June Samuel knows struggle.
Her parents moved to Alabama when she was 8 years old, leaving her in India to be raised by her grandfather. They kept up a relationship across seas but traveling or communicating back and forth wasn’t easy in the 60s.
By the time Samuel worked her way through medical school and got married, she had gathered up enough resources to follow her parents, who lived and worked in Tuskegee at the time. There, she dealt with the culture shock and fear that comes with being the only Indian family in a small, rural town.
She became a mother herself as she was getting to know her own, but several years later, her parents decided to retire back to India.
“It’s a torn life,” Samuel said.
Now a retired physician, Samuel still lives in Tuskegee with her husband. They’re also still the only Indian family in town.
Through each of these chapters of her life, though, she says she’s learned one lesson: how to keep going.
With that in mind, she decided to write a collection of short stories about her life in India, her relationships with those who raised her, the faith that pushed her forward and her found love for rural Alabama. Covenant Books published Samuel’s book, “The Audacity to Carry On,” earlier this year, and it’s now available for sale on Amazon and other online bookstores.
“I’m so thrilled that they accepted the book to be published,” Samuel said, “It was one of my life’s wishes to write about my grandfather, especially.”
Samuel’s grandfather passed down his values of education, community and the Christian faith, and she said her bond with him was crucial to getting where she is today.
‘Everything is relative’
In one of her short stories, Samuel reflects on the advice her grandfather would often give her:
“’Everything is relative,’ he would say, ‘We humans are tiny creatures living on a planet called Earth, looking into the vast universe.’ While it was hard to experience disappointments, it was not, literally, the end of the world.””
Her grandfather was a captain with the British Allied forces during World War II. He was a scholar in English and in their native language of Tamil. He was a gardener in his free time, and he was like a superhero to her.
It wasn’t until Samuel built her life in rural Alabama that she began to recognize that her grandfather had such a complex identity — and so did she.
“I’m Indian. I’m American. I’m Tamil. We have so many different identities, and people try to fit us in one box,” Samuel said. “If you go to India, every part of India has its own culture.”
That’s something people tend to confuse.
Samuel mostly has nothing but positive things to say about her adopted home state, but one criticism is the way strangers can group her into an “other” category.
In one short story, she recalls an experience she had while volunteering at a suicide prevention hotline. A man called in and talked to her for a moment before he began on her “weird accent,” saying it annoyed him.
Samuel remembers thinking something to the effect of, “If he is noticing my accent, maybe he is paying attention to what I’m saying, and maybe I am getting through to him.”
She later met that same man in person, and he referred to her as “a strange Mexican woman.” Samuel simply corrected him.
She has other friends from India who live in Auburn and Montgomery, but they don’t share the same native languages or dialects. When they spend time together, they speak English.
“We actually kind of feel at home here because you form your own little identity, and you know you’re not like anybody else,” Samuel said. “It’s still funny how people mix you up.”
For readers of her book, she hopes they will truly know her by the end of her story. More than anything, she hopes they will be encouraged by her perseverance.
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The Montgomery Advertiser has partnered with Report for America to bring our readers coverage of the rural communities across the Black Belt. We are able to fund this work through reader subscriptions and the generous donations of those who support this unique partnership. To learn more, contact Paige Windsor at email@example.com.