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Unbelonging by Gayatri Sethi is a Mantra Brown Folks Must Read

Review of Desi Book Aunty’s Memoir


Gayatri Sethi’s interactive memoir calls on brown folks: “Desi-ish”, “African-ish”, “American-ish”, all to engage, reflect, and claim learning from one’s own lived experiences. Her memoir is only fitting to her namesake mantra, Gayatri, which is believed to create a mindset for personal, collective, and societal atonement in the Hindu tradition. 

Brave Writing for Brave Readers

Readers familiar with Black feminists, activists, and abolitionists, will be delighted to find that Sethi’s memoir is filled with brave "revelations" on how one might strengthen capacities for seeking individual and collective liberation. Grounded in Black feminist thought, she serves as a desi translator, sharing how Black feminism advances “Pyarful Languages of liberation” (Sethi, p. 257). The memoir is an exercise in how people of the desi diaspora committed to anti-racism might be brave and cultivate cultural humility and radical love, both themes woven throughout Sethi’s poetry. In this review, I engage with components of Sethi’s “Pyarful Languages of liberation:” truth, reckoning, accountability, and liberation. 


Truth: “Why Identify”

 

Sethi emboldens marginalised and minority readers in her narrative poetry, leaving room for brave readers to doodle their own stories about being courageous in the face of oppression, destructive feedback, and displacement. Each page in this memoir is an ode to Black feminists such as Audre Lorde and her wisdom,“if i did not define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”.  In her opening poem, “Why Identify,” Sethi writes: 


“Name all the intersections. 

If we do not say who we are, 

if we do not claim all our selves, 

we will be erased.

 

We need to see how we are differently placed 

before we can claim to all be one human race.

 

Identify.”

Sharing her own lesson in belonging to self as inextricably linked to understanding one’s social location within hierarchical systems of power and domination. It takes courage and vulnerability to use one’s own stories to illustrate how one might minimise hierarchies of oppression and “be one race.” Her memoir is an example of extending solidarity to all brave readers, but especially for women of colour, such as myself, who “Identify”  with the writer’s poems, especially with the one titled “punjabi beti”. Beti denotes a daughter relation in the Punjabi language. Readers will note that Sethi rejects capitalisation of many of her titles which are from the Punjabi language since it does not have any capital letters in the sense the English language does.

 

Reckoning: “fire for liberation from oppression”


Many of us in the South Asian diaspora, whether religious, non-religious, secular/atheist, or spiritual, might know someone in our household (or we might even be that someone) who starts the day by striking a match to light up an incense stick. Certainly, readers will experience discomfort from reading the memoir as the author issues content warnings on: systemic racism, anti-Blackness, partition trauma, abuse, interpersonal violence, xenophobia, immigrant trauma, casteism, misogyny, anxiety. The cover is fitting of this memoir calling for a social-political reckoning and presents “fire” multiple times throughout poetic verses: “firewood,” “fire of inquiry,” “fired trauma,” and “fire for liberation from oppression.” Sethi’s creative expansion on Black feminist thought channelled in her poetry invites readers to embrace discomfort and reckon with transformative possibilities around individual and collective healing. Ultimately, this is a memoir that urges a healing and cleansing possibility for the “Desi-ish”, “African-ish”, “American-ish” diaspora through reckoning with oppression. And the cover of “Unbelonging,” illustrated by Divya Sheshadri, captures the essence of the memoir as one which is a reckoning to change one's perceptions about their environment (social, cultural, political) in the manner with which lighting incense serves to purify one’s physical environment.

 

Accountability: “Brown Accountability Requires Honesty”

 

Sethi's expressions of gratitude which some readers may misinterpret as "rehearing trauma" is, in essence, a subversive expression of joy. Joy in writing “counter-narratives,” “debunking stereotypes,” and in refusing “to cape for whiteness” amidst the systemic racism and the legacies of settler colonialism, apartheid, partition. For critics who might claim the memoir is depressing, it’s time to lean into the joy which can be found by being subversive in claiming one’s counter-narrative during racist encounters, debunking stereotypes in the choices one makes, and unlearning “internalised oppression.” I find this joyfill subversion most evident in her poem titled, “ungrateful immigrant.” Furthermore, the author leans into Black feminists pedagogy with honesty around how brown folks, including desis can engage in solidarity through her poems titled, “Nah to white feminism” which reads, “The womanism of Black feminists liberates all of humanity. When Black folks are free, we are all free. 


“Nah to white feminism” and “Refusal” read, “What does refusal to align with whiteness culture look like? For me, it is to say nah to all the ways that my culture, identity & spirit are consumed. I do not consent to my own consumption.”  Brave readers are invited to consider how they too might hold oneself accountable in refusing to be complicit with one’s own encounters with oppressions. Sethi stands with Black feminists such as bell hooks and points the finger at the culprit: “Imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal oppression.”

 

Liberation: “Who taught me liberation?”


In her memoir, Sethi writes her narrative for brown folks, one where “we bear the soul scars of severance from truth.” In Sethi's memoir, readers can begin to imagine what collective liberation might look like for us, given our and our collective scars throughout the desi diaspora. In fact, her memoir leaves a blank page for readers to reflect on with questions such as: Who taught me how to live? Who made it possible for me to know how to thrive?”


Although the book is written with young adults in mind, readers of all ages will find the chance to cultivate an appreciation for their beloveds and see their kin: chosen, adopted, and ancestral as a source for liberation. Certainly, the memoir leaves me inspired to generate opportunities for reflection with the "Desi-ish”, “African-ish”, “American-ish” folks in my life.


Dr. Gayatri Sethi’s memoir, “Unbelonging” is available for pre-ordering via Mango & Marigold Press.

About the author

Simran Kaur-Colbert, MA, is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University of Ohio. Her research explores the intersections of religious, secular, spiritual diversity and racial justice in student affairs in higher education. She is of South Asian descent, born in New Delhi and raised in Queens, NYC. Some of her work has previously been published in HuffPost, Tikkun Magazine, and Convergence on Campus. LinkedIn: Simran Kaur-Colbert


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