Interview: Zoya Patel on personal culture clashes, Edinburgh cafes, and her debut memoir, No Country Woman

Writer, editor and Feminartsy founder Zoya Patel is just a few days away from releasing her debut essay collection, No Country Woman. Ahead of the book’s launch, Jodie chatted to Zoya about what inspired her to put pen to paper and explore her experiences as a Fijian-Indian-Australian.

Could you tell us a little about No Country Woman, and what prompted you to write the book?

No Country Woman is a collection of memoir essays that explores the experience of growing up as a migrant in Australia. Although the book is grounded in my personal experiences, I think it speaks to broader themes and the shared experiences of many first and second generation migrants.

I’ve been grappling with questions of race, gender and identity for a long time, as I’ve been negotiating my own coming of age, and realising that being from a Fijian-Indian background has really affected how I’ve experienced the world. I think this book has been in progress for a while now in my subconscious, and it kind of just bubbled up to the top and spilled onto the page!

No Country Woman feels like it’s written about a series of balancing acts. Your heritage and your Australian life, your family’s religion and your strong feminist views. Does acknowledging that make it any easier to manage? Does the juggling ever stop?

I think that’s a great way to put it! Being a migrant in the diaspora is definitely a series of balancing acts. You’re trying to adhere to the norms and expectations of multiple cultures, which often conflict with each other. For me, it was further complicated by the fact that I am Fijian-Indian-Australian; I have three identities and cultural codes to balance.

It definitely makes it easier to manage this balancing act if you can acknowledge the tension, and try and be conscious of it. I spent a lot of time as a teenager trying to ignore some parts of my identity – namely my non-Australian heritage, in an attempt to fit in. Now that I’m a bit older and more comfortable with who I am, I can see that I don’t have to discard one aspect of my identity entirely to enjoy the other. This has definitely made it easier for me to find ways to incorporate my family’s culture into my more mainstream Australian life, and vice versa.

But ultimately, I don’t think the juggling will ever stop – it’s a long process, and there’s no how-to-guide to existing in the diaspora, but I hope my book acts as a support for other migrants where it can.

Are there certain things you wish you’d done differently? Aspects of your family’s culture, for example, that you wish you’d embraced more?

I definitely have regrets when it comes to how I engaged with my cultural heritage as a teenager. I don’t think I could have approached this cultural conflict in any other way at the time, given I was equipped with so few resources to manage it, but I know that I endured a lot of angst over trying to bring the two sides of my cultural identity together by force, without knowing that it would actually work out more organically and naturally in the future.

One of the regrets I have is not paying enough attention to my grasp of Hindi, and not nurturing it enough. I really hate how rusty I am with it now, and it’s hard to see how I’ll keep it up, especially in the future when my parents may not be here.

But I think you live and learn – it’s definitely made me more committed to learning Fijian and Indian history and trying a bit harder to force myself to speak Hindi when I can. That door definitely isn’t closed!

You spent time in Edinburgh while writing No Country Woman. What was it like writing about the sort of experiences you cover in the book – feeling out of place, not belonging – in a country that wasn’t any of the ones you identify with? Do you think being removed from those places helped the process?

Yes, absolutely, and for a few different reasons. Having some physical distance from Australia and from my friends and family definitely gave me the thinking space I needed to get into some of the topics I explore. I felt like I had a more objective view of Australian society and culture while I was in Scotland, because I was so often seeing it from the perspective of Scottish people I met. Realising how the rest of the world sees or interprets Australian culture helped me to unpack what was true and what was based in stereotype, or in my own insecurities a bit. I found myself getting surprisingly patriotic at times, when I was feeling especially homesick (or annoyed by some of the norms in Scotland, like where things are located in supermarkets!).

It was also kind of amazing to just be out of a full-time work routine, and to have the time and energy to write. The book came together really quickly, and I think that’s because I was able to stay immersed in the content for longer periods of time.

There was one café I went to all the time, Red Kite in Edinburgh, where I would buy a delicious scone and a coffee, and tap out a chapter in a few hours. It was a highly enabling environment in that sense.

It feels that the book reads like a call to stop putting people into boxes based on things like religion or country of birth, and in a Feminartsy speech on International Woman’s Day, you spoke about the need to allow people to define themselves as more than, for example, their ethnicity or gender. Why do you think this is important? Do you think it will allow more diverse stories to take the stage?

I would say more that I want people to stop using labels to stereotype people. I think it’s easy to say that people shouldn’t define themselves based on their race or gender if you’re part of the majority, but the fact is that for people of colour (POC), we’re already defined by our race by other people – that’s not a choice we have.

So ultimately, I want to see our race being just one part of how we’re defined – being Indian doesn’t really have to say anything more about me than that it’s my heritage –  it doesn’t define the kind of person I am, my interests and passions, or how I behave and interact with people. We homogenise groups of people in ways that don’t allow them to exert their individuality, and this is reinforced by some of the systemic forms of racism I discuss in my book.

I do, however, think that identity politics as it exists today can sometimes do more to reinforce racial categories than to dismantle them – really, it’s about allowing for diversity within groups, not just between them. I think we’re already seeing this to a degree, and some of the amazing writing coming out of POC communities in Australia is testament to this. I know I have found it personally really gratifying to read the work of writers like Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung and others, so I hope No Country Woman can add to this canon.

We’re seeing some really stunning memoir essay collections from women lately. What was the process of writing a personal essay collection like? And what is about the medium that appealed to you?

I know! There is so much amazing writing from women writers out there right now! The essay collection format is one that has appealed to me for a long time, as a writer of non-fiction and memoir. I think the format allows us to delve into so many different topics with a single starting point, and there’s something about that opportunity to create a bit of a tapestry of ideas that really appeals to me.

I also really believe in the power of personal stories to change communities, so that definitely influenced my choice of mediums. I think personal essays have the unique ability to be both specific and broad, and they can provide so many different avenues in for a reader.

In terms of process, it was kind of perfect for me – I have a short attention span and work better in short bursts, so being able to complete each essay as a separate thing was great. I found it surprisingly easy to go from topic to topic!

And are there any other books in a similar vein that you’d recommend? Any voices you absolutely think we should hear?

Aside from Maxine and Alice who I have already recommended, I love the work of Durga Chew-Bose and her collection Too Much and Not The Mood. I also think we have some exciting emerging talents to look forward to – I’ve had the pleasure of publishing some very talented emerging writers through Feminartsy, including Gemma Killen, Yen-Rong Wong and Shu-Ling Chua, who are all especially good at the personal essay style! I hope to see some of these incredible writers working on more long-form projects in the future.

To speak briefly of your other projects, you started online journal Feminartsy in 2014. What inspired you to create the site?

Feminartsy came out of a desire to keep supporting and promoting gender equality, but in a way that sidestepped some of the more problematic aspects of internet feminism. I wanted to explore gender through long-form, beautiful, thoughtful writing, and so I created the journal with that focus in mind.

Most of what we publish is grounded in personal experience, and I think that’s helped create a really supportive and engaged community online. We also run monthly events, which bring people together in Canberra and are kind of a highlight for me, especially when we get a first-time speaker on stage! It’s so gratifying to see them share their story and connect with the audience.

And what’s next for you? Other than promoting No Country Woman, of course!

I am very much looking forward to promoting the book and connecting with readers over the next few months. Feminartsy is taking a short break until the end of the year so I have time to focus on the book, and also to regroup and think about the next exciting chapter for the journal.

Otherwise, I’m always writing, and I have some ideas for future books, and potential podcasts, so stay tuned for now!

Thanks to Zoya for taking the time to answer our questions!

No Country Woman, published through Hachette Australia, will be in bookstores from August 14th.

Photo credit: Zoya Patel by Linda Macpherson

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