Q&A: Gayatri Sethi, author of “Unbelonging”

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In its bright beginnings Non-membership, Gayatri Sethi skillfully interweaves verses, memoirs and a bold call to action as she recounts her experience finding a home in the Diaspora.

We discuss with Gayatri about his novel Non-membership, as well as writing, book recommendations, and more.

Hi Gayatri! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

I am a diasporic South Asian from Punjab, born in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania and raised in Gaborone, Botswana during apartheid. I now reside in the Atlanta area (the sacred grounds of Muscogee Creek). I am the parent of a multiracial black youth. I used to teach college level courses in Global and Gender Studies. I also speak several languages. I am a first author at almost fifty years old. I see myself as a lifelong learner who is constantly recreating myself.

When did you first discover your love for writing?

My first memory of realizing that I loved to write came with my discovery of reading in seventh grade. My family had moved from Dar es Salaam to Gaborone in the middle of the school year and in some ways my reading comprehension in English was not comparable to that of my peers at the new school. My teacher, Penny Vinen, realized that I have potential. She offered to read packages and write homework which I voraciously absorbed. Soon after, I began to gain confidence in my writing and reading skills. I haven’t looked back since. I owe a debt of thanks to the teachers who cultivated my reading and writing skills. I grew up to be an educator and a book lover thanks to them.

Quick flash tour! Tell us about the first book you remember reading, the one that made you want to be an author and that you can’t stop thinking about!

Things are falling apart by Chinua Achebe. I mentioned this text because I grew up on the African continent, and it was the first text assigned to school by an African writer that I remember reading. Now my son is reading this text for his high school world literature class. This rereading of Achebe feels like a meaningful moment.

Your new young adult non-fiction book, Non-membership, released this month! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?

I invited the early readers of the book to help me answer this question. The words most of them consistently use (which I agree with) are: unapologetic, radical, honest, unexpected, and empowering.

What can readers expect?

A first reader noticed after reading this book that it had taken her on an unexpected journey, but in the end she felt like she was released from an embrace. This book is unusual and aims to challenge genres. Although I have included memory-like elements of my lived experiences, I invite readers to reflect on their own sense of themselves by offering reflective prompts throughout. As an educator, I couldn’t resist including research tips to look for academic terminology that might improve understanding of the content. It is written as a learning and teaching tool for middle school students and their educators. In some ways the book is refreshing and in other ways it is uncomfortable. I challenge readers to rethink how we think about ourselves and about each other. I call on activists and revolutionaries to help us imagine new possibilities for those who experience systemic oppression and marginalization, as I have been.

Where does the inspiration for Non-membership comes from?

Where do you come from? What are you? Where is the house for you? How do you identify yourself?

I have never been able to give short, crisp answers to routine questions about my origins and identities.

I often check “other” on census and demographic forms. Often there are assumptions built into these surveys about a single place of origin or primary identity. I have spent much of my life dancing around these conversations. I even gave courses that invited learners to question the notions of identity and place. As I began to combine my academic understanding with my lived experiences, I wrote in a fluid style like a journal entry. I have been in love with and inspired by poets of color who write for young adults like Nikita Gill, Jasmin Kaur, Zetta Elliott and Mahogany L. Browne. I also researched Punjabic speaking and storytelling practices. My own thoughts, reflections and verses on these themes evolved into what is now a book called Unbelonging.

Can you tell us about the challenges you encountered while writing and how you were able to overcome them?

I was imagining the kind of book I hadn’t come across yet. One of the main challenges when writing this work is that I couldn’t find a mentor text to emulate. Questions about identity and belonging often defy convention. I was trying to convey slippery ideas that challenge the kind of linearity or certainty that writers are asked to put together. I struggled with the form until I realized I could be experimental. I gave myself permission to be creative and try new approaches even though I had never seen work published like this before. I drew on elements of memory, narrative poetry, feminist exercise books and academic non-fiction. I have created a tapestry-like writing style in my book which may be unusual for many readers.

Are there any favorite moments or characters that you really enjoyed writing about or exploring?

It is a non-fiction text for young adults on the themes of identity and belonging with explorations of colonialism, racism and sexism. I rarely answer questions about favorites with certainty. Having said that, I particularly like the unique composition of Unbelonging. If you flip through the book, there is an artistic and multidimensional experience in the book. I worked with Annika Sarin, the book’s designer, to create impressionable ways to put words on the pages. What we have accomplished hopefully invites readers while creating a layered artistic effect. We even include typography in Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu which may be unexpected for some readers unfamiliar with these scripts. A friend, when she first held the book, noticed that the placement of the words on the page made the book feel like an artifact. This is precisely the impression I hoped to create.

What do you hope readers take away Do not belong?

I hope this book moves people while reassuring them. Towards the end of the book, I share what I hope readers will take away:

May other humans grant me the grace and acceptance that I give them.

Let there be space and room for all of us to be humanly human.

Sometimes we read books passively with disconnection. I made some intentional choices, such as including blank pages with journaling prompts, to invite readers to engage with the content. I sincerely hope that readers will interact with this work. If they read with an open heart, there might be a change of mind that occurs. They could learn new terminology, new concepts and ideas. Perhaps they could also reflect on the emotional landscapes of belonging and be moved by the calls to action offered in these pages.

What’s the next step for you?

I hope to continue writing, teaching, and creating anti-racist content for young readers and educators. I dream of collaborating with writers and creatives in the South Asian diaspora to tell new and big stories about ourselves that the world has yet to learn. I’m envisioning a mid-level anthology of expansive stories from the South Asian diaspora.

Finally, do you have any book recommendations for our readers?

I am absolutely delighted to be asked this question. When I’m not reading and writing, I often select reading recommendations from my bookstagram page (@desibookaunty).

See also

There, I share recommendations for readings by minority authors, especially for children and young adults. I’m drawn to non-fiction books with a focus on social justice, verse novels, memoirs, and poetry books, of course.

Four books by South Asian authors that I have repeatedly recommended over the past few days because they pair well with Unbelonging:

If I tell you the truth by Jasmin Kaur: This is a novel in verse for young adults on the themes of immigration, intergenerational trauma and healing at the center of a Punjabi family.

Southward: Essays on Identity, Heritage and Social Change by Anjalii Enjeti: This is a thoughtful collection of essays that I consider required reading for South Asians and Southerners of all ages.

Antiman: a hybrid memory by Rajiv Mohabir: These are the mind-boggling memoirs of an Indian Guyanese immigrant to Florida offering the kinds of nuanced understandings of the diaspora that we need.

Where Hope Comes From: Poems of Resilience, Healing and Light by Nikita Gill: This collection of poetry has been a treasure that I revisit often to brave the current challenges of a global pandemic.


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