Neesha Meminger is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon (Margaret K. McElderry, March 2009). She was born in India, raised in Toronto, and currently lives in New York City. She has taught undergraduate freshmen at college campuses in New York (both public and private), and loves expanding the hearts and minds of readers.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I don’t know if I can do this "briefly" but I will try. Besides the usual slurs, name-calling, bullying, fights in the schoolyard, etc. (which were as much about class as about race), I witnessed my parents being treated like they were children, or at the very least, not the intelligent people I knew them to be. My parents (who spoke very little English) could not ask for directions without breaking into a sweat and/or trembling. Very hard for a child to see their protectors — our main line of defense in this world — reduced in this way.
I learned to be afraid of white people (both wealthy and the working class ones in my neighborhood), and "the system." In my very working class, very brown world, this combination of white people and the system held the power to take away a person’s income or home and, sometimes, their children.
I saw despair infused into the day-to-day interactions of the adults in my life. My parents, who I believed were heroes and saviours when we lived in India, were rendered completely powerless, and succumbed to shame on a regular basis for not being able to live up to their roles.
Within the first two years of moving to Canada, the Sikh temple next door to us was set on fire. It was arson, and the young white boys who were responsible for it lived down the street from us. We continued to live in that apartment after the fire (which had made its way into our home) for a good four months afterward because we didn’t have the money to move. To this day, the smell of burning wood takes me right back to that apartment.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?
Absolutely. We’re all a finely-woven tapestry of our experiences, especially those that leave lasting imprints. All of my fiction features strong women, people of colour, the working class, and LGBTQ characters making choices that eventually lead them to discovering the truth and beauty that is inherent in all of us.
When I was teaching, I taught novels and texts that weren’t conventionally taught in post-secondary institutions. I sometimes had to fight to include certain texts, and (luckily) I was almost always given the green light. The ones I had to fight to include invariably ended up the most popular with my students.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Two ways: 1) To provide insight into an "other" experience; and 2) to open the imagination to new possibilities.
On the first: reading about cultures that are "other" to a reader brings that reader into a world they may not otherwise give more than a passing thought to. It is immediate, it is intimate, detailed, and emotional. It is a journey. And through this journey, the reader eventually discovers that what is universal is human thought and emotion. What pulls us into a story is the emotional journey, the protagonist fighting the good fight–one we can all relate to–and coming out in the end, deeply changed, usually for the better.
Writers who write race, gender, class, sexuality, and the "other" experiences consciously, reshape the world we live in to reflect a certain sensibility. This sensibility positions the "other" smack dab in the middle of the narrative rather than on the fringe or in the margins. This, in itself, is quite radical, given the mainstream depictions of what is desirable, what is to be aspired to, and what is valuable.
In my experience, such texts in the classroom (where the "other" is repositioned to the center), generate interesting discussion and debate and ultimately create a dynamic learning environment. Students who resist such a repositioning of the "other" meet and engage with students for whom seeing such a repositioning is a lifeline. Sometimes emotions run high. But in the hands of a qualified, steady facilitator who is able to create a positive, safe discussion space, insights can be profound and life-changing for everyone involved.
Literature, film, and art, in general, are invaluable and critical lenses when looking at such cultural/social constructs as "mainstream" and "other" — which is what race is. Art is the solid, physical manifestation of the imagination, and that is what, as educators, we strive to expand in our students.