With the release of two books this spring — a collection titled Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 232 pages) and a debut novel titled The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 272 pages) — it might be tempting to think of Anjali Enjeti as an overnight sensation. But the Atlanta-based author endured 11 years of rejections before getting her first book contract in 2018.
Southbound has earned a coveted star write-up in Kirkus Reviews, which called the book “a spirited, well-turned collection suffused with cleansing anger and hunger for change.” Both books have received rave reviews from Garden and Gun and Ms. magazines and BuzzFeed.
Southbound charts Enjeti’s earliest understanding of the South as a place of gentility, chivalry and lost causes thanks to propaganda about the antebellum era. She writes about her awakening to the dangers of assimilation and striving to be a model minority, along with her political activism and founding of Georgia’s chapter of They See Blue in 2019.
The Parted Earth, a 2021 selection for the Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund series, came to Enjeti whole cloth 10 years ago. During a family trip to the Taj Mahal, she found herself standing on the exact spot she’d once stood with her grandmother, who had passed away five years earlier. Nineteen years had lapsed since Enjeti’s last visit, and the lost opportunity to introduce her husband and three daughters (then 10, 6 and 3) to the family matriarch filled her with guilt. Thankfully, her grandmother’s presence was so palpable it inspired a tale of young love interrupted by the Partition of India of 1947 and the cross-generational inheritance of unreconciled pain, loss and memory.
Literature has always been Enjeti’s lifeline, and she demonstrated all the markers of someone who would grow up to be a scribe. She was a voracious reader with omnivorous taste who devoured everything from the classics to Judy Blume novels, from the panels of cereal boxes to entire volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia.
When her family moved from a Detroit suburb to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1984, the 10-year-old became a silent observer to an alternate universe where the Confederate flag, Bible verses and Whiteness were the default setting for being all-American. And as the child of an Indian dad and a White-passing mother who’s Austrian and Puerto Rican, she had to field the always-jarring question, “What are you?” long before she was equipped to grapple with the existential concept of racial identity.
While her peers were trying to figure out what she was, Enjeti’s sense of who she might be was constricting. In a literary landscape where the voices of White authors of European descent were centered, she deduced that there was no place for a Brown-skinned girl like her. In fact, the indoctrination was so thorough that she never even noticed what was missing. She simply internalized the message and became a consummate student of the masters.
“I love Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens,” says Enjeti. “Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite books, and the leather-bound editions in my personal library attest to my ongoing respect for the literary canon. But I could have done with an earlier introduction to Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison or Gabriel García Márquez, especially in my formative years when it would have really changed how I thought about the world.”
Now that Enjeti understands how books might have held up a mirror to her lived experience, as opposed to erasing her from the narrative, she is horrified by the narrow, specific and incomplete education she received. She wonders what might have been had she been exposed to books that might have encouraged her inclination to write when she was most impressionable. How might her perspective have shifted had her seventh-grade teacher assigned The Bluest Eye instead of Gone With the Wind? Who pays the price when educators, publishers and cultural gatekeepers devalue certain stories and lionize others? More critically, how might such a massive failure of imagination play out in the life of an undergraduate on the cusp of deciding what she wants to do with her life?
In Enjeti’s case, she was told to go to law school because she was such a great writer. Ever the obedient student, she took the advice and matriculated at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.
Her law practice began in 1998 — first in family court, then with the National Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia — and the experience was dispiriting. The birth of her first child three years later also birthed a writing practice of short essays, freelance articles for parenting magazines and a parenting blog. By 2007, Enjeti and her husband had moved to Johns Creek, where his job security and benefits allowed her to give writing a primary place in her life. She shed her identity as a lawyer, proclaimed herself a writer and began to find her tribe within a month of relocating.
A writing workshop on grief, hosted by author Jessica Handler, was one of the first seminars Enjeti attended. They helped her become more intentional about building a community of writers, submitting work more often, asking questions on how to get published and taking classes whenever possible.
“I feel like I’ve known Anjali forever,” says Handler, whose ongoing influence and political activism is chronicled in achapter titled “Armchair Activism in the Real World” in Southbound. “She has been inspirational to me in terms of her involvement in the literary community, as a literary citizen as well as a citizen of the world. She is aware of injustice and is fierce and focused as an organizer.”
Today, Enjeti is an award-winning journalist. Her essays about politics and social justice and her book reviews have been featured in Harper’s BAZAAR, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera. She’s also written for ArtsATL and, says former executive editor Laura Relyea, has a gift for writing. “Anjali’s wellspring of compassion shines through whenever she takes the pen to the page,” Relyea says. “That, and her attentive eye, keen with insight, makes for some incredible storytelling.”
Enjeti’s strongest suit as a storyteller is a clear-eyed approach to telling the whole truth. She is unsparing when mapping out her evolution from being raised in a family where the word racism was never used (to such an extreme that she wondered whether anything qualified as racism as a young adult) to acknowledging how the refusal to see or even acknowledge any kind of bigotry made her complicit in propping up a system predicated on the subordination of Black and Brown people. She attributes her grit to people like her dad — a physician who spent most of his career treating 50 percent of his patients gratis — who unintentionally modeled the value of showing up and doing the work regardless of how unglamorous or thankless the job.
As a creative writing teacher in the M.F.A. program at Reinhardt University today, Enjeti says that learning is a two-way street. “My students are such fearless writers who always push against traditional notions of the prose form,” she says. “They’re the kind of risk-takers I’ve always strived to be. Through them, I’ve learned to discard so many of the assumptions I’ve been carrying over the years about the writing process.”
As for having the courage to stake her claim as a writer, if Enjeti could time travel, she’d tell her grade-school self not to be discouraged by the lack of representation that led her to believe her stories did not matter. She’d tell her 20-something self to look out for North Stars like Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee and Maxine Hong Kingston whose books would make her interact with literature on a very different level. Most importantly, the 47-year-old her would do away with arbitrary markers of success and self-imposed timelines.
“My 19-year-old daughter was a newborn when I started writing, and my 13-year-old was an infant when I first tried to find an agent,” says Enjeti. “The Parted East was my seventh attempt, and Southbound was my sixth attempt [to find a publisher]. So I want people to know that it’s never too late. The important thing is to show up, keep plugging away and understand that failure is not the worst thing. The worst thing is not trying.”
Anjali Enjeti will discuss The Parted Earth with Virginia Prescott at 7 p.m. May 4 in a free virtual Atlanta History Center event. Registration required HERE. Visit the archives of Charis Books & More to hear a conversation about Southboundwith Enjeti and activist and journalist Anoa Changa.