Unbounded: Maria Thattil drops some life tools & a tasty teaser

By Indira Laisram
Maria Thattil // Photo by Rachel Canale // Pic supplied

After being crowned Miss Universe Australia in 2020, Maria Thattil is now out with her book Unbounded. All in all, Thattil, who just turned 30, says it’s been a blessed entry into a new decade. Thattil, who is openly queer, talks to The Indian Sun about her life, works and, of course, her debut book.

It is a fact that within the boundaries of the family, most Indians don’t openly talk about gay, queer or LGBTQIA issues. These topics are as much a taboo as talking about sex is. So how did Maria Thattil’s parents meet her coming out?

“It wasn’t easy, but I was also lucky in a way,” says Thattil. That is because her brother came out as a gay eight years ago and paved the way. “My parents were totally different people then and he bore a lot of the brunt for their lack of understanding and challenges.”

But a big part of her parents coming to the table, believes Thattil, was because in their eyes she had set herself up and could take care of herself. Thattil graduated with honours in two degrees—Bachelor’s in Psychology from RMIT and Master’s in Management with an HR major from the University of Melbourne. She was also nominated for a Harvard fellowship program, which she ended up turning down because her focus would shift beyond the corporate world.

Maria Thattil’s ‘Unbounded’ book cover // Pic supplied

“So when I opened up to them and started sharing, they said OK if she is saying this, we need to believe her and back her,” reveals Thattil, whose father hails from Kerala and mother from West Bengal. They migrated to Australia in the ‘80s and Thattil was born in Melbourne.

Much of Thattil’s growing up memory is rooted in this culturally conservative family environment with parents who “had very conservative ideas about love, sex, identity”. And with most of her uncles and aunties also migrating to Australia, she lived in a very tight-knit community but one that gave her a rich cultural experience encompassing food, music, et al.

However, like many queers and also second-generation children, Thattil’s story is studded with moments of belonging and unbelonging, a backstory that would inexorably lead towards her coming out as a queer. And her book.

“It was a little bit challenging growing up because cultural diversity was not celebrated in Australia then. Those observable differences were things people made fun of,” reflects Thattil.

There were also experieces of bullying and racism that led to a period of “self-rejection”. During this time, Thattil thought being Australian meant shedding her ethnicity. “I grew up feeling I am not Indian enough to be Indian and I am not Australian enough to be Australian. When there is not enough representation of cultural diversities, you start to develop ideas of what an Australian national identity is: it sounds a certain way, looks a certain way and, funnily enough, it doesn’t include me.”

At the same time, Thattil was going through a different kind of a quandary  – attending a private girls school and unaware that she was queer, although the “inklings came up very early”. She was developing crushes, going to parties and when she kissed friends, she would laugh it off as something that friends just do until she was told, “you need to figure something out about yourself”.

In her 20s, when Thattil got into a long-term relationship with a man, she opened up and came out to him first. “He was beautiful. After we split, I started to explore.”

It was probably inevitable joining the Miss Universe Australia contest in 2020 as it aligned with what could be her purpose and impact. Thattil would go on to win the crown becoming the third woman of colour to represent Australia in the pageant’s 69-year history. “Miss Universe was a vehicle that was going to give me an opportunity. So I took it and won.”

Maria Thattil // Photo by Rachel Canale // Pic supplied

Now Thattil has added another title to her name with Unbounded launched this week. She got the book deal with Penguin in August 2021 and started writing in 2022. “It was a year in the work but a lifetime in the making,” she says. Because when she was eight, she told herself she was going to be an author one day. When she turned 21, among her bucket list of items was: “one day I’d like to write a book about motivation and mental strength’. “Mind you, I was at university and had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” she quips.

Unbounded is part memoir, part inspiration. “It’s got 10 chapters and is essentially an active guide for my readers to learn to manifest life beyond limits but it is rooted in academic research. I do combine it with my own spiritual beliefs and my ideas, so every single chapter is a verb, a doing word. The way I teach the ten principles to change your life is through a personal story of mine.”

The book’s key takeaway, says Thattil, is that every single chapter is multifaceted. “The overarching message of the book with its tools is to teach people to learn that they are bigger than any blueprint society has tried to force on them and that they are perfectly capable of manifesting a life beyond limits.”

Today, Thattil is in a position to challenge all the questions she grappled with. She believes that one’s cultural identity can be hybrid; the middle ground can be home.

“We live in one of the best places in the world. Assimilating or fitting into Australia is more about aligning with values and has nothing to do with your ethnicity. We need to celebrate Australia’s multiculturalism as part of our identity,” she says.

Maria Thattil // Photo by Rachel Canale // Pic supplied

Asked how she can make conversations on queerness more commonplace especially among the diaspora, she believes it has to start by trying to influence change within your own circles of influence. “It means trying to find the courage to have those conversations with your parents, grandparents, family, cousins because that is where the grassroots differences are made and that’s when you start to all of a sudden touch them. It’s being out, it’s being proud and it’s bringing other people into that journey too.”

Thattil’s own story is testimony to that. Her once conservative father now says, “I am actually practicing my faith and my values more in loving and accepting my kids without judgement.”

And this is her dream for the queer future, that people feel safe celebrating being queer with their families and experience the joy and the kind of growth that her family has had.

Thattil has a busy career as a TV presenter and frequent commentator. Now that she has freed up some of her creative space with her book, she leaves us with two tasty teasers—her podcast soon and an acting debut! A blessed entry into a new decade indeed!

Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter

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