Introduction to Under Her Skin

There was only one other Indian boy in my third grade class - a Sikh boy whose name I can't remember. His mother, who must have been very loving and attentive, knotted his hair into a neat bun and covered it in a patka, the baby turban he would wear until he graduated to a full turban. His patka always matched his clothes; he even had a denim one for when he wore jeans to school. 

There were clear disadvantages to there being only two of "us", especially since he was a boy and I was a girl. I let the playground chants of "Pooja and His Name, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N…" go in one ear and out the other. I shrugged when girls asked me whether I liked him. I never, ever put his name on my list of boys when we played M.A.S.H. 

I should have defended him on the blacktop that day when a boy pulled off his coordinated patka. He was rounding second base during the daily kickball game at recess when a pale hand yanked the swatch of red fabric off his head. His silky black locks cascaded down his shoulders. A few others gathered around and one voice even yelled, "He's a girl," but he just snatched it back and went inside. He showed up in class after recess was over. Almost everyone looked up from his or her Sustained Silent Reading. I didn't, but instead snuck a glance in his direction at the end the period. His patka was lopsided and haphazard; the school nurse wouldn't have known how to retie it. 

That day, I didn't speak up for him. What would I have said? What could I have said? At that age, it's everyone for herself, no one wants to draw attention for even being the least bit different. I was also in my "I-refuse-to-be-Indian-how-can't-you-see-that-I-am-as-white-as-you" phase: declining to participate in International Day, throwing away Indian lunches that my mother carefully packed for me, wondering how I could change my name to something less conspicuous, like Melissa. In our school, white was "cool." And desirable. Like Michelle, whose lustrous white-blonde hair was referred to as "corn silk" by our second-grade teacher. Or Patrick, who was always picked first when we played softball in gym class. Or James, who had magical birthday parties at the ice-skating rink, with generous goody bags, dressed-up Disney characters on skates, and more candy than you could collect for Halloween. 

By the fifth grade, there were seven South Asian kids in my elementary school. That was in 1989, after the passage of the Immigrant Control and Reform Act which removed country quotas and educational and professional requirements, and quintessential New Jersey suburbs like mine - with Elks Lodges, Girl Scouts, soccer leagues, church fairs and post–World War II prefabricated houses constructed from one set of plans in row after row, even to the placing of a single tree in the same place in every yard - became home to thousands of immigrants from India. We were still matched up: with five girls and two boys, there were just more combinations. So we avoided each other at school. But we were invited to each others' birthday parties where we played Pin The Tail On The Donkey and bobbed for apples, devoured Hot Mix and samosas, and ate lots and lots of cake. 

* * *

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott tells her students to "start with your childhood. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down your memories as truthfully as you can." She goes on to tell us that Flannery O'Connor once said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. 

When, eleven years after leaving elementary school, I embarked on my own writing career, I remembered Lamott's advice and furiously wrote down anything and everything I could remember. I often ended up recounting my memories about race. 

I wrote about an incident in the first grade, when we all walked into the classroom one morning and my teacher saw that a swastika has been spray-painted on the window the night before. Harried and hurried, she called the janitor to remove the offending mark. When several students asked her about it, she distracted them, perhaps with an addition problem or an art project. Granted, we were in the first grade, and didn't have the capacity to learn about the rise and fall of the Third Reich, but a simple history lesson may have eased the unsaid tension in the room. 

I wrote about the racism of many of my parents' Indian friends. When I was old enough to refill the chutney and kebabs on their cocktail plates, but still too young to sit with them, I would catch snippets of their whispered side conversations: "She married a white boy." "We were thinking about moving there. But there were some Mexicans in the neighborhood." "They just promoted him because he was black." 

I wrote about how the heady scent of cloves, cumin, and cardamom from my mother's kitchen seeped into my clothes. While my brown-skinned family and friends told me I smelled like "something good to eat," my classmates found it unpleasant. I was twelve years old when I was told by Jimmy that I "totally smelled" and, perhaps, I was dealing with other "growing up" issues that made this incident particularly painful. It took days for me to write down those two words he had said. In the end, I closed my eyes and typed it, thinking that if I didn't look at it, no one else could see it either. 

* * *

It was this last piece of writing that inspired me to pursue this project. I emailed an early draft to a dear college friend and told him how difficult it was to get out of me, but after "reliving" it a half dozen times, and being courageous enough to share it with my writing group, I realized that I felt better, and stronger, about what had happened (however minor it had been). It gave me an avenue to talk about race with people around me in places where I felt it wasn't usually discussed: over dinner with a bunch of girlfriends, at family functions, on otherwise quotidian instant messenger conversations. 

I discovered that folks were overflowing with stories to share, because they never had the opportunity to do so before. And I then knew I wanted to create a space--a safe, artistic place--where those childhood moments could be shared, questioned, analyzed, forgiven. 

* * *

I admit I did have a bias as I read through the hundreds of submissions: I was most interested in those childhood experiences that spoke of histories - personal, communal, national - and found those essays that confronted the intersection between history and memory to be the most compelling. These essays made me feel like I was on a journey - to search for the meaning in those facts. In the most successful pieces, the essayist went beyond the simple autobiographical chronologies and history book dates; she created a union between inside and outside. The best pieces were transcendent: an essay is an exploration of self and, ultimately, a writer cannot understand the world without analyzing herself, and she cannot discover herself without probing the world. 

The qualities I admire most about the essays that I finally selected, aside from being exquisitely crafted, are their authenticity and honesty. In reading an essay, I want to feel that I'm engaged with a person who is real, who makes mistakes and learns from them. This is cliche, I know, but it is very difficult to find. The ideal personal essay is not static, but an undulating piece of art that is deep and thought-provoking. It should crest and break in different patterns each time you read it. 

I got many inquiries from men wanting to submit, who wrote to me that I was being unfair, discriminatory, telling me that my anthology would be incomplete without their voices. Absolutely, this collection would be different if their points of view were included. Women and men do have different childhood experiences: girls more than boys, I think, deal with issues such as self and body image, cliquishness, definitions of gender roles. My aim in collecting these stories was to showcase the depth and breadth of women's experiences. 

Many writer friends asked me how I would keep the tone from being full of bitterness and blame or how this anthology could avoid ending up a series of tirades on "how much it sucks to be excluded when you really wanted to fit in." When I conceived of this book, I always knew I wanted it to be about strength. It is hard to face, head-on, childhood experiences; they are always formative and lasting. It takes a special courage to reveal, in art, the racism of your parents or the physical violence you suffered at the hands of your classmates or that you were the one inflicting pain on others. 

* * *

I always wanted to write about my Sikh classmate. It is one of those memories whose sounds and colors don't fade away with time. I often imagined an alternate ending: I could have brought the situation to the attention of an otherwise-engaged lunch aide or trusted teacher; I could have accompanied him to the nurse's office and made sure he called his mother to come to school to help him put his patka on correctly; I could have faced those boys--told them I thought they were being really mean. I think how wonderful it might be if he picked up this book, read this introduction, and realizes that there was someone thinking about him that day on the blacktop. 

I make no claim that these essays are representative of the diversity of race and racism in America: even after combing through the overwhelming number of submissions I received and soliciting pieces from writers I admired, I am sure that I may have missed something, viewpoints I did not consider. All I can say is that I liked these essays a lot, they made me think, they got under my skin. I hope that as you read this collection of essays, and admire the candor and courage in these pieces, you might pick up a pen or sit down at the computer, and add on your own story.