As I grew into adolescence and beyond, however, my writing shrank in what seemed to be an inverse proportion to my years…. I convinced myself that creative writers were other people, not me, so that what I loved at seven became, by seventeen, the form of self-expression that most intimidated me.... My insecurity was systemic, and preëmptive, insuring that, before anyone else had the opportunity, I had already rejected myself.
-Jhumpa Lahiri, “Trading Stories,” The New Yorker, June 13, 2011
Jhumpa Lahiri was the first person to remind me of my Indian heritage, a root system that had been transplanted to the United States, but that was still mine, even if I could only sift through it in English.
It was 2000, my first semester in graduate school, at an MFA program near the eastern end of Long Island. If you found the right window and stood on your tippy-toes, you could see the ocean. The fiction professor was an Indian woman I'll call Lakshmi—in her forties, two published novels, single. We had some extra time one afternoon before class ended, so she picked up a book on the nearest student's desk, flipped to a page, and read aloud from Interpreter of Maladies, its last story, “The Third and Final Continent.”
As Lakshmi read, flashbacks from my own multicultural childhood assaulted me. I had to find my breath. Aside from having had introduced some college friends to a nearby Indian restaurant, it had not occurred to me until that day in the classroom that I, too, had a story to tell. But mine would be different. I had not yet seen India, but I was Indian nonetheless.
Lakshmi finished the paragraph and dismissed class by saying, “That was serendipitous.” I left class knowing my next piece would not outrightly be about my faith, by which I felt wholly identified, but about myself, my experience. What emerged was “The Henna Rinse Factor,” a story about an Indian woman, a French and Russian language interpreter, who must confront her secret history of sexual abuse. My favorite line from the story is a description of a box of henna: “On the label there is a woman dancing.” Ultimately, the story is about Sabina, the protagonist, accepting that to heal, she must be reconciled to her past, to herself. Only then will there be freedom. I've wanted to dance for so long but, for so long, I have not danced.
Some of my classmates from that fiction workshop pulled me aside after class and asked me if I was doing okay: “Lakshmi is so mean to you.”
I looked at them, astonished. I hadn't noticed her treatment of me as being abnormal; women had been treating me as such for years. I hadn't grown resilient. I was naive.
Two years later, after I had graduated and before Lakshmi left for a new teaching post out West, she called me at home. She wanted to apologize for her behavior toward me during the fiction workshop. “I had such an opportunity to work with a fellow Indian woman, and I blew it. I'm so sorry.” I forgave her instantly, as I was wont to do. In the years to follow, women from my past emerged—largely through the wonder of social networking sites—to follow in Lakshmi's steps. They asked forgiveness for treating me unfairly, for abandoning me, for ridiculing me with or without my being present.
Forgiving them was not difficult. But I was still left with myself, the one person who I felt did not deserve recognition, nor love, nor forgiveness. The rejections came easily because they validated what I already believed about myself: I was worth nothing.
After these apologies, after therapy to overcome my childhood, after my alcoholic parent gave up the drink, my emotional instability grew, and my once-reticent insecurities amplified. I allowed more unsafe women to dictate my future. One called me crazy; another grew impatient when I shared of myself. They wanted me to shut-up, to make a point already. Others ignored me. By then I was married to a man who had become my truest friend: Greg was honest and forthright. I couldn't believe he had married me. After having been married for a year, it became clear that I would never be worthy of his affection. To protect myself, I distanced even from him.
When our first daughter Ariel was born shortly thereafter, I saw the unacceptability of her viewing herself as I viewed myself. Yet I was her teacher. Even in what I did not admit aloud, she would perceive. A woman's most tragic flaw is her ability to aggrandize her imperfections while diminishing her abilities.
I went before my God and asked Him to heal me of the torment of self-rejection. The following week, through a series of circumstances fit for a different essay, my marriage nearly ended.
Ironically, in the year since experiencing the deepest of rejections, I've realized that I don’t reject myself anymore. Somehow I’ve begun to understand, if not specifically, my purpose; everyone doesn't have to love me for me to be accepted by God. In fact, even if I were to stand alone, I would still be loved and accepted by Him. In all my years as a Christian, it was as if the message of my ugliness, my emotional fallibility, my lack of intellect or skill, was repeated ad nauseam by family, friends, even church members. Faithful friends and Greg found it astonishing how so many people went out of their way to lambaste me and my character. After a while, I believed it. And although I still struggle with making new friends, especially women, I know my worth. I know that I wasn't created to be spat on, but even if people choose to spit, I’ll be okay. This shapes how I want to rear my girls; I want them to be stalwart, able to keep criticism and insult in right relationship to reality.
In the past year, there also has been a restoration of Greg's and my relationship, even our friendship. This rebirth culminated in his writing me a song cycle for our anniversary last December. There’s a verse from it—Song of Solomon 2:10b-11—which has resonated with me for years, and when Greg sang it to me, he wept:
“Arise, my love, make haste, my dove,
my beautiful one, and come.
For winter is now past;
the rain is over and gone.”
Not only do I hear my husband speaking to me through this scripture, but I also hear my God.
I wrote in my last entry that my life was nearly lost because I spent most of 2010 wishing I were dead, even pleading with God to take my life. But Ariel kept me here. Then Eva in my womb needed me to protect her. So I stayed. Even though I’m not entirely sure what our future will look like, I take comfort in knowing that I’ve already been able to speak into the lives of women who have gone through similar situations as I have.
I now love in a way that does not fear. I especially do not mind if the love is not returned. I am abandoned to what I know to be true: my God heals. This same Jesus has given me a family that may not be perfect, but it’s mine to nurture, to shape, and to protect. I want to live to see my marriage flourish—as it is beginning to do (!)—to see my daughters abide by an openness to love in everything they do and toward everyone they meet. I anticipate the next thirty years will redeem all that was lost during the last thirty.