by Anjali Enjeti
University of Georgia Press, April 2021
248 pages, $24.95
Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change is Anjali Enjeti’s first book, a collection of essays, soon to be followed by her first novel, The Parted Earth, coincidentally coming out later this month. It’s an overflow of words from an author that I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of before I opened the pages of this fantastic contemplation of identity, social justice, racism, and internalized/externalized bias.
Enjeti is a former practicing attorney, a political organizer and activist, and award-winning journalist based near Atlanta, Georgia, but she began her life as a mixed-race child of three different cultures, the child of an immigrant, the child of a white-passing mixed-race mother, the daughter of a brown immigrant father, the sister to a boy with a brown body, a usurper to the white hegemonic tradition of “The South.” Thinking of the South as a ubiquitously white haven is ironic, since the majority of Black and other people of color live below the Mason-Dixon line, due to the historic, systemic practices of redlining, gerrymandering, and banking rules to deter Black and brown citizens from buying houses up North or out West. Enjeti is, as she says, “a woman of color. I am brown. Mixed race. Indian, Austrian, Puerto Rican. I represent multiple souths—South Asia, southern India, and the Deep South in the United States. I am an immigrant’s daughter.” She embodies the diaspora of the New South.
The chronology of the collection can be a little confounding at first. Enjeti moves around time in a way that can discomfort her readers, but it’s done in a particular and exacting way. Racism and discrimination, two of the biggest subjects Enjeti talks about in Southbound, are not limited to one-time events, something Enjeti tries to point out over and over again. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 70s or 80s of her childhood, the 90s of her college years, or the 00s and 10s of her adult life, racism and discrimination come up again and again, in malicious and covert ways, but in overt and over the top ways as well.
Violence, erasure, exoticism, appropriation—these forces can shape assumptions about identity. Beginning in 2014, when the plight of Syrians fleeing civil war blanketed the airwaves, a man working inside my home said, without prompting, that he could tell I was from Syria. When the United States denounces countries of the Southern Hemisphere, I am Venezuelan or Guatemalan or Mexican. Having ambiguously brown skin makes me an aberration, a visitor, or an intruder who can pose a threat to someone’s safety, success, or security.
There’s something about describing Southbound as “just” a collection of essays that feels disingenuous to me. Limiting. I don’t know if Enjeti herself chose the genre or categorization her collection falls under, I can’t find that information after doing a search through interviews online, but I wonder why it wasn’t proposed as a memoir. Does the word “memoir” imply a less vigorous academic approach to the writing than Enjeti utilizes throughout the majority of her twenty essays?
I’m reminded, of course, of Carmen Maria Machado’s seminal memoir, In the Dream House, which broke the preconceived structure and form of what a memoir is “supposed” to be. Similar to Machado’s footnotes, Enjeti gives us a vast resource to go to and learn from after we’ve read her words on the page; she provides almost twenty pages of extensive citations that include scholars, activists, essayists, creative non-fiction and general fiction writers. The subject matter of the two books is obviously disparate, but what both women do with the way they play with form, and the way they build their archives is astonishing. I’ve never read a collection of essays that references and collects so many sources for its readers to continue their work. When I finished reading Southbound, I viewed it as a call to action that works at every level: from the novice activist to the leaders of international foundations, this book gives you resources to start a journey towards social justice activism, or to add to an already extensive repertoire.
In reading this book, I’m also reminded of Ecotone’s Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism. Whereas Machado’s Dream House discusses a specific timeline with some excerpts of the author’s childhood in the beginning pages, Trespass has twenty-one essays penned from twenty-one different authors on a gamut of topics running from racism, to gun control, to the act of accepting one’s eminent death. Clearly a broad range to choose from. Enjeti covers all that and more. Southbound begins when Enjeti is a ten year old moving from Detroit, Michigan to Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1984 and moves throughout her life up to the year 2020.
Enjeti covers over forty years of her family’s history, her trauma, her service to her communities, her personal battles with fertility, gun violence, being the mother to mixed-race children, organizing and advocating for the expansion of Asian American and Pacific Islander voting rights, and campaigning for democratic nominees in the state of Georgia. That’s in and among growing up during the AIDS crisis, going to undergrad, law school, being a practicing attorney, having three children, and being first a prolific “mommy blogger” and then investigative journalist.
The essays are separated into three sections: “Identity,” “Inheritance,” and “Social Change,” directly calling back to the subtitle of the collection. I’m not sure if the distinctions need to be there; every essay is intersectional and could fall under any of the three categories. Because this is a collection of essays, and not distinctly a memoir, it makes sense why Enjeti—or her publisher—would want to see them organized in such a way. Memoirs don’t tend to have to be so formally constructed.
In her introduction, “What are you? Where are you from?”, Enjeti describes the two questions white people have pelted at her constantly throughout her life. She is asked, again and again, where she comes from. If she says the United States, the state she was born in, the city she grew up in, she gets the ever-present follow up question: Yeah, but where are you really from? Another version of the question appears on college admission applications,
In 1990, the year I began applying to college, racial categories on applications included Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, American Indian, and Other, and were accompanied with a request to check one of the boxes. Only one application offered the designation Multiracial. On the rest, I relegated myself to Other.
It was an accurate category. For seventeen years, I’d felt othered. College applications seemed to make it official.
It’s a question Enjeti can’t escape from, no matter how high her GPA was, how many cases she oversaw as a lawyer, what protests she organized and went to, or the voter turnout of AAPI communities she helped to bring about in Georgia. You can feel the exhaustion and frustration Enjeti feels when reciting these questions: “What are you?” “Where are you from?” These and many others—Can I touch your hair? What are you eating? How do you speak English so well? Where’s your accent?— are microaggressions Enjeti and other people of color have had to sit through, over and over throughout their lives. They’re a form of racism we as white people often don’t recognize despite its pervasiveness. It’s one we must reckon with.
During a time when legislation is being passed to restrict trans children’s access to healthcare, where voting restriction and suppression is up, when we have children sitting at the border in cages waiting to be reunited with their parents, we as a country have to be willing to have these conversations, to be told these stories and actually take them in. This book lays a much-needed foundation for us to build on.
The last essay in Southbound is titled “Identity as Social Change”. It’s the one that I go back to, again and again. As someone who was raised by southern conservatives, I often get asked how I became so radically liberal in my own views. I think Enjeti says it best in her own words:
[T]he act of claiming my identity has empowered me to engage on a sociopolitical level, to grow my empathy, to reflect on the ways I fall short in the liberation of others. And to learn how to rectify this.
Did I know, growing up, that I would identify as a non-binary lesbian? Did I know how liberal my politics would become? Did I know how different my life would look as compared to my parents’ or grandparents’? Did I know how much I would work towards making the world a more just, equitable place for all of humanity? Of course not. But by discovering myself, my own identity, I was able to look at those around me through my own privilege and understand how we are so severely letting them down as a society. I learned to want to change that. It’s something I think everyone can learn to do, with the right resources and guidance. I believe Southbound can be that guide.
As Porochista Khakpour says on the front cover, this is a book that “I hope every American reads.” I’d only expand on that a little: this is a book that I hope every person reads.