A review of Anjali Enjeti’s essay collection Southbound

A review of Anjali Enjeti’s essay collection Southbound

July 01, 2021

 

 

 

When I lived in Georgia, locals at Walmart told me and my father to leave the country. When I was five, I was told there weren’t hundreds of Gods as per what Hinduism taught, but only one, and God’s name was “God.” 

I left Georgia in 2008 and have since travelled the world. I would decry Georgia every chance I could. I was ashamed to be from a place that shamed me, that taught me I was wrong for being something I didn’t choose to be.

And yet, the Georgia I left in 2008 is becoming a land of many identities, a welcoming and warm community. This is largely because of the immigrants who suffered like me, but who chose to stick to their roots and fight for something better. 

One such writer and activist, Anjali Enjeti, is the author of two forthcoming books—the first a collection of essays entitled Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change that explores Enjeti’s relationship to the Deep South she calls home, and the second a novel called The Parted Earth that details the aftermath of Partition on a family of Indian and Indian-Americans. 

Enjeti was born in Michigan to an Indian father and a mother with Puerto Rican and Austrian heritage. She was uprooted to the South when she was a child, first to Tennessee where she was raised, and then to Georgia which she has since called home. As she writes in her upcoming essay collection, Southbound, 

 

     Questions about my identity have echoed in my mind for

     decades. They have been absorbed by the tympanic

     membranes of my eardrums and have traveled through the

     synapses of my brain. Shadows, they have followed me

     everywhere.

 

Enjeti’s choice of language in these sentences is quite revealing. The use of “tympanic membrane” and “synapse” is clinical. As much as Enjeti belongs to a certain appearance due to the workings of genetics, the extent to which her ethnicity was discussed as an object of curiosity was so normalized that the social conditioning almost wired her to believe she was different. To feel different is not merely a state of mind; it becomes as natural as an actual part of the human body. Enjeti then doubles back on the anatomical word choice with an emotive one like shadows. Shadows represent the darkness, shadows imply something outside of the human line of sight. 

Enjeti is born in the periphery, on the outside limits of society, and to be part of such a context is as much objective as it is subjective, as much body as it is reflection, as much real as it is imagined. 

The traumas of difference are etched into language with excruciating detail in the collection’s titular essay, “Southbound.” Enjeti’s ability to conjure a unique image is once more on display as she depicts what it meant to be a fifth grader in Chattanooga in the early 1980s. She contrasts the “fluorescent bulbs” of the classroom with the “white bodies huddled behind their desks.” The excess of white imagery is highlighted from the beginning of the essay for a particular reason. Enjeti is one of two or three other students of color in the entire school. 

Enjeti’s command of the unique image, though, is far more complex than the racial politics she is surrounded by. Enjeti has a talent for not only choosing a description which aptly paints her state of mind; they also juxtapose concepts in exciting and original ways. When Enjeti discloses in the essay that her father is Indian, another student’s eyes light up. 

“I know that country,” she exclaims, as if answering a question in a game show.  “I read about it in National Geographic.”

Enjeti would not be particularly pleased by this comparison. Indians are not wild cheetahs or endangered frogs; we are a nation of thousands of languages, cultures, and histories filled with depth and wisdom.

Enjeti’s response however, is neither egotistical nor self-righteous.

“I am a museum artifact missing a label.”

The metaphor works brilliantly on many levels. The likening to a museum artifact immediately summons the image of thousands of lived identities reduced to objects because of where they stand in relation to the white gaze, but then Enjeti takes the metaphor one step further. By claiming she is missing a label, she suggests that even she doesn’t know if she belongs to the very space she is being exotified from. She not only feels dehumanized; she has to feel misunderstood by the people she actually belongs to.  

To be a writer is not merely to always be in conversation with words. We also exist in the outside world, and it is of equal benefit to engage with it. While reading Southbound, it would be hard not to link certain moments or events from Enjeti’s life with the writer and activist she would later become.

In the essay “Borderline,” for example, Enjeti reflects on the days before and after a miscarriage by entering into her Austrian grandmother Gertrude’s perspective more than her own. In an ode to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the essay alternates between the aftermath of Enjeti’s loss with Gertrude’s own experiences in a Nazi labor camp, her romance with a Puerto Rican American soldier, and her later years as an American immigrant. The essay ends with Enjeti meeting her grandmother Gertrude on the day her third daughter is born, creating a unique moment of peace in which Enjeti lets go of the grief of her loss in order to accept the calm that her grandmother provides her. 

In the essay “Reflecting Jasmine,” Enjeti reminds us that change need not come from the annals of Congress or the Supreme Court; they are also embedded in the cultural constructs we imbibe each and every day. “Reflecting Jasmine” is partly an ode to the pages of Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, one of the first mainstream novels depicting Indian-American life, and the impact they had on Enjeti while she was a college student. 

 

     When I finished reading Jasmine, I was overcome by an

     unfamiliar literary fervor born of self-recognition.

     Jasmine's quest to both seize and reinvent her identity

     resonated with me. After polishing off the book in a day

     (it’s a short 214 pages), I wondered which parts of my

     identity were a product of how others saw me or what

     others called me (Angela, Angie). How much had the

     white gaze and, in particular, whiteness in literature

     permeated and shaped how I saw myself in the world?

 

Enjeti’s reflections are not only literary. They are also about the “very brown skin” of the woman on the cover. For Enjeti, it was one of the first times that she saw a South Asian face on the front of a book. It reminded her that she could be a part of media or representation, that she could consider beautiful or aspirational forms emerging from her background—not just an out-of-place brown body in a white classroom. That she need not be defined by the white gaze. 

To work for the sake of the greater good is often thankless. To aspire to write novels or essays is even more thankless. And yet, both artistry and activism are born from the seeds of passion. When they are fomented properly, great personal disconnect and discord can result in the most positive of actions. Whether in her writing or civic engagement, Enjeti is willing to educate but also to learn. 




Purchase Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change here.

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Kiran Bhat is the author of the English-language story cycle, we of the forsaken world... (Iguana Books, 2020), as well as books in four other languages. His writing can be found at The Kenyon Review, Brooklyn Rail, The Colorado Review, The Florida Review, 3:AM Magazine, Eclectica, Waxwing, PANK, The Free State Review, Cha, The Mascara Literary Review, and The Chakkar.

 

 

 

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash



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