After 11 years of effort, Anjali Enjeti makes her literary debut times two

Author Anjali Enjeti explores identity and activism in her essay collection, "Southbound"
Contributed by Debashri Sengupta and Hub City Press
Author Anjali Enjeti explores identity and activism in her essay collection, "Southbound" Contributed by Debashri Sengupta and Hub City Press

Essay collection ‘Southbound’ and novel ‘The Parted Earth’ publish within weeks of each other

Atlanta’s Anjali Enjeti knew success as an attorney, freelance writer, creative writing teacher, wife and mother. But after failing for years to get several books published, she was demoralized and ready to walk away from the whole publishing racket.

Then it all came together serendipitously, and her first two published books are hitting bookstores this spring within a few days of each other. “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance and Social Change” (University of Georgia Press, $24.95) combines provocative political writing with a relentlessly honest look at her own life. “The Parted Earth” (Hub City Press, $26) is a novel that starts with the 1947 Partition of India, when the British left and the country was divided to create Pakistan, then jumps to a troubled woman in present-day Atlanta who is unaware of her roots in the violence of that turbulent time.

A contributing book critic to the AJC, Enjeti, 47, lives in Johns Creek with her husband Brian Sydow, a radiologist, and their three teenage daughters, Mira, Leela and Siri. Her heritage underpins her writing and identity: She is one-half Indian, one-quarter Puerto Rican and one-quarter Austrian.

Speaking in the family room of her Johns Creek home, she talked to the AJC about her books and her political activism. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: In an essay for Publishers Weekly you said you have been submitting books for publication for 11 years and that the many rejections cost you a great deal. Now you have two books published within a few days of each other by coincidence. How does that feel?

A: I got to a point where I never thought publishing books was something that would happen for me. I kind of wiped my hands of it. The rejection was just too difficult for me to handle, and it was affecting other aspects of my life. It’s emotionally exhausting to be rejected so much for your work when your work is so incredibly personal.

At that point a proposal for a book of essays I submitted to UGA Press a year earlier ended up with a contract. So, I started writing that book. Then Hub City Press had an open submission period and I submitted “The Parted Earth.” I still can’t believe my luck, and a lot of this is really luck.

Q: In “Southbound,” moving from Detroit to Chattanooga in 1984 with your family when you were in fifth grade was a turning point in your life. You told your parents that living in the South felt weird, even though you weren’t quite sure how or why it was weird.

A: That move took place at a critical age: I was just starting to realize that the world isn’t always what it seemed, that adults didn’t necessarily know better. The Civil War felt like it happened a week ago. No one would say it was about slavery. It was dressed up in this romantic antebellum narrative where people were kind and well-mannered.

It was a culture shock. I had been to India several times by the age of 10 and the shock of moving to the South was even more of a shock because it was in the United States.

Q: So much of the writing in “Southbound” is angry, and you acknowledge that frequently. Is pouring your anger into your writing cathartic, or is it hard to turn off after writing one of these essays?

A: I think anger is one of the most beautiful and powerful of emotions, and I hope I never actually turn off my anger. I have used it to produce change. I have used it to organize, to write from a place of authenticity. I have wielded it in so many different ways. I feel like it’s me at my most powerful. It can be tiring, it takes a lot of energy, but I feel like it’s productive. I feel at peace with it.

Author and activist Anjali Enjeti at a political rally in Suwanee. 
Contributed by Debashri Sengupta
Author and activist Anjali Enjeti at a political rally in Suwanee. Contributed by Debashri Sengupta

Credit: Debashri Sengupta

Credit: Debashri Sengupta

Q: As a child you say you did not understand white supremacy, and you accepted certain privilege. You write that as a person of color who was not African American, you felt like “after white women, I was the next best thing.” That seems really raw to put out there like that.

A: Some of the stuff I admit in “Southbound,” I had to go to places that don’t paint me in a very good light. It’s cringeworthy stuff. But that’s what happens to some of us. When you’re young and being racially tormented, a defense mechanism is to mimic the people with privilege who are around you, to blend in and hide yourself, not understanding how my actions were costing people with far less privilege.

This is a lifelong journey. As an activist I have to ask myself: Am I comfortable? Because if I’m comfortable, if I’m not taking a risk, that could be a seed of a problem.

Q: You wrote a long and eloquent essay about the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by two white men, and you place it in the context of the history of violence against Asian Americans. When a gunman killed six Asian Americans at Atlanta spas recently, how did you channel your outrage over that attack?

A: A lot of activist work is knowing when the mic is meant for you to speak into and when not to take the mic. Much of what I did was act in a supportive role to the communities most affected. These women were Chinese and Korean who worked in an industry that has been overpoliced and stereotyped. I’m South Asian and I’m not from those communities.

I helped raise awareness of vigils, shared links for donations to the families. You show up and you bring the water and the snacks. There’s a way to show up and be invisible.

Q: In 2018, you started Chai and Chat, your Johns Creek South Asian version of the Tea Party. Later you also started the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, a national organization for South Asian Democrats. Were these your first forays into actual activism, as opposed to writing about activism?

A: I started being an activist in college, but it was not election-centered until after Trump was elected. I worked with AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) groups for Jon Ossoff, then for Stacey Abrams. When I was trying to get out the vote, I was knocking on a lot of doors of immigrants who were not really vested in the politics here. … I must have knocked on more than 2,000 doors. That’s my thing, I love canvassing.

Q: Let’s talk about your novel “The Parted Earth,” which is about the Partition of India, but also about identity and families keeping secrets. Were any of your relatives involved in Partition? Did they inspire the book?

A: No, they weren’t. Most people with South Asian roots know about Partition. But people who don’t have those roots don’t know anything about it, except the British left and there was this guy named Gandhi.

In 2011 I went to India with my husband and three girls; I had not been there in 19 years. My grandmother had passed away about five years earlier. I always promised her I would bring my children to India for her to meet, and I never did, so I had all this guilt.

We went to the Taj Mahal and I was thinking about this love story this couple had and I was at a spot I had stood at with my grandmother. And I was just hit by this story about a grandmother and a granddaughter. By the time I left India I had almost the entire idea in my head, and that was the first time I thought I would write about Partition.

Q: “The Parted Earth” is set in several places and several different years, and you keep some key developments hidden from some of the characters and the reader as we hopscotch around. Was it hard to figure out the structure?

A: I rewrote the book over and over. This was actually the last version I tried, starting with Deepa in 1947, then jumping to her granddaughter (Shan) in Atlanta.

Q: In one of the book’s most moving scenes, Shan visits the Atlanta Botanical Garden and has a sort of epiphany while contemplating the Earth Goddess topiary sculpture. What has that sculpture meant to you?

A: There is a timelessness to that sculpture. It’s a symbol of nurturing and healing and how we are all part of the same family, everyone who lives on this Earth. We saw it soon after it was installed, and it’s so peaceful. I don’t really believe in life after death, but I thought this must be what heaven is like. If there is a moral or emotional center to Atlanta, I feel like it is that landscape.

VIRTUAL AUTHOR EVENTS

“The Parted Earth.” Author Anjali Enjeti in conversation with Virginia Prescott. Free. 7 p.m. May 4. Presented by the Atlanta History Center. www.atlantahistorycenter.com

7 p.m. May 6. Presented by Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library. georgiacenterforthebook.org

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