Almost brown A memoir

Charlotte Gill, 1971-

Book - 2023

"An award-winning writer retraces her dysfunctional, biracial, globe-trotting family's journey as she reckons with ethnicity and belonging, diversity and race, and the complexities of life within a multicultural household. Charlotte Gill's father is Indian. Her mother is English. They meet in 1960's London when the world is not quite ready for interracial love. Their union, a revolutionary act, results in a total meltdown of familial relations, a lot of immigration paperwork, and three children, all in varying shades of tan. Together they set off on a journey from the United Kingdom to Canada and to the United States in elusive pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness--a dream that eventually tears them apart. Almost Brow...n is an exploration of diasporic intermingling involving parents of two different races and their half-brown children as they experience the paradoxes and conundrums of life as it's lived between race checkboxes. Eventually, her parents drift apart because they just aren't compatible. But as she finds herself distancing from her father too--why is she embarrassed to walk down the street with him and not her mom?--she doesn't know if it's because of his personality or his race. As a mixed-race child, was this her own unconscious bias favoring one parent over the other in the racial tug-of-war that plagues our society? Almost Brown looks for answers to questions shared by many mixed-race people: What are you? What does it mean to be a person of color when the concept is a societal invention and really only applies halfway if you are half white? And how does your relationship with your parents change as you change and grow older? In a funny, turbulent, and ultimately heartwarming story, Gill examines the brilliant messiness of ancestry, "diversity," and the idea of "race," a historical concept that still informs our beliefs about ethnicity today"--

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  • 1. A Little Circle
  • 2. Colonial Love
  • 3. Half-Castes in Wonderland
  • 4. Limbo
  • 5. What are You?
  • 6. Goodbye, Motherland
  • 7. Naturalized Citizens
  • 8. Towelhead
  • 9. How Should a Daughter Be?
  • 10. A Moonbeam from Lightning
  • 11. Zones of Alienation
  • 12. Something to Declare
  • 13. Borderlands
  • 14. Fibrillations
  • 15. A Well-Worn Groove
  • 16. Bubbles
  • 17. Beige Utopia
  • 18. Inheritance
  • Acknowledgments
Review by Booklist Review

Fiction and nonfiction author Gill (Eating Dirt, 2012) explores her parents' marriage, her own biracial identity, and the legacies she carries. Gill's father, born to a Sikh family in India and raised in Kenya--a British colony at the time--moved to London in the 1960s for medical school and met Gill's mother, a white, Catholic, Englishwoman who was studying anesthesiology. Their marriage destroyed Gill's parents' relationships with their own parents. After Gill and her twin brother were born, the family moved to Toronto and then upstate New York in search of less discrimination and better career options. Gill weaves the story of her childhood in New York, where her mother ran the household operations as her father dipped in and out of home life as a fearsome patriarch. They divorced when the author was in high school, representing the beginning of Gill's decades-long drift from her father. Written with an eye for detail and character, Almost Brown is a moving examination of family, history, and the connections that endure.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This moving memoir from Gill (Eating Dirt) explores her experiences as a self-described "Indo-Saxon"--the daughter of a Punjabi Sikh man and a British woman--navigating tumultuous family relationships and feelings of cultural rootlessness. Raised in Canada and the U.S. by immigrant parents who struggled to understand both cultures, Gill ably addresses the cultural and racial tensions she faced inside and outside her home, especially those driven by her father, whose own upbringing in India and Kenya instilled beliefs that felt antithetical to the family's American lifestyle (he "hit the ceiling" when Gill got her ears pierced). As a teen, Gill's father abandoned the family and they fell out of touch for several years before reconnecting when she was an adult. In lyrical, near-poetic prose, Gill uses their relationship as a springboard to touch on themes of belonging and identity-making relevant to anyone who has ever struggled to place themselves within their own lineage. "I didn't understand that we were a cup poured into a tide of generational wavelets, people leaving and starting over, each paying the toll in a new world by giving up a little bit of the old one," Gill writes. Readers should expect to have their heartstrings tugged. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic. (June)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Gill (Eating Dirt) recalls her upbringing as the daughter of a white English mother and an Indian father in this memoir. The author begins the book with her parents, who met in London as young doctors in the 1960s and married. Neither of their parents were pleased; her paternal grandfather stopped speaking to her father for decades. Alone in the world and with a growing family, the Gills moved from London to Canada and then to the U.S., where the differences between their personalities and years of fiscal misspending caused a rift in the marriage. Shortly after her parents' divorce, Charlotte grew weary of her father's ideas about her college plans, and they became estranged. Intermingled are histories about biracial relations globally, plus the author's thoughts about being biracial. Some information, such as the colonization of India, flows seamlessly with whatever is happening in her life. However, other insights seem to come out of nowhere, especially in later chapters. VERDICT The discombobulation detracts from both the family storyline and some of the messages conveyed about discrimination directed toward biracial and multiracial people. Regardless, this book is still worth a read.--Anjelica Rufus-Barnes

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A biracial writer uses her father's story to interpret her own. Gill was born in London, but she grew up in a small town in upstate New York where everyone knew her biracial family's story. When her father, who was born in India but grew up in Kenya, married her Catholic English mother, his family disowned him for marrying a "white bride." This estrangement, combined with Gill's father's intensely gendered household rules, led her to support her mother during the couple's subsequent divorce. "At the time, it didn't really seem like a choice between white and brown so much as a preference for Mom over Dad….It wasn't sim-ply a question of skin, or belonging, or the Englishness of Mom, or the Indianness of Dad, or some murky middle state in between," writes the author. "It had become a curry of emotion and allegiance and identity, everything cooked together, all at once." Gill spent years not speaking to her father, which heightened confusion about her racial identity. The author wonders, "What does it mean to be brown?" and notes that her Punjabi cousins, whom she considers racial role models, lack the "singsong accents or delightful head wobbles or any other mango-infused idiosyncrasies often attributed to Indians." When asked to outline her "diversity practices" for a job interview, Gill admits that she considers diversity "some deeply flawed bullshit," and she worries that admitting to her biracial identity might lead to her stealing a job from "some better-qualified, normal, non-diverse person." While the author never seemed to fully resolve issues about her identity, she reconciled with her father. The book's strongest sections depict the evolution of Gill's relationship with her father and explain the historical context that shaped her parents' lives. Unfortunately, her analysis of her biracial identity is problematically superficial and outdated, and her memoirlike sections are overly descriptive but inadequately circumspect. A largely disappointing memoir from a biracial immigrant. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1 A Little Circle My father's skin is the color of a medium-­roasted coffee bean. His eyes are so dark you can't tell the pupils from the irises. His hair was once nearly black, but now it's white--­at least it is when he doesn't get around to coloring it. He disguises his gray from time to time at a salon he's been visiting for at least a couple of decades. We probably share the same dye shade--­ espresso brown, according to my drugstore box. He has half-­moons of darker pigmentation beneath his eyes, which are slightly puffy about the upper lids and slightly downturned at the outer corners. Many of us in the family share this trait, and if we aren't smiling in photos, we tend to look sleepy, sad, or both, even if we're having the best time. My dad has a pleasingly round face, also a common family feature, inherited from my grandmother. His family is Sikh, although he isn't what I'd call religious. And neither am I, which pleases him immensely, especially since my mother has become more churchgoing with time. In this way, if not elsewhere, I'm a fulfillment of his design. He was born in Punjab, India, and has lived on four continents, but somehow he ended up in South Texas. He lives in McAllen, a city known for its Customs and Border Patrol detention facilities and gargantuan public library fashioned from an abandoned Walmart. Wherever he goes, people still call him "Dr. Gill." Once a physician, always a physician. He's also an Anglophile. For years, he lived in the United Kingdom. It's where he trained to be a surgeon. He still loves marmalade and orange pekoe tea and table manners and the Queen's English and generally most kinds of fusty British pomp except the royal family, whom he quietly dislikes. He sprinkles his sentences with "bloody well" and "bloody hell" when he's grumpy. He still defends Great Britain as the height of civilized achievement, which I sometimes think is a form of internalized prejudice. For a man born in the Hindenburg era, he's impressively adept with technology. He owns the latest iPhone, and his ringtone is bonging church bells--­a strange choice for a Sikh person, one of his many fascinating contradictions. When his phone rings, he wrangles it out of his pocket, glances down at the screen, and usually decides to ignore it, at least when I'm around. He's a competent driver with no plans to give up his license, at least not without a fight. He wore glasses from middle age until just recently, when he had his cataracts removed and his vision corrected with laser surgery. He has good white teeth, mostly his own, which have always been the animating feature of his face when he smiles. He can go from looking hard and brooding to effervescently playful in an eyeblink. My father is an eighty-­six-­year-­old who has now spent more time as a bachelor than he ever did a married man. He celebrated his eightieth birthday twice; the first time he forgot he was only seventy-­nine. Or he claims he forgot. No one loves the twinkle of a good party like he does, except maybe me, if the moment is right. My dad shuffles into the living room wearing his voluminous bathrobe. He says he had a wretched sleep, that's why he woke up so late, even though I know perfectly well what time he returned last night from his favorite bar and can guess how many Bollywood movies he started into before dawn. "What time did you get back?" I ask, the kind of question he might have had for me back in my days of youthful mayhem. "Oh," he says, "not too late," which is the type of shady reply I would have given back then also. He bumps his way between the coffee table and the sofa, then eases himself down. He rummages for the TV remote among the cushions while reminding me of his virtuously early mornings back when he still worked in hospitals. Our memories diverge on this and other things, but I don't mention it. I'm slouched across the love seat with my laptop open. He sits in the middle of the big sofa. He flicks on the giant flat-­screen TV, and we watch together for a while. Often, it's some aristocratically slow sporting event like cricket or golf. Either that or the news. My dad likes the unfettered punditry of American broadcast journalism, the more inflamed the propaganda the better. The TV is his campfire, a loud one, even though he can still hear perfectly well. Lazy afternoon light beams through the living room windows. I hear the letter carrier shove the mail through the slot, and then it lands heavily on the foyer floor. My dad channel surfs at dizzying speeds. His TV pumps out almost every satellite signal transmitted between space and the earth. We skip over ads for pharmaceuticals featuring actors enjoying their vitality and ads for ambulance-­chasing lawyers engaged in class-­action suits. It's as if he's looking for something rare and particular that is nowhere to be found. I say, "Wouldn't it be better for your biorhythms or whatever to go to bed, you know, at a more normal human hour?" It's a refrain he hears often from other well-­meaning relatives, all our comments about his upside-­down schedule. My dad's face contracts into a scowl. He waves at the air between us to express his opinion about my attitude. I've seen this gesture a thousand times over the years, and I still can't decide if he's doing it for his relief or my entertainment--­maybe a little of both. I love it when he acts as if I'm driving him around the bend. I laugh, he shakes his head, and then we go back to surfing together. A little later, he disappears into his bedroom, and then he emerges wearing beige medical scrubs. He owns many sets in several colors, and he often wears them to his physical therapy appointments as ersatz athletic apparel, since he owns no articles of gym clothing, at least none that were made in this century. "I don't think brown looks good on me," he says. "It doesn't look good on me, either," I reply. He sinks down on the sofa to apply sneakers to feet. He used to have an impressive collection of well-­made leather shoes, but podiatric troubles have reduced him to a single pair of slide-­ons that give him a kind of accidental gentleman-­hipster cool. He puts these on with a long shoehorn he keeps beneath the coffee table. Then he takes his blood pressure. The wrist cuff beeps and deflates. "Do you want me to drive you?" "No, no," he says, frowning, swatting me away. "Don't worry about it." He's been going to therapy to work on his leg strength lately. Mobility and independence go hand in hand--­this reality isn't lost on him. One wipeout in the shower, and that's it, the end of his ability to live as he pleases. But he never lets me anywhere near the clinic, not even to run errands in the neighborhood while he's inside. Now he's running late, as always, I can tell from his tone, and the prospect of my company is just another obstacle that threatens to slow him down. He pockets his iPhone and keys then shuffles out through the kitchen to the garage, where I hear the door lift and his car engine cough to life. Normally, if there's an appointment with the dentist or the rheumatologist that he'd rather avoid, he'll blow it off. My semi-­informed guess is that his therapist is an attractive, attentive woman upon whom he has a mild crush. My dad owns a modest unit in a brick-­and-­terra-­cotta subdivision--­an atypical surgeon's retirement--­with newspapers piled up on the doorstep and at least a few of the lightbulbs burned out. His house was built in the eighties and hardly anything has been renovated since then. There's an atrium painted spumoni green. The bathrooms, mine and his, feature gold taps with clear acrylic knobs cut to resemble diamonds. I wait until he's gone to tidy up, otherwise he tells me not to do it, but only half-­heartedly. I start in the living room, which is the biggest enigma, a bafflement of fatherly detritus. He spends plenty of time in here, and it has accumulated a snow of his belongings, none of which seems to have proper stowage. The glass coffee table is covered on the westerly end with a library of orange prescription bottles and Ayurvedic remedies sent to him in the mail by his sisters. A lot of it is expired or untouched, but still, he won't allow me to dispose of any of these, as if it is a little shrine to his personal medical adventures. On the other end, there is a rampart of magazines, a medical journal or two, and sometimes the odd book that he says I should read, but that he has not read himself. In between there is evidence of snacking--­a paper towel stained with a cup ring, a plate with a few flakes of samosa pastry, and a tiny plastic pot of tamarind chutney. Usually there's a bowl of Lindor chocolates somewhere in this vicinity, even though he's the only person I know in the world who doesn't like chocolate. I wonder who it's there for--­maybe me. Excerpted from Almost Brown: A Memoir by Charlotte Gill All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.