The Global Indian

JLF 2018: living with multi-ethnic identities

Having multiple ethnic identities is never easy. It was never easy anyway – whether living in India or outside India. In a sense, India is complicated – a Muslim can be Gujarati-speaking in Gujarat or Malayali-speaking in a southern Indian state.

However, second-generation Indian migrants face similar dilemma while living outside the country. Multiple ethnic as well as national identities get mixed over generations, giving rise to sometime funny acronyms like ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), which sums up the cultural and linguistic confusion often characteristic of children of migrating families.

And this is not unique to Indians – many migrants from other ethnic groups face similar issues – which is not surprising in the global, virtual world we live today.

And at a panel discussion at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, not one but three panelists had mixed ethnic backgrounds, and who have chosen to become writers in their own right.  Syrian-American journalist and former civil rights laywer Alia Malek was one of the panelists, who spoke about her book “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria and A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives.” She shared her experience of how Syrians are written about with an outside view, as if Syrian citizens, the insiders, cannot provide an objective view of their life.

Mixed-ethnic experience provides an undertone to cultural memoirs: (From left) Abeer Hoque, Juliet Nicolson, Keggie Carew, Alia Malek and Amy Tan

Similar experience of stereotypes was shared by another panelist, Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer Abeer Y Hoque. Talking about her book publishing experience, she mentioned how publishing agents of different countries reacted differently to her manuscript.

After reading her memoir, her American agent wanted her to change the American section of the book, with some exotic elements to fit American perceptions of Syrian migrants. And wait, her Indian agent had problems with the Bangladeshi elements in the book. She wondered if she showed the manuscript to a Nigerian agent, they may want the Nigerian section changed as well.

Abeer pretty much summed up the experience of many migrants with mixed ethnic backgrounds: “I’ve felt a little bit out of place in all of the places I belong.”

Popular Chinese-origin American author Amy Tan expressed a slightly different opinion: “Belonging was to do with values inculcated by parents during childhood, rather than one’s country of origin. She, like many migrants, doesn’t feel so sure about her privileges as an American in the Trump era, as non-white citizen, even though she was born in the US.

The discussion became candid when Juliet Nicolson (grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson) shared an intimate truth about her life – how alcoholism had devastated her mother’s life, eventually killing her. Juliet pretty much saw history repeating when she herself took to drinking heavily. Writing a memoir was, in a way, Juliet’s way to give voice to her mother.

In fact, alcohol, as the Telegraph writes, was the dark thread linking mothers to daughters throughout “this gilded tale of life in magnificent houses,” as described in Juliet’s candid book “A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson”.