Authors / Debut Authors / Interviews

Multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith southern stories: Q & A with Anjali Enjeti

There is such joy in happy endings, and we know that making that final climb to publishing can sometimes feel like a fairy-tale ending while slogging away at any work in progress. That is why it feels particularly thrilling to share in the celebration of Anjali Enjeti, who after years of putting in the hard work has two books coming out in two consecutive months this year.

Her debut collection of essays, Southbound (University of Georgia Press), was published in April 2021, and her debut novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press), came out just last week. Enjeti’s article in Publishers Weekly  speaks of the very real challenges of immersively doing the work while waiting endlessly for things to come to fruition—as the title describes it, “The Emotional Cost of the Book Deal.

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The timing of the two releases—fortuitous, as Enjeti says in the interview—allows for a fascinating parallel read, and a correlation of the introspection and evolving ideas of the essays with the stories of Deepa and Shan. Both books explore the multiple facets of “identity, inheritance and social change” in a deeply contextualized setting.

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It was a pleasure to catch up with Anjali Enjeti over email and phone to talk about her present excitement, past struggles, the way activism informs her writing, the need for multiple stories from the American South, international and intergenerational trauma, the importance of archived stories, and more.

Shoba Viswanathan: Both your books, which represent years of labor, coming out in the same year within a month of each other must feel unreal. I would like to learn more about the context of the books and what each of them represents—which did you write first? Which one found its way to publication first?

Anjali Enjeti: It really does feel unreal! I can hardly believe it.

I wrote The Parted Earth first. It was the sixth book I wrote. I started it late in 2011 and finished it in early 2016, I believe. I wrote the book proposal for Southbound in 2017, while I was still searching for an agent for The Parted Earth.

Southbound received a book contract in the summer of 2017. I still hadn’t found an agent for The Parted Earth so I submitted it the Hub City Press’s open submission period, and received a contract in 2019. So the books were written at different times, but happened to come out together.

SV: Southbound, a collection of essays that captures so many facets of your life and experiences, is a treasure trove of material for an interviewer to dig into. One of my favorite essays was the documenting of your nascent feminism and subsequent personal evolution as a feminist. How much of this evolution is ongoing? Are you mindful of other sorts of ideological evolutions in yourself, and how does it affect your writing?

AE: Oh, the evolution definitely continues. It will continue for the rest of my life. There are so many layers to white supremacy, how it manifests, and where and how it asserts itself. Every evolution, I think, is about uncovering another layer. And every day, I’m learning more about how some of my actions and thoughts have been harmful or are harmful, and how to do better. Decolonizing, the dismantling of white supremacy, this is lifelong work.

Both writing and organizing help me figure this out. Organizing influences and informs my writing, and writing influences and informs my organizing. The writing is a little more theoretical. It’s the grappling of ideas, the contemplation and the processing. The organizing is the practical. It’s the manifestation of the ideas in the writing. And sometimes, the organizing work shows me the holes in the arguments I make or the positions I hold in my writing.

SV: The previous question is also a way of asking how much of your writing comes from a place of certainties, and how much does it come from exploring uncertainties? 

AE: I’d say most of what I write comes from my uncertainties, or more specifically, what is deemed to be true that I suspect to be false. I’m interested in turning an issue on its head, and seeing what shakes out.

SV: In the essay “Southbound” you tackle the many facets of your Southern identity. Your mixed bag of reactions to the Cotton Ball offers striking insights into how Brownness and Whiteness intersect in individuals, and in communities. What you call the “social contract” of how ethnic minorities expect Whiteness to work is very much a part of current reality, isn’t it?

AE: Absolutely. Many of us brown folks are obsessed with being accepted and indoctrinated into Whiteness. Our very notions of success and pleasure are so completely steeped in white supremacy we can’t seem to imagine a world without it. And then we are suddenly surprised, as I was, when I was not rewarded for selling out to Whiteness. This is the hallmark of the model minority myth—keep your head down, don’t complain, suffer quietly, and Whiteness will applaud you. Meanwhile, while we are lavishing our love upon Whiteness, Black folks, other brown folks, Indigenous folks, undocumented folks, queer folks, disabled folks, etc., pay a very steep price for our White Worship. 

Openly rejecting white supremacy, and aligning ourselves with a multiracial coalition that also rejects white supremacy, is the only answer.

SV: You write about the problematic way history is taught in schools. If we are to tackle white supremacy, there is no doubt that we need to face historical facts unflinchingly. Could you share what it was like to have a clear sense of inaccurate historical representation in education, and how did you try to deal with it as a parent?

AE: In our house we talk about white supremacy, bigotry, and social justice every day, and I’ve never censored this kind of talk, not even when my kids were little.

I have also always asked my kids what they’re learning, and after they tell me, I ask them questions to get them thinking about whether it’s the best way to learn about a subject. My 7th grader has just started reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl for school. I asked her whether she thought it was a good idea to learn about Indigenous people through a novel written by a white person, instead of through books about Indigenous folks by Indigenous authors, like some of the other books we have at home.

We have always openly talked about social studies, too, and how what we consider “history” is often determined by colonizers and other people in power. By the time my older kids got to high school (one is now in college) I no longer had to ask them these sorts of questions. They reached their own conclusions about what they were learning.

SV: As a woman of color—with a mixed racial heritage—American writer in the 21st century, what would you say is the literary tradition that influences you?

AE: I’ve definitely leaned heavily on Black and Asian author-activists. The words of a few of my biggest influences embodied a sort of literary and sociopolitical awakening for me. These writers and thinkers included Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Vandana Shiva, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Grace Lee Boggs, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Some of their work, even work written 30, 40, 50 years ago, remains timeless. I continue to return to their writing again and again.

SV: The Parted Earth,which goes back to the traumatic events of the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947, examines the way generations removed from historical events are still impacted by them. What made you choose that moment as your starting point?  Did you have any personal points of connection to this experience?

AE: There were so many aspects of Partition that affected me deeply, but the one that guided my interest in this era, and the narrative arc of the novel itself, was the fact that so many survivors’ stories have been lost. There was virtually no formal, widespread effort to document survivors’ experiences during Partition until around 2007. Many had passed away by then, or their stories were simply lost. Others may have been too traumatized to speak about their experiences. That’s what stuck with me—all the thousands, even millions, of stories that may have been lost forever. This is why the archive I wrote about in the novel becomes central to the story.

I have also always been interested in understanding how tragic events affect later generations. Whether it’s Partition or the Holocaust or the Vietnam War, I find myself wondering how the trauma survivors experience manifests in their descendants. While writing the book, I read a good deal about intergenerational trauma.

In the case of Shan Johnson, the main character who is in her forties, living in the U.S 70 years after the Partition, I wondered how her ancestors’ trauma during Partition might manifest in her life, even though Shan is estranged from her grandmother Deepa, who survived Partition. If a descendant isn’t even aware an ancestor experienced trauma, would that descendant still feel it? Would that trauma still impact their life? And my answer is yes, it absolutely can. 

SV: The silk merchant who becomes a late blooming sculptor in The Parted Earth was a character who felt particularly poignant in the context of this Bloom interview. What can writers and artists do to create the space for these kinds of explorations? What can we do as a society to support creative explorations at all ages?

AE: The beauty of art is that one can engage in it at any time. It may be difficult for someone in their seventies or eighties to become a mechanic or doctor or accountant, but they can certainly become an artist. And folks in their twilight years have a vast archive of life experiences and knowledge, and they are ready to be mined and transformed into art. I know many people, actually, who didn’t have the time or energy to create when they were younger, who turned to writing or painting or ceramics when they were older, retired, and no longer had caregiving responsibilities.

There is very little support for new artists in their sixties, seventies and eighties. At these ages, one’s point of view is so confident, authentic, and refined. Folks at this age just don’t give a fuck. They’re unapologetic about their opinions, and are willing to take risks. We would all benefit from ensuring that they have the time, space, and resources they need to create.

I don’t know what resources are available now, but artists’ residencies and grants designated for folks of a certain age would be a great start.

SV: You reference Devi Laskar and her book Atlas of Reds and Blues when talking about how the publication of that book felt like a reckoning—as though the Indian American book from the American South had been published. How do we make the case that there are still many more stories of the South waiting to be told through many different lenses? 

AE: We need to start by dismantling stereotypes about people living in the South. They are so harmful. So much of the country still believes that southerners are all-white racist rednecks waving Confederate flags. Multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith southern stories can help dismantle these stereotypes. These stories need and deserve to be told.

There are very real-world consequences when we only have the same type of southern stories from the same community. Stereotypes about southerners, for example, continue to hamper electoral organizing efforts here. Non-southerners claim we can’t flip seats in southern states because we’re all Republicans. Which might, in turn, keep folks from investing their dollars in Democratic candidates or local grassroots organizations. Our fair representation in government literally depends on all of us having our stories told.

SV: Given your deep-rooted experience in political organizing, I wondered if you have any thoughts on strategies for expanding the publishing world. Our engagement with the many aspects of publishing is a labor of love for many of us—given the economics of this engagement, how can advocates for #diversevoices create the structures necessary for sustained efforts?

AE: The biggest obstacle for any movement is funding. Money isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a lot. I’ve seen such wonderful and creative efforts by historically marginalized artists who have built platforms to highlight the artists within their communities. They are funded by Patreon or other crowdsource sites. I’m thinking specifically of the work of South Asian Avant Garde.

But it’s not as if the money to fund these types of efforts doesn’t exist. Seemingly every week, big presses give million-dollar book deals to abusers and racists. We recently learned that Philip Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey, is facing rape allegations, and that his publisher, W.W. Norton, knew this as early as 2018. A few days ago, we learned that one of Breonna Taylor’s killers received a book deal. Before that, former Vice President Mike Pence signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for seven figures.

A radical reimagining of the publishing industry, at the very least, demands that we defund and deplatform abusive and bigoted authors, and redistribute this money to fund books by small presses and marginalized authors.

SV: You have tweeted powerfully about the years of writing, submissions and rejection that lie behind your current status as a published writer. How did you keep yourself motivated and what resources sustained you?

AE: My privileges have played a big part in sustaining me on this journey. I have a spouse who is able to support our family on his salary, and this has allowed me to pursue publication for so long, and to accept publishing contracts from small presses that can’t afford to give their authors large advances. As much as I’d love to credit persistence and hard work, those qualities are only a very small part of my success story.

But on an emotional level, I’ve also been so buoyed by members of the BIPOC writing community. They kept me writing when I felt so discouraged by rejection, and they’re always available for brainstorming or venting. I can go to them with any question or concern. I owe my entire career to this support network.   

SV: What is your next project?

AE: I’m rewriting my first novel(unpublished), which is about a woman living with her adult daughter in the North Georgia Mountains who is forced to confront her sins of the past. I’m also hoping to write a proposal for another narrative nonfiction book.

Bloom Post End

Shoba Viswanathan is a writer, editor and book critic based in New York.  She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.

Photo credit Debashri Sengupta

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