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In Which I Gnash My Teeth Over Identity

If I wanted to hyphenate my identity, it would be:

Indian-Australian woman.

Australian-Indian woman.

Hyderabad-born Australian woman.

Telugu-Melbourne woman.

And so on and so forth.

But I’ve never really been able to do it, except when I have to pointedly mark up my ‘diversity’ for a grant or bio – because, ya know, institutions and cultural mediators now apparently love ‘diverse’ artists.

I, like many others I know, hate that word, ‘diverse’. It’s yet another way to stereotype and box in the ‘other’, which the white majority still doesn’t know how to understand or treat with any semblance of real equality.

But back to the question of identity.

The fact is I spent the first eighteen-odd years of my life in Australia thinking of myself as purely Indian; but in that ironic, paradoxical way that internal colonisation operates, also wanting to write white heroines in white settings.

All my fantasy, myth and history loves were European or British; the South Asian stuff was compartmentalized as my necessary, fundamental, but also embarrassing and uninteresting ‘heritage’.

And now?

I’ve long abandoned my white stories and white heroines - I now exclusively write heroines who are women of colour, negotiating fantasy worlds that are a composite of my background in Western history and myth and South Asian/Indian cultural , historical and mythic landscapes.

I can’t write what I am not, not anymore.

Any of this could change at any time, and I give myself some permission to do that. But even as I typed that, I went wobbly and anxious inside.

How can I stay true to my identity? How do I do it without being tokenistic or simplistic? Should I be doing it better?

For example, lately I have been questioning the somewhat gaslamp/steampunk (refer to previous post for my discussion of genre) elements of my novel Unbound. Is melding 19th century British clothes, manners, language with South Asian names, gods, food and beliefs just another way that I haven’t shaken off my internal colonisation, the belief that white cultures are somehow more attractive?

But when I started writing, that was the world that formed itself, and it was one that felt real, tangible, solid. It’s rare that I get that kind of feeling when writing.

So I think I’m going to have to trust myself on this one, and also remind myself that one book or series is not all I am, and not all I can be.

That’s another thing that happens when the word ‘diversity’ gets sprinkled everywhere: It makes the ‘diverse’ people themselves feel hemmed in to one kind of story, with rigid boundaries and short horizons.

So no hyphens for me, and no rigid parameters as to how to decolonise my writing and my imagination.


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