Mary Ann Thomas: Brown Queer Travel Writer

The Practice of Forgetting


After four glasses of wine, our slurred words form questions we don’t want to remember.

“So, what are you going to do next year?” Jesse asks me. She looks out the window as she washes dishes. Only without eye contact can I tell certain truths.

“I want to go to India,” I answer.

“And do what?” she says.

“I want to just get a one-way ticket and stay there until I know Malayalam. Until I’m actually fluent. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I think I’m going to stay out of the country for about a year.” There, I said it. My secret desires, my dreams, the only thing I truly regret in life is out in the open.

“But why do you want to learn Malayalam?” Jesse continues scrubbing dishes. Malayalam, the language of my parents’ histories, of tea merchants and fisherman, of coffee estates and hills filled with pineapples, of buffalo and birthing calves, of Communists and protesters. Malayalam, a language I can barely speak.

To her back, I say:

“So I can talk to my family, so that someone in my generation can at least talk to our family in India. Or so that the kids of my brothers can learn Malayalam, so they have an example that it can be done.” I look into my glass of wine.

“But what are you going to do in India? You’ll get bored.” She turns to face me.

I tell her that I’ll spend time with family. That I’ll meet all the relatives I’ve never met—my cousins, their kids. I’m making excuses now. On this boozy night, I try different ways to talk about my dreams.

“Your cousins?” She laughs, like everything I’ve been saying is a joke. “My cousins live in the US and I’m don’t even talk to them! I see them once a year, and I don’t even want to talk to them when I do see them. You don’t need to know your cousins.” She keeps laughing.

“Well that’s kind of sad,” I say, but smile to match her laugh. I don’t want to cast judgment on her choices, her life. She thinks she’s fine. A white girl from North Carolina, Jesse is many generations removed from her ancestors’ journey to the US. She has learned origins are best avoided from a dad who mocks his own last name when he says it’s Lithuanian for “Pack of Losers.” With no connection to her own history, she needs to believe forgetting is fine. “I guess I could just forget about everything, about where I came from.”

“Yeah!” She answers enthusiastically. “Why go through all that work of learning a language? You don’t need to know where you came from. You can just do what everyone else does—forget.”

“Right. Just forget. And keep drinking.” We raise our glasses, drink our last sips of wine, and go to bed, a toast to forgetting.

*

Mary. Ann. Thomas.

“Were your parents’ names changed when they got here?” a classmate asks during the lesson on Ellis Island.

“You have such a white girl name,” a nurse says at shift change when she first meets me.

“Your name is so easy to forget,” a new friend tells me, “Because it doesn’t look like you.”

No one changed our names.

In India, my father’s name is T.J. Thomas. Names are organized differently among Kerala Christians. It’s on our passports that “first name” and “last name” is so succinctly decided; through paperwork, these names are subtly transferred and rearranged so our cultures fit into the prearranged columns. In transference, the details are removed: my father’s full name is Thekkumkattil John Thomas. Thekkumkattil is my family name, John is my father’s father’s name, Thomas is my father’s first name.

That’s simply how names are arranged: family name comes first, father’s name is second, the name of an individual sits last.

So no, he didn’t change his name when he came to the United States; he kept it exactly the same. Thomas became his “last name,” Thekkumkattil his “first name,” and the reasons he is named were erased. His children don’t carry his family name, or any family name. They carry his first name, the name that sits easy on American tongues: Thomas.

“Why’s your last name Thomas?” a friend’s dad asks me in high school.

I tell him the story I’ve been told. Thomas the Apostle—as in, Thomas the doubter, Thomas who was at the Last Supper—came to India and spread the Good News of Jesus to Malayalis. Particularly to upper caste Hindus, who were the people he wanted to break bread with. And they believed him. They were converted the same way thousands of people were converted to the Cult of Christ, pre-Crusades, not through military means but by hearing a story they could believe in. Those Hindus, they chose to convert because of the power of faith. An old fashioned, travel the world and tell a compelling story.

“But that didn’t really happen, I don’t believe that,” he says. “How would Thomas the Apostle have gotten to India?”

It’s not until he does his own Internet research and finds an account of the “discovery” of unexpected Christians in Kerala by the Portuguese that he believes me. It’s only when they see documented histories as told by colonists that white folks start to believe oral traditions.

St. Thomas is part of my name, part of my naming story. It’s a story I retain past the confusion of passports, past losing my family name, Thekkumkattil. Even though I am now thousands of miles away, it’s a story I know better than my family’s language.

*

“Lucy did the ancestry test,” Dan tells me. He refers to our mutual friend, whose mother grew up in Malaysia to Chinese parents and whose father is mixed-white, mostly Irish. “And she told me she has some Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, somewhere in there.”

I nod, quiet. Dan, a white Jewish kid raised in Jersey with a whole line of family members killed in the Holocaust, has an opinion on this claim of Jewish ancestry. He says:

“And I’m kind of like, does that matter? Why do you think that matters? You weren’t raised in that tradition, so what difference do the genes make?”

I want to say it must matter. Because history is erased from our veins when we allow ourselves to forget where we came from. Our stories are even more connected than we know. A mixed-race Chinese Irish kid from Minnesota can be connected to Ashkenazi Jewish history. The fact that those genes exist mean that a story was silenced somewhere in her lineage, mean that someone thought that story wasn’t worth telling. Because the history of the oppressor wins; forgetting lets the history of the oppressor win without a fight. Because the traditions of certain people are valued, while other traditions are actively destroyed. When we let certain stories thrive without questioning why we know one story better than another, we forget histories of resistance. Of cross-cultural marriages, of migration, of interracial love before it was legal, and the ways love is resistance when all else fails.

And it does matter. It does make a difference, doesn’t it?

*

When I was eleven, I was cleaved from my history, my culture, my family story. My grandma, my Ammachi—who, for ten years, made chai every day for my brothers and me when we got home from school, who spoke to us only in Malayalam, who listened to me cry when I fought with my parents—was so divorced from life in the United States that when it came time to renew her visa, she chose to go back to India instead.

We brought her back to Kerala. Her return to India would mean I would never again hear Malayalam spoken with me at home. The rhythm and nya and nguh sounds would fade. It would mean there would never again be a neutral adult who didn’t know how much of an asshole little kid I was, since she couldn’t understand my cruel words, but just loved and loved and loved.

Ammachi lived with us in New Jersey before Indian families moved onto our block, before my parents found a Malayali church. A couple years of her leaving, everything changed. An Indian family with a daughter my brother’s age moved next door. A Malankara Catholic church opened in North Jersey and my parents became active church members. They showed up early to help set up for mass, donated huge sums out of the college fund to pay the salaries of the priests, and bought lunch for the whole congregation. They created lesson plans for Sunday school so that the little kiddos could learn their language, learn the multi-millennia tradition of Catholics in Kerala, learn no, they aren’t part of any caste, learn their names weren’t changed at Ellis Island, learn that maybe, just maybe, their faith doesn’t go back to a violent history of conversion, but that their ancestors joined the Cult of Christ back when there was no official church. Thomas the Apostle.

It could have been different. Ammachi could have stayed in New Jersey. She could have stayed at home with close family. Instead, irresponsible relatives in India used money from my father to care for their own families instead of putting that money into her health. They occasionally hired inexperienced young women to stay with her; those women beat her and barely fed her. When the responsibility became too much for our relatives, they put her in the care of nuns in town. The nuns locked her in her room at night to keep her from wandering. Her one tiny window let in just enough light to show how shabby the concrete room was. The thin cot gave her bedsores. In that ten-by-eight-foot room, Ammachi read the newspaper and the Bible. She ate on a schedule that was not her own. They didn’t beat her, as far as we know.

In April 2013, I found out she was sick. Mom and Maramavi, my aunt, flew to India, tired of the confusing messages coming from the hospital and relatives. They brought her home from the hospital. After a week, they told me she stopped opening her eyes. They sat her upright in a plastic lawn chair, dragged her to the shower, and poured water over her head. She still didn’t open her eyes.

So I flew home. To a home. To my Ammachi, to a woman I couldn’t fully share a language with but who loved me unconditionally in a way only a grandparent could.

When Ammachi heard my voice, she called out, “Kunye!” a word of endearment she reserved for her grandbabies. I went to her bedside and Ammachi opened her eyes. I cried and held her hand. She prayed. Then she cursed. She alternated prayers and curses all week, and I laughed at the ease with which my gentle Ammachi hurled insults. She knew her time was coming, but every day I was there, she opened her eyes. Every single fucking day.

Before I left for my flight back to the United States, I crept up to Ammachi while she slept on the narrow adult crib and kissed her. I held her wrinkled hands between my own and made the sign of the cross on her forehead, the way a priest would administer last rites. Not for a god that I believe in, but for the God of Malayali Christians, to whom I know Ammachi would want to be sent.

The day I left was the day she closed her eyes for the last time.

Almost a month later, her heart stopped. They brought her to the hospital and she was declared dead on arrival. And that was it—a bloodline, an ancestor, gone. At the end of her life, she held her hands on her belly, folded together, her blue veins mountains rising out of wrinkled brown skin.

*

We practice forgetting in America.

We practice it every day. A white person tells me I have a white woman name and I forget to tell them Mary was brown. Our friends don’t know our family names, hidden in the multiple layers of how first names and last names are not the same around the world, how names become “standardized” when they’re written on a passport, in two columns made easily digestible for nations to consume as they stamp us through their borders.

We practice forgetting when we teach our kids English, hoping, praying they’ll have better opportunities in life if they don’t end up in ESL classes. We practice forgetting when we don’t teach them about our lives, or our love traditions based on astrology and superstition, like a woman shouldn’t enter a man’s house until the day of marriage; like, this is how old people are taken care of; like, a child will find a way to care for their elders; like, divorce does not exist because you work through difficulties; like, divorce is not spoken aloud in Malayalam.

It’s important not to forget. Especially when surrounded by people who have made a lifetime of missing memories, blood spilled and erased, records burned and language reduced to simple, single-syllable, lazy words. Especially when it’s so easy for people to say, “I forgot,” or “I never learned,” and “It’s okay to forget. It’s okay if you never learn. Have another drink. It. Doesn’t. Even. Matter.”

It’s hard to remember, and yet I can’t forget.

Originally published in The Rumpus.

Leave a reply