By: Ananya Vahal Perez
I don’t have a good memory. I blame it on the fact that my family was always moving. We never stayed anywhere long enough for me to form strong memories of the people and places around us. But what I do remember was that ever since my family moved to the United States, I fell in love with writing. I wrote only in English. I filled up notebooks with stories about boys I had crushes on in fifth grade. I wrote about “that bitch” in sixth grade that got on my nerves because she was an obnoxious know-it-all. She stole my thunder by answering questions in class before I could raise my hand. I wrote cheesy love songs pretending to be Britney Spears or the fourth (unknown) member of TLC. I wrote poems that rhymed about my dreams and about people I knew until I got to high school and stopped rhyming.
I remember being okay at math and science when I put in the effort. I remember being pretty good in English without putting in much effort. I took AP English in the twelfth grade where, for the first time, we read powerful books like Native Son and Lord of the Flies and were asked what we thought about them instead of being told what to think. It was the first English class in which I read the assigned books instead of looking them up on Cliff Notes. I wrote in-class essays about these books instead of taking the usual multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank tests I took in other classes. Unlike the other students in class, I was excited about those tests because they were all essay questions. I remember coming home after school, watching Anthony Bourdain (RIP) on the travel channel, and thinking I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up, but I know I want to keep traveling and writing for fun. I didn’t know those were jobs I could make a living with. I don’t ever remember thinking I want to be a professional writer when I grow up.
I don’t remember why I decided to major in English in college other than those were the classes I enjoyed the most. No one in my family was particularly excited about my decision to major in English. I do remember the disappointment in everyone when I decided to transfer out of Georgia Tech and change my major from Psychology to English. Majoring in Psychology required too many math classes. To my parents’ disappointment, I wasn’t good at math like the other Indian kids and Georgia Tech was not the school for me. I was never encouraged to pursue my passion for writing although my parents never discouraged me either. I don’t remember having a clear career plan with my English degree or where I would go after college. I don’t remember having any options presented to me other than going to law school or becoming a school teacher after graduation. I don’t remember anyone telling me I could be a writer. I felt the pressure of figuring out the rest of my life in college without having a clear picture of what I wanted to do as a professional adult. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I don’t remember thinking I want to be a writer.
I don’t remember anyone in my family becoming anything other than an engineer or going into IT. My Nanaji was a world-renowned photographer in his day, but I don’t remember why everyone was so afraid to follow in his footsteps. I don’t remember the trauma of growing up poor that my mother and her siblings remember. They had a father who pursued his passion and talent in a country that didn’t support or compensate him for it. I do remember the fear in my mother’s eyes of ending up back in those circumstances where she and each of her seven siblings owned two pairs of socks—one for washing and one for wearing—and when her family of ten lived in a small two-bedroom apartment. I don’t remember anyone in my family who was a writer while I was growing up. I don’t remember any Indian-American woman writers when I was growing up. I didn’t know anyone who looked like me who made their living as a writer. I didn’t know I could be one.
When I was growing up as an Indian-American child, I didn’t know my story. My parents told me stories about India. They told me about our family history and our religious mythologies, but those were their stories. They weren’t my stories anymore in this new country. They were a part of my distant past. I don’t remember anyone on T.V. or in the books I read telling stories about me and my family. I do remember wishing I was like all the other kids in school, so my life could be as simple as theirs. I wished their stories were my stories, so I didn’t have to live in two different worlds—so I didn’t have to pretend to fit in with American kids all day at school only for that pretense to be shattered when my parents showed up to school with their Indian accents and brown skin. Instead of belonging to two worlds, I belonged to none. I wanted to give up my stories because they didn’t exist in the world I was growing up in. I became ashamed of the music, food, and traditions I was raised with. I wanted to shed my culture because it didn’t belong in this country. I don’t remember anyone telling me that my stories or my inclination for writing them down were valid. I don’t remember thinking I want to be a writer.
Then, my world turned upside down. My family began to fall apart. My brother fought for his life and lost. My dreams of becoming a physical therapist which I pursued for four years, came to a disappointing end. I met the first person in my life who showed me that I could be a writer for a living and that my dreams were valid. I spent years wandering through life in search of myself and had to face life-altering moments to make me realize that I could write for a living. I realized that if I didn’t write my story, no one would. If I didn’t write my story, then there would be millions of girls out there who, like me, wouldn’t know that their stories were important and that their stories belonged in this country too.
Today, I try to remember that I have a responsibility to write. Although I get to read a few Indian-American women writers now and feel encouraged, these stories aren’t all of our stories. There are so few Indian-American writers who are telling our stories, they can’t possibly tell it all by themselves. It’s my responsibility to add to those voices and increase exposure to my culture. I didn’t believe my story was important as a child, but I want little brown girls like me to believe that their stories are.
Today, I know that writing has always been a part of me despite the long and winding path I took to discover it. Tomorrow, I hope I am able to make this path clearer and more accessible to others. Tomorrow, I hope there will be no more little brown girls who don’t know a writer that looks like them and do know that they should be proud to write their stories down. I don’t remember thinking I want to be a writer when I grow up, but I hope little brown girls today do remember the moment they decide they want to be a writer when they grow up.