Marketing demands that a writer’s brand remain narrow and crisp, but Anjali Enjeti is not afraid to show her multitudes. Her biography touts her experience as a former attorney, a journalist, an activist, a creative writing teacher, and a poll worker. She writes about politics, social justice, and books for places like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ZORA, Washington Post, The Nation, and many others. She co-founded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization that played a critical role in turning out South Asian Democrats last year. And she has not one, but two new books coming out this spring.
Enjeti’s debut novel, The Parted Earth, begins in New Delhi in 1947, with teenaged Deepa, who falls in love with a Muslim boy destined to join the refugees streaming across the border to newly created Pakistan at the same time her parents’ lives are threatened for their refusal to discriminate against Muslims at their medical clinic. After Deepa’s story (distressingly, inevitably) explodes in crisis, Enjeti picks up the narrative nearly seventy years later in Atlanta, when forty-one-year-old Shan Johnson, Deepa’s granddaughter, grieving her own losses, sets out to find the grandmother she’s never met.
The real-life corollary to Shan’s search for belonging finds its home in Southbound, a collection of essays—some personal, some critical—about race, activism, and identity. Enjeti is half Indian by way of her father, and a quarter Austrian and a quarter Puerto Rican by way of her mother; her family moved from Michigan to Tennessee when she was ten years old. She turns outsiderdom into a vantage point—on others, but also on herself. “For years my identity was a reactionary state of being,” she writes in the collection’s opener. “It has taken me time, reflection, and a lot of work to develop a sense of identity that is defined by my own parameters, that derives from an authentic self-concept, rather than a defensive posture born of stereotypes and suspicion.”
As an Indian American who grew up in Atlanta, where Enjeti now lives, I have circled Enjeti for years: my family volunteers with They See Blue; we share a fairly large social media circle. But our connection over Zoom for this interview yielded our first real conversation. We spoke about writing in the face of rejection, why we have so few Partition stories, and how rage can help clarify our authentic selves.
The Rumpus: You’ve been a book critic for a long time. What’s it like being on the other side of this process?
Anjali Enjeti: I love criticism; it’s one of my great loves of writing. I write a lot about politics and voting rights, and I write personal essays. But writing book reviews is so relaxing and joyous. I don’t think I’ll be offended by people who don’t like the books because I understand how personal it is. Obviously anything negative about the books will hurt my feelings, I’m a human being! But I do have an experience of how personal criticism is to that reviewer, to the body of work they’ve reviewed in the past, to the types of books they’ve read, to the expectations they have for that author. At the same time, almost everyone who’s had a critique of something I’ve written, they’ve been right to some degree. I may not have been able to see it in the moment, but then a year later I’ll be like, Oooh, they were right about this. So, I might actively avoid reviews until the books have been out in the world for a while, until I can get myself to the place where I can really sit with what they’re saying, because ultimately I think the criticism will make my next book better.
Rumpus: You’ve been open about having tried to sell these books for more than a decade. I was hoping you could talk about what it was like to keep writing, keep querying, through the rejections and silences.
Enjeti: I wrote an article for the Atlantic in 2017 in which I “celebrated” my ten years of being on submission, where I was actively pitching to either agents or small press editors. In those ten years, I actually had a couple of agents who just didn’t work out. One tried really hard to sell a book, it didn’t sell, and then she wasn’t interested in my novel. Another agent signed me and then ghosted me. By the time Southbound comes out, it’ll be thirteen years since I started submitting.
Rumpus: You were submitting these books but also others, right?
Enjeti: Yes, I think I’m now at a total of seven books. And two sold. I think there’s a lot of us who are out here who have been submitting for a decade or more and we don’t really talk about it because it’s kind of embarrassing. I feel ashamed. No one is making me feel ashamed, I don’t have writers making me ashamed, no one in the publishing industry is making me feel embarrassed, but I feel ashamed because I want to know, why does no one want these books that I’m so passionate about? My self-esteem was in a burning heap on the floor, and it started to affect other parts of my life. When you’re getting rejected all the time, and for books that you feel are your very heart and soul, it’s hard to be a super positive parent. It’s hard to enjoy other hobbies you have.
My presses are small, nonprofit presses that have struggled quite a bit during the pandemic. And I’m super lucky, because they only publish a handful of books a year. Even though, in the end, my book advances total less than what some people get for an article! I know writers who are more talented than I am, who have been submitting longer than I have, who still don’t have a book contract. I know I’m incredibly lucky. If these presses hadn’t given me a chance, I don’t know if any press would have.
Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about that. What’s it been like working with a small press?
Enjeti: The first book I started submitting years ago was a collection of personal essays. I couldn’t get an agent for that, and when I started conceiving of Southbound, which is a hybrid of personal essays and criticism, I had a feeling that an agent was not going to be interested. I live in Georgia; UGA Press is a little over an hour from my house, and I had been reading UGA Press books for years. I met the editor, Walter Biggins—he’s no longer the editor; he’s now at University of Pennsylvania Press—at an anti-gun rally before Trump’s election. We hung out; we were with mutual friends and other writers. A few months after that I sent him an email. It took a while, almost two years between my first contact with him and when I got my book contract. I sold it on proposal.
Then, as I was writing it, I started really reflecting on what I wanted this book to do, which was to get people to look at themselves and really think about how we contribute to white supremacy, how we don’t do a good enough job of reckoning with our own internalized biases, instead of making it a book that was just about my own racialized trauma. There are a lot of books like that out there, they do a good job, maybe what I need to do is to admit that I’m part of the problem and reckon with that in some way. I chucked a lot of the essays and really minimized the part of the book that dealt with my own trauma and started instead looking outward at the ways that I stayed quiet when I shouldn’t have, or other ways that I’ve been complicit. Having a book contract gave me the security to really go places I was reluctant to go.
Rumpus: How do you—or do you—see your books speaking to each other?
Enjeti: The Parted Earth was written before Southbound. So, they weren’t written at the same times, but in some ways they’re similar because they speak to the ways we are very interconnected—with different generations, with different countries or continents, with our stories and our histories that we carry with us. Obviously, I’m a mixed race brown woman, and Shan Johnson in The Parted Earth is biracial, both of us have fathers who were Indian immigrants, there are similarities like that. I love writing stories, whether they are essays or fiction, that show seemingly disparate threads connecting. How our actions years ago, on another continent, might influence generations later. And, the importance of carrying the stories of our ancestors. That theme is very strong, at least I hope it is, in both books. How much our ancestors really shape us, and what we lose when we don’t have that connection.
Rumpus: One similarity I noticed was that in The Parted Earth, Deepa starts the story very naïve. You write that she’d never felt grief before. Southbound starts with you as a fifth grader, moving to the Deep South and experiencing blatant racism for the first time. Each book is, in a way, about how a central character responds to a confrontation of their naivety.
Enjeti: I think all of us have those moments in our childhood. In Southbound, I was ten years old when I moved from Michigan, and Deepa in The Parted Earth is sixteen when the novel opens, but all of us have these moments where we start breaking away from the world of our parents, and realize that how they view current events isn’t necessarily what they are. Deepa has these parents who talk about politics openly; it’s not like they’re in denial. But their narrative is: everything’s going to be fine. They’re holding themselves out as these heroes who are going to stay and do good despite the fact that things are getting dangerous. And you know, in my family, too, it was: this is a change, and there are going to be people here who are ignorant about our racial and ethnic backgrounds, but everybody is well-meaning, and we should give them a break for any sort of meanness or insensitivity, because they don’t know any better and it’s their ignorance that makes them say mean things. Well, I started realizing, ignorance doesn’t always make people mean. You can meet somebody from a completely different background, not know anything about their country or their culture, and treat them with respect, right? Recognize their humanity. You can be ignorant and kind.
Rumpus: There’s this lovely quote from Southbound, when you’re trying to get your father to acknowledge the racism he faced in Chattanooga in the 1980s and ‘90s, and he continues to downplay it. You write, “We never use the word racism in our home to describe our own experiences, and so I find myself wondering whether anything qualifies as racism.” Having grown up in a family with a similar outlook, this resonated—the idea that the minimum standard for calling something racist was a redneck with a confederate flag on his way to burn a cross, and anything short of that was ignorance, and it was our job to educate them.
Enjeti: Absolutely. Or just to conform so hard that we erased ourselves completely. Looking back, when I think about being called a racial slur and when I think about what I did to fit in, I mean, I would say that the latter in the long run was more harmful to me. Not even feeling like I could be myself. It was exhausting to try to be accepted. In the chapter “Southbound,” I talk about feeling like I was always wearing a mask. And how that ended up making me complicit in the bigotry of others, because when you’re never being yourself you’re just conforming to the white supremacy.
Rumpus: I want to come back to the idea of inherited trauma as it relates to Partition. There is literature that deals with Partition as trauma for the people who lived through it, but this idea that you play with in The Parted Earth, that it’s also an inherited trauma that affects second- and third-generation immigrants, this doesn’t get talked about a lot.
Enjeti: There are many unfortunate things about Partition, but one of the most unfortunate is that, to my knowledge, the first wide-scale effort to collect firsthand stories of Partition survivors didn’t happen until sixty years later, in 2007, by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. If you are not collecting stories on a massive scale in a very organized, institutional fashion, that means you have lost a lot of stories, right? When we talk about the Holocaust, for example, that effort to preserve stories started much earlier. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, who started the 1947 Partition Archive [another effort which came later], has said she was inspired to do it because she went to a museum in Japan that was a memorial to Hiroshima. That story had a strong archive. Partition is unique in a sense that there was such a long delay in collecting stories. For something where one to two million people died, it’s the largest human migration in the world—fifteen million people abandoned their homes to move elsewhere in the subcontinent. I think part of the reason that maybe there’s not more Partition literature is that it took so long to get these testimonies.
Rumpus: And yet Partition does cast a shadow over Indian literature, but so much less so in the diaspora. One of your main characters is generations removed from the trauma of Partition, but it still affects her life.
Enjeti: Certainly one of the differences between Partition and, say, the Holocaust, is that Partition didn’t affect everyone in India. If you weren’t living near a border, you might have lived in a city like Chennai that took in a lot of refugees, but it didn’t necessarily have the violence and the strife. Now, there were cities like Hyderabad, where my family is from, they had a very unique Partition story. It was Muslim-controlled, with a Hindu majority population, and they were like, yeah, we’re not going to be part of India. The Indian army came in in 1948, so that was a different sort of Partition “border” story, and there was a lot of violence and a lot of rape. And rape brings me to another point. I’m not a historian, but I think part of the reason there is a lot of silence around Partition stories is that so many involve mass rape. Even today there’s so much shame about rape; sixty-plus years ago, people were cast out of their families completely, families lost huge swaths of their genealogy because women who were raped were completely cut out. As a reader of Partition, I’ve always felt like that rape prong has affected the ways South Asians in the diaspora interpret it; because of the shame about the rape, people didn’t necessarily pass down their stories about how their families might have been influenced by Partition.
Rumpus: It’s also true that you never hear, “Oh yeah, my great-grandfather helped slaughter a train car full of Muslims trying to cross the border.” The perpetrators don’t pass on their stories.
Enjeti: That’s such an important point. You only hear the stories of the heroes. The people who helped their neighbors of a different faith, of whatever faith was being persecuted in that region of the subcontinent, “Oh they pulled them out of the fire, they hid them!” You don’t hear a lot of the stories of the evil. And this is true of any chapter of history, we could say this about the Vietnam War, we could say it about the Rwandan Genocide, we could say it about the Holocaust. Certainly this transcends Partition. Even in the US, you know. How many white people have ancestors who drove Native Americans off of their land, enslaved Black people? They’re not going around talking about their family’s legacy. I wish we were the kind of world that made it safe for them to talk about it. These are histories we need to know. We need to document it. We need to make reparations.
Rumpus: There’s one more touch point between the two books I wanted to mention, and that is women going through it in their forties. As we’ve discussed, both books open on young people, but the emotional reckoning happens for you in Southbound and for Shan Johnson in The Parted Earth entering into the forties. In Southbound, you call it “the age of rage enlightenment.” As a fellow forty-something, I loved this.
Enjeti: I talked to a friend about this the other day, actually, how I feel like in your forties, there is another coming of age. There’s another reckoning with who you are and how you want to be in the world. I think it’s easier, if you have been a member of a marginalized community, to see how various types of oppression have shaped you, and to be ready to challenge it, to be outspoken about it. It seems to be a time, especially for women, really seeing the ways that too many outside forces have shaped who we are. I don’t know what it is, it could be biological, it could be emotional, but I do think it’s a touchstone age for a lot of women who are just done with the bullshit and are ready to fight for their authentic selves in a way that maybe we didn’t feel we had the power to before.
Photograph of Anjali Enjeti by Debashri Sengupta.