Chantal & Danielle Khan
“This is our story, as much as anyone else's.”
It's our second season finale and we are ending with a special one! Sisters Chantal and Danielle (Dani) Da Silva Khan's curiosity led them to truly understand their family, their stories, and the role those stories play in each of their lives. Chantal wrote a poignant article following the 20th anniversary of 9/11 about her family's decision to change their name from paternal Khan to maternal Da Silva to protect the family. Now 20 years later both sisters are fully aware of the significance of that act and have taken power back with the reclamation of their name. With that reclamation comes pause and reflection on what life would have been like if they didn't change their name, and awareness of how their heritage and background feeds into their present-day purpose and platforms. We are grateful to hear their story and how they have honoured their backgrounds by bringing it to the forefront in our first-ever sister interview for the Root & Seed podcast.
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Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity. This season, we met so many incredible people who are honouring their culture. What does honouring actually mean, you might wonder? To us it’s about bringing it to the forefront, doing it consciously, discerning and expressing a point of view. We started the season with Alex who's intentionally inviting in his Korean culture as a way to expose his daughter to that part of her background, then to Sophia and Saphina who lovingly credit their extended family's roles in shaping their experiences. Then to Jon, who is choosing to honour his unique family, history, tradition, and flavours, rather than painting his diverse background with broad cultural strokes. And finally, we spoke to Janey and Nadia who found pride in honouring their stories through their chosen professional fields and platforms. We learned that you can be all in on expressing your unique cultural identity, or you can carry just enough of it, the extent doesn't really matter.
What does matter is the awareness of recognizing who you are and that just the intention of maintaining your culture is a wonderful way to honour your history and carry it into the future.
Last season, we explored the idea of reclaiming your name and then earlier this Fall, we hosted an Instagram Live with a woman named Hankyul Oh to explore her story. Also, at that time with Truth and Reclamation, we saw the Canadian government finally changing policy to allow Indigenous names back on passports and legal documents. And then we were introduced to an incredible article in the Globe & Mail about a family who went through a rollercoaster of emotions regarding their name following 9/11 and into today. With this season, being all about honouring your cultures, we just knew that we needed to find a way to shine a light on that subject. Full credit goes to Kathy Lee, a guest from our first season for making the introduction to the family behind the article. The article's author, Chantal, and her sister, Dani, both had individual journeys of her reclaiming their last name, Khan.
Dani is a photographer and lover of all things connected to the earth, Chantal is a writer and journalist and currently situated in London, England. One is highly visual, one is more cerebral, but both were incredibly expressive and articulate. We love how these sisters have such distinct perspectives but are so deeply insightful, they play off of each other and they are each other's biggest fans. Ethnically they're mixed race and geographically have backgrounds in Portugal, India, Pakistan, Canada, and the UK. First, Chantal sets the stage by speaking about their relationship with their background growing up.
Yeah, I think to some extent, I would say, and I don't know if I can speak for Danielle (or Dani) on this but I think in many ways it was quite distant growing up in the sense that our parents were sort of very dedicated to this linear model of assimilation. They were two people who really felt the need to fit in with what they believed was “Canadian culture” and to not only just fit in, but they really wanted to succeed as model Canadians, whatever that means. So as a consequence, we weren't really raised in an environment where our diversity and differences were celebrated. And I say that with a lot of love and compassion because I understand why they felt that way. These forces and this need to assimilate and abandon their histories as so many others try to do in order to start something new. But they always told us to tell others “you’re Canadian and only Canadian” if they ever asked, as if it was almost like a front. I'd say this was more applicable for my mom to be asked about our backgrounds because she tried so hard to be viewed as Canadian and she grew up having kids make fun of her Portuguese accent and our differences when she moved to Toronto at the age of 11 from Portugal. So her own background was something that she was always trying to, sort of, hide. Our grandmother only spoke Portuguese, so it was something that influenced us always growing up with these peripheral influences of our backgrounds that our parents were always running from but they inevitably seeped in. I always had interesting stories to tell friends that I didn't think were particularly interesting, but we shared stories from our Indo-Pakistani background….that's what our family refers to themselves as given that our grandparents fled India to Pakistan during partition. So they call themselves Indo-Paks. But telling the stories of my family to friends was always like, “Is that true?” “Like that's crazy” or "That's so interesting.” And I was like, yeah, I mean, that's just my family. But I think I always felt connected to my background when I was young and wanted to know more, but the information was rarely readily available just because we really didn't want to speak about it so much. And that's changed in recent years… they're more open to these kinds of conversations and they know that we're both really thirsty for knowledge and want to know more. So it's kind of been an evolving process.
What a relatable narrative of immigrants decades ago, desiring to fit in and be Canadian foregoing their individual stories and backgrounds. One thing we found super interesting was that both Chantal and Dani have chosen careers that are creative and expressive in nature, and that they have woven their backgrounds into their work and platforms. Chantal as a breaking news editor for NBC News, and Dani as an acclaimed storyteller, visionary, and land protector. She is the founder of several initiatives including Photographers Without Borders where she has been Executive Director for 12 years. They speak about how their backgrounds have influenced their present-day purpose, next.
I think our family and my identity definitely played a big part in my interest in journalism, in the first place. And later with the kinds of stories that I chose to cover. First of all, because as I mentioned, my family, I suppose, used to be very private about not just our ancestry, but our parents' own stories. And generally, we were quite a private family growing up and I think it turned me into a bit of a snoop, in the sense that I would go on so-called fact-finding missions to sort of dig into everyone's personal things and try to build a picture of who they were and what was really going on in their heads. Obviously, my family didn't really like that and my sister will surely tell you about my investigative skills. So for me, journalism really felt like a natural path… I'm interested in people and I started with my family, trying to always kind of deduce who are these people that I'm living with and what's going on in their heads? But the other thing I think is that our family story is so incredibly rich and I know that our family would not exist for it not for migration….forces that sort of drive global movement. So I think that's played a part in my passion for writing about immigration and the realities of asylum seekers and refugees.
As I mentioned earlier on, our grandparents on our father’s side were forced to flee India to Pakistan during partition. My grandmother had to flee in particular because her father through Salman Khan was a judge and active in the All-Indian Muslim league. And as you'll know, that was a party that advocated strongly for the establishment of a separate Muslim majority nation, aka Pakistan and he was imprisoned for a short time due to his role in that party. So, you would hope that there would be a sort of compassion and understanding, naturally when it comes to the topic of immigration. But as we've seen time and time again in history and in the present, particularly in the present, that really isn't always the case. And for myself, knowing I suppose, how inextricably tied my own existence is to migration and movement. And how strong the forces driving migration can really be… I always want to help humanize the stories of immigration so people can understand, who is affected really and, why and how, and just how big of a decision it is to up and leave what is your home or what was your home and to try and create home elsewhere. It’s a big decision that so many people make on a daily basis. And I don't think there's always so much compassion around that in the world.
I'm just somebody who's always followed what's inside of me and what's in my heart. And sometimes that's led me into really interesting, fun, dark places… but it's something that I feel I'm very called to continue following. You can call it intuition. You can call it whatever you like. But for me, that's just been the path and similar to Chantal I was very curious growing up. Mostly because I was made to feel very “othered” from an early age and had so many questions about it. And unfortunately, like Chantal said, our families weren’t really forthcoming or didn't really even know their own story. There was a lot of running away from the past I think happening. And that's what draws a lot of folks to assimilation…or to assimilate. I think it's because they're trying to forget a lot of what happened. They're ashamed of it. It brings back traumatic memories. There's so many reasons why… but when you're a young woman who presents a certain way, navigating the world and you're being placed in situations where whiteness is the majority… it's really difficult. You find yourself faced with all kinds of overt racism and assumptions of… you can't play sports... you can't do this… you can't build a six-pack... you can't… there's so many “you can'ts” just because of who you are. And that's what I experienced growing up. And it caused me to question….where does this come from? Like, why are people racist? Why and where do all these dynamics come from? Why do people call me a Paki? You know, what are all these questions that I wanted to answer? And back then there were the encyclopedias. You know what I mean? And then we got the internet finally, and there was just limited amounts of information available.
And of course…they who write history dictate what happens. History is not necessarily factual, it's opinionated. And so I just wanted to see the places and feel the places. That led me to India with Chantal, actually we went to India together for the first time in 2007. And it was that project that we were working on that really inspired me to start Photographers Without Borders and that was my path and building Photographers Without Borders has been all about. Supporting the grassroots, supporting the people on the ground who are doing such great work and get no recognition because there are people of colour oftentimes, or because they are socially excluded or economically excluded and that's not fair. That’s what we do. We try to address the gap by supporting grassroots community initiatives with free media, free photography, and storytelling. And now we help storytellers as well. Storytellers who are BIPOC storytellers, who are LGBTQIA+. Storytellers who are disabled, storytellers who are youth and trying to find these opportunities and facilitating growth in that sense.
We love how Chantal and Dani’s sense of curiosity and questioning has not only led their family to honouring their backgrounds, but has seeped into the gifts that they are now providing the world as adults. Next we discuss how both sisters reclaimed their last name, starting with Chantal and her article and then with Dani reflecting on her and her family's reaction to the article and her own experience.
It's a story I’ve wanted to write for the greater part of the last decade and every year I would write different versions of it… not only as articles, but even as short fiction pieces inspired by my family's story. And I just wrote it in so many different ways, but I always felt not quite ready to pitch it and to release it. As I touched on before, a lot of that had to do with just not really feeling entitled to tell my family story and I suppose in effect my own story. As I mentioned, my family was fairly private. The reality is that the story of how my sister and I had our names changed after 9/11. It is a sensitive one that triggers a lot of feelings and every single member of our family, immediate and extended. And, and I think it's a painful and in many ways in my honest opinion, a shameful subject. Just to kind of give a bit of background, our family decided to change our last name. I think I was 11 or 12 when the twin towers fell, when 9/11 happened and in the year and a half after that, our family decided to change my sister and I, our last names from Khan to Da Silva, and it was sort of a very much a family decision. I didn't really understand the impact of it then, but in the years since I really came to sort of regret that that happened. I wanted to reclaim Khan and I know Dani has felt the same way and has reclaimed it as well. I think with all the family tensions, I was afraid to “poke that particular bear.” And as I expanded upon in the piece, it's also a complex story to tell from the position I personally hold as an ostensibly white, mixed-race person, talking about how they gained further privilege as a child from having their name changed from Khan to Da Silva. I'll never really know the impact that the privilege gained there had on my life and my course, my career and every aspect of my life. I always wonder who would Chantal Khan have been and what would her life have looked like? And I'll just never know. There were a range of forces pushing back against my desire to tell that story, and get it off my chest, because telling that story was a very therapeutic process. And I guess what really brought me to the point of being able to tell it was that 1. We were approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and it sort of struck me that it's been two decades since this event that prompted the name change. And I still have this story caught in my throat. And I really needed to let it out and entangle it and that was really weighing me down for all these years and I just kind of felt when is the time to tell it? And I had been really researching my family's roots and my family stories over the past couple of years and I just thought, you know what? I felt confident enough that I know my story. I know my family story. Why can't I tell it? And so I did.
I was extremely proud of Chantal. Chantal is a gifted storyteller and writer. You can see it, it shines through in all of her work. And this article particularly really struck me and it felt really good to see her sharing this and exploring this. And in terms of our family's reaction about it, I'm sure that there were mixed feelings, you know? As there would be with something like this, but it's funny because in 2019, I had done a talk for Nat Geo in Portugal and it was all about decolonizing conservation and decolonizing storytelling, and I started the talk with the name change discussion. And it was received so well, I got my first standing ovation, but then when my family saw it a few months later, I never thought that they would see it because I didn't think that it would be aired online… the reactions were pretty strong and it wasn't just about the name change. There were other elements in there that they weren't happy about. But again I'm the kind of person who does things from the heart. And I feel like this is my story, as much as anyone else's and I feel like I need to be vulnerable. But one thing I did learn from this is really doing that work of making sure that everyone in the family is okay with what's being written, and what’s being shared and Chantal did that with everyone in the family. She put a lot of care into it, so I just really respect her and her processes. So I think at the end of the day, regardless of how folks feel about it or feel about the aftermath….there was a lot of good intention and thoughtfulness about the impact as well. And I think overall, this was good for Chantal and good for the family, so I'm really grateful.
Thought-provoking yet respectful in its approach. It's no wonder that their stories about their name reclamation resonate with so many. How cathartic it must've felt when both of them were able to express it in their own unique ways, using their own platforms and media. With that as a backdrop, we then moved on to talking about the experiences that influenced their cultural sense of self at what parts of their heritage they're currently feeling an attachment to.
It's funny because over the years I have become really connected to a Hindu family in India and our ancestral lineage. They weren't Hindu at least in recent years. I imagine prior to Islam coming into India, that there would have been people practicing different types of religions. Hinduism actually is a creation of the British, folks were practicing different types of religions and worshiping different deities and the British decided to lump them all into one group that they called Hindu. So I just want to say that, but I am very connected to holidays like Diwali. And Navratri and many of the Hindu holidays… I've been lucky to be in India for them. Holi as well. Just the feeling of togetherness and celebration and how everyone comes together. And many of these holidays include a goddess or a God vanquishing different types of darkness and embracing destruction as part of creation and just everything around that culture really motivates me and inspires me. It's a big reason why I'm so into yoga and Ayurveda and astrology now, and trying to connect with those practices. So I feel very connected that way and yeah, yoga, Ayurveda, all of these things I'm learning. I’m learning cosmic astrology, and just all of these different practices that are related to our ancient ancestors, things that I'm really connected to personally.
I visited Portugal on my own and went to Calistenia where our Mom grew up and I went into my twenties and I didn't have any kind of game plan that just sort of showed up and walked around the streets of Calistenia asking random strangers “Do you know where Alice Da Silva is?” Someone said,” oh yeah, I know Alice. I'll take you to a cafe.” And from the second I arrived, I was surrounded by family I had never met or really known anything about, and they really embraced me and took me around to see every single relative that we had in the area. Then I wanted to visit our grandfather's grave and it was quite funny because I took a taxi to the main graveyard and when I arrived…. the second I got there, I felt it wasn't quite right. And I said, “Is there another burial ground or graveyard here?”. And at first the drivers said no, and insisted there was nowhere else. And then he said, “well, yeah, actually there's a smaller plot.” And we went there and I found them almost right away…I just walked towards his gravestone. And I'm not much of a spiritual person, but I did feel very pulled to where he was. And that made me feel just really connected to that side of my family
What a beautiful story and one that gives us full-body shivers for someone
who isn't particularly “spiritual”. Next in true Root & Seed style, we ended with a question from our newly launched conversation tool web app, and decided to ask the question, “what family heirloom or artifact do you treasure?”
Well in terms of heirlooms, my sister and I and our mother recently received a ring from my grandmother while she was in convalescence care. And that was really important to me. it's something that connected us all together…all four women in the family and we each have this tiny gold ring that's the same and it's part of a set that she had. it was just really meaningful for her. It’s a real gift to us. And another heirloom I have also from my grandmother. It's a bracelet that was allegedly one of the first things that she bought when she moved to Canada, after she got her job working at a furniture production factory. So that just means a lot to me because you know our grandmother and mother came to Canada with very little, very little resources. They would have to go worm picking early in the morning. My mom would go with my grandmother before school to make ends meet and pay the rent. So having something like that, one of the first possessions that she got when she arrived is really important to me
Once again, the power of the physical to provide meaning and understanding beyond the physical. What a beautiful bond these women share and the jewelry will surely be something that they will treasure forever. We have full gratitude for both sisters, Chantal and Dani, their sense of curiosity sparked a journey to truly understand their diverse story and background. And now it bleeds into their present-day work and ensures that honouring is done in the most thoughtful way possible. They both have recognized the privilege that their changed name may have provided them. And now have taken power back with this act of reclamation. And the idea of decolonizing storytelling and making sure that we dig into history has been documented and we are all inspired to follow our heart and intuition until we find what we're searching for. Thank you, Dani and Chantal.
And thank you so much for listening to this season of the Root & Seed podcast. We wish you a happy and healthy winter break. Next season, we are super excited to talk about how people are celebrating their culture. If you have a story to share, we would love to hear it in the meantime, remember to check our conversation tool web app at capture.rootandseed.com and record your stories for safekeeping and reference
Bye for now. Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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