The Writer’s Life: Minal Hajratwala

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

MEH: Your tremendous book, Leaving India, chronicles your family’s diaspora – successive emigrations from India to South Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.  As well as your more immediate family’s eventual sojourn to Michigan, where you grew up. What was Michigan like for you?

MH: Michigan was very difficult for me, and in Leaving India I do go back and try to reconstruct some historical and personal explanations: racism in the suburbs, the ever-failing economy of the auto industry, politics of the Reagan years, having moved at an awkward age and never quite fitting in, my budding sense of queer identity, and so on.

But sometimes I think there just isn’t a heart connection between a person and a place.  Each time I go to visit my family there, I am keenly aware that it was never a home for me.

MEH: Now you are back in San Francisco–which would seem to be more of a spiritual home for you?  I’m referencing your queer activism.

MH: I was born in San Francisco and I’ve lived in the Bay Area nearly 20 years now, with just a couple of breaks in between. I don’t know what
a spiritual home is, but I suppose you could call it that as much as anything. I love the ocean, the hills, the neighborhoods, the friends I have here.

Thankfully, because of the hard work of activists over many years, there is much more support and understanding and progress in many places now, but San Francisco does remain a kind of touchstone for queers worldwide, too.

MEH: You researched this book for seven years, traveling to interview family members and tracing their pathways backwards.  Just the sheer
enumeration of the different countries you visited induces a bit of vertigo.  What are some of your observations about the differences between
the countries of destination and how your relatives adapted to them?

MH: I interviewed nearly a hundred relatives in nine countries and the book spans more than 100 years. One of my main projects was actually
to resist generalizing or reducing everyone’s experience to any particular pattern.  At this very moment, my relatives speak the same village version of Gujarati, cook many of the same foods, and persist in many of the same habits no matter where they are in the world. And at the same time my relatives in Hong Kong cook delicious noodles with Indian spices; my relatives in Durban, South Africa, lay claim to inventing one of that country’s national dishes, the “bunny chow”; and my young relatives in Toronto and New Jersey are part of the desi hip hop generation.

Countries don’t have fixed cultures, and neither do migrant communities, and within those two sets of changing values and practices, individuals make choices that are dictated both by personal choice and by political, economic, and social forces. So the question of assimilation,  acculturation, adaptation is a complex one. My 8-year-old cousins in the Fiji Islands play the same video games as my 8-year-old cousins in London. What culture are they adapting to? Hybridity is part of the world now, and different members of my family come up with different  answers to this sort of question every day.  In the book I wanted to track some of those answers, but more importantly, to lay out the questions and the emotional resonances.

MEH: Place is a profound concept, fusing location, identity,  incorporating the most minute experiences of the physical world, like weather,  like local food, with the broadest of self-conceptions.  What are some of the implications of the fact that so many of us are from somewhere other than where we find ourselves?

MH: The main implication is that we have to learn.  And the corollary to that is, We have to meet strangers.  My aunt moved from a village in
India where she knew almost everybody she encountered, to London where she was a young bride with very few acquaintances and did not know English. When her son was in the hospital with leukemia, which would eventually kill him, she had to learn not only English but a kind of medical  terminology that even many native speakers of the language wouldn’t know.  That’s an extreme example, but if any of us thinks about our own lives and everything we have to learn each time we start at a new job or school or move to a new neighborhood–where to eat, whom to talk to, what time certain doors are open or closed—we can get a sense of the amazing task that migrants perform.  Even those who appear to be living insular lives in ethnic ghettos are actually taking huge leaps, making immense changes, and learning things they probably had no idea they’d have to master.

I don’t think we have any idea of what it does to the human brain, to the body, to the heart, that so many of us are having these experiences in dramatic, country-changing, language-changing ways, not just once but multiple times in our lives.  People have always moved, but in the past we’ve been limited by the speed and cost of travel as well as by national and cultural borders.  Now that migration is open to, or even forced  upon, more and more of the world’s population, I think it’s a new phase in the evolution of humanity.  This kind of frequent migration is creating, I think, a species-wide cultural shift.  We’re in the middle of it, so we can’t see it very well; it looks fuzzy and gradual to us.  But it’s as huge as, say, the invention of writing.

MEH: The evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright once used a map of the earth at night to illustrate how globally connected we all are – the map showed light sources evidently indicating telecommunication pathways.  He saw in this map evidence that people have more in common than they have differences, or that at any rate there’s a strong impulse towards cooperation.  But the great emigrations have always been instigated by poverty, war… Do you see any equilibrium in all this?

MH: Interconnection and interdependence are indisputable facts.  There’s a market theory of migration which says that people will migrate according to some kind of economic and social cost-benefit analysis, until the trend reaches a point of equilibrium, when they will be pushed in  some other direction.  There’s some validity to that. For example, we saw a great deal of migration into the United States from India during the  Silicon Valley boom years. Then 9/11 happened, launching a wave of hate crimes against South Asian Americans, and that coincided more or less with the Silicon Valley bust years. It just wasn’t worth it for as many people; the equilibrium had tilted, and Indians decided to seek  opportunities at home or go elsewhere, like Australia—which then started to have its own racist backlash against immigrants, continuing the  cycle.

So yes, certainly we’re connected, and events in one place affect events in another.  But it would be naïve to believe that just because we breathe the same molecules or access data waves from the same satellites, we have produced some kind of equality or democracy.

As far as I can tell, people have as much in common as they choose to have in common.  If we’re determined to go to war because you say to-may-to and I say to-mah-to (and Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones has an amazing description of just this sort of thing between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), then it doesn’t matter how much we have in common.  And conversely, if people are determined to step over the bodies of others lying in the street because they are of different class or caste status, then it doesn’t matter if they have nationality, city of birth,  gender, sexual proclivity, or even their first and last name in common.

By the same token, and more hopefully, equilibrium is a choice. Buddhist teachers speak of equanimity, a cultivated state of mind in which one  can remain peaceful and more or less unshaken, whatever happens.  Maybe we can think of equilibrium as that kind of equanimity writ large.

If I believe we’re equal, if I strive in my every action and policy to treat you as an equal, even if you’ve come from a different place than me on  every map we can devise, then perhaps we can find some equilibrium.  Perhaps.

MEH: I have heard you draw parallels between the language around immigration issues today and those of eras we consider far more recidivist.
What would be a healthy immigration policy, in your view?

MH: I’m a poet, not a policy wonk, and as Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not only dream and vision… It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears.” When the Arizona bill passed in May, there was an outpouring of poetry and so I made an offering as well.

I’m intrigued by your word “healthy,” which is an interesting way to approach immigration policy.  To extend the metaphor, we can create a state of health only by first arriving an accurate diagnosis of the illness.  And we don’t have that diagnosis.

It’s difficult for me to take seriously the assumptions from which every current discussion of U.S. immigration policy proceeds. The very existence of nation-states, of borders that can or should be enforced—all these seem to me fictions.  Powerful ones, for sure, but I don’t know why we must take them so very seriously and behave as if we must defend them at all odds.

And the contradictions in every position also puzzle me.  If you really do believe in the free market, free trade, and all that, why not let people go where they will, where there is need and demand for their skills?  Instead we now have fake free trade, where capital is allowed to move across borders, but people aren’t.  People in poor countries from which capital is being sucked out by Western multinational companies have to risk their lives to get to the Western nations where their money has already gone, so that they can work terrible unhealthy jobs that the citizens of those countries don’t want to do, to try to get a little of that money back and send it home to their children and elders via remittances.

Does this system really make any sense to anyone?

Almost every suburb in the United States is filled with domestic workers, gardeners, and construction day workers who come from somewhere else “illegally.”  Almost every strawberry or leaf of lettuce relies on this economy that is not supposed to exist, that we claim we don’t want yet somehow just can’t seem to get rid of.

And at the same time we’re exporting a Hollywood vision of America, a steady stream of propaganda that advertises a life of luxury that isn’t even accessible to many people who work 40 hours a week in this country.  America is like that stereotypically beautiful cruel blonde who wants everybody to want her, just so that she can reject them.

I suppose a healthy immigration policy would begin by acknowledging how many fictions are involved in our current perceptions, and acknowledging that our so-called immigration problem is not really the disease. It’s one symptom of the much larger disease of corporate globalization.

A healthy policy might also begin by acknowledging that this is a nation of illegal immigrants, that all of the land we call the United States of  America has been stolen or claimed by violence or trickery from other peoples, and that as the most prosperous nation in the world, we might consider being a little more generous with our borders, and a little less generous in exporting our soldiers and our weapons.

And a healthy immigration policy would have as its end goal an open-door, welcoming policy.  We’d look at what steps we need to take toward  that, and come up with a phased plan that is consistent with a responsible (not “free”) international trade policy, and that is aimed at inviting  people in, transitioning them into healthy work as part of healthy communities, rather than keeping them out with weapons and barbed wire.

I suppose that makes me, in the words of Fox News, an “open-borders extremist.” I think it’s actually inevitable.  Our borders are and have  always been open, permeable, because they are fictions.  Grasses, oil spills, coyotes, environmental changes have no respect for little white lines on a piece of paper.  All empires rise and fall, so why do we believe the American empire is immune to history? One way or another, sooner or  later, borders will collapse.  We can choose to acknowledge and plan for that and create graceful transitions, in a phased way that does not create radical suffering on either side of the so-called borders.

Or we can continue to cling to our fictions.

MEH: What are you working on now?

MH: I’m about to travel to India as a Fulbright Senior Scholar for nine months, to research a novel. And I’m seeking a publisher for my poetry
collection, Unicorns & Fabulists.

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