Drunk on Ink Q & A with Gayatri Sethi and ‘Unbelonging’, a memoir
Born in Tanzania and raised in Botswana, Gayatri Sethi is of South Asian Punjabi descent, multilingual, and polycultural. She reflects on these lifelong experiences of identity, immigration, and belonging in her debut book titled Unbelonging. When she is not homeschooling or recommending readings as Desi Book Aunty, she travels the globe with her students and family. She is also a co-founder of the Desi KidLit Community and Summit.
Unbelonging (Mango and Marigold Press) explores the migrant narratives of Desi coming of age in multiracial Africa and America. It is a compilation of verse-like reflections about identity, inter-cultural anti-Blackness, social justice, and the South Asian diaspora for young adult readers.
SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? Why?
GAYATRI SETHI: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it as a teen undergoing a very colonial education in Botswana in the 1980’s. This book revealed aspects of Sub-Saharan history and life that I was desperate to understand.
To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?
Sparking water with a hint of lime at the end of long days refreshes me. I begin the day with a bottomless cup of strong coffee with no sugar. As the day wears on, I stay with my mantra: hydration is happiness. I have a complicated relationship to chai, and although I adore tisane and herbal teas, I prefer to enjoy them in company.
A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading? Why?
Audre Lorde’s (1981) “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” is vital reading for me. I revisit it especially on difficult days. I journal about segments of the insights often. It is the kind of bibliotherapy or medicine that I most need. I used to assign it on syllabi when I taught women’s studies courses. The light bulb moments in each rereading are priceless.
Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?
None. I read too many so-called classics both in secondary school O’levels/ A’levels and at a college that still prides itself on a “Great Books” core curriculum. Frankly, I wish I had not pushed through so much western philosophy and classics. They stole the joy of reading from me.
Favorite quote from your book
Mantra for karma reckoning
Internalized oppression is real.
Internalized oppression is really real.
Internalized oppression is really oppressive.
Favorite book to film? And why?
I strongly prefer books to film. I have yet to meet a film version that does justice to the book version.
Favorite Indie Book Store/s?
Firestorm Cooperative in Asheville is a feminist bookstore where one of my former students is a co-owner. They are deeply committed to abolition and justice, and have been very supportive of my book curating work as desi book aunty. Many of my recommendations are offered by them at a discount.
The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?
I wish I had known with conviction how similar publishing is to academia. I suspected as much, but I am now learning how the publishing industrial complex is plagued by the kinds of enduring injustices that caused me to exit academia.
Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?
I am a debut author at age 49. I am not sure any part of this is easy or gets easier. Perhaps, by nurturing supportive and reciprocal connections with like minded writers, we might brave this writing life together?
Dog, Cat, Or?
I am allergic to most pets. We do not have a pet yet, much to the chagrin of beti who was on a daily plea to adopt a ferret when the lockdown began last spring. She is currently trying to convince me that puppy adoption is a good idea. I get puppy pictures texted to me almost daily as part of this campaign.
I dream of a month in Zanzibar, sipping coffee in a beach hammock. I would relish extended sunset strolls along the Indian ocean, close to the lands of my birth and childhood. I have not returned to Tanzania since our family left when I was ten for Botswana. When travel is possible, I long for the means to make this dream trip.
Favorite book cover?
Aside from yours and mine? I met you for the first time through your book’s cover. I was so enthralled by it that I purchased your book right away, and read it cover to cover. This fascination came about before I met you online or in person. I adore shades of blue, peacocks and paisley. I am surprised that these vital elements of desi art are not on my book’s cover. Divya Seshadri, the artist, went with fiery elements and tones to match the contents of the book.
My current favorite songs are protest music connected with the kisaan protests. The Kisaan anthems are giving me so much hope and inspiration. I also play Enjoy Enjaami on repeat these days and relish the sheer beauty and power of the decolonial imagery in the video. I don’t speak Tamil, and yet, everything about this music sings to my soul.
Favorite painting/ work of art?
I am new to appreciating Punjabi art. I grew up without access to museums and galleries, and when I gained this access in the U.S. and France, they were painful reminders of colonial theft of our lands. I have a few favorite artists I visit daily on instagram. I want to buy all the art prints created by Ravina Taroor for my imaginary ideal office/ library. Baljinder Kaur, the illustrator of the picture book Fauja Singh Keeps Going has a keen eye for capturing childhood. Their art brings me so much joy and delight. The kinds of connection their art offers to Punjabi heritage for a diasporic person like me is priceless.
Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?
I adore our local book festival, Decatur Book Fest, and meeting you there in life before virtual festivals was truly a highlight. I hope we can meet up there again one of these days soon.
Do you have a favorite film, or two, or three?
I love Biography documentaries. The standout is James Baldwin’s – “I am Not your Negro.” I had read his words and thought they were fire. They came to life in a very empowering way and the documentary completely captures my heart every time I revisit it.
What is your favorite Austen novel, and film adaptation? Why?
I read Sense and Sensibility repeatedly in secondary school. For inexplicable reasons, it is my favorite Austen novel. In A levels, I read most of them to the point of being able to recall direct quotes for the final exam. I stopped reading European authors and so-called classics about a decade or so ago. I even avoided retellings until I discovered your book (mostly because the blue cover was completely breathtaking). The postcolonial retelling you do of Pride and Prejudice is truly brilliant. I recommend Unmarriageable as exemplary retelling. I am not just saying this because you are interviewing me.
(blush– thank you)
Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?
Mango and Marigold Press took a chance on my unconventional writing. I am unagented and went with a south asian owned press for deliberate reasons. Every member of my book team from illustrator to typeset artist to line editor, is a South Asian woman. This is possible because Mango and Marigold supported me in countless ways to realize my vision for this debut book. Until recently, they only published books for younger readers. Their vision for South Asian storytelling is distinctive.
Last impulse book buy and why?
My last impulse buy was to subscribe to the Haymarket Books monthly book box. I look forward to this delivery with much anticipation each month. The abolitionist work they publish is exactly the kind of content I am striving to learn these days. It is the best investment in book aunty life that I have yet to make.
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