Guest Editor’s Note: Hyphenated Identities in the US

Setu Special, August 2020

When Dr. Sunil Sharma asked me whether I would like to be the guest editor of this special Setu issue on hyphenated identities, I eagerly said, yes! It’s a theme very dear to my heart and being. My prime identity from childhood has been peace and justice. My father had nicknamed me, mother of all humanity. What is the meaning of a person’s identity, if they are not safe? What defines our core? Gender, class, education, or being a good person? In India folks often talk about the Chaar Diwari (four walls) of the house, sometimes evoking the crassest of patriarchal control of women within those four walls, which instead are meant to be the most sacred and safe spaces for anyone—their home.
Originally from India, when I moved to the US with my young son twenty years ago, creating a safe and peaceful home, and being a great mother trumped any concerns or desires I had as an immigrant. Folks around me were buying homes and establishing financial real estate roots, while I was on a journey to raise a decent human being. One who would epitomize and recognize that treating people properly far outweighs any degrees or financial wealth one may possess. The duality of being Indian and American did not stress me out too much. And, hyphenated identity can imply a plethora of dimensions we all possess that we keep hidden in our blind spots or chose to freely exude. I don’t deny, I was tugged by notions of belonging especially when I traveled back to India. Didn’t quite feel at ease anymore in my birth country. And didn’t quite feel comfortable in my new home country either like, Ijeoma Umebinyuo eludes to in her poem, Diaspora Blues. So, I borrowed what I perceived to be the finest of both cultures/places, and to try to be, and raise a decent human. In my belief system, being good is a person’s true identity.
Now, with COVID19 plaguing the world, and racial injustice ever so disturbing in the US, home and identity have added news layers for me.
I could go on and on. So, let me shift to my focus in guest editing this special edition…to draw out folks from various walks of life and diverse backgrounds. I hope you enjoy this special issue which carries thoughtful expressions by artists, painters, poets, short story writers and life contemplators.
To begin, please find below a special prose poem, I curated. I requested six other women poets to write a poem jointly with me... they graciously agreed for which I am most grateful. Each person picked up on the work of the person before resulting in an amalgam of real voices, in this case women’s voices, lending themselves with openness of thought, expression and feelings to the theme.

I am deeply thankful to Dr. Sharma for this fascinating opportunity to be guest editor of this intriguing issue. I learned so much from the process, and from our contributors.

Anita Nahal, Ph.D., CDP is a poet, professor, short story writer, flash fictionist, children’s books author, and D&I consultant. Currently she teaches at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington DC. Besides academic publications, her creative books include, two volumes of poetry, Hey...Spilt milk is spilt, nothing else (2018) and Initiations (1988), a collection of flash fictions, Life on the go-Flash fictions from New Delhi to America (2018), and three children’s books: I love Mummy and other new nursery rhymes, When I Grow Up and other new nursery rhymes and The Greedy Green Parrot and Other Stories (1993-1995). Her poems and stories can be found in national and international journals. Nahal is the co-editor (with Roopali Sircar Gaur) of the anthology, In All The Spaces-Diverse Voices In Global Women's Poetry (2020). She is also guest contributing editor for aaduna. Nahal is the daughter of Indian novelist and professor, Late Dr. Chaman Nahal, and her mother, Late Dr. Sudarshna Nahal was an also an educationist and author. Originally from New Delhi, India, Anita Nahal resides in the US. Her family includes her son, Vikrant, daughter-in-law, Sumona and their golden-doodle, Cashew. For more on Anita: 

Who am I?

Anita Nahal, Niharika Chibber Joe, Meenakshi Mohan,
Roopali Sircar Gaur, Lopa Banerjee, Shruti Goel & Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

I’m wood encasing a soul, best I can. Wise oud, ancient agarwood of a woman escaped from mutilated identities. Not here to create new ones. Phoenix and Renaissance marry my soul. And the clothes, hairstyle, lipstick shimmering are whiffs of a polish with which I shine my naked self. You’ll need to sift the coarse grains, the burning ambers beneath if you wish to find me. Go through the trials with me. More I age, more with ease I stand. I’m a blue moon drink of dervishes, gypsies, hippies and fairies. Stirred. Neat. Peppery. I’m just fine wood that my sins, and yours, tried not to rot so I could wrap my soul, and yours. Tenderly.   
Anita Nahal

They told me I was different. They said I wouldn’t fit. I wouldn’t fit into the clothes they sold. I was too fat…I didn’t fit their idea of beauty. I was too dark.  I wouldn’t fit into those shoes – they were big shoes to fill…I wouldn’t fit into the mold, the box, the boundary. Who was I, they asked? Where was I from? My identity, an incomprehensible mosaic of ancient cultures and of myriad lifetimes. My strength drawn from my mother. I keep them guessing. It always amuses my mother and I.
Niharika Chibber Joe

Pages layered in stacks, my life stories bound, etched from birth - some in colors, some in gray and white, then, a whole black page. How many avatars do I wear? Who am I? Where do I belong? A blank page awaits --Dharman Sarnam Gacchami!  Let me drape myself in peace, quiet and tranquility!
Meenakshi Mohan

I stand like Colossus bridging both banks. Far beneath and between flows the forever changing moody river. Like Atlas I long to shrug, throw this dichotomous existence. My aching back, the colored visage, the painful forked tongue, the twanging white voice. How did I get here? What brought me here? Choiceless but not voiceless I must stride both worlds, muscle aching yet arms akimbo.
Roopali Sircar Gaur

I let the rivers of my life run haywire, flirting with the uncertainty of miles that sprouted on summer nights. I would come out in the open, unabashed, an earth unknown, cracking wide open at the edge of an unnamed surrender. In that sacrosanct moment of a dark-throated song, the confluence of the east and west wrote its script of diaspora within my being like an irreconcilable truth, like the whisper of an omniscient God. Come, visit the rivers, the homes, the molten stories dying, and born anew, within me.
Lopa Banerjee

I am me. A culmination of my experiences, environments, my beliefs, my strengths, my vulnerabilities, my visions, my actuality. Every facet of me with a glimmer of originality. They wanted me to be silent, yet my silence was louder than a million words. Here I am today, neither black nor brown, not red nor white. I come undone bearing my soul in this world so ready to brand me. I unearth the layers of my identity every moment, learning, molding, and remodeling myself. Etched as a human in this world, a work in progress to be more humane in this evidently opinionated world. That's who I am.
Shruti Goel

The moth is one metaphor for my existence. Sometimes it beats its fragile wings against the windowpane, praying to be let into the light of belonging. The butterfly is the other metaphor.  I feel like that colorful butterfly I chased in the garden of my home by the sea. And knew it was home. Yet, in faith, I know I am where I am supposed to be. I must stop flapping my restless wings, and practice acceptance in silence. I must rest against the windowpane, albeit lightly, and make peace with my world even though the unbreakable barrier of present reality allows scant comfort. Longing and memory bring bitter-sweet fusion into my hyphenated identity, into my divided self.
Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

A moth, a butterfly, a fish, human, deer, dog, from this planet or not, you can think of me as any and none. I am the sheen that sparkles on dried spilled milk, the gooey honey that lingers in a beehive, the fauna, flora, dirt, air, fire, the waters that crust the earth and beyond. I am an atom, I am Avinash. Am each one of us. I’m your imagination, dreams, and maybe reality. I’m ethereal bells, music, dance, whispers and screams. I tell stories as is. In my voice. I am layered, not homogenous. I am passion, heat, the cool on your perspiring brows. I consent to my hyphenated identities; not letting them control me, I work with them, not carrying them in my heart or soul or my wood. Those are me. Just me.
Anita Nahal

*Dharman Sarnam Gacchami: I go to Dharma for refuge
**Avinash: indestructible

For bios of the other writers of this special combined poem on hyphenated identities, please see their work and bios in this issue. 

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