Me: Is it okay if I say a few words after receiving the award?
Organizer: Yes, yes, of course. But [ha ha] nothing political!
Me: Well, it might be a *little* political.
Organizer [looking worried]: Women’s empowerment is okay!
Poor organizer, dealing with a troublemaker like me. I admit, when I was writing my notes, I definitely took audience into account — I wanted to speak to recent immigrants and those of my parents’ generation, but also, in a slightly different key, perhaps, to those who have trouble fitting into the community in various ways… (Queer Tamil kids, hey. I’m your aunty. I got you.)
The organizers flew me out from Chicago and brought my dad up from Connecticut. They fed me very well, and put me up in a comfortable hotel, and did their best to take care of me, even though we were hampered by my not speaking Tamil — I understand a fair bit, but Sri Lankan Tamil sounds very different to Indian Tamil, and I found a lot of the program incomprehensible as a result. People kept speaking to me in Tamil, seeing my confusion, and then switching smoothly into English for my sake.
Overall, the FeTNA award ceremony was very sweet. The volunteers running this were tremendously welcoming, even though I suspect most of them haven’t read anything I’ve actually written.
Apparently, it was an earlier committee that actually selected me in 2019, when FeTNA was in Chicago, but I wasn’t able to attend then (honestly, I don’t remember ever receiving word of this, it’s possible it went to spam and I never saw it?), but they are persistent, and came back around to find me again. So many people came to shake my hand and congratulate me, so clearly proud that one of their own had done well.
They did introduce me as Ms. Mohanraj, and inscribed the award the same way. Hm. Technically, my title should be Dr. Mohanraj, or even more accurately, as an elected official, The Honorable Mohanraj. (If I were in Germany, it’d stack! The Honorable Dr. Mohanraj… Alas, that isn’t the custom here.)
At least it doesn’t say Mrs., which technically it could, since I did eventually get married. I think I’m going to take the Ms. as a sign of progress!
Less than 3 minutes of thank you speech follows. I restrained myself!
I want to thank FeTNA and the Tamil American Pioneer Awards Committee for this tremendous honor.
I must also thank my parents, Dr. Navaratnasingam Mohanraj and Jacintha Mohanraj, who brought me here from Sri Lanka in 1973. I was two years old then, so had no real understanding of how difficult that journey must have been for them, leaving the support and love of family, to seek opportunities for themselves and their children. They were pioneers, among the first South Asian Tamils to explore and settle in America, pioneers as many of you are.
They raised three daughters here. I became a writer and wrote about things that people often don’t talk about. I wrote about the conflict in Sri Lanka, about Black July and the tremendous injustices done to Tamil people, in essays and fiction and even science fiction. I also wrote about sexuality, and women’s rights, including the right to choose. I wrote about queer rights too. My poor mother once asked me if I couldn’t write children’s books instead! Sorry, Amma.
Sometimes, we have to speak up and say hard truths; when you see injustice being done, you must either stand against it, or be complicit. In Sri Lanka right now, people are standing up and fighting against an unjust society, an unjust government. Those of us in America must do the same.
I admit, it was sometimes frightening, writing about things, doing things, that society didn’t approve of. It’s lonely, being one of the first in a new place, and it can be hard to stand up against convention. Society will always push you to the most conservative position it can, and that pressure can feel overwhelming.
But I will tell you a secret – after the first time you do the new, hard thing – it gets easier to do it again. You’ll often find that you’re not as much of a pioneer as you thought – there are others who came before you, or who speak beside you, or are following you. You are not actually alone.
I have two children now. As a mother, I’m often frightened for their safety. When they start down new paths that I’ve never travelled, I have to fight the urge to call them back. “Here, kunju – why not just stay on the safe road, the one I walked before you?” But I bite my tongue.
I teach them everything I know, and then I let them go, to see what strange new worlds they might discover.
(See? Only a *little* political. Nothing to frighten the horses…)