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Where I Come From

Interview with Vijay Agnew

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How did you come to write

Where I Come From?

I did not set out to reminisce about my life in India and Canada or to document my reflections on Canadian society. This book began quite differently, in a conversation with an editor who suggested that we meet at a pub around the corner from his office to discuss another book of mine, which was about to be published, on women’s shelters in Canada. He said that he liked the clear writing in that book, and expressed his frustration with the complex language and dense theorization that often appear in the work of other contemporary academic feminists. There was a need, he said, for a book that would explain feminism to general readers - for example, his mother.

I anticipated that an easy-to-read book on feminism would give people a clearer idea of its fundamental principles and that trying to write it would help me understand them better too. I could use anecdotes from my own experiences at work and at home to illustrate feminism in the context of women’s everyday lives. But as I began writing, I kept slipping into academic language and losing direction. I persisted over the next two years, but in that time the focus of the book shifted from theories of feminism to my personal story. It seemed egotistical to be writing about myself, but I felt that my story could provide an insight not only into an immigrant woman’s life but also into a feminist academic’s perspective on Canadian society. An account of some aspects of my life would still be sufficiently multilayered to reveal the complex ways in which race, class, and gender intersect in an immigrant woman’s life, and I could engage my readers in a conversation that would narrow the distance between us and show both what is different and what we share.

What is the perspective from which

Where I Come From

is written?

My experiences have shaped my interests and guided them in certain directions. For example, becoming a victim of racism enraged me, and experiences of racism made me willing to commit my time and energy to understanding racism and I became an anti-racist activist. But it is impossible to describe my perspective simply, saying for instance that I am a non-white immigrant woman. For one thing, my perspective has changed over the years, as my “location” has changed, and has no doubt changed again in the process of writing this book. For another thing there are conventional images associated with these terms that make them almost useless for identifying my perspective.

My perspective is a hybrid one — I am Indian, married for twenty-five years to a white Canadian, and we have a daughter. I have lived most of my life in predominantly white neighborhoods and worked with predominantly white faculty. In narrating some of the incidents in this book I have had to struggle with a sense of hybrid identity.

How did you come to be an anti-racist activist? And why did you write this book?

In Canada I have been termed a “foreign student,” an “Indian woman,” an “immigrant,” an “Indian feminist,” and a “Third World woman.” Each of these designations has affected my relationships with other people and contributed to making me the woman that I now am. However, part of my motivation in writing about my experiences in Canada, is to fight against attempts to define who I am in terms like these.

Are you at “home” with white-feminism?

The gender-centered feminism of the 1970s and early 1980s alienated Asian and black women like me and eventually more feminists came to see that it is not just gender bias that oppresses women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, but race and class biases too. Although I am now part of the academic feminist community in Canada, I still sometimes feel like an outsider to it

Sometimes the power exercised in race, class, and gender relations kept me silent in classrooms and faculty meetings. I came to voice in the company of women, who like me, had been victimized by racism. The attempt by some feminists to include women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean by chanting the mantra “race, class, and gender” had little effect on me. Instead I worked with other groups to help working-class, non-English-speaking women secure social services.

What are your feelings as an immigrant about your life in Canada?

Racist and sexist incidents have been a part of my life in Canada, but I have also experienced friendship and graciousness in white Canadians. The opportunities I have had for intellectual and emotional growth and development at Canadian universities and in the communities where I have lived dilute the arguments that racism and sexism are endemic to Canadian society. My story may disappoint readers looking for a portrayal of an unhappy immigrant woman’s life, but I speak in a different voice.