In Her Mind and Under Her Skin
Of the many poignant moments that occur in a young girl’s life, and also one of the least talked about, may be the first realization of race. For a long time, I didn’t know that having a black father and a Mexican mother made me any different from the other children at school, but growing up on a military bases with an Indian best friend and, later, in the middle of a mostly Hispanic town, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a number of different ethnicities as a child. Still, there are those moments that stand out for me: a Black History Month during which I was everyone’s “friend,” being told that I was neither black nor Hispanic enough, and, as it frequently happens now, just being asked, “What are you?” No one else can really know how much these little instances shape our identities and our conceptions of race, but in Under Her Skin, editor Pooja Makhijani gathers a number of stories from women who have gone though similar experiences. Reading them, one thing becomes clear: in having these experiences, we are not alone.
Makhijani’s collection is surprisingly diverse. There are stories from women who are black, Puerto Rican, Indian, and Swedish. There are stories about school, children’s literature, and visiting homelands. While Anita Darcel Taylor fondly remembers the classmate who does not straighten her hair, but instead wears it in its natural curls “like a miniature Angela Davis with a bush that bent gracefully to the wind without ever losing its form,” in “Becoming,” Traise Yamamoto recounts the trouble she met with when she similarly heaped praise upon her outspoken black classmate in “An Apology to Althea Connor,” a woman who no longer wished to be associated with her younger protestations. When most racially themed collections would include only stories written by those of a minority race, Makhijani includes stories written by women who remember their first encounters with those minorities. The themes of each are dichotomous and varied -– not just of being the outsider, but of the one looking out as well -– and the inclusion of them all illustrates the editor’s efforts to examine race from as many points as possible.
As can be gathered from the title, Under Her Skin focuses solely on the experiences of women, a distinction Makhijani makes clear in her introduction. “Women and men do have different childhood experiences,” she writes in response to her decision to exclude the many submissions she received from men. “Girls more than boys, I think, deal with issues such as self-confidence and body image, cliques, and definitions of gender roles. My aim in collecting these stories was to showcase the depth and breadth of women’s experiences.” Thusly she delineates the book’s goal, not necessarily to analyze race or feminism, or the effect the two have on each other, but to showcase real women who have had to deal with both in real ways. This, as the reader begins to realize as they make their way through the twenty stories, means all woman who have been affected by race in some way, which is to say, all women.
I distinctly see myself in several of the book’s stories. Like Ana Chavier Caamaño in “Homecoming,” I never truly learned Spanish, despite assumptions that my ethnicity renders me able to speak it perfectly. Like Sejal Shah, in “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” I noticed the absence of people like me in the books I read and I continue to notice it still. And in many of the stories, I commiserate with all of the authors who have done battle with their hair. I too have learned to tame my mass of curls and I have had to decide between demureness and belligerency when fawning strangers take it upon themselves to touch it. This is how I am reflected in Under Her Skin; I challenge any reader not to see herself mirrored in the book’s many accounts.
Most importantly, Makhijani motivation for undertaing this project was to make these women’s voices heard. “I discovered that folks were overflowing with stories to share because they had never had the opportunity to do so before. And then I knew I wanted to create a space -– a safe, artistic place -– where those childhood moments could be shared, questioned, analyzed forgiven.” Thankfully, Makhijani leaves this process up to the reader, her own voice absent from all but the introduction. By letting these women’s stories stand by themselves, she allows the reader to engage in individual relationships with their experiences, refraining from imparting her own interpretation upon her audience. Women experience race in many ways and in Under Her Skin we’re given a fulfilling look at how it has affected these twenty women, inspiring us to think about our own racially charged lives.
Under Her Skin by Pooja Makhijani