“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
– Simone Weil
As a kid I would look in the mirror and see this brown kid staring back at me. Growing up in Louisiana in the 1990s, the kids at school would ask what I was, where I came from. I would mutter something about India and change the subject. The reality was that when I was six, my parents passed away. I was raised by my older sisters and brothers—actually we raised each other. We were too occupied with the task of raising ourselves and fitting in as orphans in the South or maybe their deaths were simply too raw to think about, but we rarely talked about our parents growing up. I made it to adulthood with barely any idea of who my parents were.
Questions about who my parents were nagged me throughout my adolescence and into adulthood. Without that story—such a fundamental part of a young person’s identity—I felt incomplete in some profound yet unknown way. So on my 24th birthday, I found myself on a train to Varanasi, India with a camera. I decided to make a documentary, rather, use the excuse of making a documentary to ask some very basic yet very painful questions about my parents’ lives. The film was a way to start difficult conversations about who my parents were and what affected their lives. If nothing else, I thought it would be interesting to people in my family. If my siblings or I ever had children, they would want to know about their grandparents. But as I continued to piece together the fragments of my parents’ lives and talk to people about what I was doing, I realized that this story was bigger than just my family.
My mother suffered from schizophrenia for most of her life. She committed suicide one month after my father’s death. I knew that much before I started, but I didn’t realize the extent her illness affected our family’s life—even today—nor did I realize just how much the stigma of her illness shrouded her death and life in silence.
As I continued to piece together the fragments of my parents’ story and talk to people about what I was working on, people would confide in me “this sounds a lot like my family.” Strangers would see clips of the film and seek me out afterward to tell me their own struggles. I heard their stories. I did research. In the Asian American community there is a particular need to address mental illness. No one wants to talk about it; people suffer in solitude, in silence. There’s a pernicious stigma, too much shame to acknowledge these things. Communities don’t have access to the right resources, and if they do, cultural and language barriers prevent those who need help from getting it. My hope is that in sharing my family’s story, we can begin to acknowledge the reality of mental illness and our communities’ needs.
Seven years after I visited Varanasi and took a dip in the Ganges, I have now completed Unbroken Glass. I started this project convinced that my parents shouldn’t be defined by their deaths and suffering, but it took the journey of making the film to realize how much my own life was defined by those very things. I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, but making Unbroken Glass was my way of forcing myself to deal with the traumatic events that followed me into adulthood. It was my way of finding peace and making sense out of my parents’ story.
In the summer of 2013 I had the opportunity to screen clips from my work-in-progress film as part of the Eye on India Festival. It was one of the first times I showed this personal story publicly. I was thrilled by the reception from the Eye on India community. I’m also happy to share that the film will be screening for a full week at the Gene Siskel Film Center from February 17-23. On February 22nd at 8:15 the screening will be co-hosted by Eye on India. I hope you can join me and let me share this story with you.