Nishta J. Mehra is a first-generation American, the daughter of Indian immigrants who was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. She now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., with her wife, who is white, and her adopted child, who is black.
In her new book of essays, “Brown White Black,” she paints a vivid picture of their experiences dealing with America’s rigid ideas of race, gender and sexuality, as well as her family’s daily struggle to make space for itself amid increasing social and idealistic divisions in society.
Mehra said the book aims to answer the questions of those who want to understand her experiences and perspectives more than it tries to win over any hearts and minds that aren’t open.
“A large part of the book grew out of questions that came to me from folks who are part of my life, who may be a little bit on the external circles,” Mehra said. There are also people with whom she grew up and still keeps in touch via social media, but not much else. Many of them live very different lives, but their curiosity about her and her experience “made it visible to me that a lot of the things I took for granted were not common-base knowledge for other folks,” Mehra said.
“I did have people express interest in a sense of ‘some of the things you are saying are really challenging for me and I’d like to know more.’ To me, that’s a space that I speak into. It’s hard to speak into a space of ‘I’m not interested in your story or what you are going to say.’ But when people are willing to say, ‘This is maybe hard for me, and I get there’s something you have that I don’t,’ that’s a space where learning and growth can happen, as cheesy as that may sound.
“I’m really hoping that for folks who are willing to engage with the book, that they’re willing to let it affect them in a way that it can,” she said. “We’re a family, and we care about a lot of the things that most families care about. What we look like is very different and some of the things we deal with are different. But I think there are access points into someone else’s experience, depending on which side you are coming from.”
Mehra noted that writing the book was as much of a growing and learning experience for her as it is for anyone who might read it and connect with her perspectives.
“I wrote it mostly for myself,” she said. “I think many writers do that with an audience in mind and hope we will be an audience. A lot of the work that happens on the page is because we have questions ourselves that we’re trying to figure out and answer. The process of writing the book forced me to really discern and be careful about what I do think or believe, and what I hope for and what matters to me.”
Mehra hopes that on some level, her work can serve as a model of each of us doing that for ourselves. She wants her voice as an author to not come across as someone who has everything figured out, but as someone who is sharing her process of trying to discern when things bump into her and force her to consider or examine preconceived notions she had of how she moved around in the world that no longer work.
“This is the work that I was trying to do,” she said. “I hope that can serve as a model for people to do that work themselves.”
The preconceived notions Mehra had to confront came to light after she became an adoptive parent.
“Becoming a parent of a black child … it’s one thing to understand things intellectually, to understand that racism is structural and systemic in the fabric of American life,” she said. “And then there’s another thing to live that. Even in the process of adopting and becoming a parent, the visceral experience of that is different from an intellectual experience. That was something that I had to reckon with in terms of the distance I had put for myself between something that I believed in intellectually and paid lip service to, but didn’t necessarily push past that to impact my own live experience or daily life.
“Having a child is gender-fluid. It was surprising to me how entrenched our gender roles still are and how familiar things felt from my own childhood. Those kinds of things surprised me in terms of what we have had to advocate and push for in terms of giving our child space to express herself in a way that is right for her. It pushed me to check my own assumptions about what I was attached to as a parent when gender is assigned at birth. What you then imagine down the line and what there is to let go of when your child says, ‘that doesn’t fit me anymore.’ Those are the two biggest things that I had to look at and continue to work on.”
“Brown White Black” is available now. For more information, visit nishtajmehra.com.