A Message from the Short Indian Girl in the Back Corner
by Ria Parikh
On the standard list of the top 50 books required for high school reading on Goodreads, nine of the authors are women. Four of the 50 authors are of color.
In seventh grade English, I learned what it meant to be writer. Our assignment was to rewrite the ending to the short story “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by T.M. Bilderback. I loved how words created sounds and textures and how they painted such beautiful pictures. Words wove stories and taught us about life. I learned how writing makes us understand our humanity. From that point on, my mission was to master the art of the written word.
In eighth grade, I fell in love with the process of writing. I got on to the Power of the Pen team and spent the year writing terribly. The stories were under-developed, the dialogue was a cringe-fest, and the allotted 40 minutes to write the piece went by like 10. My pieces were hardly ever ranked in the upper half; from the outside, it looked hopeless. I still remember the Monday morning anxiety, knowing that right after school, I would get my piece back, and my face would fall at a rating in the lower half. Sure enough, when our coach handed me my face-down paper every week, my hands shook as I opened up to the second page to see a ranking between eighth and twelfth—out of twelve—staring me in the face. One week, I felt so defeated I went out and sobbed in the bathroom upon receiving my ranking. At that point, most people would have tried something else, but something in me wanted to keep going, and something in me knew I could get better.
As years went on, I took creative writing classes, wrote for the student newspaper, and became the editor of the school’s literary magazine my senior year. The more I wrote, the less each piece of criticism stung and tore me down. Starting sophomore year of high school, I would fill my large, purple, monogrammed mug with black coffee and pull all-nighters with nothing but the computer. I’m usually an impatient person, but when it came to writing, I never felt any rush—I wanted to sit and stay seated until I was happy, however long that took.
I’m the girl who reads for hours under a blanket, to quiet pop music, accompanied by a mug of tea and a fancy bookmark. My bookbag, spanning nine English classes in middle and high school, carried great literature featuring the writing of over twenty white men, offset by less than five women of color, or women at all. The testosterone and porcelain skin shared by the authors of The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, In Cold Blood, The Scarlet Letter, and so many more popular examples of American literature didn’t strike me until I wanted to become part of the field. There were the occasional short stories by Sandra Cisneros and Amy Tan, as if to check off a box, pivot, and move on. After realizing the lack of estrogen and melanin in traditional American literature, I felt the door slam shut, in my face. Writing was not for people like me.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” ~ Maya Angelou
We all have stories. And they all deserve to be heard. It took me a long time to realize that mine were worth sharing.
Desperate to find a role model, I did my own digging, and I stumbled upon American female authors of color who had rich, insightful, beautiful, heartbreaking stories to share. By perusing libraries and bookstores, I came across The Conch Bearer and Neela: Victory Song by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi, and many more. They ranged from stories of love to stories of growing up and establishing identity. Thematically, those stories may be similar to the ones high schoolers are usually assigned to read, but they add another layer of connection and representation. Regularly exposing kids to literature written by people like them tells them that their stories are acknowledged, heard, and valued. A teacher, course, or curriculum may change a book title, which might take an extra 30 minutes of research and implementation, but it can make a world of a difference for the short Indian girl in the back corner of the room who wants to be a writer.
“I am a woman. And I am Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.” ~ Sandra Cisneros
When people talk about race, they like to use the phrase “I don’t see color.” This is sad. Color is background; color is history; color is culture. It’s not always fun, but it’s who we are, and it makes our writing more complex and full of character. High schools have the chance to enrich the lives of every student just through the power of narrative. How great would that be? Instead, the majority of school boards and English departments choose to negate this and only expose people to one aspect of American society. Yet, students are expected to be empathetic and open towards others. Schools expect kids who’ve been taught that the only valuable stories are those of one group, to grow up cultured, informed, and well-versed in everything the world has to offer. When I read King Lear, Whirligig, Death of a Salesman, how am I expected to see my own face, my own struggles in these authors and narratives? Where is the representation telling me I’m welcome, that this is a career and a world for me? They expect young writers whose stories have been tossed to the ground to grow up with the confidence of someone who regularly sees people like them worshiped in the classroom.
Writers should be taught to embrace their differences, to use them to their advantage. Race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and anything else that comprises our identity should not scare people away from our stories. The fact that they still do means that we haven’t moved as far as we’d like to think.
“That’s what books are for…to travel without moving an inch.” ~ Jhumpa Lahiri
Robbing kids of the ability to live, grow, and experience through literature is like locking them in the house all their lives. They stay confined and remain ignorant about things that go on right through their window.
I think it’s easy to forget that the word American doesn’t have a face. The child of immigrants born in Maryland is just as American as the boy whose grandfather fought in World War II. The American experience is full of stories, yet most kids in this generation are only accustomed to one.
It took until senior year to see anyone close to myself on a syllabus. In my AP Literature class, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake was grouped into a category of literature that dealt with food symbolism. No one knew the author, so only my group of four Asian students read it in all of AP Lit, due to my enthusiasm. My excitement on seeing her name was unprecedented; I wish one day, I won’t have to be so excited. Lahiri sat on the syllabus next to Hemingway, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Burns, and the like, who continue to dominate the cannon. I remember thumbing through the first few pages, and seeing characters named Ashok, Ashima, and Sonia. My face lit up as I annotated for symbolism, character development, and imagery in a story that I connected with. It wasn’t just that we were reading a book by a female Indian author, but the amount of attention and respect given was equivalent to Hemingway, being read a table over. It was regarded as a masterful work of merit that happened to feature Indian characters—a direct contrast to multicultural units in past years because Lahiri’s story encompassed more value than just the diverse characters. We talked about culture, but in a way that contributed to the complexity and not in a way that made it the only reason to read the book.
Let’s do more of that.
The term ‘multicultural literature’ is a detrimental term in the classroom. To pigeonhole every story written by a person of color into such a small box degrades the literary value and complexity of their stories. In school, the multicultural unit was insulting. While we spent weeks breaking down works by Lois Lowry and William Shakespeare, we were thrown a list of other and asked only to write a single reflection paper about their work. As if being from another culture, another race, is the only sufficient take-away. As if they, too, can’t exemplify the beauty of language, symbolism, and complexity outside of their marginalized racial identities. An author’s race is certainly a part of their identity, but it’s degrading to suggest that it is the only reason that their book is any good. We read to empathize, we read to travel, and we read to understand. We shouldn’t put up blinders and only focus on the aspects of the book that teach us about other cultures. There’s always more to the story.
“If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.” ~ Amy Tan
For the longest time, I wanted to change who I was. I named all my characters Sarah and Bridget. They had blond hair and blue eyes. I even remember going up to my mom at 12 years old and telling her that I wanted to name my daughter Sarah. Whiteness meant visibility in the bubble of my education. At one point, I hated being Indian because I saw myself and my stories as invisible and disposable. When I started to write about myself, I would always shy away from talking about being an Indian woman. I thought that those were stories no one wanted to hear. Maybe this shyness, this avoidance, was why I found myself sobbing in the bathroom in eighth grade. I succumbed to the pressure of writing what I was reading: telling stories that weren’t mine, creating characters that had nothing to do with my experience. How far can you really develop an unfamiliar story, a story not your own?
When I fell in love with words, I did so by rewriting the ending of a story not mine. Since then, the fuming and frustration of underrepresentation stayed in my head. I was afraid of being ridiculed, ashamed of being marginalized, and I didn’t think that anything I did would be enough to change such an established and accepted system. But I have seen the power, awe, and wonder contained in an imaginative rewrite. To speak new ideas, new considerations into existence makes them a step closer to becoming real. I have pens scattered around my desk and a story left unfinished. Putting these pens to use is long overdue.
I spent most of my education wedged in a corner, called upon only to mask a system rooted in comfort and erasure. The only way out is to begin to do some erasing of my own. A corner sits at the junction between two walls. Walls are barriers, symbols of division and separation, symbols of other—yet the corner is the place of fracture, the seam to rip. To break these walls is to step out of the back corner, march to the front of the room and cause a ruckus. It’s not always pretty, it’s not always easy, but for structural integrity we must do it. We, young people of color with pens in our hands. Our truth matters. We are seen. Our stories matter. Even if our education told us otherwise.
Ria Parikh is now a second-year majoring in Neuroscience and Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. With her work, she has developed a passion for using creative writing to influence social change, science, medicine, and more interdisciplinary fields that are meaningful to her. Ria began her journey in writing for social change with this piece, which was written for her Creative Nonfiction class.