stories

An Analysis of Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

americanahIn the last two days, I have been opening the copy of Americanah  that I checked out from the library, expecting there to be more for me to read, and feeling disappointed that there isn’t. Chimamanda Adichie has a gift for creating familiarity in her writing through meticulous pacing.

This book was not unlike The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (which I recently talked about here), though Adichie pursues characterization with the approach of extroverted intuition–through dialogue among groups of people, as opposed to Lahiri’s internal thought processes. The main characters in Americanah, Ifemelu and Obinze, emigrate to Western countries, and the impetus to make these transitions comes from political unrest in their country of origin, Nigeria. Both novels also portray the ways in which insecurity from political unrest affects people on an individual level–in Americanah, the way Ifemelu’s father loses his job, and how Aunty Uju has a child by The General.

Adichie differs from Lahiri because she leans more towards emoting than intellectualizing. I am fascinated with the way she narrates with an omniscience about other characters’ personalities. Here is an example:

Her skin prickled, an unease settling over her. There was something venal about his thin-lipped face; he had the air of a man to whom corruption was familiar. (Adichie, 2013 p.242)

Adichie has barely introduced the man referred to in the excerpt, but we already have an idea of the kind of person he is. One of my favorite examples of characterization is the description of the hairdresser, Aisha.

Aisha glanced at Ifemelu, nodding ever so slightly, her face blank, almost forbidding in its expressionlessness. There was something strange about her. (2013, p.22)

The way Ifemelu talks about other characters tells us a lot about her own personality. In the course of the novel, Aisha is a recurring character with whom Ifemelu becomes progressively more annoyed and, much later, more understanding. Ifemelu reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She is a confident young woman who values genuineness from other people in her life. It is not unusual for her to be the most discerning person in the theoretical room. Thus, on the rare occasion when there is more to the story than what Ifemelu perceives, as in the case of Aisha, she is forced to revise her initial impressions.

The way Adichie writes about America brought up many thoughts for me. First, she does a great job of illustrating the ways that women of color experience microaggressions in everyday life, and how it simply isn’t possible to address all of them because that would completely drain any sane human being of energy. This is an example:

“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures”…”I don’t know what it means,” Ifemelu said, and sensed rather than saw a small amusement on Ginika’s face. (2013, p. 244)

This passage amuses me. Ifemelu receives her fair share of dumb questions from white people in the course of the novel. This one is self-explanatory. I have heard from a trusted source that even white people’s names mean something, though the significance might fade after meeting 9 or 10 people with the same name in one university department or one residence hall.

This reminds me of an incident that happened to me in first grade. After I told the class that I had gone to India over the summer, my white teacher asked me, “Is India very different from the United States?” In perhaps the first recorded instance of me being sarcastic, my response was, “No.”

I was also humored by Ifemelu’s stance on American health systems.

“…And now you cheat on Curt because at some level you don’t think you deserve happiness,” [Ginika said.]

“Now you are going to suggest some pills for Self-Sabotage Disorder,” Ifemelu said. (2013, p.480)

While I think mental health is certainly something that should be talked about in communities of color, I also love the critique of Americans in this exchange. I absolutely think people in the United States are too obsessed with medicalization (literally, I see a study every day about new things that cause cancer) as well as labeling perceived illnesses. For example, a friend of mine who works as a kindergarten teacher firmly believes that half her students have ADHD, and the other half are autistic. Could it be that maybe this is just how children behave in the age of technology? Could it be that maybe my friend is just overworked and should really have an aide because one adult can’t keep up with 20 children?

Furthermore, I think Adichie makes some radical implications about relationships in this novel. During her time in America, Ifemelu has two boyfriends: Curtis, a rich white guy, and Blaine, one of those hippie Black guys who eat quinoa and care about yoga and shit. I’m sure you’ve caught on that I didn’t particularly like either of them, and if I didn’t know better, I would say Adichie meant for that to be the case.

Curtis reminded me of this asshole-white-guy I used to date named Jeremy Jay Baker (full name included here to warn goodhearted women to stay the fuck away from him). Curt is described as being “happy, handsome, [sic.] with his ability to twist life into the shapes he wanted” (2013, p.482). Curtis was the kind of person who was only ever happy when things went the way he wanted them to, which was of course, all the time. Or so he thought, until Ifemelu cheated on him, and he called her a bitch (p. 482). It actually made me really angry when he said that to her. It reminded me of my last conversation with Jeremy, where I told him it seemed hypocritical to me that any time I expressed any emotion or dissatisfaction, I was being “volatile” or “dramatic”, yet when something bad “happened” to him, I had to hold his hand and pretend his little problems mattered. He responded by saying something like, “I don’t have to take this from you.” Then he never talked to me again. Charming, that one. I should have said something disapproving sooner, if that was all it took to get rid of him.

Ifemelu, on the other hand, was distraught when Curtis left her, which he really didn’t deserve. Ifemelu belongs in the category of boss bitches who are going to Achieve with a capital A. Curtis is a boring white guy.

Blaine is not much better. From his description, he seems like one of those men who gets very hurt when you don’t take his advice to heart. He exerts his power through influence:

She did not ask for his edits, but slowly she began to make changes, to add and remove, because of what he said. (2013, p.521)

During the course of the relationship, Ifemelu starts to eat differently, picks up more academic jargon, and takes on a lot of Blaine’s behavior. Not all of the changes seem harmful for Ifemelu–she gains insight into race and being Black in America by conversing with Blaine’s friends. Still, it doesn’t surprise me at all when the two break up because Ifemelu would rather eat a good lunch than stand outside a building and protest with Blaine and his poisonous sister, Shan.

In comparison, Obinze, who is Ifemelu’s first and last love, seems like a mature, mellow human being. Even if Ifemelu ever cheated on him, I have a hard time imagining him calling her a bitch. Not that either of them seem inclined to cheat on each other.

The action in Americanah speeds up toward the end of the novel, when Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria and meets Obinze again. Adichie barely graces sex with a few words every time there are sex scenes, but there’s still something arousing about them. Unlike Lahiri, who leaves you with stark impressions of body parts, Adichie gives you feelings.

She propped herself up and said, “I always saw the ceiling with other men.” (2013, p,. 737)

The explanation, which is also the origin of Obinze’s nickname, simply conveys that no one else could ever compare to Obinze. I felt it was radical of Adichie to put Ifemelu and Obinze together in the end. Ifemelu, who has never really identified with Americanness, chooses her Nigerian boyfriend over the men she meets in America. America, the Great Consumer Capital of the world, where you can get anything your heart desires, is not where Ifemelu found love.

It leaves me with a foolish sliver of hope. Maybe if I go to Assam, I can also find a mature, mellow human who will not call me a bitch if I cheat on him? I suspect all the men I know will have to age considerably before they reach that level of sophistication.

Works Cited

Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. Thorndike Press.

The next book I plan to analyze: The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

Advertisements

An Analysis of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandAfter reading The Lowland, I’m interested in knowing what Jhumpa Lahiri’s Myers-Briggs type is. If I had to fathom a guess, I would say she’s an ISTJ based on her writing style. The dryness with which she describes people and settings makes me think she’s a sensing/observant person. There’s a certain habit to the way she comments on body parts–eyes, mouths, erections–that reveals a pragmatism rather than the curiosity about hidden meaning that intuitives express. The way she talks about characters in isolation, delving into their thought processes and the ways that they arrive at conclusions, makes me conclude she leans more towards thinking than feeling (though frequently, Lahiri reveals the complexity of emotions in these discussions about internal modes of thinking). It was hard to pick up on whether she’s a judger or a prospector from her writing style alone, but I felt that judging was more fitting because of the way she frequently writes about obligations–not necessarily the fulfilling of obligation, but the awareness that some kind of social pressure usually exists for people to act one way or another. Introversion was the most obvious of the characteristics I picked up on. If you’ve ever heard Lahiri interview, or even just notice the way her characters are so conditioned by loneliness, it’s not hard to “see” her introversion.

Of course, I myself am an ENFP, so that might influence this analysis. For all I know, Lahiri is an INFP who has a longer attention span for sitting still and writing than I do. In typical NF fashion, I am sometimes more interested in getting into an author’s head than analyzing content.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like spoilers, I suppose this is the point where I tell you to stop reading.

The Lowland spans a story of over half a lifetime, starting with the childhoods of Udayan and Subhash, the protagonists, two brothers with very different temperaments who were born probably at some point in the 50’s, and ending in the decade after the new millenium. If I had to compare it to another book that encompasses huge plots of time, I would say The Lowland is actually similar to The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Both novels revolve around the death of one of the main characters, both victims of violence, and both deaths are a result of systemic oppression in some form. Both novels delve deep into the internal affairs of the main characters after the death of a loved one. In addition, I would say both authors toy with the idea, though in very different ways, that humanity is more important than a cause.

In The Lowland, while Udayan’s naive willingness to follow the Naxalite movement over a cliff ought to be critiqued, I think he should be given more credit than Lahiri gives him. He was part of the movements of global student activists in the late 60’s and early 70’s that made governments everywhere wake up and realize things could not go on the way they always had. Granted, the government in West Bengal took a very reactionary stance in response to the students by killing them and then putting the bodies on display throughout the city to suppress the movement with fear. This was the proof the world needed that the government had become a cruel, sick, twisted entity that would do anything to protect its own power.

In due course, we learn that Udayan and his then-wife, Gauri, play a role in the murder of a local policeman in Calcutta. In turn, Udayan is killed by the police. Lahiri writes of both incidents matter-of-factly, as though if either were to occur even without the historical context, the other would still inevitably follow. She reveals the senselessness through which killing occurs. Life is taken and human beings, in their infinite nostalgia, are left to find significance on their own.

The killings, while they are conveyed without fanfare, hold deep political significance. A policeman dies on one end of town, his family mourns. The foreshadowing comes after the fact, an echo of what Udayan’s family goes through. Then Udayan dies on the other end, his family mourns, and the impact of his death resonates for three generations. This is a keen point, especially given the current state of affairs with the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and also the shooting of the five cops in Dallas. Death is death is death, which brings us back to the concept that humanity is more important than a cause. The moment at which Udayan became comfortable with killing a person was the moment at which he lost his humanity, a sad case considering he joined the Communist Party in the hopes of restoring humanity to those in the most need. Almost at the end of the novel, it is revealed that, “…only the policeman’s blood had prepared him [for death]. That blood had not belonged only to the policeman, it had become a part of Udayan also. So that he’d felt his own life begin to ebb, irrevocably…” (Lahiri, 2013, p.339). Ironically, the point at which he commits this inhumane act is the point when Udayan finds his own humanity.

This is also interesting considering the way Udayan is characterized up to that point. Even though he is the younger of the two siblings, it is in Udayan’s shadow in which Subhash lives. Udayan is the more mischievous of the two, constantly pushing the limits of his parents’ patience, while Subhash is quietly industrious, subscribing to filial piety and social obligation. The relationship is heavy with expectation. Udayan’s tendency to act before he thinks is a perfect foil to Subhash, who displays the inertia of those who think far more than they act. One could say Subhash is implicitly at least partially to blame for his brother’s death. Udayan implored him to stay, but he left for the United States, interpreting his brother’s request as a challenge to his own ability to make decisions. Udayan’s socializing is then left in the hands of the Communist Party. His comrades become his primary source of support.

On this note, Lahiri’s commentary on social activism is, at times, not so subtle. Here is an excerpt:

[Gauri] was thankful for [Subhash’s] independence, and at the same time she was bewildered. Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served; his only contribution to meals was to sit and wait for Gauri or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him. (p.126)

Throughout the novel, I could feel that Lahiri has a certain disapproval for overt displays of support for a cause. She takes an almost patronizing tone, as though revolutionary movements are started by small children who have little capacity to follow through.

In the same breath, Lahiri shows an undeniably feminist critique of the ways movements are lead. Unrepentant violence, dogma, and militancy are certainly markers of toxic masculinity, traits that I doubt would exist in movements centering feminist principles. Lahiri points out the hypocrisy of militant movements–how on one hand, men can advocate for revolution of the working class, and on the other, are so comfortable with the subordination of women.

By the time I had finished one third of the book, I already found myself sympathizing with Subhash, the older brother who moves to America to study oceanography. It is somehow easy to commiserate with Subhash, who, in the course of the novel, becomes a single father to Udayan’s daughter. He is also portrayed as the more dutiful of the two sons. In contrast, Udayan is hard to relate to, portrayed as a rebel from a young age. His murder seems to have been brought about as much by him as anyone. Gauri, his widowed wife and mother to his child, is even harder to relate to. After the death of her husband, she becomes a cold, unfeeling person, plunging into the safety of academia. She has no qualms at all about leaving Subhash and her child behind.

The argument could be made that everything Gauri does is justified as a woman who realizes just how unreliable men can be. It makes no sense that in our modern society, or even in the 70’s when Gauri was married, women are still expected to marry men and be dependent on them in a social sense when they are as susceptible to death as women are. Gauri learns this at a relatively young age, and spends the rest of her life as an independent woman who achieves success as a professor, something that I think should be celebrated. Furthermore, she is the kind of woman for whom social expectations matter not at all. Gauri gives no fucks. She cuts her hair short. She wears tight clothes. She has sex with a woman. She drops meetings without explanation. She shows up at her husband’s house without calling. She does whatever she wants whenever she wants. Personally, I think that’s awesome. More Desi women should have the courage to live like that. Yet, she is portrayed as someone plagued with guilt, unable to forgive herself for leaving her child. I’m sure if it was a man leaving his child, he would not be portrayed in this way.

I digress. Oddly enough, I think the way Lahiri writes about sex is one of my favorite things about her writing, though it is not at all romantic. This is another trait of her writing that makes me think she is more sensing than intuitive. I, an incorrigible intuitive, cannot seem to write about sex without getting caught up in the significance of it: the romanticism of feeling another person’s skin, kissing, orgasms, cuddling. Lahiri does none of that. Here is an example:

She was wearing slacks and a grey sweater. The clothes covered her skin, but they accentuated the contours of her breasts, the firm swell of her stomach. The shape of her thighs. He drew his eyes away from her, though already a vision had entered, of her breasts exposed. (p. 141)

I still don’t understand how, in a passage where literally nothing happens, she expresses something lasciviously enough to get me horny.

Lastly, as one who loves the stars, I also love observing what commentary authors have on night skies. This is Lahiri’s:

He sees the wide beam of moon’s light over the water, pouring down. He is overwhelmed by the sky’s clarity, the number of stars. (p. 329)

It seems like the sky is a reflection of where Subhash’s life has finally come to land, so to speak. He is no longer haunted by the secret he kept from his daughter. He is no longer deceiving himself in an unhappy marriage. He has found some peace, and as of yet, some possibilities.

Many as my criticisms are, there are a lot of things I liked about The Lowland. I feel the novel says a lot about the curious constructions of memory and time, how peoples actions in the present can so closely mirror those of their ancestors, and how emotion is as important a factor as time in how well we remember events.

Works Cited

Lahiri, J. (2013). The Lowland. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

Impressions of Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

snow huntersThe second book I finished this week was Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon, a novel about a young Korean man named Yohan and his life in Brazil after the end of the Korean War.

Yoon uses beautifully simple prose. He writes so delicately about human relationships that I was brought close to tears several times. Yoon’s style is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of my Melancholy Whores. There is the same dream-like quality, but without the magical realism.

Granted, Yoon has a way of making the real magical. I particularly liked this excerpt.

–What stars, he said, and laughed, gazing up at that vast canvas above them, Yohan astonished by how it was possible that it was the same sky through all their years, in countries across the sea. How the sky never changed, never appeared to grow old. (Yoon, 2013, p.90)

At first, it seems like the same trite phrase about the stars that everyone writes, until the comment about oldness. It was then that I realized the excerpt was never about the stars, but the feelings Yohan has about his friend and mentor while he looks at them. We can understand the way he misses people (and will miss people) while he looks at stars.

In addition, I enjoyed Yoon’s commentary on love throughout the book.

But he had never known him, had never been close to him in the way he witnessed other sons and their fathers.

Perhaps it would have been different if his mother had lived. Perhaps his father had been someone else and a wife’s death had altered him.

Or perhaps his solitude was always there. He would often wonder about that. (Yoon, 2013, p.140)

On the surface, this is a straightforward description of Yohan’s father. However, the sentence at the end asks several questions of the reader. How much do we really know about the people we are close to? Even our own parents had lived lives unknowable to us before we were born. How much of people’s behavior is truly their own nature, and how much of it is done in reaction to being observed or as a product of experience? Yet, Yohan still believes in the love his father gave him. There is a duality there that is revealing of human nature: that doubt is a natural part of love.

 

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s something I recommend for gloomy days, or perhaps gloomy times like these when nativists are looking for reasons to throw immigrants out of countries. It only took me a day to read, and there’s something about Snow Hunters that just lowers my blood pressure. It was a welcome respite from the chaos of modern living.

Works Cited

Yoon, P. (2013). Snow Hunters. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

 

Impressions of The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

inc ind

I finished two books this week, one of which was The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. The book is an account of relations between whites and Indians throughout the history of America, though this description alone does not do it justice. King is not so much a historian as he is a sort of poet. His style of writing is darkly humorous, and I admire the transparency with which he shares how he arrives at his conclusions. There are a number of passages I love in this book. One was from the prologue, in which King discloses that his first idea for the title of his account was “pesky redskins”. But the passage that really steals my heart is this one:

Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories, and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter, and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and songs. And land is home. Not in an abstract way. The Blackfoot in Alberta live in the shadow of Ninastiko or Chief Mountain. The mountain is a special place for the Blackfoot, and friends on the reserve at Standoff have told me more than once that, as long as they can see the mountain, they know they are home. (King, 2012, p. 218)

King is describing the fundamental struggle that Native people in America have gone through (and are still) to retain their land in the face of rampant capitalistic development. This has been a historic conflict, starting with the arrival of Europeans to the landmass that is now known as the Americas.

Even now, while I might obtain some significance from these words in a literal sense, I scarcely think I understand what the passage means. The paragraph resonates in my heart long after my brain has finished comprehension. It may explain why a second-generation Axomiya woman (me) relates to a history that is not of her own people. Natives in America have been uprooted from their ancestral homes and been pushed from one plot of undesirable land to another (King, 2012, p. 216).My family was not so much uprooted as it was drawn because of insecurity at home, and the illusion of opportunity in another place.

Yet, for all the rights I am guaranteed as an American citizen-by-birth, I have always felt like a stranger in the place I was born. “Home” is not so much a physical place for me as it is a concept. Home is where the people like me are. I might never know the land from which my family originates. It is oceans away and is slowly becoming more development than land as well. But in the Axomiya language, in Axomiya music, a semblance of the physical is retained.

In this manner, I think King has a particular gift. There is a simplicity in the way he writes that makes his narrative accessible, even to people with very different approaches to history. Unlike other historians, who wax grandiloquent all too frequently, his account reflects a refreshing humility. There is far more than content to be gleaned from King’s account, though the content is nothing to sniff at either. All things considered, I highly recommend the read.

Works Cited

King, T. (2012). The inconvenient Indian: A curious account of Native people in North America. Toronto, Canada: Dead Dog Cafe Productions, Inc.

More Confessions

I have another confession. It requires that I tell a rather long and drawn out story, one that might end terribly, or worse, it might never end. The part that sucks is that I’m in the middle of it right now, so I don’t actually know which way it is going to go.

It starts a little over a year ago. I began my master’s degree in this place that is far from home and where I felt very lonely. I made a small handful of friends, and there was one in particular to whom I became very attached. Attached is a mild word for it, really. This person was someone with whom I felt this spiritual, other-worldly connection. We became very close very quickly. I loved this person unfathomably. I think I actually still do, but I have come to resent the love I feel because of the way things played out.

At the end of the last school year, this person shared with me a few things about the relationship that she was growing weary of. There was a particular incident with another person, a mutual friend, which had offended them (this isn’t their usual pronoun; I’ve changed it for the sake of this story). I hadn’t included them on this night when we had ordered dinner, and they were angry. I felt the anger was justified. I know I tend to compartmentalize certain interactions that, in real life, can’t be compartmentalized at all. We talked about the incident, and I thought the conflict was over. I thought we could move on from then. I don’t think this person or I knew at that point just how deep their frustration with me was.

Summer began, and I moved to Atlanta to do an internship for two months. At the beginning of the summer, this friend and I kept in touch usually by texting each other, but I noticed that as the two months progressed, this person responded to me less and less. At first, it might have taken a day or two to respond, but that time increased to a week, and then two, and then finally, there was no response at all. I continued to send them messages throughout the summer. They had said during the year that sometimes they take note of things and simply don’t respond. I sent them things that I thought though would enjoy hearing, or perhaps that would be interesting to them. They were messages sent in sincerity, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted them to know that even though I was far away, I was still thinking about them.

When I came back, I knew something was wrong. The two of us met long before classes started, but they weren’t speaking to me, at least not the way they usually do. I finally invited them to dinner. I needed to know what was going on, so I asked at that point, when we got together for dinner. Looking back now, I think that was a big gesture I made. I didn’t have to ask them what the problem was. In fact, it says a lot that they didn’t come to me and just tell me what was wrong. They made me go to them. They made me “figure it out”. They made me hold them accountable.

Anyway, all their frustration with me came out at that dinner. Apparently, they believed I was abusive and manipulative. They felt I was receiving more from the relationship than they were. They explained that they thought there was a lot they were giving me, and I could see where that was coming from. Throughout the year before, I would come to them with my issues with my work, how little support I felt I was receiving, the alienation I felt in both my new environment and my program, and many other things. I guess they felt as though they had to advise me. Perhaps I could have named this at some point, but I did not require that from them, and it saddens me that they thought I did. Furthermore, they also said that they felt I didn’t listen to them when they shared problems with me. Or rather, that my responses weren’t genuine. I would be very quiet when they explained things. Sometimes I might not respond. I could understand this as well. I think at times, when someone comes to me with problems, I don’t want to give the impression that I have any right to comment on their life. I also don’t really know how to respond sometimes, to be really honest. I don’t want to sound scripted or rehearsed, but sometimes a genuine answer is hard to give to things that are truly painful. But to them, this made them feel as though, in their words, I wasn’t willing to make myself vulnerable, nor was I willing to make mistakes (or acknowledge the ones I made).

It hurt a lot to hear those things. Hurt is an understatement. This image I had of this wonderful friendship was suddenly shattered. Clearly it was far from perfect, if this person’s dissatisfaction could go on for that long and I didn’t know.

I think the part that  hurt the most was when they said to me that it angered them when they received my texts over summer. They said they repeatedly felt anger whenever I texted them. That’s why they had been ignoring me. So there I had been thinking that I was showing affection and warmth by keeping in touch, and actually it had been irritating them the entire time. It hurts me the most that they didn’t tell me that. For nearly five months, I had been exposing my heart to this person, and that action was annoying to them. It was irksome. It made me feel disposable. They claim that this was because they thought it would be better to tell me these things in person. So they allowed me to go deeper and deeper into confusion for the sake of some notion of propriety in which we tell people important stuff in person.

I withdrew from them after that. I haven’t seen this person one-on-one since that night that we had dinner. Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure that I want to either. Staying away from them has certainly protected them from any more feelings of abuse or manipulation. Though, I also don’t think I want to see them because I hurt. I hurt a lot right now. They love telling me that “hurt people hurt people”, and that I am definitely one of the hurt persons in question. And it is implied that I hurt people when I am hurt. I’m sure I do.

The part I hate most is that I think I still love them, but I don’t want to. It would make my life a lot easier if I could stop loving them. If I could leave and not bat an eyelash that they would be gone. If I could tell them to get out of my life and never feel an ounce of guilt for it. I know that in the world of vulnerability and honesty and trust, we should work this out by speaking, addressing everything that has come up. But I don’t want to do that. I’m not the bigger person. I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to do “bigger person” things. I want to yell at them and be insanely mean. And if I did, that would be exactly what they expect of me.

 

Mobilize

I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.

I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”

One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.

It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.

At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.

For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.

Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.

Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.

Remember Me

IMG456I just finished reading On a Wing and a Prayer, by Arun Sarma. It’s a tragic story, but fascinating because it’s about Assamese people like me. I had never read a piece of fiction about Assamese people before I came across this book. Obviously, there is other literature about Assamese people, and the literature has existed for a long time, but for some reason it took 22 years for me to find. The work is translated from Assamese into English, which makes it even more fascinating. The English text still has the residue of Assamese speech. I can hear the quaint interjections and greetings being said in the language they came from. I can picture the green hills, the village life, and the river that I have seen myself when I read this book. I never thought I would read about that place in an English text. I didn’t know it could exist in English prose.

I have recently learned a lot about the region of the world where my parents are from. It turns out people from northeast India, or the Northeast, are treated in India much like minority populations are treated in the United States. Their level of education is often questioned. They are taunted about their accents, their slanted eyes, and their way of life. They are often denied access to public spaces, or their citizenship is questioned. In essence, they are treated like second-class citizens in their own country. (Sound familiar?)

I didn’t know this until just this past year. Suddenly, many of the encounters I had with other Indian Americans as a child make more sense now. I grew up in the United States, where Indians are often lumped together as a group. Americans are hardly sensitive to the level of discrimination and in-group/out-group dynamics that occur within minority populations. I assumed, before ever having any Indian friends, that I would be fully accepted as Indian if I were to ever to find any because that’s what I assumed I was.

It became very clear to me, upon meeting other Indians (at the age of 5, nonetheless), that I was not like them, at least they didn’t think so. Most Indians I came across didn’t know that Assam is a state in India, let alone being familiar with where it is. They often questioned the authenticity of my “Indianness”, commenting on how I “look more Hispanic”, my eyes are “so Asian”, my features “are not Indian at all”. They thought that because I didn’t speak Hindi (which I can now), or one of the languages they’d heard of, like Gujurati or Marathi, I was not Indian. The people who did know what and where Assam is tended to exotify me even more than the non-believers. They said the sorts of things you’d expect white men at a bar to say to me: “Oh, that’s so diverse!” or my personal favorite, “Wow, you’re so exotic.” To no surprise, I never felt I belonged to the very people who were supposed to claim me as their own.

I ought to explain, it is no mistake that I look more Southeast Asian than South Asian. The region of Assam is a mix of several cultures of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Assam is located in the Brahmaputra valley, on the border between India and China. A number of tribes populate the region, and several different languages are spoken. The culture of the area often more closely resembles those of Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries than that of the rest of north India (Hazarika, 1994). Some of the languages spoken in the Northeast belong in the Mon-Khmer language family, an Austro-Asiatic language family, though it should be noted that Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language (the easternmost Indo-Aryan language, according to the 2001 Indian Census).

Growing up, I never once felt inferior for being Assamese. My mother taught me the significance of my culture since the day I was born. She made sure I learned to speak Assamese. She taught me about Assamese homes, how they worship, what they eat, and what they wear. She taught me their music, she told me their stories. I spend a lot of my time being angry with her. I always wondered why my parents moved our little branch (more like, twig) of the family over here to the United States, and why I had to watch everything over there from afar. I always wondered why my mother never knew what I wanted, why she never understood when I had a problem, and never yielded when I wanted my way.

I have never thanked her for what she gave me. She taught me where I am from and instilled a sense of pride in who I am. She has given me enough knowledge for me to be a vessel for my culture, to be able to transmit it to another generation if I choose to do so. She has filled me with a love for that place that claims me as its own. She gave me somewhere to belong on this lonely planet.

For those of you who know who I am, I have never admitted how important being Assamese is to me. I would go so far as to say I consider my Assamese identity more salient than my Indian one. People have always acted like it doesn’t matter. They have told me it is such a trifling difference, such a confusing distinction, can’t I just be happy being Indian? I always went along with the suggestion because I did not have the tools to explain why it matters, and even if I did, it would be too exhausting to explain. I will not let that be the case any more. In a perfect world, it would not matter. Being Indian would encompass being Assamese. But knowing what I know now, knowing that this small place that claims me already does not have a voice, and has even less of one if I never do anything about it, is not fair. It is more than unfair, it is unjust. At the University of Florida, where there are 50,000 students, there were 5 Assamese people when I was a freshman. That’s 1 for every 10,000 students. By now, two have graduated. That means there is 1 for every 16,667. After I graduate, there will be 2. That is 1 for every 25,000 students. That is staggering. We are exceptionally rare.

And fine, I will concede that resources would be difficult to provide. Frankly, in my experience as part of the Assamese diaspora in Florida, we can usually provide our tiny community enough support without any external aid. That does not excuse your ignorance of us. That does not excuse your exclusion of us. That does not excuse your persecution of us.

I only ask that you remember me. Remember where I am from. Remember what I have said here. You will search a long, long time before you meet another person like me.

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.