Interview by Frances Donington-Ayad
After living through the political and cultural events of the past few years, reading Anjali Enjeti’s Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change is one of the few experiences that has helped put these moments in perspective. Enjeti slows the tide of recent turmoil to engage in provocative conversations about the Trump presidency, the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of police brutality, hate crimes against the AAIP community, recent key elections and the voter suppression that surrounds them—and that is just the tip of the iceberg. At under 300 pages, the sheer mass Southbound examines is not only impressive, but the way in which Enjeti goes about it: traveling back and forth through her own timeline as she (and us readers by proxy) make better sense of how the world shapes our identity and how those identities shape the world right back.
Enjeti sets the stage with a prologue essay titled, “What Are You? Where Are You From?” where she describes the exoticizing and racist experience of non-POC decoding her mixed race identity. This loaded questions acts as an anchor. As we travel through Enjeti’s coming of age years as a POC in the South, into the roles she navigates as an adult—feminist, lawyer, mother, activist—she shows us that to truly answer this question one must peel back layers of themselves and make sense of complicated half-truths; the answer is never as narrow-minded as those in a position of privilege would prefer.
What is perhaps even more noteworthy is Enjeti’s ability to center this question at the heart of stories that are not her own. For Southbound is as much a gripping exploration of the author’s life and journey to better understand her identity as a masterfully researched collection of marginalized stories, history, data, art and literature. We encounter everything from heartbreaking vignettes of Vincent Chin’s life; to interviews with people whose loved ones are held in a detention center; to first person accounts of voter suppression in the South. At the core of the myriad of overlapping narratives, Southbound’s initial question can be found— not so much to be answered, but to further illuminate it’s complexity.
Enjeti’s skilled ability to zoom in on specific events and pull back out to review the larger scope helps some readers better understand this point, and for other readers, echo and organize a confusing internal dialogue. And Enjeti has undertaken this epic task of understanding identity—in a personal and philosophical sense—all while beautifully sewing her story, faults, and vulnerabilities into the larger fabric of history.
I talked to Anjali about the experience of exploring one’s identity, researching such a vast topic and putting it all together on paper.
Frances Donington-Ayad: Much of this book is written about or in relation to current political events. 2020 was a year of great change, both in politics and in society with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting both. How do you write about political events in a way that is fluid? How do you retain the poignancy of these events in your writing while the world marches onward?
Anjali Enjeti: This was such a challenge for me when writing Southbound. I received my copyedits for the book a few weeks before the presidential election. And I was reporting on the election, serving as a poll worker, as well as organizing Asian American voters at the time, so my entire life was completely wrapped up in it, as well as the runoff that followed. But because of the book’s publication timeline, most of 2020 doesn’t make it into the book.
I was a little worried about this, because some of the most significant work I’ve done as an organizer happened last year. A friend then reassured me that an essay collection is just a snapshot in history. It doesn’t have to carry the burden of capturing the most recent events. So when I began looking more closely at each essay, I thought about how it might read five, ten, fifteen years from now. I figured out how to write about a specific time, but include observations and insights that were timeless, and could be connected to other eras.
FD: Throughout the book, you work to call out the biased and racist thinking of your younger self. In the essay “Southbound,” after learning you were not invited to the Cotton Ball as a teenager, you comment on how upset and hurt you felt. You then go back in the voice of yourself as an adult and examine that reaction, saying,
“My hurt and humiliation were rooted in racism and the deep-seated belief that after white women, I was the next best thing.”
Was this act of calling out your past behavior the natural flow in which these essays unfolded? Or did you find you had to go back and add that in? If so, what was that process like?
AE: When I sold the book on proposal, roughly half of the essays in Southbound had been previously published. But as I was writing the book, I realized that many of my older essays centered in my own racialized trauma, and that I wanted the book to go beyond this. I decided to focus instead on the aftermath, and how one can drive this very internal and individual pain to build bridges with other communities to create a less oppressive and more humane world.
Specifically, I wanted to answer these questions: What can trauma related to our identity do? Where can it take us? What new world can it help us build? So I began deleting several of the older essays, even the essays that had been quite popular, and wrote different essays that focused on the way that our experiences can propel us into social justice work. I focused on my complicity. One I shifted the message of the collection, with hindsight, it was fairly easy to recall the mis-steps I’d made.
FD: In the essay “In Memory of Vincent Chin” you immerse the reader in scenes you were not present for, even imagining the honeymoon of Vincent and his fiancé that never got to be. Similarly in “Borderline” you envelope readers in the story of your grandmother, fleshing out full scenes of her having intimate conversations with her husband and traveling to Mexico for an abortion. How did you tow the line of writing about another person’s story in a captivating and enthralling way without sensationalizing them for dramatic purposes? Did you feel that was a risk?
AE: Oh yes, there’s always the risk of sensationalizing or turning someone else’s story into trauma porn, and I definitely wanted to avoid that. “In Memory of Vincent Chin” is one of the most researched essays in the book. There are over 40 citations, more than twice of any other essay. (Like several other essays in Southbound, it was also fact checked.) I pulled dozens of articles from the Detroit Free Press—the online versions of the very same articles I remember seeing in the print on our kitchen table at home. Which is to say, I wanted to ensure I stayed as closely as possible to what actually happened.
Scenes of what someone was feeling or thinking are actually directly referencing print or video interviews. It’s only the very last act of the essay that is entirely fictional. It was inspired by one of my favorite poems, Eve Ewing’s “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store.” Ewing imagines what Till would have been as an adult, living his life. I wanted to show what Vincent’s life could have been for him, too. So I wrote a scene that captures the love and joy he would have shared with his fiancé, Vicki.
I wrote “Borderline” years ago, when my Oma was still healthy, and interviewed her extensively for it. We had long conversations about what the essay would look like, and what I was trying to do with it, and I read it to her over the phone when it was finished to get her seal of approval. But in addition to this, I also worked closely with two different authenticity editors, one of whom read the entire book, and the other who read some of the essays I was especially concerned about. Their perspectives and feedback were invaluable.
FD: In “Recipe for a Person” you talk of your connection to your grandfather and his Puerto Rican heritage, saying “I hold a single fuzzy memory of John [my grandfather]…He is sitting on a banquette in my grandparents’ kitchen in El Paso, elbows propped on the table, a cigarette dangling between his fingers…My entire Puerto Rican identity is embodied in this one thin memory.” In both a writing sense and a general personhood sense, how do you reckon and claim parts of your identity you feel you have little connection to? How does this play into the idea of a recipe?
AE: I think I’m still trying to figure it all out. My mother and her siblings have their memories of my grandfather. But they’re in their seventies, and once they pass away everyone I know who remembers him will be gone. I feel like I’m trying to grasp on to something that is intangible and invisible and slipping through my fingers. How do we find ways to resuscitate a family line that is like a line drawn in the sand, where the next tide, it will be completely washed away? I don’t really know. Food is comfort and it’s also a way for us to keep our heritage close. The idea of a recipe also feels analogous to what it’s like to be of mixed race and mixed ethnicity. Every ingredient in a dish is separate and distinct from one another but they combine to make something seamless and whole.
FD: There seemed to be a parallel between the question you explore in the first essay, titled, “What are you? Where are you from?”, where you ruminate on this racially motivated question you’ve been asked your whole life, and the question you ask yourself later in “Virtual Motherhood.” In the first few weeks after giving birth you reflect and ask, “Who am I? Where am I? I don’t know. Everything I once knew about myself as a human being, everything I understood to be a part of my identity, endured a seismic shift the moment I gave birth.” How does the process of understanding these identities, which have both—although through very different means—been thrust upon you, share commonalties? How are those experiences different?
AE: Identity is a state that is always shifting, and the various parts of ourselves assert themselves more prominently in our lives depending on what we’re going through or whether we’re in the private or public spheres.
When I had my first child, I was living far away from my family and closest friends, and I was also one of the first of my friends to have a baby. The early weeks of my maternity leave were the loneliest of my entire life. My husband worked 16-hour-days and many weekends, I didn’t have help, so my world was very small, just me and the baby. I would spend hours walking her in our neighborhood with the hopes that I’d run into someone to talk to.
Parenthood was the identity that impacted my day to day life most during that time. When I got back out into the world post-9/11, and went back to work, and noticed how my brown body was received in the public world, my racial identity moved to the forefront again, as was the case for many brown people after 9/11.
FD: Do you think your sense of self would be different today had you never moved to the south? Do you think living in that ultra-white environment rocketed you into an earlier awakening on subjects of racism and whiteness? And if so, do you see that as positive or negative?
AE: When I lived in the Detroit metro area, I regularly encountered more people who looked like me. My school had some racial diversity, and there were other children who either were immigrants or children of immigrants. We also lived ten miles from Detroit, and went downtown on some weekends. I had access to far more racial and ethnic diversity. There was racism for sure, and I became more aware of it after the murder of Vincent Chin. But I definitely saw more people who looked like me.
Southeastern Tennessee in the 1980s was far less diverse and people were far more open about their racism. The difference was shocking. We would eventually come to know other brown families and other immigrants, but they were fewer and far between. In most spaces I inhabited, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. The racism I experienced silenced me. When I was young I couldn’t process it. I also didn’t know or understand how whiteness worked, so I blamed myself for being othered or targeted, and spent a lot of time living in shame. It was very hard for me to think critically about racism or other kinds of bigotry when I was spending so much energy avoiding it and trying to be accepted. If anything, the racism delayed my awakening to social justice. Had I not been hindered by trauma, perhaps I would have come to understand white supremacy at a younger age, how it worked and for whom, and my role in upholding it.
More About Anjali: Anjali Enjeti is a former attorney, organizer, and award-winning journalist based near Atlanta. Her collection of essays, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and her debut novel The Parted Earth will be published in the spring of 2021.
Her writing about politics, social justice, and books has appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR, ZORA, Courier Newsroom, Mic, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Nation, and elsewhere. Her work has received awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. A graduate of Duke University, Washington University School of Law, and the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, she teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Reinhardt University.