Mimi Mondal’s essay is the first installment in a special series featuring New York Foundation of the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program fellows discussing their relationship with language. You can read an excerpt of Mimi’s fiction here.
[Written on October 28, 2017, in the aftermath of extensive social-media attacks on Dalit activists following a controversial list of sexual harassers in the Indian academic world compiled by a female Dalit activist.]
I started composing this article in early October with a very different plan in mind. It was going to be about the rhetoric of multilingualism and translation, and there is enough to write on those topics from a purely intellectual distance. I have spent most of my life at universities, a meticulous introvert lurking in liberal-arts departments, acquainted with fewer people than books. I live in New York—almost the opposite end of the world from where I grew up and the subjects I primarily write about. Intellectual distance is my deal.
But tonight, I write while in the midst of an online campaign targeting me and others who share my definition. Men I do not know are calling my existence into question, calling me an attention seeker and worse words that do not belong in Words Without Borders, calling my family violent expletives, privately messaging me on Twitter with threats of rape and murder. Any article I write tonight will not be the same one I would’ve written before, as perhaps I am not the same person.
I am from India. I am a Dalit. Most of my friends in the United States do not know what that means. Most of my friends in India—a long list of friends that has been steadily depleted over the past three or four years—know the word but refuse to acknowledge its meaning or the centuries of discrimination that turns subtle and invisible once a family rises to an acceptable level of affluence and cultural mobility but never completely goes away. I write tonight about my stories and my language but also about my life as a Dalit woman, for none of my contexts will ever be complete without that.
I write tonight about my stories and my language but also about my life as a Dalit woman, for none of my contexts will ever be complete without that.
I was born in Calcutta, India in the late 1980s—in a relatively liberal city in a country that is largely not so; in a relatively safe, middle-class home, in a country that is largely not so. (These were not things I knew as a child.) The first language and script I learned at home was Bengali. In his enthusiasm my father went on to try to teach me Sanskrit, and I remember five-year-old me vehemently rejecting that. There were no children’s books in Sanskrit. The sentences were all austere and sanctimonious, the grind of the words too harsh against baby teeth. Besides, my parents had put me in an English-medium school, and I wanted to be like the other children, my head filled with joy and light and Disney cartoons on the Sunday television.
English is the language in which I write today, and my focus is speculative fiction. English is the language that saved my life, although I studied Bengali extensively—grammar, etymology, cultures, regional variations. I never managed to pick up Sanskrit, but I did subsequently learn Hindi; Old English; vestiges of Tamil, Urdu, and Latin; and smatterings of Spanish, German, and French (like every other good Indian liberal-arts intellectual). English is my first language, although that itself is a problematic term for a bilingual immigrant like me. It is not the language I speak at home. It’s a language my parents speak only cursorily, not the one they choose when they informally converse. But I have not lived at my parents’ home in Calcutta for more than five years, and with the current political situation in India, I don’t know if I ever will. The only time I do not speak English anymore is when I am on a long-distance international phone call. On some days, those are the only times I vocalize at all. What is home, and how do you officially categorize the language your heart speaks?
English saved my life. That is not a fashionable thing to say in the postcolonial liberal-arts circles of India, where I spent too many years of my youth. I studied at an elite English department in India, where I also read texts in Bengali and other Indian languages, and the best students were those who proudly reclaimed their Indian heritage, above and beyond the imposed Anglophilia of centuries of colonization. But in the postcolonial liberal-arts circles of India, it is also not fashionable to be Dalit. It is not fashionable to mention that the English fluency that grants one admission to those hallowed circles at all, only after which one starts learning postcolonial discourse, cannot be taken for granted in every household. Those are not the households our postcolonial scholars come from. No wonder they cannot hear the subaltern speak, since they shut the door on the subaltern before they started the lecture.
Instead, I grew up obstinately English-speaking, for that was my way to assert to my school friends that I was on their level. (People with the last name Mondal don’t automatically get to be on that level.) I studied Indian culture and history in depth too, but what really conferred respectability on me throughout my teenage years was my unabashed Westernness—my fake American accent, my eyebrow piercing and black clothes worn doggedly through the viscous summers of Calcutta, identifiers of the punk/goth culture that I imbibed from the Internet. Punk culture gave me the freedom to be angry and weird, characteristics that I hadn’t chosen for myself, perhaps characteristics not best suited to my personality, but to survive as an educated urban Dalit in India is to be given a very narrow range of expression. You could be servile and apologetic for taking up space, for inserting your ugly, uncouth, ahistorical self into painstakingly curated spaces not meant for your kind—and I have, in turn, been those too—or you could be punk, if you had the opportunity and access.
All my life I have dreamed of being other people, other things. An alien, a monster, a superhero, a spy—anything to pass as something other than my body, my name; to exist as a free-form intellectual consciousness, unhindered by context or the scorn of an entire country that did not even know me and that often refused to even give me a chance to introduce myself because I didn’t have the correct last name. I am working at my third master’s degree in a third country, but I will never be equal to—let alone surpass—a friend who is the third-generation professor in her family. I have prestigious scholarships to my name, but someone will always “wonder aloud” to my face if they were obtained by pure merit or because of a charity endowment. So I opted to be a superhero instead.
I opted to be a storyteller. I write the stories that I could not have written for a PhD dissertation, for there isn’t enough existing work to annotate them, no long list of secondary reading, and the pitfalls of conducting substantial primary research are too heavy for one’s mental health or even physical safety. I am too unwieldy for peer review. I am too cowardly to collect data at burned-down villages or sites of lynching; I cannot stomach watching people die, or interviewing blank-eyed survivors who have outlived the ones they loved—that is not the kind of life my safe, urban upbringing prepared me for. Writing from within the refuge of four walls is the best I can do. If you think the story of my life and my people is false, you can put me in the fiction section. I don’t mind.
It is not fashionable to mention that the English fluency that grants one admission to those hallowed circles . . . cannot be taken for granted in every household. Those are not the households our postcolonial scholars come from.
There is a dark part of me that my friends in the American speculative-fiction community will never fully know. Beneath the silver hair and sass and fandom glee, an open festering wound that is still constantly made to bleed; nightmares for which there are no narratives. They jolt me awake in the middle of the night, so I put on a TV show on Netflix and wait for day to break.
For the editors who work with me, I am a notoriously slow writer. To write a story I need to do months of research, and I take weeks to recuperate afterward. Writing fantasy in English isn’t that difficult—I could clock 5,000 words a day when I was writing white characters in Western settings—but the struggle is in the fact that I am writing against the grain of the narratives that exist. I approximate in English the speech of characters who are not speaking English in their original context, molding the words to accommodate the foreignness of syntax and expression, not to mention the entirely different worldview. I try to describe settings and locations that I know personally but have not known in English, searching for the words that would express them most closely to an English-speaking reader. Some of those stories resonate with the editors; others come across as too awkward and lacking in context, and I have to rework them to make them palatable. Nevertheless, no one has yet told me what I can or cannot write, unlike in academia where the possibility of achieving anything substantial seems unsurpassably overwhelmed by “due process.”
In my spare time, I continue to be a superhero. I keep close watch on my people, who, like me, get no narrative from the system, who, for the system, don’t even exist most of the time. Between slipping the mask on and off, I am a piece of fiction. I pass as other things—highly educated, charming, extremely conversant in English—things that no Dalit is allowed to be. Since they did not permit me a story and blocked me from inhabiting theirs, I can be anything I like. Often, that is an almost comforting thought.