On Tuesday, Mississippi Today hosted a conversation with former Grisham writer-in-residence and current UM English professor Aimee Nezhukumatathil in the third installment of its Mississippi Writers on Mississippi Politics series.
Brittany Brown, a graduate student in the Southern studies program and Mississippi Today reporting fellow, focused her discussion on the importance of diversity in a politically divided Mississippi.
Nezhukumatathil has a passion for nature, education and inclusion. She loves her family and is proud of her Asian American heritage, but she said she struggles with raising a family in a racially charged time.
She held back tears when remembering a moment from 2016 when she stood with her sons watching cardinals. While explaining to her children that the males have bright red feathers and the females are brown, her oldest son made a connection. He said he was glad that his mother was a brown cardinal so that she could be camouflaged.
“A six and a nine-year-old were putting those things together. That rhetoric was never a part of our lives until the monster who’s in office was running,” Nezhukumatathil said. “That’s a six and a nine-year-old who, in their own kid way, were saying they’re glad their mommy is brown because I could hide if I needed to.”
Her children are 10 and 13 now and have friends of diverse backgrounds in their local school system. Their friend groups diversify as they continue to grow, but having leaders that disparage minority groups can affect progress younger generations are making, Nezhukumatathil said.
“They’re watching. They’re observing,” she said. “To me, it’s such a shame because when you go in and actually work with kids, you see how full of love and curiosity they are, and they’re watching grown-ups mess it all up.”
Her perspective comes from a place of hope for the future, a belief that good people will prevail.
Originally from the northern United States, Nezhukumatathil has fallen in love with Mississippi and its people since she first moved in 2016. She said the beauty of the state has inspired her work and led her to draw connections between nature and the need for love and acceptance.
One inspiration came in the form of the largest catalpa tree in the state of Mississippi. It grows on the university campus, dwarfing students passing by the student union.
It took Nezhukumatathil leaving her home state, where the catalpa is abundant, to see the tree from a new perspective and truly recognize it for the first time. She said it worked as a beacon, something familiar calling her back home.
“I thought that was a good kind of metaphor for so many things, right?” Nezhukumatathil said. “You think you know a tree, you think you know a state and then you can look upon it with fresh eyes and see how vibrant it is, how it’s full of art and beautiful, good-hearted people.”
This love for nature began when she was a student. Keeping her head down and working hard as an honors student, she remembered the times she felt voiceless.
While Nezhukumatathil said she is grateful to have learned so much from that time, she saw a lack of diversity among the great nature writers. Now, she said, it’s time to let more diverse voices have a seat at the table.
She emphasized the need for diversity among college students today.
“When I look at social (media) pictures, or who they hang out with or who they have dinners with and I don’t see anybody with skin my color, their actions speak louder than words,” she said. “If you don’t have someone who’s different than you in your circle of friends, in the people who are supposed to be giving you advice, that speaks louder than any sort of statement that you could possibly be making.”
Nezhukumatathil does not lecture kindness to her classes, but by the end of the semester, she said she has seen students become more inclusive, more accepting. Though there may be political differences among them, kindness reigns. She hopes the same for Mississippi.
“It’s the people, it’s the landscape, and I know we can be better,” she said. “I want ultimately, Mississippi to be a stand in for the word ‘love’ and I think we could do it. I know we can do it.”