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Learning to Speak: helping women find their voices

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Teacher, trauma counsellor and memoirist Karina Calver is laying herself bare to help women find their voices. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Karina Calver is currently hobbling around Discovery Bay on one good foot. In truth she’s parked at a local coffee shop, but in a while she’ll be hobbling over to the supermarket for some shopping, the culprit behind her  present circumstances. “I broke it walking. I was walking towards the ferry pier, and I had a ton of  groceries,” she says with a hearty eye-roll. “I don’t know what the hell happened.”

It’s a wintery evening and it’s getting dark already but Karina is content to sit and ramble, swapping stories about life as a visible minority in Hong Kong, the high school kids she currently teaches, her inspiring grandmother, scattered Indian families, rape, #MeToo, veganism, writing and anything else that comes into her buzzing mind. Which is not to suggest the Peng Chau resident is anxious or distracted. Quite the contrary, she’s relaxed and confident, and carries her potty mouth with incongruous class.

Karina’s just finished the final edit of her forthcoming memoir, A Girl’s Faith (out January 22), about her personal journey from a  difficult childhood that partnered tradition with rigid repression and sexual abuse at the hands of her father beginning at five, to happily married, popular, secondary school teacher with three university degrees. “I don’t want anyone thinking this is a rape book. It’s not. It’s about the journey and the process and transformation,” she says. “I come from a place of forgiveness and not blame.”

From a place of forgiveness

Born Komal Daswani in Hong Kong to Indian – Sindhi to be precise – parents from Japan (father) and Indonesia (mother), the 40-something Karina can be a curious contradiction – simultaneously forthcoming and guarded, very public yet intensely private. It goes some way towards explaining her and husband of four years recent move to Peng Chau, after living in Discovery Bay fora combined 12 years. They also wanted a fresh perspective.

“I have a lot of good memories of DB. It was where I met my husband, we had our first apartment together here,” she says. “But Peng Chau is like old Hong Kong, like a fishing village, and there’s a lot of compassion among the residents.”

Ironically Karina is back in the public system she loathed as a young student, where racism and bullying were par for the course for the only brown kid in class. Things improved when she got into secondary at the American International School Hong Kong, and now as a teacher she looks back on those days with more nuance. “When I was a student it was way different. It’s like a full circle. Maybe I’ve grown and I understand the ignorance,”she theorises. “Maybe it’s not racism and just a matter of not understanding colour. A lot of kids, their world is very small, so I get to educate them.”

Educating is in Karina’s wheelhouse. After her parents   rejected the idea of her attending university, she did the dutiful thing and took care of her newly single mother after high school until she finally defied her and enrolled at Hong Kong University. Through it all, however, there was her grandmother, the woman Karina credits with shaping the person she is now, and a major figure in A Girl’s Faith. That relationship is among the most important in her life, one that taught her the value of being authentic and speaking one’s mind, and Karina admits she’s very much like her grandmother as an adult – if not as brutally honest.

A Girl’s Faith is a transformation story about my life, about being a rape survivor and becoming who I am; how that does not define my life anymore. It’s also a tribute to my grandmother, who passed away [in May]. She was more like a mother, she taught me values, how to cook and all of that. I knew losing her was going to be hard for me but it was harder than I thought. I was in the midst of writing and I realised the book was actually about her. I kept bringing her up, and it happened organically. It’s about what’s she’s taught me, and I’m sharing her wisdom more than mine. I couldn’t pretend to beanything but myself, and I think my grandmother was like that too.”

The face of #MeToo

Karina’s personal experience and leanings as a natural student led her to a degree in trauma counselling from Monash University, which she does part time, as well as to a position as one of Hong Kong’s most outspoken #MeToo advocates. When the Weinstein scandal hit in the autumn of 2016, Karina had just recorded a podcast for Hong Kong Confidential and almost instantly became the face of #MeToo here. Though she was fine about telling her own story as a way to help others, she had no intention of writing a book. She gets “memoir fatigue,” and tucked the idea away. But she connected with her editor and agent as a result of the podcast, and decided it was time to share what she knew.

And sharing, talking, in ‘face’ first Hong Kong is crucial to lasting change. “Hell, yeah,” Karina starts. “Women have been silent for far too long. I’m very pro men, and one of our events included men because we wanted them to understand what we saw as harassment. It wasn’t about anger it was about understanding why we could fee uncomfortable. Lots of people don’t understand personal space and how to express that.”

Karina helps organise workshops – for all – to help women empower themselves to speak, and for men to enlighten them on how they may be crossing lines they don’t even realise are there, on media literacy that helps decipher the messages we ingest every day and much more. “As women we’re so used to men taking over, we don’t know how to use our own voices,” she says.

Karina expects A Girl’s Faith will resonate despite cultural differences, and she hopes readers will take as much as they  need from her words.

“When I talk about how I’ve transformed it’s on many levels. I’ve become vegan, and that doesn’t have anything to do with rape, but with how my life has changed from the girl I was. I’ve gone minimal because I realised happiness does not come from ‘things.’ I talk about how Buddhism has helped me find myself, so to speak,” she says.

And now that the book is done, it’s another step in the journey that’s her life, what did Karina herself take away?

“I knew that I had made the shift in my life where my past was not governing me but I didn’t realise how much I had moved on,” she finishes. “It was good to see. Komal Daswani’s life is over. I’m living Karina Calver.”

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