“I tried to reclaim power in that story of being outed and that word from people in my community.”
Emerson College poetry professor Rajiv Mohabir realized the complexities of his life early on. He was the son of Guyanese immigrants to the US, whose ancestors had left India to become indentured servants in what was then a British colony on the Caribbean coast of South America. As he tried to figure out where he fit in culturally, he also grappled with his sexual identity as a gay male—which he says is a taboo in his family and wider community, expressed in the Caribbean slur of the book’s title. Yet he found refuge in the folk songs of his aji, or grandmother, who taught them to him from his childhood days. These songs helped spark a lifelong interest in poetry and writing that has expressed itself in Mohabir’s new book, Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir.
Antiman won an award for new immigrant writing from its publisher, Restless Books. Mohabir will be doing an in-person reading at the Providence Book Fest from Sept 17 through 19—his first in-person event since the book’s release earlier this year during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Antiman arose from the reaction to a previous book of poems he had written.
“Most people wanted to hear about the people behind the poems,” Mohabir said in an interview. “Maybe it was a story too big for the poems.”
In telling the story, Mohabir mixes such genres as narrative prose and poetry, as well as translations and transcriptions of his aji’s songs. Throughout, there are echoes of Indian culture from the Ramayana to Bollywood. In one difficult section, Mohabir finds multiple ways to share a painful moment in his life: About a decade and a half ago, a cousin outed him. He reflects on her phone call to his parents and explores the meaning of the term “antiman.”
“That was a hard, hard chapter to write,” Mohabir reflects. “I tried to reclaim power in that story of being outed and that word from people in my community.” He calls the experience “difficult to talk about” and “one of the places of my life where I’m still trying to fit fragments back together.”
He said some of his relatives subsequently distanced themselves from him, with one never calling him after his aji died at age 89. The outing also took place around the time of a painful breakup.
“It was a hard thing, the kind of depression I had after the breakup in New York, which still took a long time to process,” Mohabir said. “My aji also died. A lot of things compounded. It would have been cool to have family [support]. I guess it just underscores the need to have family, people who support you, nurture you and your voice.”
He credits his friends and writing community in this regard. Growing up, he had his aji.
“[My] grandmother was the most connected to our roots than anybody else in my family,” Mohabir said.
At age “10 or younger, eight perhaps,” he became fascinated by her songs, which she had first learned from her mother in Guyana. Some were sung while working, such as planting rice or grinding grain. Others were sung during a life cycle event, such as when a child was born. All had a call-and-response format that was lost when aji sang them years later to her grandson in what he calls “decontextualization—or, rather, a new context.”
Although he avidly learned the songs and was interested in general in his family’s origins, other members of his family had a mixed reaction to this—including his father, whom he described as wanting to assimilate into the US, including by embracing Christianity.
“My dad felt he had to prove allegiance to the US to show you would be additive to American society,” Mohabir said.
He notes that before his parents immigrated to the US, they had lived in the UK and faced anti-immigrant racism, with white supremacists attacking his mother in the street. He writes in Antiman of enduring racism himself in Florida after 9/11 and about some people mistaking him for a Muslim.
Mohabir said that understanding the “differences I had as a brown person, a queer person” was a complex, multilayered process: “I did not understand queerness right away. Brownness was visible to me.”
Yet he found complicating factors in his Indian heritage as well.
As he explains, he was born in Guyana, unlike other South Asians he encountered in the US who were born in India. His ancestors’ origins in India are in a different part (East India) than the regions where many other South Asians immigrated from (such as the Punjab and Gujarat). There were also differences in culture, food and language. After he began studying Hindustani as a teenager, he realized that it differed significantly from his aji’s language of Guyanese Bhojpuri. He describes Bhojpuri as one of the languages of ancient Hindustani and in the standard Hindustani family of languages. He recalls those first informal learning sessions with his aji.
“She would tell me stories and ask if I understood,” Mohabir said. “There would be a back-and-forth direction of conversation, sometimes hours, sometimes minutes.”
In college, Mohabir went to India through a study abroad program to try to connect with his roots. He didn’t quite find his ancestral home but he did make a memorable link with his aji’s songs through an elderly man at an ashram. A song the man sang was almost identical to one of his aji’s.
Mohabir said he recalled thinking, “Oh, wow, these traditions come from somewhere, they’re not made-up.” He added, “My grandmother did not read or write. It did not mean she was not a repository of all of this.
“I was astounded to be in the moment and hear what felt like the distant past so profoundly immediate, so profoundly of the present and future,” he reflected. “I wanted to carry it with me in my life. … I would transcribe and translate [the songs] … take their kind of lesson, the story of the songs, and push it further.”
Yet he faced pushback later in life as he sought to express his interest in the songs through his own writing. He remembers a fellow workshop student who was critical of his writing and subject matter.
“It stayed with me for a long time,” he said.
However, he put the criticism in perspective: “Only one person said that. I would think that through, process it. … I was also expecting that everyone is perfect in a workshop space. Nobody in the writing world is ever perfect. It was an awakening moment for me.”
Entering his third year at Emerson, he tries to share what he’s learned with his students.
“I’m in the process of rethinking the workshop structure,” Mohabir said. “How can students steer conversation?” His goals include “giving folks back power.” At the same time, he reminds students that when it comes to their writing, “not everyone is going to love you 100% of the time.”
Asked what the next generation of poets needs to know, he said, “Belief in your work, first and foremost. That’s the most important advice in my life, for sure.”