Conversation on the sense of ‘Unbelonging’ with Dr. Gayatri Sethi
Dr. Gayatri Sethi is a writer, book curator, teacher, and independent consultant based in Atlanta. Dr.Sethi is the proud author of the recently released book ‘Unbelonging.’ In her interview with me on Desi girl magazine, her vibrant spirit, warm personality, and love for life shone through. That’s when I realized that Dr. Sethi is so much more than her impressive Resume. Just the way I had the honor, you can now get to know her wonderful personality too.
As the interview began, Dr. Sethi introduced herself:
I used to be a college-level professor and an academic advisor for a long time for much of my career. And I taught courses and Gender Studies and Global Studies. I taught teachers. And I consulted with schools that wanted to do things in a new way. And really, now I mostly share my love for South Asian literature for children and youth. On Instagram, I go by the name Desibookaunty. As Desis have this adorable habit of addressing everyone as aunty or uncle, I chose the name. I curate and recommend books because knowledge isn’t something to hoard but is best enjoyed when shared. And I’m done with reading White perspectives, which was necessary reading in my education for so long. I wanted to hear the voices of the oppressed, and it’s been years since I read a white author’s book.
And I also do some writing myself. And I’ll have my first book released this August from Mango & Marigold press, titled ‘Unbelonging.’
About her book ‘Unbelonging’ that was recently released:
“Listen carefully—her voice is a gift for this moment and beyond.”
—Camille Collins, author of The Exene Chronicles
Where is home for you?
This question is one of the reasons I wrote the book ‘Unbelonging.’ I don’t have a short answer to this question. All my life, I’ve had to give a long explanation. For example, I would say, ‘I’m a citizen of Botswana.’ And they’re like, ‘Huh, where’s that?’ Or I would say I am of Punjabi descent. And they say, ‘huh, Really?’ Then I’ll say, ‘My ancestors are from Lahore and Rawalpindi. My family members on the maternal and paternal sides were dislocated from Punjab in 1947. And I am the descendant of people who experienced India-Pakistan partition, and I lost my maternal grandmother during that violence.’ Then they’re like, ‘Huh, I’ve never heard of this partition.’
Please tell us more about your rich cultural heritage.
I was born in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania, in East Africa. I grew up in the shadow of Apartheid. When I was a teenager, the Landback movement (the movement in which several East African countries declared that Africa was for Black Africans in the post-colonial era) forced several brown Africans to relocate to Europe, the USA, and Canada. My father had left India in his twenties and was a school teacher in rural Tanzania. Even though he had traveled to several places worldwide, in his heart, Africa was home. So our family migrated South as far as we could. At that time, there were sanctions against Brown Africans in South Africa.
Moreover, my parents had Indian passports, even though they had not lived there for many decades. Ironically, our passports were valid for travel to all countries except the Republic of South Africa. And so we moved South as far as Botswana and re-rooted there. My Mother, my Brother, and his children still live there. My father is buried there. I lived there for much of my childhood. Now and then, I used to visit my relatives in Chandigarh, India, who still live there. And now, I’m the only member of my own biological family that lives here in Atlanta, Georgia.
Can you tell us about the beautiful land of Africa?
Africa is vast and is a land of multitudes. It spans from the great Sahara Desert to the Kalahari Desert, where I grew up. There is a major wildlife sanctuary for Elephants in Botswana. Africa is lovely, and People who travel to the African continent for the first time are blown away by the reality. They are shocked to find Africa so different from what they knew and expected from reading books or newspapers or listening to the news.
It’s a pity that we are in 2021, and many still think of Africa as an uncivilized land full of disease and deprivation. And so, when I was in graduate school, I devoted my entire graduate school time to shift the narratives about girls’ education in Africa, in particular, because those sort of Western Eurocentric narratives about where I grew up were so inaccurate. Because I had lived there all my life, the false stories about Africa troubles me on a deep level. There’s a lot that the world doesn’t know about Africa, and they can’t have access to a lot unless they have been there.
Can you describe Africa the way you wish it to be represented?
The African continent is unjustly portrayed as a land of war, famine, deprivation, and disease. We, too, have cities, wealth and progress. And we have so much more as well. We have so much humanity and people who care about each other. I have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for the kind people in Botswana, in particular, who welcomed my family and told us to make Botswana our home. Unfortunately, those things don’t make the news.
Before becoming an author yourself, which authors inspired you?
Whenever I get to a point where I don’t understand what’s happening in the world, I turn to bell hooks and Audre Lorde. bell hooks is a professor, academic, a feminist, a writer, a Buddhist, and a fountain of wisdom. bell hooks talks about love in an expansive way. She explains how we are a part of a grander thing called love. Her books are very healing.
Audre Lorde is an intellectual scholar, a person you wish you had had as your professor. One of her essays is called the ‘uses of anger.’ And I often read it, meditate on it, and journal about it. I go to it, and sometimes the lines from it will pop into my head when I’m having one of those moments.
Reading their books is like going to a therapist. Those books speak powerful truths, after reading which, one can never be party to oppression.
What made you write your book ‘Unbelonging’?
A voice inside me kept telling me to write this book. And with time, it got more insistent and louder. So I had to do it. I wrote ‘Unbelonging’ because I had to, and I didn’t feel like I had a choice. And that’s the best reason to write.
Tell us about your journey as an educator before writing ‘Unbelonging’.
If your ambition is to be a life-long learner, it makes sense that you become an educator. That’s what happened to me. As a teacher, I only pointed my students in a direction. I sometimes, maybe, redirected them. But I believe that the learning that stays with you the longest in your life is the learning that you think that nobody taught you. Think about it, some of the most gifted teachers, advisors, counselors, therapists that you’ve ever had wouldn’t have given you advice but would have made you think that you had the answer all along.
Have you ever been at the receiving end of Misogyny?
Being a brown female born in the seventies and raised in South Asian cultures and on the African continent, Misogyny was part of my experience, probably from conception. For much of my life, I think if there was one system of oppression that has constrained me, it has been Patriarchy.
When I traveled to India, my experiences of Misogyny were so blatant that they are trauma memories. Because of them, as a young woman, I did not want to travel to India for a long time. But that disconnected me from my heritage, roots, and relatives. So, now, I have healed the wounds of Misogyny enough to relate to my cultures of origin and see that Misogyny isn’t cultural. It isn’t like certain cultures have a monopoly on Misogyny. After all, some of the most misogynistic experiences I’ve had are from white male professors in the academy, who don’t think a person like me gets to call herself a doctor, a scholar, or an expert in anything. So there isn’t a part of my life that Misogyny did not touch.
What is your advice to anyone who has been traumatized by Misogyny?
So, what do we do? We commit to healing. People like me continue to exist and be who we are because we refuse to be restricted by oppression. We’re constantly committed to healing the wounds of Misogyny. Because each of us, as individuals, has the agency and power to heal the wounds of racism, Misogyny, and whatever traumas have harmed us. Whatever that trauma was, we don’t let that trauma defines us. Our healing defines us even more. So I don’t think a trauma-free, Misogyny-free world exists yet, or is possible. But I do know that healing spaces are what I cultivate as a response to that. So the more I commit to healing spaces, where you and I can have this conversation and let it be truthful, that’s healing. Whatever Misogyny you experienced in your life, you have the agency to heal it.
With those compelling words that appealed to the strength, hope, and courage inherent in every individual, she signed off only to continue to inspire through her words in her book ‘Unbelonging.’
To read similarly inspiring conversations with our other featured Desi Girls, click on Featured Desi girls.