Month: February 2014

An Entirely Different Story

I recently watched this video, in which author Chimamanda Adichie talks about The Danger of A Single Story. It was very good, as TED talks tend to be, but what she said at the very beginning left me simultaneously intrigued and horror-struck. She said she was an early reader, and then an early writer, and when she started writing stories, she did not write about people who looked and lived like her. She wrote about little white girls with blue eyes, who ate apples and talked about the weather.

It was a hauntingly familiar story. I remember when I first began to write. For the longest time, I wrote about animals. I gave them human personalities and then wrote about their thoughts and feelings as creatures. They were easier to write about because I never had to go into great detail about the physical features of, say, a rabbit. Eventually, I started writing about people, but always in a stilted fashion. I could never give characters names. Even now, it feels especially burdensome to christen them with something elegant. I am tempted to just call them “Person A” and “Person B” for the entirety of some pieces. When I was younger, I censored myself to using the blandest, most common names. There were usually Katies, Davids, Megans and Erics in my writing. I never wanted to make it obvious that I was thinking of a brown person like me, but it sometimes showed when I gave somewhat mismatching characteristics like black hair and blue eyes. Characters often had dirty blonde hair, I remember, or brown. I had to imagine what it was like to live in a home that was not like mine, in a home where people did not eat rice every day, did not light incense sticks when they pray, did not take their shoes off at the door of the house. Not surprisingly, I was never too pleased with the result, which felt like a counterfeit of what I was really thinking about.

I realize now that I could have very easily shared the stories about unique experiences that only I have. I could have talked about India and my visits to my grandmother’s house, and my many relatives against a backdrop of northeast India in the heat of summer. I could have talked about my classical Indian dance lessons, where we told the stories of Indian epics through dance. I could have talked about the friends I had as a child and what we really did, playing together in one another’s houses and seeing them at Indian gatherings throughout the year. But I never felt I could share any of that. I refused. I always thought I would have to answer so many questions if I wrote about those things. People would ask me what I meant if I wrote about pujas, wearing salwars, eating mithai. It would mark me as different to write about these experiences. It would be an open declaration of my foreignness, so I thought. I had no desire for such attention, nor was I ready for it at that age.

The similarities between my story and Chimamanda’s are that our writing was both funny and sad. It was funny for us as children to think we could write about things we did not know, and sad for the same reason. My writing has since undergone a transformation that is not yet complete. In my teenage years, there was a time when I would not describe physical features at all. I would simply give a character a name and then drag them through a story. The writing circles (of mostly white people) where I shared these pieces begged me to give them something physical about the character to hold on to. I usually did not oblige them.

As of yet, I have not returned to prose. I am still wildly wary of using names like Namrata, Anjali, Shaam, and Preet. I still falter when it comes to describing things like height, facial hair, eye shapes, noses, and of course, skin color. At least I now know I can describe those features. There was a time I would not acknowledge them at all.

Still, there are now things that escape my precision that I never would have expressed before. Things like “grape-colored lips”, or “uncles and aunties”. Descriptions of tandoori chicken, curries with cumin and cardamom. Colorful pajamas and kurtas. Bangles on wrists, payal on ankles. Perhaps one day, my writing will reflect a second-generation Indian community in the flesh. It will convey Desi America in all its glory. Perhaps one day, these specks of color will become the story itself, my story. My entirely different story.

A Letter to God

Dear God,

It is the thirty-seventh day of the new year, and I meant to write this letter to You on the first. Perhaps this year I can work on doing things on the day I plan to do them.

I thought I would spend this post taking stock of all of last year, but instead, I would like to talk about dreams. I will admit, God, I thought I had forgotten how to for a time, not because I don’t believe there is anything to look forward to anymore, but because I couldn’t recognize the dreams I have now as dreams. When I was younger, the quintessential quality of dreams seemed to be that they were intangible. Perhaps it was my own helplessness that made me feel that way. I had so little agency to keep the things I loved, and to eliminate the things in my life that harmed me. Thought becomes action in a matter of seconds for me now. I can fully grasp and appreciate how my thoughts shape my personality, how they become who I am.

I remember I never knew what I wanted to be when I was a child. I remember I loved doing many things–painting, writing, dancing–and I thought perhaps I would dedicate my life to one of those things, but then again maybe I wouldn’t. As I grew older, I think my dreams were molded somewhat by what people around me said and did. I remember I lied about liking a boy when I was nine years old so I would feel accepted. Everyone seemed to like someone. I thought that if people thought I liked someone, maybe they would like me.

In high school, I thought I knew what I wanted. I recall how much the word “married” got thrown around. My girl friends would speculate about who among our friends would get married first. My guy friends would whisper to me about other guys who claimed they wanted to marry me. They would talk about what kind of parents people would become, what kind of a parent I would become. I didn’t think much about what I wanted to be. Someone said accounting might be a good choice for me, so I thought that was decided. I thought I would be rich and successful, that I would live in a swanky apartment in the city and wear Donna Karan dresses. Then when I turned thirty, maybe I’d find a nice guy and buy a house somewhere where there would be a lot of grass. I hoped I would have a daughter, continuing the tradition of having the oldest child be female, as did all my female ancestors. I thought at that point, I would quit my job and take care of my child, make sure she knows how to speak Assamese, teach her to read and write in English, play with her toys, paint with her, play outside with her, teach her to ride a bike. And maybe that would be it for 18 years after that.

That is what I dreamed, God. I honestly did.

I don’t remember when I stopped thinking that. I don’t remember a specific point when I thought to myself, “I’m not going to think that way any more”. But Sean asked me one day what I dream about, and I realized I could not answer him. I have forgotten the last time I had a dream like that, with marriage and children.

I don’t want a child any more, God. I couldn’t bring one into this world without it preying on my conscience. How could I do that when I know that child is going to suffer? They will either suffer for the same identity-based reasons that I suffered, or they will suffer from identity-based experiences that I have never had. They will suffer because every new age tortures its youth in its own way. They will suffer for reasons I can’t even begin to imagine. I can do everything in my power to make them happy: keep them healthy, give them toys, teach them so they are smart, take them to all the wonderful places in the world, tell them I love them every day, but it doesn’t matter. They will suffer merely because they are alive.

How do I know this to be true? My parents gave me everything. They fed me well. They gave me nice clothes. They gave me toys and books. They taught me to read and write. They taught me to swim, to bike, to garden. They loved me so much; they still do. I still suffered. I suffered from loneliness, alone among Indians and non-Indians alike. I suffered from an abusive relationship. I suffered from depression. I suffered from the sort of identity crisis that Camus only wishes he could write about. I have one of the better lives, and I suffered.

And I am not the only one. I know there are those who don’t even believe they are suffering while they suffer.

Do all parents know this, God? Are they comfortable knowing their children will suffer, and they can do nothing to stop it? Would they bring children into the world if they knew that all of them suffer?

No. No children for me.

But I still dream, God. I can see them now. Here, in the decade of my twenties, I can reach out and touch the things I dream about. I dream of figuring out what I want to be. I have, and I even found graduate programs that will prepare me for that endeavor. I dream of making real connections with other human beings. Every day, I talk to lively, vivacious, articulate people who celebrate me as a person and who have given back to me my faith in human beings. Every day, I am reminded of how many incredible people I met in the last four years. I dream of being a person who I can admire. I love myself. I have found the words that I want to use to describe me, not what others see me as. I have found the strength to overcome fears I didn’t even know I had. I have contributed something to my community that no one else could have given. I will no longer be the exotified, sexualized creature I was. I will not be the person to whom someone else’s dream is pinned. I will not be some voiceless fantasy. I am compassionate, introspective, and fierce. I am even better than what I dreamed I would be at this age.

And I will have a hand in creating a better world. Nothing else seems to matter, not where I live or what I wear. Not who I spend forever with. Maybe I am a child; maybe this is the age when you dream of impossible things. I don’t care. That’s what I want, God. That is what I dedicate my life to. It fills me with pride to finally have found what I was born to do.

As always, I appreciate all that You have made possible for me.