Being a Second-Generation Immigrant and the Privilege of Pettiness
In "One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter," Scaachi Koul tackles puberty, colorism, and growing up as an Indian-Canadian.
Photo by Barbora Simkova
In 2016, Buzzfeed writer Scaachi Koul tweeted a call for pitches from non-white and non-male writers, which subsequently went viral, (naturally) led to a barrage of rape and death threats, and ultimately, drove her off Twitter for a bit. While that experience is enough for most people to swear off being a brown woman on the internet for good, it only made Scaachi more determined to be a vocal advocate for people of color in media.
Her memoir One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is already a bestseller in Canada, and is released in the US today. As a second-generation Indian-Canadian, Scaachi tackles universally relatable topics like puberty, dating, and all those horrible things, but with the added layer of navigating white spaces as a brown woman. She sat down with Broadly to talk about the experience of being an immigrant kid, body hair, and colorism.
Broadly: Your book was incredibly relatable in a way that I haven't really seen beyond one off personal essays. What made you want to write this memoir or these essays the way that you did?
Scaachi: I would love to have a beautiful, romantic answer to that, but I'm a narcissist. So someone showed up and was like, "Do you want to write a book?" I'm like, "Sure. Why not?" There aren't a lot of books out by brown women talking about their lives or their experiences. There's a real gap in that memoir market for women. If you're not white, it tends to be harder to find stuff that actually speaks to you. So I'm hoping to fill that gap.
I felt like it spoke to that universal immigrant kid experience.
I don't think I realized how widespread those feelings were until I started working on this and then I noticed how many people were like, "Oh yeah." Which is kind of unfortunate because some of those feelings are terrible.
I feel like that so often, then you're like, "Wait, everyone must feel this way."
And that was also true of the chapter about hair, which I wrote and was kind of embarrassed about when I wrote it, because it is uncomfortable—5,000 words about my weird body. When a lot of women read it... they were calling me, "Oh yeah, I'm like that too." We all have these weird body things, and so we all think that they're bad because we don't know anybody else that has them... For me, it took me until my mid-twenties to start talking about it. For some of the women, it's even longer. We just don't say anything and there's nothing in the culture that leads us to remember there are people who have the same feelings and the same experiences that we do.
You wrote these essays that would relate more to someone who's not white, how was it for you when you were writing them?
The relatability [aspect], I think is something that tends to come up when the person writing is a woman—and if she's white, because then there's that idea that white men are a default. Everybody can appeal to the white guy and he can appeal to everybody. That's why memoirs by men were fine. And then women started writing them and then everyone's like, "Hold on. How am I supposed to read this as a man?" I'm not writing about gross injustices or incredible abuses or trespasses. I'm just writing about the minor inconveniences of my existence because I'm really lucky. Nothing that bad has happened to me. I'm middle class and I'm drinking an overpriced coffee.
You write about growing up in a pretty white area of Calgary. Then there's a point like, "I don't care about white approval anymore." When did that happen for you?
When I first moved to Toronto. I came here, and there were other brown people and I was uncomfortable looking like them. And then it was clear that I was somewhat different because there were people who look like me. And then I started to have the very straight experience to be confused for other brown women, which is always weird if you like, grow up in a place that is really white because you're the only one. I went to the University, and there will be two other brown girls in my year, and people would confuse us. I think it was, in hindsight, once I got comfortable here and once I got comfortable with my not being white. It really had less to do with the fact that I was brown—more [with] the fact that I just wasn't white. I knew that I wasn't white. And once I got to that point, then I was like, "Oh okay, so it wasn't me. It was that little microcosm I was in."
I think also because my parents were immigrants and when you are the immigrant, I think you swallow things differently because you're like, "Hey, I'm happy to be here." Like when paperwork came through, everything's great. But for me, it's like I didn't have to think about that, so my concerns were like, "You can't say my name." It was just like, petty.
I guess these concerns are also ones your parents didn't have to deal with.
My dad moved and was happy that he got the job that he was trained to do and was able to provide. My mother didn't work, and so she came and started to make friends. Those were the things that you worry about and their children were raised in Canada and grew up to be—I mean my brother's a lawyer and I'm an idiot on the internet.
You turned out alright.
We turned out fine. Those were their concerns. So my concerns end up getting kind of shifted because I don't have to worry about those things. Everybody's okay. So now I can be concerned about these smaller, great things like, you know, "Why can't I find foundation that has yellow in it, from my weird yellow skin."
You write a lot about colorism and how going to India helped you realize a lot about privilege. What was it like getting this new type of awareness?
I didn't realize that because most of my relatives are fair-skinned because we're from the North. But then you start to look around, you're like, "Oh but everybody married fair people." Nobody married anybody that dark. And the only dark people in the family tend to be men because they can be more [dark] than women. All of the things people have said about my looks have been coded and I didn't know. For better or for worse. Because when I'm in Calgary, I'm too dark. So people say, if they find me attractive, I'm attractive for a brown person. And then in India, I'm attractive for a brown person but it's scaled up because I'm fair.
Yeah, it was weird. I mean and then you start to think about like, why—culturally—our family doesn't associate with certain people: "Oh, it's because they're darker." And that's a lot harder to admit and I think there's lots of people in my family who won't say that. All of it leads back to like, it's just white supremacy, right?
Exactly, and you do touch on that in your book.
And now we've got this hierarchy that we have to deal with. Never mind. Like your shit... In India, there's a real fetishization of anything that is Western. Like, Bollywood movies tend to take American movies and redo them and make them worse.
You also touch on puberty in a really unique way, especially in your essays about shopping and body image.
I hit puberty really early. So, everything just started appearing. I had my period when I was 10. I think also when you're a girl, you think like, "Oh, it just happens and everything just stays like that." And you're like, "No, you are perpetually in a state of like, transformation. Like Animorphs. Like there's always some shit happening to you." My tits got two cups sizes bigger on the left.
I related a lot to you talking about buying clothes as a youth and trying to grasp this certain something that you're not even sure exists.
Yes [buying these clothes] makes you better and then you will possess whatever they possess because of the time. You can't figure out what it is. And you think that they have something and then when you get older, you're like, "Oh, she didn't have shit." She didn't possess anything you don't possess. She wasn't smarter, she's not more confident, she wasn't doing better, home life wasn't better. She wasn't richer. She just was white and that's very lucky for her.