completing their PhD at the Stanford AI Lab,
supported by the Open Philanthropy AI Fellowship
+ the PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

cw:mention of abuse

Deep in Our Bellies

Inside my cozy family, no one is religious; but some things are sacred.

On lazy Wisconsin Sundays, I remember summersaulting across our living room, prompting my mom to vibrate with laughter; but if my foot grazed a textbook, the warmth would dissolve: You never touch a book with your feet. At the rebuke, my face would flush hot. For years, I found the rules unreasonable and humorless.

Social anthropologists trace my parents’ principles to their roots in India. To touch a book with one’s feet is to disrespect the Indian goddess of learning, Saraswati; to deny someone food, even jokingly, undermines an attitude held in south-Indian states including my mom’s home, Andhra Pradesh. My modern, atheist parents taught me that some things — the knowledge represented in books, the humility of a request for food — these are sacred.

Yet my parents also passed down their practical immigrant inhibition. As two then green-card holders and a young daughter, in a staunchly white town thousands of miles away from shared blood, we steered away from controversial conversation. My mom carried her gender and her accent to her software job, and I rarely saw though I knew about the hot tears spilt in the wake of discrimination. My dad dedicated himself to running a company in a white entrepreneurial space that did not always welcome him, stress mounted, family arguments erupted, and the tension clawed incessantly at his mental health; yet my white, well-meaning friends primarily described my immigrant family as “cute”. Until college, I told white lies to acquaintances and brief truths to close friends, never recognizing the stain of my family’s silence on my family’s principle.

The erosion of my silence began in stories. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once described her childhood in Nigeria, reading British children’s stories and proceeding to write “exactly the kind of stories [she] was reading.” Like Adichie, my first characters were invariably white, blue-eyed, and rich with an experience not mine. At MIT, I enrolled in a course with writer Junot Diaz. In his syllabus, as though delivering a warning, Junot wrote, “Questions of race, gender, sexuality will figure prominently”. Emboldened, I wrote from the vantage point of a girl with walnut-colored skin, her name, Nivedita, and her brother’s name, Adi, borrowed from a friend and a cousin. In one tender scene, Niv and Adi describe one another, compounding allusions to Hanuman’s cheeks, the Big Bad Wolf’s eyes, Richard Feynman’s intelligence, and Shiva’s catastrophic anger. The characters I wrote melded their Indian and American identities unselfconsciously; describing their new American experience, I reflected my own. The following spring, when my story won a writing prize from the MIT Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, I asked my mom for her thoughts. She told me over the phone that my story was very good. She added, unassumingly, “I was surprised you decided to write about race.”

The conflict between principle and silence only came into full clarity when, as a Junior in college, I was a victim of relationship abuse. I sometimes reflected that I was poised to be a victim; my moral stances were strong, but I had been schooled in the art of keeping quiet. I am grateful that, in those darkest days, the sacredness of my personhood rose from deep inside my belly and caught in my throat, not to be negotiated. An absoluteness of principle, inherited from my parents, pulled me through days of researching resources. The day I appeared at a Massachusetts courthouse, I was seated twenty yards away from my abuser. The judge saw cases back to back, and I watched, each hand gripping a close friend too hard, as the case before mine began. The judge recounted the facts of this case: a non-English-speaking immigrant woman had requested a restraining order against her abusive husband after her doctor had expressed serious concern. In that courtroom, however, the woman spoke to the judge in short sentences, pausing for translation, as she confirmed the abuse but rescinded the request. She concluded her statement with one English sentence, “I want to go home”. The judge and the witnesses stared silently, with no means to interfere; and I averted my eyes until the woman had walked to the courtroom exit alongside her husband and the judge turned her attention to me. I had my own chaos that day, and yet I remember this woman’s case; and I am profoundly grateful for the privilege to choose principle over silence.

Since discovering that choice, principle has become my anchor. In the midst of subsequent rounds of chaos (the aftermath of abuse), it was a feeling of principle in my body that led me to support Violence Prevention and Response, PoC, Black, and LGBTQ+ communities, and more communities at the margins. I am deliberate, now, in my identity construction: I am a woman, an artist, a computer scientist, a victim, a writer, a researcher, queer, American, Indian — these do not conflict.

In a hand-written note to Junot, I once wrote, "where I have at times approached authorship at an angle, I have finally developed the competence and confidence to charge head-on."