‘untold: defining moments of the uprooted’ is a collection of short stories about the experiences of the South Asian diaspora. Written by an intergenerational group of storytellers from the US, UK and Canada, it spotlights the diaspora’s challenges, including the shared feeling that they neither belong to their adopted homeland nor the place they left behind.
Each creative nonfiction essay in the anthology explores a defining moment in the author’s life. Touching on subjects such as racism, caste, immigration, colourism, addiction or suicide, they narrate stories that are often “left untold” in the larger South Asian community.
Scroll.in spoke to Gabrielle Deonath and Kamini Ramdeen, the editors of the anthology, about their inspiration and its themes. They were joined by Trisha Sakhuja-Walia, CEO of Brown Girl Magazine, a US-based publication by diasporic womxn that co-published the book.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the inspiration behind this book? What does it mean to ‘break the silence’?
Gabrielle: We came up with the name untold after we had put the manuscript together. The common thread in these stories is that we know these issues exist, but we don’t talk about them in the larger South Asian context. You will talk to those close to you, whether it is about mental health or LGBTQ+ issues or breast cancer, but it is always in hushed tones. It will never be spoken about openly, although that is starting to change a little bit now. Throughout the time that we were editing the book, Kamini and I stopped to talk about our personal experiences and how we related to each of these stories. So they’re not uncommon, but they are taboo topics, and we felt like they shouldn’t be. We want to normalise them. This is all part of life, and as South Asians, we should be comfortable talking about it and sharing our stories.
You posted an open call for submissions. What were you expecting to find?
Kamini: We used Brown Girl’s platform. On Instagram, we posted that we were looking for submissions for a nonfiction anthology covering stories about the South Asian diaspora. We got 150+ submissions from there, which was really remarkable.
Gabrielle: Also, this was our first project. We are used to working with writers within Brown Girl, but this was the first time that we were asking for others to contribute and tell us their stories. Brown Girl accepts guest submissions, but we’ve never done something quite this size. There are writers in untold that are part of Brown Girl, but the majority aren’t.
Were the themes such as identity, being and relationship decided before the open call?
Gabrielle: That came afterwards. We wanted to leave it open when we were asking for stories. We wanted people to feel comfortable. We didn’t want to give them a tonne of parameters. We wanted to give them certain guidelines to make sure they would fit into a larger common theme, but in terms of specific topics, we wanted to leave it open. So afterwards, when we selected our final 31 stories, we tried to find what the common themes were – and there are a lot of them. But these were the three that really stuck out to us.
Kamini: At Brown Girl, we had another anthology that we originally wanted to do and the framework for that book was broken down into different sections. So, the idea that we would have sections was somewhat embedded in the new project, but what those sections would be was really determined by the pitches and the stories that we ended up including.
Why focus on South Asian storytellers from the US, UK and Canada?
Kamini: That was actually not intentional. In our original call for pitches, these were the women that wrote to us.
Trisha: And if I may add, those are our top countries, and our writers, as a coincidence, are from these three countries. We have the biggest communities in the US, Canada and UK, so it was perhaps easier to receive those call outs, but hopefully we will do another volume and spread even further.
What did you find challenging about the process?
Gabrielle: I think one of the extraordinary things about untold is that a lot of our writers are writing for the first time. This is the first time they have been published. And these are very, very raw stories. I started writing personal essays when I was 16, so I know how difficult it can be. Kamini and I both understood that these are stories that mean a lot to them, so when providing feedback, we couldn’t handle it the same way we would while editing an article for the Brown Girl website. We had to develop a different style of editing, which took a little bit more understanding, sensitivity and collaboration.
Kamini: One of the most challenging aspects was that none of us had created a book before. Creating articles for the website is one avenue, but storytelling at this level with the specificity of what we really wanted to create was challenging. The idea was not to make you feel like you were reading a story on the website but to make you feel like you’re reading a moment in somebody’s life and that you could just be dropped into that very moment for a brief glimpse of their world at this pivotal time. A lot of these moments are either about their identities or a situation that changed their life – somebody that you meet, grief, love, mental health, all the different topics that you can think about in our diasporic communities, that largely get hidden under the rug. These are the conversations that we really wanted to normalise. One of the biggest challenges was taking the magnanimity of that and then putting it in a book.
Most publications italicise non-English words, but untold didn’t. Was this done to normalise things considered ‘foreign’ in Western reading?
Kamini: In the larger literary community, there is a discussion about the need to do just that. We are first-generation Americans, first-generation British, first-generation Canadians. And we use these words so much in our own communities and daily lives.
[For the reader to] know these words and recognise them, or take the next step and learn what they mean on their own is important. It helps us make our cultural mark and say, ‘We’re here.’ And that’s a really important part of this book – normalising who we are and shedding the idea of ‘the other’. Italicising is simply another way of othering you.
Nina Davuluri, Padma Lakshmi, DJ Rekha and Sopan Deb, among others, have given this book ringing endorsements…
Trisha: When we first started requesting praise quotes, we were a little sceptical and nervous. It was the first time that we as a group were putting our stories out to folks we look up to and aspire to be like. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but our stories were meant to be told, and Kamini and Gabby had worked so hard to make sure that these stories were perfect and ready to go. So out of the 31, we initially shared 10 in order to receive the praise quotes we did.
Final takeaways or advice for young South Asians?
Kamini: If you want to tell your story, you should really try to do it. Us making this book from the point of knowing things about storytelling, to doing it on this level for this audience, goes to show that putting your best foot forward and trying is really the best advice you can give, even if you fail… And I hope that people see themselves in these stories, because all of these authors really did just that.
Gabrielle: I hope that the message readers get from untold is that you’re not alone. The struggles you’re facing are not yours alone. And the way that we get to mutual healing is by sharing our stories and listening to each other, whether it’s about success, failure, grief, joy, bad relationships or the magical ones. I think that’s how you find your sense of community.
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