I have always found it hard to tell ‘a single story.’ When Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche warned of the dangers of a single story, I understood her caution a deeper level. Is my story one of migration or is it one of silence? Is it culture I write about or being Australian? Do I write about where I come from or how I’ve made a life out of being a traveller? Where I come from, patriarchal home cultures are lived realities. Where I come from, hyphenated identities multiply when religions, languages and cultures merge. Where I come from, contradictions are inextricably linked to the stories we choose to tell and write.
Arriving in Western Australia during the mid 1980’s, when Perth was still euphoric about Alan Bond’s America’s Cup victory, I didn’t have time to think about the implications of living in a monolingual, monocultural society. No time to reflect on the divisions of race, class and nationality in the urgent business of finding a home, a job, affordable childcare, good neighbours. Standing on shifting ground, participant and observer in my own life, I lived in an uncertain universe of interrupted narratives and multiple allegiances. Reading and writing became endeavours at sense-making. I believed that reading stories about my adopted country and writing my own responses as I negotiated cultural dislocation would change the way I experienced my new reality. Reading would reinforce my understanding of Australia; as country, as idea. Writing would enable me to map my journey and become a cultural insider. 35 years after this diasporic moment, this is what I know. Sense making has become story making.
The stories I told my daughter when she was little were rich with myth, magic and memory. Thinking back, I realise I must have confused her occasionally, especially as I responded to every question she asked with a story. Her first experience of racism, for example. She was five, devoted to a pale blonde boy at kindy. I remember the shock when her wobbly voice told me that she was ‘yucky’ and brown, and would I be able to do anything about that? Her friend had told her there was something wrong with her skin. I did not have a sensible response because I was already plotting murder. I would hunt down the little creep and set fire to his house. I would dance on the ashes and I would reclaim my daughter’s humanity. When I calmed down, I told her a story. It had nothing and everything to do with my inadequacy, fury, grief, love. I told her I was born in a faraway country where stray dogs wait patiently by the side of busy streets along with humans and cross when it’s safe. I told her about the brown people who raised me – the granny with one eye, the loving aunties, the odd uncles, the mysterious cousins. Mum. Dad. Sister. Brother. I kissed my daughter’s unruly hair and scaffolded her in the framework of my loss. She rested in my arms and sighed – I’d like to be a sister when I grow up, she said. Naturally, I assumed she wanted to join a convent and it was only when she was a teenager that I asked her what she’d meant. Another (impatient) sigh and she said – As an only child, I wondered what it would be like to be someone’s sister. Ah.
I grew up in a crowded household in a crowded country where personal space was an unknown concept. Where there were so many brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles coming and going, it was impossible to define space. And space was what I craved. Hiding in corners, finding secret spots in the garden, plotting to run away somewhere without the press of people. I raised my child in a country with more personal space than I knew what to do with. As an only child. A fiercely loved only child who was always told she was enough. She was all. Had I imposed my lived reality on her and given her what I lacked while actually denying her what she needed? Parenting in adopted countries orphans you in unexpected ways.
In India, where my extended family still live, I am identified as Australian. It is only in Australia that I am regularly asked where I come from. I accept this as the immigrant reality, while acknowledging that it implies more than fond curiosity. It is a distancing. It is a lack of kinship. I am the other.
Again, I turn to story. Food. Memory. Family. As I cook the food I had grown up eating, I name each dish for my monolingual daughter. Dal, chawal, roti, sabzi, dahi, kadhi, mithai. On trips to India I introduce her to salty lassi and nimbu-pani, idli sambar and masala dosa. She learns to call her aunties masi and mami, her uncles masaji and mamu, her grandparents nanima and nana, dadima and dada.
And now, when I’m tired, weary of the coloniser’s language, my stories reappear in a mixture of Gujrati-Hindi-Urdu. She smiles, hugs me and says, I know what you mean.
This was first published here