The Things I Knew Before Me: On Holding Identities Through Writing

Cover of The Things I Knew Before Me: On Holding Identities Through Writing

Some hours between midnight and morning, I forget about time and remember my shadow instead. There it is spooning me along the wall, like some mangy, desperate thing. Most of the time it’s cold and spectral and I don’t think about it despite the fact that I walk everywhere with it worshiping along my feet, kissing and transforming them into some sullen altar. I tend to ignore it and instead I look at my phone and then the sidewalk, up and down, up and down. Sometimes I look at pretty faces passing by. But there are nights after an unfurling, cleansing kind of cry when I press my cheek onto any cold surface: an untouched pillow, a mirror, the empty bathtub, to cool down the salt still burning on my skin. I am surprised when I feel my shadow there, pressing back. 




I am on a flight to Portland to do something I never thought was for people like me. I’m going there to write at Tin House. I have submitted work that feels as if it formed impossibly, the same way Renaissance artists created billowing cloth from marble, or at least the illusion of it. I am apprehensive of who will be reading the story I submitted, and I am desperate to have a forewarning of how they will hold it. I want to know what questions about my identities I will have to answer before we can burrow into the plot, craft and syntax of my work. More than anything, I want to be held in the shape of my loneliness. In the disagreement I feel in myself. I am queer and I am Indian, and many days I feel only strong enough to only hold one of those at a time. On the flight, I think about a sentence I have been fiddling with, where the narrator explains how she came out to her family. I have gone back and forth, back and forth, agonizing about whether to use the word gay or queer. On the flight, I decide this is a gay story.




Before this plane ride, many other plane rides laced together to get me here. There was the one where I was in my mother’s womb. She was two months pregnant, immigrating to a second country after marriage. There would still be one more country, one more baby, and a handful of jobs in just five years. What does such a profound change to one’s surroundings do to a person’s relationship with existence? The stakes in this change are paramount to survival, magnifying the most quotidian stresses and amplifying even the smallest failures. The stakes beat down successes, transforming them from a celebration to a necessity. But this is just speculation for me. I have never had to know, having always been scaffolded by her successes. Where my mistakes can be blurred out, hers would have been resined. 



Perhaps living under a regime of such high stakes makes the world more black and white to a person. They make a priority out of prestige, and there is pride in surviving diaspora. In immersion and assimilation. It erases the process of it, which I see in my own home. We rarely ever speak about the lottery of diaspora. The loss of it. The pain that still inflates against our diaphragms, because we not only left home but dissented from it. Once we leave, we can never go back, other than physically. I never hear anyone speak of the alternative lives we could have had, and I wonder how that life would have shaped my personality had I been born in India. That version of me was denied in order to be in the United States. I often wonder who that version of me would have been. What jokes would she crack? And of course, would she be queer like me? 



It makes me very sorry that I didn’t fill out the equation as intended. It makes me believe that one sacrifice of the diaspora was the other version of me. I don’t want to disappoint her with  the me that actually churned out, the one that found the boundaries of my family’s love by prodding them. 


Yes, I will always want everything I was promised in the lineage of diaspora, but I guess freedom proliferates over generations. My absolute freedom is still out of grasp, just like profound American wealth or a dilution-assimilation of my gene pool. I am aware this is a choice, to negotiate away freedom, to succumb to ersatz authenticity. I’ve chosen to reach toward my culture, toward safety, and scaffolding. It has made a shadow of me, and I am persistently haunted by my shadow at the crossroads of queer and Indian. 




The writer’s dogma is to make use of coincidence. We make a habit of noticing the peculiar alignment of the world, and our job is to not take it for granted. The last coincidence that stuck a dagger in my throat was on this flight to Portland. I am scrolling through the in-flight movie selection. Other people are pulling silk masks over their eyes or settling the window covers down, but my screen lights up my face as I see a thumbnail. It’s a photo of a wide-eyed girl saturated in garish colors. She looks like someone I would love to hate. I learn later that this is a young Natasha Lyonne as Megan in But I’m A Cheerleader. I scroll past the movie. I try to manifest something trendier, but eventually I am drawn back. I hit play.



Ten minutes into the film, I know I have found rapture. Before it is even done, I want to see it again as soon as possible. I don’t need time away from it to digest it because it feels like something I already know. Rather, I want to feel like a greater part of it somehow. I want to own merchandise from it, get a quote tattooed onto my arm. I am being ridiculous, and this happens even before Graham comes on screen. Graham is played by Clea DuVall, and when I see her, I suddenly know exactly who my “type” is. Graham wields corruption like armor, and I wish she could lather this all over me. Her internal conflict is the threat of disownment if she does not graduate from the New Horizons gay conversion program. So, she wears ill-fitting pink outfits and makes herself small, then smaller. She wants her parents’ love, even if they are not the ideal people to love her. She values safety as much as I do, and I think it’s because she has been shown that harsh boundary of love all her life. It’s made up the fabric of her family, and she is less scared of dissolving into it than breaking out.



As I watch, I recognize a moment in the film I feel closest to Graham. It is when she goes out to a gay club in a crisp black button down and silver chain. She looks great, but that’s not what captures me. It’s the transformation that happens in the small movement of her putting on the silver chain. It’s as if the chain is some barometer of her confidence, her selfhood, and her sexuality. The silver chain is an incantation, an offering to put her queer soul on display. There is nothing obviously queer about me like that, and seeing her totemize it, I feel desperate for that too. If other people could see me for who I was, the shadow at the intersection of queer and Indian, then I wouldn’t have to answer questions about why I am allowed to write the stories I do. I wouldn’t have to continually come out of the closet just to validate my modus operandi. I simply would be seen as reliable and pure, someone who obviously would write this story. Someone who would so fearlessly wrangle it onto the page. 




I write because I need to. It makes me feel more human, less shadow. The more I write, the more I believe that all that matters to me is beauty. I tell myself that if I cannot survive my yearning for beauty, I could at least die for it. I would leap into an abyss that swallowed sunsets from the razor edge of Earth. I would dive in after the swirling pinks and periwinkles, spend a night there in penultimate misery, indulging in one more sunset before I was corrupted. Writing is about making a performance of this tenderness and its subsequent destruction. 



I meld into Portland easily, and workshops even more so. I come to the building early, and I chuckle when I discover the building is actually a house made of tin. I walk inside to gorgeous morning light and a spiraling staircase that seems to be reaching for transcendence. Sprinkled throughout the building are art pieces. They capture moments of expression, echoing the task that us writers also have set out to accomplish. We write not just to capture reality, but to make meaning of it. In this building, the art brings a sense of both serenity and power, pulsing a notion of home into me with the comfort they take in originality. What is originality, other than something recognizable? To see something original is to know it, but there is no guide to recreate originality. I wonder if it is serendipitous, or if there is an ideal cocktail of conditions to spur original art. I wonder if I am in the midst of such conditions.



As I wait inside, my cohort streams into the building. I shake many hands. One woman opens a sparkling water and mentions her wife just dropped her off. I wish I had a wife I could casually mention, if only to loosen the conversation around sexuality. Yet, as I meet more people, I find I don’t need this type of portal here. For once, I can finally read my own barometer of body and selfhood. These people have already read my work, seen the deepest chambers of my brain, and my job now is simply to put faces to story titles. I open a sparkling water of my own and dive into conversation. 



At the end of the social hour, I feel sedated and pleasant. I have spoken to artists in all stages of their careers about tessellations of projects. There are so many ways to be original. It gives me confidence to see an array of idiosyncrasies across people, and I imagine how my own idiosyncrasies show up on the blank page. I rethink the blank page as both a vacuum and a mirror. I imagine putting my heart into it and letting it shred until nothing is left but its purest essence. I wonder if this distilled heart will be worth writing about. I am still quarreling with myself over whether I am worthy of the blank page.




Of course I sometimes think about the bigger picture of sacrifice in the diaspora. I think about the deprioritization of self-actualization, the passing off of happiness as a criteria of fulfillment — it’s an inheritance for the next generation, but I’ve never claimed it. I think often about the loss of expression, the way our tongues were taught to fold in new ways. I think about shopping at Kroger, which turns all our home-cooked meals into a shallow version of the homeland original. And I think most of all about my mother’s nose. It’s unpierced, the first in our lineage of women to remain so. In our culture, a nose piercing is a rite of passage into womanhood and marriage. I have asked my grandmother about this, who has a gold disk on each side of her nose, and she tells me how her daughters relinquished their piercings to avoid the feeling of otherness as they moved across the ocean. They too, it seems, valued safety. 



In my mind’s eye I go back to when I was young, to one of the last times my mother and I touched each other’s faces like we belonged to each other. I remember touching each freckle on her nose, and then finally touching the spot on her nostril where I think the gold ring would have gone. She told me then that I should never get a nose ring. It would make my otherness too obvious, mark me as someone who should be treated inferiorly. I touched the spot she should pierce on her nose anyway because I wanted to make it physical. I wanted to feel the emptiness of her nose. I needed to touch it to understand the version of her that she had to leave behind.




That night our cohort gathers around the table after hours, exchanging anecdotes and cracking into our personalities. We don’t ask many questions about each other, but I find I intimately know each person before me with the few details that come across in our conversation on reality TV and pop culture. I recognize this formation of familiarity from the best short stories I have read, where a few lines of dialogue paints the entire story. I suppose it is easy to get to know everyone through their interpretations of manufactured drama. Somehow, our lens reveals something fundamental about each of us. We each fulfill some essential archetype, and together we feel like a complete experience. 



As the night blurs forward, I can feel us becoming sentimental about each other. Our conversation shifts to be about legions of cohorts past, which makes us a little nostalgic for the version of ourselves we will leave behind at the end of the week. The us that is still forming. The experience we are still in the midst of. We don’t want the night to end, so we make plans for the coming nights. There is talk of doing a group activity, and we move through bland suggestions of dinner to spicier suggestions of karaoke. It feels like we are talking around some essential part of this experience, and I realize that I want to do an activity that will become a physical part of us. I remember Graham’s silver chain, and something primal in my body yearns to totemize this experience with these folks who have read my story and not asked me to defend my right to it. I try to think of how I can wear this experience on my body. What can tether me to a moment where I am so earnestly presumed to be exactly who I am? I suggest we get piercings, and it seems to hit a chord. We all begin to chatter about piercings we have been meaning to get, closed wounds we have been meaning to reopen, and jewelry that we always thought would help us actualize. Perhaps we mesh because none of us are yet fully formed. Maybe we are comfortable because we have held each other’s discomfort tenderly. I wonder if this feeling is original. We use our plans to get piercings as an excuse to exchange our numbers. The next day, I call a studio and make an appointment for nine people.



I don’t call my mother that night before bed. She feels far away from me, and I want to feel the force of that distance. My friend’s dog comes in and sits by my bedside, and I want to tell her that my deepest sadness is that I find limits everywhere. I want her to understand that sometimes I think if I am beautiful enough, if I create enough art, or if I can proliferate the beauty of the world, then I will no longer have to hide that I am a bottomless pit: long, dark, and empty. I will be loved by someone who is relentless in their pursuit of reaching the bottom, optimistic even if they know it doesn’t exist. I want to always be just out of reach to someone who finds this the most worthwhile distance, both insurmountable and complete. I know my desire to be loved like that is the mark of a voracious appetite, and maintaining it would be exhausting. I mauled my parent’s tolerance with my identity, and they decided to swim back out from my unrelenting pit. Despite the relationships I have survived – being left, disenchanted, cheated on, demoralized, and assaulted – this still feels like my biggest heartbreak. When I found their limits, I recalibrated myself. I used to believe that rubbing my face on someone else’s rosy cheeks was all I needed, but my family saw an abhorrence that would chew up lineage, spit out sacrifice, and make the space they had carved for themselves in their new home obsolete. I found ways to forgive them for that, or at least the circumstances around it. I wrapped my wrath and rage away because I refused to let my sorrow consume me. 



All night I think about Graham. I wonder if she liked herself, or if it was simply that she couldn’t help herself. There’s something about her that makes my thoughts on beauty feel incidental and irrelevant. I am surprised at the end of the movie, when she is wooed by Megan’s cheerleading. She doesn’t seem the type to like cheerleaders, but what if she loved seeing Megan express her feelings without boundaries? It’s been years since I came out and took it back, and I wonder what my parents think of it now, if they ever do. Maybe it’s forgotten to them, and what if these pages I write will resurrect that pain like a haunting? Is that the scariest thing I can imagine?




If anyone had asked me when I was 10, 14, 18, or even 22 what parts of myself I wish I could flay off, I would have said almost everything. There are ways to accept and celebrate the grit of surviving diaspora, but I don’t think it’s an identity anyone would choose for themselves. Diaspora is marked by rupture, and you can spend a lifetime learning to metabolize the losses and mourn your distance from your ancestor’s ashes. There are times I think shadows were made for those of us in the diaspora. There is comfort in its lack of detail, ethnicity, and distinction. Like the countries you left, it exists outside of you, but it will never be possible without you. It’s as forgettable as you let it be.




On the third day of classes, my story is workshopped. No one questions why I get to write this story, so I shelve away my anxiety, shove it down into that small part of me that still holds my sorrow, rage, and wrath. I am fond of the story I wrote, and I am relieved to tighten the space between authenticity and safety, and claim my identities as me and my ancestors contort our bones into this new life. 



After the workshops, our piercing appointment creeps up. We need to make decisions about what piercings we will get, and I imagine how it would be to get my nose done. In the bathroom, I look at the balance of my face, and think that piercing my left nostril would invite the most harmony. With this decision, I understand that I need to get this piercing done, no matter what. Moreover, I understand that it can’t be a coincidence that I will not be alone when it happens.



So, when the time comes, I find myself entangled in a montage of hands from the workshop, their breaths held alongside mine as the needle drives into the flesh of my nose. I am not with family, but I am with people who read my story. They have seen my heart smeared across the page and earnestly pointed out ways I could write myself better. They helped me pick out which nose ring looked best on me, and now, they get to be the first ones to see it. Even before I see it. They’re going to tell me how beautifully it sparkles under the lights, how it makes me look Indian even if the rings skipped a generation. They’re going to tell me this could be the reason I get hit on at the gay bar, and maybe someone I have treated as my confessional will someday say that I have found my own version of Graham’s silver chain. Right then, what I want most of all, though, is to step up to the mirror. When I see my face reflected back at me, I want to imagine this nose ring has always been there.



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