‘Third Culture Kids have yet another filter to their perspective’
From The Margins:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “brown” lately, and I thought about it even more while reading your book because you describe being a girl of Bangladeshi descent growing up in Nigeria, and then moving to the U.S., where your allegiances to both South Asia and to Africa had to compete with other parts of your identity. There was no box, as such, for you to put yourself into–not even the box that other South Asian Americans are lassoed into. The confusion of this reality is strikingly rendered in a chapter called “Burning,” in which you describe trying to figure out whether you belonged on the “black side” or the “white side” of your college dining hall, given that your friends in Nigeria were almost all black, but not in the way of the African Americans at your college, and on the other hand, the South Asians you were meeting in college seemed to have a kind of unspoken bond that you couldn’t quite (or didn’t want to) penetrate, not having really grown up in America. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what it meant to be a Third Culture Kid in this way, and how brownness, versus blackness or whiteness, factors into that?
It was a startling thing to me to realize that the African Americans in my college were so different from the Nigerians I had grown up with. As it was, even the Nigerians were a sea change away from me growing up, though at least we had the same geographical and educational context.
The differences between Bangladeshi and Indian immigrants (in the 80s and 90s at least) was also fairly stark. There were religious differences, cultural differences, economic differences, and each of these was a barrier onto itself and taken all together, seemed insurmountable. It took me some time to understand how to relate to the other “browns.” I had to understand how much of my personality was mine or constructed, how much of my life I could reveal to others without fear of repercussion, how to find the resonances that we all have, no matter how different we might be.
It took me even longer to begin to understand the African American experience. Their centuries-long history of oppression in this country is not easy to grasp without reading history and memoir, speaking to people, seeing the different spaces they inhabit.
The Third Culture Kids have yet another filter to their perspective, having grown up in one country, living in another, and ethnically from a third. It doesn’t necessarily make it harder, but it does sometimes limit the contexts you understand at first glance. And not always! I have friends who grew up in Bangladesh but are familiar with many aspects of American pop culture because they got some of the TV channels and programs, whereas because we didn’t have a TV growing up in Nigeria, a lot of that was alien ground for me when coming to the United States.
I’ve found it easier to relate to people; the older I get, the more comfortable I am in my skin. I can admit to my faults and inconsistencies and limitations a little more easily. And I find synchronicities more readily too, and I love that.
It seems that political unrest, and even civil war, featured heavily in your parents’ lives, and in your formative years. From Bangladesh (your mother studied in West Pakistan on the brink of its war with East Pakistan to form Bangladesh), to Libya, where your parents were living when Gaddafi took over, to the memory of the Biafran War looming large during your childhood in Nigeria… Can you talk a bit about how global politics has shaped your life, and about how much the shifting politics of Asia, Africa, and the Americas play a role in what you write?
There are so many great and small historical events that have led to where my family and I are now. My father was born pre-Partition, in British Raj India in 1934, and my mother post-Partition, in East Pakistan in 1948. They both studied in West Pakistan, but moved to Libya after getting married in 1969, just as that country was being taken over by a military coup and General Gaddafi. During their four years in Libya, they were part of the worldwide expatriate efforts to fund and support Bangladesh’s independence movement, which culminated in war and independence in 1971.
I was born two years later in Nigeria, a country still suffering from the aftershocks of the terrible civil war of Biafra. Successive military and civilian governments failed, one after another, plunging Nigerians into poverty, draining its economic promise and political will. We left in 1986, for yet another country that promised much in opportunity and new beginnings, America, and that story is still being written (and rewritten).
Given all that, perhaps it’s inane to say that I don’t think of political movements actively when I write. I am drawn to the personal story, and of course the personal is deeply political, and certainly the wider arcs of history cut clean through to the heart. But that’s my preferred angle. I’ll start from the inside, an immediate emotion, the center of an unwillingness, a gesture, and maybe eventually, I’ll get to the geopolitics and farther, but you’ll know who and what, far before how and why.
As a Bangali sister, I have to ask you about the role that Bangla as a language plays in your life. With whom do you speak it, and do you speak any other languages? Both French and Igbo make appearances in the book. How did you find those languages making their presence known in your writing in English? I sometimes find that all the languages I speak flow out of me when I’m writing, and I’ll come up with a sentence with phrases of three different languages in it. Does this happen to you, and how conscious were you of these choices while writing Olive Witch?
I wish I had that kind of facility with my second languages! My Bangla is good enough for conversation but not enough to read or write. I’ve forgotten my French to the point of not following conversations at all. And my Igbo was never good enough to speak it confidently, and so it vanished when I was no longer surrounded by it. Arabic is another language that figures in my linguistic history because of my family’s Muslim heritage and years of memorizing surahs and going to Islamic School.
All of these come into my writing in some fashion, more likely in cultural contexts than linguistic. When I do use non-English words in my writing, I prefer not to explain or even italicize them. It feels like an othering of that language and so I’d rather the reader figure it out by context or be ok with not knowing exactly what was said. Both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (in Half of a Yellow Sun) and Junot Diaz (in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) use Igbo and Spanish (respectively) in their books without explanation or glossary, and I love that. It centers their bilingual experience and cross-pollinated geographies, rather than the Western/English hegemony.
If I could gear up the will and courage to learn to read Bangla or Spanish language literature, I know it would affect my English in profound ways. One of these days.