SHAIcon | Fiza Pirani: Writer, Artist, Entrepreneur
We're so excited to introduce our SHAIcon series, where we spotlight inspiring figures who are defining culture on their terms and making the world a better place by doing so.
Our first SHAIcon is Fiza Pirani, a journalistic force, mental health advocate, and talented artist (talk about a triple threat). Fiza is the founder of Foreign Bodies, a mental health storytelling newsletter centering immigrants, refugees, and diasporas. She is also an award-winning freelance journalist, as well as a watercolor + ink artist, showcasing her work on Doodles by Fiza.
Fiza purchased our Inshadycompany Green Bandhani Cap and it served as her muse for this gorgeous painting:
We were touched and honored that she drew inspiration from one of our pieces. It takes courage to put your creative work out there for the world to see, and Fiza's vulnerability is a strength that fuels her career and empowers others. Learn more about Fiza in our interview with her below!
What made you decide to launch Foreign Bodies and Doodles by Fiza? What's your mission behind these endeavors?
First of all, thanks so much for the lovely introduction! I am such a fan of SHAI and the delicate, thoughtful selections and collaborations you're bringing to the world.
I launched Foreign Bodies in 2018 when I was awarded a reporting fellowship with The Carter Center. Originally, the plan was to publish a couple of news stories in my local newspaper, where I was a staffer, but as I began reporting, I realized that to address all of the conversations I kept having around the immigrant experience and mental illness, I needed to have a space that was unapologetic, candid and intimate. Around that time, email newsletters were making sort of a comeback. It felt like the ideal medium to foster a safe space for sensitive issues that didn't feel too confrontational. Foreign Bodies has really grown since 2018, and it means the world to me to be able to spend so much time on a subject dear to my heart with a mission to help de-stigmatize pain, vulnerability and mental illness across marginalized communities through the power of storytelling.
Doodles by Fiza, on the other hand, started with random sketching in notebooks when I was on bedrest following a spine/nerve injury that made it difficult for me to sit up and write. Obviously, I'm a writer by profession! So not being able to really work at my full potential was devastating. To get my thoughts onto paper, I started doodling with ink while in bed and posting on my personal newsletter, fiza's word vomit. Once my injury improved with physical therapy and aquatherapy, I found myself picking up watercolors and sticking with the evening ritual of doodling and painting. Now, I commission 1-3 custom pieces a month based on my availability and sell select original works (and prints!) to help support my writing endeavors, from Foreign Bodies to novel writing, magazine submission fees and everything else in between. It is primarily a project to help me unwind when life gets to be too overwhelming, but getting to share my creations with the world is incredibly fulfilling.
Is it difficult balancing multiple lines of work, or do they feed off each other?
Creative labor really does feel so mystifying, doesn't it? I mean, it's impossible to say these projects don't feed off of each other, because while the tools I'm using vary by medium, I'm bringing the same kind of energy wherever I go. Those tools—whether it's a paintbrush or a keyboard or a pen or a recorder—just complement the product. That being said, I kind of thrive in the mish-mash and the chaos. Creating is my full-time job. And creating can get messy. Rarely does it involve only a blank canvas or page.
When I was working full-time in a newsroom, balancing Foreign Bodies or other creative work on top of a job in a highly toxic industry (at least for many young journalists of color) felt impossible and it was certainly proving harmful to my own mental health. But since I decided to go independent with journalism—a choice rooted in privilege—I've found so much comfort in the endless possibilities of creative labor.
How did you cultivate your community of subscribers and clients?
Most of my friends and acquaintances already knew I was a journalist, and the reporting fellowship with The Carter Center added a layer of mentorship and credibility, I believe, to my work on Foreign Bodies. At first, I just asked my friends and family to offer feedback, and once I felt comfortable, I began promoting each free newsletter issue on my own Twitter and Facebook accounts.
When I quit my full-time job, I began dedicating more time to social media promotion and even added a paying subscriber option that went beyond the monthly issues (weekly roundups + discussions!). I also work with immigrant and diaspora authors on exclusive book giveaways for subscribers, and that's really expanded my literary network. Foreign Bodies is, after all, primarily about healing through storytelling. I realized the more time I spent on creating quality content that was truly authentic, the more new readers gravitated toward Foreign Bodies.
Substack has also been an incredible platform to work on. I've never seen a tech company so aggressively partner with and amplify independent creatives. I'm excited to be a mentor for its first writer's mentorship program this year!
What goes into producing a single newsletter?
The monthly(ish) newsletter issue is topped off with a personal essay on a particular immigrant experience, followed by research on its connection to mental health and well-being. It features resources and insights, a compilation of additional #relatable stories, plus expert Q&As and dog pics of my rescue pup, Lady. These issues require about ~20 hours of often unpaid labor, from initial brainstorming and outlining, collaboration, interviewing, researching, writing, editing and art. And more editing! It's more work than I can usually financially afford during a global pandemic, which is why, for now, I've decided to publish once every few months to ensure I can pay any volunteer copy editors/illustrator for their work without drowning!
The exclusive weekly roundup issues for subscribers, which are so fun to put together, involve about ~3-4 hours of labor each, and much of that time is spent reading beautiful personal storytelling from indie publications and finding the latest news on the intersection of immigration x mental health. These roundups also include writing opportunities, shout-outs, resources, community updates and more.
Do you do custom orders? If so, what sort of custom requests have you received?
Yes! I do about 1-3 custom Doodles by Fiza orders per month, depending on how many reporting deadlines I have. So far, I've commissioned lots of pet portraits and a handful of family portraits. Some requests have moved me to tears, too. I recently painted a portrait for someone who lost a loved one and, for a friend's wedding gift to her fiancé, I painted an abstract landscape of their outdoor wedding venue. The best part of these custom orders is working directly with the client. I put together a contract and ask about favorite colors, vibes etc. to ensure the piece really speaks to them. It's so, so fun.
What made you want to paint our Inshadycompany Green Bandhani Cap?
I'm obsessed with my Inshadycompany Green Bandhani Cap! It's funny, I'm actually not much of a hat person, but I wear this...almost every week? And my grandparents love it, too. I wanted to paint this product because it truly brings me joy to hold and wear. And as someone who doesn't really enjoy shopping for and wearing South Asian attire but *adores* the intricate, traditional patterns of the cultures, I felt it was an appropriate way to show my appreciation.
What else has been inspiring you lately?
I'm an avid reader, so books are always inspiring me in all my creative endeavors! My recent reads include A Burning by Megha Majumdar, which is set in present-day India, and Raven Leilani's incredible debut novel, Luster. I'm also constantly inspired by the changing leaves, walks in the park and when the pool water is just warm enough for a quick dip.
How can we view and support your work?