A pilgrim trail of roots

May 9, 2021

The Brown anthology explores the historical, present and future Brown, but without the pressure of writing for an outsider for whom the culture must always be explained

In the debate about diversity in publishing, it is increasingly clear that our best hope lies no longer in fighting for a share in old spaces built on expired premises. The way forward lies in creating new spaces from the ground up, spaces built with the mission and intent to provide room for voices which are under-represented in the mainstream. However, if you are taking the ‘diversity in publishing’ movement at face value, you should listen to the podcast, Browned Off, for a perspective check.

“The Brown Anthology series is about historical, present and future Brown, without the need or prerequisite to explain, justify or create art to suit the perception of Brown,” says Sofia Hafeji.

This territorial premise is sharply consolidated in the opening poem, To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find me Identifiably Indian by Arundhati Subramanian. The poet visits the tropes of identity in literature and literary criticism, how Indian-ness and its ‘authenticity’ are always subjected to the scrutiny of the white gaze, always appropriated according to the expectation of Brown/Indian. At the end, the poet sarcastically invokes a lesson in entitled belonging from the white critic:

“Teach me how to belong,/ the way you do,/ on every page of world history”

As a theme, language has a fluid interpretation in the anthology; it is explored as a superset, the metaphors evoked for it various – bridge, suture, portal, rope, tapestry, palimpsest. Not words, but the intent behind them, lining them like dermis: “the many/ languages of earth/ that have nothing to do with nations and atlases/ and everything to do/ with the ways/ of earwigs/ the pilgrim trail of roots/ and the great longing of life to hold and be held.” (Mitti, Arundhati Subramanian)

Language is a larger entity and words are vessels, carriers of intent, portals to worlds which are distant, different, dormant or secret. There is also a performative dimension to the way the anthology addresses language. Language is a verb, language is work, language is a never-ending act of becoming. The way it is explored here, language is never, indeed, can never be a finished act- done, dusted, perfected. Because quest remains so central to it, language is imperfect, broken and fragmented but nevertheless a potent vehicle, held together by the sincerity of intent and the will to build and bind. To the point that sometimes, the conventions of correctness and semantics are rendered completely irrelevant, reduced to frills. This is exemplified in Sonya Hundal’s Correspondence, a correspondence between an Indian soldier stationed in France and his wife back home in India.

Here, the staccato, halted rhythm of the novice English speaker juggling the double restraint of army watch and the quota of word allowance, is a forceful bearer of concern. Language is filigree here; its structure held together precariously, barely echoing a form we recognise. For the soldier’s part, it is self-conscious of its inadequacy to express itself fully in the borrowed (forced?) apparel of English, and centripetally circles back to this unease, this inability to carry meaning. For the wife’s part, it is unaware and insouciant to formalities and adornments to a point where it reads like sparse lines of a code or an incantation.

“In this parcel is a herb. Jeera. Laal mirch./ Boy is making me write English. Aye bee cees. /…In this parcel is a sweet. More sweet bringing./ Boy is school…/ Army bring letter to Billa father./ Army bring letter to me.”

Making way through its pages felt like having spent an evening with a distant cousin. I also felt a heart ache, because I’m reminded once again of how much the region has in common, and what possibilities can be unleashed when we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.

Unsurprisingly, this powerful circuitry of intent courses through intergenerational pathways. In Lost in a Jangal, a girl accompanies her grandmother to a doctor’s trip for a dementia check-up. Both find a way to reach across to the other, taking wide strides to find their footing across islands of sense and remembrance, anchoring themselves in what feels like a sea of chaos and forgetting closing in on them, “communicating the only way we could, with the few words we still shared. Each slowly stitching us back together.” Meaning and essence can still straddle a disobedient syntax which is hard to rein, hard to master after years of distance or loss.

Language is a rope connecting ends across geography and history. It is also the mesh that kept the feeling of belonging alive, a map through which values are carried from country to country across waves of migration and displacement, and passed from generation to generation to keep a certain way of life alive.

“And it was Urdu who at times as reprimand and at times as a lesson,/ who at times as greetings and at times as goodbyes,’ who at times as happiness and at times as melancholy,/ knotted life and country.” (Urdu, Amna Naeem)

As surely as it works most of the time, language also betrays. Obstinate and un-pliable, it remains a wall, refusing to, failing to, morph into a bridge, making strangers of those on either side. Sometimes, it becomes a barrier to intimacy:

“I struggle with a tongue tied to its roots,/ …, that is dying/ To come home to you, instead stays/ A stranger at the door.” (A Silent Letter, Meena Kandasamy).

Sometimes, its form becomes so morphed that it troubles a bloodline:

“Mother tongue dwarfed by the giant beanstalk of school/ Now my words grow and climb paper walls/ Where proud parents get the gist/ But can’t quite follow.” (Chai Tea, Naan Bread, Farhana Khalique)

When you map out the themes the anthology explores – identity, losing it and finding it, the immigrant experience, they sound like a round-up of clichés, tropes done to death. However, their treatment never becomes trite here. If anything, they unravel with a particular finesse. How do they escape being flattened into clichés? The clarity and confidence of the premise show in the selection. The pressure of writing under the gaze of the outsider for whom the culture must always be explained, footnoted, padded, tailored, that inner watchfulness, that crippling self-consciousness is missing.

The anthology was self-funded. I worry about the precariousness of editorial initiatives like these, often labours of love and miracles worked up by the courage of a single person or very small teams. I hope they are able to support themselves sustainably in order to retain their intellectual integrity. I will also be watching how justly it continues to interpret the term Brown, both in terms of its contributor profiles and the languages and regions it touches in its scope.

Just as publishing this anthology would have been wading through circles of hell in a heavily garrisoned literary world, with gatekeepers at goal posts, finding a home for this review was a preview of that process. I encountered another layer of editorial prejudice against small presses and works of other than well-known authors. No one wants to take a chance, no one wants to risk supporting what is not tried and tested. Who takes the first step? Who breaks the chain?

Making way through its pages felt like having spent an evening with a distant cousin. I also felt a heart ache because I’m reminded once again of how much the region has in common and what possibilities can be unleashed when we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, when our creativity is allowed full reign without the corruption of politicians and divisiveness of borders, real and metaphorical, getting in the way.

The Brown Anthology:


Editor: Sofia Amina

Publisher: 10:10 Press (Pronounced Das Das Press)

Pages: 107

The writer is a UK-based translator and the author of Defiance of the Rose, a translation of selected works by Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English

A pilgrim trail of roots