Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Minis: Aatmaja Pandya's Phantom

Aatmaja Pandya's Phantom is a fascinating, autobiographical look at the immigrant experience and gentrification. Pandya's family emigrated to Queens from India, and she was born and raised in that borough, "the most diverse city in the world." Returning to live in her old neighborhood as an adult, Pandya explores her feelings regarding gentrification and young white hipsters moving in. Her anger and frustration are palpable, in part because Queens made her (and other people of color) feel rooted. The young people moving in aren't looking to put down roots, in her mind; they're there for the experience and will move on after a couple of years. She explains that she understands why they're moving in and can't fault them, but she still feels frustrated.

That frustration is related to being a daughter of immigrants and a person of color in America. She noted that being in Queens allowed her to feel "invisible, in the right way." She didn't stick out, nor was she made to feel different by others, because she was one person of color among many. In turn, that helped her feel rooted to this area. It was where she grew up and learned how to ride a bike like any other American kid, but it's also where her mother taught her Gujarati. It's a place that belonged to her and people like her.

The fear is that as Queens continues to change, she won't have a place that roots her anymore. At a certain point, she may be forced to concede that "it doesn't belong to me anymore, either." This is a measured but emotional howl at forces beyond her control and the ways in which spaces that once were claimed by marginalized people can be taken away from them. It's about how colonialism is intrinsically bound with gentrification in ways that are often invisible to those moving into neighborhoods that are suddenly considered to be desirable. Pandya's use of colored pencils (the comic is printed solely in blue) is subtle and expressive, like in depicting the bemused smile on her face when she tells a friend "I like Queens, too." The sequence that ends the book is a memory of learning the alphabet of Gujarati. There's a lovely drawing of young Pandya on a single page, her form taking up the lower right-hand corner of the page. On the final page, she says, "Then we left, and I forgot it all." The same image is repeated, only it's now smudged and partly erased. It's a lovely but bittersweet encapsulation of someone who is trying to come to terms with the ways in which rootedness is often a luxury that immigrants and people of color in the US do not enjoy.

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