Tag Archives: immigration

The semantics of slaughter

We know that language matters. As people of colour, especially, we know language matters. Pauline Hanson’s debut speech in Parliament in 1996 sent a shiver up my spine. Words like swamp, ghetto and assimilate spun in my mind as I hugged my daughter. She was still at primary school, old enough to walk by herself, young enough to make me want to always keep her in my sight. In those tender high school years that followed I watched her Chinese friends dye their hair blonde and follow gangs of lanky white boys. I watched her nod to the common mispronouncing of her name – ‘yes, it’s Sarah, you can call me that.’ I watched her turn away every morning from the signs on the bus stop – Asians out or racial war. I watched the blonde girls she deliberately chose over the black-haired ones; the punk music she listened to, the food she disdained at home, the clothes that became briefer and clung to her developing body. I watched my daughter disguise her brownness in a white country.

Then, a deli was firebombed in our neighbourhood. Two Indian families, recent immigrants from Kenya, moved to be closer to their relatives in Melbourne. A South African tradie informed me that he could see what was coming. In a bookshop an old man sidled up to me, looked at the book I was smiling at, (The Lonely Planet Guide to India) and said I was lucky I didn’t live in that hell-hole. At a job interview, a blue-suited man looked at my CV and told me it would be better if I added a prefix to my name so people could tell if I was man or woman because my name meant nothing to him. A group of uni students said they knew Pauline was racist, but she had a point there, didn’t she. You had only to look at shop signs in Queensland. We were being over-run by Asians. She was right about that. And all these mosques. This isn’t bloody Arabia. This is Straya.

In Perth, then, I was still homesick enough to look covertly at brown people in supermarkets or public places and think of ways to start up a conversation. We lived in blindingly white communities and brown people were rare. Once I heard Gujrati being spoken in a supermarket aisle and I stalked the speaker until she turned around and smiled. ‘I heard you speak Gujrati,’ I said, and the woman grinned.

‘Yes, I’m a Parsi from Mumbai. Dadar. You?’

‘Bohri from Mumbai, Marine Lines, opposite Liberty,’ I replied, also grinning.

We exchanged telephone numbers, promises to share dhansak and biryani recipes and keep in touch. Twisting to face me in the car afterwards, my daughter asked, ‘what did you tell the lady you were, back there?’ And just like that, language became inadequate. The dozen words I had exchanged with the woman from Bombay grounded me in a way I could not explain to my child. I could not explain the layers, the context, the familiarity of sharing a language but not a religion with the woman. I could not tell her how some things only made sense in one language/country/ religion and not another. How your friends were as invested in the quest to save your soul from damnation as your elders. You could eat dhansak but not sorpotel, chutney sandwiches but not salami. When you said Isa Masih, your Catholic friends instinctively crossed themselves, but you weren’t meant to. Jesus was your Prophet too and the Catholic girls knew that. The Sikh girls knew why your Quran was elevated and covered with a cloth because theirs was too. Except theirs was called the Guru Granth Sahib. Your Hindu aunties made sure you removed your footwear before entering their kitchen and told you to sit outside while they finished their puja. Some uncles never ate anything your mum cooked and their tea was made by the Brahmin next door. But when Diwali came around you could go to their houses and eat their sweets and touch the feet of their grandmothers. Our mothers encouraged that – ma ke kadmon ke neeche jannat hai – heaven lies beneath a mother’s feet. This was a phrase that went across religious divide and heaven changed from jannat to swarg, and God was also Khuda and Ishwar and Allah and Bhagwan. Just like that, my own words, ‘Bohri from Bombay,’ unravelled me.

How was I to explain, without India? Without context? Without aunties and uncles and cousins? How could I tell her about that community, a minority within a minority, where I was raised? The austerity, the fun, the subversion, the sin of faking a menstrual cycle to avoid going to the mosque on holy days? The bearded uncles and the veiled aunties who prayed every day, not just Friday, and allowed us to play our games near them. They gave us sweets that appeared miraculously from under their robes and dupattas. They folded their prayer rugs, blessed us, cupped our faces in their hands, kissed our foreheads, shooed us away. Every day. In every childhood like mine.

I didn’t talk about religion with my daughter. She did not speak any of the languages I had grown up with and I hadn’t figured out how to be a Muslim in a country that would harm us both. Especially after 9/11. I was briefly alarmed when names like mine became familiar, gained currency in the aftermath of the Twin Towers. But it was far better to be Asian. There was safety in numbers, however small. White Australians were more interested in the India I had come from without recognising the significance of my name. And for my daughter’s sake, I decided to keep it that way. Nod and smile. Yes, of course I speak Hindoo. So glad you’ve been to Kerala. Yes, it’s very pretty. No, I’m from Central India. Yes, it’s a nice name, very common. Yes, that’s how you pronounce it. Not a Muslim. No.

When I read a book about the Bahai Faith in the mid-nineties I thought I had found my spiritual home and attempted to unravel those threads for my daughter. A Faith that spoke the language of my heart. A Faith that celebrated difference and proclaimed the earth was one country and mankind its citizens. I became evangelical in my desire to offer up my newly discovered faith to my daughter, thinking she would ‘get’ it. I started a blitz of religious education and sent her to Sunday school, summer camps, youth groups, firesides, music evenings. After two years of patient and occasionally panicked acceptance she came home one day to say – ‘so let me try to understand this. You used to be a Muslim who believed in Krishna and went to a Catholic school and loved Jesus and got married in a mosque? And now you want me to be a Bahai? Think about it mum.’

The Christchurch massacre brought my carefully constructed secret identity crashing down. I looked at the pictures of Haji al-Nabi and little Mucad, young Sayyad and sweet Husna, and brave Naeem and helpful Mohsen. I read about the Afghan grandfather who welcomed the killer before he was shot. I read about Pakistani engineers and Indian newlyweds and the doctors, social workers, restaurant owners, farmers, students and children killed because they were Muslim. There was no other reason. They could have been the uncles and aunties and sisters and brothers and grannies and grandfathers of my childhood. Those who disciplined, loved, cautioned, blessed and gave me this life I have carried and tried to live without being noticed. The ones who gave me their version of Islam – the religion of peace. The ones who wiped my tears when my tongue refused to twist around anything harder than bismillah ur rehman ur raheem and whispered, ‘Arabic is difficult, don’t worry, we all struggled.’ The ones who showed me how to tuck my odhni around my head so it didn’t slip off when I went into sujood – the same position many in Al-Noor mosque were when they died. I remembered my grandmother’s blue masallah and cried.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch killings, the language that led to slaughter, continues unabated. From white supremacist politicians who get egged to comment threads on friends’ timelines which indicate that ‘ghettos’ are real, ‘assimilation’ is desirable, and ‘Muslim immigration’ must be curtailed. While a grieving Prime Minister across the Tasman shows compassion and resolve, ours talks of tribalism and promises to crank up security around places of worship, while cutting back immigration to ease the congestion on our freeways. There is no acceptance of responsibility – white Australia sanctioned the genocide of its indigenous population, then built this country on that violent narrative of dispossession. Every generation of migrants and Aboriginal people have been vilified in this country. Talk to any deman, nonna, yaya, yadah, ba ngoai, zu mu, mader bozorg, dadima, nanima – and she’ll tell you. The semantics of this slaughter have their origins in our nation’s inability to accept its bloodshed and prevent it from staining the white sands of our modern cities. We can continue to quibble about freedom of speech or we can call people murderous fascists. But we cannot turn the other cheek. We cannot label one a terrorist and another a lone gunman. We cannot ask one to condemn and another to forgive the same crime. It has always been possible in this country to kill people who are inconvenient. If there’s a way forward, we should begin by accepting that.

https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-historians-daughter

 

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Peddling my wares

IMG_0822These days I write the word ‘writer’ on forms that ask me what I do. I know I’ve earned it. I am that person – a published novelist. Publication has changed the way I view my profession. The secret is out. I can own it. Even when I’m questioned and occasionally challenged. ‘What do you write?’ is the inevitable question and these days I have an answer. Sometimes that answer – fiction, is followed by another question – what sort?  This leads to conversations, which in most part are educational, entertaining or informative. I may hear the idea of a story I really ought to write or I may be asked to read 500 pages of this story they wrote when their dad was a lad during the war. Of course, everyone knows someone who writes and surely, as a writer I must know them too. Occasionally the conversation turns to my ability to speak English so well, the colour of my skin and my good fortune that Australia allows me to do whatever I want to. Because in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Fiji or wherever I come from, opportunities for women are so limited, you know, because they don’t even let women drive there.

Once, at a regional writers’ festival I participated in two well-attended, thoughtful panels on writing, loss and culture. Discussions ranged over the conditions of loss and the ability to make sense of that loss as an immigrant writer. At the end, there were questions and after that, book signings. A tall, lovely looking woman with a colonial accent chatted to me while I signed her book. I handed over the book and looked up at her and smiled. She frowned down at me and asked, ‘why is it that you people never talk about the advantages this country offers you? Why aren’t you grateful you are living here? I’ve been to your country – women don’t have toilets and go in the fields.  That’s where you come from – and now look at you. I get it – you’ve lost that, but have you gained nothing?’

Racism can be insistent (like a sty in your eye) or unseen (like a tumour).  Mostly I ignore daily micro aggressions. Everything from having conversations directed to my white husband, and the assumption that I must need him as an interpreter, to having my name mispronounced to the point of hilarity. A consistent micro aggression is the old white guy who comes really close and touches whichever part of my anatomy is accessible; arm, face or hair, followed by a stumbling pat or hug because he once went to Nepal or Pakistan and ‘knows’ women like me. Except they couldn’t speak English and wasn’t I lucky to find a man here? Apparently, I am the generic South Asian/Middle Eastern woman, and I should be able to answer for everything from a lack of toilets in India to Saudi women being unable to drive cars until recently.

Then there was that time I was at a library. Another well-attended, sold out event, with several books sold, to the delight of the local bookseller who also attended. I read from my novel, spoke about the length of time required to write and re-write, the path to publication and the thrill of seeing my story in people’s homes. An elderly woman sat in the front row and stared at me all through my talk. Now, as people stood up and moved, lining up for signed copies of my novel, this woman continued to sit, a sturdy foot out firmly, obliging me to go around the back of her chair to get to the signing table, delicious with multiple copies of my novel. She tapped my arm as I tried to slide past and I looked at her. ‘Don’t you get tired of peddling your wares?’ she asked. ‘If this is what I had to do to sell a few copies of a book, I know I wouldn’t bother. I suppose you don’t have an Australian publicist who can manage these things for you.’

My usual reaction to racism, (and I have had over 34 years to get used to it), is always the same. I shut down. I lower my eyes. I smile weakly. I walk away. I was raised to show respect to people even when they were entirely undeserving of it. But I was never taught how to respond to racism. That I had to learn on my own.

Why do white people assume that asking rude questions is okay if addressed to a person of colour? Do they think brown people are incapable of understanding nuanced racism? Why does a statement that includes my good fortune in being allowed to live here follow every compliment? Would the tall white woman at the writers’ festival ask a Jewish person why the Holocaust continues to haunt entire generations? Would the woman at the library ask Jodie Picoult why she was peddling her wares after an author talk? I am by no means suggesting that my stories are as gravely important as those of the Jewish diaspora or as popular as Ms Picoult’s. And I’d be really interested to know how many of my white female friends are randomly touched by strange men during conversations.

I am a writer. I am an introvert. I am entirely comfortable in my own skin and company. I have consciously shrunk my world to keep out a steady barrage of ‘harmless’ comments. But I still want to be able to interact in my own city and country without needing several days to recover from each encounter. Perth is a modern city with over 2 million people, of whom about 41% come from non-English speaking countries. How long must I wait to feel like this is my home and not a colonial outpost, used to ‘women like me’ being subservient and voiceless?

First published, Southern Crossings

 

 

Cultural Knowledge

Such a loaded term – cultural knowledge – coming as it does with its own set of expectations and hints of secrets. When I try to unpack it a little, I think about how knowledge differs from appropriation and what the keepers of cultural knowledge can do to protect themselves from stealth and theft. And the answer is – very little. We live in times of exchange and borrowings and slippages and it is hard to skid to a stop, metaphorically speaking, and say – ‘You have gone too far.’

My cultural knowledge is a concentric circle that extends out from family and memories of family, to the community I grew up in, the school I went to, the families I married into, the town I left and the city I adopted; and the country I settled in and everything between. Growing up Indian in India, as a member of a minority sect within a minority religion taught me about culture from the inside. Growing up female in an orthodoxy that disapproved of girls and discouraged them from forming opinions or making decisions taught me to write in secret. Raising a female child outside the confines of country and cultural knowledge allowed me to trust my judgement and own my mistakes. This came at a cost – and a loss of language, tradition and family. I never imagined interpreting this complexity for easy consumption. I still can’t make dal-chawal-palida like mum does. I still shiver walking past death-scented marigolds. I still miss the drama of eid-ka-chand and diwali-ke phatake. But for more than three decades in this country, and counting, I’ve tried, and lost, translation.

Creative writing degrees across Australian universities have marketed the desirability of ‘the other.’ It is actually an advantage to write a story that falls outside the white, heterosexual norm and ‘people like me’ can tell those stories, supported by research and financial aid from our institutions. And for that we are very grateful. We need to be, because it is pointed out to us frequently by seemingly disingenuous white people. The grateful immigrant is as desirable as the grateful refugee. And in the halls of education, we share our culture carefully, because, you know, we don’t want to appear ungrateful, and after all, we are creative colleagues. It’s what we do. We imagine other realities so we can critique patriarchy and draw attention to the plight of women and children in those theocracies and pseudo democracies we come from. We stand together, white, brown and black people, in this new country of informed debate we have fashioned together, within the halls of academia.

So, in the spirit of ‘giving back’ we give away our cultural knowledge. We speak of those layers within the countries we grew up in, those of us who dream and speak in several languages. We explain the differences between our people, our food and our religions. We resist the familiar tropes that seek to define us. We agree to speak at seminars and meet colleagues for coffee to unpack that tricky terrain inscribed on our bodies and in our minds. We talk, we write and sometimes we rage at the lack of self-awareness evident in the language of appropriation. We notice the namastes and salaams and references to shakti and bhakti and try not to mind when we are encouraged to attend workshops on how to write ‘the other.’

Knowledge slips into appropriation so comfortably. It’s a marriage made in heaven, really. Gayatri Spivak, back in 1986, well before cultural appropriation was even a ‘thing,’ said she does not “make the tired nationalist claim that only a native can know the scene,” and in principle I agree. In these days of easy travel, when it is cheaper to go to Bali than Broome; when Australians regularly travel to India and Vietnam and Cambodia and come back transformed by poverty; you don’t need to be a native to know the scene. When you have experienced the country and the natives, and walked among their dusty streets, wearing their costumes, what harm can there be to sit down with one of us in Australia and ask about the things that puzzle you still, weeks after your visit, and after your tummy has settled down? And really, what harm can there be in writing about these experiences, in the interests of eliding differences or building bridges across cultures? The white gaze interprets, interrupts and translates, telling me that my cultural knowledge cannot be the sole interpretation of my reality in Australia.

I think about all I know, all that still informs my writing to this day, and realise I started writing as testimony. So I could have something for my daughter as she grew up and realised what it meant to be a young brown female in Australia. Of course, no amount of cultural knowledge and the thousands of years of ancient Eastern wisdom prepared me for the pitfalls of parenthood. Now that we are finally brown women together in a white country, one young and one not so young, the conversations with my daughter take on an urgency I did not anticipate. There is so much to tell her. So much to show her. Culture. Knowledge. Secrets. Family. Language. Grief. Outrage. To wear a sari without falling down. To understand instinctively that the word Masi always comes after my sister’s name but Aunty always comes before her name.

I don’t have answers and I doubt if I ever will. Uncertainty marks the immigrant passage much more effectively than gratitude. I have been fortunate and people have been generous. I try to give back more than I get. I am not an inexhaustible supply of cultural knowledge. Nor am I a culture hoarder. But my stories are mine to tell and cannot be bought for the price of a cup of coffee by intersectional feminists ‘exploring the idea of difference.’ And I guess that I am still able to grieve over, rage at, and feel the imposition of such selective cultural exchanges.

First published in: http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/cultural-knowledge/

 

The Persian Book Club

One of the unexpected joys of publishing a book is that I am sometimes invited by book clubs to speak about my novel. This can be slightly nerve racking because book clubs have savvy readers who are not afraid to read critically and question assumptions. This morning it was my absolute delight to spend time with a group of readers who all belonged to one nationality, and while they don’t call themselves that, they are the Persian Book Club. We met at the delightful Bodhi Tree Cafe and Bookshop. My novel The Historian’s Daughter is a story with a connection to Iran, especially post revolutionary Iran. I was excited and nervous when invited to speak with this group of readers. I needn’t have worried. They were an amazing, erudite, honest and discerning group. It was gratifying that they had read and identified with my novel. As a writer, ‘writing other worlds’ can be fraught, especially when the lines between cultural exchange and appropriation are blurred. Our conversation ranged over topics as varied as Tehran’s propensity to attract dust, Eastern hospitality, and the writer’s insistence on leaving words from Farsi and Urdu untranslated. The morning ended with the group extending an invitation to me to visit Iran, and I hope I am able to go, some day, preferably with one of the group as guide. I have a feeling it will be not unlike ‘going home’ as I am steeped in this country’s history, folklore, sights, films, literature and have an affinity with the people that feels like a cellular memory. Thank you to all the members of the club. I look forward to visiting again.

A double-edged sword

This was first published in Southern Crossings on 12 June, 2015. http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/a-double-edged-sword/