Sara Ostrowska is Borderless

A poster for Borderless Arts and Music Festival 2018. Image courtesy of Borderless Bound Records.

When Sara Ostrowska first moved to Peterborough, she changed her last name from Shahsavari to Ostrowska as a way of recognizing her Polish roots. Her first musical project is Television Road, a direct reference to Peterborough. Her solo project is called Shirazi – a nod to her Irani heritage and an exploration of identity. In a sense, each of these geographical landmarks represent the journey that Ostrowska has taken since moving to Peterborough. As we spoke about identity and politics, it became clear that she also embodies the name of her festival: Borderless.

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Zoe Easton: Can you elaborate on the personal transformation you went through since moving to Peterborough?

Sara Ostrowska: I think about it a lot. I came to Peterborough as a very shy, quiet person. I felt like I was really trapped inside myself when I lived in Hamilton and Peterborough felt different.

When I came to Peterborough I changed my name from Shahsavari to Ostrowska. The name was an ode to my Polish family, for bringing us here. But it was also to negate my other side of my family that also brought us here. There’s a bit of racial tension in my family that ended up reflecting in the way that my identities, as being a queer woman, being mixed race, Middle Eastern, Eastern, woman and person exploring gender and sexuality – I just felt like there was something about coming to Peterborough and [it] being this blank slate where I could just explore who I was.

I think it started at Arthur and it started at Trent Radio and it started with feeling like I could finally let my guard down and just be.

ZE: But then there’s this other side of Peterborough that’s full of anti-Muslim sentiment and intense racism and xenophobia…. I mean, how do you reconcile that?

SO: I think it’s incidents like the Mosque burning from a few years ago and like the white supremacist rally that really make you proud to be who you are. Once I had spent a few years in Peterborough, I realized how much racism, homophobia, sexism, etcetera that I had internalized and it made me want to fight back against all that. Then, in that weird confidence bubble that you get in Peterborough, you get to this point of saying “No! I’m going to so visibly resist this, in any way I can.”

: Sometimes arts communities can be intensely competitive and that can deter people from pursuing their art. How do you feel Peterborough compares?

SO: I still feel that pressure. I feel like I had to question if I could even be the person taking this position. “Am I someone who is good enough or allowed to organize a festival? Will someone who has been around in the music community for 10 years look at me and say ‘Who does she think she is?’” And that could very well be, but you have to fight against that.

ZE: In another interview you said that originally you thought you were going to be a journalist, and now you’re leaning more towards art. Can you elaborate on that transition?

SO: I feel like I’m constantly under construction. I’m constantly barrelling towards things; there’s always this drive. When I was at Trent, Arthur was driving me. I thought that this was the way I was going to express my social activism through. It seemed like a very natural thing to gravitate towards. But sometimes… that writing voice is just completely gone. During the last few years it feels like that voice has been coming out through music. Or through organizing these ideas that I’d been writing about or toying with for years, they got translated into the ethos of the festival.

[Borderless Fest] is talking about representation and feminism and social equality, construction and reconstruction and destruction – those themes are always present [in my work]. I feel like my interests have remained the same throughout this whole time, just the way I express them has changed.

There’s a huge pressure that comes with occupying multiple identities, like [you and I] do, as queer, as women, as [a woman] of colour, etcetera… Sometimes I imagine the people that used to hold me down when I was younger, you know? And I’m like, “I have to defeat you,” you know? [It feels like] I have to accomplish something, especially when there’s values involved.

When you’re a philosophy politics major at Trent and people are like, “What are you gonna do with that?” [Now] I kind of just wanna shove it to them, in my own way, through whatever I end up doing like, “See, that’s what the point of all this was.”

It feels like you need to prove something in this current political climate. Like, you just gotta show the world what you’ve got. I just want to show the world, “Oh, you think only dudes can do that? Well, guess what? I can do it too, and we can do it.”

ZE: You’ve made a lot of references to the current political climate. How does that affect your work?

: Someone said to me that they didn’t really care about the politics of the festival; it’s just good music to them. That hurts me a little bit because I’m trying to explain [through this festival] why it’s important for different people to have a platform and that by giving these people a platform, no one else is missing out. That’s a real life situation and a real reflection of public thought. People ask me, “Why do you have to bring politics into it?” when our lives are political. In a lot of ways I don’t feel like the ideas that I formed the festival around are all that radical.

ZE: I think a lot of people can relate to that. When you occupy this space of ambiguity for so many people, it’s hard to know how to answer that question of “What are you? Who are you?”

: Totally, and every time you get asked that question you’re constructing the answer and you have think about all of this all over again and reform what identity you are. It’s hard, for sure.

ZE: Do you think your music reflects your personal journey?

SO: TV Road is super different from Shirazi. For TV Road, I’ll write a song and the lyrics just aren’t relatable for them. I wrote this line, “I don’t relate with the middle class/When I was young they called me ghetto ass” and I’m singing this song but my band is entirely made up of these middle class white guys. They just can never fully understand and it becomes harder to explore that stuff.

Shirazi was my way of giving myself a platform. The new stuff I’m working on is definitely influenced more by identity and by me trying to like explore how I want to express myself in the purest sense. There’s no one else looking at me like, “Are you sure?” There’s no one telling me how it should sound or what it should be about. Whatever comes out is uniquely an expression of me.

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This platform Sara speaks of is exactly what she strives to provide for other underrepresented artists through her brainchild Borderless Music and Arts Festival. This grassroots, not-for-profit event is quickly becoming a cornerstone in the arts scene in Peterborough as it works to rectify the lack of women and diversity in both local shows and beyond through its support of artists of all identities.

Ostrowska established the festival in September 2017 and it was met with a great degree of enthusiasm and support from the Peterborough/Nogojiwanong community. This year, Borderless returns to Peterborough from October 31 to November 4 to, “build bridges and foster community by supporting local musicians, poets, artists, activists, crafters, dancers, and cultural workers in what they do best.” The festival will take place at multiple venues situated in or near the downtown core.

While a full schedule of events is available on the festival’s Facebook page, we thought we would highlight some of the events we are most excited for. The festival kicks off Halloween night with the Spooky Sadleir Open House and Halloween Bazaar taking place from 5 to 8 p.m. Afterwards, an epic Halloween show is being played at the Gordon Best Theatre. It features Peterborough’s very own Belly Flop and Television Road, as well as out of town guests SLUTMOTHER, OBUXUM, Witch Prophet and For Esme. On November 1 at 7:30 p.m., the iconic Peterborough trio of Peachykine, Shirazi, and people you meet outside of bars will take the Sadleir stage for a show that will feature the poetry of another previous Arthur editor, Yumna Leghari (Volumes 50, 51). Be sure to check out the festival’s Facebook page for more incredible events!

Festival passes are for sale online on Eventbrite or in person at the door, Dream of Beans Café, and the Seasoned Spoon Café.