Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti
When you open Anjali Enjeti’s Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, these are the first words that you will encounter—these are the words that will guide you through pages of personal essay and narrative journalism. They are words that shape Enjeti’s life and her experience as a Southern, multiracial woman, but, as these are questions about identity, they are also questions that Enjeti invites the reader to ask themselves. As I read through Southbound and read about Enjeti’s activism in her Georgia community, I found myself asking another question as well—Who do you want to be?
Southbound is an inspiring book in myriad ways. Published by the University of Georgia Press, it is representative of how publishing is shifting as independent Southern presses seek out books by more diverse authors. It joins other books, such as A Measure of Belonging: 21 Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, 2020), that challenge the common white narratives that come out of the South, valuing the perspective of non-white voices and their experiences. In the essay “On the Unbearable Whiteness of Southern Literature,” Enjeti discusses this very problem with Southern literature, and how our literature continues to rely on books by white authors, with white protagonists, to teach ourselves about racism—from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Additionally, Southbound is the result of Enjeti’s perseverance as a writer, its publication resulting from Enjeti submitting more than a dozen manuscripts and proposals in more than ten years’ time—a great achievement and source of inspiration in and of itself.
What I find most engaging about Southbound is its complexity and its fearlessness. To outsiders, the South has a reputation as a homogenous, white, conservative region. The voices of elected officials often support this narrative, but books like Southbound add new narratives to the conversation. From the start, Enjeti is unafraid of making bold claims about the South. She calls out the intense racism that exists in this region, but also unabashedly confronts the narrative that the South is the only, or predominant, place that racism exists within the United States:
The Deep South is no more racist that any other parts of the country. We know this from gerrymandering and redlining and mass incarceration and the police killings of unarmed Black people and Flint’s poisoned water, as well as the disappearance of Indigenous women, broken treaties with First Nations, and the caging of people lacking lawful residency status in for-profit detention centers, and hate crimes that occur from sea to shining sea. (11)
Throughout Southbound, Enjeti is unflinching and direct in her analysis, but her book is also warm and inspirational, celebrating the non-white communities that are not only thriving in the South, but also contributing to the region’s growth and change:
We are not alone. Our mothers, our sisters, and our ancestors, literary and otherwise, are our guides. They show us how to convert our anger into power. We can draw our courage from them, and their anger will nurture and sustain our own. (41)
Complexity and fearlessness carry over into the personal threads that weave themselves through Southbound. Just as Enjeti is not afraid to look critically at the South and our country, she is also not afraid of shying away from the fact that she, despite having brown skin, despite being raised as a liberal, has contributed to the marginalization of others:
The film forced me to look inward, particularly at how the ways I moved through the world directly impacted Black people. It shined a light on my own internalized racism. (17)
Again, this becomes an avenue for bringing the reader into the text. As Enjeti points the finger at herself and the mistakes she made or how she was blinded by privilege, I, too, found myself questioning how I might have unintentionally been complicit in racism, sexism, or homophobia. Thus, Southbound becomes another example of the activism that fills its pages. As I closed the book, I was catapulted back to the first page, once again asking the questions that had jumped out at me from the beginning:
What Are You?
Where Are You From?
Who do you want to be?
LIESEL HAMILTON is a PhD student in nonfiction writing at Florida State University and holds an MFA from George Mason University. She is the author of Wild South Carolina (Hub City Press, 2016) and has been published in Catapult, The Normal School, and Audubon, among other publications. She has received fellowships from George Mason University and the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.