A Queer Indo-Guyanese Poet’s Postcolonial Memoir of His Search for Belonging
Rajiv Mohabir, author of "Antiman," on ancestral trauma and the ghosts created by diasporic communities
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I first came to poet Rajiv Mohabir’s work through his cutting meditation on why he will never celebrate Indian Arrival Day, which Guyana celebrates on May 5th to commemorate the arrival of indentured Indian workers in the Caribbean. In the essay for the Asian American Writers Workshop’s The Margins, Mohabir uses his family’s migration story to unpack the brutal lingering legacies of Indo-Caribbean oppression, or as he writes “a postcolonial fallout,” which includes domestic violence, diabetes, racism, and homophobia.
In his hybrid memoir Antiman, winner of Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, Mohabir reflects on his life as a queer Brown man with a complex lineage: he was born in London to an Indian Guyanese family who later moved to Toronto, Canada, Richmond Hill, New York (also known as the Little Guyana of Queens), and the white working-class town of Chuluota, Florida. Through his genre-blurring writing that combines prose, songs, poetry, vignettes, and translation, he takes the reader into his grandmother’s songs, his search for community, and his experience of love as a queer man of color.
I spoke to Mohabir about the phrase “We’re not that kind of Indian,” the ghosts created by diasporic communities, and why South Asian aunties can be such haters.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: I can’t imagine how reliving some of the episodes of trauma must have been like in the writing process. I know you mentioned therapy in the memoir, but really how did you survive putting the words down?
Rajiv Mohabir: I come from a family where ancestral traumas are stifled, though their apparitions startle us awake in the middle of the night. The more I have tried to ignore them, the more they open my locked doors and peer down at my sleeping body. They teach me that their genealogies are my genealogies.
Writing the stories was a way that I tried to make sense of these particular traumas in that by writing them I could have control over them—at least this is what I thought. After drafting certain episodes in cafés from Koko Marina to Kailua, I would have panic attacks when I returned home. My doctors at the time prescribed anti-anxiety medications that I took for years that helped to settle the upset but did not completely quell the searing pain of reliving these moments. No haunting is so easily remedied. I had a queer therapist of color in Hawai‘i that really helped me to examine my own need to write these stories, which he said were important to understanding who I am.
In the drafting stage I took long swims in the ocean at Kaimana Beach and drove long loops around the island. I didn’t know it then but my strategy for dealing with this stress also included making myself feel small against the largeness of the sky, the mountains, and most definitely the Pacific Ocean. The smaller I felt, the more space I gave myself to tell these stories with the hope that there is someone else out there like I was once, who I could reach.
JRR: You have a very mixed South Asian background (caste, North-South), and being queer, and then you have all these places. I want to ask you about this determination to pinpoint identity, particularly within the Indian diaspora. I am thinking about the incident when you are told your fridge is not very Indian. What does that even mean to have an Indian fridge?
RM: One of these ghosts created by diasporic communities that harmed my family’s consciousness was the lack of recognition that my parents’ generation felt when they left Guyana for the United Kingdom. An uncle of mine was not allowed to marry a particular South Asian woman because, from what is told in our stories, he was the wrong kind of brahmin—that diasporic brahmins from the Caribbean were not really South Asian afterall. It’s from this scarring that my parents schooled us in our own apartness, always brandishing the phrase “We’re not that kind of Indian” as a protective shield.
A high school friend told me that my fridge wasn’t that Indian, I heard that as some kind of generational echo of what I assumed her parents must have been thinking about my own family. With time and distance, I have a different read of the situation, though it is still very impactful. I see this as another diasporic South Asian identifying with their own ideas of what makes them culturally South Asian. We did indeed have the things in most West Indian kitchens: pepper sauce, achaar, sour, day-old bhajee, milk, and bread.
I write about all of these places in my history as a way to show the specific diaspora I come from—and how displaced my own understanding of this distance is really. All of the places we have lived have marked us culturally, that when I say I am anything, what I mean is that I am that by way of everywhere else I have been “from.” We are Indian, yes, and we are Caribbean. We are immigrants to America, yes, and our history is of British colonization. My family is complicated and multifaceted, that resists easy categorization. What I’m finding now is that ethnic categories are important, but so are these other histories that we bear inside of ourselves.
JRR: You really throw the family’s dirty laundry out in the open. In the book, you mention that some of your family were annoyed at your making money from your earlier chapbook of your grandmother’s songs. I am wondering how you think they might react to this one? Do you care? It seems that you (as it happens sometimes that one person in a family has to take this role) are this mirror to all of their prejudices, self-hate, and discomforts, including around Indian identity and language. I wonder if you agree with this?
RM: This is something that I struggle with given my own position in my extended family. I was the one who learned my grandmother’s songs and stories and in some ways, I think that any contempt that I felt from them is a result of this and how it queered me. The chapbook incident is certainly regrettable, on some level I understand it when I’m being my most magnanimous self. Maybe they wished that they could know my Aji’s interiority as I learned it—I’ve stopped trying to guess about what they feel about me.
All my life I was taught to keep myself in hiding—that darkness was the only real friend I could count on. I was terrified that if people knew me, really knew me, that they would be disgusted. What will so-and-so say? What will aunty’s husband’s mother’s brother’s son’s grandchild think? What if I could secretly give permission to a closeted cousin to no longer fear? Even with this memoir I’m worried about what people will think. I am taking steps to befriend this worry, to make it sing me its ballads so that I can understand why this survival mechanism still is vestigial inside of my psyche.
I suspect that what you say about being the mirror is right. I showed people the parts of my Aji that were least respected: that one could be unlettered, but also have one’s poetry be valuable. Their reactions will be their own, I am not in control of them, or how they feel about me or my own brother and sister and our immediate families. It has taken me such a long time to be able to say this, finally. We all have these family secrets—things we shouldn’t tell anyone and it builds up like laundry, to use your metaphor. Healing deep ancestral shame requires starlight and music. What happens when we all acknowledge that we are carrying these burdens and show one another ourselves and we realize we are similar? Maybe they will begin asking themselves about how this opened up the possibility for healing our lineage.
JRR: You also don’t hide your family’s fetish for assimilation. I think few South Asian immigrants (or even their woke children) will admit to this as fully as you do in this book. You, on the other hand, were radicalizing young immigrants in the New York City school system with a different point of view of American history. Would you talk about this contrast, and this time of your life teaching young children?
RM: I think that shame is powerful but so too is the afterlife of shame. It manifests in so many ways. One of which is my own reaction to familial shame: to learn as much as I can about the parts of my own history that have caused my family silences. One of the major silences that still wounds me is the loss of Guyanese Bhojpuri and Tamil in my immediate family when this was the language of most of my grandparents. English language, the language of our colonizers, was a thunderstorm in previous generations and now treated as a beloved guest in our mouths. So venerated was it that we stopped singing our songs to one another. How many forests died from the embrittlement of the root systems? What kinds of losses are we currently suffering that we have no idea about?
I taught this history as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in New York City as a way to pay forward the anti-colonization work that I was doing for my own self. I wanted to bind that ghost that begs for assimilation into the United States that causes us to change our ways of thinking and speaking. I wanted my proper English to be my code-switched language and my mask—or at least since it was too late for me, I wanted it to be an option to others in precarious relationships with Empire in general and the Empire State in particular.
Assimilation was a survival strategy for my Brown family in the UK and in the US. Adapting to the colonizer’s expectations of the Coolie was our ancestors’ strategy. I am grateful for their cunning in keeping themselves alive, allowing me to survive to write this story. I no longer need these strategies to live in me.
JRR: In India, during an audience with a pandit, you question him about the patriarchy of the Ramayana as it relates to the hideous (and mostly, totally unquestioned) treatment of Sita. He says, “We cannot understand the entirety of the lila, the play of the gods.” And you write: “I wanted to believe but could only see metaphor.” I feel we could talk for hours about this line. but I am curious as to how this episode has shaped your beliefs as a human but also a storyteller.
RM: That was a particularly fraught moment for me in that the Ramayana was important to my grandparents’ diasporic consciousnesses. The story of Sita’s plight was in constant iteration whenever my Aji told the story. It was subversive and also her acknowledgment of her own plight. As for the narrative itself, my family carried it into the diaspora and drew our names from it. It’s been important and our histories have been written by it. This said, I must also note that this story has inspired tremendous violence on the subcontinent that people have perpetrated taking the names from the Ramayana in their mouths. Hindu extremists continue to destroy the lives of Dalits and Muslims across South Asia. For example: with the burning of the Badi Masjid in Ashok Nagar (2/2020) the desh-bhakts flew high the flag of Hanuman which read Victory to Lord Rama. This most certainly is no victory, but a shame and bigotry which must be denounced. A stain that will endure lifetimes coded in the epigenetics of survivors.
Why is it that the previously colonized colonize, in turn, the even more vulnerable? The metaphors are remarkably available in mythology and the ways in which mythology-based worldviews extend their interpreted actions into the world.
For this pandit, he was trying to show me that I have a long way to go—and indeed my questions did change from the easy into the nuanced. Here instead of using the available mythos to sympathize with the oppressed and make efforts to right the countless injustices, people would rather save cows than human beings. Seeing this unfold has shaped my own understanding of the power of story for evil in the earlier mentioned case, and so has the ways in which I saw my own Aji enlivened the Ramayana by using it as a way to convey her own interiority to me.
A particularity of that song that I heard performed includes a special attention to the woman’s role in the house vis-a-vis Sita and her role as either by her husband’s side or in the kitchen as the song goes. When my Aji sang it, it was in lamentation, but slyly so in that her singing was her own intervention to point out how ridiculous it was. My Aji was widowed at 44 and never remarried, unlettered, and fed her children and grandchildren.
JRR: I laughed at the part when you return from India and you write that even though you are “parasite thin,” your aunts would comment on weight gain and that you’ve become “dark.” I feel like, to varying degrees, this is true, all across the diaspora (and maybe for all communities): Why are Indian aunties such haters?
RM: This is the million-dollar question. Even the title Antiman hearkens back to this idea of the aunty at least as a double entendre. My experience of aunties has not been one of guidance or concern, but rather critique devoid of nurturing. I have come to understand this to be a way of their own survival. Being too North American is threatening. I mean specifically, displays of queerness, marrying against the anti-Black racism in the family, and being an artist, are all examples of what challenges the very core of their own self-understandings. I get why they are threatened. The world has suddenly increased in size. There is a need to know if gravity still works—if there is anything to bind us together. Aunties don’t know our worlds and cannot control them.
It used to be that gossip could distill social boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. In my mind, it’s in-group/out-group performance meant to reify the connections between siblings by showing everyone involved who the closest kin actually are, as if to point out who does not belong. But more importantly the standard of who does belong: which cousin, friend, whomever fits the mold of what we should strive to be. For example, “Did you know that Aunty X’s son wrote a better memoir about Y and has an interview published in Z magazine—so much better than your own, na?”
But maybe this is too jaded, too cynical. I want to believe in a redemption plan as well. Or maybe I have misread intentions and responded as an insecure young Brown queer could. I reserve the right to be wholly wrong in this analysis and the right also to amend my answer as much as I want to.
The performer and academic at Northeastern University, Kareem Khubchandani, has spent a lot of time thinking about aunties and how they work in the family. He organized an asynchronous symposium called “Critical Aunty Studies” that has been wonderful to engage with. Here is a link to this brilliant work.
JRR: No one escapes your examination (including yourself!). I really appreciated the list of “Islamophobic Misreading.” Could you talk a little about why you decided on this form for this aspect of the memoir? Post-9/11 was obviously a formative moment of Brown identity in America. My favorite of these vignettes is the New York therapist who says, “You deserve a family that supports you despite what Allah thinks” and the one where you tell your sister to cover her arms in a conservative neighborhood and she tells you that since “this is America. I thought I was free.”
RM: The major problem with having this kind of eye means that I interrogate myself as well! Of course I’m a terribly flawed person capable of Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, misogyny, etc. you name it. I wanted to have parts of my memoir show this. We are all complicated people complicit in the suffering of others. I am living in a white supremacist nation—one that is operational because of stolen land and stolen labor. Everything that I do is complicit. How can I work toward an anti-imperialist end if I do not consider my own culpability here?
The form was from a writing project that I gave myself in 2010 in which I kept a journal of my thinking through Islamophobia in my interactions with the people around me. Sometimes it was directed at me as my Brown body is often misread as “Muslim,” a word misused by Americans for “threat.” I wanted to regard my complicity as a way to move from being an accomplice to a non-Muslim, misogynist oppressor to thinking of ways to become an accomplice to those who survive and who are made to feel as though they transgress by simply surviving.
For me there was no escaping this post-9/11 reality given the “right” answer to this question is never “I’m not a Muslim” but rather “you’re profiling me is racist.” This and identities in the Caribbean communities that I’m from are not so easy. There are many Muslim people in my family and, according to familial stories, may have Muslim ancestors as well.