Jo Tyabji talks about personal experiences relating to identity.
“Motherland” is playing from Thu 27 – Sat 30 November 2019 at 9pm as part of CPT’s Autumn 2019 Season. Click here for more information.
Who are you first?
I’m half Indian, half English. That’s not something people say much these days, our linguistics is full of POC, mixed race, British Indian, women of colour, queer people of colour. I’m halfhalf. But of course that’s not quite it because identity isn’t a pie chart – actually I’m wholewhole. At dinner with extended family a few years ago, a shockingly awful English aunt-by-marriage was describing how she’d decided what she’d do if she and her husband happened on a boat of migrants in trouble in the Med while they were sailing there. She’d decided they would throw them a rope, but if the people on the sinking ship then starting pulling themselves towards the safety of the not-sinking ship, she’d cut the rope again. She asked me didn’t I feel there were too many, that England was changing too fast? I said no, perhaps because I’m half Indian –she cut in: but you’re English first though aren’t you?
I’ve had strangers chuck varying degrees of homophobia, queerphobia and racism my way, but that was the first time a supposed relative had used that kind of language to police me. I was struck by the anxiety: who are you, first? Britain and India, the two countries I feel that kind of heart-tug longing of and for belonging with, are both in the grip of that anxiety. It’s an anxiety born of that pie-chart idea: identity is blocks of distinct and separate colours that you can label with ethnic or religious tags, and in an ideal world each political entity called a nation would basically be one ethnic (or religious) block. A whole pie. You know what happens if your pie is multicoloured? People get confused and scared because the fantasy is that nations are markers of safety, of being on side, and if I’m more than one then whose side am I on?
To which I say, how old are you? It just feels so childish. I’m living proof that’s not how people work.
There are two really crucial conspiracy theories that work off this insistence on pie-chart nationality. One figures Europe’s Jews as the enemy within, and the other figures Europe’s Muslims as the same. So in fact it’s the same conspiracy theory, as you see when you get people like Jacob Rees-Mogg repeating the far right trope that George Soros is to blame for all the migrants. This is a placeholder for the actual conspiracy theory: the Jews are funding and supporting an Islamic invasion of Europe and America to facilitate the downfall of white civilisation. Pie in the sky pie chart thinking. There never was or has been a white civilisation, only a civilisation that erased all its links with and borrowings from the rest of the world, looked away from its own rapacious hands around the rest of the world’s neck, stared straight into the sun and called itself Enlightened.
The second conspiracy theory then, is that India was pure before the Muslims came. That India even existed before the colonial processes of forced continental-scale nation building and identity formation in the twin forges of obedience and independence. A Hindu rashtra, one colour block of pie, with nothing in it but saffron from edge of they eye to edge of the eye. No room there for the waffle cone double scoop of identity. One flavour only.
And why does this matter? Because India is poised to enact a law that will see every Indian Muslim’s citizenship questioned, become contingent. And what do we call that? Oh yes fascism. It’s scarier and clearer because it’s a law enacted by a government that won a landslide electoral victory, but it’s not actually different to my distant aunt-by-marriage’s question (see how hard I work to disown her, but I can’t, she’s a person I’ve seen her eat I know she’s flesh and blood no monster). Asking someone who they are first, that’s on the same trajectory. So I’m asking it back – who are you, first? Someone who’ll throw a rope, only to cut it, or someone who’ll be that lifeline across a borderless sea?