Each month, we interview an Australian writer about feminism, writing and the connections between the two. This month, we speak to writer Zoya Patel, whose memoir, No Country Woman, explores questions of identity and belonging through an Australian-Fijian-Indian lens.
What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism has meant many different things to me throughout my life. It has been a belief system, an identifier, a call to arms, a source of conflict, an inspiration, and most importantly, an invitation into a community of women across the world who challenge and encourage me in equal parts.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?
There have been a few tipping points for me. One was definitely writing for Lip magazine as a teenager. I still remember reading one of their 2004 issues, where there was a quiz on ‘what type of feminist are you’, and I was amazed that you could be lots of different kinds of feminist! There was diversity in the movement, which felt revolutionary during the black/white teenage years.
Studying gender studies at uni was also really crucial to developing my critical feminist gaze, and I still feel grateful to my lecturers who shepherded me along that journey.
In No Country Woman, you write critically but respectfully about your cultural background. How did you navigate exploring these ideas?
It was certainly not easy! It took several drafts for me to come to the respectful, measured and more honest account that is in the final book. I had a lot of resentment, and shame, and pride and confusion that I had to work through while writing the book. A lot of it came down to internalised racism that made me feel embarrassed of my culture, and that had created a hierarchy of culture where whiteness was always prized.
I had to really unpack that, and I think something what really helped was trying to understand more of how my parents have experienced their cultural identity, which they formed in their home country and country of birth, as opposed to the experience I have had.
What are the considerations that come into writing memoir about your family – how do you preserve other people’s feelings while remaining true to your own narrative?
I think there is a dual pressure when it comes to writing memoir as a person of colour. Memoir as a genre inherently comes with its challenges, in terms of representing other people’s experiences through the lens of your own.
But in Indian culture, and many non-Western cultures, it’s considered quite shameful to share the intimate details of your family life publicly – it’s just not done. So I had to be very conscious of that while writing. I flagged with my family that it was something I wanted to write at least a year before I even started writing the book.
I didn’t involve them in the writing process at all, and they all read it after it had been edited and had gone to print, because I wanted to make sure that what I wrote was mine, and wasn’t too influenced by anyone else. Ultimately, they trusted me to treat them with respect and care, and they’re really happy with how the book turned out!
In many parts of your book, you discuss the homogenous whiteness of feminism, both when you found it as a teenager and up until today. How can we make feminism more inclusive, and how can writing help?
I think the most important thing when it comes to making feminism more inclusive is to always approach each public space with the question ‘who is most welcome here, and who might feel marginalised? Am I the best person to speak to this issue? How might women of colour, or queer women, or non-binary people, or trans women, or women living with disability experience this?’
Being constantly aware of disadvantage, privilege and marginalisation is crucial to making feminism more inclusive, because it’s about not settling for the status quo and always being aware of the barriers or challenges other women might experience.
I also think that on the other side, those of us who do experience multiple oppressions have to consider when we have the time, energy or willingness to help educate, and use those moments where we can.
You describe feelings of displacement – of not feeling like ‘enough’ of any of your cultural identities, as well as feeling like you detached from your Fijian-Indian heritage as a teenager when you were trying to fit in. How have you navigated these feelings into adulthood, and what was it like unpacking and analysing these experiences?
I definitely do not have it all worked out yet! It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve felt confident even exploring these feelings, and I’m working out how to reengage with my culture. Part of it is about letting myself learn slowly, and to ask questions from my family wherever possible.
And part of it is about accepting that it will probably never be perfect, when it comes to balancing my different cultural influences, but that trying is the key step.
In terms of the experience of unpacking these topics for the book, at times it was quite painful, when I really confronted some of the ways I felt alienated as a teenager, but overall I felt pretty motivated by the thought of hopefully having a positive impact on young migrants today.
In a chapter of No Country Woman, you talk about your vegetarianism and how it’s a privileged position. Why is vegetarianism important to you, and how does it intersect with other oppressions?
I’ve been a vocal animal rights activist since I was a child, and went vegetarian as soon as I could reasonably feed myself. I do want to go vegan (and have a lot of guilt about not being there yet, for various reasons). So to me, vegetarianism is quite central to my identity.
As I write in No Country Woman though, I realised after visiting India as a child and teenager that choosing to be vegetarian is actually a privilege, as so many of my poorer relatives in India had to eschew meat, and scraped together what they could for when we visited, because to serve meat is a sign of honouring your guest. It just made me realise that being ‘ethical’ can be a privilege in itself.
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
Gosh, where do I start? I’m an unashamed fan of Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, and have found her work so helpful over many years. I love the work of Australian writers like Maxine Beneba Clarke, Hannah Kent and Alice Pung. And I can never go past some Virginia Woolf!
What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?
To be honest, I was quite self-motivated as a teenager, and writing felt a lot easier then than it often does now – so probably ‘keep doing what you’re doing!’
Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in Canberra. She is the Founding Editor of independent feminist journal Feminartsy, through which she publishes the work of writers from across Australia, hosts monthly feminist reading nights, and co-hosts the Read Like a Feminist book club. Zoya writes fiction, nonfiction and memoir, and has had her work published in a range of publications including Junkee, Women’s Agenda, i-D, Right Now, The Canberra Times and more.