Writing the Wrong
Ruined My Life
Well, not literally, and it wasn't her, actually, but the phenomenon that was her. And she only ruined my life for two years or so. By now, (for those of you who bother to read me) you know that I lean towards the hyperbolic.
Before Ms. Lahiri there were others, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, for instance, Anita Desai, and Bharati Mukerjee as well. Indian women writing eloquently (and of course exotically) and heartbreakingly at times about displacement and “Amrika”. They didn't “ruin” my life, however and this is why: somehow the American mainstream and the agents and publishers did not go mad over them. They were respected in their native land, the UK and certain literary circles but that was all. As a result, I am not entirely sure they paved the way for other South Asian female authors living abroad and writing from their experiences to attain commercial success. They inspired me to write and showed that I could get published and perhaps some acclaim. They were not viewed as commercial gold. Directors did not scramble to make movies from their books with Ashwariya in the lead--well she would have been too young and apparently gangly (according to her, ah modesty!) until after Jhumpa Lahiri proved that brown people could make money from the American public. Jhumpa may not have had a chance if Divakaruni and others had not come along, but she was the one who showed American mainstream publishing that money could be made from “Indianness” mixed with “Westernness”, especially if the author was young and attractive.
And this brings me to the life ruination part. In 2000 after her short story collection won the Pulitzer, agents were desperate to find Lahiri clones to add to their client roster--at least it seemed like that to me. I cannot tell you how many times I heard an agent say, “I love Jhumpa Lahiri. Can you write more like her?” I was given many kind suggestions about enhancing my writing by adding more descriptions of saris, arranged marriages and cooking, three things (at the time) of which I knew very little. My mother always put the sari on me, I arranged my own marriage, and at that point, if anyone had asked me if I knew the difference between Mugh daal and Moshur daal, I would have drawn a blank. I was also mortally afraid of turmeric, as nearly all the white shirts I owned, and the kitchen counter top, had unsightly yellow stains on them. I was nervous around turmeric, knowing that it had lethal staining powers, and invariably spilled it, so I refused to cook with it. The irony of course was that is not what Lahiri really wrote about either. It is simply the way in which she was marketed. They wanted more exoticism to capitalise on because it was apparent that the public found it interesting and more importantly, non-threatening. We all know that anything too foreign is taxing on the poor American sensibilities.
This did not bode well for my literary career. At New York University where I received my MA in of all things, creative writing, fiction, I faced my first brush with being stereotyped as a writer. I graduated in 1997, two years before the Lahiri phenomenon hit the airwaves. During a critique of one of my short stories, a classmate said, “I love the part about the sari flapping in the wind, you should write more stuff like that.” Clearly not the most incisive critic, but the thing was that nearly everyone else agreed with him. Everyone except my teacher, Edwidge Dandicat, the author of a lovely book called “Breath, Eyes, Memory”, who was Haitian-American and knew a little something about being pigeon holed. After the class she told me, “Don't listen to that. You have to write for you. Plus you're funny, and that is rare.”
I have held on to what she said for years. It helped me through rejection after rejection. I think what was ultimately so shocking about my classmates' reactions was that I realised that they still did not view me as an American. I was exotic, an other of some kind and with that came certain expectations. My skin colour and black hair and ability to imitate an Indian accent something that has my white friends rolling in the aisles and attempting their own horrid versions imbued me with an idea of what a South Asian writer is supposed to be. This has made my journey as a writer in America hard.
Formulaic representations of eastern exoticism are more acceptable in the west
During graduate school, I took a part-time job as a lackey in a literary agent's office. This was a well-known agent with one or two famous writers. One day they took pity on me and invited me to a reading. There were several other agents there. It was a perfect eavesdropping opportunity. Eavesdropping is an essential tool of the writer on the exhaustive search for that most elusive of prizes--material. That and bald-faced voyeurism. Everyone more or less ignored me, which was great as I was there purely to spy. Two youngish white female agents were talking and their conversation went something like this:
Agent 1: I have someone I think you might like. She's Vietnamese.
Agent 2 (suspiciously and rightfully so): Really? Then why don't you take her on?
Agent 1: (rolling her eyes) I already have a female Vietnamese writer. I thought you needed one.
Agent 2: You do? I thought she was Cambodian.
Agent 1: (after a baffled pause) Oh right. Well whatever, it's all the same triangle area, whatchmacallit.
I looked around, astounded, wondering if anyone else had heard the exchange. If I had the gumption I do now (occasionally) I would have marched up them and given them a piece of my mind, but of course, had nothing witty and cutting to say. I thought of something afterwards that I have since forgotten. I think Pol Pot was involved. Never mind. At any rate, given the state of things, the writing (forgive the expression) was on the wall. If I was not the first to “make it” commercially then some other person would and we would all be lumped together in one non-descript, non distinct, pulsating (I love that word so I just threw it in) brown mass, from which only she would be allowed to emerge with maybe a dash of vermilion to set her apart. And this someone else did come along--in a most spectacular fashion-- and I wanted to hate her but I couldn't. Not when I found myself teary-eyed reading a short story she wrote about a couple who lost a baby. It didn't help that she was also, damn it, really pretty, in a sexy exotic way!
In Lahiri's case the dash of vermilion was the Pulitzer, which I am glad she won, but for my own personal reasons. She and Toni Morrison, an African American female writer are among the few people of colour to attain the top literary prize in the country, not to mention women, and though merit should ultimately be the determining factor in these things, sometimes it's simply more important to make a point.
Right before I came to Dhaka, I went to a bookstore to pick up a couple of novels written by young, female South Asian American writers for a friend of mine and myself. In the store there was actually a table set aside with a sign that read: South Asian Fiction above it. Interestingly, along with work by writers from the sub-continent, there was also “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, by an Iranian writer and several novels written by women from the Middle East. I should have gone to the store manager and kindly explained that South Asia was not the Middle East and vice versa but got caught up with reading the opening chapters of a few of the books to determine which one to buy. In the end, I did not buy any, because, you guessed it, they lapsed into long descriptions of saris, arranged marriages and that most dreaded of spices, turmeric, at some point or another. This is not to say that some were not well-written. We deshi gals can write, whatever one might say. But it's too familiar to me and simply not exciting. I bought, instead, “Eat, Pray, Love”, a memoir about a white woman who travels around Italy, India (heh, heh) and Indonesia, looking for herself and peace, and finding it. The India section I started with trepidation, expecting the usual western hippie expounding on the spiritual superiority of Indians, but it was a revelation and funny as hell. I also bought a book about the history of curry, entitled simply “Curry” that was great and educational. I have conquered my fear of turmeric and now look for recipes that use it generously. None of these explorations indicate, however, that I will ever be anything other than who I am, as a writer, anyway. I will write what I know, and that of course will evolve, and the next time someone kindly suggests I write about all that stuff, I will smile, calmly, almost beatifically, and say, “thanks for the suggestion, I will think about it.” And just go write whatever the hell I want to because I know someday someone will bite.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008