Early Indian American writers were mostly not writing about second-generation children of programmers, engineers and doctors, or about motel owners or taxi cab drivers or small business owners. They were writing about the upper echelon of educated first generation Indians in America. What links their books is nostalgia and love for India, their own wistful version of what India was.
But why are our lives here less interesting than the lives our parents left behind? The value of any story should be more in how it’s told than in its plot, so there isn’t any reason to think that the lives of Indian Americans should be intrinsically less interesting than the lives of Indians in India.
In fall 2012, I read an essay on the mainstream literary website The Millions that got me thinking. The New Wave: On the State of Indian Fiction in America was written by Keith Meatto, a white writer and editor discussing Indian American fiction. Using an episode from Fox’s New Girl as a starting point, he argued that the average American had only a superficial understanding of Indian culture, and yet Indian culture had infiltrated American pop culture.
Meatto noted that Indians were one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America, and in literary fiction. He pointed to the short story collections of Rajesh Parameswaran, Tania James, and Hari Kunzru as heirs to three decades of literary success in English literature.
Meatto pointed out that all three have impeccable credentials (with degrees from Yale, Harvard and Oxford), now live in New York City and write about identity. It is actually four decades of literary success—Meatto was evidently not familiar with Bharati Mukherjee’s early novels, which were pioneering at the time they were written—the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Meatto intended to be complimentary, calling attention to how strong, thriving Indian literature is. He concluded his essay by noting a scene from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies in which an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix and the clerk answers “Too spicy for you” and says that perhaps one day this scene will be outmoded.
Far from taking heart, however, the essay left me feeling uncomfortable. The essay assumes that the reader of an online article isn’t Indian or Indian American. Ironic since India possesses a stronger reading culture than America does. (According to a Paris Review infographic, Indians read on average 10:42 hours per week compared to the United States reader who reads on average of 5:42 hours per week).
Plainly it wasn’t Meatto’s intent to offend anyone, but I found his project—a white reader/writer explaining Indian American novels to The Millions readers, assumed to be white Americans not acquainted with Indian writers or culture, troubling. I started following Indian American fiction more closely to see if I could understand why our authors—many of whom write in the predominant American style of domestic realism anyway—needed to be explained to white readers.
The Infinite Return
While Tania James, just for example, wrote gorgeously about second-generation Indian Americans in her short story collection Aerogrammes, for both her novels Atlas of Unknowns and The Tusk That Did the Damage, she returned to India. And this is true for nearly every Indian American author—some portion of their novels returns readers to India. It is an infinite return.
In late 2013 and early 2014, however, I saw some shifts. Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians won the Pen Open Book Awards. It probed the lives of Indians in America and Americans in India in a wholly different way—with an eye towards race and a more postmodern perception of what “exotic” might mean. Mira Jacobs’s A Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing considers the second-generation experience of a brother and sister. Both authors do visit India in their work, but their feet are firmly planted in America and everyday Indian American interpretations of events. Neither romanticizes India. Both, from my perspective, offer something important—Indian American fiction as American, or something more than that infinite return to the motherland.
Writing as a Person of Color
Early in 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign trended on Twitter and Junot Diaz’s phenomenal essay in The New Yorker was published. Diaz wrote about writing as person of color in an MFA program that was predominantly white and full of micro-aggressions related to voice and ethnicity, and how a fellow writer of color in his workshop dropped out and never wrote again. I identified so strongly with Diaz—I’ve attended perhaps 15 workshops over a period of two decades and while nobody was hostile to me, in more than half I’ve fielded lots of clueless comments from white writers.
I’ve been asked on multiple occasions why a character is Indian, or whether I could make characters more Indian and told that if some character’s awkwardness with women is cultural, I should say so. One lauded writing teacher argued that one of my characters was too harsh in a particular situation, not understanding the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness in Tamil culture. He didn’t tell me how to make this cultural difference comprehensible to a white American reader, but being unaware of cultural norms (and assuming he knew the cultural norms because he admired and knew Akhil Sharma’s earlier work) took it as a lack of realism. Since I’ve taken my husband’s Italian last name the comments on manuscripts in workshops have been mostly more amusing than offensive: “You wrote about this in a way that seems culturally authentic!” about an Indian wedding.
I wrote to the very talented and innovative Rajesh Parameswaran, a fellow Tamil American, to ask whether he’d felt any pressure from workshop instructors, agents, or editors to write a traditional immigrant narrative. I framed my question around Jhumpa Lahiri’s biting comment to an interviewer in connection with her promotion of The Lowland that all American fiction is immigrant fiction.
He wrote back to me:
“There is no contradiction between being an Indian-American writer and being an American writer. That is one of the advantages of living in this multi-ethnic democracy. I have only ever written about what interests me, whether it be talking animals or spies or immigrants, and have never felt any pressure from anyone in publishing to push my writing towards straightforwardly “immigrant fiction.” At the same time, I think Jhumpa Lahiri is probably right that all American fiction is immigrant fiction … In the sense that everyone is in some way an outsider, the immigrant condition is just a distilled version of the human condition, or maybe vice versa.
If you see a trend of Indian-American writers moving away from classical “immigrant narratives” towards other kinds of narratives, perhaps this reflects a generational shift, the rise of an age that no longer feels the traditional immigrant dilemmas so acutely.”
I actually don’t see most Indian-American writers moving away from immigrant narratives, but found it intriguing that Parameswaran saw the state of American fiction, most of which doesn’t reflect much of the diversity I see daily,as a reflection of the times in which we live.
Designated by Race
Another Indian American author who also writes in a more innovative mode is Ravi Mangla. Mangla’s first novel Understudies was published by the small press Outpost 19. The novel has a white American narrator and features themes of fame and celebrity. It doesn’t explicitly feature anything about the immigrant Indian experience and there is no return to India in the narrative.
I listened to an interview with Mangla on literary entrepreneur Brad Listi’s podcast “Other People,” in which Mangla talked about a childhood that was not traditionally Indian. When I wrote to him, I asked whether he had purposely left out cultural markers and whether his decision to leave these out had to do with his nontraditional childhood. Mangla wrote back:
“For this book I felt that assigning an ethnicity to the narrator would distract from the larger themes. I wanted to write a book about our national obsession with fame and democratization of celebrity in the media age, and I wasn’t sure I could seamlessly integrate race into the story, so I decided—for better or worse—to leave it out altogether.
While I did have [a] non-traditional childhood, I think any resistance I have to using cultural markers in my fiction has more to do with literary influences. The writers I fell in love with when I was starting out (Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, David Foster Wallace, among others) were always more interested in language and form than plot and character. Some of that certainly rubbed off on me. I’m still searching for a way to incorporate my cultural background into my fiction—hopefully in a way that enhances the text and doesn’t just serve as false exoticism.
With that said, I do feel the experience of being a first-generation Indian-American is present in my work, even if characters aren’t explicitly designated by race. The idea of displacement figures into all my fiction, and it’s something every Indian-American feels at one time or another. Understudies is, at its heart, a fish-out-of-water story.”
This feeling of displacement Mangla points out is, I think, what unites Indian American authors in spite of striking regional, cultural and generational differences.
Mangoes, Spices and Monsoons
In August 2014, I read a discomfiting essay by Pakistani-American novelist Jabeen Akhtar in the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled “Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences.” Akhtar compares diasporic desi literature to desi food, noting that “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.”
Citing a statement by the novelist Jeet Thayil, Akhtar argues against South Asian diaspora novels that speak of “mangoes, spices, and monsoons.” She claims that desi writers and readers see nothing of the real India in these novels because they contain stereotypical depictions designed for white readers. It is a thesis or idea that tends to be supported by the numbers. Last year Publisher’s Weekly noted dismal diversity figures in the predominantly white publishing industry. (It should be noted that the head of the large publisher Knopf is Indian American.)
However, I’ve previously interviewed Indian novelist Jeet Thayil, and during our interview it seemed clear to me that when complaining about sari and mango novels, he was complaining about Indian novels in India. These are novels that might be exported to America, not the work of Indian Americans as Akhtar claims.
By the end of her essay, I wondered if Akhtar and I have read any of the same books when it comes to diasporic fiction. In particular, Akhtar’s complaints about the theme of identity crisis in American literature by Indian Americans arises from “Why am I brown in a white world?” and claims that it is “inherently limited in scope” because these characters “sound like whiny assholes.” But actually this is a fairly unusual theme for Indian American fiction for adults.
Brown in a White-Black Binary Frame?
In fact, I haven’t read a single Indian American work of fiction that is solely or even primarily about how hard it is to grow up brown in a white world. If anything we need more fiction that plumbs this unexplored terrain—in inventive ways—that’s where true innovation in our storytelling could come from. We are only about 1% of Americans as of 2013. What is the impact of that on the art we produce?
American publishing, like most American industries, are rooted in the American race binary, white versus black. Until the relatively recent rise of blog culture when talented mostly Millennial writers started writing personal essays arguing otherwise and identifying themselves as “people of color,” the assumption by mainstream culture has been that Indian Americans, so many of whom immigrated by choice when already privileged and affluent, should identify with white people rather than black people. The removal of all cultural markers from their celebrity identities, the absolute identification with whiteness, is arguably one reason that Kal Penn and Mindy Kaling—not to mention politicians Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley—have been so successful in public positions in America.
A number of younger Indian Americans have adopted black culture and the black struggle in America as their own, seeing its parallels to colonialism and Indian slavery. But brownness, the embrace of that as an identity in America distinct from black and white is relatively new.
Many Indian Americans I have observed seem to believe they have a “brown” side and a “white side.” Most Indian Americans have learned to code switch, speaking one way at home and another out in the world. They have learned to split their consciousness because, according to American media, including media and stories produced by Indian Americans, in our American black-white binary, the brown side simply doesn’t exist.
Some, like me, have adopted their “white side” for so long for purposes of jobs as 80-hour-a-week white-collar professionals—lawyers and doctors especially—it is a bit startling to rediscover that we have a brown side at all once we leave that world.
Most of the rediscovery of a brown side for me has related to having a child, and frankly, if I hadn’t had a biracial child, I might never have become so explicitly absorbed with studying Indian or Indian American culture or race. Not for Bobby Jindal’s stated reasons, but because I would have simply taken my Indian-ness for granted as I always had up to getting married and changing my name.
Then again, perhaps identifying as brown would mean being an outsider to the binary, and an outsider status probably doesn’t feel quite true for a number of second generation Indian Americans. They never experienced for themselves how startling, how pioneering it actually was to come to America in the sixties and seventies.
The Division of Brown
Most of America seems to assume that there is no brown, or that anyone who talks about brownness is simply looking for ways to further divide people instead of celebrate their common humanity. But not talking about brownness in America, or denigrating discussion of brownness in America as “whiny,” is an artistic erasure, and a damaging one. I’m not sure why being brown in America with its own experiences apart from whiteness or blackness, isn’t worthy of literary exploration. Why is it so rarely part of a character’s characterization within a literary American novel? I wouldn’t argue it should be the primary focus of a novel necessarily, but why is it so rarely part of a character’s characterization within a literary American novel about things other than immigration and family—the law, government, music, romance, detective work, politics? The first Indian American novel that seems to adopt this approach is A.X. Ahmad’s The Caretaker, which was only published in 2013.
Perhaps the very diversity of India is what makes the publishing of diverse Indian perspectives in America so difficult. It is assumed that a writer’s own ethnic group will constitute some part of his or her readership in America—that readers want to see themselves. But that means that substantially less than 1% of Americans are even available to “relate” to a particular Indian American work solely because of ethnic identification.
The metric for whether our fiction should be published must not be whether there are enough people to “see” themselves in our work. Rather, the standard should be whether it enables us to see each other, and whether it does so in an artistic and inventive way.
The same problem of multiculturalism arises when India is discussed in the media. The rhetorical device of synecdoche in which a part is made to represent the whole is very common when considering India from our vantage as Americans. Delhi culture routinely stands in for Indian culture. Bengali or Punjabi upper caste traditions routinely stand in for “Indian” traditions.
While multiculturalism did a lot of good in the ‘80s and ‘90s, nowadays in a multicultural paradigm, there is an assumption that one writer from each culture can actually speak for the entirety of that culture—providing a kind of quick reading-by-countries checklist. Consequently, you get reviews of Mira Jacob’s book comparing her to Jhumpa Lahiri when there is actually very little that is common between the authors except that they both write about Indian American families. Where Mira Jacob uses a lot of sharp, black humor, Lahiri openly admits she eschews humor.
Lahiri has come to represent the gold standard of Indian American writing— publishers brand every Indian American author that has followed her with her name to get white Americans excited about reading the work. It’s disheartening that in the nearly two decades since Lahiri’s book was published—the 43 years since Bengali American writer Bharati Mukherjee published The Tiger’s Daughter—every Indian American book must be compared to Lahiri’s novels, in order for the book to be considered worth reading.
The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave an incredible TEDGlobal talk in 2009 about the danger of a single story. In her talk, she explained that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk critically misunderstanding that person or culture. She described how her college roommate had been surprised at how well she spoke English, despite the fact that English is an official language of Nigeria. But after years in the United States as an African, Adichie came to understand why the roommate reacted to her as she did. If all Adichie knew about Africa was what the media told her—that Africa was full of wild animals and incomprehensible people all needing to be saved by a kind white person—that’s what she would understand Africa to be. It’s not that stereotypes—or a single story—are not true, noted Adichie, it’s that they are not the whole truth.
Just a bit of knowledge can produce the dangerous illusion of knowing. A Goodreads review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels noted, for example, that she wished Lahiri would move on to other subjects, meaning something other than Indian American experience, as if it this experience is so minor it could be adequately covered in four books. On November 21, 2014, YA author Rakesh Satyal tweeted: This is a good time to tell you that when my first book was on submission, an editor at a big house passed saying “The Indian thing is over.” What a small and desiccated vision of the world and America and stories! And yet this idea that a vast constellation of cultures can be quickly summed up seems to be a dominant impression.
There are so many interesting postmodern ideas to explore and revolutionary ways of telling our stories. There is so much that has to do with the newness of our experience in a youthful country whose radical existence is predicated on the idea of melting together, melting out of our identities all for abstract principles like freedom and capitalism. Is that annihilation? A bloody history in which only those that fit a particular phenotype are allowed a full range of emotions and stories? Or is it actually rebirth? A place where Indian-Americans are able to refashion themselves away from the caste system, and—for some of us—oppressive ideals of femininity. Is it both? Is it something else?
The primary reason to remain committed to the long, painful, and arduous process of writing a book, in my opinion, is to create something that does not yet exist—there are so many untold stories of our lives here and now, and so many ways left to tell them.
Anita Felicelli is a writer and attorney who lives in the Bay Area. She is the author of the novel Sparks Off You and other books.