Nazia Islam

Sun Nov 22 2020 05:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

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I am an academic librarian, but the road to my current professional identity was winding. I don’t want to present this as some rags to riches hardworking immigrant tale. It may appear I have “made it” but the on the ground reality is disorienting and convoluted as much as it has been a privilege.

I don’t come from a family of intellectuals. Neither of my parents have college degrees so I can’t even flex the narrative of my immigrant parents’ having to give up their degrees or have them deemed obsolete to migrate and start from scratch. My reality is something that I was taught to keep concealed or changed to fit less shameful narratives of being South Asian.

Sometimes I feel like I do and pursue things to make up for these “lacks” and so-called shameful histories related to growing up low-income. I go out of my way to try and fit into the image of success in whatever way I can. I went to a brand name university to slap onto my resume to be taken seriously as a woman of color, and worse, to take myself seriously much to my financial detriment because they said education was the key to getting out of poverty and achieving a better life.

I pursued academia to distance myself from working class roots and to gain respect from those in the south Asian community who would be flippantly classist. Curiosity led me to study anthropology, the historically problematic discipline of the study of culture paired with folklore and textual studies. That opened a new world of vocabulary and frameworks that helped me to understand my history, lived experiences, and the structural reality of systems and institutions I am a part of.

But it was not the beacon of hope I was told it was. Academia, I learned at the end of the day, is a cut throat, politicized, and unequal industry. I’ve had my fair share of reality checks. I went from being naively optimistic to critically disillusioned. The class and caste divide is palpable even among Muslims. The amount of times I have come across south Asian scholars and students descending from aristocracy or claiming the mythological Ashraf heritage as if it were an accomplishment alone to solicit praise has been cumbersome.

I usually ask what being any of that means for them and what they learned from that history. If not, I point out how 3/4 of my family have been historically looked down upon by certain groups or exoticized as hardworking but backward soil tilling farmers. I point out that I have ¼ Jotedar heritage, an identity borne out of the messy bureaucratic structures of colonialism. My family’s Jotedar legacy fell into ruins before the abolishment of the colonial tenancy systems. It fell due to addictions, painful embodiment of masculinity, and family feuds for inheritance. I learn from it. I am never proud of it.

My disillusionment with becoming an academic led me to a career in librarianship. A career which also has a troubling history, but I feel that my education can still be used to help people become empowered in information creation, searching, evaluation, and access. With the Open Access initiative, foundational academic information and research can be accessed without paywalls or barriers which I believe is imperative for the flow of knowledge and creativity especially knowledge that is based off and extrapolated from the experiences of the marginalized
Nazia Islam Claremont, CA

people who often don’t have fair access to their own histories.