several years. Using native images, colors, sounds and calligraphy in my design work would immediately lead an informed western audience to think of the far east, the orient and 'the other.'
I have been significantly influenced by Asian graphic design masters, which began with my fascination with Ikko Tanaka’s work, followed by that of Yokoo Tadanori and Reza Abedini to name a few. I am always in awe when I scrutinize work by artists who implement their native language in the elevated art form of calligraphy, where the beauty of the letterforms and symbols are stunningly utilized and the visual appeal speaks for itself. These artists also frequently use traditional images from their native countries, addressing various political, racial, cultural and social issues. My research has also led me to believe that they understand the meaning of color far more deeply than western designers do. This affects the color choices in their work, leading communication into a deeper more profound meaning to their audience.
Ikko Tanaka was an exceptional Japanese graphic designer who has been a significant source of inspiration for me while immersed in studies of the visual arts. He was a pioneer who had an essential quality of fusing traditional Japanese traditions with western and contemporary design. Consequently, he transcended the constraints of cultures and social boundaries with his design work. His use of color is undoubtedly vibrating and captivating. While using black and white had been customary in Japan–clean and polished–he favored the use of bright, bold strokes of color, which demonstrated the Japanese panache. He used traditional Japanese calligraphy along with English typography in his pieces, which reflected his ability to communicate across cultures.
Now that I have completed my undergraduate and graduate studies, I have gone through even more life changes. I was hired as a full-time assistant professor in my late twenties, having progressed right into the classroom as a professor of art and design soon after receiving my MFA. Being in front of a classroom as a 25-year-old was challenging at first, but I feel as though my life experiences have all cumulated towards helping me reach my academic and professional goals.
There are times when I am challenged with students who are almost my age, or those who are decades older than me, taking me seriously in class. Over the past few years I have had classrooms with as little as three students in them, to ones with over sixty students at a time. My mother, a grade school teacher for nearly three decades, has always told me what a rewarding profession teaching is.
These cultural standards have been instilled in me as a young child, and in my adult life I carry tremendous respect for my most memorable and influential college and university professors. The college classroom experience is surely a very different one than being in a classroom with young children. Having come to this country as a student myself, at times it feels peculiar that I am a foreigner from a far off country, educating Americans.
Moving forward, and reflecting on my time on this earth so far, I realize that I grew up in a country where teachers are deeply respected and looked up to, so much so that in Sri Lanka we address our teachers as our aunts or uncles, respectfully never using first names. It was common to always bring our teachers gifts at the end of school terms, in the form of handmade cards, sweet treats our mothers made, little plaques with quotes or poems to mount on the walls and so on; always letting them know how much we valued their instruction.
Having become an educator myself, I am aware that it is my aim to ultimately inspire learning and divulge knowledge in captivating, noteworthy and creative ways. As a graphic designer, I consider myself not only an artist, but also an individual responsible for the communication of messages, a thought-provoker and an educator. It is my goal to expose my students to all aspects of the visual arts—from its early history to its evolution, and contemporary design as well. They are frequently introduced to innovative design masters from all over the world past and present, various design styles and important movements, and are encouraged to articulate their thoughts and reactions in class, thereby prompting critical listening and reasoning as well as engaging discussions. In this way, I endeavor to balance my courses between teaching, and encouraging new thoughts and discoveries.
Being trained in the fine arts, I have always believed that a graphic designer should be trained as an artist first, then as a designer. I encourage students to explore all platforms of multimedia, and assess the best way to create and present specific projects. It is my interest and objective to see that the young adults of this country explore, experiment and find their own unique strengths and abilities, which can then evolve towards developing their own style, just as I once did.
Given my life experiences and my international background, my students are taught about the significance of cross-cultural and international design responsibilities, and are introduced to issues of visual and verbal representation, semiotic and syntactic studies, vernacular and subversive design and so on.
With the constantly changing and evolving commercial design arena, it is my role to help students develop a method for analytical and conceptual thinking, making educated choices, and allowing versatility in order for them to become highly successful and noted individuals in the field. This is my current outlook on life and what I deem is worthwhile spending my time on, during my limited time on earth.
F. Asma Nazim-Starnes was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka and left her country at a young age to pursue a college education in Graphic Design. She studied for a BA in Graphic Design at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, FL, minoring in Art History, and took four years of painting in addition to studying digital design media. She decided to further her studies and attended Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale, FL to obtain an MFA in Graphic Design.
Currently she is working as an assistant professor of Graphic Design at Lander University, in Greenwood SC. An ardent lover of animals, cook, gardener and artist, Asma Nazim-Starnes currently calls Greenwood, SC home with her husband and beloved cats.