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