No Country Woman
“Family and selflessness are at the heart of the culture that I was raised within,” writes Zoya Patel, whose debut memoir charts the “mishmash” of her Fijian–Indian–Australian heritage. “Self-determination is a conceit, and the wellbeing of the majority is prioritised.”
The notion of memoir, a genre emerging from a Western conception of selfhood, sits awkwardly in this cultural framework. No Country Woman is Patel’s quest to map an identity capacious enough to encompass “a feminist, a writer, an animal rights activist, an environmentalist and a lover of baked goods” alongside the complexities of her heritage. Feelings of guilt and shame, loneliness and alienation recur throughout, as Patel tries to reconcile the sacrifices her parents have made to bestow upon her a comfortably middle-class life. It begins with Patel returning to Fiji with her (white) boyfriend’s family, staying at a resort where she anticipates disdain from staff and patrons alike. She frets over the appropriation of kaiviti culture and the “morally fraught” tourism industry, ashamed she’s “somehow crossed the white-brown barrier to the side of privilege”.
As a teenager, Patel internalises racism encountered in regional Albury to distance herself from the culture her parents are determined to retain, rejecting Indian fashions and straightening her hair. As an adult, she mourns this “series of erosions” and the cultural connections that are irreparable. Alongside skewering stereotypes of migrant small-business owners as a “stingy subcontinental with a weed-like ability to thrive in any environment”, or insightful reckonings with Islam and feminism, the moral posturing of identity politics couched in “wokeness” and privilege can descend into millennial hand-wringing.
Even in the so-called age of memoir, the woman of colour’s assertion of subjectivity can be a powerful act, with Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race already becoming crucial texts on the migrant experience. Patel’s contribution is similarly styled for a wide audience, rather than the high literary endeavours of, say, Audre Lorde’s queer coming-of-age in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, or Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place.
Released as Australia’s racist subconscious has been rearing its hydra head, No Country Woman’s observations on the migrant child’s split subjectivity feels particularly pertinent. It’s at its best when it moves beyond moral point-scoring to glimpse a more fragile self, searching for a language through which to be heard. TM
Hachette, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Zoya Patel, No Country Woman ". Subscribe here.