When we first sent out an open call to Indian writers, asking for submissions for an anthology documenting their experiences at the intersection of gender and race, we were unsure what the response would be. Would contributors baulk at the sometimes cathartic but often intimidating medium of the personal essay? Would readers accept these essays, long decried as un-serious, un-literary?
Moreover: Would contributors feel obligated to limit their subject matter to race? This minority-writer conundrum has after all been articulated by many, including Indian-born Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry, who said that minority writers, even those ambivalent about race relations, nevertheless have “an area of expertise foisted on [them] which [they] may not necessarily want, or which may not necessarily interest [them]”.
What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian, a collection of personal essays and poems by Indian women (and some men), is the final product of these questions.
As co-editors, the both of us began this project from fairly different positions: Varsha was born and raised here, while Shailey is a new Indian migrant whose time in Singapore has spanned six years. We considered how these configurations of our identities would impact our editing of What We Inherit—and whether they even qualified us to do so in the first place. What characteristics and experiences are “typical” of Singaporean Indians, and what are shared across continents? What of the tensions between newer migrants and Singaporean Indians? Editing the collection was, in a way, terrifying, exactly because it required us to confront and reflect upon so many aspects of our lives—namely, our Indian-ness.
Of course, despite our disparate backgrounds, there were times when a contributor’s experiences eluded both of us (hardly a surprise, given the multitudes of cultures and identities within Indian communities). Such moments were challenging in a different way. As editors, we scrambled to plug these knowledge gaps via research and, more often than not, in-depth conversations with the many, many Indian women who comprised our unofficial “consultants”. Ultimately, the more our own experiences diverged from an essay, the more valuable its inclusion in the collection: whether about the intricacies of puberty ceremonies, the specific stigmas that mixed-race people face, or something else that expanded our cultural vocabularies.
Back to the question of race and Mistry’s lament: we took great pains to assure our contributors that they were not expected, by virtue of being Indian, to solely write about race and/or racism. When initial submissions seemed heavily concentrated on those topics, in fact, we decided to organise a writing workshop with author Balli Kaur Jaswal (herself a contributor to What We Inherit), to help writers work through their feelings about race and discrimination while allowing space for other subjects, if they so desired. Language, coming of age, intergenerational trauma, feminist spaces, body image, migration, cultural beliefs, nationality, belonging and identity—these are just some of the themes that were eventually woven into this anthology.
Perhaps surprisingly, contributors’ anxieties about race and identity were often self-directed, too. Many who replied to our open call for pitches would caveat with the idea that their experiences or identities were not “Indian enough” for the anthology. Encountering this idea over and over again was both fascinating and a little heartbreaking: as if there existed a Platonic ideal of “Indianness” of which everyone was constantly falling short. We spent time talking with authors, assuring them that these feelings of inadequacy did not have to hinder their expression—but also that they were worth examining in detail. The pieces that resulted are, to us, some of the most valuable additions to the canon of Indian women’s literature.
Ideas of exclusion and other-ness cropped up in many other editorial decisions, including, notably, translations of non-English words. Placing these words in italics felt as though we were separating "exotic" words from those that purportedly "belonged” in the text—an act of othering that felt thoughtless at best, colonialist at worst. Instead, we decided not to italicise non-English words (but to use footnotes to translate some of them, keeping a Singapore-based audience in mind).
The above is, hopefully, a useful snapshot into the confounding, yet richly rewarding, process of creating this new anthology. In her essay “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness”, writer and scholar Sara Ahmed writes: “There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not inhabit the same place (and we do not).” To honour the intermingling of grief, joy and anger that comes with being an Indian woman in Singapore, and to continue the long tradition of challenging, powerful personal essays penned by women, is what we sought to do with What We Inherit.
Shailey Hingorani and Varsha Sivaram
Editors of What We Inherit: Growing up Indian