“Brown White Black” Is A Love Story About Family and Identity
Nishta Mehra on her memoir about gender, race, and family bonds
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
It’s rare to come across an essay collection that is unequivocal in addressing the systemic norms that impact identity while also being compelling and incisive about the relationships that form us. Nishta J. Mehra’s memoir Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion achieves this by recounting her experience as a queer woman, and as a child of Indian immigrants in a segregated Southern town, and in addressing her own internalized biases while being transparent about the challenges of raising a Black child in America.
Through frank, clear prose Mehra explores what it means to be a part of a family that the world does not often recognize. Her book is a meditation on lived experience and how one comes to be, but it’s also a love story one that emphasizes the intersecting identities of Mehra, her wife, and her daughter. Mehra and I chatted on the phone about her complicated relationship with her hometown, what she hopes her daughter will garner from her childhood experiences, and how her identity has evolved since becoming a mother.
Genelle Levy: Brown White Black focuses on intimate, emotional moments surrounding your family and personal lived experiences, what was your writing and meditative process like?
Nishta Mehra: A lot of what my process looks like is paying attention in my daily movements through the world. I’ll jot things down as they happen. It’s a process of turning things over in my head and trying to make connections between the things I see in my classroom, in my personal life, and in parenting my child and drawing those lines between them. Most of the drawing together happens on the page for me. I think that’s true for most writers. We figure out what we think by writing. It often looks really messy until I start to figure things out. Then things start to take shape on the page. Then I realize what I’m trying to talk about. I often don’t really know going into it. I just know I have questions and I’m trying to figure out why something bothers me, or why I’m interested in something or why something felt a certain way when it happened.
GL: Childhood is a main theme in Brown, White, Black. You wrote about your childhood and your daughter Shiv’s childhood. Since becoming a mom what has surprised you in terms of what it means to come-of-age as a person of color in America?
NM: I think it’s both exciting and frustrating to watch and see what Shiv has access to. The exciting part in particular is with Shiv’s gender-fluidity and her interest in things that are not typically permissible for someone born into a male body. It’s been exciting to watch and see the space that she has to explore and that other kids have 30 years later. It’s certainly a polarized conversation, but it has been encouraging for me to talk and think about gender in a way that wasn’t possible when I was Shiv’s age. In terms of race, I think I’m a little less encouraged. It’s really important that we can find books and TV shows that don’t just have a token character of color. Those are real and they impact our everyday life. But there’s still so much work left to do in that area. You still have to really seek out that material.
GL: That’s interesting because you referenced a children’s storybook that you like to read to Shiv about two penguins that is a queer love story. I’m disappointed years later to hear that there’s still a lack of children of color in children’s books.
NM: I think one of the things that strikes me is that we still have to actively seek out books with characters of color, and we have the resources to do that. We live in a city with a great library system that’s conscious of the population that it’s serving. But diverse children’s books are not in the bookstores. For folks who don’t have access to those things or don’t have the resources, the means, the time or the money these are systemic problems. It’s not just about an individual personal family frustration. It’s that there’s a wide-reaching impact related to a lack of representation. It’s more than just a nice moment. It’s a lifeline for certain kids.
GL: So, you’re a Southern woman having grown up in Tennessee. How has your experience as a queer minority woman been impacted by the Southern culture around you?
NM: I think one of the things that Southern people will often joke about is that at least here you know where the discrimination is and you can see it. There’s a certain amount of ownership around the issues and history of racism and discrimination in the South, that’s not to say that it doesn’t exist in other places. It’s frustrating, this idea that the old systems of discrimination exist only in the American South. It’s become pretty clear recently that that’s not the case. This kind of discrimination can look different in other parts of the country, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.
GL: Memphis is such a complicated place for you because, although you had some negative experiences there, it was also such a key part of your childhood and it’s still home for you.
NM: A lot of us have that feeling about our hometown no matter where it is. It’s a push and pull. You love it, but you’re frustrated by it. It’s complicated because my dad also died there. So there’s lots of layers to that. My wife is not from Memphis so she doesn’t have the attachment to it that I do. It’s not on our list of places that we would consider living. It’s complicated when we visit Memphis because we’re more visible as a family in terms of our identity than when we are in other parts of the country that are more integrated. It’s something Shiv has noticed. The community that I had in Memphis is comprised of mostly Indian and White people. So, that’s a different experience for Shiv to be in spaces that are majority White. I don’t want that to be her experience. I don’t want that to be the norm for her. I have a set of unresolved feelings about Memphis. I do love it very much, and I have a lot of people that I love there. I’m proud of the work that has happened on the ground in terms of activism in Memphis. People are trying to push conversations and make change happen. There’s a draw to want to be a part of that, but then there’s also a sort of fear that the cost would be too high in terms of what Shiv’s experience would be like.
GL: In “Working the Trap” you wrote about what versions of queerness are accepted by mainstream society. Acceptable queerness has mostly been attributed to cis, white gay men that conform to traditional ideas of masculinity. It seems that queer women, especially queer women of color are still othered within the LGBTQ community.
NM: I think I really struggle with the ways in which queer identity is softened to be more palatable in mainstream culture. Most mainstream representations depict queer women of color with long hair and in feminine outfits with white partners. It’s rare that we see two women of color together as a romantic couple in gender non-conforming fashion or more unconventional style choices that exist outside of gay white mainstream culture.
GL: Within the queer community there was some division in terms of embracing gay marriage, and you write about this when discussing your own wedding. Some people within the queer community had ambivalence about embracing heteronormative conventions such as traditional marriage, but there were also others who wanted to have the ability to legalize their love and benefit from the civil freedoms that marriage grants. Can you elaborate on how your feelings changed regarding that issue?
NM: I have several different perspectives. I can completely respect people who choose to forgo marriage. Even the idea of monogamy as being superior to other forms of relationships is very heteronormative, and tied to a sense of morality. One thing that the queer community has done, and doesn’t get a lot of credit for, is pushing and challenging notions of what love, companionship, and family look like. But I’ve also had the personal experience of feeling very excited about getting to marry the person I love. Jill and my decision was very pragmatic, but if we weren’t parents we might’ve been having a different conversation. That was a big motivator for us especially being adoptive parents, and having to navigate challenging legal dynamics. We wanted that piece of paper.
GL: You also wrote about some of the negative stereotypes you had internalized about other minority groups as a result of living in a segregated city and about the challenges of the inter-minority racism you encountered in the South Asian community. Could you elaborate on that?
NM: I think it’s a very urgent and important conversation to have. I can only speak for the demographic I’m a part of. Asian Americans are labeled as being the model minority and that’s definitely a factor. I did not grow up inside of a community that had any sort of awareness or conversation about what social justice might look like. I’m not saying this doesn’t occur in Asian American communities, I know that it does, but that wasn’t part of the conversation when I was growing up. Now it’s starting to happen in pockets and some of it is generational. I was really moved when there was a viral letter about Black Lives Matter that got translated into a bunch of Asian and South Asian languages through a social media crowdsourcing effort. People were volunteering to translate this statement so that young people could talk to their parents about why it’s important that Asian Americans and minorities stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It made me feel less alone and to see the desire amongst young people to really engage their parents was very moving.
GL: You didn’t waver when it came to addressing your own privileges and biases. What would you suggest in terms of how people can meditate about their privilege(s) and biases, especially for those who aren’t writers and can’t just work that out on the page?
NM: I try to consume media that offers a different perspective from my own, whether that’s visiting a particular website or subscribing to a certain newsletter. That can sometimes push buttons. Then you have to ask yourself: Why is this rubbing me the wrong way, why am I feeling defensive right now, why am I getting prickly? It takes practice. It’s human to get defensive, but I think it’s a muscle we can exercise. I’m lucky to have lots of people in my life who challenge me, and are willing to engage in those hard conversations with me. I think the more we cultivate those kinds of relationships is the more that we can practice the kind of work we need to do. But I think the desire has to come first. I think with the desire is the acceptance that there is no endpoint. Some people have pushed back against this idea of “wokeness.” There’s no specific arrival point. It’s a becoming. It’s a posture you adopt, and you can’t put it down. The second that you stop doing that work, you’re back to not being woke anymore.