Mohabir, Rajiv. Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir. Restless Books. 2021. $27. 335p. HC. 9781632062802.
Rajiv Mohabir’s Antiman, finalist for the 2022 Lambda Literary Award in the category of Gay Memoir/Biography, is a hybrid memoir that addresses a confluence of identities – Indian, Indian-American, immigrant, gay man, and poet – in a world that ever reminds him that he is an outsider. (Antiman, we learn, is a Caribbean slur for pariah, in this book mostly directed towards gay men.) The book is part gay coming-of-age story and part poet’s journal, but more than anything else Antiman is a tribute to his Aji (grandmother), his only connection to an ancestral past his parents have long denied him. Rajiv records, translates, and “trans-creates” Aji’s songs to better understand his family and himself in a world that makes him feel that he doesn’t belong. Study of her language and culture takes him, among other places, to the holy city of Varanasi (a site of pilgrimage in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India), and by keeping her voice alive he begins to find his own voice as poet and writer.
Enjoyment of Mohabir’s book may be contingent on readerly expectations: this is not a linear memoir but a modular one, and it contains many voices and languages and genres. A number of long passages may prove difficult to follow: stories and song lyrics written in a transliterated Guyanese Bhojpuri or a Creolized English, even a few passages in Sanskrit, all followed by translations. The difficulty of reading tri-lingual passages was an annoyance at first, for somebody such as myself who’s unaccustomed to encountering such languages, but I reminded myself that in Antiman I’m being allowed a glimpse into a different way of thinking and writing, hearing truths not heard elsewhere, and that I should view these passages as part of the terrain instead of a hindrance to it. (You can always skip ahead to the translations, if you like.) I don’t want to give the sense that this is a “difficult” book; it’s probably best to think of it as the sort of memoir a poet would write, which would then allow us to draw comparisons, for example, to Saaed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives.
Antiman tells stories from oft-ignored sources that aren’t easy to hear; immigrant stories that speak of the damage of colonization, displacement, and indentureship; genealogical and historical stories in which long-obscured histories are again brought to light; and stories of adversity and courage that stress how the very act of being oneself, without apology, is a radical act. Antiman will be a welcomed addition to the collections of both public and academic libraries, especially those whose current collections are in need of diversification. It will be valued by poets, writers, and others interested in the tortuous and unique development of a poet’s craft. But I think it will find the most praise among those readers who have experienced themselves as the antiman: out of place, disregarded, and alone.
Andrew T. Powers
MSI ’22 University of Michigan