Kaavya Viswanathan is a 17-year-old Harvard freshman with a $500,000, two-book publishing deal from Little Brown and Company of the Time Warner Group. She is the youngest person ever to be represented by the William Morris agency. Amazing, right? Not even old enough to vote or sign her own contracts, and Viswanathan will be earning more from her advance alone than most struggling fiction writers make in a lifetime.
I couldn’t believe it when I opened the article my mother had emailed me. $500,000? A two-book deal? A legitimate publisher? A 17-year-old Indian girl? I was jealous, astounded, utterly shocked. What on earth could she be writing about that was so incredible? Had she some radical, Faulknerian conception of time that she’d been able to utilize in a clever, funky, ethnic, generation-TV kind of way? Was she experimenting with Woolfian stream-of-consciousness, a la Sunetra Gupta? I held my breath as I read through the article, expecting something daring, something revolutionary, something worthy of the advance, the contract. Something that no one else could have come up with.
“The main character,” I read, “is a girl of Indian descent who’s totally academically driven, and when she senses from a Harvard admissions officer that her personal life wasn’t perhaps well-rounded, Ms. Mehta goes out and does what she thinks ‘regular’ American kids do—get drunk, kiss boys, dance on the table.”
Excuse me while I gape in dismay.
The main character is a girl of Indian descent—didn’t take any creativity there—who is totally academically driven—autobiographical again, playing into the model-minority myth—and when she senses from a Harvard admissions officer—of course it has to be Harvard, the bourgeois immigrant dream—that her personal life wasn’t well-rounded—of course, her parents are totally backward and don’t allow her to meet (gasp) boys or go to the movies; she has to practice piano and ace her calculus exams instead—she goes out and does what ‘regular’—as opposed to brown?—American kids do—get drunk, kiss boys, dance on the table. Because all American (she means white) high school students get drunk, kiss boys (gasp again), and dance on the table.
Sound familiar? What a fool I am, for thinking that diasporic fiction has progressed beyond trite stereotype! Is there nothing more to write about? Is this all that the “regular American” public knows of and wants to read of the Indian diaspora?
The first generation of diasporic writers had arranged marriage to harp on. The second generation has college admissions.
It was more forgivable from the former. In order to gain notice in the West, to get those coveted book deals, scores of writers from the early diaspora relied upon contrived exposure of the backwardness of the Third World, or the attempts of Third World peoples to surmount “traditional” pasts. They often—though certainly not exclusively—presented limited depictions of India, exoticisms, and stereotypes that confirmed colonialist Western imaginings: a country of princely states, peacocks and mangoes, repressed sexuality, and fecund women. In Nectar in a Sieve (1954), Kamala Markandaya emphasizes the devaluation of girls in rural India. Bharati Mukherjee’sWife (1975) tells the story of an obedient Indian daughter who is unhappy that her father seeks an engineer husband for her through matrimonial ads. In Arranged Marriage (1995), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni focuses on domestic violence and the subordination of Indian women.
Of course, my use of the word “forgivable” is not unqualified. How have non-Indians read these texts? All Indian women are victims? Indian men are insecure and violent? India is the primitive Third World? The first generation of immigrant writers has had to take ownership of India’s representation in popular Western culture, but I think books like Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night and Sunetra Gupta’s A Sin of Colour indicate that writing in the diaspora has come a long way.
So then, pardon the colloquialism, what’s up with the second-generation Indian Americans? Second-generation writers—think Vineeta Vijayaraghavan’s Motherland and our own Kaavya Viswanathan—generally did not grow up in India or have to deal with post-coloniality and tradition in the same way as our parents. We exist in a diaspora that is increasingly diverse, both culturally and economically, but still, we have our own stereotypes to perpetuate. The ocean in India is still blue-green as mint chutney, the earth like saffron, the clouds pillow-soft as idlis. With every passing year, writers’ perceptions of India become narrower, anachronistic, increasingly reliant upon Western media and literature, as opposed to direct experience of India. It goes without saying that Indian Americans are represented ad nauseam in popular fiction and news as the model minority: the minority which has managed to blend in, to outdo even upper-class white Americans on the SAT, to gain membership to suburban country clubs. These narratives already exist, to the exclusion of the New Jersey taxi driver, the struggling actor, or the contributor to Trikone magazine. Why, Kaavya, do we need to continually affirm them?
Perhaps I should direct the question at established writers with far larger advances and broader life experience, like Jhumpa Lahiri, the princess of Indian diasporic writing, who, despite her Pulitzer, is equally culpable for perpetuating model-minority stereotypes. Gogol Ganguli of The Namesake is the quintessential middle-class Indian American. His parents move to the promised land of economic and educational opportunity in the late 1960s, and Gogol and sister Sonia are raised to appreciate the best of both worlds. The two children work hard in school to gain Ivy-League admissions. Gogol is not allowed to date or party, but he does so secretly, on the sly, kissing a girl at an Amherst party, smoking pot with his “regular” American friends, aptly named Colin, Jason, and Marc. Gogol is a graduate of Yale and Columbia Universities. Lahiri’s is the standard story of Indian-American identity that is being written and rewritten by the second generation.
Oh, Kaavya. Who can fault a 17-year-old Indian girl, who worked diligently in high school in order to get into Harvard, if she wants to commit her life-story to writing? I won’t say any more about how compelling (or not) Kaavya’s first novel will be. That remains to be seen, and I’ll be the first in line to purchase my contemporary’s book,How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In. (Racy title, right? I do hope “Wild” means more than a Bud Light in the bathroom of the high school gym).
Opal Mehta’s story might be great! But something tells me it’s one we’ve heard before.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a sophomore and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.