I first met Nishta J. Mehra in 2005 when we studied creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona’s MFA program. Her prose was, and is, agile, buoyant while being direct, and strong. She also routinely brought baked goods to our class workshops, and, honestly, you have not lived until you have tasted one of Nishta’s lemon bars.
Baking prowess and generosity aside, Mehra’s second book collection of essays, Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion comes out on February 5. The book illuminates the love Mehra has for her parents as the only child of Indian immigrants, her spouse Jill, and their child Shiv, who Jill and Nishta adopted in 2012. Mehra’s linked essays lay bare the biases inherent in human beings and the narrow, often discriminatory systems we create when we think of family from only a heteronormative, stick-figure-family-car-decal experience. As Mehra points out, our culture tends to marginalize not only same-sex and adoptive parents, but also single parents, families anchored and led by grandparents, blended families, and foster families, among others. The essays in Brown White Black ask the reader to not only hold ambiguity close in their hearts, but also to consider and respect the many paths to parenthood, family, personal identity, and love.
The Common Reader: I remember reading “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” in Guernica (March 2015) and wishing your essay were a book. Lo and behold, many other people thought so too. Did “True Love” serve as the impetus for writing Brown White Black, or were these other collected, entwined essays already in the hopper, too?
The way this book came into being is, for me, a true parable about the collective effort that undergirds any writing project, even though we as authors tend to do the actual writing process alone. “Black is the Color” came into being when my friend Aisha Sabatini Sloan urged me to write more about the process of becoming a parent, parenting, and navigating family life as a queer woman of color inside a mixed-race family built by adoption. We often take for granted the ordinary-ness of our own experience, and Aisha’s encouragement gave me permission to look at my experience through a different lens. The publication of “Black is the Color” is how Anna deVries, my incomparable editor, connected with me, and, from there, we conceived of the book in conversation with each other.
TCR: The Kirkus Reviews wrote that your writing “effectively show[s] the difficulties of being a mixed-race, same-sex family in America,” but as I read Brown White Black you also reflect on the joy and the expansiveness of being a family who embroiders and creates your own story, your own traditions and values independent of heteronormative (often stifling) norms. Is my interpretation—of holding these ambiguities at once—remotely close to what you hoped to share with readers about your family, too?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of both/and inside the lived experience of living apart from–or in conflict with–the norm. The tension of holding both grief (in the sense of what is not available to you) and a sense of freedom (in the sense of what is available to you) is so embroidered into family life that I don’t think we even experience it as a tension 90 percent of the time. It’s only when we bump into someone else’s assessment of our family, or find ourselves making a comparison, that things feel fraught. There is, as you rightly stated, a great deal of joy that comes when you are able to create something that feels authentic to you; then, at some point, there is inevitably a moment of doubt about whether what you’ve created will be seen as legitimate by larger society; then, the back-and-forth of whether or not that matters. It’s a long-term conversation.
TCR: You reference “desire lines,” those cowpaths as we call ‘em in the Midwest, where people “queer the space” by walking where it makes the most sense instead of (or in addition to) walking on the prescribed, paved paths. In many ways, reading your essays felt like the literary equivalent of interconnected “desire lines” on how to navigate parenthood, love, race and racism, gender norms, and disrupting the comfort of, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the “‘donothingism’ of the complacent” (read straight, white folks). How did this gorgeous metaphor of “desire lines” inspire the organization and form of the collected essays?
I have to be honest–that metaphor probably only applies to the organization and form of the book in retrospect! Thank you for sharing that observation with me. As I was writing, my ideas felt interconnected in a much messier and less elegant way; it tends to take me a while before individual essays take shape and I’m clear about what to include where. I do think that working to organize this book served as a meaningful mirror for me, in that it felt very affirming to say “Well, yes, of COURSE, this is why it doesn’t work or make sense to try and compartmentalize your life. You can’t really talk about your teaching without also talking about your writing and your parenting and your family and your upbringing.” It’s naturally limiting and false to speak about our multiple identities as if they’re separate from each other; on an institutional level this is, of course, what intersectionality is all about.
And while some people’s desire lines may be more distinct or overtly ground-breaking than others, I do think that many people, across all kinds of categories of identity, can relate to the feeling like the prescribed pathways don’t fully serve them.
TCR: In your acknowledgements you write to your beloved child Shiv, “I know that writing this book will likely bring some complication into your life, and that there may be times when you wish I hadn’t.” You put into words what so many of us struggle with when we write about our children. How did you decide what to include about Shiv and your family in this intimate collection?
This is definitely the most complicated piece of the puzzle when it comes to the book. All of the other close friends and family who show up in the book had a chance to read and comment on what was included, which in some cases meant correcting or expanding my account of a particular situation. Given Shiv’s age when I submitted my manuscript, this wasn’t exactly possible for her.
Drawing boundaries for this book was fairly instinctive, but it can be easy to get sucked into the world of a text and lose your footing, so checking in with Jill regularly was a really important part of the process. She read every word of every draft, and we both tried to make sure that we could imagine a way that the personal information I was including might forward a broader conversation or serve to inform a family that might be dealing with a similar situation. I wanted the questions in the text to be grounded in our very real and very personal experiences, but I did not want to detail every moment of Shiv’s childhood in a gratuitous way.
TCR: Like any skilled essayist, you study your own complacency and part in the larger story while calling your readers to action to reflect on our roles in perpetuating racism, sexism, homophobia, the romanticism of motherhood, pro-natalist culture, and assumptions about what family is and looks like. After readers finish your book, what do you hope they do after reading?
Thank you for this question. I get that we live inside of a world and a time that can make it seem impossibly overwhelming to align our every action with our stated values, and I don’t think there’s any shame in making incremental, deliberate changes. You don’t necessarily have to add to your life, but you can make adjustments to actions you already take: for instance, the next time your child is invited to a birthday party, can you be thoughtful and deliberate about ordering a book or a toy that will increase diverse representation? Are there products you use regularly (like toiletries or cosmetics) that you can commit to buying from a minority-owned business? Of course, there are steps beyond these—suggesting to your employer or your doctor’s office that they consider using more inclusive language on their forms, offering an alternative narrative when someone around you declares that something is “for boys” or “for girls.” Part of what it can mean to be an ally is to assert that these particulars matter to you, and to interrupt the assumption that it is incumbent upon members of affected groups to push for these changes.
We know that increased exposure allows us to reset our mental pathways, so choosing our reading material and other media thoughtfully can help us practice sitting in the discomfort of being with and potentially learning from the views and opinions of those who experience the world very differently than we do.
And last but not least, we have to tell ourselves the truth; we all move around with biases in our minds and old stories that operate at a deep level. Noticing and acknowledging those mental moves is the first step toward acting independently from them.