Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences
By Jabeen AkhtarSeptember 20, 2014
I ONCE TOOK a guy I was dating to lunch at an Indian restaurant. I was trying to get him to go vegan, and there is no bigger hedonistic ritual for vegans than the weekend Indian lunch buffet, a guaranteed plethora of plant-based dishes that have been feeding Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists for centuries. We feast on curry, rice, naan, and sometimes that sketchy cubed melon, and sink into the stuffed plastic benches with heavy Bacchus bellies, hiccupping fiery chutney back into our throats (it hurts!) and forcing ourselves into Round 2 and 3 to get our money’s worth.
My date and I got in line, and his colorfully tatted arm handed me a warm plate. We stood behind a flock of sorority girls, patiently waddling toward the buffet items, passing over the meat but hovering above the vegetables. Even here, I was primed to ignore the standard korma dish, knowing it was heavy on dairy, and the spinach and paneer cheese. But as I scanned the steaming metal tins twice over, I grabbed my date’s plate away.
“Wait,” I said. “Nothing here’s vegan. This isn’t normal.”
“Well, maybe it is, and you just don’t know it, cause you’re from Pakistan,” he winked.
If I wasn’t so hungry and annoyed by the lack of buffet options, I might have thought my Caucasian date’s attempt at demonstrating he could distinguish between India and Pakistan was cute, even admirable. Instead, I started counting. Out of the 18 dishes offered, only one, the eggplant, was vegan. There was even a luxurious weave of heavy cream through the lentils — the most ubiquitous poor-man’s food on the planet. The stuff Gandhi ate while sitting on dirt piles in Gujarat half-naked.
“No,” I said, inspecting the tarka daal. “No, this can’t be!”
“Um, are you going to, like, move?” a girl behind me asked, spooning heaps of mutton onto her plate.
We left the restaurant and got ramen. Having been in India recently, I saw firsthand that the pure form of Indian food — i.e., street vendor food — the food of the people, is still largely animal-product free. It’s the Indian food here in the United States that’s changed. What used to be a niche cuisine fancied by vegans like me (and Americans with spice fetishes) is now mainstream, which means meat-heavy menus and the Betty Crockering of vegetables with flesh bits, cream, and for all I know Cheez Whiz.
Of course, the Westernizing of ethnic food to make it more palatable to Western eaters is not unique to Indian restaurants. I have no idea what real Mexican food is, for example, since I’ve only ever eaten Tex-Mex. And I have no one to blame but myself. I could seek out authentic Mexican restaurants or find Mexican cookbooks and make my own black bean tamales in steaming banana leaves. I could, but I just end up eating whatever’s around or handed to me.
White people, brown people, all people gravitate toward what’s easy and familiar, what’s in front of us. We’re busy. We entrust others — ethnic restaurant owners, fashion designers, Hollywood, the publishing industry — to make decisions for us as to what is best to eat, to wear, to watch. They are, after all, authorities in their respective fields, and as dutiful consumers, we follow.
Unfortunately for South Asian writing, what the publishing industry has decided is best for Western readers is pandering, cliché-heavy, lunch-buffet fiction that’s easy to digest and doesn’t contain too many weird, foreign ingredients.
On Jeet Thayil’s acclaimed novel, Narcopolis, about Mumbai’s seedy underground world of violence and drug addiction, and the winner of the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian literature (awarded for literature published in English about the subcontinent and the diaspora), Thayil told an interviewer, “I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons. The problem with those books about India […] I find it very difficult to recognize the country I know.”
“Those books” Thayil refers to are South Asian diaspora novels about the Indian subcontinent. Mangoes, spices, and monsoons. I’ll add saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and obsession with Western culture. The frustration Thayil expresses has been echoed by other South Asian writers and readers who don’t identify with the stories and struggles presented in many of the South Asian novels published in the West from 2000 forward — the era ushered forth by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and all the copycats that followed. They see nothing of the real India, or the real Pakistan, or the real Bangladesh, or the real diaspora communities reflected in these novels, which are designed for a primarily white reading public. What they do see are stereotypes — a colonialist “jewel in the crown” version of the subcontinent that includes tall servants named Raj and palm fronds, mosquito nets and teatime and exiles longing to return to their super romantic homeland. In much contemporary literature, South Asians are exotic little creatures fluttering about in glass jars for the bemusement of monocle-clutching Western observers.
Perhaps this seems a highly cynical position. How can it be that South Asian novels, primarily written by South Asians and published by the intellectual one-percenters in cosmopolitan centers who understand the world and wish, through literature, to edify it for the rest of us, skew the reality of South Asia and its people?
Why Am I Brown?
Let’s start by examining the oft-relied-upon diaspora theme of identity crisis. In a novel, identity crises can be triggered as they are in real life, by events that force characters to examine their sexuality, careers, status, autonomy, or aging. But not the South Asian novel: here the dewy-eyed protagonist of the novel only need ask, “Why am I brown in a white world?” followed by a struggle to answer this ridiculous question, peppered with abusive slaps from whatever South Asian man is handy, a bland affair with a white acquaintance, and a journey back to the motherland to discover … something. It doesn’t matter what. So long as it allows the writer to giddily showcase the American-raised fish out of water in an exotically described location, it can be pretty much anything. I’d like to see, for once, a character with a real job, one that doesn’t allow limitless vacation time to journey halfway around the world to “discover” anything. I want a boss to finally tell someone, “Sorry you’re torn up about India. Must be hard being brown. Now get back to those spreadsheets.”
Of all ethnic fiction, diaspora fiction is the most problematic. It is inherently limited in scope. The idea of an ethnic person feeling awkward in a Western country is stale, and these characters start to sound like whiny assholes. One critique of diaspora novels I hear often from US-based middle- and upper-middle-class South Asian immigrants (the people most of these books are about) is an unglamorous truth — growing up in the United States is boring, and it’s just not that hard. Not with fully documented legal immigrant parents, most of whom have arrived in the United States highly educated and skilled and are hailed as industrious and favored minorities — ask these Central American immigrants being chased by mobs if they think we’ve got it rough.
Furthermore, the identity crisis/dislocation device is becoming increasingly unsuitable in a digital, social networking age that has dissolved barriers between races and continents. Labeling yourself as part of one country or two countries separated by a dash becomes irrelevant, especially to a millennial audience perceiving themselves as “citizens of the world” and rejecting geographic identity. If South Asian diaspora writers are going to continue to predicate their narrative tension solely on the fact that a brown person is in a white country, they will need to get a lot more inventive.
Of course, no one wants to read about a bunch of Sri Lankans living in Cleveland where nothing happens. These are novels. Something has to happen. But South Asians in the United States will tell you, with much eye-rolling, that most of us are not forced into marriages. The issue of arranged marriages was market tested early, and received positive feedback from an unknowing white public fooled into believing this type of union was a cultural norm. As a result, everyone (authors, agents, publishers) kept going with it — varying things slightly by switching from female protagonist to male, or Pakistani to Bangladeshi, or “arranged marriage” to its antithesis, the “love marriage.” Slap on a cover with a beautiful Indian or Muslim woman demurring from the camera and you’ve got a sure hit.
While we’re on the subject of South Asian women, let’s examine another trope of the South Asian genre. For this, I ask that you first visit the Amazon page for my novel, and click on the “Look Inside” tab. Promise I’m not trying to sell it to you. I just need you to take a quick look. What do you see?
Not my book is what you see.
“Hey Jabeen!” my plumber friend Hodges texted me one day. “Why is it that when I click on your book on Amazon, I get the Kamasutra?”
I thought he was joking. Hodges, after all, is the most bourgeois plumber I’ve ever met, straight out of a Peter Mayle novel. Wearing collared shirts and suffering from the banal chirpings of his wealthy Virginia horse-country clients, Hodges instigates for entertainment.
“Is this a message? Are you trying to communicate something to the public?” he texted.
No, I was not. I had no idea that the Kamasutra had replaced my book, and in fact, due to rights issues prohibiting my novel from being sold in the United States, my publisher didn’t even put my book on the US Amazon page. I have no idea who did. The Kamasutra could be someone’s sick joke, but I think it was an honest mistake.
You see, there are two Western schools of thought concerning South Asian sexuality — oppression or its opposite, the exotic, libidinal, ancient art of the Kamasutra. Two types of sex — rape, or an hours-long feast of bodies in trying orgasmic poses, Sting-style, on palace balconies. There is no middle ground for South Asians. No alternatives.
My novel is about Pakistanis, and some of the Pakistani characters have sex, thus Kamasutra. I’m not offended — I think it’s pretty funny, except for the broader implications of this sexual polarity, and the consequences for South Asian women. In the minds of the Western world, brown women come in two opposing forms: virgins or kohl-eyed seductresses in saris or burkas just begging to have them ripped off. If you think this trope is only reflected in bad action movies and cartoons, take a look at Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, where the protagonist Nazneen manages to embody both archetypes. A virtuous, devout Muslim who was forced into an arranged marriage at 18 to a much older man, Nazneen begins an affair with a hot extremist named Karim. The problem is not that she has an affair, but that she is not a developed character. With nary two lines of dialogue in the entire novel, she remains a passive foil to the other, more colorful, characters. Why does she abruptly defy her husband, religion, and entire upbringing by having an affair? We don’t know. All we get preceding Nazneen’s affair is this: “Karim came into her mind. The angels noted it. She felt irritated. I did not ask him to come into my mind like that. It was recorded.”
Where’s the discussion of Nazneen’s sexual longing? Why don’t we see something indicating sexual growth or agency from this reticent, virtuous, and seemingly neutered character? It strains credulity when, within a few pages, she becomes Jenna Jameson in 50 Shades of Vindaloo:
Tenderness could not satisfy her, nor could she stand it, and into her recklessness she drew him like a moth to a flame. In the bedroom, everything changed. Things became more real and they became less real. Like a Sufi in a trance, a whirling dervish, she lost the thread of one existence and found another. “S-slow down,” he moaned. But she could not.
Ali, a highly skilled writer, missed a golden opportunity to insightfully portray a South Asian woman’s sexual discovery. Is this what readers want, really?
While the carnal, scantily clad Princess Jasmine represents one end of the feminine spectrum, the more contemporary, and more prevalent, Western image of the South Asian woman is that of a village victim. On the news, we see powerful, heartbreaking images of acid-burned faces and teenage girls hung from trees in so-called “honor killings.” These images remain in our psyche forever, and it follows that we would see this subjugation reflected in literature. But we have become too used to these images, and they overrun our narratives. There is little room for South Asian women who are educated, living in a flat, holding down a senior position at a big telecommunications firm. She can’t blow coke at a nightclub and then some stranger in the bathroom stall, at least not in a book marketed to Westerners. The South Asian woman is oppressed, and she should behave accordingly. Perhaps authors and publishers think they’re helping by “illuminating” the plight of women through literature, but the continuous portrayal of South Asian women as victims and little else helps normalize the very oppression they oppose.
In fact, South Asian diaspora novels expose little about the flesh-and-blood people they are trying to portray and everything about the hypocrisy of the publishing enterprise: South Asian authors characterizing immigrant life with clichés and co-opting third-world problems for insta-tragedies; White Guilt readers who feel that they are doing something about third-world problems by proxy just by reading novels about them; and the Western publishing elite who think they’re multi-culti because they make their own hummus and wear earrings from World Market when they are, in reality, only comfortable seeing foreigners behave within the confines of their stereotypes.
Spicy Silk Or … Silky Spices
Popular reviewers are no better. They delight in South Asian novels only insofar as these novels perpetuate their own Asian-ness of spices, textiles, and antiquity, because they couldn’t possibly exist in the world outside of this context:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: “Like a devotionally built temple […]” — The New Yorker
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar: “dishes up delicious flavors […]” — Montreal Gazette
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra: “Spiced with flavors of the subcontinent […]” — Parade
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: “[…] his tale [has] an Arabian Nights–style urgency” — The New York Times Book Review
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai:“a sprawling and delicate book, like an ancient landscape glittering in the rain […]” — O, The Oprah Magazine
Some even allude to a South Asian woman’s proper place. Never mind she wrote a book. She should be on the floor making something:
Love Marriage by V. V. Ganeshananthan: “As if she were stringing a necklace of bright beads, the author relates the stories of Yalini’s Sri Lankan forebears in lapidary folkloric narratives.” — The Boston Globe
An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy: “Roy weaves a tapestry of family life in India […]” — The Seattle Times
And this from the author's own publisher of Arranged Marriage (yes, the title, I know): “Each story is complete in itself; together they create a tapestry as colorful, as delicate, and as enduring as the finest silk sari.” (Again with the tapestry!) Some of the stories within Arranged Marriage may defy expectation and illustrate women breaking free from cultural norms, but the reductive jacket description has already steered readers how to consider the stories, which is that they’re just like pretty fabric.
Now let’s take a look at these reviews:
“This fast-moving novel, set in India, is being sold as a corrective to the glib, dreamy exoticism Western readers often get. […]” — New York Magazine.
“The perfect antidote to lyrical India.” — Publishers Weekly.
The reviews are for The White Tiger — a highly acclaimed novel first published by Harper Collins India and winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Written by Indian journalist Aravind Adiga, the novel offers a sleazy portrayal of socioeconomic ladder-climbing in New Delhi. The novel received many negative reviews in India, particularly from those who felt that passages revealed a condescending attitude toward India’s poor. That may be the case, but what I find interesting is how the novel was perceived over here. While some critics hail “lyrical India,” others express excitement upon seeing an “antidote” to it. Perhaps it’s an indication that attitudes toward South Asian literature in the West are varied or capable of evolving, but knowing the wanton nature of publishing, I think this just expresses everybody’s cluelessness.
The Indian Subcontinent
If they had checked, rather than pining for “correctives” to come across their desks, critics could have noticed that “lyrical India” has been the last thing India has cared to write about for some time. Along with Narcopolis and The White Tiger, we’ve seen an explosion of edgy, risky novels that plunge us deep into the underbellies of the big cities, such as Sacred Games (first published by Penguin India), about the rivalry between an inspector and a gang leader in Mumbai, and Delhi Noir, a story collection about prostitution, drug abuse, and homicide. We’ve seen writing from unique corners of the Indian population, such as female Indian Jews who Western publishers would probably be shocked to know exist: Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga depicting the Bene Israel community and Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats about the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta, both of which were published last year on the subcontinent to much acclaim. There are writers who wrestle free of any expectations and write about seemingly random, but equally compelling, issues such as Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, about corpse-bearers in a small Parsi community, and Chinaman, a Sri Lanken sports novel about cricket. If arranged marriages are so intrinsic to South Asian culture, how come you’re unlikely to find contemporary titles devoted to the issue on the subcontinent itself?
One of the most surprising and, I have to say, exciting trends emerging from South Asia is the rise of LGBT literature, said to have come out of the closet after a 2009 Delhi High Court verdict overturned a British colonial remnant in Indian penal code banning homosexuality. India opened its first online gay bookstore, Queer Ink, in 2010, to handle an explosion of LGBT literature being published on the subcontinent. Some recent titles include Vivek and I, Hostel Room 131 (by the author who also wrote The Boyfriend — one of India’s first gay novels written in English), Quarantine, My Magical Palace, The City of Devi, and the upcoming The Exiles. Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, will soon have an issue devoted to fiction. The flourishing, contemporary erotica scene with novels such as Play With Me and collections such as Electric Feather and the Anthology of South Asian Literary Erotica have helped spur the acceptance of queer erotica such as Close, Too Close and Out! Stories from the New Queer India.
India’s status as the world’s largest democracy and regional capitalist hegemon provides fertile ground for writers. Urban development, the increasing polarity between villages and big cities, redistribution of wealth, a growing middle class, drugs, and materialism — all are dynamic topics reflecting the reality of an evolving gadget-buzzing subcontinent, and they are full of dramatic urgency.
And then, of course, there’s terrorism. Pakistan has always been a very literary country, but its preeminence on the world stage as a hub of pre- and post-9/11 activity has fostered a new brand of fiction devoted to exploring the origins of terrorism, its painful consequences, its new and unexpected players, its nefarious, shifting nature.
I first learned about The Wandering Falcon when I was talking to a friend about a journey I once took through the Khyber Pass. This trade route once traveled by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan winds through the arid, mountainous terrain between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it’s as wild as you can imagine. I was there as a tourist, having flown from Lahore for a chance to see this ancient road firsthand. When I landed in the North-West province town of Peshawar, I was immediately struck by all the blue and green eyes, a stark contrast to the brown in the rest of Pakistan. As I left the airport and began the long drive toward the Khyber Pass entrance, the second thing I noticed was that the entire area was primed for warfare. Every local was accessorized with smuggled Russian weapons on their hips and belts of rifle cartridges tossed across their shoulders. Every home exterior, no matter if it was a shoddy adobe hut or drug lord palace encased in marble and gold, had punched-out weaponry holes, primed for gun battle. Bin Laden was somewhere around. Armed escorts in an open-air jeep drove ahead of our van because if we veered a few feet off the road, we were told, we were officially in no-man’s land and no US passport or embassy could help us if we were robbed, kidnapped, or murdered. This was 2000. A year later, the Khyber Pass would close off and on to foreigners and then closed completely in 2007.
My friend recommended I check out The Wandering Falcon, not just because it concerned this fascinating region where I had traveled, but because the author, Jamil Ahmad, was a Pakistani and former bureaucrat writing fiction. “Just like you,” he said. But Ahmad was nothing like me. He published his first novel at 79, a feat rarely seen when the favored writers of the day are cherubic, telegenic faces in thick Williamsburg glasses. And Ahmad is not just anyone writing about this geopolitically charged and enigmatic slice of land — “the most dangerous place in the world” — with stories about tribal codes and elders, spies, overwhelmed government officials, and women choosing brothel life over marriage. As a former Pakistani commissioner to the Swat Valley, he was a consummate insider.
The Los Angeles Times said the book “moves far beyond the Western media’s stereotypical depiction of the tribal areas and lays bare the nature of a place that is now a focal point of US and European foreign policy.” Library Journal gave it a starred review: “An accomplished and important debut novel […]. [A] rare and sympathetic glimpse into a world that most Westerners know only through news reports related to military operations […]. essential reading.”
When they got their hands on the manuscript, I can only imagine chairs being tossed across rooms in a fierce bidding war for the rights to this book. US publishers, the gatekeepers, surely must have let this one in, deemed this book worthy of publication, right?
No, they did not.
In an interview with NPR, the host asked Ahmad why, if he wrote the novel 40 years ago, he didn’t get it published sooner. His wife responded, “We tried to. We sent it to America. We tried in England.”
To which Ahmad repeated, “We tried.”
It was published by Penguin India.
On a Monday during the drafting of this essay, I received my copy of The Wandering Falcon, and on Wednesday, I learned of Ahmad’s death. It felt like a punch in the gut. I was sad he passed, and sad for literature. What calculus was used by the Western publishing gatekeepers that led them to reject this novel, one so beautifully written, about the history of an area of principal US interests, a place few people are allowed access and even fewer are able to fictionalize, a novel inevitably acclaimed by Western media (after being first validated by South Asian publishers, of course) and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and Man Asian Literary Prize? Perhaps American publishers were too busy hyping another novel about arranged marriages.
There’s an adage in Hollywood: nobody knows anything. I wish the publishing enterprise on the opposite coast had the same self-awareness.
Is there hope for the South Asian novel?
There are several options for invigorating the tired, homogenous state of the South Asian genre, some might even say rescue it.
One is that the gatekeepers first rid themselves of their insular opinions of what constitutes South Asia and its people, and become more aware of the diversity of literature on the subcontinent itself. There is a breadth of literature being published in languages other than English, including Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Malayalam, and Bengali, if only Western publishers were interested in tapping into it. According to Mahmud Rahman, using figures from the University of Rochester’s literary translation center, out of 2,121 literary texts published in the United States in translation in the last five years, only 19 were from South Asian languages. A likely explanation for this statistic, startling when you consider the popularity of the South Asian genre in the West, is that there are plentiful South Asians already writing in English, so Western publishers feel the field is “covered.” Writer and Bookslut columnist Daisy Rockwell explains that South Asian literature published in English
has a certain shared aesthetic which is quite different from what we find in literature from SA that has not been written in English. The English varietal is “lush” and “magical” — the “vernacular” varietal tends to be progressivist, unadorned and heavily wedded to realism. In short, it is not as “fun” as the kind written in English.
Publishers should allow the walls they have erected around the genre to become permeable to literature that isn’t “fun.” To books that take risks and make readers uncomfortable and represent more obscure South Asian voices. Basically they should follow what the subcontinent has been doing all along.
Writers should rid themselves of the burden of presenting their culture to the world. Many authors feel handicapped by the industry’s need for a South Asian novel to have a hook — an undertone of familiarity that comforts white readers and enables them to sympathize with their foreign characters. Conversely, if the stories or characters remain too ethnic, holding on to their alien status too tightly, the author piles on exposition about culture, politics, and history to fill in knowledge gaps.
Those authors should take another look at some of the classic, non–Anglo Saxon novels whose authors didn’t try to make things palatable for the Western reader. They didn’t change their foreign recipes. In fact, those authors didn’t care much about the reader at all.
For example, the Russian epic The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky is absolute hell to read. It’s a chore to just keep track of all the complicated Russian names. The same could be said of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a matter-of-fact portrayal of Nigerian tribal life pre- and post-colonialism. All of these novels explore universal themes but unapologetically eschew explaining their respective cultures. The authors don’t waste time making the text readily comprehensive or relatable to you as a Western reader. They plunge you into their stories and you sink or swim — you either put the book down, or you challenge yourself to finish it. Readers seem to like the challenge, or these novels would have faded into obscurity long ago.
Can South Asian writers trust their readers to embrace the same challenge? Can publishers?
Another, seemingly radical, option is to eliminate gatekeepers altogether, and trust the digital publishing explosion to bring us more of what the subcontinent has to offer. I say this entirely aware that in this essay I position myself as a gatekeeper; but I know I’m not a real expert on what is “authentic” — a fact I was humbly reminded of when my lunch date (and now boyfriend) asked my mother about that trip to India I took last year and the food we ate. “That time we got street vendor food in Delhi,” my mother told him, “we got falafel.” Falafel is everywhere, and all I want is for the full variety of South Asian literature to travel as easily. All I want is fiction as diverse, complex, and vibrant as the subcontinent itself — a kaleidoscope of stories, of characters and themes.
Just don’t call it a “tapestry.”
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