Once I wore a Band-Aid on my finger when I did not need it. I imagined that the others could sense a good ache underneath and maybe the Band-Aid and my finger colluded to make a new rubber finger, belonging to an in-between creature that was in on our lie. The Band-Aid was brighter and paler than my flesh. As I wore it, throughout the day, it grew wetter and supple. The skin beneath it distorted and whitened, carried its glue’s dark residue like a subtle fur.
When I washed my hands at the classroom sink, the Band-Aid slipped up my finger, revealing no wound beneath.
“What’s that Band-Aid?” someone asked.
“Nothing,” I said. I shoved my hand quickly away.
Later, I made an excuse to get up from my desk and press the shameful squashed cloth into the small classroom trash cans they make for children, as if our errors are smaller.
That great white father of the essay form, Michel de Montaigne, says that lying is wrong. I am not in the mood right now to listen to great men, but what he says moves me.
“Since mutual understanding is brought about solely by words, he who breaks his word betrays human society. It is the only instrument by means of which our wills and thoughts communicate, it is the interpreter of our soul. If it fails us, we have no more hold on each other, no more knowledge of each other. If it deceives us, it breaks up all of our relations and dissolves all the bonds of our society.”
This is the best reason I have heard not to lie: that lying makes us lonely. That we need language to convey our complicated, vivid, inexplicable interiors to one another, and that if we are too ashamed to show them we remain stranded far apart.
And yet it assumes that truth is fixed—that it does not dart just past the edge of the articulable. It assumes also that truth is bearable, that it is safe to speak.
When I was in high school I wanted so much to cut myself, but I was too scared. I never used a razor, which could open a lip in my wrist—so sleek and feminine, that razor. Instead, I found scissors, hefty and blunt. The orange-handled kind meant for practical tasks. I raked them across my skin, where they made imperceptible marks.
I belonged to a cluster of Asian American teenagers who lived on the Internet, a night city of screens each stranded miles from the other. All our parents were asleep and all of our homework was done. Textbook mouths stayed on the desk—the worksheets scattered. We sat facing the Internet. We were good students. Our grades would be faultless, which meant, we thought, we could live with ourselves.
In the bathroom, around the corner, waited a cinch of pastel razors that I used for shaving. They were bouquets, with eventual rust mouths. I did not reach for them.
“How do cutters do it?” asked a friend on AOL Instant Messenger. “Which direction? Which tools? I’m compiling a list.”
He copied and pasted. “Razors down the central channel. Agatha wrote, ‘Scissors. Parallel to the lines on your wrist.’”
When I say that I am a woman of color, I feel as if I am lying. My mother is from India, my father is white, and my skin is the palest brown. And yet I will keep on saying it, because if I do not say it, I will have no hope that it will be true.
This is an essay, then, on what counts as truth when we speak about ourselves. It is an essay on the truths that do not sound real—that are not quite truth. They are instead something more visceral than truth, something so root-close, no one can verify it, not even ourselves.
I am always going around saying that I am “Asian American” or “Indian” or “South Asian,” but when I meet a person with Indian ancestry, they rarely recognize me as one of their own. I do not speak any Indian languages, except for a fumbling few words of Urdu; I don’t know anything about Bollywood movies; I can do very little in the way of Indian song and dance. I live in Athens, Georgia, where I know few people who are Indian. And yet I refuse to relinquish this identity because it is what I want to name as true.
Of course I could practice in order to be a better desi, and sometimes I do. I took an undergraduate Urdu class a year ago, sitting in a class with students a decade younger than me, most of them Pakistani-American, raised speaking Urdu. The teacher was my age, a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan; once she accidentally took home the textbook I needed to study and I went over to the apartment she shared with a few undergrads.
She was in a love marriage and would marry when she returned to Pakistan, but she was not eager to have children. She asked me if I would like something to drink and named several sodas. I didn’t want a soda, so she cut up fruits for me and I sat there with her in the pre-furnished apartment.
She said that Athens was boring compared to Lahore, where people were always out on the town getting drunk. I asked if her family was secular and she said no, they were Muslim. We looked at each other, not knowing what to say.
I could practice—and maybe this is the answer. I could surround myself with Indian people. I often practice being a person of color—seeking out friends whose color is visible on their skin, in the shape of their bodies and faces, placing myself among them, saying we. Listening to what is important to them, thinking carefully, making it mine.
What if my being Indian is made primarily from missing it? What if it is only a longing to inhabit the lie “I am Indian” that makes me Indian at all? What if it is precisely this desire that is my own Indian condition—this distance from the home I would like to find in my body?
Avtar Brah, a theorist of diaspora, coins the term “homing desire”—a way to understand desire for home without claiming that there is such a place as the “homeland”: a word, in the age of Trump, that I don’t want to speak. I am mixed-race, and my homing desire leads me to wander.
Brah allows of us who want home a desire that points nowhere except to itself, that flames with its own reality. Caught in such desire I will wander, singing a song that shakes.
The first year I was an adult who worked at a job, I worked in the shit-smelling Tenderloin on the sixth floor of an office building, where we painted our rooms bright colors. Outside was the world where our clients lived. It was not my world, but I walked through it.
I loved this job because it combined the comfort of ordinariness—morning waking, breakfast, tea, all those who worked in offices in the city leaving the house at the same time—with the knowledge that there was no ordinary, not when families lived on the streets. I felt that a goodness lodged in the crux of this paradox. When I came to the 6th and Market corner and entered the building’s sixth floor—it was so that families could come in, so that they could sit in the warm rooms we painted. But they could sit there only for a while. We were supposed to manage the waiting list for temporary shelter—places families could stay for up to six months. But the waiting list grew up to nine months; it grew so long that it became absurd. If someone had a medical emergency or a pregnancy they could be placed sooner, and I would advocate hard for these families, sometimes choosing them above others, foolishly, in my desire to make someone, anyone, safe.
The engine of its own inadequacy propelled this job in San Francisco. It was a profession of love and failure.
There is a kind of lie that is situated on the brink of possibility, and I suspect that this is the lie we need: one that acknowledges our own inadequacy and reaches beyond it in desperate faith.
“I want theater,” writes Brenda Shaughnessy, “the domain / of intoxicated grief.” That line of poetry holds inside it my desire for wine, my desire for the lie I told myself about wine, which now—sober—I see was a lie: that it is possible, drunk-eyed, to look at the boundaries between us until they are gone.
Unable to name my own suffering as real, I want to experience the suffering of others instead, or think I want to. I want my body a deep, rich brown, edging to black. I say I want to know your hurt inside my own body. I am not the first to make this mistake—hating myself because others are hurt. This mistake is a long, long red thread that tangles through Western liberal thought.
Per one of my identities I am still a social services worker—a woman who sleeps two nights a week on the couch of a one-room office in a domestic violence shelter in Athens, Georgia. I am woken when women who live there need me, or woken by a 4 a.m. call by a woman who was with a sexually abusive husband for twenty-six years and has called no one until now. I write down everything she says in the case notes. “He gained access to my medical records,” she said. “He threatened me until I let him be the one who signed my forms.”
I write down in the case notes everything she says except this: “When he switched my medications, blood was coming out my ears, my rectum.” I do not write this because even though I believe it, I know that it does not sound true. I do not write this because she is still talking—because she is in the first frenetic rush of naming her truth. One day maybe she will come to the shelter, and maybe I can make her tea and sit in the small kitchen. That is—if she leaves him. Maybe one day she will tell me.
Even now, to protect her, I am lying about her story to you.
My refusal to name what is truth is in honor of that woman, to whom, perhaps, I will never speak again.
In one story about myself I have bipolar disorder, though in another story it’s seasonal depression—both stories written somewhere in the medical files at the University of Texas, at the University of Georgia.
In the story I know: in winter I become so convinced of my own worthlessness that my thoughts cannot cohere. But the most miraculous quality of this winter despair is that others cannot see it. “You’re always so happy,” people tell me frequently, though I’m making no attempt to hide.
The poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly died this season, one of so many deaths. She was my teacher, as she was to so many others. The last time I spoke with her on the phone it was last February—almost a year ago, a year I shook inside winter’s pit. I called her and told her I was so scared I was a failure—I was so scared I had nothing inside me.
She told me about a time that her daughter was in a horrible accident—and she was so worried that she couldn’t live. She said that she talked to a friend, a chaplain, who told her: “Worry does nothing. Worry is the opposite of what you want. Instead, meditate upon everything that is whole about your daughter.”
She did it, she said—and she said that it was all right.
“I became embarrassed that I had worried,” she said. Here I heard delight in her voice. “I saw that worry is self-indulgent.”
One of the solutions for dealing with depression is to “fake it… fake it until you make it.” This solution intrigues me and is relevant here. My regular, non-depressed self—the woman who has ideas and opinions, who knows how to operate inside friendship—is now a costume, and I can barely remember how to put it on. I don’t even know exactly what it looks like, and I am stumbling around in the closet where I keep it. But when I talk to others, I find that I’m wearing it.
When someone asks me, “How are you doing?” If I am trying to wear the costume—I respond by saying things that sound unequivocally like lies, even if they are true.
When I say: “I cried all morning about how I was worthless,” I smile, as if I am joking.
When I say, “I am writing a book,” I try to act as if it is true.
What will happen if you see me on the street? Will you be able to tell whether I am the shadow-faced actor or myself? When I am depressed, even the way that I hold myself betrays me. The way that I arrange myself and the objects in a room—like sacks of trash when you are cleaning out an apartment to move but do not have anywhere to put them—shows that I am not actually a person. I am where personhood plays out.
Brigit, who was not secular, once said: “So many people don’t know what they believe.”
The night after I learned she’d died, I walked in the woods near my house in the dusk where the trees blackened and the sky grew strange and large, and I promised: never again will I stop believing in poetry.
Brigit believed that if even someone wrote a poem alone in the morning dark and never showed it to anyone, just the act of writing it would cause a small change on the face of the world. Now that she is gone I feel I must carry that belief, even when I feel none of its glow inside me.
I have been almost a year and a half without wine. When I can write I find in lyric the wine I have lost. Sometimes I can find it. Right now I don’t even have that—I am longing for the longing for wine that fills the veins, the longing in its collarbone-hum, the longing that bracelets the ankles. I am longing to be lit up by desire, which is the same, sometimes, as art.
I am trying to posit a force of truth that turns upon absence, that is true by not being true, that is true only by virtue of its desire for truth. This is the kind of essayist I am—careless with knowledge, ferocious with the prospect of sense. Maybe there is a monstrous sense I can access, reckless sense, sense as homing desire, sense that finds the outcasts their home. Maybe I can touch it and show it to you. If I convince you, we can call it real. And then perhaps it will be.
The first therapist who healed me, Heather, was mixed-race (half Native and half white), but she passed for white. When I told her about my white-passing misery, she told me about hers. It was the one time we talked about someone other than me. Once I came early for an appointment and saw her outside smoking a cigarette. She was a tough butch woman, but looked smaller out there on the street. It was the only time that I saw her with her own injury showing.
Heather told me that it’s common among survivors of sexual violence that they believe the violence is not abuse, and that it did not really happen or only kind of did—that one exaggerated. That one made it up, that it was her fault.
Once Nidhi fell hard on the dirt and rocks outside our elementary school. Hard sacrum of a child to the root of a tree. Nidhi: braid coarse and long, thick and practical, abundant. Nidhi started to cry in front of her mother. Nidhi cried on the stunned ground.
“It’s okay,” her mother said impatiently.
I was standing there, crying too.
“And you, why are you crying?” Nidhi’s mother asked, exasperated.
Strange as this may be, I was crying because Nidhi was hurt and I was not. I don’t understand this to be empathy. I think it was discomfort at the fact that Nidhi was inside the experience and I was not. Nidhi’s being mattered because she was in pain, and those in pain deserve love and relief.
In my high school, the more you suffered, the less you spoke of it. The less someone spoke of it, the greater the possibility that something unspeakable burned inside. The result was that suffering was dusky, unverifiable, and I began to fear that I did not have enough of it inside me.
I remember a girl that Ek knew, a girl he spoke to at night, a girl in our classes.
“She’s really depressed,” Ek said with admiration. In the daylight of English class, I would watch this girl across the room with curiosity. I would check her arms—pale, shapely, gold arms—for cuts, and I saw none. I wondered if she cut herself secretly. I wondered, because I could not see the cuts, if somehow the pain was deeper than cutting: if it was a hard, unexpressed knot.
The strange result of this way of being was that “suffering” became something not experienced firsthand but instead imagined as living inside someone else. Authenticity took on that formula too. Its existence inside me could not be confirmed. All I could find inside myself was this: the feeling that the real existed elsewhere.
Some of the most intense pain in my life has come from this feeling: if suffering exists only in the heads of others, in places inaccessible to me, then the curdling inside my own brain is unredeemable because it has no name.
I remember this most of all during the relationship with Ek: even more than I wanted the abuse to stop, I wanted to be able to say that it was abuse. I remember so much wanting him to hit me, which he never did; only once he pushed me into a wall, which left scrapes that faded quickly. Once he pushed my best friend into one of the fixtures of our high school scenery, a cement bench that bordered a square cluster of bushes. What happened to me never seemed to be what was written about as abuse.
It seems to me sometimes that my whole life has been this way: possessing a marginal, dubious relationship to each category I’ve inhabited.
If Nidhi mattered, I wondered—Nidhi on the ground in pain—was there anything about me that mattered? This is how I thought. When Nidhi was injured, I found myself in the white space outside of experience—as if everyone else was at an art opening, looking at the blazing color of the art on the walls, and I was trapped in the vestibule near the water fountains and elevators.
This experience is embarrassing, and part of me says: it is not worth writing about, this desire to be hurt when you are not.
And yet I think this longing of self-destruction is more common than we admit. I find it also in the shelter where I work, where women have been undeniably hurt. There I have met women of so many races, so many backgrounds, who have been choked, who have been beaten, who have been tied up, who have been injured in every verifiable way—women who are only recently free, women in the shaking space of homeland. Women who live now in the makeshift house. And yet these women want to hurt themselves more than anyone I have known.
This is my experience of dissociation: pausing in a white room with a landscape of fire outside.
A panic attack is the illusion of death, death that is not itself: the body gripped by the unsustainable even though the danger is not, at least according to Western medicine, real. The blood is good and blue as the quiet in the ocean. The brain is made of so many pencil-quick exchanges. The hands are whole, the legs whole, the genes stable. The teeth are affixed in the head. Or they may be. Or they may not. It does not matter, to the person in panic, if the body is whole.
My relation to this illusion is farther removed. I do not know if I have experienced a panic attack, but my day has slipped toward the unbearable so many times, the white walls senseless, the air trembling in its insistence. I have spent my life looking for names, which is a way to say: I have spent my life looking for lies—containers for what I don’t understand, what I can’t speak.
I have gone again and again to doctors’ offices dragging trudging days. I have gone to them for depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and mania. I have gone to heal from abuse. But I do not think these are the right names, even though in another sense they are. Or they are correct only in that they are a deep relief: they mean that I do not have to wrestle inside myself in pure namelessness. That I can say these words and someone will offer understanding and kindness. But I admit now that I say these words with nervousness, with the feeling that I am lying.
I have gone to doctor’s offices, instead, because of this feeling: that I am locked in the waste plain of my life. That I am a wretched being or half-being. That when I am in a room with others—in a room at night where people stand with drinks, in the farmers’ market with a friend—I am not really there in the room. Rather, I am in my own room, the room of my wretched life, where I rub and gnaw at myself. Where I see through a red, rubbed-thin lens of my own brain and I cannot see anything beside it.
When I was seventeen I fell in love with someone—Justin, a long-limbed boy who wore polo shirts and a plain black backpack and had the straightest black hair falling in his eyes—because he told me that what was happening with my boyfriend was sexual abuse. When he typed those words onto AOL Instant Messenger, when they appeared in sky-blue sans-serif size eight—I felt I was home.
In Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston returns as an anthropologist to the town of Eatonville, Florida, where she is from, because she is collecting black folklore. She is a double agent now, armed with a white patron’s money, and going home to listen to people tell “lies,” their own word for their stories. “What you mean, Zora, them big old lies we tell?” someone asks when she tells them what she wants to write down.
“Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds,” says Hurston to her reader. “We smile and tell [our questioner] something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing.”
I—a pale white-and-Indian reader, a much later reader—know little about whether Hurston is lying to me now. In honoring Hurston’s relation to lie, I am attempting an act of listening, one offering to the earth of history’s most unspeakable wound.
Because I pass for white, white people often speak to me about their white privilege—they ask me if they really have it, if they really acknowledge it—if this is really theirs to bear. And right now I will say to them: yes. It is yours to carry, just as others have carried centuries of oppression, centuries of doubt, centuries of the body’s wrongness. Just as you carry your own hurt, you carry this privilege too.
I used to think that where my work belonged was at the brink-territory before words hardened: because words are betrayers, words are failures. I did not want to take part in the hardening of words. And that was youth: not wanting to reckon with realities. No, I do not want to reckon with them, still. But here, on the road leaving youth, I will.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.