You Can’t Stop Rivers from Running: Talking with Rajiv Mohabir

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“Antiman,” a Desi Caribbean slur for gay men, is also the title of queer poet and memoirist Rajiv Mohabir’s high-stakes hybrid memoir, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and published this past June. The memoir is an earnest call for belonging, and an expression of Mohabir’s love for words and songs, blended with his search for identity and language. Last month, Mohabir published Cutlish, a poetry collection from Four Way Books, the title of which is a play on the cutlass or machete, drawing on Caribbean chutney music while honoring his ancestors who were brought from India to cut sugarcane in British plantations in Guyana as indentured people. A few lines from Cutlish bring us full circle through what Mohabir explores in Antiman:

Coolie naam dharaiya je hamke tej pakardaye
cutlish jaisan kate hamke Guyanwa mein aaike

They made us hold the name Coolie,
like a cutlass it bit us coming to Guyana.

Trying to connect with his roots, Mohabir records the voice of Aji, his Caribbean Hindi-speaking grandmother. Through her, Mohabir absorbs love for a language and identity that his people have been removed from over generations. He goes to India to learn Bhojpuri and hoping to be accepted within his rigidly conservative family. For Mohabir, his grandmother represents the traditions and country abandoned by his ancestors, and it is this “othering” that he most identifies with. But the heart of the memoir is the question of what happens when one’s deepest secrets are outed to one’s deeply conservative family. In a heart-wrenching incident, Mohabir’s cousins and extended family out him as a gay man, an “antiman,” which leads to Mohabir’s own father disowning him. This struggle with his sexuality, brownness, and existence, as well as his own haunting internal conflict as an unlovable man make Antiman a powerful memoir.

Ultimately, Antiman is a deft examination of how words, language, and culture pull and push an immigrant to belong and to seek acceptance within his family as a queer poet and memoirist.

I spoke with Rajiv Mohabir about hybrid work, poetry, immigrant writing, queerness and brownness, and what it means to belong.

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The Rumpus: Tell us about how Antiman came to you as a hybrid memoir, specifically how you decided to structure the work with Aji’s Bhojpuri alongside English. 

Rajiv Mohabir: In my family, when there were gatherings of kin, we would listen to stories nested in stories, punctuated by calypsos and Bollywood songs. There was so much oral tradition alive in us, but I couldn’t recognize it.

Antiman came to me first as a series of essays to help promote my debut poetry collection, The Taxidermist’s Cut. I was in Hawai’i at the time when I realized that the essays that I was writing all happened in the same decade—I was being haunted by this particular time of my life.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir, so I didn’t think about this as a cohesive anything. It was after I had written the titular story that my friend Anjoli Roy, a writer and literary activist, told me that I should start putting my essays together. I was surprised to see how they resonated with one another. I was surprised again to start to see this book take shape. Devi Laskar and Joseph Han both gave me some very great ideas about where to take the narrative.

And how could I write about poetry without having poems! I know that the structure is queer in that it’s outside of the received structure of what memoir does typically. I see it as queer, certainly, but also very close to the way I grew into storytelling.

Rumpus: The book jacket is very striking. What was the idea behind it and how did you and Restless Books achieve such a spectacular cover?

Mohabir: It’s such a dream to have a book that’s red and pink. I am truly indebted to Na Kim for her sensational work. The design was her own, but the collage of images were mine from when I was twenty-one. The writing on the cover in the shape of a building was from the journal that I kept from the first time I ever went to India. The passage on the cover is about going to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi. There’s also an illustration of a golden turret on the cover as well.

There is a photo of a red boat from past Tulsi Ghat in Varanasi that looks toward Dashashwamedh Ghat that is a central image. I love the photo there because I feel the book’s themes pulsing from the red, the river, the promise of travel, stasis. I love this cover because I feel like it really captures how I feel about the genre of creative nonfiction and what I feel about cohesion of the essays, stories, translations, transcriptions, speculations, and poems.

Rumpus: What was your first memory of your Aji, and what compelled you to record her words in the fashion you did? Your Aji’s voice also appears in your new poetry collection Cutlish. How have her words helped bring you to poetry?

Mohabir: I joke that I was previously from her generation before being from my own. There’s so much about the time period of her early life that I’m drawn to: the language, the food, the culture—all of it. I bless up the Rajiv who was in his early twenties who had the idea to record her. I am not sure what my first memory is of her, to be honest.

Maybe it was this draw from a past life that made me so keen or maybe it was really being interpellated into American racialization that made me ask myself, Why don’t you speak any Indian language? It was a racist question, assuming so much of me based on what people thought I looked like and what I should know. But the truth was that the colonization that we suffered changed us. There was so much self-hatred I had to unlearn. I wanted to know. I wanted to speak. I had to untangle this mess of history to see myself as anything other than broken, coming from broken people and broken traditions.

The quest for love and acceptance was a driving factor in my recording of my Aji, too, though perhaps subconsciously. I didn’t realize that I was looking for this, despite my loneliness. Maybe I could sense a loneliness in my Aji as well.

These recordings incarnated into a couple of avatars: the memoir Antiman and the poetry collection Cutlish. The main organizing poem that serves as Cutlish’s spine is a recording of my Aji telling me how her grandparents came to Guyana from India—how they were tricked into coming and what they did as they labored on the sugar cane plantations in the 1800s. She also talks about how we were racialized as “Coolies,” though this is subtle. There is a lot of language play where I use Guyanese Bhojpuri as refrain, playing with the tensions of an unused language, negative capability, and the intimacy of a mother’s tongue.

Rumpus: In the memoir you write: “You are nothing. / No one will ever love you. / You are fat and hairy. / You are good-for-nothing.”

This repetitive chant subtly defines the entire work and tells the reader how the author sees himself, sees his people, and in turn tells us how he came to be. By using this device, you have effectively asked the reader to go on a journey of a brown man as he searches for his identity beyond the obvious. What surprised you as you explored this?

Mohabir: It was a very hard thing to write through the book, but the words you quote are so intimate. When I’m not thinking or not actively engaged, this is the kind of self-talk that I used to do. These were the words that I kept reminding myself of. They came from the worst things that people would say to me, and I internalized them. They came from the ways society made me understand my place and I drank them down deeply.

I was surprised at how fresh it all felt, how writing my inner narrative and orchestrating the change that I started to see in myself as I grew confidence in my path, was perhaps the first time I saw my thinking transform in three dimensions. My counselors taught me how to “throw a wrench into the monkey mind’s system,” but what made me internalize this was coming rooh-ba-rooh [face-to-face] to my questions of brokenness. Was I broken, really? Who got to define my state of fracture?

In writing these stories down did I come to see how many ways my Aji, her songs and stories, and my own venture into understanding the poetry that I was immersed in and writing, really did change me—or show me the internal magic that I have too, just like everyone else?

Rumpus: I love the love you have for Queens. How was it when you arrived in New York and the time during the memoir, and how has it changed or transformed now?

Mohabir: I love Queens. The other day I wore a Queens t-shirt out and I was approached by an older woman who told me that she was from Queens and that she’d never seen a t-shirt advertising Queens—NYC or Brooklyn, sure, but Queens? When I moved away from New York to work on my PhD in Hawai’i, I visited at least once a year if not more. Same when I lived in Alabama. Now that I’m in Boston, during the pandemic, I have not been nearly as much as I would have imagined I would go.

Queens is also the heart of an Indo-Caribbean community that my family used to belong to. Being there, I learned a lot about what being a queer Caribbean person meant.

Every time I’m back in New York I make a stop in Jackson Heights, which is slowly becoming more and more white, and Richmond Hill. Liberty Avenue is the perfect place to get saltfish and bake, chicken curry and daal puri, but also any music or religious items. I also want to say that there is so much art and culture in South Queens, so much activism and magic there. From Caribbean Equality Project to Jahajee Sisters, art thrives.

Rumpus: Jackson Heights is an Indian Mecca for a lot of us brown people. You showed us a different Jackson Heights, where we are brown, from different countries, and there’s a hierarchy even in the brownness—the idea of a Desi versus a Coolie. Has there been a transformation over the years? If so, what gives you hope?

Mohabir: That’s a good question. Jackson Heights is definitely South Asian, but I think the special thing about it is that it’s not just South Asian. From what people say it also used to be heavily Irish. There’s still an Irish bar there that feels a little out-of-time. I used to love drinking black and tans with my friend Sarah during our MFA at Queens College and then walking down the street to get chicken samosas at a place that also sold Tibetan food. Slowly, Jackson Heights is always in the process of shifting: Punjabi, Pakistani, specifically. Now there are more Bangladeshi folks there as well—and next? Who knows.

There are also many folks from other places: Columbian, Mexican, and Dominican immigrants also make up so much of the community. Jackson Heights is still one of the most diverse places in New York if not the world, with a very large queer presence. A friend used to say that it was queerer than the West Village. So many gay bars that played all kinds of music with all kinds of people who came and made lives for themselves on Roosevelt Avenue. It was heavily brown, an alternative to the white Chelsea and Meat Packing District scenes. It was multigenerational, multiethnic, and multilingual.

Richmond Hill is the place with a large Indo-Caribbean community. The distinctions made between South Asian-American communities that reify nationalist and ethno-nationalist connections is tiring. My generation has been told through repeated contact with the children of recent immigrants from the subcontinent that we are not Desi enough. This attitude pervades (even in literary spaces) attitudes about who is on the inside and who is not. You’re not a real Indian is a phrase that I’ve heard countless times. Even its ghost booms out through silences. I think, though, that the generations younger than me have been having a different experience. The Indian labor diaspora (don’t call us the “old” diaspora) garners more and more attention from academics, our writers gaining more and more exposure. I think the dialogues are now just that: dialogic. Funny enough, I have also been told that Guyanese are not Caribbean enough.

Rumpus: “Islamophobic Misreadings” is another section in Antiman that continues to haunt, especially after 9/11 and now two decades later. The microaggressions, the blatant insults, the so-called humor all add up. What were you hoping to convey in the structure of this section and how was it received by readers?

Mohabir: This section was based on an experiment that I did with American Islamophobia in the early 2000s, and informed by the hatred lobbed at me post 9/11. I am not Muslim, though I may have had ancestors who were Muslim—so many records are untraceable in my family due to British imperialism. Despite my being non-Muslim, this writing sees me being profiled as a Muslim because of my brown body and my beard, which a lot of ignorant people read as such. But just because I am not Muslim does not mean that the bigotry that I faced was not real or Islamophobic. People reacted to how they read me (a very common story) and this section was to show ways in which I was misread, hoping to create a situation where I speak out against Islamophobia but also show the realities of living in my body.

It’s a complicated thing to be racially profiled and to have white people (and other BIPOC) treat you as a threat because of their misreadings. I also wanted to show my own internalized Islamophobia and the ways I was complicit and ignorant myself. No one gets a pass. I thought that if I could amass these aggressions that the reader would come away with a feeling of what the affective experience is like—what it feels like to carry the weight.

Rumpus: The entire memoir is held with a tragic fear of being outed and how that one incident defines family, family reactions, and life after. You’ve explored this fear in three different ways in the section of Antiman titled, “A Family Outing: An Alternative Ending.” The hurt, confusion, and terror is so palpable in all of them. Did you plan on looking at it in different ways?

Mohabir: Thank you for acknowledging this. It’s a painful thing that I’m still learning to deal with fifteen years later. It’s a particular kind of grief: losing kin and also culture and community. I’m learning to allow myself to grieve. This grief is nonlinear and eruptive. I don’t have to hold onto it anymore, clutching it in the shadowy corners of myself out of fear and embarrassment. I have lost so much; I was terrified of losing even more.

These alternative endings that I wrote were about speculating about what my Aji’s reaction would be. It was a traumatic thing to consider, and I wanted to give it the space of poetry since time, linearity, and story could be more surreal and amorphous. The actual words my Aji said when told that I was an antiman were, Yuh cyan stahp ribbah from run—you can’t stop rivers from running. This was beautiful to me and still is poetry. My Aji was named after a river, after all.

There’s also something that I do here that expands the possibility of narrative, that allows the reader to experience alternate realities to the ones I present to show how everyone involved will have a different perspective on the situation—and that’s okay. Memory is chimeric. These pieces allow grace and show my own fragmentation of this event and perhaps how I dealt with it.

Rumpus: What has been the reaction to publishing two books in one year?

Mohabir: It’s been a lucky year for me and publishing. Cutlish started as my MFA thesis when I was in Queens, and I have been writing and rewriting it for almost a decade. The speaker is in Queens mostly and the book develops a form based on Indo-Caribbean chutney music from the 1960s and 1970s from the Trinidadian singer Sundar Popo.

I constructed a form from the structure of two of his songs “Kaise Bani“ and “Scorpion Gyul” and added to it a new layer of immigrant history. I wanted to do this because I love these old songs and they have been very important to me in thinking through writing and poetry that I grew up on.

The speaker in Cutlish’s poems is very much as Rajiv is after the last chapter of Antiman. In my mind these books go together hand-in-hand; much of the poetic sensibility I realized, translated, and discovered from Antiman is fully put to experimention in Cutlish.

Both have been received very well, with Cutlish receiving a starred review from Library Journal.

Rumpus: Queer, South Asian, brown literature while more mainstream than half a decade ago, is still not as mainstream as it should be. It’s only this year that we see from India a list of formidable queer authors being acknowledged as widely. It was less than half a decade ago that Section 377 was ruled unconstitutional, that homosexuality was decriminalized in India. As you noted with the title of your memoir, homosexuality is still referred to as a slur in Guyana. But the memoir is hopeful and the quest for happiness, acceptance, and love is a positive and fulfilling one. What do you feel this memoir has achieved in the brown and gay communities in America and elsewhere?

Mohabir: Yes, I agree brown, queer, South Asian literature should be more accessible to audiences. People have made so many assumptions about my story and who I am because of my brownness. Not just white people but also other Caribbean people who assume that I am conservative just because I am brown with a brown family—that my Indianness is a hurdle to overcome. White supremacy and the people who are so fully interpellated into it are the hurdle.

I get that there’s a bottom line and that BIPOC agents must get flooded with BIPOC writers when their own politics may uphold the old gatekeeping ways. With this kind of outlook, it seems that the “mainstream” publishing world is looking for what is trendy and now it’s Diversity™.

I am not surviving because of a trend. I am living against old ones. Like you said, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was repealed. This colonial-era anti-sodomy law uses language written in Britain in the 1500s and was exported to all its colonies to condemn and damn people like me. Trinidad just recently repealed the law that uses the same language, while in Guyana, being queer is still punishable by law. I have written about these three countries and their laws in The Punch and in the Hawai’i Review.

My prayer is that this memoir is a light to others who are struggling with being Other, so that they know they are not alone. When they see the title of the book, my hope is that they recognize me as being as they are or were: peripheral and doubting. This is not a book about coming out but about how I built my life despite being told that I was never meant to be who I was. My friend, the poet Shikha Saklani Malaviya says, “Books have their own karma,” meaning that you will never know what they do in the world—they have their own lives and will reach people you’ve never thought of them reaching!

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Photograph of Rajiv Mohabir by Jordan Miles.


Madhushree Ghosh's work has been published in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Catapult, Guernica, Longreads, Brevity, Hippocampus, Atlas Obscura, Serious Eats, The Kitchn, DAME, and others. Her essays have been Pushcart-nominated and a Notable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing (2020). As a woman in science, an immigrant, and a daughter of refugees, her work reflects her roots and her activism. Her food narrative memoir, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey, is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press, in spring 2022. She can be reached at @writemadhushree. More from this author →