Past Our Breaking Points: A Conversation with Anjali Enjeti




ANJALI ENJETI IS one of the rare South Asian American writers from the South whose activism, generosity to other writers, and keen attention to craft make her an amazing literary and activism role model. As a fierce grassroots community organizer, Enjeti co-founded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, campaigning to get out the vote in Georgia’s AAPI community. In 2020, she served on Georgia’s AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden/Harris campaign. A former lawyer, Enjeti teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Reinhardt University.

This year, she had the rare distinction of publishing two books: a novel based on India’s 1947 Partition and the generational trauma that ultimately consumed the region and diaspora, The Parted Earth (from Hub City Press), and her deeply personal and very political essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (from UGA Press).

The essay collection has arrived in the pandemic to great praise and conversation about what it means to be a South Asian American writing about identity in the South, an activist having roots in almost all continents, and what propels one to be an activist. Southbound has been hailed by The Millions as one of the most anticipated books in the first half of 2021, as one of Electric Literature’s 43 books by WOC to read in 2021, as well as one of the Best Southern Books of April 2021.

While Southbound is very introspective, especially when Enjeti reflects on her own identity as a mixed-race child in the South in the first “identity” section, it is also a clarion call for all of us to question the harmful effects of white feminism, on the whitewashing of Southern literature as well as the micro-aggressive or even blatant racism of this country as evidenced in the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. On “inheritance,” Enjeti questions what it is we are given, and how we wear our identity while building a better tomorrow for ourselves and the next generations. In the “social change” section, she tackles how activism, especially grassroots activism, works in a red state, and how we as ordinary readers and citizens can make a difference. While she isn’t providing a primer to how to solve a political and national crisis, she deftly and very directly questions the status quo, calls out privilege, and highlights the right thing to do for a progressive, inclusive society that focuses on social change through coalition-building.

I spoke to Enjeti about Southbound, her life as an activist, and the journey of a debut author of color during a pandemic.

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MADHUSHREE GHOSH: It’s been almost half a year of Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change. How has the experience of being a working writer changed since pub date?

ANJALI ENJETI: The book reviews and reports have been going well — I can usually do this kind of writing no matter how badly the world is falling apart. Teaching in a low-residency MFA program also helps me structure my workdays.

But I’ve really struggled with my creative writing since Southbound was published and I think it’s because of this ongoing pandemic, and not knowing when it’s going to end. I thrive as a writer when I’m actively involved in a literary community and am able to gather with other writers in person, at least once in a while. I also get inspired by spending time browsing in bookstores.

I attended a couple of in-person book events this summer when our COVID cases went way down, and I was hopeful that our vaccination rate would increase enough so we’d be better protected against future variants. But that door has now basically closed. And of course, I’m not browsing in bookstores like I used to pre-pandemic.

I’m hoping I can find my creative writing mojo in the near future, but it’s been a tough run. I’m just taking it day by day, and trying to go easy on myself.

Southbound is an extremely well-researched group of essays highlighting your journey within the Southern American world, life as an activist and as a writer of mixed heritage. If you had to do this again, what in your craft process would you change in writing your next nonfiction work or the post-publishing process?

I would love to think that in a future nonfiction book, I’d take more risks in how I structure it. I’ve always enjoyed reading nonfiction that challenges traditional notions of structure, like graphic memoirs, or books like Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

I did stray from the traditional essay in one piece in Southbound, “In Memory of Vincent Chin.” I tell the story of Chin’s life, and the injustice he endured, over 19 short “Acts.” It was the only way I could figure out how to tell this story. So I hope to challenge myself in the future to explore different forms of prose.

What surprised you during your virtual tour?

Here’s what surprised me about my virtual book tour — I could not believe readers were still showing up to attend virtual book events so far into the pandemic. We had been largely in isolation for 13 months when Southbound was released. The novelty of the virtual event had completely worn off during this time — folks were craving in-person interactions, the vaccine had just recently become widely available in most of the US, and spring had sprung, so the weather was warmer and people were outside.

As someone with a disability that limits my mobility, it gave me hope that if people were still tuning in to events after all this time, hopefully, even after the pandemic, we’d be able to continue to have virtual events. 

Is there anything you would have done differently had you somehow known in advance that yours would be a pandemic book release?

This wasn’t something in my control, but I think having an agent, especially during a pandemic, would have been invaluable. I’ve had wonderful experiences with my presses, but with two books coming out simultaneously from two different presses, I could have really used an agent in my corner to help me figure out what my priorities should be and how I should best approach the pre- and post-publication process. Navigating the publishing process and book publicity when a book comes out is really hard during non-pandemic times. Doing this during a pandemic, for two unagented books coming out at the same time, was quite a challenge without representation.

Which essay in Southbound has been the most queried about one? I’d say for me, it continues to be “In Memory of Vincent Chin” — so timely and effective, reminding all of us about the othering of nonwhite Americans. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen alarmingly during this pandemic, and especially this year. What has been the renewed interest in Chin for readers and your own transformation in perspective as you watch the current violence against Asian Americans with your own knowledge as a mixed heritage writer?

“In Memory of Vincent Chin” really hit a nerve, especially with Gen-X Asians like myself, who were coming of age at the time of his murder. Many of us were young children or teens (I was eight at the time), and our ideas about what it meant to be Asian in the US were just starting to crystallize when Chin, a Chinese American, was brutally beaten, died from his injuries, and then was denied justice time and time again.

Of course, the US has a long history of anti-Asian hate and Asian American activism, but his death was a tangible, widely reported event in the early 1980s. And the activism that sprung from it was new to many of us who had never witnessed Asians engaging in protest and marches before.

I wrote the essay in 2018, before the pandemic started, when racism and xenophobia, particularly against Muslims, Latinx, and Black folks was at a high.

But then COVID, and Republicans’ racist characterization of it, inspired the present-day reign of terror against East, Southeast, and Pacific Islander Asians. I never could have imagined the kind of serial violence and injustice against these groups of Asians when I wrote the Vincent Chin essay. It makes me deeply sad that the essay is so relevant.

When several Georgians were gunned down at two Asian spas in the Atlanta area, most of them Asian women, well, I nearly collapsed in grief. It was too much. We coped, I suppose, the same way folks coped after Chin’s murder — through activism and support. We came together to share resources, raise money for the families, attend vigils and protests, and comfort one another.

Aside from the Chin essay, I also heard from a lot of Southern Brown readers about how erased they’d always felt by mainstream narratives about the Deep South, and how the essay “Southbound,” and “The Unbearable Whiteness of Southern Literature,” helped them feel seen.

As an activist and a mother, especially in a pandemic in a Southern state where masks aren’t mandatory, how do you now work on protest and activism using your writing?

My activism and writing feel so intertwined I can sometimes hardly figure out which is which. Most of my nonfiction writing is about social justice and even the novel I’m working on now is about a feminist activist from the 1970s who gets away from activism and is trying to find her way back to it. I’ve been an activist even longer than I’ve been a writer, so I suppose it’s only natural that social justice is a frequent topic for me in my writing.

Does social media and use of that as an effective tool of protest figure in your writing process?

Despite all the rampant disinformation, social media has been such an important tool for both activism and writing. Both my books were published by small presses. We small press authors have to depend on social media to get the word out about our books because there are still too many gatekeepers who only want to promote big press books. And goodness, social media during a pandemic has been crucial to activism. It’s a wonderful organizing tool. It’s certainly not a substitute for in-person work, but it’s an accessible way to engage, communicate, and educate folks.

I love how you describe your father as an immigrant doctor in the South in “Treatment” — especially as he continues his work in a community that had members treating his children differently, with acts of micro-aggressive racism. You write, “‘Fine’ is not my father being callous.” Nayomi Munaweera in What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, edited by the amazing Michele Filgate, also highlights that “[South Asian] silence is pervasive.” What you talk about in your relationship with your father is the love he has for his children, and also his patients. What did you expect to come out of that interview, and what surprised you?

Time and distance from the racism I experienced during my childhood, as well as the interview with my father for “Treatment,” decades later, caused me to reevaluate how he handled the racism my family endured. I didn’t expect this at all when I first started drafting the essay.

The silence was hurtful. I wish we had been able to openly talk about racism. And yet, I understand now that I had a lot more privilege as a child to rage about racism than he had as an immigrant adult with an accent trying to support a family of four in the Deep South in the 1980s. The interview with my father gave me an opportunity to grow as a human being and to see things more clearly from his point of view.

Which is not to say that the silence wasn’t hurtful — it was. But 40 years ago, many immigrant parents simply didn’t have the language to talk about racism and the tools to protect their kids from it. So they thought that if they ignored it, and stayed silent, we’d grow into stronger and more resilient adults. Of course, that’s not what happened. But I found while writing “Treatment,” and interviewing my father, that I had a new capacity for grace that I’d not had before.

In the same essay, you discuss the HIV epidemic and how HIV-positive patients were treated in the Deep South — which has interesting parallels to how COVID-19-positive patients have been treated in the past 12 months. Did you feel, as a child growing up then, that discrimination, be it disease- or race-focused, has now morphed into something else, or is it still as dangerous?

There is such a long history of blaming disease outbreaks on historically marginalized communities, and it’s sad to see that we’ve not evolved much as a society on this front. Having said that, the response to this kind of bigotry has evolved. The LGBTQIA+ community taught us so much about organizing in the context of disease during the AIDS epidemic. That movement was foundational, and proved that constant education coupled with activism that is disruptive, can be effective in fighting the kind of bigotry that stems from disease spread.

What scares me the most today is how widely acceptable bigotry and the violence stemming from bigotry has become. Some of the biggest bigots I knew growing up in the 1970s and 1980s hesitated to share their most hateful ideas in large public forums — they’d keep their views in their circles for fear it might affect their employment or other social relationships. We seem to have regressed to the Civil Rights era, where white people screamed at young Black children trying to integrate their public schools. Trump-era bigots don’t hide anything. They don’t care that they’re being filmed, that videos of their behavior will go viral on Twitter, and be picked up by media around the world. They’re going to storm the Capitol, damn it.

This blatant, open hatred and violence is starting to wear down the rest of us. How many emails can we send to our legislators before we give up? How many marches can we attend (during a raging pandemic) before we’re just too tired to go anymore? How many times do we hear, “Go back to your country,” before we feel that the fighting against bigotry is useless? We can only take so much trauma due to discrimination and hate, and many of us who have been the target of it are long past our breaking points.

In “On the Unbearable Whiteness of Mainstream, Canonical Southern Literature,” I love the levity about Oprah’s luminosity. Isn’t she just exactly that? One can’t but help thinking about American Dirt, and Oprah’s role in amplifying the problematic voice and moving onto “bigger and better things” once DignidadLiteraria members were listened to. You and I had a long discussion on making institutions accountable, but aren’t authors who create such work also part of the same? You mention that when you did talk to Oprah, you weren’t as concise in your counterpoint — what would change now in how you’d like to see publishing change? And why hasn’t it, yet?

This is an important point that you make — that we authors are a part of this system, that we should be holding ourselves accountable to the system that we continue to benefit and profit from, and that we participate in the very same toxic publishing game that we eschew. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge this.

I do think publishing is changing, and I’m optimistic about the changes I’ve seen, for example the hiring of several Black editors at large publishing houses. Even at the literary magazine level, I’ve seen tremendous changes. Years ago, when I began submitting work to big-name literary magazines, the mastheads were all white. My submissions were ignored. Now so many of these magazines have mastheads with BIPOC editors. And these editors are soliciting me and other BIPOC writers for work. It’s really quite unbelievable.

But let me be completely honest here, and say that while I certainly want publishing to change, and I want to see stories published in the US that reject the traditional white patriarchal notions of storytelling, this is not a fight I’ve prioritized in my life. Several years ago, long before Trump was elected, when I was still nursing my third and last child, I recentered civil-rights-based activism in my life.

Writing and teaching writing are my day jobs, and I really do hope to publish another book someday, but right now I’m far more invested in and focused on fighting voter suppression than I am in fighting for equity in publishing. There are a number of incredibly talented writer-activists and publishing industry folks that are battling discrimination in publishing, so I’m comfortable handing this fight off to them.

But Georgia’s State Elections Board has begun the process of taking over the election process in Fulton County, where I live, a county with the most minority voters in the state. This is the battle I’m making a priority right now.

Reading about your grandmother’s abortions and your own D&C harkens to a discussion we all need to have. It is beyond the pro-life, pro-choice discussion, beyond feminism, beyond motherhood — this choice, this decision. Meghan Markle, The Duchess of Sussex, talked about it in November 2020. Besides the choice discussions, why has it been such a taboo topic, given that miscarriages and/or subsequent abortions or D&Cs are medically necessary? You braided your story with your grandmother’s, which gives a glimpse of what choices she (didn’t) have compared to your own. What was the crux of what you wanted the readers to understand with this essay? And how has it been received among the readers?

“Borderline” is one of the few essays in Southbound that had been published before. When it first appeared in Prime Number Magazine several years ago, it didn’t seem to find its readership the way I’d hoped. Someone told me that the two threads, my grandmother’s illegal abortions and my miscarriages, didn’t have the kind of nexus they needed to make the essay feel coherent. Perhaps other readers felt the same way.

I think what has happened since then is that we’ve grown as readers, and as humans, in our understanding of family, pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion. We think more holistically about bodily rights and reproductive justice. And I think, too, more people are open about their struggles with pregnancy loss and abortion than ever before, which is wonderful. We all want and need to feel whole. We all want and need to be empowered by our choices regarding pregnancy.

Which then brings me to the question of privacy. What is information from our lives that we can mine and discuss, and what is taboo? After the release of Southbound, what do you wish you hadn’t discussed and why?

There’s really nothing I regret about what I included in Southbound. My father and grandmother are at the center of two of the essays, and I not only interviewed them extensively but I showed them drafts of the essays, accepted their feedback, and made their suggested changes before the book was published.

But I also left everyone else out. My husband and children are barely referenced at all in Southbound. Other family members I mention are no longer alive.

I also left out a lot about myself. I’ve been exposing myself in personal essays for years, and I’m kind of over it. I’ve become a lot more protective of my privacy, and the emotional labor involved in showing my vulnerabilities to the world.

When I first started writing Southbound, most of the essays were very personal and involved little reporting. I think from the time I signed the book contract to the book’s release was almost three years. By the time I finished the manuscript, most of the essays were heavily researched and reported. This time allowed me to rethink several of the essays and cut out a lot of personal stuff that I no longer wanted to share with the world.

You have very recently and very consciously started talking about writing while being in chronic pain. In this essay in Poets & Writers, you write, “Chronic pain has made me reassess what it means to maintain a creative writing practice, and what this creative writing practice can or should look like.” Tell us how both Southbound and The Parted Earth were affected by chronic illness and how you and your body have adjusted to what can or needs to be done as a writer, mother, and activist.

Pain, parenting, and activism do not accommodate book writing. That’s for sure.

Late last year and early 2021, during copyedits and page proofs for both books, I was knocking on hundreds of voters’ doors, phone banking, and standing on intersections waving campaign signs, in addition to reporting on the election for three different media organizations and teaching.

Immediately after the January runoff election, we had to fight the Republicans’ voter suppression bill (which, unfortunately, was signed into law), and demand justice for the victims killed at the Asian spas. During this time, I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I had a procedure, followed by a surgery. I sent my firstborn off to college for the first time a few days after the runoff election, which was also during a COVID surge. My two other children were dealing with a very nontraditional school year, and my health-care-worker husband was in hospitals full of COVID. The first break I got as an organizer in over a year was when the Georgia legislative session ended on April 1. Southbound came out on April 15, and The Parted Earth came out May 4.

This is a very long way of saying that during this time, my books, which had taken many, many years of hard work, ended up coming in dead last on my list of priorities. But that’s just the way it had to be. If I could go back in time, I would have taken better care of my physical health, but I otherwise wouldn’t change a damn thing. My kids are okay. I have more time now to deal with my chronic health issues. And we flipped the hell out of Georgia.

The third section on community organizing is fascinating — one, because I’ve watched you do it, and two, because of how many South Asians moved out of their comfort zone to work on a cause that was bigger than themselves. Given it’s election time, given gerrymandering, given new laws and restrictions in Georgia, how tenuous has this victory been and what does it mean now to you, because everyone, including you, must be experiencing activism fatigue?

I experienced a burnout after the runoff election that I’ve never experienced before in my life, and to be honest, I’m still burned out. I think all organizers across the country are still burned out. But Republicans and the Supreme Court remain hellbent on destroying our democracy. We’ve got to stay engaged and ramp up even more. We have crucial elections happening this year and redistricting, and this will set the stage for how we organize in 2022.

Recently, the Georgia chapter of They See Blue celebrated its two-year anniversary. We had 13 members at our first meeting, and now we have over 400. Seeing so many South Asian Democrats in Georgia (and across the US) getting out the vote and flipping seats has been one of the most moving things I’ve witnessed in my life. I’m so proud of us.

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Madhushree Ghosh’s work has received an Honorable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing. Her food narrative, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey, is forthcoming spring 2022 from University of Iowa Press.

 

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