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What We Talk About When We Talk About Being Indian - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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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

(118 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


[User Picture]
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.)
[User Picture]
From:lareinenoire
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I'm forced to confess that I did read the YA novel that Harvard girl wrote a few years ago only to get accused of plagiarism, and I really enjoyed it! Mostly because the parents in said novel weren't the ultra-conservative, super-traditional ones I normally ran across in my (admittedly limited) explorations of Indian YA fiction. It was really refreshing. A pity she apparently plagiarised.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
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I don't think I know what novel you're talking about.
[User Picture]
From:lareinenoire
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC)
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It's called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, and the author was Kaavya Vishwanathan -- I wrote a rant-ish thing about how it didn't feel particularly plagiarised to me here. Although I daresay it's been long enough that people don't really remember all the fuss.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
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Ah, I think I do vaguely remember that now. And, see, look at that damn name. All the Indian authors have way cool names. The publishers probably count the number of syllables and then make a decision. I'm screwed.
[User Picture]
From:lareinenoire
Date:January 28th, 2009 11:17 pm (UTC)
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It does make me wonder if I have a chance, as my name is similar to hers (if with fewer syllables), except that the only finished novel I have is a historical novel without a single Indian character. ;)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:January 29th, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)
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Huh! Check this out. Looks like Vishwanathan may have spread the purported plagiarism around?
[User Picture]
From:lareinenoire
Date:January 29th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
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Oh, wow! I had no idea when I read it (I actually read Born Confused after I read Opal Mehta) but that is really insidious.

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