As I was diving more into George Michael as the person that was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou following his death, I was struck by the way in which he characterized the influence of his Greek background in interviews.
In this clip during a press conference for the documentary “A Different Story,” Michael answers an awkward, but well-meaning question from a journalist about the role of Greek music and culture in his life.
An Australian friend explained this to me in a way to me that I had never understood. I think just the fact that I’m not English, I think the fact that I am of “mixed race” as it were. I think Andrew [Ridgeley] and I, to people outside of England…we just somehow appeared different because there was something very un-English about us I suppose.
Michael goes on to discuss how his music had always been rooted in American R&B and how he and his Wham! band mate Ridgeley (who was English and Italian/Egyptian) had projected their sexuality in a way that was very un-British at the time. “It’s not like I listened to a lot of Greek music at home as a child, well not voluntarily anyway,” Michael says.
This last part made me laugh, as it reminded me of how I listened to Tamil music at home only kicking and screaming. I was also taken with his point here because he talks about what he’s not in a positive way, and what he’s not isn’t necessarily based in his roots, but in what he genuinely likes, which was American R&B. His definition of himself as the Other appears to be a far more compelling driver in his life than the elements of Greek heritage itself.
He discusses his upbringing further in this BBC interview.
My father was the absolute archetypal 1950’s immigrant from Cyprus. Very determined. And every single member of his family made something of themselves in this country. They’re a typical immigrant family that worked their asses off and reaped the rewards.
This description resonated with me as it reminded me so much of my own parents, who emigrated from India. It occurred to me hard work and determination is not something specific to any one culture; however, it is quite emblematic of immigrant status.
Michael also reveals that his mother’s origins weren’t English as she found out from her own mother when she died that she had been Jewish. Michael was not at all an Anglo-Saxon Brit, but in fact had these layered elements to his background. In his life, he navigated aspects of both cultural and sexual identity and being the Other as best as he could.
A light bulb went off in my head.
I am an unrepentant atheist. I do not have particular aspects of Indian culture to which I cling. I’ve learned to cook a few Indian dishes from my mom, but I will never be as adept as cooking is not an interest of mine. At the same time, I have a keen propensity for language and I speak fluent Tamil. I certainly do consider myself Indian.
I realize there is a great degree of variability among first-generation Americans* in terms of how they negotiate elements of identity with themselves, and that it is a personal decision. However, I went through this phase last year where I questioned whether to do more “Indian” things in terms of food or experiences, and it felt so unnatural, not like me at all. Or taking Michael’s own words “not voluntarily at least.”
As a writer of poetry and short fiction, I pursue topics that are of interest to me, regardless of origin. I do not necessarily feel the need to be an Indian or diaspora writer. In fact, I want to be an intersectional writer. Even when I delve into Indian mythology, I am pre-occupied by the Other as in a piece I wrote with Roshani Chokshi in Papercuts magazine to bring light to the voices of marginalized women in the Mahabharata – not the heroines – but the castaways. I am usually far more enamored with Sumerian/Babylonian and Celtic mythology. I gravitate towards what my heart wants.
I realized that my perception of myself as the Other has a far more defining – and even empowering – influence on my life than that of Indian or South Asian culture itself. And I am completely happy with that; in fact, understanding this is a huge weight off my shoulders.
It seems so obvious, but I needed to hear it from someone else.
*I am defining first-generation here as the first generation born in the United States.
Note: I clearly had too much to say about George Michael to relegate it to just one post.