A Conversation with Author and Activist, Anjali Enjeti on her Latest Collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change

In your essay, “Anger Like Fire,” you celebrate rage. That essay resonated me, because as a woman, and as a Southern woman, rage is, to put it mildly, discouraged. Do you think it’s a Southern issue? Why are men allowed to express rage, but it’s not okay for women?

Unfortunately, we still live in such a misogynistic society, where women’s emotions are either denigrated, minimized, erased, ignored, or judged. And oftentimes, we experience major repercussions for expressing our anger. It’s a problem everywhere, but I do agree that it sometimes feels as if the taboo of women’s anger is heightened in the Deep South.

All of the stereotypes about southern women are that we’re quiet and well-mannered and keep our feelings to ourselves. But we’re not. And I think because anger and rage are associated with power, and power is associated with masculinity, it’s more acceptable for men to express rage.

Women’s rage, though, can be so productive. We raise our voices to demand change. We march in protests. We advocate for our families and our communities. We organize voters. We fight for various causes.

I loved the poetic structure of your essay “In Memory of Vincent Chin, An Elegy in Nineteen Acts.” It’s chilling, heartbreaking; his murder was senseless. It stuck out to me because you leaned on a poetic form to lament Vincent Chin’s murder rather than the essay form. In Act XIX, Afterlife, you contemplated Chin’s honeymoon which is so different than your nonfiction essays, because you added this fictional detail. Will you elaborate on your decision to tell Chin’s story in this manner? Was there any particular elegy you used for inspiration?

The Vincent Chin essay is probably the hardest piece I’ve ever written in my life. In fact, I spent years wanting to write an essay about him, but I couldn’t figure out how to begin. Then I decided I would just try to create some kind of an outline first. It took some of the pressure off of me to not have to think about the piece in strict prose. So, I started with the list of events that’s in the beginning of the essay, which examines, more broadly, the history of Asian Americans.

A dear friend invited me to a reading in Nashville, along with a few other writers. I didn’t have any new completed work to read, so I told them I’d read some notes for an essay I was working on about Vincent Chin. When I was finished, they told me not to change it – that the form was crucial to the function of the piece.

That’s why the entire essay is told in relatively short Acts – it’s essentially a cleaned-up version of the outline I wrote for it.

Initially, I was going to end the essay with the words inscribed on Vincent’s gravestone. But that ending felt so unfair. Vincent was so much more than his death. He was a man who had dreams and was about to embark on starting a family and a new life when Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz brutally murdered him.

I am an Asian American activist today largely because of Vincent’s life and death, and the Asian American movement that followed. But I wanted to do something more for him. It dawned on me that I could offer Vincent a very small piece of what was so cruelly taken away from him – I could pen a glimpse of what his life could have been. That’s why I end the essay with Vincent and his fiancé Vicki on their honeymoon in Aruba. That last segment is the only piece of fiction in the entire essay collection.

Feeding off my previous question some, I mentioned in my review of Southbound that I clung onto the theme of masks, whether it was a literal mask—the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, the mask of Evangelists, or the mask of silence. Was that a theme you considered when putting these essays into a collection, or was just something I embraced personally in Southbound?

Masks are definitely a theme in the book. Masks can be tools for protection. When we are feeling vulnerable, they help us feel safe. But sometimes our masks, while keeping us safe, lead to other people’s pain and trauma. And if we’re hiding, we’re not resisting. We’re not challenging the forces that not only caused our trauma, but cause other, more marginalized folks’ trauma.

This is what I tried to convey in Southbound. That while masks are great for hiding behind, they’re difficult to see out of. If we are spending a lot of time hiding, we’re not necessarily seeing who else is being harmed, and to what degree.

In “Virtual Motherhood” you talk about your experience of new motherhood, discovering a platform and the online parenting community, which led to you blogging and writing about parenting and your eventual journey towards activism. What do your girls and your husband think about you as mother-activist and spouse-activist? I got the sense that motherhood fueled your journey. How in the hell do you manage your time?!

I’ve been involved with activism since I was in college, but yes, parenting has definitely shaped my work and shifted my vision. I worry, all the time, about what kind of world all our children are inheriting from us, and how we can make it a safer, healthier, and kinder place for them.

Activism is a family activity at our home. My husband does this work alongside me, but when we get closer to an election, he takes over the house and the kids so I can meet with voters in person to get out the vote. My daughters are 19, 16, and 13, and have been involved in political volunteer work for many years.

I didn’t push any of them toward it. When they were younger, I’d invite them to join in, but if they didn’t want to participate, I let it go. But they saw how active and engaged I was, and how I made this social justice work a priority in my life. Gradually over time, they started making it a priority in theirs. My oldest daughter now does work for political campaigns. My middle daughter canvasses and attends numerous protests. My youngest daughter spent weeks putting thousands of labels on campaign postcards.

I’m very lucky because I work from home. So, I don’t have a commute, and this gives me extra time. I also teach in a low residency MFA program, and am freelance writer and author, and this affords me flexibility. But I basically end up working all the time and never getting a break, and it’s taken a tremendous toll on my heath. So, I’m desperately trying to find a better balance and rest more. Fingers crossed I have it all figured out by 2022.

You’ve mentioned in conversations and lectures I attended that publishing your memoir, The Parted Earth, and your essays, Southbound, was a struggle. Do you think it was about timing? Were publishers afraid to get behind what you were saying? Or do you have other thoughts on why you work is being published now verses years ago?

It’s really hard to know. Publishing is such a crap shoot in general. Certainly, luck and timely play a significant role.

I did not bother looking for an agent for Southbound because I knew, as a debut author, that I was not going to be able to sell a collection of essays like this one to a big press. I couldn’t even envision it with one of the big presses. So, I only researched small presses and university presses that had a solid reputation with respect to nonfiction. University of Georgia Press was at the top of my list because I have loved so many of their literary nonfiction books.

The very first book I tried to sell 13 years ago was a collection of essays. I couldn’t get anywhere. The second book I tried to sell was an anthology of essays by multiple authors. That book got an agent, but she couldn’t sell it. I love the essay form, and I love to read collections of essays. So, to finally have Southbound out in the world feels surreal!

I’m probably not the first person to ask this, but would you ever consider running for office?

Truthfully, I have zero desire to run for office. My skill set and my passion lie in getting people to the polls. That’s the work I find most rewarding.

But also, I try to be very protective of my creative side, and purposely avoid doing work that taxes my creativity too much. Running for office or serving as an elected official would greatly diminish my capacity as a writer. I need to preserve that creative side of my brain as much as possible and doing organizing work as a volunteer allows me the flexibility to do this.

You mentioned you’ve been in arguments in-person and on social media. Are you prepared for backlash from the Far Right when Southbound comes out?

I suppose I’m never prepared for trolling. It takes a toll, and at the end of the day, I’m human. But I’m also used to it. I write a lot about politics. I put myself out there regularly. I’m prepared for the backlash, even though the backlash can sometimes be cruel.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve recently finished several wonderful books, including two collections—Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Life of Church Ladies, and Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit. Next up is Suchitra Vijayan’s nonfiction debut book, Midnight’s Borders.

What can your fans look forward to reading next? Are there any events on the agenda we need to know about?

I’m currently rewriting what was my first novel. It takes place primarily in the 1990s in North Georgia, a place close to my heart, but it does zig zag a little bit to other parts in the world and other decades.

For current events with Anjali Enjeti, visit her event’s page at: Events – Anjali Enjeti

Southbound is available for preorder: Southbound: Essays – Anjali Enjeti

MORE ABOUT ANJALI ENJETI: Anjali Enjeti is a former attorney, organizer, and award-winning journalist based near Atlanta. She is the author of the essay collection Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and the novel, The Parted Earth. Her writing about politics, social justice, and books has appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR, ZORA, Courier Newsroom, Mic, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Nation, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University and is the co-founder of They See Blue Georgia, an organization for South Asian Democrats.