Permission Slip

You have permission to be unabashedly free, yourself, outside the mandates of what is considered acceptable, friendable, fuckable, American enough, enough of anything familiar or familial or similar to it. I give you permission to claim the fact that your ancestors hail from what is considered a shithole country but was the epicenter of civilization for many millennia. I give you permission to claim the parts of yourself that you do not see mirrored in popular films, TV shows, books, and other spaces that purport a certain neutrality but that still manage to give you that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach—the one you get when you are politely watching a scene to which you have no access.

The same sinking feeling you got when you were perhaps the only one who noticed the white guy in the Italian restaurant shooting daggers with his eyes at the voluble Punjabi family. The same sinking feeling you got when the fourth grader told your two blonde best friends that they looked pretty but pointedly left you out of her assessment. Because pretty isn’t for girls with glasses and oil-slick braids and noticeably dark skin. That sinking feeling also came at moments that made you visible. Visibility was always accompanied by a snigger from the outside world. Like it was all a big joke, and the only worth imaginable that they could attribute to you was as a momentary spectacle. And it was always momentary. 

People seemed to forget as quickly as they issued their offenses. Which is maybe why it makes sense that on all those talk shows where an adult would confront the kid who bullied them when they were kids, the bully would usually show up with a befuddled look on their faces. “Who are you, again? Wait, what? I did that to you?” Over time, the brain is a sieve that can only hold so much. A pity that I’m a hoarder who routinely preserves the throwaway moments. 

It’s hard to be me. It’s easy to be me. At least, that’s how I’ve decided it can be. I’m old enough to know that I can choose to exchange mortification for righteous indignation. Lately, it’s been anger, every time I think of the ignorant thing that a friend’s family member said and the fact that I did nothing to counter it. Anger at what I could have said or done, and always the shamefaced knowledge that in not doing or saying anything, I was saying OK to that mandate of smallness. In being made to feel visible, I would opportunely shrink myself into the smallest possible size so as to evade notice altogether, so as to be passed over and forgotten. I don’t want to be small. I don’t want to be forgotten.

I give myself permission to say and be the scary things. To bare the parts of me that are bold and free, not to the scrutiny of those who wouldn’t give a second thought to boxing me into one of their rude and insufficient categories but to the warm and welcoming gaze of the elements, of the stars, of the moon, of the sun. To claim my plot in the wild world of substance and recognize I will always have a home here.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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