5 October 2023
NONFICTION Winner Abhinav Ravi – Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers 2023
Abhinav Ravi’s piece, Fragmented Reflections: South Asian-Australian Identity, has been awarded The 2023 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of Nonfiction. Abhinav was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks.
Read Abhinav’s winning piece below.
Fragmented Reflections: South Asian-Australian Identity
In the vast tapestry of human existence, the Australian immigrant experience stands as a richly nuanced narrative, intertwining threads of cultural heritage, resilience, and self-discovery. For a fifteen-year-old queer South Asian-Australian like myself, this journey has been an odyssey, defined by the exploration of sexuality and the stigma surrounding it, mental health and the lack of resources put out for people of colour, and what it truly means to be Australian in an ever-changing world characterised by the elusive idea of ‘diversity’.
As a first-generation immigrant, my family’s arrival on foreign shores was laden with dreams of a better life and opportunities for success. Amidst the questionable side eyes from nuclear white families and the bustling streets of New South Wales, the reality of navigating cultural assimilation and preserving our roots revealed itself slowly. The process was complex, and often, it led to a delicate balancing act between embracing the new while cherishing the old. A rite of passage undergone by countless immigrant children, the mocking of cultural food at school was one of many humbling experiences that marked the start of the so-called ‘assimilation’ my family and I desperately seek. I recall kids gagging and complaining about the smell of my lunches to my teacher, and crying to my mother about it later that evening; she would say ‘That’s nothing for you to worry about- who cares?’ For someone who underwent such apparent hardship to get to this land of opportunity and freedom, I was appalled to hear these words come from her mouth. Was this truly meant to be? My views about my family changed exponentially over the course of my childhood, and when reading or discussing other immigrant families, it was easy to be able to empathise with them. ‘Gosh, they’ve come such a long way’ or ‘They really deserve the lives they’re living now- look how hard they’ve worked!’ But when I looked at my family, all I could see were their failures.
In my own and many other people’s experiences, immigrant families have always been afraid of their children assimilating into Western culture, namely Australian society. I can still hear my parents screeching at my older sister over her decision to move out in her 20’s. ‘Do we not give you enough? We raised you with our values, not these rubbish sentiments your friends have’. By classing our emotions and ideas as ‘rubbish sentiments’, I was made sure of the implications that would come with being an immigrant child seeking more than the four walls I was kept in. There are standards held for us South Asian immigrants to uphold; we must master our native tongue whilst also being proficient in English, wear traditional clothing and follow belief systems that sometimes go against our own values. But the act of assimilation is not immediate; I won’t not continue to devour a mug of chai my dad brews every evening, and nor will I stop watching Tamil movies at the cinema. My culture makes me the person I am, and even if I listen to Beyonce on the train or have a night out with friends, I will still respect my elders and give back to my community. These are traditions and values I will forever hold onto. It is the act of suppression and constant fear of change that propels my family and many diasporas around the world to behave as such, and often paves the way, especially in my case, for intergenerational trauma to fester and seep through the pores of what was once considered a structured family unit but has been reduced to a dysfunctional set of people living under one roof.
As my family settled into a quaint suburb in the Inner-West of Sydney, ready to start a nuclear family, my older sister and I quickly realised that mental health, an enigmatic facet of the human condition, proved to be a defining aspect of my journey. Navigating the transition from the familiar to the foreign was a crucible of emotions, and the weight of my parents’ expectations bore heavily on the shoulders of my sister and me. The pressures to excel academically and succeed professionally clashed with the ‘Australian mindset’ I possessed; for me, it was all about what I liked, not what the world liked. In the land Down Under, my parents came here and believed that the opportunities they seek out for their children were based on what they knew, unlike India, where it was about who you knew. They certainly weren’t wrong, but their openness to the fact itself was under speculation. As many immigrant children can agree, immigrant parents can view Western ideals such as smoking, drinking, and same-sex marriage as completely okay, if their own children were not involved in it. The mindset stems from the tunnel vision that many South Asians themselves possess; rather than opening towards the plethora of opinions that the world has, limiting yourself to your own goals and success has been a concept underpinning my upbringing in Australia. That is not to say that all South Asians are selfish and do not care for others, but the thoughts of one’s own culture being preserved from the pollution of Western ideals is something South Asian immigrant identity heavily centres around.
From a very young age, I was exposed to the vast media that encompassed white multiculturalism and diversity, but little was provided to consider the immigrant perspective, despite a large section of media coverage being covered by people of colour. The result of this was a severely skewed perception of what it meant to be who I was, due to the fact that people who looked like me were not leaning towards the standards set by society, but neither were they empowering or expressing themselves like they should, and in my mind, there was no space for people who intentionally chose to be weak. I often pictured myself sitting on the roof of an abandoned building with the guy I would spend the rest of my life with. We would look at the sky and talk about the universe and everything in it. He would be a dream, and my best friend and soulmate. He would be the guy I would look at from across a crowded train station or room and would be the subject of poems and romantic literature. I would pen descriptions of his smile and his laugh in case I ever forgot about how he would stare into my eyes in the dead of the night. But sometimes, I would also picture him, nervous and hands shaking as he let out words of utmost truth from his mouth.
‘I think you’re just too Indian for me.’
‘I don’t think someone like you is right for me.’
‘I don’t see us working out in the future.’
‘I don’t like you.’
The fear of romantic rejection is undoubtedly tenfold when it comes to same-sex relationships, as most know, no LGBTQIA+ community member ever walks around with an ID or a label to project their identity onto anyone. Rejection is both embarrassing and fearful, but nothing is ever more horrifying than rejection on the grounds of cultural incompatibility, something many South Asians have experienced throughout their lives.
Another aspect of this was the fact that the more broadened standards set for someone like me were simply unattainable. The average gay person I saw was skinny, white, glowing, and ‘clean’. He has no facial hair, and a slim frame, whilst maintaining perfection in his physical appearance and is strong willed and brave. He has thin limbs and can excel athletically and academically and is naturally sun-kissed and beautiful. He has a lovely smile and straight teeth, with soft curly hair. He is someone who radiates positivity and lights up the room when his presence is noticed. Within myself, I saw broad shoulders, a large stomach, hyperpigmented skin and acne, and hair everywhere on my long limbs. My height was also something I never escaped, and whilst being a quality that was highly sought after in the heteronormative South Asian marriage market, I loathed it, often wearing clothes that masked my height and lanky features. I wanted to be more petite and yearned for it, so much so that my heart would beat for it until every muscle in my body ached for that feeling of euphoria. Growing up in a country like Australia where self-love and positive affirmations are consistently shoved down your throat, I scrutinised myself more to find what would make me ‘love myself’, like the useless speaker at my school assembly droned on about. But despite my journey being punctuated by harsh realities, these notes of self-doubt and imperfection compose the unfinished symphony that is my identity. Every insecurity, every bit of hair on my upper lip, every inch of difference is the dissonant chord that contributes to the raw unfinished melody that is uniquely mine.
Social media emphatically exacerbated the way I viewed myself, wielding both empowerment and torment. The virtual realm, where lives are curated into pixelated perfection, also ushered in a tempest of self-doubt and fear into me. Each scroll and double tap brought about the same pang of guilt that gnawed at me, with chiselled physiques and reels on how to lose weight in three steps for guys. The echo chambers of Instagram and TikTok magnified the constant tussle between my self-worth and the perceived ideals of attractiveness. As a member of Generation Z, I understand scrutinising another’s appearance is not something new in mainstream society; South Asian beauty standards, with their emphasis on fair skin and natural beauty, typically clashed with the raw authenticity I was taught to embrace in school. With a family who all had different skin tones than me, I was not properly aware of the fact that the dichotomy of longing for validation and challenging norms became a fragile tango and was one that continues to taunt the resilience of my self-esteem. Amidst hashtags and filters, the burgeoning body positivity movement, though often dominated by Western narratives, still serves as a reminder that beauty transcends prescribed dimensions. Online spaces for queer people provide refuge, but these platforms remain a screen, a simulated world where even authenticity can be manipulated with a swipe of a filter. But in this ongoing struggle, my voice merges with countless others, South Asian or otherwise, who, like me, resist norms of beauty and shout our identities into a void that often amplifies our doubts more than it validates our existence.
In this labyrinth of self-doubt and uncharted territories, the spectre of stigma emerged, shrouding mental health concerns in silence. South Asian communities, traditionally bound by strong familial ties and cultural values, harboured notions that viewed and continue to view mental health struggles as weaknesses or inadequacies. These prevailing attitudes paint the pursuit of help as a journey of embarrassment, like a brown person walking down the corridors of a psychiatrist’s office is equivalent to a walk of shame after having a night out. The idea of ‘family secrets’ is yet another concept that immigrant families grapple with, a dilemma that forces them to choose between the country that birthed them, and the country that houses them. As someone who grew up in a broken home, the idea of seeking help was frowned upon significantly; family issues were family issues and knowing that we had each other would be enough to get us through the hot mess of domestic violence, emotional abuse, and lifelong trauma. Or so they say. The shadows of stigma hover like a relentless phantom and prevented me for a large part of my life, from seeking the support I needed.
It was only a year ago when I urged my mother to let me go to therapy; I was astonished to learn that she approved of it, but a year later, I continue to do so, and experience signs of improvement. But amidst the darkness, I was able to shed light on my sexuality, and have since come out as to many of my friends, but not yet my family. I am aware of the dreadfully high chance they will not accept me for who I am, but I hope to cherish the time I have with them now. But in the storm, I stay clear, and I owe that all to my identity. There is a saying that states that your identity is ever changing, and often changes as fast as your craving for a type of food. And even though I live in a world where heteronormativity is often the accepted norm, and queer and immigrant representation is yet to be present in the Australian curriculum, I find solace in embracing my identity as a piece of a diverse mosaic of human love. It fills me with excitement, empowerment, but also trepidation, because the process of self-acceptance was not a straight road, but rather off the beaten path. And even though my best friend mocks me on how cakey my foundation is, or how my concealer is barely the correct undertone as my skin, I know that is just a small part of a shimmering fragment of the grand symphony of my identity. Each thread woven into this rich tapestry carries its own unique colours and patterns, destined to unfold in a mesmerising choreography of growth and introspection.
In the face of adversity, we find strength, and in self-discovery, we unearth authenticity. Despite these implications, my journey continues, the chapters of my life unfolding with each passing day. And though the road ahead remains uncertain, I find solace in knowing that my story, like many others, is an ever-evolving rhapsody of self-awareness and resilience, bound by the power and control I exert over my future.