Josna Rege

517. To Test or Not to Test?

In Books, Britain, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, women & gender on September 29, 2022 at 9:03 pm


I’m not referring to nuclear tests here, or to tests for COVID-19. Just having finished Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other, I’m speaking of DNA testing. (and don’t worry, no spoilers, so I’ll say no more on this score, except that I loved it and am looking forward to reading more of her works.) While the test in question might have been a bit of a plot contrivance, I was delighted by the results, which spurred me to reconsider doing one of my own, despite the real privacy concerns.

As I say every time someone asks where I’m from—and would be rich by now if I made them pay me for an answer—I’m half and half, my father having been Indian and my mother English. (I always add, “but I’ve lived here in the United States since I was a teenager”, not that that is of interest to most of my interlocutors.) “Half and half” sounds straightforward to me, but for some reason people seem to find it fascinating. They wonder how on earth it came about, and I explain that after having completed his B.A. my father traveled to England for further studies, where he met my mother through an office-mate who knew her elder brother. But that doesn’t explain much beyond the bare facts for, after all, back in the early 1950s people rarely married outside their nationality, ethnicity, or class/caste, and my parents married outside all three. How did that come about?

On Mum’s side, her elder sister Bette married a Scot and her best friend Lily married a Welshman, but she was the only one of her eight siblings, and indeed, of all the friends of her youth, to marry a non-Brit. Although come to think of it, in 1948, the year Dad sailed to England, the new British Nationality Act “created a single, non-national citizenship around the territories of the British Isles and the crown colonies”, whereby anyone born or naturalized in Britain or one of the British colonies could now declare “civis Britannicus sum”—I am a British citizen—with free entry to Britain (to work, primarily in order to create a pool of cheap labor to rebuild the country after the Second World War, but also to stay, as many chose to do). But although, for immigration purposes, Dad was technically British, despite India’s 1947 independence from British colonial rule, of course he was not English, or Christian, or white. None of that mattered to Mum, even though she came from a working-class family and had barely set foot outside Britain, or outside London, for that matter. She was a leftist, an aspiring intellectual, loved people, and wanted to broaden her horizons. Dad was well-educated, well read, open to new ideas, and strikingly handsome. He intended to return to India after his studies were completed, and she was ready to embark with him on the great adventure of life.

I believe that in his generation Dad was also the only member of his immediate family to marry out—out of his religion, nationality, class, and caste. He was certainly the first one who had traveled outside India and the only one who was to live outside it for any length of time. Mum was different from him in almost every way. But like him, she was energetic, gregarious, and interested in everything and everyone. He came to England as an Anglophile, already steeped in British literature and culture (he often began a sentence with “as (G.B.) Shaw would say…), and he was eager to get to know it directly, although ultimately he did not want to stay there himself or to have his children grow up there.

One might wonder why, as the happy product of this mixed marriage already, I would be interested in exploring my heritage further, by means of a DNA test. Doesn’t “half-Indian and half-English” say it all? Don’t I already have “too many roots”, as Salman Rushdie once described the migrant condition? What would I hope to find? Well, it’s like this.

As we often note in postcolonial studies, the binary of colonizer/colonized is an oversimplified one. There is as much tension and complexity within each category as there is between them. It is the same with “Indian” and “English”: the diversity within these categories is tremendous and goes back centuries. As is well known, through the centuries Britain has been raided and invaded by a succession of would-be conquerors, from Romans to Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, to Vikings, Normans, and Danes. For its part, India had seen a series of invasions and migrations, from the Aryan-speaking peoples, Iranians, Arabs, Africans, Greeks, Mughals, French, Portuguese, and most recently, the British. In addition to centuries of mixing and mingling with outsiders, both India and Britain have tremendous internal ethnic diversity. While many DNA tests lump the whole Indian subcontinent together, other databases can break down the results by region and ethnicity. Most tests already break down British results in this way. Furthermore, in addition to having been invaded, people in both countries have been active traders for millennia, establishing or being important nodes on trading routes that stretched in all directions.

Much has been written about Britain’s naval might, great sea voyages, and Crown-supported trading entities such as the East India Company. Less, perhaps, about the intercontinental trade routes across Asia and Africa and the Indian Ocean that long predated the European colonial era. According to James Hancock “when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean in 1493, he found a vibrant international trade network already in place, whose expanse and wealth was well beyond European imagination.” Surely Indians, who were centrally active in this trading network, would have mixed with their trading partners over the centuries, despite their much-vaunted pride in caste purity and their horror of both inter-caste and inter-religious marriages?

Someone once suggested to me, perhaps it was my father, that people who have grown up in coastal areas tend to be more open-minded than those from the hinterlands, because they are more likely to have been exposed to outsiders with different customs, cultures, and worldviews. If that were the case, then it follows they would also be more likely to mix with and marry those outsiders. And might not the products of those unions be still more predisposed to that cultural and racial cross-fertilization? I had answers to none of these questions, since I was completely ignorant about my family genealogy on either side beyond the generation of my grandparents.

      The Government has access to your genes (Messier)

Three or four years ago, with all these thoughts floating around in my mind, I started watching YouTube videos made by people who had undergone DNA tests and who had made discoveries about their heritage. While many, perhaps most, confirmed what they already knew, some of them revealed fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) information that forced them to question fixed notions about their identities and about identity in general. That year the two biggest DNA testing companies in the US were offering their services at sale prices and I had all but decided to get two sets, one for me and one for a close girlfriend, and do them together over the winter holidays. But I happened to mention the idea to my son, who threw a fit. He reminded me that in most cases, neither the results nor the DNA samples were private, and that the companies could make them available to commercial entities and law enforcement, and already had. Did I want to give away my genetic data to some corporation that might use it to clone me? It was the stuff of sci-fi horror movies. What had I been thinking of? Chastened and a little shaken, I shelved the idea. But now, thanks to Girl, Woman, Other, it has resurfaced.

I remember that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared that the only reason that the virus seemed to be so widespread was that there was so much testing being done.“Think of this”, he said, “if we didn’t do testing, instead of testing over 40 million people, if we did half the testing we would have half the cases” (Higgins-Dunn). His argument was, of course, that with less testing, COVID would be less of a problem. While the logic was specious, there was something in it that is relevant here. If we did more DNA tests, we would find out that more people were more mixed than they had grown up believing. To some, that would be a dangerous idea, leading to the blurring of hard-line identities and perhaps of exclusive nationalisms as well.

Perhaps I should go ahead with that DNA test after all. I must say, though, that it does feel wrong to pay a private company to take a sample of your genetic material and do with it what they will. To return to Girl, Woman, Other, the DNA test only provides biological confirmation to the novel’s informing principles: that black women in Britain are a delightfully diverse but interconnected community that will never conform to any simplistic stereotype; that the same can be said of Britain’s national make-up as a whole; and that neither race nor gender can be understood as simple binaries. Do I need a DNA test to confirm what I already know about all that goes into making me who I am? You tell me.

 

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  1. Fascinating details, Josna, and an interesting conundrum you’ve given yourself! Myself, I’m – at present, anyway – happy to say I come from Anglo-Indian stock, and I have copied a family tree that goes back to ancestors with the British Arrmy that arrived in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Irish, Scottish, and English surnames are there but also Portuguese (which suggests a Goan Catholic infusion). All this is good enough for me not to bother with DNA; and anyway, the British as you point out have always been a mongrel population.

    It’s such a shame that visible differences might count for more than cultural or political allegiances, either or both of which might suggest a lot more about an individual’s character and beliefs than skin colour. Still, good luck with making a decision about whether or not to take a test!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had several DNA tests done over the last ten years. I haven’t found that either of my parents weren’t my birth parents. I haven’t found any half siblings. I did find where my mtdna, which goes through the maternal line back generations – Sierra Leone in West Africa.
    I have found percentages which the companies continue to refine as they gather more information. About 40% African and 60% European.
    I have found several lines of cousins and confirmed relationships with other lines that have disconnected over the years. I found where some of that European dna came from during slave times.
    I don’t know if I’ve been cloned, but I doubt it. I have denied use to law enforcement, if that does any good.
    I find it quite interesting and helpful and “they” already have all the information they want about us from other sources. Mainly so they can target their advertisments.

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  3. Hari OM
    I, too, enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other! I admit struggling the first few pages due to the intriguing linguistic technique, but golly, it was worth the effort.

    DNA has proven useful in our family – my father was the genealogist in the clan, and now two cousins have taken up the task. Elsewhere, due to testing, we acquired new, albeit thrice removed, cousins based in Florida. For my immediate family, it was always clear I inherited different parts of DNA from my siblings. Being the eldest, anyone looking from the outside and without too much care might think I had a different father (not so!!!) It just turned out I got a greater proportion from both parental lines of connections to India; on my mother’s side, turned out gr.gr.grandfather was a soldier there and brought back his ‘native wife’… on father’s side, the ‘Irish tinkers’ he had been told he had in his blood proved actually to be Roma (Punjab origins). They all looked at me and nodded sagely. “That explains it…” 🤪

    For the second sister, the only one to ever marry and produce a child, DNA proved devastating. Due to my niece’s being born with severe disorders leading to her demise at 24, it was testing that proved she was the result of sis and her hubby, whom she met when living and working on the Orkney Isles, likely having a common ancestor – a Viking raider, in probability, having left his seed on Orkney and then again on Skye (where this Mac Clan originates). This knowledge guided their decision not to attempt another offspring.

    Interesting stuff, but it does come with that ‘buyer beware’ clause!!! YAM xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • YAM, your comments are enlightening and very welcome, as always. I had a similar experience with Evaristo’s novel–found it tough going at first but soon got taken over by it. I’m so sorry to hear about your sister’s experience. How weird that the genetic problems on both sides of the family might have stemmed from the same person. In your test results, the Indian connections are fascinating. (Not that they necessarily explain your own interests!) xo J

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  4. I did my DNA test five years ago and I don’t really mind if there is a clone of me somewhere around the world. I did find my biological father was not the father I grew up with. That has led me to find many new relatives, all welcoming and was a good experience, on the whole. As my parents were dead there were no difficult discussions, only a lot of unanswered questions. There were no brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles to argue with although my new half siblings were very old and two were not told of my relationship. It was a funny feeling to meet my 94 year old half brother and hear him say “welcome to the family”.

    My ethnic background remains the same, although I lost my Irish connection. It’s now all English with a bit of Scottish. All of them came by ship to Australia between 1840 and 1870. I found it all very exciting. However thousands of people are devastated by their DNA discovery so be prepared.

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    • Linda! Thank you for your comment. It’s lovely to hear from you after a long time. Wow–what a discovery! I’m so glad that it was a positive experience, though it must have been earth-shaking.
      Your exploration of your ancestry does sound exciting, and I am guessing that with your interest in history you supplemented the DNA results with genealogical research of your own.
      I think I’m going to take the plunge, despite the often disappointing results that South Asians get, just being told, for example, that their ancestors are from India–duh!
      It’s good to reconnect. I’ve visited your blog after a long time and am now going to read your A-Z posts about the 70s. All my best, J

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