“Essays Were My First Love”: An Interview With Anjali Enjeti

Anjali Enjeti

Amid the loud, enthusiastically positive reception to writer, attorney and Democratic organizer Anjali Enjeti’s essay collection Southbound, I was able to ask some questions of the writer of this vital book.

First – big picture questions along the lines of congratulation!!! I was thrilled to see how incredibly well both your books, Southbound and The Parted Earth (a novel of Partition and its aftermath including generational trauma) have been doing. To say they are doing well is a vast understatement. The Parted Earth is selling like hotcakes and Southbound as well, drawing readership from the millions of Americans grateful to Georgia, Stacey Abrams and organizers like you, is eagerly being read by diverse audiences. 

What has it been like to have two books out at once, but more importantly, to have two books that are making a huge splash, bigger than many Big Five books? What do you feel as you look back on the time it took to get published as a woman of color writer?

Well, first of all, thank you so much! 

It feels surreal, to be quite honest. I still can’t believe my first two books have finally been published, let alone during a global pandemic! I’ve been humbled by this entire process, and I’m grateful that my two small presses, Hub City Press and University of Georgia Press, saw value in my books.

What’s more, I’m so thankful for other womxn of color writers, especially South Asian womxn. They’re a BIG reason that my books have received attention. You, Gayatri Sethi, Jenny Bhatt, Madhushee Ghosh, Sejal Shah, Priya Jain, Hasanthika Sirisena, Rudri Patel, Jyothsna Hedge, Tanuja Desai Hidlier, Shoba Viswanathan, Anita Felicelli, Mathangi Subramanian, Jennifer Choudhury, Mishika Narula, Srisruthi Ramesh, Piyali Bhattacharya, Mira Jacob, Nayomi Munaweera, and so many others have gone out of their way to support my books. 

We’ve built quite a wonderful community over the years, and I love how we lift one another up. The South Asian womxn network kept me writing when I despaired, and I have been so incredibly touched by their generosity.

Which was the hardest essay to write and why? I thought your essay on Vincent Chin could not have been more timely and necessary, and particularly loved the innovative structure of this essay, which reads like a hybrid of news bulletin and elegiac poetry. Can you talk about how you developed this structure, and in general, a bit about how you think about and approach essay structure? 

In Memory of Vincent Chin was definitely the hardest essay for me to write. It’s about the history of anti-Asian hate in the U.S., as well as an in-depth look at the killing of Vincent Chin from my perspective at the time, an 8-year-old child who lived fifteen miles away. His death shaped my understanding of my Asian identity, and how justice doesn’t always prevail.

I thought about this essay for years before starting it, and then when I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, I created an outline. A friend, author Piyali Bhattacharya, hosted a reading at her home when she was living in Nashville. I told her I didn’t have new work to read, but that I’d read from the outline and notes I had for this essay, so that I could get some feedback from the other writers.

I read the outline, and everyone, including author Nayomi Munaweera who was also there, said the structure was a perfect fit for the story I was telling. They told me to stick with it, and keep going. So that’s how the essay ended up with this very unique structure, beginning with a non-chronological timeline of anti-Asian violence in the US, followed by 19 short vignettes (“Acts”) to unspool this story of Vincent’s killing and the pursuit of justice.

Sadly, given the continuous brutality of Asian Americans, the essay more relevant than ever.

How did you come to the essay form? Was it through journalism, and if so, what is your relationship to the lyric essay, for instance? Which essay writers do you read, and why? 

Essays were my first love, especially lyric essays, and though I began writing and submitting essays for publication twenty years ago, it took me quite some time to be able to write essays in a lyric form. 

The essays I tend to gravitate to most these days, though, blend the personal essay with reporting and criticism, like most of the essays in Southbound. Zadie Smith is one of my all-time favorite essayists. She can write anything. Valeria Luiselli, Hilton Als, Kiese Laymon – their critical essays knock me flat. They’ve completely changed how I think about the world, and my place in it.

Do you feel protective of the South in certain ways? One line immediately is so striking: The Deep South is no more racist than many other parts of the country. What do you feel is distinctive to those aspects of Southern cultures – Southern Living, to use the title of a magazine I particularly like and am grateful to for their books coverage! – that you are best able to access as a brown/ biracial woman in the South? 

I’m not sure I’d say I’m protective of the South. But I do bristle at the inaccurate stereotypes of the South. There’s no other region in the U.S. plagued by such damaging stereotypes, and these stereotypes have very real world consequences. More Black people live in the South than in any other region in the U.S. and we have a sizable brown population. In my area, white people are the minority population, and roughly 30 percent of my suburb are immigrants. So for me, in 2021, southern culture is a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith geography. 

Truthfully, as a brown person, I feel safer in the South than in other part of the country. Here, we know people are racist because they are open and proud about it. White racists in the South always make it known how they feel about you. In other parts of the country where I’ve lived, in the Midwest and the northeast, racists pretend as if they’re not racist. It’s hidden. And hidden racism, in my opinion, is far more dangerous. But I feel more safe knowing whether people hate me or my loved ones, than I do being around folks who are simply very good at pretending that they’re not bigots.

I loved the description of various forms of loyalty and betrayal in Fraught Feminism. Can you talk about how these themes of loyalty and betrayal more generally played out for you in this essay collection (I feel like they were there!!). 

The entire collection of essays is really about how loyalty to oneself betrays a larger community. One of the themes I grapple with in the book is complicity with white supremacy. I was racially abused as a young person, and the only solution I could come up with to lessen the abuse was to become the typical model minority, which means that I tried to mimic whiteness. I would be polite, and kind, and well-mannered and never express anger or hurt, and heaven forbid, I’d never call out bigotry of any kind. Upholding white supremacy was my defense mechanism and it is also a tremendous betrayal that backfires every time, not only on me, but on those brown and Black folks that have far less privilege than I do.

Loyalty should be bestowed upon everyone who fights against white supremacy, especially those who are the most oppressed in society. And the expression of this loyalty is loud and bold and angry and involves some kind of risk. But the reward is that we push the needle and build a better world. 

Your dissection of the complex relationship of anger and pain is fascinating and provocative. Two questions: 1) why do you think (I stay up at nights wondering this and have for years) white men mock women of color whom they have already decided are not potential partners or friends for them, by virtue of their race? For me the most puzzling slurs have always come from white men calling women of color ridiculous or absurd in some way. Why even bother to say that, I have always wondered, if we might as well not exist to them? Why make a point of even noticing such women then?  and 2) what are your methods now, in the setting of the incredible amount of physical labor you must have done in organizing Go Blue, of managing chronic pain as a writer and activist?

All last fall and winter we (members of They See Blue Georgia) were racially abused by white people (men and women) while outside doing election-related work. We were called every racial slur imaginable. 

A couple of months ago, I was at a doctor’s office getting a stress test done that was being conducted by two white men, one married to an African immigrant, another who had an Indian daughter-n-law. They couldn’t stop talking about their family members’ origins and their cultures, what they thought of the food, the countries, the customs, etc., because I am a brown woman and they thought I’d be interested in hearing them other and exoticize their loved ones. I felt absolutely sickened and dehumanized the entire time. If I’d had more energy, I would have told them off. Which is a long way of saying, I hear you. I’d much rather have racial slurs hurled at me than be trapped in a small room dealing with several minutes of exoticizing and condescension due to my race. 

The reason I’m able to manage any aspect of my life is due to wealth. My spouse earns an income that supports our family. This allows me to freelance write, write books, teach in a low residency MFA program, start an organization, become a poll worker, parent, and organize for elections. Wealth also affords me the ability to writhe on the floor for hours at a time when my chronic pain flares (which is often). While there are virtually no treatments that help my chronic pain, I’m still able to see doctors and specialists when I need to because we have good health insurance and can afford out of pocket fees. My spouse, who works very long hours, also handles everything related to the house and kids when I have to lie in bed all day. If I didn’t have wealth and this kind of support system, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.

It is hard to pick a favorite essay in this book (for example I loved the one about Bharati Mukherjee, about whom I feel the same gratitude and admiration that you do!) but “Treatment” might be my favorite for how it juxtaposes racism and homophobia, as those impact medicine including medicine in the South. Topics close to my heart. Can you talk about the seed for this essay, what reader reactions have been like? I am also really curious about how you think about and interact with older white Southerners (like age 65 – 80), who after all lived through not only Jim Crow times, but other blatant forms of racism and racism against many people in addition to anti-Black racism. 

My family lived in Chattanooga, a large evangelical Christian city during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, at a time when bigotry against LGBTQIA+ folks, and HIV positive and AIDS folks, was rampant. (And of course it still is.) My brown Hindu Indian father, as a pulmonologist, treated patients with HIV and AIDS at a time that many people, including some health care workers, were very openly hostile toward members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and those diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. But my father’s HIV and AIDS patients adored and respected him – they didn’t give a crap that he was a Hindu Indian, and back then, some of his patients were terrible to him because he was a brown immigrant. 

What I struggle with in the essay is the fact while my father was advocating loudly for LGBTQIA+, HIV, and AIDS folks, he would never admit that many white people’s treatment of us was racism. He often described racists as people who were simply ignorant, insecure, or jealous, and of course nothing could be further from the truth. Which is to say, that bigotry, and how it’s described and called out over the years, and by whom, evolves. Certainly back then, in the 1980s, discrimination in its myriad forms was largely excused or swept under the rug. 

Recently, I’ve seen more people condemn Israel’s settler colonialism of Palestinian lands. Even as recently as five years ago, when I’d post in support of Palestinians on social media, no one would like, comment, or share my posts, and I’d even get push back that Palestinian-Israeli relations “are complicated,” or that I “just didn’t understand.” It reminded me of the homophobic “love the sin, hate the sinner,” lingo of the 1980s. Both types of comments are examples of violent forms of erasure and bigotry. And I’m grateful more people are calling it out. 

The readers I’ve heard from most about the essay are Gen X children of brown or Black immigrants growing up during the 70s, 80s and 90s, who were also told that their racialized abuse wasn’t racism. This kind of gaslighting was common. Most of my immigrant friends now would never tell their own children that their racialized abuse wasn’t actually racist. 

It’s a little heartbreaking to me to talk to older brown and Black southerners who lived through the Civil Rights Movement. Here they are, persisting in this work, decades later. I think, often, about how Congressman John Lewis fought so hard for the first voting rights act, watched it get dismantled in 2013 in the Supreme Court’s decision, Shelby County v. Holder, and pushed for the passage of the new voting rights act named after him, but died before it happened. He never stopped fighting. Yet he experienced so much joy and love and community. He loved meeting hanging out with people. He knew that to do this work, we also needed to have fun.

I’m so inspired by his entire generation. Whenever I feel discouraged, I look to the Baby Boomers who continue to be organizers and activists and think, “okay, they’ve kept going, so I can keep going, too.”

Finally – armchair/ online activism, another cause that is dear to me, because of the travel constraints of having young children. Can you talk about your hopes, with this collection, in terms of the kind of political and other activism you hope to inspire and push forward? In what relationship do you see your essay writing and your organizing, and have there been forums where you felt the two seamlessly came together?

I hope readers of Southbound come away thinking about where they can get involved if they aren’t already engaged in activism.

We just had a presidential election and a US Senate runoff election, but one does not need to organize on such a large scale for such important events to be an impactful organizer! Some of the most effective organizing happens at the local level – your city, your county, even your neighborhood. Want to fight climate change? Pressure your city council to stop developers from clear cutting trees when they develop a property. Or encourage your city to create a citywide recycling center. Challenge your school board on their white-centric curriculum. Perhaps this work doesn’t seem as glamorous as electoral organizing but it’s equally as important for a more healthy and safe society.

There are a lot of similarities, I feel, between organizing and writing. Organizing work is about encouraging community members to make themselves heard, create space for their own stories, and make sure that those in power hear their stories and listen to their demands. It’s about shaping and sustaining a narrative. And of course this is what we do as writers, we create a narrative, one that we hope will resonate with many readers, and help them feel a part of a larger community.  


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