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January 28th, 2009


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01:28 pm - What We Talk About When We Talk About Being Indian
I have stayed out of the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate because I'm no master debater. If you would like some context, rydra_wong has been linkspamming the whole debacle. But I figured it was none of my concern. Until miniglik, deep in thinky thoughts following my stealth racist encounter, linked me to this excellent post by deepad. I had never considered some of the ideas she mentions, never really seen the sinister underpinnings of my upbringing. I never thought I should be angry or resentful about being Brown on the outside and White on the inside. But that puts me in a weird position as a writer.

All my life, I have only ever written white characters. The majority of my close friends have been white, so the characters in my head turn out white. And I believe I have actively shied away from writing about Indian characters because I didn't want it to be A Thing: an Other writing about an Other, as the terminology seems to be.

But as an Indian-American, is it my cultural responsibility to write about Indians? Because, uh, I'm not Indian enough for that. I have a tag for being Indian because it's just that notable and interesting when my race has an effect on my life. And if I were to write a story about a guy named Vikram, he probably wouldn't be too Indian beyond his name. He wouldn't go to a Hindu temple, he wouldn't cook Indian food at home, he wouldn't be able to speak more than broken Gujarati, he wouldn't hang out with all his Indian friends. Sure, he might eat some homemade Indian leftovers from an obligatory family visit and watch a Bollywood film once in a while, but those details might not be important to the story at all and could be left out.

I have yet to make good on my desire to be more than just sort of Indian, sometimes. And I think that will definitely help me be more confident about writing Indian characters. Because I'm not actually sure what side of the debate I'm on. Am I White or Other? Isn't it what's on the inside that counts? I may write an Indian character no better or no more believably than a white author, but I would be judged differently. I would be expected to know my shit, to champion the representation of Indians in fiction everywhere. And then how does it work the other way around, when I write about white characters?

When I was younger and my aspirations of becoming a published writer were more less more less more of a pipe dream than they are now, I strongly considered using a pen name. I would browse the stacks in the library, trying to devise a name that would put me close to my favorite authors. It seemed a foregone conclusion at the time, really. While my name is not as exotic as "Jhumpa Lahiri" or "Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni" or, hell, even "Deepak Chopra," it's decidedly non-white. And I assumed that I would need a fake name to even be considered because if I used my real name, I would be expected to write about Indian stuff. That's what all the Indian authors are doing. I came across an interesting book in a used bookstore the other day, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. Look at that name! You know she's writing about someone Indian, right? And, in fact, she is. An Indian teenage girl, in fact. An Indian teenage girl who sounded a lot like me, really. I considered buying it, but I didn't actually know if it was any good, so I wasn't sure it was worth my time. I was thankful it existed, though. And after reading some reviews of it online, I think I might go back and get it. What got my attention initially, however, was the author's name. What do you expect to read from a guy named "Sunil Patel"? (Maybe I should make up a cool Indian pen name. Like Parimal Saraswati. Or Mohinder Suresh. Wait.)

(The pen name idea, I recall, came about because I was certain Christopher Pike was actually Indian since nearly every book of his had an Indian character or some aspect of the culture.)

I seem to have strayed away from my original point and the purpose of this post, but that's okay. It helps to write it all out. In my heart, I think that writing an Indian character who isn't all that Indian should be A-OK because that is who I am, and I'm sure other people could relate to such a character. All of this musing and hair-pulling is just hypothetical until I sit down and fucking write something, of course. Wasn't "Killed the Cat" supposed to signal my creative renaissance? Maybe I can rewrite it about a girl named Kareena.
Current Mood: confusedAmerican-born confused Desi
Current Music: Radio Iodine - Never Meant To

(128 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:ashfae
Date:January 28th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
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I love you, Sunil!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
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Thank you, Ash!

What brought that on?
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From:riani1
Date:January 28th, 2009 09:52 pm (UTC)
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I have various racial twitches in my brain, because I was raised in a very Anglo area. I didn't even have regular contact with black people until high school, and that was just to pass them in the hall. I had a good friend who wasn't white, some sort of Asian, but I was too naive to even ask. I just knew she wasn't white, but primarily she was Suzie. However, this has led me to twitch and be self-conscious when dealing with people who aren't my color. I'm ashamed of it, but I don't know how to deal with it without becoming Painfully Liberal and Embarassingly Earnest.

The shows I write about have white people. I'll stick a black character in, but that character rarely makes a big deal about race. Generic characters could be any color, but in my head they're white. It's what I know. I don't like being chastised, even obliquely, for my lack of racial awareness, which triggers more liberal guilt. I try to be a decent human to all humans, and I try not to let my social naivete and awkwardness get out of hand. Basic dignity and courtesy work well.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 29th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
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However, this has led me to twitch and be self-conscious when dealing with people who aren't my color.
I wonder how built-in this is. In the previous post, someone talked about how she didn't even recognize that a person of another race was any different from her. It's a strange thing to think about, now that we're all grown up and can't help our ingrained responses.

Basic dignity and courtesy work well.
P.S. Don't ask people if they're going back to their country.
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From:lareinenoire
Date:January 28th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
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I was linked here by adelynne, and I just wanted to thank you for posting this -- you've pretty much described my situation perfectly. Born to Indian parents, grew up in Midwestern suburbia, surrounded by white people. All my characters are white (and usually dead), I'm doing my doctoral research on Dead White Men Writing About Dead White Women, and my first reaction to the cultural appropriation debate was an intense feeling of guilt because I was patently not being properly Indian since I am neither writing about Indians nor a postcolonialist.

I vaguely remember reading Born Confused a few years ago and enjoying it reasonably well, for what it's worth. Though I sort of want to write a YA novel about an Indian girl whose parents aren't über-traditional...
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
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I think I'm going to pick it up next time I go in. It seems like it would be a nice, easy read, and worth my time in the end, just to see what an Indian YA novel would be like (a writer friend of mine suggested my writing style would be well-suited for YA).

my first reaction to the cultural appropriation debate was an intense feeling of guilt because I was patently not being properly Indian since I am neither writing about Indians nor a postcolonialist.
Right?? Thank you for commenting in solidarity; I'm glad I'm not completely alone in this weird situation. (Obviously I knew I was not completely alone, but proof is always nice.)
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From:incidentist
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
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If Ishiguro can write about British butlers (I just read that, BTW -- thanks for putting the idea into my brain) then Patel can write about white Americans. Or whatever else he knows and finds interesting enough to write about.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
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Did you like it? I'm about to start reading Never Let Me Go. And I guess, yeah. Dude's name is Kazuo Ishiguro, and he won a Booker Prize for writing about British white dudes.
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From:rachelmanija
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
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I identified a lot with this post. I'm Jewish, which as you know is a culture as well as a religion, but I wasn't raised in the religion and my parents were trying very hard to not even be a part of the culture. So when I write Jewish characters, I have much the same feelings you mention about writing Indian ones: if they're Jewish-like-me, will they be seen as inauthentic or not Jewish enough? Which leads to the question: Am I, myself, inauthentic?

I guess I'm authentically me, and you're authentically you. And your Indian characters, whether you research them to make them more connected to (whatever one defines as) Indian culture, or do so naturally because you're exploring that yourself, or are plausibly disconnected, will hopefully authentically be whatever they are.

I also think that a lot of people are in our boat, so maybe writing stories that are honest to our stuck-in-between cultural experiences will at least make others feel less isolated and weird. Also, I just think you should write. ;)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC)
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if they're Jewish-like-me, will they be seen as inauthentic or not Jewish enough? Which leads to the question: Am I, myself, inauthentic?
OH MY GOD EXACTLY. I considered using my identity crisis tag for this post.

I also think that a lot of people are in our boat, so maybe writing stories that are honest to our stuck-in-between cultural experiences will at least make others feel less isolated and weird.
That's what I'm hoping! Stories can be very comforting sometimes.

Also, I just think you should write. ;)
Thank you. I think I should too. I'm terrible at starting things. I've had this one idea in my head for months, though, and it won't leave me, but it's one of those things where my execution of it is certain to fail. It's about invisible aliens who just want to be loved or something. As a metaphor for loneliness. I don't know; it came to me in bed one night, and it's the first time I've wanted to write a story centered around a male character. Who would end up being a thinly veiled Me, probably. Which is why I thought about making him Indian for kicks. And I think that's when I started thinking about this idea once again, that the character would be Indian just because I felt like it, not because it was essential to the story that he was Indian.
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From:jennythen
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)
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I don't know what the fuck the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate is, even after looking over the context, but I thought it was interesting that it came up while we are reading Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro writes about white people and his Wikipedia entry has to spend two paragraphs explicitly explaining how that works.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC)
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Holy shit, that's hilarious and awesome. I never recognized that about the author of my default favorite book. Now that I put it in context of all this, he's a very comforting figure in my life now.

Since Wikipedia is always changing, I'm copying the relevant paragraphs here for discussion purposes.
Although Ishiguro was born in Japan, has a Japanese name, and set his first two novels in Japan, in several interviews he has had to clarify to the reading audience that he has little familiarity with Japanese writing and that his works bear little resemblance to Japanese fiction. In a 1990 interview he said, "if I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I'm sure nobody would think of saying, 'This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.'" Although some Japanese writers have had a distant influence on his writing—Jun'ichirō Tanizaki is the one he most frequently names—Ishiguro has said that Japanese films, especially those of Yasujirō Ozu and Mikio Naruse, have been a more significant influence.

Ishiguro left Japan in 1960 at the age of 5 and did not return until 1989, nearly 30 years later, as a participant in the Japan Foundation Short-Term Visitors Program. In an interview with Kenzaburo Oe, Ishiguro acknowledged that the Japanese setting of his first two novels was "imaginary": "I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie... in England I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan."
I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER NOW.
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From:penmage
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
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I know where you're at. And back when I thought I was going to be A Writer, I used to try to figure out what my pen name would be, because my last name was too ethnically Jewish and I didn't think anyone would take it seriously as a writer.

Sad but true: when I got married three years ago, even though by then I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be A Writer anymore, one of the things I was really pleased about was that my husband's last name is more generic and less ethnically Jewish, so it would look better on a book jacket.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
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my last name was too ethnically Jewish and I didn't think anyone would take it seriously as a writer.
Argh. Yeah, I know what you mean.

I also have the problem of having an incredibly common Indian last name, so I have to make it big before another Patel makes it big and it gets too dumb. OR I could piggyback on his or her fame! Ooh, that would be sweet.

(P.S. Nice icon.)
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[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
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Probably someone will accuse me of being ignorant about something no matter what I write!
I believe this is the One True Answer to this whole debate.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
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That guy thinks like I do except more articulately and with more ire!
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From:raelee
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC)
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First I must admit that, unless I'm specifically seeking out a book by a specific author, I rarely glance at the author's names when browsing books in a store. My basis for the content is solely on the title, what the cover looks like, and/or the blurb that's available. The author's name has little to no bearing on my expectations for a book. And the only thing I notice about an author while reading the book is whether he/she is male or female.

All of that to say... my desire for a pen name has always been because I've always thought it'd be fun to have an alter-ego. ;)

I can't really speak to this issue. It falls into the category of "easy for you to say" for me. In my eyes, you don't have a responsibility to write anything you don't want to write or to write things that you're not comfortable writing.

Although, I think where you could probably add to the culture awareness (if you so desired) is in writing your perspective on things just as you do here. For instance, writing a story where your character's Indian-ness's only bearing is not how Indian he is or isn't but how being Indian still affects him despite not thinking of himself as any different. I'm sure that's been done. Maybe not with Indian-ness but definitely with "other-ness" but, if you're going to feel some sense of responsibility, I'd think it'd be to represent your life rather than the life (or knowledge) people assign to you because of their perceptions.

I've been writing and re-writing this reply for so long that I'm not sure it really makes sense or even applies to your post anymore. So can I go back to how adorable it is that you were devising pen names that would put you close to your favorite authors on the bookshelf?! You make me smile, Sunil.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC)
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Your reply totally makes sense and it totally applies, thank you!

So can I go back to how adorable it is that you were devising pen names that would put you close to your favorite authors on the bookshelf?!
How else would I get people to read my books? I think I was coming up with a lot of K names since I loved Stephen King and Dean Koontz. (I also marveled at the coincidence that Koontz was so near King.) And I'm sure I tried some P names to be near Christopher Pike.
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From:kouredios
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)
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"All my life, I have only ever written white characters. The majority of my close friends have been white, so the characters in my head turn out white. And I believe I have actively shied away from writing about Indian characters because I didn't want it to be A Thing: an Other writing about an Other, as the terminology seems to be."

...

"And if I were to write a story about a guy named Vikram, he probably wouldn't be too Indian beyond his name. He wouldn't go to a Hindu temple, he wouldn't cook Indian food at home, he wouldn't be able to speak more than broken Gujarati, he wouldn't hang out with all his Indian friends. Sure, he might eat some homemade Indian leftovers from an obligatory family visit and watch a Bollywood film once in a while, but those details might not be important to the story at all and could be left out."

I think you've put your finger on it here. It's not about writing the Other as the Other as much as it's writing about real-life PoC, who are real people, writing about and the real issues of folks who live in a post-colonial world with their varied, diverse identities, and not writing them as one-dimensional symbols, standing for some one true state of the Other-- no matter who's writing them. I think part of the point of the whole debate is that Vikram should be written, and no one can write him better than you can.

But then, I've mostly stayed out of it. I'm just reading. A lot. :D

Edited at 2009-01-28 11:13 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:cofax7
Date:January 29th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC)
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I think part of the point of the whole debate is that Vikram should be written, and no one can write him better than you can.

YES THIS.
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From:miniglik
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:25 pm (UTC)
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I still don't know where my brain stands on things.

For one, it's an interesting change that's either taken place over the last 15 yrs, or I've just become more aware of it recently. And that is:

Before we -- Americans who were trying to be racially "good people" -- were all so concerned about being "colorblind" as a society. Race being only skin deep because We. Are. All. Americans. *cheers* *feel good happy thoughts* Which just assumes that all immigrants will immediately (or within a generation) become "white on the inside." All black Americans will completely lose all cultural differences inherit from our history of slavery. And on and on. Now there are more voices saying tolerance and change don't really come from assuming everyone is the same.

I wonder if it's the fact that our horizons have become more global that's helped this shift? Someone like this LJer -- who grew up in another country and is not affected the same way by the American push to conformity that affects people who grew up here -- can give a well reasoned argument that reaches a lot of people who might have never even thought about cultural appropriation.

That said, I did disagree with her a little bit. I don't really want to constrain writers to only write about what they know. Now, of course, you can counter that by saying POC have no actual power to constrain other writers, but that doesn't change the principle of the argument in my mind. I think it's far more important to call a writer on inaccuracies, prejudices and myths they might put in their work than to urge them not to try something unfamiliar at all.
[User Picture]
From:miniglik
Date:January 29th, 2009 12:15 am (UTC)
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Also, I think you should write about whatever moves you and consider questions of authenticity later (you know, an editor/beta is giving you feedback).


Does some of this stuff play into why you haven't been writing as much nonfiction recently?
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From:glasseseater
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC)
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oh god, it's like art school but on the internet.
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From:glasseseater
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:58 pm (UTC)
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also will you write my artist statement for me? k thanx bye.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:January 29th, 2009 12:02 am (UTC)
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My name is Katy and I like to take pictures. I think they capture the true beauty of the world, and this is what humanity is all about. Deconstruction, postmodernism, negative space—these are words that I know. My camera is really cool!
[User Picture]
From:super_hoodzie_x
Date:January 29th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
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Hmm, Born Confused. I read that book in middle school when I went through my "obsessed with Indian culture" phase. I don't know if I finished it (I'm kind of famous for reading half a book, watching half a movie...), but i remember the cover and I remember carrying it around. Don't remember if it was good or not.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:January 29th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
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Heh. I'd never heard of it, but it looks like it was notable enough to be read by at least two people here, so I will give it a whirl.

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