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Who is Raj Tawney?
If you ask Raj Tawney who he is, the millennial journalist and author will describe himself as “A son. A brother. A husband. A writer. A lover of life. A vanguard. A rebel. A free spirit. A fiery soul. A hungry heart. A whole human being.”
But getting to ‘whole human being‘ did not come easy to an Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian American boy growing up in Long Island, at a time when brown families like his were a minority, often caught in the crosshairs of white ignorance.
It took time, persistence, and a culinary quest before Raj Tawney learned to wear his multiethnic identity as a second skin. It’s a remarkable journey – one that Tawney documents in his debut novel Colorful Palate. The memoir traces his multicultural family’s path to assimilation through their traditions, flavors, and adventures in food. It’s a contemporary coming-of-age tale, in which Tawney tackles personal hot-button issues about race and identity through poignant, heartfelt moments centered around delicious meals. It also includes some mouthwatering recipes.
Raj Tawney shared his story with India Currents.
“Colorful Palate is all about my Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian American upbringing and the meals that connected my complex heritage. I truly believe this book will make an impact on our culture given the many subjects it explores, including race, identity, family, and food.”
Family & Food
As a child, Tawney learned the importance of food as a cross-cultural bridge when he began helping his mom and grandma in the kitchen.
“I loved getting my hands dirty, but those moments allowed me to ask questions about who these women were and what these dishes represented to their individual journeys.”
His Puerto Rican grandma mastered Italian food as a way to become accepted by her Italian American husband’s family. His Puerto Rican and Italian American mom taught herself Indian cooking from Gopi, her Indian mother-in-law, not only to learn about a beautiful culture but to gain respect in a community that doesn’t easily welcome outsiders.
“Those women were rebels,” says Tawney. “I treasure the crosscurrent of aromas, the beads of sweat across our foreheads, and the flavors that enriched my being. And I’m still hungry to understand more.”
Mumbai to the Bronx
Tawney’s parents Roop and Loretta met in New York in the 1970s. Roop who is from Mumbai arrived as a student in 1976. Loretta is from the Bronx. Her mother Elsie was Puerto Rican, and her father Anthony, Italian American.
“In the late 1970s, my parents were two hard-working kids who happened to meet through mutual friends and instantly hit it off.”
Roop lived in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, going to school and selling fake IDs in Times Square to make ends meet. Loretta worked in a Manhattan travel agency, hustling and paying her own way to see the world.
She adored Roop’s culture and community, says Tawney, even though their cultural differences would cause a lot of pain and friction throughout the years. But “there was also beauty in their desires to build a complete life together.”
Total weirdos offer a culinary olive branch
Tawney and his brother Ravi were raised in the Long Island suburbs where life was less integrated and marred by invisible segregation. He remembers that he and Ravi stood out at school and in their neighborhood because of their “foreign” names, olive skin, and bushy eyebrows.
“We were total weirdos to the perspective of other kids.“
As a multiethnic family, they weren’t always welcome – and not just by white folks. The Indian American desi community did not accept the mixed-race Tawneys either.
“Ravi and I never felt entirely welcomed because we weren’t full Indian American, we didn’t speak the language of my father’s people, and we weren’t ardently involved in activities.”
But to their credit, says Tawney, his parents persisted. Food was a powerful gateway into people’s hearts and sometimes served as a cultural olive branch. His Puerto Rican and Italian American mom made curry at least a few times a week. They’d invite people over. Slowly but surely, their friends grew to love the chana masala, dahl, or chicken curry his mom cooked for them.
“Food helped open their minds. My mom’s Indian cooking skills were part of a journey in itself, which I talk about in the book.”
From succulent tandoori chicken to delectable arroz con habichuelas, to scrumptious spaghetti and meatballs, Tawney shares his family recipes along with the intimate stories he overheard in the kitchen, as he played sous chef to hundreds of recipes that not only span continents but come with their own personal histories attached.
The superhero outlier
However, immigrants and children of cross culture still struggle with issues of identity. Tawney says he did too when he was younger. Given the multiethnic mélange he inherited, “I never felt like any one ethnicity. I always saw myself as an outsider and was often treated like one.”
But over the years he began to realize that this multicultural blend gave him a special vantage point at seeing the world.
“It’s taken over three decades on earth to grasp my own beautiful individuality. I was able to hold multiple perspectives at once and that ability allowed my heart to hold more compassion for others. My unique identity almost became my superhero.”
The concept of fitting in will always remain foreign to him reveals Tawney, “I’ve grown to love myself for being an outlier.”
A question of identity
If his own experience figuring his place in the world taught him anything, it’s this. “Forgive yourself,” says Tawney, because it may take a long time before “you know who you are. Honestly, you may never know. I’m not the person I was twenty, ten, or five years ago, or even six months ago. I’m starting to accept that it’s okay to question yourself. You don’t have to have life figured out. It’s okay to experiment with your appearance, identity, and how you define yourself.”
“Self-discovery is part of being alive, and if your mind is open and curious, you will always be evolving and redefining who you are.”
Tawney feels it’s important for children of multi-ethnic heritage to understand where they come from by asking questions of elders in their life. “The stories they share may provide insight into who you are and where you’re going. And if they’re unwilling to delve into the past, conduct your own research. History opens doors.”
Battling bias, bite by bite
Growing up in melting pot America, Tawney learned to counter racism with a simple tactic – practicing kindness. Being friendly, he says, takes less effort than being angry, rude, resentful, frustrated, or violent.
Food can be a bridge builder too. Tawney says that eating the food of a cultural or ethnic group that scares you or you know nothing about can give insights into the inner life of those perceived as the other. “Those meals represent warmth, generosity, understanding, nourishment, and connection for an entire people. Those bites will tear down fear and animosity.”
Why he wrote a Colorful Palate
Tawney set out to write the book after he received a stream of letters from people thanking him for helping them feel seen, following a series of essays he published in major media outlets.
“Even though their mix was usually much different, the concepts remained consistent: family, food, art, history, and love. I was motivated to tell the stories of millions of Americans through my story.”
But he admits he found the process of writing Colorful Palate emotionally draining. Once he finished the draft of a chapter, he’d read it to his wife Michelle, and sometimes break down crying afterward. “It’s been an exhausting experience,” says Tawney, not necessarily because revisiting the subject matter was difficult, but because “some moments were so beautiful that I lament them terribly. I hope the book has a positive impact in our greater culture.”
Takeaways from a mixed-race background
As a mixed-race person, Tawney says he’s sometimes felt like a threat to the purity and wholeness that some people deem as cultural norms. “I’ve felt unwhole and impure simply by being born, but that’s only if I let others define me.”
But he has embraced his roots, knowing that the roots of most cultures are the same: family, food, art, history, and love.
“In all three of my cultures, those elements are true. Money, greed, war, prejudice, and violence are never dominating factors – they are the results of outside forces trying to harm and penetrate a culture’s sanctity.”
As he’s grown older, says Tawney, he’s learned not only how to define himself but champion the beauty of his complexities.
“If life’s one giant mess either way, I’ll choose to take the top off of my kitchen blender and let it rip (metaphorically speaking, of course!)”
Raj Tawney’s debut memoir Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience will be available October 3 from Fordham University Press.
There was a cover reveal in February, and it’s already received some exciting buzz from Lidia Bastianich, John Leguizamo, Junot Díaz, Neema Avashia, Wajahat Ali, and Krishnendu Ray.
India Currents’ Stop The Hate campaign is made possible with funding from the California State Library (CSL) in partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs (CAPIAA). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by India Currents do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA or the California government.
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