Writing memoir is a daunting task. Since the release of my debut book, No Country Woman, a memoir of growing up as a migrant in Australia, I have been asked numerous times what the process was like, and how I have balanced the many competing pressures when writing from personal experience. It’s assumed that writing memoir can be fraught because, inevitably, exploring our own experiences will mean incorporating those of others that intersect with our lives, and doing justice to each person represented in your work can be challenging. The questions I have been asked about writing my book have very much focused on this issue of integrity and respecting other people’s right to privacy—but they haven’t delved deeper into the specific complexity this involves when writing from a culturally diverse background, as I have done.
Writing memoir as a migrant comes with its own unique set of concerns, the largest of which for me was telling my story without bringing dishonour on my family. The concept of ‘dishonour’ is itself one that isn’t well understood in mainstream Australian society. In Fijian-Indian culture, honour and loyalty to one’s family are the cornerstones of our communities.
From as young as I can remember, our family’s honour has been a looming feature in my life. My siblings and I were raised, much like my parents were, with the knowledge that this elusive beast, ‘honour’, was the duty of each and every one of us, and could equally be any of our downfalls. This was reinforced to us in terms of how we behaved in public, what we achieved in our education and career pursuits, and what relationships we engaged with outside of our family group. All of these facets of our daily lives were linked to our reputation as a family, and a single misstep could tarnish that reputation for generations.
It isn’t just about what other people think of us, though—it’s about integrity, morality, and living true to our cultural codes and religious beliefs. And, to be honest, it is kind of about what other people think of us, too. In fact, the way that we knew as a community that a family’s honour was in jeopardy was when they became the talk of the social scene. Whether it was that so-and-so’s daughter had a boyfriend out of marriage, or that so-and-so’s business was failing and everyone knew he was desperate for a loan, gossip is sadly also a cornerstone of our community.
In this context, writing memoir becomes very fraught. Our experiences of living in Australia are brought to life in No Country Woman through the sharing of anecdotes and family history, which sheds light on the intricacies of our small unit of parents and siblings, and the dynamics we have.
In a way, I have opened up a window into our life and invited strangers in, something that is very unusual in our culture. The mechanics of a family’s life are kept close, and the front that is presented publicly is always a united one.
My book instead pokes and prods at this shared wall of stoicism, and tries to dissemble the way in which my family grew together into our Australian identity, bringing forth all the vulnerability and uncertainty that this deep dive into identity inevitably entails.
In writing the book, I spent a lot of time feeling caught between fear of shaming my family somehow with this unusual openness, and a desire to finally push that window open and let the light in.
I wanted to examine our culture in the daylight, and understand why I have always felt so trapped between my Fijian-Indian self and my Australian self, unable to bring the two together. To do this, I had to examine each family member in turn, and to unravel the way I was raised, and even the very facets of our culture that have shaped me.
At the same time, I was also aware that there was a likelihood that any story I told would be extrapolated out to represent the whole migrant community to a degree. This is the unfortunate reality of being a minority voice—without a wider array of stories, the few that are shared become the only stories and it becomes important to make sure that the story we do tell with the platforms we have is positive and ‘correct’, in a way that isn’t expected from the mainstream.
As I attend events to promote the book, I’m conscious of how often I am expected to have answers to massive questions, questions that interrogate the very notion of multiculturalism and the place of immigrants in Australian society—the fact that I am a migrant myself is seen as evidence of my ability to speak to these issues, when the message of No Country Woman is actually the opposite; my book tries to point out the multitudes within migrant communities, and the importance of reclaiming individual identities that don’t arbitrarily group people of colour together by virtue of our difference from white Australia.
I am sure that the experiences I relay in book will resonate with some migrants, and probably also with non-POC readers who just love animals, or care about social justice, or have an over-the-top love of Harry Potter, all topics I write about. Equally, it’s likely that there will be POC who don’t relate to my book at all, and feel alienated by the stories I tell. But there is a risk that mainstream readers will take the book as somehow representing all POC purely because it may be one of their first interactions with a story like mine—this is a risk I had to consider when writing the book.
Writing No Country Woman was a balancing act of telling the truth and representing my family and migrant communities in Australia in a way that embraces multitudes and is honest and respectful.
Surprisingly, the outcome of this balancing and negotiating process has been largely positive. I came to terms with the anxiety I have to accept as a writer that my representations of other people may never live up to their expectations, and are inevitably likely to be misinterpreted by some readers.
I was worried that when it came to the book being finished and out in the world, my family would feel more anxiety than they had displayed to me through the process up to that point.
My parents were very firm with me that they wanted me to write what I wanted to share, without concerning myself with what our community might think—but I knew that ultimately, any negative backlash from our broader networks would impact them and not me, so I wanted to be cautious.
However, since No Country Woman has been out in the world, instead of being a source of potential dishonour, it has become a force for connection. Even within my own family, we are now talking about our shared experiences in a way that we haven’t done in a long time, including expressing our own frustrations with the racism we sometimes experience, or my parents’ experiences of coming to Australia when they were only a little older than I am now, with four children in tow.
The book has enabled us to have more emotionally connected conversations about these topics, because it has served in a way as a witness to what we have shared, and as a reminder that what got us through the hard times was our closeness to each other.
It is still a vulnerable position to be in, within the broader Fijian-Indian community both in Fiji and in the diaspora—as one of the few writers from my culture exploring these topics, I do feel a lot of pressure to do justice to our culture on behalf of the community, a pressure that minorities always face, and the mainstream rarely does.
But when I see the way that my own family has opened up and embraced these conversations, it gives me hope.
Memoir is so much more than a sharing of personal experience. It is an opportunity to use the personal for the political, to build shared values through the sharing of stories. It allows us to forge connections through the power of storytelling, and it has enormous potential to change cultures and systems.
As a migrant, the stakes are high, especially in our current political climate where we face the danger of a single popular narrative homogenising all cultural minorities as being recipients of and not contributors to what makes Australia great.
But daunting though it may be, the opportunities are also immense—if nothing else, I know that sharing my family’s stories has helped us to feel validated in them. It is like saying, this happened, it made me and it made us—it’s worth remembering.
Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in Canberra. She is the Founding Editor of independent feminist journal, Feminartsy, through which she publishes the work of writers from across Australia, hosts monthly feminist reading nights, and co-hosts the Read Like a Feminist bookclub. Zoya writes fiction, non-fiction and memoir, and has had her work published in a range of publications including Junkee, Women’s Agenda, i-D.co, Right Now, The Canberra Times and more. Her new memoir, No Country Woman was published in August 2018.