By NEELESH RATHI
You shouldn’t be afraid of writing garbage—or of other people seeing it.
But, what if it’s not garbage? What if it’s not something you’re embarrassed to have written, or that you want to revise or change? What if you meant what you wrote?
What do you do when the problem isn’t feeling ashamed of your writing, but fear of being shamed—ridiculed, ostracized, harassed, discriminated against—because of it?
Do I dare disturb the universe?
In the West, we’re buried in a certain kind of narrative: the story of overcoming an internal problem—what sociologist Zeynep Tufekci called a “psychological story”. Many great stories have been written about a character struggling with and (sometimes) overcoming personal distress or deficiency—a lack of self-confidence, the trauma of loss, learning to take responsibility. And the resolution is all about self-awareness and self-improvement. The problem is internal, so the solution only changes what’s inside the character.
But what about when the problem is external? When you live in a society whose foundations are in total contradiction with you and your life? When you’re poor, and society’s moral code is built on capitalism? When you’re Asian, and society is built on a racial divide that gives you the “right” to be present, but not the privilege of being acknowledged? The “right” to speak, but not the privilege of actually being heard?
What do you do when you don’t feel ashamed of who you are, but you’re afraid of how society will react if you write it down? When just being yourself—having your skin colour, keeping your head up, saying what you think, saying what you mean—makes you opposed to everything around you?
I learned young. At six, I learned that my social studies teachers lied to me about Columbus and the Native Americans. By thirteen, I had learned that correcting my social studies teachers left me with awkward silences and without friends. I learned—at a young age, when I didn’t have much perseverance or self-confidence—that fighting the system didn’t work. So I tried to run—run from society, run from seeing what was wrong, run from hearing the lies; run from being myself and caring that things were wrong, that people with power and authority were lying and creating a whole new generation filled with yet more wrongs and lies piled on top of the old lies.
Do I dare disturb the universe?
It took time. I didn’t suddenly find the one, true answer and have some kind of come-to-God, life-changing moment. It didn’t happen overnight. It. Took. Time.
But time is where I found my answer. I read history. I looked into the past—and into my past—and saw a truth there. I saw it in David Zeisberger’s proclamation after the Gnadenhutten massacre that “nowhere is a place to be found to which we can retire… and be secure”; I saw it in the outrage of my six-year-old self at the world for its lies. I saw it in Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom; I saw it in my thirteen-year-old self condemning the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in front of a silent, stunned social studies classroom.
It took time and unlearning a lot of self-defeating habits. I had let myself be shamed into silence by the ostracism I experienced as a child. That was what paralyzed me into inaction and left adult-me with the self-confidence of a teenager: the desire to belong in a society that is fundamentally opposed to who I am, and that never wanted me to grow. That was my psychological story: overcoming that desire to belong in a society built on injustice.
And now that I have—now that I’m ready for the sociological story I’ve been wanting to live for over a decade—I’m finally ready to write: Do I dare disturb the universe?
I dare the universe to stop me.
About the Author
Neelesh Rathi is a South Asian writer and activist currently residing in the United States. Rathi graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BA in Black Studies and a minor in Journalism. Read Neelesh’s writing here.