What my Desi Parents Taught Me About Conflict, Illness and Success

desi parents
[Photo Credit: Lindsey Bruder]

by Jasleena Grewal 

I didn’t grow up in a family where we regularly or openly expressed our emotions. I was always jealous when I heard my friends say, “I love you too, Mom,” before hanging up the phone. But, there were things about my family life that my friends envied, too.

Actions speak louder than words

A couple winters ago, I was driving home from a trip. My parents hiked half a mile in a snowstorm at 2:00 a.m. to help me carry my luggage back home. They didn’t have to do that — they could have been angry at my call at such an ungodly hour. But they weren’t.

I still wish my parents were more emotionally vulnerable through words. But I am beginning to realize their style of affection may be grittier and more resolute, the way an iron prong nurses engine coals in a train after being lugged and shoveled in the cart. When I am burning at my hottest,  they are there for damage control—but they also control the engine by way of their emotional labor.

I have yet to find a romantic partner who I would describe as my “ride or die,” but I know exactly what that is supposed to look and feel like because my parents were those people for me. I realize I have so many memories of them showing up for me in tangible ways that nobody else had the will for. It is the reason why so much of my love shows through my hands—as a nursing student when I help a patient and as a yoga teacher when I provide a physical assist or healing touch.

[Read Related: I’m Still a Rebel, But I See Where My Parents are Coming From]

The value of privacy and restraint

I think of myself as someone with enormous privilege because of the struggles my parents faced. But no one would guess the modest beginnings they came from or their wildest successes—because they don’t talk about it.

Before they became corporate professionals, my dad was a factory worker and delivered pizzas. My mom worked multiple jobs while caring for me and my cousins—she remembers how we all slept in the same bed and how many nights she endured with one or more of us wetting it.

Collectively, the struggles and triumphs we have faced as a family are sacred to our home. I realize why I am so selective with what I share, especially in the era of social media and in my twenties, while I am changing at such a rapid pace. At the same time—I struggle.

I would describe myself as open and expressive, and social media has been an integral tool for my creative development. I am constantly calibrating and re-calibrating how much of myself to give and how much of myself to preserve. While those two qualities are not mutually exclusive, my intense desire for and attachment to privacy is a trait I inherited from my parents.

I am not one to throw my energy around, and learning how to better manage it helps me discern and connect with others who hold similar values. From my parents, I learned to keep my jewels in my pocket. Sometimes, I will meet people who will treat me more graciously, and we grab the jewels out of our pockets, excited to show each other. We let them shine in each other’s faces, place them in our pockets, and walk back to class, feeling warmer.

To show up for others in their darkest times

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 19. (It is an inflammatory bowel disease, so I have plenty of embarrassing poop stories to share.) In your teens and 20s, there is nothing more humbling than requiring bathroom assistance. Let’s just say, there is a reason why I sob every time I read E.B. White’s “Death of a Pig,” his account of helping his ill pig over its dying days. White did everything he could, saw every angle of the pig, and felt a connection so deep upon administering the pig’s enema that he was never the same after the pig died.

Similarly, because of the love my mom showed through my illness, no matter how gross it seemed to other people, I will never perceive human relationships the same. I am in my mid-20s, and I know that love is not vain. Love prevails in the smelliest and messiest of times.

[Read Related: 10 Things Desi Parents Have Taught Us]

To pick my battles wisely, and not to be ashamed when I’m in the thick of one

For the most part, my parents are self-contained, and even soft-spoken, but no one gets to know your loudest of roars like family members do. Under manipulation, injustice and aggression, my mom and dad are forces to be reckoned with. From my mom, I inherited a razor tongue, and from my dad, an ego. An ego that huffs and puffs and tears the house down when others mistreat me.

Throughout the years, I have learned to channel my anger to be useful instead of hurtful. I have confronted teachers and bosses without mincing words, I have walked out of abusive work environments, and I have reported every rude receptionist to their managers.

Even in these moments, I sometimes ask myself, “Did I do the right thing?” Naturally, I retell the stories to my parents. I remember after I told my parents about an intense argument with a cruel professor, they looked at me, smiled softly, and realized I was indeed their daughter.


Jasleena GrewalJasleena Grewal is from Seattle, WA. Her beautiful Pacific Northwest home has taught her to see stars in cars, little amoebas in raindrop reflections against the quivering dashboard. Aside from what her parents have to say (about anything), she only lets the sky rule her moods.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Keeping our Friendships Strong as we Get Older

I organize play dates for my children. They’re friendships remind me of when I was younger when Fridays were consistently set aside for my friends. Now, it seems play is indeed meant for childhood and work is for aging adults. We often can’t find time for ourselves, let alone our friends, who are busy working mothers like ourselves. Or we moved into unreachable corners of this globe, far away from any means of physical communication. It’s fair to say, it’s hard to stay close to friends like when we were in college. Nowadays, it’s easier to travel, but more difficult to bond with others. “My Friend” asserts that we should not end let our friendships fall by the wayside. Even with physical distance and conflicting schedules, we keep our friendships close with kind words on phone calls, regular FaceTime calls, or even encouraging social media comments. Friendship doesn’t end once we become adults.

[Read Related: Connecting my Stories With Those of my mom and Grandma]

My Friend

The turbulent sea of a ticking clock,
A constant chime of chores
Unfolded laundry, unpaid bills.
For unplanned surprises, Life’s infinite stores

An achy neck, a heavy head,
A forever strong of burdens
Fleeting as they may be
Yet as real as my scribbling pens

In this world of lonely battles
Filled with competing souls
It’s you, my friend
Your comforting words, long strolls

Your phone calls, your laughter,
You listening when I’m remiss,
Your steady support,
The source of all my bliss.

[Read Related: 4 Brown Girls Who Write-U.K. Asian Sisterhood Changing the Dynamics of Poetry]


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By Mars D. Gill

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‘About the Author’ – A Short Story

In celebration of Kirthana Ramisetthi’s second novel “Advika and the Hollywood Wives,” BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is publishing this short story by the acclaimed author. This piece chronicles the evolution of a writer’s life through their ever-changing author’s bio. In the details, from the change in last name to the new address, we observe how Gigi grows into Genevieve and the life events that make her into the writer she becomes. 

“My Picnic,” published in the Oakwood Elementary Storytime Scrapbook

Gigi Maguire loves strawberries, “Smurfs,” and being a first grader. Her favorite word is ‘hooray.’ This is her first short story. 

“Sunshine Day,” published in Oakwood Elementary KidTale

Gigi Maguire is a fifth grader in Ms. Troll’s class. She loves writing stories more than anything in the whole world, except for peanut butter. 

“What Rhymes with Witch?,” published in BeezKneez.com

Gigi Maguire is a high school junior living in the Bay Area. Her favorite writers are Sylvia Plath and J.K. Rowling. If she can’t attend Hogwarts, she’ll settle for Sarah Lawrence or NYU.

“On Her 21st Birthday,” published in LitEnds

Gigi Laurene Maguire is a writer and recent graduate from Sarah Lawrence College. Her favorite writers are Sylvia Plath, Alice Munro, and Mahatma Gandhi. She is making her big move to New York City in the fall.

“Valentine’s Day in a Can,” published in Writerly

Gigi Laurene Maguire is a freelance writer who loves the written word, Ireland in springtime, and “La Vie En Rose.” She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

“Unspoken Ballads of Literal Heartbreak,” published in Weau Dunque Review

Gigi Laurene Maguire is an assistant editor at ScienceLife.com. Her work has appeared in Writerly and is forthcoming in Pancake House and Schooner’s Weekly. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. 

“The Mistress of Self-Loathing,” published in Story Day 

Gigi L. Maguire is the editor-in-chief of Small Business Weekly. Her work has appeared Writerly, Story Day, Pancake House, and Schooner’s Weekly. She’s currently working on a novel about witches. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her tabby cat Sabrina. 

“The Distance in Your Eyes,” published in The Canton Review

Gigi L. Maguire is a freelance writer and digital marketing specialist. Her work has appeared in Writerly, Story Day, and is forthcoming in Idaho Centennial. She’s working on a novel and a short story collection. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

“Auspicious,” published in BookWorks 

Genevieve L. Maguire’s work appears or will appear in The Canton Review, Mark’s End, Bishop Quarterly, and Idaho Centennial. A second runner-up for the Imelda Granteaux Award for Fiction, she is writing a novel and a memoir. Genevieve lives in Brooklyn. 

“Meditate, Mediate,” published in Ripcord

Genevieve L. Maguire’s fiction appears or will appear in BookWorks, The Canton Review, Berkeley Standard, and elsewhere. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she is an MFA candidate at New York University. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and their two cats.

“Chaat & Chew,” published in The Carnegie Review

Genevieve L. Maguire’s fiction appears in Ploughshares, Ripcord, The Cambridge Review, and elsewhere. She received her master’s in creative writing from New York University. Her short story “Meditate, Mediate” has been optioned by Academy Award nominee Janet De La Mer’s production company, Femme! Productions. She lives in Brooklyn with her fiancé, their three cats, and a non-singing canary.

“Urdhva Hastasana Under a Banyan Tree” published in The Paris Review

Genevieve Maguire-Mehta’s fiction has been hailed as “breathtakingly lyrical” by Margaret Atwood. She is the recipient of the Whiting Prize for Short Fiction and an Ivy Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in The Carnegie Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband Manoj in Park Slope, Brooklyn. 

“Reaching New (Jackson) Heights,” performed by Lana Del Rey on NPR’s “Shorts” series

Genevieve Maguire-Mehta’s fiction has been hailed as “effervescent” by Alice Munro and “breathtakingly lyrical” by Margaret Atwood. She is the recipient of the Whiting Prize for Short Fiction and an Ivy Fellow. Her work appears or has appeared in The Paris Review, Elle, The Carnegie Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband in Park Slope, Brooklyn with their feisty menagerie of animals.

“The Bhagavad Gina,” published in The New Yorker

Genevieve Maguire-Mehta is the recipient of the Whiting Prize of Short Fiction and is a McClennen Arts Colony scholar. Her work appears or has appeared in The Paris Review, Elle, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel. She lives with her husband and daughter in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“When Two Becomes None,” published in American Quarterly 

Genevieve Maguire’s writing has received dozens of accolades, most recently the Luciana Vowel Prize for Female Fiction. Praised by Alice Munro as “effervescent,” her work has appeared in more than twenty publications, including The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. She lives with her daughter Priyanka in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path,” published by Capricorn Rising Press

Genevieve Maguire is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than thirty publications, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She lives with her daughter in a 100-year-old farmhouse in Woodstock, New York. “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” is her first novel. Visit her website at genevievemagauthor.com.

“Hairy Arms and Coconut Oil,” published in MotherReader

Genevieve Maguire Dunblatt is a novelist, homeopath, and part-time yoga instructor. She has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband Benji and daughter Priyanka in Jacksonville, Florida.  

“Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life,” published by Capricorn Rising Press

Genevieve M. Dunblatt is the author of two novels, including “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path.” An aura reader, faith healer, and yoga instructor, she has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband in Jacksonville, Florida. Visit genevieveauthormag.com to learn more about her writing, and genevieveauthormag.com/hearthappy for her wellness services. 

“Comma, Coma,” published in Read-A-Day Journal

Genevieve Maguire is the author of “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” and “Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life.” She has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Alice Munro has called her writing “effervescent.” She lives in Jacksonville, Florida.  

“Next Stop New York,” published in The Lunar Reader

Genevieve Maguire is the author of “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” and “Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life.” She lives in New Jersey.  

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By Kirthana Ramisetti

Kirthana Ramisetti is the author of Dava Shastri’s Last Day, a Good Morning America Book Club selection which is in … Read more ›

Fireside Chat With Debut Author Sophie Jai

sophie jai
sophie jai

 I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. — Sophie Jai  

“Wild Fires” by Sophie Jai is a story about one Trinidadian family’s journey through grief, identity and memory. Jai’s debut novel takes readers on a journey of a past Trinidad and present-day Canada. 

 

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In conversation with Jai, we talk about Caribbean stories, the psychology of a house and what makes a family. The following answers have been abridged and edited for clarity and concision.

[Read Related: Author Kirtie Persaud on Representation for Indo Caribbean Girls, Motherhood and Balance ]

 What inspired you to write “Wild Fires?”

I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.

When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?

It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.

How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?

Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community. 

Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?

My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience. 

 

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Is the rest of the book based on a true story?

It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my  life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.

The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?

I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.

One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?

For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.

Why explore the psychology of a house?

It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.

What makes a family?

I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.

The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?

Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.

 

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What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”

I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of  these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.

Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.  

“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.

Featured Image Courtesy: Sophie Jai

By Usha Sookai

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