Cover Story: Southern Desi
Anjali Enjeti may not need an introduction for many Atlantans and regular Khabar readers. Within a short period, she has established herself as an award-winning essayist, book critic, fiction writer and political activist, even earning the moniker Desi Stacey for her efforts as a local organizer. A review of her debut essay collection, Southbound, is followed by an interview. Enjeti, who also teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University, talks about identity, belonging and activism.
The Irony of Identity
There’s always that friend, the one who serves as a sort of external, out-of-body conscience, who inspires you to do right even when she’s not around because, soon enough, you know you’ll have to face her.
That’s the kind of person I imagine Anjali Enjeti to be after reading Southbound, her incisive, indignant, and at times stunningly beautiful collection of essays on identity, heritage and activism. Especially after reading the book, it’s clear that America needs a reliably blunt friend right now as it reckons with its history of exclusion.
Tackling topics like nationalism, gun violence and even the 24-hour news cycle, Enjeti’s writing is imbued with a dark wit, vivid imagery and wrenching poignancy; and driving her narrative is an unsettled impatience with what the United States, and particularly the South, has revealed itself to be, contrasted with the unfulfilled “promissory note” to minorities that Martin Luther King Jr. said came with its independence.
The title and opening essay situate her clearly in the South, describing the culture shock of moving with her Indian-born father and “white-passing” Austrian- Puerto Rican mother from Michigan to Chattanooga, Tennessee. She becomes the first brown person many have ever encountered and finds herself instantly exoticized. In “What Are You?,” the tone is set: if you’re not easily categorized in one of the region’s racial checkboxes, you become a stumbling block for those who see the world in black and white, both literally and metaphorically.
[Top] Southbound: Essays on dentity, Inheritance, and Social ChangeBy Anjali Enjeti University of Georgia Press
Enjeti is depressingly deft in describing the merciless limbo that a young brown woman faces in ordering her existence: either conform to the whiteness that she (with the benefit of hindsight) realizes she has come to emulate and admire, thereby unwittingly becoming complicit in anti-Black and -brown racism, or face life as mixed-race “aberrations or unicorns, rumors whispered among nosey neighbors.”
But the South here almost serves as a metaphor in a work that is far more sweeping in its ambition and geographic scope. While the region is changing demographically, whiteness as the ordering principle is intransigently entrenched, and beneath a polite facade of decency run strong the undercurrents of racism and discrimination—cemented in white Southerners’ immutable conceptions of their own identity—that have never been rooted out.
Enjeti frames political activism as an act of resistance.
(Photos: Debashri Sengupta)
As the white stepson of a Southern Baptist pastor who writes about the region’s reorientation toward the world, “guilt” is not quite the right word for the feeling her words evoke. It’s more like a lament that a place that prides itself on hospitality and flies the banner of Christian welcome has placed unspoken but very clear limits on their application.
Enjeti has no patience for a “bless your heart” to your face and support for policies of discrimination at the ballot box. She is also not content to let herself be an outsider; she defiantly claims Southern identity and becomes an agent for redefining it. This is where her unflinchingly honest prose becomes most powerful, relaying an empathy born of her experience and a deep examination of her globally diffused family heritage. She sees identity as inseparable from activism.
In “Treatment,” Enjeti describes how her physician father, who hails from Hyderabad, experienced racism stoically but used it as quiet fuel to care for gay AIDS patients who were marginalized in the Bible Belt during the 1980s.
At points she outlines both her early disillusionment with American feminism, which she views as muffling non-white voices, and the gray areas surrounding issues like abortion. In an essay that serves as a masterclass on memoir, she juxtaposes one of her heartbreaking miscarriages with the experience of her Austrian-born Oma, who ends multiple pregnancies in the aftermath of raising four children. The fulcrum of the book is her masterful 19-act “play” describing the killing of Vincent Chin and the injustice that followed. An Asian American unfortunate enough to be living in middle America at the time the Japanese auto makers were growing market share, Chin’s slaying is tragically emblematic of the dangers of white fragility and the dark power of scapegoating. It’s a timely reminder at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has sparked another wave of anti-Asian sentiment and violence.
Southbound was written during Trump’s term, when somewhat dormant biases were being brought out of the woodwork by a president whose core message implied—in not so vague terms—that American greatness is anchored in a past that many American minorities experienced as a parade of indignity and deprivation.
She rightly fingers a huge problem with modern-day America: it’s the quieter, more subtle manifestations of racism that are harder to kill than the clearer acts of hatred—and they may, in some ways, be more dangerous. As such, her admirable political activism is framed as an act of resistance. But in equating all Republicans (particularly white Southerners) with racists and extremists, she deprives them of the nuance of character that she rightly desires for minorities. In the end, I worry that this aspect will turn off the very populations for which this book, with all of its haunting beauty and cutting insight, would be most beneficial. That would be a tragic irony.
This book was written before the 2020 election, and the brazen attempts by former President Trump and his allies to undermine the electoral process. It also preceded the January 6 attack on the Capitol. What did those last days in office show about the enduring power of whiteness and its effects on politics?
What I hope we have learned is that whiteness and white supremacy go far beyond voting and elections. Voting is a right, and it’s incredibly important for those of us who are eligible to vote to exercise this right. But voting is merely a band-aid to extremism. It will not cure bigotry. It will not contain fascism. It will certainly not lead to the liberation of the most marginalized members of our communities, nor will it end the constant string of police and vigilante killings of Black people. The work towards a more inclusive, more compassionate and more just society is year-round. It doesn’t take a break between elections, because elections cannot undo hatred. I assure you, this is the beginning, not the end, of the journey to dismantle white nationalism.
[Bottom] “Today’s Republicans are a different breed.” (Photo: Tyler Merbler - WikiCommons)
If the ballot box is not the ultimate antidote, and religion does not seem to be that either in your view, then what is? What will bring about the heart-level change that we seem to need?
The ballot box is a crucial stopgap that we must preserve—as I write this, Georgia Republicans are hell-bent on demolishing several different methods of voting here including mail-in voting that has been very popular in the South Asian community—but it’s not a cure-all. I certainly would never suggest that religion isn’t a part of the solution. The Black Christian Church played a key role in spurring the voting rights act and spearheading the civil rights movement, which paved the way for the Immigration and Nationality Act. Religion can absolutely be one of the pathways to achieving equality. Leaders from all faiths continue to be vital to the current movement against fascism and white supremacy in this country.
Your question about what will create change is a big one, and it’s a tough one to answer. Systemic change requires deep reflection about what we understand as justice. In part, it means that we provide all people with the ability to sustain themselves; which includes a living wage, healthcare, food, housing, education and recreation. It means we engage in meaningful criminal justice reform. It means investing in all communities so that they can thrive. One of my favorite civil rights activists, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes seeking justice as “doing something corrective to the abuse of power that is at the heart of injustice.”
In 2020, Georgia flipped blue with the election of President Biden and its first Black and Jewish senators, with the eyes of the world watching to see how the Senate majority would shake out. You explode in the book, the model minority myth, and speak of your own early experiences of complicity with whiteness. Do these elections offer lessons for minorities about the power of fighting together instead of splintering along their own identity fault lines?
Organizing within one’s own community is vital, because every community experiences specific voting barriers. At They See Blue Georgia, we found that South Asian voters felt far more comfortable asking us questions about voting than they were asking volunteers who were not South Asian. They trusted us
because we were part of the same community. But we cannot do this work effectively if we work in silos.
We flipped Georgia blue because we joined a multiracial, multiethnic coalition, and followed the lead of people like Georgia’s former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Cam Ashling of Asian American Action Fund, Latosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project, and so many others. We could not have been successful in our specific mission to get out the vote in the South Asian Democratic community without the support of so many other non-South Asian groups.
Kamala Harris is “mixed race” as you are, and much has been made of her being the first African American, first Indian-American and first female vice president. Her name was intentionally mispronounced by former Senator David Perdue at a rally. You write very poignantly in the book about your own name, its varied pronunciations depending on the speaker, and what it represents for your identity. What parallels do you see in Kamala’s experience and yours?
I’m thrilled she’s the VP, that’s for sure, and I’m especially thrilled that a Black woman is in the White House because Black women have always been the leaders of the Democratic Party. It’s about time they occupied these high positions. Because Vice President Harris primarily identifies as a Black woman—as is her right—I see more parallels between myself and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris. Gopalan Harris embraced progressivism and Black liberation. She was an ally to the Black community, and understood that when Black people are free, we all are free. I’m inspired by her to do what she did as an activist—to work to build multiracial coalitions in the fight for equality. And I have tried to parent my own daughters with the same focus on social justice as she had with her own daughters, Kamala and Maya.
You make no bones about seeing Trump voters as “extremists” and “racists” and say that we have excused the quieter aspects of racism for too long. Do you truly believe that nearly half of the electorate falls into those categorizations? Doesn’t your zealous anger, which you so vividly describe in the book, preclude real dialogue and compromise?
First, we must acknowledge that racism is a system and a power structure. We are all participants in this system of racism, and as brown people, as South Asians, we are all, myself included, complicit in anti-Blackness and racism’s perpetuation.
But racism goes far deeper than hoisting Confederate flags. It manifests in everyday choices, in all the insidious ways that lead to oppression. Eradicating internalized bias and becoming anti-racist is rigorous and intentional work. One of the most important components of this involves examining all the ways that racism manifests, and using accurate language to describe it.
Trump is absolutely, unquestionably racist, as are members of the Republican Party. There is nothing radical about this statement. Their rhetoric, in conjunction with their positions on policy, are ample evidence. They are also sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and ableist. And we cannot sugarcoat language of bigotry and oppression to describe bigotry and oppression. If we do, we are complicit in its harm.
But we must go deeper than this. Because Trump and the GOP, in and of themselves, are not powerful unless they have supporters. They did not single-handedly destroy democracy and kill half a million people. They had significant help. A vote is one of our most powerful tools—it is a voice in how we want our government to look and run. If a voter is voting to elect a violent white supremacist, then yes, that voter is actively upholding white supremacy. This is not rocket science.
We tend to believe that beautiful people who do community service, lead organizations, hold positions in the PTA, and have great manners have nothing in common with those violent insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol. But if they voted for Trump, they share the same deadly ideology.
Honest dialogue about racism and how we perpetuate it is very hard and very uncomfortable. But if we hesitate in using accurate language to describe all the ways that people cause harm and uphold white supremacy, we are also directly contributing to the harm and are far more likely to repeat it.
Understood, but we know our two-party system leaves little room for nuance in expressing multivariate views through our votes. Do you worry that your absolutism and reluctance to make any accommodation for good intentions on the other side will result in you preaching to the choir rather than reaching the very audiences who would benefit most from your perspectives?
In 2016, not everyone understood how monstrous of a president Trump would be. But by 2020, we had four years’ worth of evidence of his incalculable evil. What, then, were the “good intentions” behind voting for Trump and Republicans a second time? What were the good intentions in voting for candidates who decimate voting rights? What were the good intentions in supporting abortion bans, and threatening gay and trans rights? What were the good intentions behind the “Muslim Ban” or in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement? Half a million people have died from Covid because the majority of Republicans either did not believe in science or did not care enough to save the lives of Americans.
The truth is that people who are not directly targeted—or do not perceive themselves to be directly targeted—by violent policies can find myriad ways to justify to themselves their vote for candidates who support violent policies. Which is why intent is irrelevant. Today’s Republicans are a different breed. They have followed, harassed, trolled, screamed and cursed at me, even in front of my children. This past year, Georgia organizers and poll workers received death threats. This is reprehensible. It’s terrifying.
You have long been a literary critic, hearkening back to your moment in the sun on Oprah where you criticized [the novel] Mother of Pearl as being exemplary of the “unbearable whiteness of Southern literature.” You’ve been inspired by works that let the experiences of minorities in the South take center stage, and now you’re having two books published—this one and The Parted Earth, a work of fiction—at basically the same moment. What does this say about the South’s understanding of itself, and of the world’s appetite for diverse Southern stories?
Southern literature as a genre has never had much racial or ethnic diversity. There’s a plethora of white authors, some (though not nearly enough) Black authors, and too few Latinx, Indigenous, Arab or Asian American authors. This is a publishing problem. Mainstream presses, especially, have a very limited definition of what a Southern writer or story is.
I also think, generally speaking, there’s a misconception that South Asian writers live only in California and in the Northeast. So when we write stories that primarily take place elsewhere, like in the Deep South, it’s not congruent with the stereotype. And because of this, we’re treated as if we don’t exist here at all. We seem to be in an interesting moment right now in publishing. We are challenging norms and speaking out. I hope this means that non-white authors will have more opportunities to share their Southern stories with the world.
The Indian aspects of your identity are examined often in the book and underpin it in many ways including the ending, where you use the muggulu in your grandmother’s furniture as a metaphor. But there is a more explicit retelling of your Austrian family history. Is that partially because The Parted Earth was coming out? How autobiographical is the novel in its descriptions of the legacies of Partition, and what will readers of Southbound enjoy about it?
The Parted Earth is completely fiction, and there’s really little that’s autobiographical. Shan Johnson, the main character, is very loosely based on me, in that we are both of mixed race and have fathers who are Indian immigrants. But Shan is completely disconnected from her Indian heritage, and that has never been the case for me. The books were written at different times, and I was lucky enough to have my Austrian grandmother long enough in my life to extensively interview her for the essay, “Borderline,” which appears in Southbound. She died a few years ago. It also helped tremendously that she lived here in the U.S. so it was easier to interview her. My Indian grandmother lived in India, and unfortunately, I didn’t get to interview her about her life before she passed away.
One of the things I do in Southbound is draw connections between seemingly disparate events. The Parted Earth follows the legacy of Partition in the three continents, through three generations and several characters whose lives initially seem separate from one another. And as the novel progresses, we learn that, in fact, these characters are intimately intertwined, that their lives may be different squares but they are sewn into the same quilt. It’s a similar style of storytelling and I think people who enjoy Southbound for this reason may also enjoy the novel.
A versatile digital journalist, Trevor Williams has spent more than a decade writing on international business and trade for Global Atlanta, an online news service covering Atlanta’s intersection with the global economy. He has undertaken journalism trips to 30+ countries on five continents, uncovering stories that reveal both the perils and promise of globalization and its ramifications for his home state.
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