KAMNA MUDDAGOUNI: My unhomogenised identity
Communication is key to the many interests of Kamna Muddagouni. Yet, she is not defined by one single identity.
From her childhood to her adult life, Kamna has always felt comfortable in the corporate and creative worlds, whether that is working as a lawyer, communications adviser, writer or podcaster, exploring the many crossroads of her identity.
Along with friend Brodie Lancaster, Kamna launched Can U Not? in 2016, a podcast that explores their love of pop culture and inter-sectional feminism.
MEET KAMNA MUDDAGOUNI
THE PIN. In a previous interview, you have discussed how people who are not considered a part of the white-Australian norm are homogenised into the counterbalance group of "other". Can you discuss how you have experienced this through your experience of being South Indian and the story of how you and your family arrived in Australia?
KAMNA MUDDAGOUNI. In many ways, due to my mixed South Asian cultural identity, I’ve experienced being the ‘other’ on several layers. While I’ve felt my otherness in white Australia due to my ‘Indian-ness’ and my brownness, even within my brown and Indian community there’s been times when I’ve felt like ‘the other’.
My parents grew up with totally different cultural identities despite both being South Indian. My mama’s family is from Thrissur and Palakkad in Kerala originally but she grew up living a relatively westernised life in Bengaluru. While my papa grew up in Hyderabad, with farmer parents who moved to the urban city with Islamic and Persian cultural influences but maintained a strong connection to agricultural life. They met, fell in love and got married but at that time in the 80's being from such different cultural, linguistic and in some way class backgrounds meant to live their life together, they had to determine their own identity, so they were not permanently ‘others’ in each others’ wider families and societies. They did this by moving to Mumbai and creating our own family unit - a hodge podge of ‘Indian’ identities.
Growing up in India at an early age, I was both oblivious and at times acutely aware of navigating my dual cultural identities and also a new one which my parents were creating for me. This was starkly different from a lot of my peers who didn’t have parents from different cultural backgrounds but lived relatively homogeneous lives. We all moved from Mumbai to Narrm when I was six. In Mumbai, it was just mama, papa and my didi (older sister) with a community we built rather than having one exist due to family, so in many ways, I was born into a diaspora in Mumbai before I came to Narrm.
Coming here, I slowly realised another level of being ‘the other’ was going to be added on.
Because your parents came from these two different areas of India, did you feel you were in essence already in a bicultural household?
K. Totally and I've only really appreciated that in the past five or ten years because the way my parents nurtured and I experienced both cultures was always very fluid and unstructured. For example, when I spent time with my mama’s family, I would naturally be exposed to parts of her culture like language and food which could change the moment I would step into my papa’s family home. It was instant and I was conscious that this was a different experience to that of my cousins and peers but I didn’t know any other way.
At home, I grew up speaking Hindi, which is neither my mother tongue or my father tongue - but one that I could more easily keep a connection to while living in a diaspora. And the food we ate was never distinctly regional, it was just distinctly us - a product of two cultures, two migrations and four people.
My bicultural-ness was even more noticeable when I met other people from India in Australia.
When I was growing up it was even very rare still to meet mixed Indian people, often they’d be completely Punjabi, or South Indian, down to the same region the same language everything. People couldn’t understand why my last name was clearly South Indian but I could only speak Hindi which is from the middle to the north of India. It often felt like for this reason I cradled a position of insider and outsider at the same time - but it also felt like a privilege to have that difference, that complexity.
This was juxtaposed with meeting non-Indian Australians who would see me just as ‘Indian’ which really means nothing when you realise there is no single cultural identity experienced by the billion or so people who call India ‘home’.
Within your household, did one of your parents cultures dominate?
K. I think there have been different waves where one has had more influence in my life than the other. But mama and papa are both pretty amazing at ensuring I have exposure to both, my mum speaks my dad's language really well and has formed really good relationships with my dad’s family and vice versa. If anything I felt that the ‘third’ Indian culture we had created as a family unit was the dominant one.
I’ve got to explore what being a third Indian culture kid means more as I’ve formed my own family with my partner too. Being White Australian, coming into my home, he’s always seen by mama and papa as Malayali and Telugu respectively rather than homogeneously Indian and him him engaging with my parents’ individually rather than as a sum has in many ways encouraged this.
At various parts of our life, one aspect of our identity or culture is going to dominate in one way or the other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we lose the other.
Did you ever have the desire to lose your ‘otherness’, or was there a strong foundation that reassured you of who you are?
K. I don’t think I desired to lose my otherness but I code-switched in a way that protected my ‘otherness’ - to keep me safe. As an adult when I’ve talked to other people who grew up as migrants in Australia, at the time that I did, erasure has been an experience they have shared but to me I think erasure wasn’t an option due to the closeness I felt and needed from my family - but switching was a way I coped, existed.
I would switch to a more ‘Australian identity’ when in white spaces, to protect myself from ridicule and exclusion - which I experienced anyway by reason of my brownness - but also to protect my culture and my safety in it.
For a lot of kids who migrate or are first gen, there seemingly isn't a lot of room to have a career and be creative. It seems to be a choice between the two but, for you, both these aspects seem to be apart of your life - or is one more dominant?
K. I’ve always kind of just had both. What’s probably helped me to be able to do both is that my parents have had varied and dynamic careers. My papa has always worked in social work and public policy with disadvantaged communities and my mama used to be a teacher in India but has carved really amazing pathways in the community sector.
I saw them as having less than typical careers compared to the adults in the Indian diaspora I was exposed to so I never thought I could not have the same for me.
I’ve also learned that I do not feel the need to choose between a creative pathway or a career focused one. It’s less to me about picking one over the other, but using my values, interests and passions to influence the choices I make about the work I do so I remain two things - nourished and nourishing to the community around me.
I guess the other part is I’ve always existed in two worlds, so I don't get stressed about doing different things at the same time.
Have you ever had to deal with, or navigate tokenism? How do you differentiate being tokenised as opposed to people genuinely wanting your opinion because they want to know a completely different experience to theirs?
K. I’m really conscious of, and I’m not saying this in a self-glorifying way, but I’m really conscious that I’m a relatively articulate person and have had privileges in education to support my being articulate. So if I believe in something, I can say it, and I’m able to often get my point of view across. Sometimes that’s perceived as someone who is willing to be a spokesperson for various ideas or identities - which I don’t ever want to be. I’ve definitely felt at times like I’m seen as a brown person with “thoughts” on cultural appropriation and/or South Asian identity when really I’d rather be seen and heard as a person.
One reason why I maintain two different career paths is because I really enjoy the anonymity of just being really good at what I do as a lawyer, and not because I’m a lawyer of colour or a female lawyer of colour, it’s just because I’m a lawyer. I don’t embellish that aspect of my life even though I’ve found real success in it. Maintaining that anonymity in the daily work I do helps me to cope with other times where my views in my writing are seen as that of my identity and experience rather than of me.
I try pretty consciously to be seen and heard as more than my identity because all that leads to is a singular narrative - but it’s hard - because it’s what’s constantly being pushed on you.
On Facebook, Thando wrote that she felt bad because she didn’t mind people touching her hair, as a black woman and I guess that pointed out that people forget that the ability to have the licence to choose is what liberates you from being oppressed?
K. I think it all ties back to how white supremacy and privileged societies demand singular easy to digest narratives of minorities. If we can hand them the rule book of everything they can do and can’t do they can at least be like, you said this is okay and this isn’t and now you’re changing your mind about it?! They want to hold us to be accountable while at the same time avoid all accountability.
I get this all the time with yoga - I’m forced to have an opinion about it now for the rest of my life because I dared to express a view once. The reason I wrote that piece was because I wanted to write it and there's a strong cultural phenomenon around yoga in western culture that erases the identity of women of colour and the identity of Hindus. But since writing it, white people constantly come up to me with equations like : if I went to five lessons by a Hindu teacher and then I did one lesson by a non-Hindu teacher in a retreat, would that be okay?
All of this occurs because people with privilege constantly feel the need to justify why they do something. Really, deconstructing privilege is about being okay with being uncomfortable.
People are less okay with being called a racist than actual racism. They are less worried about fixing or addressing the problem than being labelled as being associated with that problem.
Can we talk about your relationship?
K. Yeah, totally! I am like an open book.
Does it surprise you that being in an interracial relationship is still seen as…
K. A thing?
Yes and no.
Yes because in some ways, despite us being obviously interracial, in many circles we are read as ‘monoracial’ - namely white and western. What I mean by this is, in our white dominant society, for so many people I am seen as someone who ‘fits in’ with western life. Therefore they erase my distinct cultural identity and are constantly shocked when Jimmy and I talk about aspects of our relationship and life that are strongly Indian and anything but white. Whether that be the way we interact with family, food, language or race. It comes as a shock to them that my culture could survive a relationship with a white man.
So when this view is applied, I do get surprised when the same people who read us as a monoracial couple, comment on how cute our babies are going to be because they will have caramel skin - I guess an acceptable level of brown to me.
In other ways, no it doesn’t surprise me because my brownness and Indian culture is exotified in so many ways that having it exotified in my relationship as a mix of the ‘other’ with the norm is not really shocking to me. Jimmy and I got married a little while back and the amount of people who reduced our decision to do so to a one-liner of ‘I’ve always wanted to go to an Indian wedding’ reminded me that people will always see our relationship as normal but with a bit of difference - with the difference being me and my culture.
Do you think that's one of the negatives about being a cultural code-switcher, people start to assume that you have assimilated into Australian culture? How does that work in your relationship?
K. I think that’s it. This is going to sound depressingly romantic of me but I don’t think I would be with Jimmy if I had to code-switch with him. I don’t think our relationship would work if I had to apply the same rules that I do to engaging with the rest of western society. Because it would be equal parts exhausting and inauthentic. He understands that I experience and navigate the world in two contemporary but different ways every day - whether it be an interaction in a shop, at work, with my friends and even my family. If I had to do that with my partner I don’t think we’d have a relationship where I could feel safe to be me.
I know I'm lucky to have that, I feel grateful for it, but by the same token, it’s to be expected because why should I have to settle for anything less.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self a piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
KAMNA MUDDAGOUNI. Recognise yourself a little bit more. For a while I assumed everything I was doing was fine and normal. I should have recognised I was doing a pretty phenomenal job at surviving the way I did, in the world I lived in. I navigated so much in my skin and I just never acknowledged it let alone celebrated it. I would tell myself “ Don’t feel you have to be more than what you are.” I think people refuse to recognise the excellence that’s involved in surviving day to day as a member of the diaspora in Australia.