January 28th, 2009

I am not a chick

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.