A South Asian Southener’s Political Awakening
Activist and organizer Anjali Enjeti writes about developing and claiming her identity as a mixed-race woman in the Deep South
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Anjali Enjeti’s essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, is a discerning look at how to come to terms with the question “Where are you from?” It’s such a complicated discussion and Enjeti unearths the answer through her essays focused on her childhood in the South, her reckoning with racism, and her efforts as a social justice activist.
In the book, Enjeti writes “I am half Indian, a quarter Puerto Rican, and a quarter Austrian. I am an immigrant’s daughter and also a daughter of the Deep South. Despite an ever increasingly diverse United States, I remain a perpetual foreigner.” While her mixed-race identity became an easy target for racism and contributed to her feelings of otherness, she is also aware and confronts her personal complicity of not providing allyship to other marginalized voices. This is the strength of Enjeti’s collection—she is comfortable pointing out her flaws and showing how she chooses to learn and grow to offer support to those who need it the most. Her essays confront difficult subjects like white feminism, abortion, sexism, racism, the AIDS crisis, and the 2020 election.
As a South Indian girl who grew up in Texas, I found myself nodding my head at many of the essays in Enjeti’s collection. Enjeti and I conversed over Zoom for a few hours about our South Asian identities, what it means to define heritage, and the impact of this discussion on social justice and activism.
Rudri Bhatt Patel: The epigraph for Southbound is from Arudhati’s Roy My Seditious Heart: “Either way, change will come. It could be bloody, or it could be beautiful. It depends on us.” These particular words set the tone for your essay collection. Can you tell me about the choice to have this particular epigraph and its impact on how you examine identity, inheritance, and social change through your essay collection?
Anjali Enjeti: That quote in particular focused on the process, the sort of evolution of social change work, which was a really good analogy I thought for my own evolution. I talk a lot in the essay collection about how for a long time, I was very complicit in the oppression of other minority groups and I was not conscious of how I was complicit. I didn’t have the critical eye I needed to look at myself and my own actions until I was much older.
I thought about my own personal journey to trying to be more aware of how other people suffer, the ways that I contribute to that suffering and the ways that I’m working on myself to do better and I loved how that quote encompassed movement work in general. The process of building the coalitions and moving to a place of less harm and more love and more justice.
One of the things that I like to say is that a lot of the work we do is a verb tense, right? Solidarity is a verb and the work that one does to engage in solidarity is a verb.
RBP: In the chapter, “What are You? Where are You From?,” you carefully distill your identity in the following quote, “For others, my racial and ethnic identity is oftentimes a Rubik’s Cube to be solved. I am half Indian, a quarter Puerto Rican, and a quarter Austrian. I am an immigrant’s daughter and also a daughter of the deep South. Despite an ever increasingly diverse United States, I remain a perpetual foreigner.”
You end your collection with the essay, “Identity as Social Change,” and answer the question, “Who am I? I am a woman of color. I am brown. Mixed race. Indian. Austrian, Puerto Rican. I represent multiple souths — South Asia, southern India, and the Deep South. I am an immigrant’s daughter.” In this particular ending, you’ve made peace with your multifaceted identity.
Is this an epiphany that arrived as you were writing the collection? Was it a natural progression to end your collection with this particular essay?
AE: I started realizing that our identities are kind of our superpower. We have various perspectives and histories that are really intimately entwined with who we are, and this illuminates for us ways to help other people and ways to understand their struggles. I began quieting the trauma and looking externally, instead of thinking, “oh gosh, this is such a terrible experience and I don’t want to talk about it and don’t know what to do with this pain.”
This helped me shift my focus to the ways that I’ve been harmed because of my identity, to engagement with a wide coalition of communities, many of whom are far more marginalized and oppressed than I am. I feel like because of my background, I have a perspective that helps me to see where I can be most useful when it comes to social justice: Where I can be effective? How do I comfort people? How do I amplify their voices?
RBP: That’s commendable, Anjali. It’s vulnerable to transition personal pain into wanting to help others. When do you think this started happening for you?
AE: Most of this started jelling for me, not necessarily in writing the book, I think it started probably a few years earlier, even before I knew this book was coming to be. I thought maybe I can use this pain for good. Maybe I can use this pain to get people in my community to the polls to vote. Maybe I can use this pain to really hear what other people are trying to say, who aren’t writers, who don’t have the platform, who are oftentimes erased from narratives. I wanted to take that energy, which is negative, and shift it into a more healthy, more positive, more empowering one where I’m not just alone on this island, but I am part of a coalition that actually goes far beyond even Indian identity and South Asian identity, a part of a group of people who are working to dismantle white supremacy, the patriarchy and fight bigotry. And how beautiful and wonderful this is, instead of me just thinking about all the ways that I’ve been traumatized.
RBP: Two vulnerable points of your personal trauma stand out for me in your collection regarding your willingness to call out your complicity. First, you lament that you didn’t do enough to defend fellow National Organization for Women intern, E., who was fired. And second, you’re haunted by your dentist, Dr. K’s suicide and that you didn’t do enough to be a better friend to him. Can you talk about how you were able to relive these moments and be vulnerable enough to point out your flaws?
AE: This took a lot of emotional work. Because when I feel guilty about something and when I feel ashamed about my behavior, my natural instinct is to be defensive and to justify it. In the case of the essay, “Fraught Feminism,” I was only 20 years old and the whole office leadership at the National Organization for Women, everyone in power, was white. So it was too intimidating at the time for me to say something publicly to defend my co-intern E. I had a mentor named Faith who taught me what to do in situations like this and it was my decision to ignore his teachings. I knew that I did the wrong thing pretty much right away. I realized I didn’t have to do anything bad to be complicit. Silence is complicity.
I had to do the work on myself in order to write the essay right. I had been carrying that guilt for so long and my complicity in it for a really long time.
My complicity in Dr K.’s situation, that I write about in the essay, “Treatment,” was more subtle. I loved him. I made it very obvious to him that I loved him, that he was important to me. And it took me writing that essay to really come to grips, to evolve enough as a human being, to ask myself why didn’t I ask him about his partner. Why didn’t I ask him about what they did for fun?
I could have very subtly opened the door, especially when dentists were being so scrutinized during the AIDS epidemic. To be a gay dentist must have been a really tough thing. So, it took me longer. It took me years as an adult to realize that kind of complicity is a lot more subtle but still harmful.
RBP: What do you hope readers take away from you calling out your complicity?
AE: I have learned that understanding some of the shame we feel about what we did actually can have some kind of productive use. It can have a value to it. Because once we share the ways that we feel like we’ve completely messed up and we’ve harmed people it allows us to grow, but it allows other people to grow. I’m hoping that other people reading it can sort of reflect on the ways that they have fallen short and engage in that grueling interior, mental, and psychological and emotional work. I feel like maybe me saying it first makes it safer for them to confront it themselves
RBP: In your need to be completely honest with yourself, I thought it was interesting you attributed your shift to social activism to your father’s compassionate treatment of HIV and AIDS patients. When did this realization arrive?
AE: I knew all along how difficult it was to be in that space in that time with other healthcare workers who were not as open to treating AIDS patients. From the beginning, I was in awe of my father. I was proud of him. I was in my pre-teen years during the early part of the epidemics. I didn’t understand the breadth and the depth, but I heard about it certainly on the news. You would hear about all the horrific discrimination that AIDS patients were experiencing and the horrible things that were said about it being a gay disease.
I understood the magnitude of the work he was doing at the time. What I did not put together until years later was that the work he did was another way of being an activist.
I had to step back from my own prejudices about who is an activist and who is not an activist, and what it means to engage in activism. I had to have this process where I removed my vanity as an activist and really looked at what it was that he did in order to appreciate that his treatment of AIDS patients early in the epidemic was also activism and that his work modeled activism for me.
RBP: Speaking of activism—and given the recent win of John Ossoff in Georgia’s recent runoff election—have you considered penning another essay reflecting on your experience in campaigning and how this has further impacted your conversation with identity and social change?
AE: I am still processing that win to be quite honest. I sometimes text my fellow organizers and I’m like, isn’t this amazing? We won because we were so invested in the election. My whole life was that election. I was teaching in an MFA program. I was reporting on the runoff election. I was organizing for the election. I was canvassing and making phone calls. But I am still too close to it to write about it in the current moment.
RBP: A common theme seems to have developed in your activism and writing. Your perseverance is palpable.
AE: I’m lucky I have the support. I often say that I would not have persevered if I didn’t have a really strong support system. The majority of that strong support system comes from Black and Brown women and femmes, and they are the ones who are like, “we know it’s bad out here, keep going.” They cheer me on, let me cry on their shoulder, hear me out when I say, “I’m done, I’m giving up. I can’t do this anymore.” So if I had not had that support network, I wouldn’t have lasted as long in this industry because it’s too brutal, especially when you’ve been trying to get a book published for so long and you just can’t get your foot in the door. And I know too many amazing writers who are not writing or submitting anymore and it makes me so sad because this industry really does break people. It really does keep them from writing. We have this sort of romantic notion of publishing that if you work hard enough, you’re gonna get your day and I feel like that’s sometimes a disservice to writers because for a lot of people, it’s not true.