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here was only one other Indian child in my third-grade class–a Sikh boy whose name I can’t remember,” writes Pooja Makhijani in her introduction to Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America. She goes on to recount the day some schoolmates tore off the patka, a small turban, off her classmate’s head–and how she stood silently by.

Years later, Makhijani felt inspired to write that story down. But a funny thing happened when she began to share her memories growing up as one of the few South Asians in her school. She found that people responded by saying, “When I was young…” and started telling their own stories.

September 11 got me thinking about race again. Through college you become comfortable with it, and then after September 11, I was uncomfortable again.

Pooja!
Pooja Makhijani

“After a while it clicked—everyone has a story to tell. I started looking for stories like that, and there weren’t that many contemporary women’s voices,” she says. In fact, she found that personal stories were rare in literature, and much of them were written by and for academics. So she decided that it was time to create that literature herself.

“In retrospect, I’ve always been interested in issues of race … September 11 got me thinking about race again. Through college you become comfortable with it, and then [after] September 11, I was uncomfortable again,” she explains. This anthology took on an even deeper significance for Makhijani, because of the lack of space for discussions of race. “Language can do a lot—writing can do a lot—to bring people closer together. In today’s political climate, [race is] talked around, but nobody ever addresses it directly at all. It really frustrates me.”

Pooja’s Picks

When she was growing up, Makhijani sought long and hard for books that depicted girls “who were like me,” to no avail. She offers her five picks for today’s readers.

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos: A post-9/11 story about two girls from Bangladesh who are living in New York as illegal aliens.

Looking for Bapu by Anjali Banerjee (forthcoming): Another post-9/11 story about Anu, who loses his grandfather.

The Not-so Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins: Sunita Sen struggles with living in two different cultures when her grandparents come to visit from India.

Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar: A children’s book with “folk-artsy” illustrations about a curious tiger stuck in a tree.

Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami: Makhijani recommends this children’s story about a girl waiting for the monsoon partly for its “stunningly beautiful” illustrations.

Determining that space was needed for these personal stories, Makhijani resolved to create one. After writing an essay for a collection entitled Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food, Makhijani casually emailed her old editor, asking where she could send her proposal for a book on women’s race experiences in America. A few email exchanges later, the project was on its way to publication.

Requesting submissions on every listserv and web site she could, Makhijani received more than 200 entries for the anthology. In fact, the special email account she’d set up on Yahoo! to handle entries filled up so quickly that she had to create multiple accounts to handle the input. Makhijani confesses that, while reviewing essays, her personal bias centered on “how history and memory intersect … Our experiences don’t take place in a vacuum and there are other events that surround us. History informs what happens.” Thus, many of the essays reflect an awareness of the world outside of them and connect wider events with the writers’ own personal experiences.

Under Her Skin
Under Her Skin

Makhijani is particularly frustrated by the issue of racism in the South Asian community. “They don’t admit that they’re perpetrators, they don’t think they’re part of the history of civil rights movement,” she says of South Asians. But Under Her Skin brings us memories and stories from black women and white women, from Latinas and Asians. Each of the 20 essays in the work describes women’s personal childhood experiences with race. Sejal Shah imagines what it would be like to see herself and her friends star in a Nancy-Drew-style mystery, maybe titled “The Gujarati Girls Get Malaria.” And in “Homecoming,” Ana Chavier Caamaño uses the drive back to her hometown of Aberdeen, South Dakota, to muse on both being the only Latina in Aberdeen and trying to feel at home with her extended family in the Dominican Republic

Makhijani, who studied engineering at John Hopkins University and has written for the The New York Times and The Village Voice, is just beginning her journey into literature. In addition to Under Her Skin, she will publish Mama’s Saris, a children’s book about a little girl fascinated by her mother’s vibrant saris, this spring. In the meantime, Makhijani continues her advocacy for open discussion and dialogue in the South Asian community, especially about issues of race and ethnicity. Because although each person’s story is different, racism and its perpetuation affects us all. n

Nakasha Ahmad loves to read. She lives in Ohio.
Published on September 1, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of Pooja Makhijani.
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