When Neesha Meminger and Ibi Zoboi approached to ask if we were interested in hosting an interview about race, feminism, and more on Tiger Beatdown, we were delighted. The following discussion, curated entirely by the two women, covers a host of intersectional issues, and we’re honoured to have an opportunity to include it here.
Q. when did you first learn about feminism? did you ever embrace the term, or did you struggle with it?
Ibi Zoboi: I embraced “women’s studies” in college before I fully understood the idea of feminism. And women’s studies was within the context of literature—19th century women’s literature. The Bronte sisters, Kate Chopin, Dickinson, a wee bit of Phyllis Wheatley, and the one speech by Sojourner Truth sprinkled in there. This is where those conversations began for me. The idea of women’s rights was easy to extract and identify within the visibly patriarchical and colonial framework of the 19th century. And race was relative to slavery and white women. It was all a long time ago. And we all agreed that the 19th century was a terrible time to be a woman, much less a published woman. First-wave feminism was easy to dissect and understand.
Second-wave feminism was introduced to me right along with the Civil Rights & Black Arts Movements. That was easy as well. Black folks’ struggle took precedence in my mind. Though, I could now contextualize my understanding of first-wave feminism in relation to the African-American experience. Whatever issues Edna Pontellier, Kate Chopin’s character in The Awakening, was having around marriage, mothering, and freedom were a “white” problem. Within this context, I do not wholeheartedly claim feminism. Womanism, yes. Because womanism encompasses all the experiences of women of color, black women in particular. Any ideology that does not compartmentalize oppression is beneficial in understanding the plight of black women in this society.
If feminism brings into question the right for women to breastfeed or stay home with their children, or have children out of wedlock, black women in general have to negotiate a whole set of circumstances in order to even begin thinking about these choices. If we want to discuss equal pay for women in the workplace, why not bring up basic living wages for women of color in service sector jobs? And this small battle affects our families—our children, communities, and men.
Neesha Meminger: For most of my life I hadn’t heard of a feminist movement, to be honest. I still, to this day, don’t know some of the “big names” in the earlier waves of the western feminist movement and I haven’t read many of the well-known texts. When I came into a sense of political awareness, it was among active, political, creative women of color fighting for change—both in their own communities, as well as within the larger world of racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, etc.
I embraced the term “feminist” whole-heartedly and enthusiastically because to me, feminists looked like me – they were June Jordan, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Jean Shinoda-Bolen, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Maxine Hong Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Pratibha Parmar and many, many others. One of the first books I remember being handed was All The Women Are White, All The Men Are Black, But Some Of Us Are Brave, by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith. So it was really a no-brainer for me to slip seamlessly (and blissfully) among these active, vocal, smart-smart women. I only realized much later (in my thirties) that this wasn’t how all women are introduced to feminism.
Q. i’ve been asked in the past if i’m brown first, or a feminist first. have you ever been asked that? what was your response, if so? if not, how would you answer that question?
Ibi Zoboi: I always root for the underdog first, as a way to dismantle hierarchical social structures as a whole. I am black first. I absolutely had to identify as a black person in this culture. If I grew up in Haiti, where I was born, I’m sure I would first claim womanhood where racial inequality is not as prevalent (however, there’s colorism and cultural allegiance—French or African). It’s all relative for me. By aligning myself with a certain cultural worldview, the ideas of feminism and patriarchy don’t have the same meaning. Patriarchy is at the very core of western ideology and feminism is a result of this. Would a culture that is founded on the ideas of matriarchy and the feminine as the divine birth a feminist movement?
Neesha Meminger: I agree—I’m definitely a root-for-the-underdog gal. It’s what I identify with. My experience was slightly different in that the battle for self-realization began at home. The disappointment of women who gave birth to girl after girl was a constant presence when I was growing up. The mothers around me, of cousins and friends, were desperate to have boy children, especially if they already had one or more girls. I was told I was a “luck” child because a boy was born after me. My mother got off okay because she was the mother of sons, but I remember, vividly, the torment of women who could not bear boy children. I remember the tears these women cried on my mother’s shoulder, their self-hatred, the sometimes extreme conditions they faced with their in-laws. It’s something that has seeped so deeply into my bones – the crying of these mothers, or soon-to-be mothers, and their heart-wrenching desperation. My mother going to console women after they’d had their second, third, fourth, or whatever number daughter, is something that lodged itself pretty deep into my psyche. It had a profound impact on my worldview.
The impact of the battle over control of my own body was no less profound. I was not allowed to cut my hair because it was against our religion. However, it seemed our religion only applied to me and my mother as my brothers and father and uncles all had shorn hair. What I wore, who I spoke to, where I spent my time—all were strictly monitored and controlled. I could not wear jeans that were too tight, shorts of any length, skirts or dresses, yet my brother wore what he pleased without so much as a passing glance. He was also enrolled in martial arts classes because he needed to learn to defend himself. No such classes were necessary for me because I would be protected by someone else. I was a smart girl, but that mattered less than my looks and the fact that I was not light-skinned, which would make me a harder sell on the marriage market.
So, before I even left the house each day, I was waging massive battles for control over my body and psyche. Because of this, I’ve always considered myself a feminist first. When I was born, the disappointment was that I was a girl, not anything else.
Your question, “Would a culture that is founded on the ideas of matriarchy and the feminine as the divine birth a feminist movement?” stopped me short because it’s so true. I thought of the last book I wrote and the fact that I wanted to include an ancient Indian civilization that was based entirely on a belief in the feminine divine, and how there would be no need for a feminist movement there. And yet, the India of today, even with its many goddesses and female deities (many which have been appropriated by mainstream feminism, incidentally), is deeply patriarchal and systemically misogynistic. I would argue that patriarchy is at the core of just about every culture, globally, at this point. Even if the world’s ancient, indigenous cultures were matriarchal and revered a feminine divine, much of that has been erased, violently destroyed through colonialism and imperialism, or lost and forgotten. I have faith, though, that it’s still there, in the deepest part of our cellular memory. It’s about to make a comeback…I can totally feel it.
Q. as a black feminist (if you embrace the term “feminist”), where do you see the role of men of color in the struggle for change? in what ways are men allies and in what ways can they work with women of color in the struggle for our rights?
Ibi Zoboi: I don’t embrace the term “feminist”. My struggle is preserving my right to a sound, cohesive, healthy family. The success of my family takes precedence. And this does not necessarily mean preserving my heteronormal marriage. And I am not adhering to the western idea of a nuclear, insulated and isolated unit where we’re left to our own devices to fend for ourselves. I married a black man. He is my spiritual partner. We are business partners. His income is my income and vice-versa. We have children and our main goal is providing for them a solid economic and spiritual foundation. Included in our family are in-laws, relatives abroad, half-siblings, very close friends—our proverbial village. And within this village, do you know what is lacking the most? Grandfathers. Strong, robust, financially secure patriarchs. Not even a feeble but deeply wise one. A head-of-family. A breadwinner who has lived past a certain age and could look out over his family and see the fruits of his labor so to speak.
This, of course, is not the kind of the thing that’s brought up in a discussion about feminism. Because, ultimately, women of color are not competing with men of color for high paying jobs. We are outliving and have outsmarted our brothers. For a number of reasons, women of color are both the breadwinners and caretakers of their families. But rarely do we talk about a movement for men of color, and if we do, it’s usually within the context of crises—an unwarranted murder, the disparaging population of the prison industrial complex, the rights of fathers within the family court system.
It’s hard to have these conversations within a patriarchal framework and within the confines of feminism. There’s misogyny and the religious subjugation of women. There are cultural norms that preserve uber masculinity even in the face of racism—the unemployed father who feels that he must preserve his honor in order to be seen as valuable to his family. Domestic violence, rape, sex trafficking all need to be discussed at the same table. Women are battling these issues and the men are the perpetrators. How then can we come together to dismantle the effects of white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy to begin to heal our communities? It’s about truly realizing that there is a cause and effect. And this does not mean placing blame on any one group or one event in history. This means acknowledging that there was once a holistic way of coexisting. We were all born of two entities and this is how it’s been since time immemorial. A fundamental understanding of indigenous societies lets us know that harmonious relationships were essential for the survival of the group. There were roles (not always gender-based) and expectations that ensured the prolonged sanctity of the extended family unit first, then the village. This was taken from us. This very holistic approach to life was broken and taken apart.
So, men of color need to understand that a womanist movement is ensuring their own survival. A movement that takes their well-being into consideration, that challenges their misogynist ideas; that preserves their right to provide for and be committed to their families, love whomever they choose with honesty and integrity, and live to a ripe old age. And these are all intrinsically in line with my own struggle for some of these same goals.
Neesha Meminger: This is a tough question for me. When I was growing up, the men of color around me were either younger, so I was in charge of taking care of their needs, or they were older than me and were controlling and repressive. There were a rare few men of color around who treated me as an equal, or as a valuable and precious human being, without exerting their power and/or privilege over me as a brown girl. However, I still believe men of color are important allies in the struggle for equal rights for women of color, just as white women are important allies in the struggles of women of color against racism. I always bring things back to the personal to make sense of them, and in this case I think of what I would have wanted from my father, uncles, grandfathers, brothers.
I would have wanted them to speak up and out on my behalf and the behalf of the women in their lives. I would have wanted them to stand up for me, to stand beside me when I was speaking my truth. My father was always silent when my mother spoke out. If he had been behind her, he would have lent his power to her voice. I want my brothers to challenge the men around them, to hold them accountable when they’re (whether consciously or unconsciously) harassing women and girls. I want them to, at the very least, be aware of the struggle of women and that it is a very real life and death struggle, not just some theory and rhetoric. I want them to listen. And I want them to heal and do their own work so that they can fully be there to support me in mine.
One of the things I really love seeing lately is all the male-to-male education going on around violence against women. I would love to see work like this coming from men-of-color with regards to women of color. The rapper, Nas, recently released a song called “Daughters” that is in line with this, but it’s baby steps. I would love to see something more radical; to see men of color step up and speak up against the misogyny that is rampant everywhere, in our homes and in our communities. I would love for my brothers (blood and otherwise) to challenge their own assumptions of what power is – whether being powerful means to have power over another, or to share power with another. Sharing power and privilege is key to understanding intersectionality. The idea that none of us is free until ALL of us are free is a radical concept to truly infuse into our understanding of oppression. But without this core understanding, we’re not going to get very far at all.
Q. similarly, in what ways can white feminists work as allies in our struggle for equal voice and representation?
Ibi Zoboi: This is such a layered and complex question. Yes, white women can work as allies with women of color, however, on some fronts and not on others. Reproductive rights, for example, affect all women, but socio-economic status, race, the neighborhood, city, and state we live in all determines how this battle is fought.
There’s this whole breastfeeding campaign with ads I’m seeing all over New York City. And the women in these ads are either black or latina. What is it about our communities, the lives of women of color, that warrants advertisers telling us to breastfeed our babies? There was a point in history when we were told not to breastfeed our babies, infant formulas were best. Most recently, Time Magazine featured a white woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son. Sure, this sparked a debate and gave journalists fuel that launched the ever so divisive discussion on whether we’re “mom enough”.
How do these conversations translate for women of color, working class women, low-income women who have very little choices in how they support their families? What about the politics of help? How can a wealthy white mother be an ally with her nanny in her struggle for basic mothering rights? The right for a mother to spend adequate time with her newborn to nurse and bond. The right to be able to live in a decent neighborhood so our children have access to good schools, or rather, the right to have decent schools in our neighborhoods in the first place. And this ties into having time to volunteer and be present at our children’s schools. The right to read to our children at night, take them to the park, museums, and immerse them in culture.
Part of the feminist struggle is equal wages for women. Has there ever been a study on how much black women make compared to white women? Economics is intricately tied to the struggle for justice and equality across the intersections of race and feminism. The ability for a woman to take care of herself and her family gives her freedom and leverage to navigate the rocky terrain of her circumstances. This reminds me of the Audre Lorde quote: “Caring for myself is not indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Being allies means that women in power are economically invested in the well-being of all women. It does not mean that a privileged woman simply creates a business out of “helping” marginalized women and their children, or to “save” poor women from themselves. What does it mean for a woman who’s had access to quality education and wealth to build her career complete with a cushy salary and health benefits around the poverty and oppression of other women? Is there a truly healing process where that woman, whether she’s a victim of domestic violence or drug abuse, is empowered to heal her own community and in turn create jobs where she has that same cushy salary and benefits? That’s not what I’ve seen happen with some feminist orgs and non-profits where white women are in positions of power as board members and funders and the communities they serve are women of color—single mothers, women who are paid minimum wages in factories or the service industries. These women are given just enough so that they are continually dependent on this help.
One form of help, though, I find valuable and meaningful are micro-lending programs and educational grants. These allow women to help themselves—the proverbial teach a woman how to fish.
Being allies means supporting us at a safe distance. Allowing us the time, space, and money to heal ourselves, take care of ourselves, and preserve our families and communities. Some of our battles are the same, but for others, we need specific weapons. Part of the struggle for women of color is dismantling white supremacy. If feminism does not challenge hierarchy and white female privilege in general, there cannot be a unified front.
Neesha Meminger: This question brings me to WisCon, the annual feminist science-fiction and fantasy convention in Wisconsin. This year was my third year there and I truly love the hard-won space. I feel completely at home in feminist spaces and this is no different. Except that it is. It’s very different from the feminism that I came out in. While there have been great strides in the presence of people of color at the conference (through the tireless efforts of a handful of attendees who initially spoke up and organized and kept pushing for change), the percentage is still small, overall, and there is still great work to be done. At the same time, discussions about power imbalances and justice and equal rights can take place in feminist spaces. Feminism is about representation and the battle for control over bodies and psychologies, so it’s not such a huge stretch then (one would think) to inject the same awareness into issues of race and class and sexuality and other intersections where power and privilege play huge roles in the rights of marginalized peoples.
In a landscape where the mere mention of race puts people on edge, spaces where conversations about power and privilege can take place at all is where the hope is. In my daily life, the understanding of race is below a 101 level. Maybe that’s because I don’t surround myself with the right people, but I don’t think so. In this “post-racial” Obama world, the person who brings up race is still seen as the problem – the instigator, or trouble-maker.
Here’s a brilliant quote from an article by Teju Cole in The Atlantic. He was writing in response to the Kony 2012 video, but these words, specifically, have stuck with me:
People of color, women, and gays—who now have greater access to the centers of influence [than] ever before—are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
This rang so true for me on so many levels. I tend to be the one that is always bringing up imbalance of power – whether it relates to class, gender, race, sexuality, disability, age, whatever. And, often, the comments I make seem quite tame to me, but are seen as unduly provocative—radical, even, within the context of sanitized speech. For instance, at one WisCon, a woman on a panel I was moderating decided to use a racial slur to explain a point. A woman at whom such a slur might historically have been directed sat to her left. That woman winced and I caught the entire moment in slow-mo. I stopped the panel right then and there and asked that everyone in the room refrain from using any sort of slur to illustrate a point. I explained that all slurs, but within the context of that panel – racial slurs, in particular – have a history of violence and brutality, humiliation and shame behind them. That using such slurs can create an unsafe space for people who’ve been on the receiving end of said slurs and that is counterproductive to what we were trying to do.
The reaction to my interjection, by the woman who said the slur (even though, as she said in defense, she wasn’t using it, she was simply telling us how her father had used the word) was anger. It seems I was policing her language. I had gone overboard in my political correctness, perhaps.
This was in stark contrast to another panel I sat on where all the panelists were white. This time, I was not the moderator and the woman to my right said the ‘N’ word. Just like that. A little bomb detonated right next to me. Though the woman did not direct this word at anyone and did not use it as a slur, it is a LOADED word. I don’t like to use this term very much, but the ‘N’ word is a “trigger” word for so, so many people. I looked to the moderator, to my left, to say something and she did not. She simply kept the discussion moving. And yet, in that moment, all conversation shut down for me. I withdrew within myself and had no more words to offer. And no doubt, there were others in the room who were having a similar experience. Yet there was no awareness at all of how one word—ONE WORD—pulled the rug out from underneath the feet of so many of us in that room.
This year, I saw panels about this use of language – panels along the lines of Who Gets To Use Racial Slurs (I’m paraphrasing—can’t remember the exact wording here), or When Is It Okay For Outsiders To Use Racially Charged Language? I don’t think these panels were a direct outgrowth of the panels I was on, but I thought it interesting to see them. When a man says “bitch” is it different than when a woman says the same word? Why? Because there is a power difference. Because when those who wield power and privilege hurl a slur, there is an entire system behind their words. There is fear. There is domination. There is powerlessness on the part of the one these words are directed at. The same is true with racial words and phrases. The word “paki” can spark a chain reaction of humiliation, shame, fear, and terror for many South Asians. Personally, it takes me right back to the days when people who looked like me were pushed off subway platforms in Toronto, Canada. When temples like the one next door to where we lived were fire-bombed with racist graffiti painted on the walls. Pakis Go Home. The word paki could roll easily off the tongue of someone for whom it means nothing. But for me, it is a “trigger” word. It sends me hurtling back through the years to a place of great pain and terror. This is something all feminists can and should understand. And it’s not that much of a stretch, really.
Q. and, since we’re talking about justice and equal space, what role do you see heterosexual women of color playing in the fight for equal rights for queer people of color? people of color with disabilities?
Ibi Zoboi: Any kind of social movement for me is intrinsically tied to a spiritual movement. We’re not talking about religion here, but that thing that is inside us all that encompasses our humanity. Our belief systems, our values, our desires, our worldview deserve the right to be nurtured and respected in this society.
American culture is still in its infancy stages in terms of mores and traditions and embedded societal norms. We still have to extrapolate meaning from the cultural norms of Indigenous people in order to establish what we consider “right” or “wrong”. What if we all made the decision, pop-culture and the media included, to embrace the idea of Two-Spirited? Native American societies acknowledged the presence of a third gender, where the people who occupied this in-between space were valued in society and had roles in bridging the two sexes. Sobonfu Some, in her book The Spirit of Intimacy refers to the “gatekeepers” of Burkina Faso. This idea of other spaces of being, of identity, of expressing otherness can be found in all corners of the ancient of world. Even in mythology, we have our androgynous deities and our spirit guides who show us that there are multiple ways of expressing the most divine act in the universe. And as women, as mothers, as the caretakers and custodians of culture, we have to uphold what is intrinsically our right to be our most authentic selves. Anything that works against this is a suppression of spirit and this is a destructive force for us all.
The most spiritually uplifting spaces I’ve ever experienced are on the dance floors of the underground house music scene—the overly produced tracks with heavy underlying drum and bass rhythm. Sacred rituals happen here. Folks become truly free and music is the uniting force. We all become indigenous in these spaces, we tap into our humanity, there’s no room for phobias here. This is what we all are struggling for—honest and raw ritual spaces.
Disability and ableism are very new ideas to me in terms of social justice. I tend to think more about the struggles of women of color, mothering, racism, and patriarchy. But I’m seeing more and more mental illness issues in my community. Usually, I think of physical disabilities and chronic and terminal illnesses. What about schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and depression? What are the effects of racism and economic disparity on our physical bodies and our mental and emotional well-being? Again, these are not compartmentalized struggles. These are part of a community’s movement for adequate healthcare. The rights of all people to live balanced, healthy, honest lives.
Neesha Meminger: I love the idea of a sacred third or fourth or fifth gender. I agree that most indigenous societies have/had easy acceptance when it came to sexuality, in general. The policing and suppression of sexuality came later, with misogyny, with a value system that exalted domination, penetration, and conquering. Imperialism, colonialism, and occupation.
And, while I love the underground music scenes, it’s important for me to insert here that those scenes are not always “safe” spaces for queer folk. They may be sexually charged and freeing spaces for people of color, but, time and again, I’ve seen things turn in an instant. Someone is acting “too gay” or “too flaming” and ugly slashes of violence bleed onto the scene. I’ve seen it in the barrio in the Bronx, at South Asian parties, and in “mixed” (queer and hetero) party spaces where weed, alcohol, and music mix. I also can’t forget that in many countries, where the population is predominantly PoC, being gay is still illegal. It is a punishable crime. When LGBTQ people are violated, abused, assaulted, or murdered, the legal system fails them miserably. Just as it often does for PoC in the west, and women everywhere.
There’s a scene in my second novel where the father yells, “There are no gays in India!” That is a direct quote from the conversations that went on at my house when I was younger. I didn’t grow up with any vitriol directed specifically and clearly toward LGBTQ folks, like some of my friends did. In my house it was this GIANT DEAFENING SILENCE around the topic. Queer people did not exist. Period. It wasn’t until I found activists and artists, who also happened to be people of color, that I realized I, too, could be queer! Suddenly, it was an option. It was now on the radar as something that even existed at all. I saw a film by Pratibha Parmar, called Khush, at a festival of South Asian arts and culture in Toronto, and I was absolutely riveted. I had no idea, NONE, that there were South Asians of many sexualities.
All my life I’d had my sexuality controlled and shamed; I’d been told, quite directly, to hide my budding sexuality as a pubescent teen; I was not allowed to even say the word “bra” at home, lest it bring up awkwardness in the presence of my father and uncles. So, to see South Asians expressing their sexuality, in all its myriad forms, on a giant screen, IN PUBLIC, was breathtaking. I was having my own personal revolution in that moment. All kinds of things were exploding and rewiring themselves in my brain.
On the other hand, I recently saw that whole campaign by the One Million Moms – where they were protesting the JC Penney ads? And I thought, “Wow. Why would you couple moms with homophobia?” I feel the same way about blindly conflating people of color with homophobia, something the media seems bent on doing during an election year. It’s a pitting of one oppression, one “ism,” against another. And it benefits only those in power, those who are already privileged. I would love it if there was more awareness – LESS SILENCE – around these issues.
So I don’t want to idealize PoC spaces—because there can definitely be homophobia in those – but I can’t pit the two identities against each other, either. For some of us, it’s like having to cleave our limbs from our bodies.
Likewise, with people of color with disabilities. I agree with you, Ibi – there are a lot, A LOT, of hidden disabilities that never even get recognized as such. Suicide, depression, and chronic fatigue are some of the ways that people in many of my communities suffer in silence and shame. Racism is a kind of daily violence that people of color endure. It’s not always physical, but it takes a tremendous toll on our health. And there’s no way to prove it. The same is true for homophobia. And misogyny. Poverty is another kind of violence. All are disabling on many, many levels. This is not to take away from people with visible disabilities. That is discrimination and ignorance/arrogance at a whole nother level. So much easier to ignore, dismiss, humiliate, ostracize, or disempower someone when their “difference” is obvious.
When I was growing up, the adults in my life were afraid even to speak of disabilities. There would be hushed tones and pitying looks. A disability was considered a defect. In a lot of the Bollywood films I watched, the people with disabilities were conniving and manipulative. Again, it’s a lack of awareness—a complete failure to see others as human beings whose freedom is inextricably tied to your own. That, if they are not seen, treated as equals with the same rights and privileges as you are, you, too, can never take your own privileges and rights for granted.
Q. how did/does class play in to this discussion? you and i are both relatively privileged women of color because we both have access to education. we have degrees and we can obtain mfas and such, but not all women of color have the same access. and yet, you and i have had numerous discussions where we’ve talked about the financial struggles of our families and our own struggles. could you speak to how class works within the discussion of feminism and access?
Neesha Meminger: In Canada, the history of immigration is different than that of the U.S. There, the doors of immigration from South Asia were flung open to “unskilled labor” while the U.S. was part of the “brain drain”—recruiting doctors, scientists and engineers from South Asia. My parents were factory workers. They got shit on by white folks and the Indian doctors, scientists and engineers, ha!
I remember going to a party with a South Indian friend during my first years in the U.S. The party was at an Upper East Side apartment overlooking the river and the friend of my friend had tons of food out. Food that had been made by aunts and grandmothers and other women my mother’s age. I sat down with my friend in a group where there was a discussion in full swing. One of the older women stopped the conversation to ask me where I was from. Reverting immediately to my obedient good-Indian-girl persona, I answered, “I was born in India.” The next part was predictable – which part of India? Punjab. “Ah,” she said. “Are you Hindu, then, or…?” I shook my head. “No, I’m Sikh.” She nodded. “Ah, yes. Many of our servants are Sikhs…” That was a lot of fun – one of those moments I’ll never forget, you know?
Actually, there was a great panel on the intersection of race and class this year at WisCon. I was disappointed that it wasn’t moderated and so ended up meandering and not really getting to the deeper issues it could have, but I think it’s such an important topic. One of the issues brought up was the fact that class is an internal experience—that you never quite get over it. That you always will look at the world through the eyes of the factory workers’ daughter, for example. I have to say this has been true for me, no matter how many degrees I’ve managed to acquire (two). I still have this voice inside my head that says, “You are not good at making money. You are not good at surviving in this world. You will never be ‘successful.’” These are not things anyone ever said to me, so they’re not internalized words I heard others say. These are beliefs I ingested through watching the struggle of my parents, and then through struggling myself. They’ve worn deep grooves into my brain and I’m having a hell of a time rewiring those connections. But the experience of class is as deep in my bones as the experience of being a girl and a woman, and the experience of being a brown girl and woman.
Ibi Zoboi: I don’t think your experiences are that much different from mine, as a Haitian immigrant growing up in New York City. There was a serious brain drain in Haiti as well because of a decades old crippling dictatorship. But poor Haitians were leaving as well for the promise of upward mobility. My mother was single mother and her first jobs were as a hotel maid and home attendant caring for the elderly, until she became a nurse. This is while she learned English and finished college, had two more children, bought a house, and sent me to private school all within the span of her first ten years in this country. What I witnessed first-hand was a dogged work ethic. While my mother came from rural Haiti, she had access to education which allowed her to mingle with wealthier Haitians and determine for herself what was possible. There was a desire for comfort, material things, and status. But it was only as an immigrant that she saw herself obtaining these things.
Yet, there is this ingrained wiring that says you must work hard for what you want. If you don’t have it yet—if you can’t land that job or publish that book or struggle to pay your bills on time, then you must not be working hard enough. This is the working class mentality. My mother is simply a nurse and she is happy. She didn’t go for a Ph.D. or start her own business. She would’ve crossed that dividing line into entrepreneurship—from working hard to working smart. Although she apparently broke barriers, it was still with the mentality of a daughter of a rural farmer.
By choosing to live my life as an artist, I am trying to break away from the path that was laid out for me—education, career, house, car, family, work hard, retire. But, yes, class is internalized. I still have to work hard with the expectation of getting a livable wage as a writer. Write, submit, publish, get paid. The game has changed. And because of I come from a working class immigrant family, I struggle at times to be innovative in my approach to work. I’ve watched people I know who come from families with doctors and expensive degrees seemingly navigate their careers with ease. They speak up more freely and some are comfortable in white spaces. They can write and “not do it for the money” because they’ve internalized the idea of there is enough or there is an opportunity to make more.
There was a panel entitled “Passing Privilege” at WisCon. Passing for white or passing for middle class, etc. Because I’m an artist and well-read and married to another well-read artist, we can brunch and send our children to art and dance lessons, frequent museums, and buy organic—we pass as being able to actually afford all these things. Our lifestyle is a result of constantly trying to break this internalized programming of being working class. If there is such a thing as an artist class—those who make a living out of inconsistent paid work, those who barter or buy second-hand everything, those who enrich their lives with meaningful moments –that would be us.
It’s a conscious decision not to struggle financially. If I let capitalism destroy my spirit and limit my freedom, I’ve let someone else win me over—I’ve sold myself. It all boils down to the energy behind exchange and reciprocity. I determine the value of everything for myself and how it serves my body and my soul. This is a political act. It is a feminist and womanist act.
Born in a rural Punjabi village, Neesha Meminger grew up in Toronto, Canada, and now lives and works in New York City. She has a fascination with ancient history and the stories we’re not told. Neesha’s first novel, SHINE, COCONUT MOON, made the Smithsonian’s list of Notable Books for Children in its debut year and was listed on the New York Public Library’s Stuff for the Teen Age-Top 100 Books for Teens. The book was also nominated for the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults. Her second novel, JAZZ IN LOVE, was picked by the Pennsylvania School Librarians’ Association for their top 40 selections for young adults and was one of Bookslut’s Recommended Summer Read selections. Both SHINE, COCONUT MOON and JAZZ IN LOVE were nominated for the online CYBILS award. INTO THE WISE DARK, Neesha’s third novel, is a feminist time-travel fantasy featuring a multicultural cast of young women who save the world. Her short story sales in the U.K., where no one has ever heard of her, are about 200 times higher than in the U.S. You can find out more about Neesha and her work at www.NeeshaMeminger.com.
Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and her short stories have been anthologized in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, Haiti Noir, and The Caribbean Writer among others. She’s received grants in Literature & Writing from the Brooklyn Arts Council and is the recent winner of the Speculative Literature Foundation Travel Grant. A graduate of the Clarion West and VONA writing workshops, Ibi is a mom of three, married to a woodcarving illustrator, and is a teaching artist in New York City public schools. She’s an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can learn more about her work at www.ibizoboi.com.
Many thanks to Neesha and Ibi for this interview. As is usual with our honoured guests, comments will be moderated tightly, so please, think before you type.