1905 Stuck in the middle with you
Almost Brown: A Mixed Race Family Memoir
by Charlotte Gill
Toronto: Penguin RandomHouse, 2023
$36 hardcover / 9780735243033
Reviewed by Daniel Gawthrop
The author of various fiction and narrative non-fiction titles, including the tree-planting memoir Eating Dirt, Sunshine Coast-based Charlotte Gill is a gifted storyteller. Her new memoir explores how the author’s self-image and sense of the world were shaped her family’s experience of multiple immigrations, by the rupture in her parents’ marriage and its consequences, and by growing awareness of her own relative privilege and agency as a half-white settler in Canada. Throughout this insightful book, the prose crackles with wit, humility, and a vivid sense of people and place.
Far from a heroic tale about a mixed-race couple defying the odds with their love, Almost Brown leaves us wondering how the author, her twin brother, and younger sister managed to become functioning adults without suffering irreparable damage from the fallout of their mother and father’s irreconcilable differences—a glaring incompatibility which, while not physically violent, featured flaming arguments, chronic absenteeism, and long, stoic silences.
Early on, Gill wonders what brought her mom and dad together in the first place, “why the daughter of an English bank manager found a bearded, turban-wearing foreigner with a thick Indo-Kenyan accent so appealing, and vice versa.”
Her father was a brown man born in India, a Sikh who was an Anglophile for everything English but the royal family, “whom he quietly dislikes.” Her mother, born and raised in England and a confirmed Catholic, thought he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. But the odds were stacked against them, Gill notes. When they first met in swinging London,
a stubborn conservatism lurked beneath all the progress. The culture was barely prepared for its first waves of reverse colonization let alone to claim chicken tikka masala as the national dish. It was definitely not ready to accept a white woman married to a very brown man from a country whose independence had been ‘granted’ just a dozen years before.
The first clue that their marriage would be short-lived is that they were both medical professionals: doctors who were strong-willed and fiercely independent. Gill’s mother, who would never return to her native England after their move to Canada and the U.S., was a feminist; Gill’s father, who would never return to his native India after his own family’s move to Kenya and then England, was a product of the traditional Punjabi village culture in which he was raised. Accustomed to being waited on by women and doing whatever he pleased, he left the child-rearing to his sleep-deprived wife—whether or not she had emergency surgeries to perform in the middle of the night. Inevitably, his spouse became a ticking time bomb.
Gill renders these stories with enough telling detail to suggest the mountain of resentments she had built up against her father by the time their long estrangement began. The reader feels a dizzying sense of displacement as she recounts how the family relocated every year, her restless father deciding that the grass must be greener elsewhere. We’ve all heard of the difficult adjustment of growing up as an army brat or the child of diplomats. But Gill’s account of the family’s constant moving—including from London to Toronto to New York state—reveals how much more difficult it is for a mixed-race family to start over again, the cruelty of having to endure the same humiliating rituals of rejection and acceptance in each new community.
It is in the U.S. that the dream of successful family life dies, and with it every last ounce of respect the young Gill has for her father. The patriarch endures humiliation that his status as the surgeon son of a Jat Sikh industrialist is not recognized in upstate New York any more than it was in England or Toronto. “His dark complexion and thick accent made people think of an overpopulated country with open sewers and cows wandering about in the streets,” she writes. “Pedigree was for chumps, at least it was in our little blue collar world, a reality he refused to take lying down.” The children, meanwhile, assimilate into American culture by watching TV.
Along the way, Gill describes the lack of resources available to mixed-race families, and the absence of information in child-raising literature, during the 1970s. Child psychology was still informed by the racist eugenics of 19th and early 20th century thinkers like French ethnologist Arthur de Gobineau and American sociologist Everett Stonequist, who described mixed race people in zoological terms like “piebald,” “mongrel” or “mulattoes” and saw them as fated to mediocrity. Later, sharing her discovery of post-colonial thinkers like Edward Said, she does not condemn every instance of Orientalist caricature as irredeemable. (Peter Sellers’s slapstick turn in brownface as Hrundi V. Bakshi in “The Party,” for example, produces a telling moment when the offended host says to Bakshi, “Who do you think you are?” and he replies: “In India, we don’t think who we are, we know who we are.” This “defiant form of dignity,” offers Gill, “belied Bakshi’s oblivion. A human paradox. A layered consciousness. This also felt familiar.”)
In exploring where she fits in as a half-white person, how she struggles to understand white privilege and carry her fair share of its weight, Gill lets go with a riff that makes clear she’s well aware of the attendant ironies in her own narrative:
Whiteness means no harm. It’s all apologies. It’s just living its best life. It asks what all this fuss is about…Whiteness is reason unaffected by desire; it’s the instrument of justice. It works hard for the money…It notices everyone’s complexion, while forgetting to mention its own.
Gill’s account of her father’s final betrayal of the family—her mother’s discovery that leads her to change all the locks and freeze him out of their lives—is riveting. The chapter on Gill’s visit to India describes how, after seeing glimmers of her father’s behaviour everywhere she travelled, her grudge against him began to dissolve as she began to understand him. By the time she sees her father again after twenty years, he’s living in Texas still single, she is married and living on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, and her mother is remarried and back in Ontario. Part Two of the book, which covers Gill’s reconciliation with her father, is filled with tender and humorous moments in which the author is forced to acknowledge their similarities.
Unsurprisingly, Almost Brown is dedicated to Gill’s father. If her mother’s presence in the book seems fleeting, it’s because she was not the parent who required her daughter’s writerly pains. Her father, by contrast, is by far the more interesting subject. He’s like a character from a V.S. Naipaul novel—or, better yet, Naipaul himself: a curmudgeonly brown man, constantly and defiantly in exile, who quietly endures racist indignities with a hard-won superiority complex, an old world male who is somewhat monstrous in his sense of entitlement and treatment of women, but—when trust is established—is also capable of tenderness and vulnerability.
A tightly-written memoir at 240 pages, Almost Brown is an intimate and enriching account of the legacies of inter-racial marriage and cultural displacement in a post-colonial world.
Daniel Gawthrop is in an 18-year mixed-race marriage that has produced no children but generated an abundance of cultural lessons. His new novel, Double Karma, which is set mostly in Burma/Myanmar, was published this spring by Cormorant Books. He is also the author of five non-fiction titles including The Rice Queen Diaries a memoir about interracial attraction. Visit his website here. Editor’s note: Daniel Gawthrop has recently reviewed books by Eden Robinson, Tsering Yangzom Lama, Alan Haig-Brown, Anthony Varesi, Corey Hirsch, and Harley Rustad for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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