நீல தங்கம் - neela thangam - blue gold
By Suganya Rajendran Schmura, Texas A&M University Commerce
When the pandemic started, I was plunged into a state of uncertainty about what a “new normal" would look like as our collective timeline was swiftly divided into a “before” and “after.” In the “before”, I was a full-time real estate agent, and my days were packed with client appointments and social engagements. In March 2020, I was thrust into the “after.” With a sudden and unexpected surplus of free time, I was able to delve into two fields that I had been enthralled with since I was young but had found increasingly less time to explore as I got older: art and linguistics.
In August 2020, I enrolled in the Applied Linguistics graduate program at Texas A&M University-Commerce and simultaneously started to find my voice as an abstract artist. This led to the launch of my art business in January 2021. Both pursuits were tied by a common thread which was brought to the forefront of my consciousness: a strong desire to unpack and understand how my immigrant experience, especially the complex feelings of identity and the trauma of language loss, has shaped who I am today.
Long before March 2020, I went through a similar division of “before” and “after” when my family and I immigrated to the United States in the late 90s. Before, I was Tamil: I spoke Tamil, I ate Tamil food, and I wore Tamil clothes with no hesitation. After, my Tamil language, food, and clothes suddenly felt like uncomfortable layers of myself that I had to shed to be able to mold into a new identity.
I spent the first few decades after immigration focusing on assimilating to American culture and trying to suppress all parts of my Tamil identity. In my quest to be “normal”, or similar to my white monolingual English-speaking classmates, I rejected participating in Tamil culture or speaking the Tamil language. This rejection unfortunately led to the attrition of my once fluent mother tongue. I slowly lost my South Indian accent when speaking English and gained a standard American accent in my teenage years, which I believed to be the ultimate assimilation success story. Despite my unambiguously Tamil name (Suganya) and my brown skin, which I felt were barriers in my road to so-called normalcy, I thought that I was finally able to claim an American identity. However, I never quite made it to the state of normalcy that I longed for. I didn’t feel like I belonged among Americans, and after actively rejecting my Tamil culture and language for so long, I no longer felt like I belonged among Tamils. I had one foot in each culture, but felt part of neither.
I am now working on my master’s thesis in which I investigate how Tamils in the diaspora relate their Tamil proficiency to their ethnolinguistic Tamil identity as well as simultaneously exploring my own relationship with my identity through my art practice. Both pursuits have required me to slow down and approach things differently than how I was used to in the “before”—to uncomfortably sit with my thoughts and feelings, painstakingly research existing literature and techniques, and deliberately craft my ideas into words and colors.
This piece, “நீல தங்கம்” or “neela thangam” (blue gold), explores many feelings I was confronted with last year. I wanted to reclaim my identity through the visibility of my language, which is why all of my pieces are named in Tamil, and my artist’s signature on the bottom right of my pieces is the first letter of my name in Tamil, “சு” or “su”. The deep colors of warm oranges and cool blues, mixing and intersecting in ways that create new shades and sharp contrast, remind me that my identity encompasses a multitude of personas and is ever-changing. The bold nesting lines—which are created by a handmade toothed rubber wedge pushed through white paint to reveal the muted colors underneath—represent the ancient Tamil traditions and language that I feel I am always connected to. The hesitant thin white scribbles represent my attempts to claim my culture and feelings of shame and resentment when I was not able to achieve the sense of belonging that I so desired. The overlaid sparse white dots represent the fleeting moments in time that I felt connected to different aspects of my identity. The colors are applied with a mix of intentional and intuitive motions that allow me to explore and express the more vulnerable aspects of pain, joy, fear, shame, and resilience of my personal immigrant identity journey.
At the start of the pandemic, I yearned for things to return to normal. In fact, I had been yearning for the elusive state of being normal—which I thought required perfect English, proximity to whiteness, and rejection of my Tamil language and culture—since I immigrated to this country years ago. Now, I no longer yearn for the normalcy of the “before”. Instead, I look forward to an “after” in which I can be my whole self.
Suganya Rajendran Schmura is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at Texas A&M University Commerce with her research focusing on heritage language maintenance and ethnolinguistic identity within the Tamil diaspora. She is also an abstract artist exploring her own personal journey with language loss and identity through color and movement. You can view her work at: www.studiosuganya.com