In my early to mid-twenties I had an unstable sense of who I was. This is not uncommon at this age. But drawing on the well of this feeling, from a distance of years, throws light on the particularity of this instability, and on the cultural grammars that formed me.
My family had moved back and forth across the Indian Ocean, first leaving rural Tamil Nadu for Wollongong, then settling back in Chennai, then in Adelaide, when I was between the ages of six and twelve. In the four years we spent in New South Wales, I acquired an Australian accent, which must have felt to me like my ‘first’ way of speaking English by the time we returned to Tamil Nadu. These movements had to do with my parents’ aspirations: Mum had been accepted into a postgraduate degree in Wollongong, and they aimed to use that to build a more prestigious life in India. The clarity of this plan, anchored in Tamil Nadu as home, was complicated by the exposure to another life.
In Fifth Standard, in Gill Adarsh Vidyalaya—the name of this school comes back to me easily—I code-switched into a South Indian English I’d never used before (or perhaps I had with the few ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ I knew in Wollongong), which I’m sure sounded phony to my classmates. Years later, visiting family in a small town near Trichy in Tamil Nadu, and using my Indian English, I’d hear: ‘if you sounded any more Australian, we wouldn’t be able to understand you.’ It’s these relatively subtle differences that seemed to strike me, rather than the starker ones. My Tamil was well behind my classmates’ in Fifth Standard, to the extent that I was taken out of Tamil and assigned a Sanskrit teacher. To this day I speak in Tamil like a six-year-old.
Our migration to Australia, only a year after our ‘return’ to India, produced a temporary sense that I was across two cultures – through being split in half, or doubled, I didn’t quite know. Whichever it was, the ‘me’ at the point of origin seemed to fade as time went by.
Among my earliest memories of being in Australia are memories of hospitality: staying with family friends—my parents seemed to know them through the then-analogue Tamil Hindu network—in Wollongong, and eating pasta for the first time. I had never tasted cheese before, and the texture of it, melted across soft wheat spirals, astonished me. So too the feeling of a doona smothering my small body: the weight, softness and starched-clean smell of it were totally foreign, and I was delighted. These sensations seemed to happen to a self that was not a self, a self that was made up of its experiences, shaped by them on a daily or hourly basis. By the time I was coming into consciousness of myself as an individual with firming if not set attributes, I was starting high school. I’d been vaguely aware of this development before, but in entering my teens it was as though a spotlight had been turned on, and my outline was suddenly hard rather than fuzzy – and obvious to everyone.
My feeling of individuation was amplified by a rift in my final years at a public school in the outer north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide. I remember this school being large (with a thousand or so pupils) and decent, if focused on sports and vocations. An illustrative example of this: based on the quality of a poster I presented in a sex education class—featuring ‘buff naked’ figures with pendulous breasts and penises—the teacher said I’d be a brilliant sign writer or panel beater. I had competent teachers in English (one or two who were inspiring) and maths and chemistry (uninspiring).
My favourite English teacher there was witty, warm, and Scottish. In a class on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, she related an encounter she had with her parents when she was in her pre-teens – one that made her see them as individuals for the first time. Once a month on a weekend, they’d take the family car to see a movie on their own. Around the time her parents were due back, she would be at the front of the house, in a room facing the street, peeping out from behind curtains. She started to notice that they would pull into the kerb, stop the car, and sit inside for a while before coming in. She realised that they were snatching precious time between the cinema and home, and that they were in there ‘necking.’
I remember another teacher well for his quiet moral instruction; he was short, lean, and softly spoken, and seemed to take up little space in our rowdy world. The school had a special needs unit, meaning that children with a general learning disability were taught in the same environment as their able-minded peers. The slurs that other students made against these kids were revolting. This teacher had us read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes: a tragic novel about a cognitively disabled man who becomes a kind of intellectual prodigy through a science experiment. He falls in love with the lab assistant, and revels in his new life, free from persecution and prejudice – only for the effects of the transformation to slowly wear off. It was this teacher who set us The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which depicts the devolution into violence of a group of boys stranded on an island: the original Survivor, and another moral analogy for that school. I also witnessed in his class a peer’s impressive recitation, from start to finish, of ‘The Man From Snowy River’. Paterson-as-performed-by-Kate was my first taste of nationalist Australian verse, and of an earlier poetic era. Could it have been in response to this that I concocted my own, bizarre performance poem, called ‘The Crocodile Rap’? I performed it at an after-school event to an enthralled audience. Wearing a backwards cap and vaguely croc-coloured clothes and sneakers, I adopted a mock-sinister stance and stomped a rhythm with my feet. It was hybrid ethnic kitsch: an embodied spectacle of the foreign fused onto the familiar.
My cultural background seemed to yield respect in certain contexts, and I realise now that as far as Anglo Australians—especially pre-teens and adults—were concerned, I was born with an MFA (Food). In a school fête in Wollongong, I impressed my friends by having cooked—with the help of Amma—a milky Indian dessert called palgoa, a favourite of mine. In Year Nine in Adelaide, I’m sure I got high marks in a home economics class simply for using asafoetida in a cooked dish (asafoetida is a dried resin that comes from the root of an herb; it has an oniony flavour and is widely used in India).
There was a community of Hindus in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, but my brother and I didn’t gravitate towards them. We had a few friends in this community of course (since our parents were often taking us to someone’s house), but as the years passed, I counted fewer and fewer of them as close friends. This may have been because of our aversion to socialising informed by religion (youth meetups at the temple, the celebration of Pongal in a park, or of Deepavali and Navaratri at someone’s home) and assumptions of a shared morality. This culture, which was carefully preserved through migration, also didn’t reflect the reality we now found ourselves in – so it didn’t appeal to me. This seems perverse to me now, as if I caved to assimilationist pressure in the not-very-diverse north-eastern Adelaide of the 90s and 2000s.
But another way to frame this, which is closer to how I felt at the time, is that I found it hard to believe in anything that wasn’t an obvious part of life outside home. This included religiously-circumscribed social activity. It also included the Black American culture that the Indian youth mimicked then, though I was inconsistent about this. I seemed to adopt the visual aesthetic with enthusiasm—silver chains around my neck and wrist, a goatee that linked up to my sideburns, polyester Nike tees—but I wasn’t into the music, which felt more emotionally significant, as a choice; I was considered to have unusual tastes as a result (years later, when I commenced a literature degree while they all prepared to become doctors, engineers, chemists, and lawyers—as though by a secret pact—this cleft between us would deepen).
Their easy affinity seems admirable to me now, but as a teenager I couldn’t see why people from distinct regions of India would elide their differences in forming a group. It’s obvious in hindsight: we had a broadly common background (most of us spoke or could understand some Tamil, and all our parents had had their marriages arranged, for instance), and we all felt like fish out of water: distant from our first cultures but foreign in our adopted one. But I seemed hung up on the details, and remained detached from the group as a result. When kids started self-identifying as ‘curries,’ my dislike of the label heightened my feeling of strangeness; I felt foreign among foreigners.
I had an individualist streak, which my younger brother shared. This non-conformism may have come to us from our father. Appa swore off religion when he was a young adult—unheard of in our extended family—then re-embraced it when he had a family of his own; tried meat for a period, before deciding it was immoral; and continued to enjoy alcohol. Much of this was taboo among relatives, when we visited Tamil Nadu, though they reluctantly came to acknowledge his fondness for wine. And my mother was never demure but free with her expressions, often of joy or excitement. Our liberal parents may have made us wary of the groupthink that necessarily came with the group; as a result, I may have turned more eagerly to schoolmates from Anglo or other cultural backgrounds for friendship.
A cruel irony, then, that garden-variety suburban racism overshadowed these interactions – or seems to now, when I cast my mind back. My occasional nickname on the football field was ‘Apu’; people often yelled ‘pappadum!’ from their car windows as I walked back along the main road from school, or ‘curry in a hurry!’ when I rode my bicycle; not long after the televised spectacle of the World Trade Center attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, a boy I’d thought of as a friend, drunk and on the way to a party, twisted round in his bus seat and shouted, ‘give me back my wallet, you fucking Afghani!’, accusing me of stealing it (it had fallen on the floor under his seat). An especially ugly insult came from a Maltese-Australian boy in our peer group; when I reflect on it now, it speaks volumes of the hierarchy of racism in the country: he was telling me where non-white migrants stood in relation to First Nations people. I won’t reproduce the slur here, but watching me eat my lunch in a dextrous Indian manner, using the fingers and thumb on one hand to grasp and tear my bread, he remarked, ‘you eat like a fucking —.’ I did not then know what the comparison meant, only that my behaviour degraded me. In fact, it’s a more effective and graceful way of eating certain foods, but children who desperately want to conform to the norms of a peer group—or who are raised in racist households—are unable to see this. I was embarrassed by eating with my hand for years.
Despite what these anecdotes suggest, I was generally well-liked at school, and as a result was completely shielded from physical violence: being shoved around, punched, or dumped head-first into wheelie bins. I must’ve felt anxious in this environment, but must also have seen no option but to be resilient. Only once did I inflict violence myself. It was against a bully in Year Nine; he was diminutive in stature but known to have vicious allies all the way up to Year Twelve. One day in recess he snatched the water bottle perched on top of my locker, and emptied it over my head and books, laughing and eliciting laughter from other kids. I worried that this was a publicised sign of his intent to bully me. I fumed over the incident through class. At lunchtime, I collected rocks in the plastic wrapping from my sandwich, pressed the bundle tight, and launched it point-blank at the side of his face. He stood on the edge of the oval, screaming, blood streaming from his torn ear. Within minutes, a troupe of bullies from the higher years came marching down the side of the quadrangle to confront me. They seemed confused about my motivation, and I seemed to unsettle the scene by ‘casually’ eating my apple while they harassed me (I may have seemed nonchalant, but I was running high on anxiety and it was all I could think to do). I was saved from a beating because the bullies’ friends and girlfriends intervened.
Sometime in Year Ten I fell into a mental abyss I could not comprehend, and dropped out of school for most of the following year. I don’t mean to suggest that the events of the preceding paragraphs led to the event of the previous sentence. Mark Fisher, who called for the re-politicisation of mental illness, might see a racist environment as an obvious cause. But the fact of others’ experience there doesn’t support such a singular explanation. Other minorities in the school (I could almost count them on two hands, but these are only the kids I could see were different), including my younger brother, seemed to do fine; in fact, they seemed to flourish despite deficiencies in teaching and culture: certainly none fell apart so totally that they disappeared from view, as I did. To me, at that time, my mental collapse was inexplicable – as it was to my family and friends, including the one friend who tried to check in on me from time to time (nervously, due to an unfamiliar and absolute communicative silence on my part). I shut myself off and rarely left my bedroom, let alone the house, for months and years.
This period in my life was enlightening to my father. Witnessing the extreme irrationality of my condition, he realised four decades later the nature of his own illness as a teenager, for which there was—at that time, and in that part of India—no diagnosis except disobedience and stupidity (according to a doctor).
I went to work in a metal and woodwork components factory for a few months, one that employed physically and mentally handicapped workers alongside able-minded/bodied ones; a woman in their administration or management was a former colleague of my dad. I cut up metal tubing with an electric saw for eight hours a day, around smokos and lunch. While the repetition and physical effort had a soothing effect on my mind, I soon realised that I might regret dropping out of school. I dragged myself back to finish Year Eleven (I don’t remember this well, but it was anguished). I dropped out again at the start of Year Twelve, and spent the year doing little worth mentioning, including a long stay in a psychiatric hospital. The following year I changed schools, to an unorthodox private school attached to a university; a psychiatrist saw it advertised in a newspaper, and thought it would be good for me. The school opened that year with fees my parents could afford, and attracted students entering Year Eleven and Twelve from public and private schools across the state. I missed about a sixth of the year due to illness, but made it through with significant pedagogical support, such that I’d never had before (and with another long stay in hospital). I had a literature teacher who was instrumental in stabilising my shaky trajectory, and actually altering it, towards the humanities. For years after graduating, I kept going back to this teacher for support, advice, and literary and other conversations. Today she is one of my most valued friends.
Once I went to university, it took me a couple of years to let go of scientific aspirations (I’d been studying maths, physics, biology, chemistry, and English) and properly embrace the arts – all the while skating on thin ice, mentally. In fact, I failed my first attempt within months. I recall lying on a hillside outside a hall, where I was supposed to be attending a chemistry lecture, totally immobilised by anxiety (it had little to do with the subject: I was just very unwell). The best I could do was to position myself on the grass, hoping the pale sun would revive me enough so that I could sit in one of the plastic chairs at the back of the venue. The magnitude of the ill-feeling was exhausting. I slept intermittently, slipping in and out of hearing footsteps and ambient chatter. I admitted defeat after half an hour, and went home to get into bed.
I saw a campus counsellor there; I can’t remember what we discussed, but I remember that when I left her office she said, ‘I’ll assume that no news is good news’ (it was definitely bad news). That semester I took a literature elective, which led me to a Science/Arts double degree when I attempted university again the following year. I soon realised it was impossible to pursue sciences in my state, while novels and poems were helping me survive (if barely). I cut the former. The opportunity to read and think about literature, and contend with difference in various manifestations—formally, generically, argumentatively, and through a troupe of literary characters, each with their emotional or intellectual dilemmas (T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock was a favourite of mine)—seemed a small part of the cure.
Because I had an unstable mind through late adolescence and into my twenties, my sense of self felt secondary to my shakiness. This felt deeper than who I was: a hand grasping for a pen that cannot stop trembling, versus a hand that does not know what to write. When this hand did write, it was often about the fact of its trembling. Here is a very early, very simple poem:
on aching glass.
I grope at the window—
the ice pure
that clings and clings.
I wrote a draft of this poem looking at ultrafine rain on a bedroom window. It was sometime in the afternoon, and I felt betrayed by my body – trapped. I’d been inside for days, which was an improvement on the months I’d spent shut away a couple of years prior, roiling in black feeling, or otherwise so numb that I stood motionless in the yard in heavy rain, to force a response—any response—from my body. On one of these occasions (though maybe it was more than once) my father sobbed as he tried to coax me inside; it’s the only time, besides at his mother’s funeral, that I remember him crying. This subject disappeared from my later writing, though it makes an infrequent appearance, as in the poem ‘Sick Things,’ written after reading James Schuyler.
A few years later, having regained (a relative) equilibrium, the question of who I was became louder, in ways that would be familiar to any first- or second-generation migrant. Was I Indian, or Australian? Did I belong where I lived? If not, what was I to do with my unbelonging? The questions themselves were coupled with confusion about the urgency I felt to resolve them. There was a distance between me and the labels of ‘Australian’ and ‘Indian’ that felt artificial yet hard to bridge, and that needed to be bridged. Why couldn’t I resign myself to being an absent nobody? That was how I’d felt in those years shut away at home, completely detached from my physical environment and reliant on a social community I’d met online, in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms. Virtual friends in San Diego (USA), Dortmund (Germany), Singapore, and Gosford (NSW), most decades older than me, and with whom I talked about and traded music, were my community.
I discovered contemporary Indian poetry in English on a visit to south India to see family; this feels now like a major turning point. The year after this trip—which occurred in the summer I finished my Bachelor of Arts—I moved to Melbourne, where I wrote my Honours thesis on contemporary Indian poetry in English. I published a chapter from that thesis, on the poetry of the Indian English poets Arundhathi Subramaniam and Jeet Thayil. But it’s an unpublished preface to the thesis I read out in a class, titled ‘Ramanujan’s Bridge,’ that captures my feeling of revelation at the time.
It is December of 2007, and I’m back in Chennai, in south India. My visits to this region follow my parents’ longing to return home, which is a kind of clockwork.
On a couple of these trips, since the age of seventeen, I’d tried to find contemporary Indian poetry in Chennai bookshops. Finding what I wanted was a problem, not knowing where to look. I usually ended up in a major shopping complex; the poetry sections in the bookstores there contained several editions of Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore, anthologies of old Indian verse, and works by poets from the Western canon. But on my last trip to India, I struck upon a few contemporary volumes, one of which was the collected poems of A. K. Ramanujan.
Ramanujan left India in his thirties, and spent the rest of his life in Chicago, where he was eventually appointed Professor of South Indian languages. He was a poet and philologist, as well as a translator of ancient, medieval and early modern poetry in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. He returned to his first country often, teaching English literature in India, and Indian literature and languages in America. Because of his cross-cultural ties, he liked to describe himself as the hyphen in the term ‘Indo-American’. The hyphen was his symbolic home; he occupied this bridge between India and America.
I began reading his collected poems on the plane back to Australia, and it opened up for me the world of Indian literature in English. I’d felt ambivalent about this genre, even the newer writing by R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy I’d come across at university. Reading Indian poetry, I found the overblown English translations of Tagore off-putting, so too the devotional bent of the more ancient verse. And I felt that while Rushdie and Roy did not exactly exoticise India, they seemed to represent it in an overly sensual way. My eyes got tired of the heavily embroidered detail.
But here was Ramanujan, involved in Indian culture, but also detached from it, aware of his physical and emotional distance. Not to mention that he came from an orthodox Hindu family, like mine, but didn’t seem religious himself. When I first read his poem ‘Chicago Zen,’ my reaction was immediate. I read it as a reflection on the impossibility of travel, of really entering a place – this is how I’d felt coming back to India with my Australian education and accent. The poem’s third section, beginning ‘the country cannot be reached / by jet,’ sent ripples through my mind. His relationship to India was close to mine: neither sentimental nor nostalgic, interested in its cultures yet detached in attitude, and for the first time I felt it was a legitimate position.
On this visit in 2007, by chance, I’d arrived in time for a national poetry festival in Chennai, the first of its kind there. As I attended the poetry readings, I discovered that many of the poets were writing in English. It was as though we were stepping onto opposite ends of the bridge, or one of many bridges, between India and the wider world. In my imagination, we were facing each other on Ramanujan’s hyphen, with a slight smile of recognition on our lips.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to notice the relatively privileged position from which I entered into Indian literature, using English. The situation is no doubt different for me—with my easy access to another literature, and my being able to dip in and out of Indian literature—than for poets writing in English in India. And not necessarily by choice, as I learned: some of these writers grew up in solely English-speaking families, and don’t have sufficient grounding in other Indian languages to write in them. They are part of a minority who are not always accepted—by writers in regional languages who inhabit centuries or millennia-old traditions—as legitimately Indian, while few seem to find an overseas audience. Indian English fiction writers, by contrast, have for decades had a global audience buoying their efforts.
But this short reflection does reveal how much identity preoccupied my thoughts then. It may be that the pressures associated with being a first-generation migrant made resolving my identity an urgent task. I sense that this preoccupation has stayed with me in some ways, while completely disappearing in others. I now have little interest in permanently identifying myself as x or y, and would rather work towards feeling I can step in and out of identity categories. Of course I accept that I am x or y: that many people and institutions see and treat me this way, and that there are historical and political reasons for such treatment, or mistreatment.
This looser orientation took longer to develop, and came to me less viscerally than the former one; it happened through reading literary and cultural theory. Several years ago I was doing research towards a PhD about authorial and national identity representations in a radio program called Poetica. In the early years of this research, I went to theories of authorship to think about how an author may or may not feel present in a poem, and in a voice reading a poem on radio – whether that was the poet’s own voice, or an actor’s. While doing this research, I spent a long time with literary-theoretical movements of the 1960s and 70s known as structuralism and deconstruction (the latter complicates structuralism, and critics who apply deconstruction to social or political contexts are often called poststructuralists). Much of this thinking, while it seems esoteric—applied, at least in earlier decades, to hard literary criticism—is relevant to identity. It’s partly for this reason that it has stayed with me, as a way of thinking about the selves we might put forward or encounter in literature.
For much of the era of literacy in Western societies, and right up to the mid-twentieth century, texts including poems and novels were typically read as pointing straight to things in the world. A text seemed to have a readily discernible meaning that was grounded in the ‘real’. But the work of the nineteenth/twentieth century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure enabled ‘structuralist’ critics, from the mid-1960s, to argue that language—rather than simply representing an essential something that was outside it—actually constructed reality (it is this era that gave us the new meaning of ‘discourse’, which was further politicised in the work of poststructuralist theorist Michel Foucault). For such critics, including Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, language does not have a direct relationship to real-world phenomena: instead, the meanings of words are produced through their differences from other words, in a vast system of textual relationality. As Robert Dale Parker puts it: ‘For structuralists, everything is discursive; everything is constructed. If you believe in a reality independent of and prior to language, then you believe in a prediscursive essence (which makes you an essentialist)’ (49).
Such thinking was applied by Barthes to authorship. If language was not a channel to real phenomena, including to an author, then the author—Barthes argued—was ‘dead’. Texts were set free from authors, leading to a more liberated reading and interpretation. This radical attitude was fed by a culture that had lost faith not only in the author as master creator, but in commonly valued attributes of creativity, such as authentic self-expression and originality:
Barthes’ position is reflective of a broader current in postmodernism, which Frederic Jameson has described as a final dismantling of so-called ‘depth models’ of subjectivity, upon which concepts such as self-expression were based; Jameson argues that these depth models include essence/appearance; inside/outside; latent/manifest; authenticity/inauthenticity; and signified/signifier […] ‘What replaces these various depth models,’ Jameson argues, ‘is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play … depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces’ (Postmodernism 12). (Varatharajan 28)
This culture also fed and took nourishment from Jacques Derrida, whose deconstructive theory radically refigured the text-meaning relationship. Derrida coined the term ‘différance,’ using a combination of the French words for ‘difference’ and ‘defer’. He used this invented term to describe the constantly shifting gap between what is written and what is signified. By focusing on this gap, he argued that meanings were perpetually being deferred by writing. Derrida revealed the fundamental instability of language: that its meanings are always multiple, and in flux.
These are ideas that had, and continue to have, real consequences. The loss of faith in ‘depth models’ of subjectivity, of one essential self ‘behind’ a person’s appearance—with an analogue in deconstruction’s rejection of stable meanings behind language—had resonance far beyond literary criticism, in fields such as postcolonial studies, feminism, queer studies, and psychology. A simple idea from deconstruction that was widely applied relates to plurality. Deconstruction tells us that there is no singular ‘truth,’ but rather truths – that poems or novels always have multiple meanings, rather than any singular one. The same idea has been applied to historical narratives and identities. In this passage on multiculturalism, for instance, the Australian novelist Brian Castro shows how the plurality revealed by deconstruction affects national ideas about identity:
Far from seeing multiculturalism as a set of humanistic platitudes concerning culture-bridging (which derives from a soporific assimilationist ideology; literary assimilation follows the same paths), or a series of folkloric dances and ethnic festivals, I see it as the idealisation of pluralism. And the ideal pluralism is when everybody exists on the margins, because the centre, which is like the centre of writing itself, is an absence. (7)
Castro alludes to nationalisms founded on an ethnic majority (e.g. white or Anglo-Saxon) and minority model: those in the ‘centre’ and in the ‘margin’. But if deconstruction shows that there is no essence to language but an absence of stable meaning, and if language organises our reality, then no system can have a stable centre that dependably organises meaning and brings unity. From this perspective, a nationalism that strives for ethnic unity is deluded, and multiculturalism is the default.
Essentialism is the basis for so many ‘isms’ that concern prejudice, such as racism and sexism. These require a belief in the stable existence of a so-called ‘race’ (so-called because our shared biological race is homo sapiens; what is often meant by ‘race’ is racialisation, meaning the making of a cultural category into a racial one) or sex, in order to then prosecute that so-called race or sex. Racism is a type of essentialism that is usually based on visual recognition (though it can also be based on hearing accents): on seeing someone who looks a certain way and then making assumptions about their cultural heritage, capabilities, or intelligence. To reject essentialism is to reject the premise on which such prejudice operates – to show how deluded it is.
These ideas seemed a beacon to me when I encountered them. What if we ceased looking for singular selves, expecting coherent identities? Mightn’t this liberate those of us who feel identity most keenly (those of us in the ‘margin’), in literature at least? This is the subject of the following short reflection, titled ‘The Impulse to do Auto-ethnography,’ which I wrote about the economic and cultural factors driving the popularity of minority memoir:
There is currently significant pressure for ethnic minorities to do auto-ethnography, for their experiences to be articulated for the enlightenment of the majority. Do we exist to perform our minority status over and over, so that, through its articulation, it’s made permanent? These reservations regarding minority-majority dynamics may seem irresponsible when there are a handful in the margins who can speak out persuasively, and so change the tide of public discourse on a subject like racism. But to those who say, ‘educate me about you,’ I want to say—although I don’t always say—‘I refuse, because I have other things I want to speak about’. I am more than my ethnicity, I say, to which they answer, No you’re not: own your body and speak its experiences. But isn’t this owning of your body and speaking its experiences a mechanism by which ethnicity is made into a commodity, a mechanism of the market that traps people in narrow fields of experience, insisting they speak those experiences alone? Isn’t it a ghettoisation driven by postcolonial capitalist impulses? Doesn’t it betray literary postmodernism, the freedom from identity that we were promised in the 1960s and 70s? If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, then the minority writer ought to push against these forces and refuse the vulnerable task of auto-ethnography – unless, of course, they truly want to do it.
While multiplicity has been enshrined in progressive Western identity discourse, belief in the fundamental instability of identity seems to have waned. Among developments in identity theorisation that have come since the 70s, queer theory most palpably revels in flux and positive instability, in relation to gender and sexual orientation. What if we recognised such instability as a common state across all our identity markers, informing all our experiences? Wouldn’t waves of inventive arts—thrilling in their existential complexity—continue to flow from this orientation?
There are political reasons to use identities we are assigned, or that we purposefully choose for ourselves, instead of rejecting them outright – as Kimberlé Crenshaw has argued. A lawyer, critical race scholar and interdisciplinary feminist, Crenshaw theorised how prejudice affected Black women in the USA. In local anti-racism discourse at the time (the 80s), Black women were considered to be victims of prejudice against women, or prejudice against Blacks. She argued that they were in fact victims of a compounded discrimination that went unrecognised in the justice system, when they brought discrimination cases – that they were at an ‘intersection’ of prejudice due to their multiple, vulnerable identities. Crenshaw notes however that ‘intersectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalizing theory of identity,’ but of how the legal institution constructed Black women, to their detriment (1244). She argues that though she focuses on intersections of race and gender, ‘factors I address only in part or not at all, such as class or sexuality, are often as critical in shaping the experiences of women of color,’ and that her focus ‘only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.’ (1245).
In her 1991 article, Crenshaw recognised the value of anti-essentialism for thinking about identity, such as its insight ‘that feminism essentializes the category woman’, and noted that such knowledge ‘owes a great deal to the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference’ (1296). But for Crenshaw, ceasing to fixate on identity because all categories are unstable—which is the deeper deconstructive insight—is without use, politically: ‘At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it’ (1297). She gestures more explicitly to deconstruction at the end of that article: ‘Recognizing that identity politics takes place at the site where categories intersect thus seems more fruitful than challenging the possibility of talking about categories at all’ (1299). The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah echoes this sentiment in his most recent book about identity: ‘The fact that identities come without essences does not mean they come without entanglements … For these labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all’ (217).
While Crenshaw recognises that identities are socially constructed, intersectional approaches can sometimes seem to essentialise them. This occurs especially when the term is liberated from its original context, and the focus is not on how a group of people are made (by institutional practice, or political and media discourse), but how they are. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—the deconstructive feminist critic who first translated Derrida’s Of Grammatology—presciently suggested a compromise to anti-essentialism for activists, by proposing a ‘strategic essentialism’ (205-08). This is where a group identity is temporarily solidified for political purposes, to protest or seek justice. After these aims are achieved, that identity is dissolved. Her suggestion drew criticism for how it might practically be applied without reinforcing essentialism, and Spivak seemed to withdraw her faith in it. But it seems to me a thoughtful attempt to balance social and political realities against postmodern insights about identity: to recognise the latter without compromising the former.
An effect of acknowledging the truth of intersectionality, as the way prejudice disproportionately affects certain people, has been the re-enshrining of authenticity, in our culture’s attentiveness to the lived experiences of the marginalised. This is demonstrably good, as it amplifies suppressed voices – but I’d add a footnote to this good. I was naïve about how racism operated institutionally, how it reproduced itself generationally and across history—through the colonial bedrock—until my late twenties, when I started researching it. The events I narrated at the start of this essay did nothing to enlighten me about the deeper truths of racialisation and racial violence. I certainly did not have a more innate knowledge of these dimensions of society because of my identity. But contemporary progressive culture can take this as a given, imbuing particular bodies with knowingness by virtue of who they are. Where this knowingness is real, it may have arrived through formal or self-education, community involvement where such knowledge is shared, or through reflection on experiences of prejudice in combination with the former.
Our culture’s resubscription to essentialism also means that signs ‘on the surface’ of a person, such as someone’s singular offensive use of language, are taken to imply a thorough rottenness at the core; essentialism collapses potentially complex behaviour into neat packages that are likely pseudo-psychological. Recognising that people have multiple identities now also comes with the sense that they are those things deeply, and at all times – including on the page. And an effect of this is that someone with a Chinese or Indonesian name may be widely prejudged not to be capable of artistic experiment, only the telling of personal truths (which I admit is a paradox in an essay that contains memoir, but I’d like to hold these notions at once and see which emerges the more convincing).
Identity can be empowering, facilitating connection to a rich cultural past, one that is a shared source of pride. An identity imposed on you and weaponised against you can also feel like a responsibility: to own the category and force the world to accommodate it, or to remake it in your image. But it ought to be possible for this approach to coexist, in art, with one that idealises being free of identity, so that other interests—imaginative, intellectual, spiritual, sensory—might occupy you.
There appears to be a generational difference of approach, between those who absorbed the structuralist and deconstructive critique of essentialism (even if they never studied literary theory directly, as its terms and premises, such as ‘de-centering,’ and that there are a ‘multiplicity’ of meanings and identities, have entered wider discourse), and those who absorbed the resurgence of intersectionality more recently. The latter has surely been catalysed by social media, which insists on the visibility of the self, and expects authenticity of expression, in contrast to an Internet of anonymity in the early, murkier days of the technology.
Ramanujan’s liminal state had to do with culture and tradition, and was given form in language. He chose the hyphen bridge as his home, as a way of imagining himself. His writing ranged from poetry in English and Kannada, on a wide range of subject matter—love, family, travel, cultural tradition, wildlife—to English translations of poetry from three Indian languages, to collecting and translating folk stories. His hyphenated sense of self—his imaginative existence between a here and a there—seemed to facilitate his entry into many cultural and historical realms; it seemed to sustain his curiosity.
But this is not to say he had seamlessly integrated competing identities. He also gravitated towards essentialism at times; his ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay’ (1989), written a few years before he died, is a charming example of this. Here Ramanujan uses an essentialist notion—that there might be such a thing as an ‘Indian’ mindset, though the singularity of ‘Indian’ has question marks over it from the beginning—to argue that there is, and that it is ‘context-sensitive’ rather than ‘context-free’ (54). He attributes the latter to the Western intellectual tradition, which he argues seeks universal values and truths; his examples of this range from the New Testament to Plato, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel and Russell. By contrast, Ramanujan sees the Indian philosophical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as understanding phenomena in contexts, and compartmentalising these contexts, so that a person can subscribe to seemingly contradictory beliefs at once. Behaviour that appears irrational to Westerners resolves into a logic of multiple contexts. It’s striking then that Spivak, an Indian critic, offers ‘strategic essentialism’ as a solution for political mobilising: act essentialist in this context, but not that one (I am of course being playful in my characterisation of her nationality, in the spirit of Ramanujan’s essay). While I’m essentialising, I might also note that Derrida was born in colonised Algiers, where as a child he was relentlessly persecuted for being Jewish. He began life as an outsider, and his theory of deconstruction represents an outsider’s intervention in the Western philosophical tradition.
The poet Arundhathi Subramaniam describes her reaction to being essentialised in ‘To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian.’ The end of the poem is sharp:
Write me a new alphabet of danger,
a new patois to match
the Chola bronze of my skin.
Teach me how to come of age
in a literature you have bark-scratched
Smear my consonants
with cow-dung and turmeric and godhuli.
Stamp my papers,
lease me a new anxiety.
Grant me a visa
to the country of my birth.
Teach me how to belong,
the way you do,
on every page of world history. (177)
Subramaniam rebukes this critic for craving an exoticised Indianness; she gestures to the power dynamic that allows him a vantage point on her identity (she refers to him in the lines preceding these as an ‘arbiter of identity’). Colonialism is an obvious theme of the poem. Another, related theme is essentialism: the impulse to locate people in narrow boundaries of identity, and to police those boundaries, which has been part of the colonial project (to cite the British strategy in India: divide and conquer). But an historical irony of the poem is that Wales was also an English colony – England’s first, in the thirteenth century. Subramaniam’s critic has fully assimilated the essentialist impulses of colonialism: he has become one of them.
Reading Vijay Nambisan’s ‘Madras Central,’ or opening a familiar (or even an unfamiliar) collection of Indian poetry, I often feel a sense of belonging. This feeling is still mysterious to me. I associate it especially with poetry, a genre focused intently on remaking the self as literature. But why should I be drawn to the cultural expressions of a part of the world? This is not to say that when I read Anne Carson, or John Forbes, I do not also feel intellectual and emotional resonances that make me feel ‘at home’. Wherever this feeling occurs now, I relish it. It orients me as I read, and I recall it in moments of disorientation in the future.
 Barthes’ revisioning of authorship was radical; he set it out in his well-known essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967). Foucault offered an arguably more nuanced account of how the author might continue to manifest in texts, despite their having no tangible connection to them, in his essay ‘What is an Author?’ (1969).
 Though she called for the application of the theory to ‘multiple grounds of identity’, intersectionality’s treatment of material disadvantage (among the poor), as opposed to institutional discrimination, has been criticised. Christos Tsiolkas recently argued that irrespective of ethnicity/sexuality/gender, class is where disadvantage is reproduced across generations, and that (in Australia and elsewhere): ‘Though the language of intersectionality and identity politics pays lip service to class, the overwhelming sense I have is that race, gender and sexuality are always prioritised in terms of identity over that of economic status and caste’ (23).
 His conflation of these traditions with ‘India’ or an ‘Indian way of thinking’ now seems problematic (to say the least), as a Hindu chauvinist government is inciting violence and ill-feeling towards Muslims, for whom India is also home. Ramanujan was speaking from his experience as a Hindu, when it may have been common for a majority to refer to a country by its dominant ethnic or religious groups – in the way that it would once have been common for Australians of European ancestry to connote a white Australia in referring to ‘Australia.’
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books, 2018.
Castro, Brian. ‘Necessary Idiocy and the Idea of Freedom,’ Striking Chords: Multicultural Literary Interpretations, edited by Sneja Gunew and Kateryna Longley, Allen & Unwin, 1992, pp. 3-8.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,’ Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, July 1991, pp. 1241-1299.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke UP, 1991.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, Third Edition, Oxford UP, 2015.
Ramanujan, Attipate Krishnaswami. ‘Chicago Zen,’ The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan, Oxford UP India, 1997, pp. 186-88.
Ramanujan, Attipate Krishnaswami. ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay,’ Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 23, no. 1, 1989, pp. 41-58.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, Routledge, 1988.
Subramaniam, Arundhathi. ‘To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian,’ The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, Bloodaxe Books, 2008, pp. 176-77.
Tsiolkas, Christos. ‘Class, Identity, Justice: Reckoning with the Ghosts of Europe,’ Griffith Review 69: The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica, 2020, pp. 17-27.
Varatharajan, Prithvi. Poets on the Air: Authorial Presence and National Identity in ABC Radio National’s Poetica, 2017, U of Queensland, PhD dissertation.