003: Karen Sonilal (she/her)

Content Note: This oral history recounts explicit details of domestic violence.

Karen shares the story of immigrating from the quiet farmlands of Trinidad to the United States. From the happy memories of running around in the fields as a child to the long-lasting impact and trauma caused by witnessing domestic violence from a young age, she reflects on the events of her life and beginning her journey to healing.

Cultural Narrative: 


Participant: Karen Sonilal [K], Interviewer 1 [I1] & Interviewer 2 [I2]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Date: February 10th, 2019

(00:00) I1: My name is [...] and I'm here with Karen and [...]. We are at the Bhuvaneshwar Mandir. Today's date is February 10th, 2019 and we are doing an interview.

(00:16) I1: Karen, you wanted to go first. So, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

(00:21) K: My name is Karen Sonilal and I am 24 years old. I identify as she/he and I am of Trinidadian descent. I came to America when I was about 7 years old. I am a student of Architectural Technology. I am also a dancer. I sing sometimes. I love music.

(00:56) I2: Where did you grow up?

(01:00) K: I grew up in Trinidad, a place called Barrackpore, from the age of...I would say three, or whenever preschool starts. Before that, I was at my grandmother's home which is more like Central Trinidad. It was two different areas. There was farmland on my dad's end in Barrackpore where his family was. My grandmother's place was more, I would say, the middle class, but also farmers that worked in the sugar plantation. That was just where a lot of our income was coming for that country. I stayed with my mom and my dad and my sister. She is about 4 years older than me. Before that, I would stay with my grandma a lot during holidays, mostly grandparents, and that's where I grew up mostly. When we did build our house and we moved to Barrackpore, I was in the middle. It was like a village of people that was all of our family or just mostly, we pretended were our family. It was either they were blood relation or we just made them blood relation. Our house was in between a kind of garden area and my grandmother's house, my dad's mom, so it was very homey, but was all farmlands. So, I would get up in the morning to my grandmother yelling for us to come get fresh cow's milk. That's how I would wake up and spend most of my time with my grandparents until I was of the age of going to school. I grew up in a really just rich area of farmlands and plants and trees everywhere, and cows that are right next to my window that I would go next to all the time and play with. That's where I grew up.

(02:59) I1: How old were you when you came here and what was that like?

(03:04) K: I was about seven years old. We were actually fleeing domestic violence. I didn't know that back then. I knew that mom and dad had these horrible fights, that my sister would take me and leave me at my uncle's house, which was just two doors down since we lived with all family, and she would run back to our house. At that time, I didn't realize just exactly why mommy left for three months. It was like, mom's not here but I'm speaking to her over the phone. She came to New York first and kind of held my Dad's passports and all of our passports so that she can get a space for us to stay. Her plan was, "I'm gonna go first, and my children are going to be taken care," 'cause her mom, everyone's still there, "and the only way I'll be alive is if I leave him." So, she came here, she stayed, and three months later she sent for us. But of course, he was calling and saying, "Give me another chance, how is our children going to fly alone?" So things like that was going on. I had no idea. I thought we were going on a trip. The change of scenery...I was small, so I adjusted quickly. It was just like, “Cool, I'm with my mom again.” The first time we came, I was about six. It was a change of just the temperature, because it's more relaxed in Trinidad, it's more hot. Just being with my mom felt so much better than anywhere else. It was a change of the scene in school too. It was a little lonely, but I didn't really feel like that was something wrong or I didn't know that emotion yet. I just knew I had more friends back then and now I'm just a little kid in the 2nd grade having other little friends but not as much. I think it was difficult, but I didn't know that yet. That's how it was.

(05:16) I2: Gotcha. In the community that you lived in Trinidad, did you see any discrimination against women and girls?

(05:26) K: Yes, largely. Bringing back that domestic violence part, it was more of like, I saw that. Now that I'm older and able to decipher it. It was more of people thinking that women were just the, I would say, “less than” sex. We were the ones or they were ones that needed to maintain a household. They needed to cook. My mom needed to make sure my dad was happy. They needed to make sure their children were okay. Even when my mom and dad would fight and there would be bloodshed, people still kind of expected her to take care of her house. Growing up and now realizing that it's like, a lot of these young women and girls, people just see them as home care or people who take care of the home. It's very unfair to just think a man has emotions and a woman doesn't, or just think that she doesn't want to work, she doesn't want to go to that level of education that he wants to go to. Growing up, I was privileged to have that. No one stopped me from going to any level of education I wanted to pursue, but I saw just how dominated the males were with working. My mom, she tried best to just do any little side work. She would be cutting grass at the side of the street sometimes in Trinidad, just to be like, “Oh I have extra money.” So I thought that was pretty good, but things like being beaten, being cursed at, and the family still expected you to stay. My dad's family still expecting a woman to be around just shows you the inequality that there is in the Caribbean.

(07:28) I2: Did you see any changes in that sort of mentality when you came here to the Indo-Caribbean Community in Richmond Hill?

(07:37) K: I saw that, coming here in the early 2000s, that it was still that kind of mentality. It didn't seem like anyone was caring. My dad actually came when my sister and I came here, so he kind of followed us. So my mom still was experiencing during the early time, the earlier years. People still, they would bring that mentality from Guyana and Trinidad, like, “Don't say anything. Neighbors, don't get involved. That's a man and his wife's problem." Right now it bothers me, because it's like, no! Someone could be getting killed. Why did they still have that mentality? It showed me that just because we move across seas, doesn't mean our mentality is going to move too. It is going to stick there. It doesn't matter if we relocate. Even if Americans are out there fighting for equality and freedom, the Indo-Caribbeans, they bring a mindset of back home. It's up to us to change that mentality wherever we go. That's what I saw. I saw just a lot of the same things. But over my later years, to have Indo-Caribbean groups or even women understanding. My mom left him eventually. She waited 'til he was at work and she took her two daughters and she left. So just women finding their strength or just anyone finding their strength to move to a different mindset or to a different home. I see now in the later years, we're getting that voice and it's building stronger as the years go by in the Indo-Caribbean community over here, so I'm grateful for that.

(09:34) I1: How much did your life change after your parents separated? Can you ;talk about that a little bit more?

(09:46) K: Yeah. It changed drastically, because growing up I would say, 50% of my childhood was literally holding back dad from hitting my mom, or scream not knowing what to do. It was panic attacks. It was seeing my mom run for her life, or hit him back, or try to just be alive and stay alive. Why was I seeing that as a child? I experienced that. After they split, it was just “I don't need to think about that anymore.” I don't need to be worried if dad's going to kill mom today. I don't need to be worried about my mom anymore and her wellness. It was more of, “Just go to school.” It was, “Do your homework.” Priorities changed. Things changed. The things I was worrying about was more childlike, like, "Oh, what am I going to color in class today?" rather than, “Do I need to stay home from school today because dad might kill mom or beat her?” It changed drastically in that way. It also hurt, because I wasn't seeing my dad as much, so I missed him and he was calling and he was like, “Where are you?” He wanted to know our location. And as a child, I knew what he was trying to do. So, just being away from that also changed me, but it brought a sense of peace and and it brought a sense of stability that I had that I never had before.

(11:24) I2: Are there any stereotypes or misrepresentations of women in your community that you think are important to challenge, given what you have been through?

(11:36) K: I believe there's the misrepresentation that they're not strong enough or that it's there fault that they're getting into these relationships or positions. People say you're getting yourself in these situations and I don't think that any woman ever wakes up one day and say, “I want to be abused. I want to be in a toxic relationship. I want to be unhealthy.” I think that a lot of people need to understand that an abuser will always be an abuser no matter what. A sexual assault, that person will always be a predator no matter what. We can decide whether we wear blue today, but we can't decide how people treat us. We can only decide how we treat people. I think a misrepresentation is just, "Oh we're inviting what comes into our life." It really doesn't happen like that 100% of the time. So, I think that that's something that people need to think about when they think about, "Why am I not in this situation but that woman is?" It's because she is. It's because this person came into her life, unfortunately, you know? It's not because she chose to. It's not because of karma of anything that you think is happening to her. I think that we need to understand that women are strong and resilient but they need help. They face so much because they thought to be that weaker sex. They're facing these things because these predatory men are thinking like, “Oh, well she looked for it.” I think that's a huge misrepresentation of what we invite to our life, that we have choices because I can tell you that 100%, that all of us would choose to be happy. That's one thing.

(13:38) I1: What has helped you build relationships across generations?

(13:44) K: I think the general story of struggle. There's always that difference of my other generation or my past generations dealing with things like their husbands and domestic violence, or they had to deal with things like not knowing if they can provide for their family. So when it comes to me just growing up seeing them, or seeing that, or being in Trinidad where all of this is happening, that helps me relate to them by just saying, "I understand your struggle not because I've been there, but because I'm related to these women and I kind of carry their trauma with me." I speak to people from child ages all the way up to 50s, 60s, 70s. My grandmother is 80, and I can speak to her and say, “Hey, how is this? How did you feel this situation? How did you raise 12 kids while being abused by your husband? What happened when he passed away and you had to raise them?” Just being there and knowing that I don't want to go through that is how I relate to them.

(15:06) I2: Throughout your life, how has religion played a role?

(15:12) K: Religion has helped me a lot. Before my mom and dad split, religion was just something that was put on me as a child, that I loved. My grandmother would be singing bhajans everyday. I would sit with her for puja. But more as I got older, it started saving my life. It was mentally for my mental health. Coming to temple just helps me be happy. It helps me have faith in something, something that's, I feel, greater than me. Before we came into this room, I was meditating because I didn't feel like...I wasn't strong enough to be here today. I was having a hard day. So, religion helps me on those hard days to know that, "Hey, something or someone out there has your back." It also gives me insight into the divine feminine. It shows me that I'm a goddess. It shows me that I can go on and I have the strength to. Religion and singing and all of these things that kind of bind together, help me just go on in life when it's feeling pretty hard.

(16:27) I1: Are there stories from the past that you feel are or should be hidden from future generations, and why?

(16:38) K: I think that all of the stories...maybe stories of people in our community saying things like, “Hey, that's your husband”, “You should stay”, that should be hidden, or things like, “Don't talk about this uncle touching you inappropriately. You're gonna shame our family.” I would want those things to be hidden because I thought just now I said, no, we shouldn't hide anything because we want people to know about our struggle but when it comes to things like people putting restrictions on other stories, people putting restrictions on our truth that can help save women around the world, I think that those should be hidden. Those misconceptions, those lies, those things that can do more harm than good, I think that those should be hidden.

(17:41) I1: I actually had a clarifying question, because I want to make sure that ;the listener understands what you're saying. You're saying that those behaviors, like the discouraging of sharing those, that information—>

(17:55) K: Yes, that content, we shouldn't have that be a part of our healing work, because that does more damage than healing.

(18:08) I2: Can you describe some messages that you learned or that were taught to you as a young person that no longer serve you anymore and how did you come to resist those messages?

(18:20) K: I would say messages like, “Boys will be boys.” Those messages don't serve me because it just taught me that it's okay for the opposite sex to do something horrible, or do something different than I'm doing, or do something that's the same that I'm doing, but that's okay for them because their behavior is different than mine and we are not the same child or adult. So, that's something that I think no longer serves me.

(18:57) I1: What are some funny or joyful things that you remember about your childhood?

(19:01) K: A lot of times, I would be spending time with my grandparents. When I was small, before I was at that school age, it was just them and I if my mom had to tend to the house. I would just be with the grandmother or my grandfather a lot, my dad's parents, and lot of times I would go with my grandmother — they were farmers — so I would go into this huge garden that they would plant so that they can sell crops. And I would be walking through the entire upper village with my grandmother and she would be in the garden area, and then lose me for maybe 20 minutes and she would be screaming "Katie, where are you?" 'cause that's what my family calls me. I would just be sitting in between the crops eating green peas, just relaxing. It was so fresh and good and then only maybe if I saw a worm in it, would I go to her and be like, "Listen, take out this worm, I can't eat this." With my grandfather, I would be just looking at him fall asleep in a hammock and I would wait until he drifts off to sleep and then I would run up behind him and scare him or steal his cane and throw it into the bushes. He would just call to be my mom and say like, "She threw it again!" And he would try to stumble out of the hammock trying to get that. I think that's something I always remember.

(20:40) I2: How do you think the women, in Trinidad, how did they interact with ;each other or build relations with one another?

(20:49) K: When I was younger, my mom and the women of that village, where my dad's family were, when they wanted to work, they built a team of women, which is now incredible that I'm thinking about it, and they would work on what they would call "the road", so the entire village road, and they would clean it up. They would either do clean-ups or they would plant new crops along the road. Every week they would pick someone to cook. So, they would walk to that person's house and do their work up until that house, and then eat. They would cook duck, they would drink if they wanted to, it was just a really cool thing they had going on. Besides that, they just had each other's back all the time. If you needed just like a grain, if you needed something you needed to cook, that's one way they would get along. Especially if their husbands were out during the day, it was kind of housewife time. You can do whatever you want. They would get along in that way where they would have each other's backs.

(22:00) I2: How do you think your duties as a child growing up in the U.S. are, I guess, sort of different from those that you had as a child in Trinidad? Or, in general, a child in Trinidad, like any child, would have compared to one in the U.S.?

(22:15) K: Growing up, I was younger in Trinidad so it was different but seeing my sister, how she changed...in Trinidad she had to do things like take care—we lived in farm land area, so it differs—but she had to take care of the ducks. She had to wake up early in the morning, bathe our dogs, take care of the chickens and ducks, and I would be playing but she had to do the actual work. She had to clean out...what's it called? It's like the cage where you hold them in. She cleans that out, she feeds them. She cleans up the outside area. Whatever animals we have, she would take care of them and wash her clothes for school, wash my clothes because I was a dirty kid. I would roll around in the mud and get my shoes dirty. She would shine and polish my shoes. She would take her books and put paper over it. It was kind of like a protecting. That's what she would do. Over here, it's more along the lines of laundry, but I think it's less labor-ous. And maybe it's different for people across the States, but in New York, I see myself just having to do my homework, maybe some housework, but it is not as strenuous as it was in the Caribbean. Right now, I guess it's the living conditions also, 'cause you have a smaller place maybe, when we had an entire house in the Caribbean. Your duties, it seems like it changes drastically from back then to now, where she was taking care of basically the entire household, to now it's more focused on education and your schoolwork and dressing yourself. I think that's what changed.

(24:06) I2: How do you think technology is changing the way women interact with each other?

(24:12) K: I think that it's showing other women that they're not alone because we're sharing our stories, so I think that they're able to communicate more. They're able to say, I feel this way, and you do too, and you're experiencing it, their methods of helping myself and you. I see them collaborating more. I see us uplifting each other more, but also bringing each other down if we can. If we have that opportunity, sometimes a lot of us take it. Social media or the Internet, or all of these things can help us build amazing platforms, or it can help us break each other down. I think that it's helping in a really big level, but it's also what do we choose to do with it. I think it's been very helpful but we have to look at how are we using it.

(25:11) I1: If you think of your life as a movie, what are the major scenes in that movie and who are the important characters?

(25:23) K: I would say they major scenes would be me coming to America. My mom would be a huge character and her mom because of the way that we did that, which is her making that decision and also her mom and her sister kind of giving her the okay and then giving her the support to do it, either financial support or the emotional support to say, "Hey, your kids are going to be okay. You're going to be fine. Just do it. It's the only way you're gonna live," and then also coming here and starting my healing work from all of that. I am starting it now, and I would say groups like Jahajee Sisters would be a main thing. And with my spirituality, like the goddess, because like my mom, she has just been there for me my entire life, I would say. That would be major things that really help changed me. Back then, I didn't even know it, but I was kind of like a life changing event that was happening when I was coming here and now it's another life changing event because I'm like how do I undo all of this trauma, all of these things that are happening? People don't tell you this, but when you're undoing trauma, you have to relive it first. Which is, right now, I'm going through hell with that. Those are the two things I would say.

(26:53) I2: How do you think family connections and trust and camaraderie between women in the Caribbean or in the past...has it changed in any way, in your opinion, in the community?

(27:11) K: I would say...something to think about but I'm thinking. Back then, just what I've observed was a lot of people like to keep to themselves and mind their own business when it came to their own families. Now it's more of sharing it and seeing either how we can help each other or how we can knock each other down. That's what drastically changed. But I see there's all of these support groups are also coming out, which I didn't have back in the day, my mom didn't have back in the day. If she had it may she would have made that move earlier, much earlier in her life. Back then, it just seemed like it was kind of like, "Okay, I may speak behind your back about this problem," but now it's very like, "We can speak about it openly, maybe you can heal from it, you have a support group." I feel like it's changed in that way where more people are coming out and saying, "Hey I go through this too," rather than hiding it.

(28:16) I2: That's so true.

(28:20) I1: This one is along the same lines. What are the hopes for your current generation and for future generations?

(28:26) K: I am hopeful that we can share our stories more and we can even have the older generation, that felt like they couldn't share, come out and share and just tell us a little bit or a lot about how they survived during those things or how they would have want it to have changed. I want...sorry the question again?

(28:53) I1: What hopes do you have for you generation and for future generations?

(28:58) K: I want us to just spread our stories and spread that strength that a lot of us need because even though we are another generation, we're still going through a lot of the same things. We're still going through a lot of the same problems. So I think just a lot of more collaboration, a lot of more digging into your family and saying what's wrong and what's right. I want future generations to speak out more. I want us to be on that level where we know what is toxic behavior, toxic relationships and we know what steps there is for getting out of it, for getting help. So I think that I want more of that.

(29:42) I2: Is there any one story in your life that you would want, or anything, that you would like to tell generations to come or current Indo-Caribbean women or generations in the past?

(30:00) K: I would still say about my mom leaving that toxic relationship that she did. Because along the lines of my entire family, there were stories from my grandmother to my mom of just staying and dealing with that behavior. Then, if you fast forward to my generation, my sister is has dealt with that. I would say, just sharing that and saying, "Look at what she did." She literally moved across seas because she wanted freedom. I would share that with them, or I would share the story of me getting help with my trauma. Telling them, "Hey, it's okay. This is a feeling that people go through but also something they can heal from," because I think past generations didn't understand emotions and they didn't focus on it a lot. It was just like, "This is my life, and this is what I'm gonna do." I ask my grandmother what would you say to domestic violence survivors, or people going through that? She was like, "You know, back in the days, we were taught to basically just go through it or bear until we were dead." She was like "bear until yuh dead" and she said, "You don't have to do that any more." That's one line I would share with all of the generations: you don't have to bear until you die. You don't have to go through this pain and suffering. You can get out of it. There's so much help and strength within you.

(31:37) I1: As a listener, listening to your story, you talked about having to re-experience the trauma again in order to heal. Have you been able to talk with your father? What has that relationship been like?

(31:55) K: Right now, it's bringing up a lot of resentment. There will be periods ;where I speak to him and I'm like, "Oh, dad, I miss you," because I still see him every week or so. Then there will be periods where I don't want to see him, I don't want to speak to him. I will be crying or I will be so angry I will go up to my mom and say, "How dare he do this to you!" What kind of man is he? Does he want to fight with someone that's his own size? Let him try to come touch you now while I'm this old!" I've been planning to speak to him about his behavior and ask him, "Well why did you do that to Mom? Why?" and I haven't been able to. So that's still something that's still ongoing, in the future. I would want to do it soon. And I told my sister, I said, "The next time we have breakfast with him, I would want to bring this up," because I just want to know what his mindset was back then. Maybe there's something I don't know, but I'm also not giving him any excuses, because it was so wrong that it consistently comes up in my mind to hate him but I'm trying to say, "Okay, let's speak to him about it. Let's see if he can be a man that's no longer thinks that this is okay."

So right now, it's just a conflict with me in my mind of wishing bad upon him, wishing hate and rage. When he's going through sufferings, I'm just there like, "Well you made my mom suffer. You made all of us suffer." So it's a constant to be hateful towards him but also feel sorry for him because he's an older man now. It's just...I'm not really in that place of healing yet to just be over that. I'm consistently asking my mom. I'll be dreaming about it. I'll ask my mom, "Why did he do this? I can't believe he did that." I haven't come out and spoke to him yet, but I'm consistently asking my mom why. That's a question that I think I will be asking him soon, but, in my mind, it's so hard to kind of hate someone that you favored as a child, because my sister, she more remembers a lot of what he did. She can more tell you but as a child, I didn't really know a lot of the things, I just knew that they were fighting sometimes. Growing up, now she tells me more of the stories or my mom will get triggered and tell them to me, and I would just be there enraged, saying, "Why would you do such a thing? How dare you? Who do you think you are?" That's something that I think that I need speak to him about just to get clarity, so I can move on.

(34:46) I1: Do you have strategies or advice for people who are in this holding ;pattern of pain and the rawness of coming out of it? Do you have any advice or any strategies that you use that is helpful?

(35:03) K: A lot of the times, I write about. I started to try going to therapy sessions, because I think that's very, just a place of healing that sometimes we all need to go to because we can speak about it to our colleagues, to our friends, but really going to a professional and saying, "Hey, this is what's coming up to me as trauma. This is what I'm dealing with right now." I think that that's helpful too. I think also just speaking to that person about it if it's safe, if it feels safe to you. Maybe writing down questions that you want them to answer, having someone in the room, like I would have my sister there, so things don't escalate because a trait in my parents or my family is, when we feel like someone is attacking us, to start screaming and start maybe even cursing or getting defensive. I think having someone that makes you feel safe would be ideal.

Traditional Knowledge: 

bhajan: any song, typically of Indian origin, with religious themes or spiritual ideas; Hindu worship songs; [pronunciation: BAH-jahn / BUH-jin]
puja / pooja: prayer; prayer ritual; religious worship; [pronunciation: PU-jah]