Zoya Patel: conflicting identities, political correctness, and why she’s never truly felt at home

Interview Fay Edwards // Images Zoya Patel

Zoya Patel
Zoya Patel. Credit Linda Macpherson.

Based in Canberra, Zoya Patel is a writer, editor and communications professional. This year she published her first book – a collection of memoir essays that examine the intricacies of race and identity within the Australian cultural landscape.

Ahead of the official launch of No Country Woman, vollie Fay sat down with Zoya to talk conflicting identities, political correctness, and why she’s never truly felt at home.

We met somewhere deep in in the bowels of Canberra’s bureaucracy – not a particularly inspired time in my life. How on earth did you end up there, and where have you been since?

I have been a communications professional since I left university, and love working in strategic comms. I’ve primarily worked in charities, including YWCA Canberra, and most recently RSPCA Australia. I now work for the ACT Government, and love being able to contribute to the city I call home.

I’m not really a one-career kind of girl. Being able to balance my creative life with my professional life keeps me sane, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

You’ve always struck me as quite a fierce, no bullshit kinda gal. So the insecurities you share in your debut memoir ‘No Country Woman’ were a surprise to me, particularly those relating to your identity. You write of a deep and ongoing yearning for a solid, perfect identity that started way back when you were a Fijian-Indian growing up in Albury. You feel “steeped in whiteness” and unable to find your way back to roots that you’ve spent a lifetime trying to pull out. Why is belonging, or not belonging, such a defining issue for you?

 It’s interesting, because the only people who have read the book and been surprised by my cultural identity crisis so far have been white. People of colour have expressed how they related to my experience, or how they have felt the same way for most of their lives.

I think this points to the fact that racial othering is part of Australian culture, and is enacted in many subtle, unconscious ways on POC. I am literally defined by my fraught cultural background, so I can’t pin down ‘why’ belonging is such a defining issue for me – that’s how it’s always been. Being a minority in a monocultural society places the onus on you to figure out your place in the world, because you are constantly being defined by what you’re not, not what you are.

I recently heard a song by Julia Johnson (check her out), about being “an uncomfortable girl”. It resonated with me because I think we’re often so critical of ourselves, always wanting to be better, do better, look better. Your memoir reveals the many facets of your personality – with all its contradictions and complications – and I REALLY appreciate you having the bravery to share this. But I have to say – when you wrote of needing to hold your partner’s hand before getting into the ocean (a serious fear of yours), I found myself wanting to say “c’mon Zoya! You’re a warrior woman!”. But then I checked myself – because I’m trying to accept that it’s ok to hold these contradictions within ourselves – to be an ultra-feminist, but to love a man. To be a passionate advocate for animal rights, but to love cheese. To yearn for inner peace, but to fight for your values and beliefs. Do you agree? Or are you uncomfortable with perceived flaws in yourself and others?

 I think it’s incredibly problematic to place generic notions of ‘courage’ or ‘independence’ on individuals. In the essay you reference, I talk about the generational legacy of fear that has been instilled in me towards the ocean – it has little to do with the gender dynamics within my relationship, and a lot to do with the culture I was raised in. So I don’t see that as a contradiction with my feminism.

Similarly, a point I try and make throughout the book is that the labels we use to identify ourselves are in many ways constructed and arbitrary. We often make perfect the enemy of the good, especially when it comes to our political identities, and I would rather be honest about my ‘flaws’ as an animal welfare activist etc than try and hide them.

I also have to say that I object to the notion that you can’t be both an ‘ultra-feminist’ and love the men in your life, but that’s just me 😉

Humans balance their public and private selves constantly. We communicate so much with our appearance, so I’m a little dismayed that you’ve spent years hating your curls. As a curly-haired gal myself, I know very well the delight of ironing unruly curls into submission – forming a unique armour that says “I’m in control”. I’ve now embraced the curl, but I STILL feel less professional and/or attractive when it isn’t straight – it’s more that I don’t care that I let it curl. Can you please explain? (And can you pleeeease let it go curly for your book launch!?)

Haha, I get this a lot, especially when people see my hair curly. I try and explain in No Country Woman how my hatred of my curly hair is inextricably linked to the racist notions I have internalised about looking too ‘fresh off the boat’. Migrants grow up in environments where the beauty standards are defined by whiteness, and aren’t considerate to the ways our brown bodies can’t necessarily engage with them.

I’ve grown up with my pop culture idols wearing their hair in ways that my wiry, curly Indian hair simply won’t go. It might seem like a minor issue, but it’s part of a broader sense of erasure that often makes us feel like our bodies are wrong, when compared to what we’re told is the cultural ideal (white bodies, and even then, only a certain kind of white body). This is something we just have to learn to confront and unpack. I’m pleased to say that my hair is curly as I type this right now, and these days I go more with how I feel day-to-day. I still love wearing my hair straight and that’s not going to change, so no promises re: my book launch!

I LOVED reading about you growing up helping out in the family business. I can almost hear my Mum echo your Mum’s statement that “A family business means everyone helps out”. Just like your parents, my parents are incapable of relaxing – constantly occupied by the requirements of running a farm and a career in art. When I was a kid I resented this – I can’t tell you how many tantrums I had before a day of planting trees or mustering sheep. Those tantrums have been replaced with my own ambition, and like you I find self-worth in being an achiever. But a year spent living in a country where even posting a letter in the mail felt like an amazing feat helped me find a degree of self-acceptance, outside tangible achievements. I feel like you’re seriously critical of yourself, and I wonder if you ever question your drive?

 I don’t think I’m seriously critical of myself – I’m actually a generally self-confident person, and my drive is entirely self-motivated. I have never particularly cared about how my achievements fit into a social or cultural hierarchy, and have always only pursued things that I’m genuinely interested in.

It’s one of the reasons why I’m a writer, instead of a lawyer or doctor or any of the other professions I’m sure my parents would have loved for me. I definitely don’t think I find my self-worth in being an achiever, but I have always been taught that we are entirely responsible for our own outcomes, and hence I have a lot of motivation to achieve everything I want to in the short amount of time I get on this planet.

But I place more value in my relationships than in my career goals – something I definitely think my parents instilled in me!

Like many people of our generation, you’re uncomfortable with the privileges your circumstances have given you. Your parents worked hard to give you and your family a life of opportunities – leaving their friends and family in Fiji to move to Australia. You speak of “migrant guilt”, and while I can’t relate to this in a meaningful way, I can relate to the ‘millennial dilemma’ – of having so much, wanting more, and feeling guilty about it all. A lot of us want our jobs to be meaningful and enjoyable, and to make our mark. Can you talk to me about the idea that “self-determination is a conceit”?

I think that guilt is an inherent aspect of empathy – to truly understand the experiences of others who may have less than ourselves, we have to be woke to our own privilege and that leads to guilt. I’d rather feel guilty and therefore be thankful for everything that I do have, and committed to giving back wherever I can, than to live in blissful ignorance.

Self-determination is a concept that isn’t a big part of the Fijian-Indian culture I was raised in. In our culture you do what’s best for the community, not just for yourself. It means that good fortune is shared, and equally bad fortune becomes a shared challenge, which is communally resolved. It’s an ideology that’s very different to the individualised, capitalist culture we have in Australia.

I think there’s probably a comfortable middle ground, and I definitely think we have a pretty good giving culture in Australia, which sees us individually support disadvantage in areas we personally connect to. And I love that our generation has a reputation for wanting to find our own happiness through meaningful jobs and making an impact!

I’m a ‘nice white girl’. I grew up on a farm in rural Australia in a white family, and I am anonymous in Australia. Just like some of the people in your book, I have been oblivious to racism – a frightening truth. I actually think I am racist – not in a derogatory ‘white supremacist’ freaky way, but in a ‘I grew up in a comfy white community and am blinded by my own circumstances’ kind of way. I’m not necessarily ashamed of this (although guilt does sometimes rear its head), because I believe that I’m a pretty open-minded, curious and well-meaning person – although I know I need to try harder. To me, open and honest conversation about big issues is so important, even if it makes us uncomfortable at times. So I wonder if you could talk to me about the “intense political correctness” in Australia, and the importance of understanding racist comments in the way that they are received, not the way that they are consciously intended?

In my essay How to be an ally to people of colour – Take 2, I talk about the complexities of understanding racism when you’re not a POC, and how intent is a really difficult notion to take into account.

Part of what I say is that when a POC experiences what they assume is racism, it’s being experienced in the context of every other experience of racism they have ever had, that has made them feel disempowered and displaced, and ashamed. Which means that even if the exact experience they are having in that moment is not intentionally racist, that doesn’t mean that it won’t have a profoundly negative impact on the person involved.

That’s not to say that everything is racist until proven otherwise – but to say that individual interactions often carry the baggage of years of negative experiences, and it’s important to be willing to engage with that context when working through an experience of racism. Most importantly, if you’re a ‘nice white person’ and are called out for unconscious racism, don’t be defensive – it’s actually not about how you feel, but about how the POC in question feels. This is a challenging truth to reckon with, but it’s crucial to being an affective ally.

I want to talk about language. As a kid you refused to speak Hindi because you thought you could express yourself better in English. Unlike your siblings, you couldn’t – or didn’t want to – flick between the two. In Australia we’re officially monolingual, which not only denies the tapestry of Indigenous languages that are spoken across Australia, but also ignores our multiculturalism. Having learnt another language, I’m fascinated with the way that language reveals thought, culture, politics and gender. So to me, our official monolingualism in Australia reveals monoculture thought. But I’m curious to know why you think you express yourself better in English, and whether this is connected to your pursuit of an ‘Australian’ identity?

 I think any child who is experiencing school in a different language to that which is spoken at home will likely prefer the one they use the most often. I used English far more in my day to day life as a child than I used Hindi, so of course it felt more natural to me to speak in English.

It certainly wasn’t a conscious rejection of Hindi for any reason associated with shame or embarrassment – I just didn’t have the tools to understand that I might regret that loss of language later in life.

I think this is an inherent challenge for any migrant – to maintain a connection to your first language when steeped in another is really hard, especially if you’re isolated from other people who can converse with you in that language. I’m lucky in that my Hindi is still fluent, and reinforced when I spend time with my family. I imagine it’ll be harder for each generation after mine though, to retain that connection. //

No Country Woman is available now in all good book stores, or online at hachette.com.au.

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