50: Mathangi Subramanian - writer and educator
Mathangi Subramanian is an award-winning Indian American writer, author, and educator. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Teachers College of Columbia University, and the recipient of a Fulbright as well as other fellowships. Her writing has previously appeared in the Washington Post, Quartz, Al Jazeera America, and elsewhere. A People’s History of Heaven, published March 19, 2019 by Algonquin Books, is her first work of literary fiction.
This interview was conducted via Skype by Sophia Richards on March 7, 2019. Santhosh Ramdoss, Mathangi’s husband, photographed her in Coimbatore, India.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
MATHANGI: I think the main thing that describes my girlhood is that I was very impatient. My main memory is that I didn’t want to be a girl; I wanted to be an adult. I wanted to make my own decisions and live my own life. It’s funny because I didn’t have a particularly restrictive childhood like a lot of South Asian immigrant girls did. My mom was very progressive and gave me a lot of freedom, so I’m not really sure where that impulse came from. But I definitely spent a lot of my childhood trying to have more independence and more responsibility—which now that I have a lot of responsibility, I feel is sort of a silly thing to want. [laughs]
SOPHIA: You wrote in an essay [“Girl Positive”] that you and your brother were the only children of color in your entire school, right?
MATHANGI: Yeah. My family lived in several different places in the Midwest before we moved to a suburb of Maryland, where I went to middle school and high school. In my elementary school in Wisconsin, my brother and I, as far as I can remember, were the only people of color. In both of our class pictures, we are the only brown faces in the entire picture. Not only that, but it was all blondes, one girl with brown hair, and then me. [laughs] So for a while, the defining aspect of my existence was being different—which, now that I’m saying this aloud, may have something to do with my desire for independence. I was being defined in very specific ways and through a lot of ignorance when I was living in the Midwest because people in my community hadn’t encountered a lot of immigrants. This was Madison, Wisconsin in the 80s; I’ve heard that it’s super diverse now.
I have this memory of going to the YMCA for swim class and being in the locker room with my mom when I was maybe 6 or 7. She was helping me get dressed, and this old woman came up to her and said, “Your daughter is so beautiful. She should be a model for National Geographic magazine!”
SOPHIA: [gasps] Ahhhh!!!
MATHANGI: I know! I remember that my mom tensed up, and that I didn’t really understand because I thought being a model was a good thing. That was a big part of my girlhood: people seeing me as sort of exotic and strange and not belonging.
SOPHIA: Did you read the interview that I did with Alexis Okeowo?
MATHANGI: I forget the names—
SOPHIA: —That’s ok! Her book, A Moonless, Starless Sky—
MATHANGI: —Oh yeah! I did read that interview. Once you say the book, I remember immediately.
SOPHIA: She writes on extremism in Africa, and on girls and young women who have this remarkable self-possession in environments that try to stamp it out. I asked her a question about where she thinks that confidence comes from. The media? Friends? Family? These issues are really central to your book, as well. Do you have some answer to this?
MATHANGI: I think so. My book has been discussed and put on panels with the framework of “resilience,” which I think is really what you’re asking about. How do you have the self-confidence and ability to bounce back underneath these circumstances? “Resilience” is an interesting word to me because I do feel like it’s something I have. It’s something my mom has; it’s something my grandmother has; it’s something my daughter has. And I don't know if it’s something that was given to us. It’s not genetic, because my daughter is not genetically related to me. [laughs] But there’s something about being a woman of color and being thrust into circumstances where you feel like you have to survive. And the difference between surviving and not surviving is, in a lot of ways, picking yourself up every day and doing what you have to do. Granted, my life growing up in the suburbs of the U.S. is very different than my mom’s life growing up in India, which is very different than my grandmother’s life growing up in a village. The challenges are not necessarily comparable. But I do think that resilience is something that happens when you really have no other choice.
The word [resilience] is also really interesting to me because people will use it to describe girls and girls of color, but I’ve never heard it used to describe men or white people. Resilience is something in education theory that I studied in grad school ten years ago, so it’s been around for a while. But the way it’s used now is really only to describe brown women.
There is something about the experience of being a person of color and female that makes you have to have that confidence in yourself, because nobody else is going to have confidence in you. You’re going to spend your whole life having to prove your worth on a very basic level. I was just breading this article that came out a year ago and got absolutely no press, about how the Indian government calculated that there are 63 million girls in India who are just missing. Meaning that, statistically, there should be 63 million more women in India than there are. Some of the causes are female infanticide. Some of the causes are malnutrition. Some of the causes are just neglect. But the fact is that for Indian women at least—I can’t speak for other people of color—survival is a real struggle. And if you don’t have the self-confidence and the strength to believe in yourself and to make other people believe that your existence is worthy, it really is a life or death situation.
SOPHIA: Could you speak about the research process that led to the writing of this book? Both what you experienced and also the process of deciding to tell these stories in this particular medium.
MATHANGI: I moved to India with my husband in 2012 because I got a Fulbright fellowship to study early childhood education centers in India. India has one of the largest early childhood education systems in the world. There are over a million centers. They’re all in slums, they’re all in villages. They’re some of the only places where poor women can congregate freely. This isn’t something that I knew going into it. I was meeting all these very different kinds of women with different experiences: newborn baby girls, 16 year old mothers, 12 year old girls who would just come to hang out, grandmothers… I didn’t visit India frequently as a kid, so my very specific idea of what it meant to be Indian and what it meant to be an Indian woman was this composite of my mom’s stories and what I read in academic articles. But what I was seeing was so different from that. I met blind women who had wonderful families. I met a hijabi woman who’s this really fierce advocate for her community, and whom everyone made fun of for putting up her hijab and yelling at everyone, and then being really demure with her family.
MATHANGI: That was the inspiration for [the character] Rukshana’s mom, Fatima Aunty. So I was writing these academic articles, but then I started writing these character sketches and short stories, which felt truer and more authentic.
I think part of the reason [that I preferred to write fiction] is because in India, I’m an extremely privileged person. And I had never experienced that before. In the United States, I wasn’t by any means poor, but I was a middle class woman of color. But over there, I’m wealthy, western-educated, and elite. So it felt important to be able to see and represent the people I met, who had so much less privilege than I did, these people in an authentic way, not just in the way that people from my socioeconomic class were telling me to see them. I think that writing fiction helped me work around those assumptions, and face my own prejudices about them.
SOPHIA: Was there a collaborative process between you and the women who would confide in you
MATHANGI: Yeah. Before actually visiting these education centers, everything I had read said that the women who run them are like, these 16 year old girls with no education. But when I arrived there, all the women were my age (I was in my early 30s) and had like 15 years of experience. They all had families. They were all better teachers than me. And I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” These women know so much more than me and I’ve been given all this money to chart everything that’s wrong with their lives.
After a few months, I met a local photographer, and the two of us decided to train some of the early childhood workers to use digital cameras. With those photos, we put together a whole exhibit that we showed at a local gallery, which was coincidentally in the middle of one of the slums that they served. That became the bulk of my project. We wrote about it in the newspaper, printed programs and invited people from the community. We invited the local politicians, though I don’t think anybody came. That was probably the best thing I did there. It was extremely collaborative and rewarding. [The women educators] took all the photographs, curated it, and wrote a lot of the program, too. The photographer and I were in charge of getting the word out about it.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about that project in relationship to the character of the “foreign woman” in your book? [a white woman who visits to photograph the impending destruction of the slum]
MATHANGI: Yeah. Originally this book was a bunch of character sketches that needed cohesion. The original through line was about a slum being demolished, but I couldn’t quite get it to work. So I went back through some of my notes on this photo project, and I remembered that my husband and I had actually seen an exhibition at the gallery where we showed those same photos. The exhibition was about the demolition of this slum called Ejipura Anjanapura in Bangalore, which happened a few two months after we moved there. The demolition got a lot of attention because this activist photographer who had taken all these pictures of the slum and sold them to newspapers.
And I remember looking at the photos and thinking that it was such a specific gaze. I actually think that this particular photographer did a really good job and it’s nothing like the [exploitative] photographer in my book. But I remember thinking about her work in relation to the photos that I got from the women who worked in the slums. There was such hope in their photos as opposed to the photos I saw of the demolished slum. I understand that hopelessness was the photographer’s activist agenda—that she was trying to get people to pay attention. But the whole idea of a white woman coming in to take these photos when there’s so much else to photograph... Like, you don’t have to wait for something to be destroyed to find it beautiful. And that sort of stuck with me.
SOPHIA: How do you understand your own role as a writer of these communities in relation to these other artists with activist agendas?
MATHANGI: This is something I struggle with a lot. Because at the end of the day, the people who inspired this book aren’t going to be able to read it, because it’s in English. And it’s unlikely that it’s going to be translated into Kannada, which is the local language in Bangalore. So I have been thinking a lot about what I can do to try and use the book as something more than just something I profit from. At the end of the day, that's exactly what happens. That’s part of being privileged. You profit from things even when you have the best intentions.
I tried to do a lot of work to directly help the community when I was in Bangalore: raising money for some of the schools, and performing right to education advocacy work. But on a larger scale…There are so few depictions of South Asian women in literature, and those depictions are not typically like the ones in my book. There are very few depictions of strong poor women. There are very few depictions of diverse poor women. And I think a lot of the reason for this is that there’s the idea out there that people don’t want to read those stories. So I’m hoping that this book is one of the many books coming out now that will prove that there are so many diverse ways to be in the world, and that there’s a market for all kinds of stories.
And if someone reads the book and thinks I’ve got it wrong, then I hope it inspires them to write the story better, in the way that they think it should be told. To me, it felt worse to be complicit in erasing people like this than to take the risk of writing them. So I tried to compensate by doing as much research as I could, and while doing that research, asking how I could be an advocate. I interviewed trans people. I interviewed people with disabilities. I went to protests. I went to strikes and rallies. I read tons of books written by Dalit authors and queer authors and trans authors. I tried as much as I could to make these experiences as authentic as possible, knowing that I couldn’t make them perfectly authentic because I don’t share all of those identities. But I hate reading books about India that act like all Indians are Brahmin middle class people, because that’s not true. And the current administration in India wants people to think that’s true, so it seems even more politically charged to write something like this when there’s a huge general election coming up in India which is based entirely on fear and hate-mongering, and the ideas that “Hinduism is in danger,” and “your caste is in danger.” A book like this feels very necessary important in that context.
SOPHIA: You’ve said that there aren’t many, but were there any good literary examples of diverse poor women that you looked to while writing?
MATHANGI: I’ve read it like a million times, especially while I was writing this book. I loved Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. I loved Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. I really liked Naomi Shihab Nye’s book, Habibi. And then Hala Alyan’s book, Salt Houses.
SOPHIA: Oh my god! I interviewed her. Did you see that?
MATHANGI: No! Is it on your site?
MATHANGI: I’ll have to check it out. I loved that book.
SOPHIA: I'll send it to you. That’s awesome! And, ok. This is most of what I was going to ask you. Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
MATHANGI: I think another thread that goes through the book is motherhood, which is something I’ve always been really fascinated with. I think I was talking before about the way that women hold each other up and mother each other, even if they’re not directly related to each other. That became especially important to me as I was writing, because...I got the contract for this book two months after I had adopted my daughter. And the first thing my editor said when he read the draft was that I needed to add more depth to the mothers. So the experience of being a new mother and writing this book was really powerful for me. I hope it’s something that people see as they’re reading. Just like there are so many ways to be a girl in a poor community, there are also so many ways to be a mother in a poor community. There are so many choices you have to make as a mother about your own survival and your child’s survival. And that was something that I reflected on a lot as I was making choices about my own daughter—especially how many more choices I had than the women whom I worked with [in India].
SOPHIA: What do you believe women need or can do for each other presently?
MATHANGI: I think women need to listen to each other, see each other, hold each other’s stories up, and hold each other up. I think that’s particularly important in this moment, with #MeToo and #BelieveWomen. Stories are so powerful—whether we’re believing somebody who’s testifying about sexual harassment, believing somebody who’s telling us what their community needs, or even just believing a friend who is in pain and doesn’t feel like she has the space to express it. So often, women are ignored. I think the act of really listening and taking care of each other can lead to so much of what we need to change in the world.
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