By Sharanya Gopinathan
Insider Outsider, one of the final sessions at the Times Litfest Bengaluru 2017, presented by ACT Fibernet, was originally proposed to be a discussion between Sheila Keys, the niece of civil rights legend Rosa Parks and author of Our Auntie Rosa, and author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, about the ways in which the Black Lives Matter campaign intersects with the concerns of Dalit and adivasi communities. However, since Sheila Keys was unable to attend the event due to some visa issues, the session instead became a discussion on various aspects of identity, difference, otherness and belonging, in life and in writing. The panellists were authors Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Sharanya Manivannan and Jahnavi Barua, moderated by Malavika Jayaram.
The panel discussed, among other things, different aspects of language as a tool of resistance. Barua, who stopped practising medicine fifteen years ago to become a full-time writer, spoke of how she was adamant that certain Assamese words would not be italicised in her book, and that if we were expected to know what words like fettuccine and spaghetti mean, people could take the time to figure out what the mekhela chadar is, especially in this age of the internet. She also spoke about English and the various kinds of English that exist today, like Punjabi English or Bengali English. To many of the people present, a form of English liberally interspersed with Indian vernacular and inflection is their mother tongue, and Barua noted that that voice needs to be heard in their writing without apology. Shekhar added that he believes that it isn’t the language of a piece that matters, but the subject that you’re writing on and the way you write about it.
They also attempted to contextualise the Black Lives Matter movement against activist projects in India. They dwelt briefly upon hashtags and hashtag activism, which Manivannan said that she wasn’t a fan of. Shekhar said that when you’re working in the field, you don’t have time for self-promotion or the kind of self-indulgent activism one tends to see on social media, and that unless you really feel for a movement, no amount of hashtags will help the cause. Manivannan, when discussing the burden of privilege when writing, said that the two things she uses to try and offset it are empathy and humility.
Although Sheila Keys couldn’t make it in person for the session, we spoke to her via Skype about her new book, Our Auntie Rosa, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Donald Trump. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Why did you decide to write this book?
The reason why my family and I decided to write this book, well, when my aunt passed away, there were three or four huge funerals, and we never did get a chance to grieve. The funerals were massive and there were so many people that we never did really get to sit down or you know, just meet around her, say our prayers, and understand that she’s gone and bury her. That didn’t happen, and we were losing a person that helped to raise us.
So what we decided to do, we were just laughing and sitting around talking about some of the things she would say to us, and I just started writing them down, writing down her little lessons, the little things she would say and do. And a friend of ours from Detroit said you know what, your family should write a book. And I thought, that’s a good idea.
So we went on, and we just took notes and as we started to do that, I realised, you know, I had grandchildren-at the time I had two, now I have four-and I would like to leave her living legacy for them. They didn’t know her, so they could get to meet her through our stories to them. It was for my children, and then my grandchildren, and then I thought it would reach out to other people’s children, other people’s grandchildren. They don’t know Rosa Parks, they don’t know what she did. But they could get an up close and personal look at what she was really like through the book, and that’s why we thought we would do it.
What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten from the book?
A lot of people keep saying things like, “Oh, I didn’t know that about her!”. They didn’t know that she did yoga, or that she was a vegetarian, that she liked to walk everywhere instead of driving, a lot of things about her that people did not know. My aunt could cook! I think my grandmother was a better cook but my aunt thought she could cook, and the recipes came to us from us kids going to their house on Sundays and just waiting, you know, the smells, waiting for the food to be set on the table. Just remembering all that, those are some of the things people didn’t know.
And there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t even put in the book. I polish my nails, my aunt never polished her nails, never put makeup on, no adornments. I never saw her with earrings. I wear earrings everyday, she didn’t do that, she didn’t even have holes in her ears. She knew her own mind, she knew what she wanted to do, what she didn’t want to do. She knew how she wanted to wear her hair, and that’s what she did. She would just braid it and wrap it, and that was it. It was no big deal. But she had a lot that she was thinking about, so who has time to adorn themselves?
Was it a difficult book to write, when you had to revisit so many memories?
You know, some things were painful to remember, but then happy at the same time, I don’t know if you get that from what we were trying to do. Remembering our fondest times, the best times we ever had with her. I was remembering when my son, he’s thirty four now, when he was first born and my mother had just died, my aunt came. She became the mother figure and the grandmother figure, and stayed with me for a whole week. Now I lived in New Jersey at the time, on the east coast so I wasn’t living here in Michigan, but she flew out there, and stayed the whole week. That was the best time, because we didn’t do anything, we didn’t even go outside. She just held the baby and told me stories about my father, who was her brother, when he was little and how bad he was. Just the best memories. When you write about things like that, it’ll evoke emotions, and bring things to the surface, and it was cathartic. It was good to do that.
What do you think about the unique political moment we’re in right now, and the space Black Lives Matter occupies in this moment, especially given the new president Donald Trump?
I think Black Lives Matter was birthed or born out of what the police were doing, and what they’ve been doing. Something had to rise up, and a lot of people don’t like it. Just because it’s pro-Black doesn’t mean that it’s negative against other people, it’s just shining the light on what has been going on, and it must stop. It doesn’t mean we don’t like you or that other people should take it that way, it’s just something that’s needed now more than ever here in the US with the new President.
The new president has his own agenda, he is a host, and what he’s doing right now is a shield game, smoke and mirrors. On this side he’s doing things with immigration while behind the scenes he’s hired all his rich friends and he does whatever they say. I think we’re going to need more groups, we have the resistance, Black Lives Matter, we have women’s groups, we’re all coming together. The government without the people is nothing. They used to think the government with rich people was everything and down with us, forget about us. These groups are going to hold them responsible, Black Lives Matter and the resistance, their job is to hold the government accountable to the people.
What about the some of the responses Black Lives Matter has been getting?
Blue Lives Matter! My god! That is not the colour of anyone’s skin, blue is your clothing. You’re not navy blue, it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. If you choose to wear that uniform, it’s a choice that you’ve made, you have to take a test. I know because I considered becoming a police officer, many many moons ago. I’m glad that I didn’t, but I was thinking of it. I know you have to take a civil service test, then you get your uniform, and that’s what’s blue. The clothes. You’re not painted blue, your skin is not blue, so that is a silly thing. And if that is your best response, you need to go back and do a little more studying because the two things aren’t even on the same level.
And All Lives Matter. Yes, we know all lives matter, all things and all people matter. Black Lives Matter is just to shine light on what’s happening in the US and other countries as well. There are people losing their lives to someone who is supposed to protect and serve them.
What role do you believe women play in the resistance?
I think it’s dealt with more rationally when women are involved. Women are not out there wanting to get our machine guns and wanting to start a war, we want to be heard and we’re asked to be heard by a male-dominated world, or communities and societies. When women do band together like this, like we saw all across the world, there’s always going to be some backlash, where the men are saying bad things abut women, but this is what we’re here to do.
I think women play a pivotal role in everything. We’re the mothers, the earth is a woman, she produces everything for us. Our bodies are our bodies. This is so crazy that in the US they want to regulate everything that you do, they want to bring it back to some kind of archaic stone-age where men are going to regulate women and make us do only what they want us to do, tell us if we can have children, tell us if we can’t. They make more money than we do, it’s a matter of who’s in control, and I think that’s everything to certain societies. They always have to be in control, they’ll keep their foot on your neck, they’ll hold you down as long as they can. But now with the women around the world, with women and people of colour united, it’s scaring some folks. But hey, it’s happening!
I think women ruled the world before, and women are going to rule the world again. Women would rather be at peace with their male counterparts, but the men, they have to be alpha. They have to be on top, or they say things like what they’ve been saying recently, like oh no, look at these females losing their minds, wearing their pink hats!
Why do you think some people are reacting so negatively to movements like these?
Just as some people want control – if all the people of colour are banding together, they’re getting afraid. They feel like they’re losing control, and it’s just the same as how men are feeling they’re losing control over women. Women used to stay at home, now when we’re entering the workplace, they want to control us in different ways, like making sure women make 75 cents to a man’s dollar, or in the case of people of colour, its 60 cents, way less.
It’s all coming down to people getting seriously threatened and upset when they feel they’re losing control. They feel like they’re losing slaves. They think that all hell’s going to break loose, so we’ll have to think of some other way to control them. They came up with Jim Crow laws, we went through that, then all kinds of laws to keep people in jail. Which they did. Until someone comes along and says No.
Like my auntie, she just said No, along with other people, other women and other men who just said No. And a lot of people died for saying No. It just so happened that my aunt wasn’t hung from the nearest tree.
So you believe it’s a matter of people in power wanting to stay in control?
This is the reason why all this happened. They can’t find one way to control you, so they say we’re going to use the laws, and then they think: Let’s hire a dummy president and all his friends, and we’ll get him to do our bidding. He’s nothing but a dummy president. I don’t believe he’s a real president doing some of the things he’s doing. I see the people he’s putting in places, racists, that’s what he’s doing. He’s lining them up. And they’re all billionaires.
Donald Trump came to power using openly racist rhetoric, maybe because of it, even…
I believe that’s what happened. He empowered the racists and told them to come out and say what they want. He told them you’re the ones being kept down, all the other people took your jobs. America First! But it’s the world community, it’s not America first.
But there are people who literally believe that this country, that they stole from other people, is their country, and they’re even wanting to kill the indigenous people of this country to prove this point, to say this is ours. It’s a control issue, it just goes back to that, to being in control and how you manage that.
Does it take you by surprise, what has happened? Some people say that they expected something like this, or at least that they’re not entirely shocked.
Well it isn’t something new! It goes very, very far back. For example, I think African people were brought here, then given things, had them taken away. Still the same thing is happening. We were brought here and our families were split and torn apart, so I can see what any family is going through when you’re loved ones are ripped away. This is what happened to us, your family members were spit up and sold off to different parts of the country. You don’t know who’s your brother, who’s your sister, so we don’t know, because everything was taken from us. These people crying the most, they’re the ones, their ancestors, who trained us to be like you, now you’re mad at us for being just like you.
What do you want? It’s a no-win situation here! What happened with Trump was going to happen, it just happened sooner than we thought because he’s a television host. It would come, though, because they wanted all the racists and evil people to come to the forefront and let it be okay. And if you say, “I’m for my people of colour,” they call you a reverse racist! Reverse racist! How can you have reverse racism? I don’t make any laws rules or schoolbooks, I don’t own any banks. I’m not racist. You’re a racist.
How does the prison system in the United States work as a tool of control?
The way they split families up with the males, you can’t make children. They take these laws and apply them differently for white and black people. They have all these laws for marijuana, they take a black male and put him in for 10 to 15 years. And you have a white male who’s doing the same or worse, gets a couple months and maybe probation. So what it is, is the unequal system that we have and it’s still being used to control. Before there were Jim Crow laws and loitering laws, this is just a new form of a loitering law. This is just a new form of control. You control that male, you have no problem controlling the rest of that population. If you have one little joint or something, you’re going to jail for 15 years. That doesn’t make any sense!
But this is how they do it. It’s cheap labour. As long as there’re prisons for profit, they were even incarcerating little kids. They just kept floating them through the system. They make a penny a day for doing a crazy labour scheme that these people have in place. And they’re just building more jails! They’d figure out how many Black babies, Black and Hispanic male babies, are born and they’d build the jails accordingly. That should tell you something. This country deals in numbers. You figure out the numbers, and then you can sell it, you can make money off it and you can sell it.
That’s one thing that this country does operate on: money. And it brings you back to the billionaires that are sitting in the White House right now. They don’t think about humans, they just want their bottom line to look really good. And it is, it is going to look really good, Donald Trump is making sure of that. His bottom line is going to look good because he’s doing his job.