Some background information: I am mixed. Or variously: biracial, multi-ethnic, Eurasian. Less kindly by a classmate in middle school: mutt.
The mechanics: my dad is from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai); and my mom is of both Eastern and Western European ancestry — she grew up in Ohio.
The practical result: I simultaneously look like neither and both of my parents.
There isn’t enough space in this post to unpack everything I think and feel about this. But I have privately wrestled with many things including the notion of belonging and how conversations about race and identity in America sometimes don’t have room for people like me.
“Conversations about race and identity in America sometimes don’t have room for people like me.”
My ethnic identity is not clearly written on my face (depending on who is looking at me) so people often project what they want to see. This is true even in the communities of which I am a member. And yet, I am deeply and insatiably driven to connect with my heritage. In a letter to one of my aunts recently, I described my feeling as a search for a sense of “from-ness.” What I mean is, for me, the mixed experience has been a nuanced and complex one, and it’s something that I think about a lot.
When it comes to the modern South Asian American narrative, so much in the way of art, literature, and pop culture is focused on the cross-cultural, rather than cross-racial, issues. Many of the stories address what it means to be the American child of two South Asian immigrants navigating a life where at home they are Indian (or Sri Lankan, or Pakistani, or Bangladeshi), and outside of the home they are American.
The conversation for those of us who grew up straddling ethnic and racial borders inside of our own homes is comparatively quiet. But I am hopeful that will change.
“The best way to quench your thirst to connect with your culture is to engage with it.”
This summer, a dear friend invited me to join her at the Mixed-Remixed Festival in Los Angeles. Founded by Heidi Durrow, the one-day Festival brings together creators in multiple disciplines to talk about the mixed experience and share their art.
It was amazing and it introduced me to the work of young phenom, Kayla Briët. Briët is Chinese and Dutch Indonesian on her mother’s side, and Prairie Band Potawatomi on her father’s side. She was one of the youngest TED fellows to take the stage recently, and her most prominent work is the short film, Smoke that Travels.
The film (embedded below) is a beautiful tribute to her father, one of the few remaining speakers of their indigenous language who is also dedicated to preserving the tribe’s traditional forms of dance. But it also delves into issues of tribal identity generally, and for Briët, both ownership of her indigenous identity and active preservation of her native culture. I was really inspired by her film and how at such a young age she’s figured out that the best way to quench your thirst to connect with your culture is to engage with it.
* * *
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri is an attorney and writer living in California’s Central Valley. She is currently at work on a novel and an animal-themed collection of short stories. Find her at taliakolluri.com.