Travails of a desi writer – avoiding the spice trail

Feb 29, 2020 | In the moment

For writers of the Indian diaspora, it is easy to get pulled into writing exotic ethnic click-bait with an overdose of mangoes, masala and monsoon. It is only by reading truly impressive authors that I understood the difference between cheap imitation and authentic writing.

In the New Yorker essay, “The Strangeness of Grief”, V.S. Naipaul makes a poignant observation.

We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable. This grief has its own exigencies. We can never tell beforehand for whom we will feel grief.

I heard the audio clip of this essay while heading home from work last week. I was undoubtedly moved by his words. But the light, unselfconscious touch with which Naipaul described his family’s peculiarly Indian traits made me smile. 

Sir V.S. Naipaul, the well-known writer from Trinidad and Tobago who received his knighthood following an illustrious writing career that brought him many awards including the Booker Prize in 1971 and the Nobel prize in 2001, happens to be of Indian heritage.

His essay was a timely reminder to me, an Indian writer, that the place from where we (and our ancestors) come from, informs our view of and participation in the world at large, but it need not be our only defining characteristic.

As a diasporic writer, I am often tempted to use my ‘Indianness’ as an exotic lure to get people to read my work. Many celebrated writers have successfully used this technique for decades. I know this because I have tried to learn by imitation. 

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s celebrated novel The Namesake, the Indian immigrant housewife protagonist is brilliantly drawn as a composite word picture of her physical attributes and the world she inhabits. Her outer life is depicted by a series of stereotypical vignettes involving descriptions of cooking, elaborate explanations of social interactions and religious rituals, drawing attention to the limited gender-based prescriptions to which she passively subscribes.

Descriptions involving food, clothes, and cultural references are necessary to create an authentic setting for a story. However, when used in excessive amounts, it distracts from the primary arc. Similar to the use of only one spice as the dominant note instead of a bouquet of flavors, it ends up tasting like over-spiced curry. Words wasted on references to monsoon, mangoes, and masala, could instead be deployed to shine light on the thoughts, dreams, hopes, doubts and aspirations of these living, breathing characters. 

As a reader who consumes literature from various countries, I am annoyed by the common use of this “exotic” angle as click-bait. I chose to read books that match my personal preferences for genre, writing style, and substance. 

As a writer, I would like to find readers who feel the same way. I hesitate to paint my stories with a broad stroke. I do not want to pander to a certain gaze or stereotype. Read my work if my story is of interest and if it resonates with you.

The recent success of the Korean movie “The Parasite” which won Oscars and found critical acclaim and commercial success not only in its home country, but in places as different as India and America, is not surprising. 

Writers need to understand that, like moviegoers, readers are looking for relatable, authentic narratives that strike a chord. Our ability to draw readers into our story has less to do with what differentiates us and more to do with our ability to highlight what connects us to some universal truth. 

Grief is one such inescapable truth. 

Who among us has not faced grief in its various forms? Does grief have a race or color associated with it? Is there a unique flavor or outfit connected with the raw emotion that rips you apart when faced with loss and its associated grief? If you read these words without knowing the author or his background, would it not resonate with you?

To me, the first ten minutes of Naipaul’s essay served as reminder and a valuable lesson that authentic words have a far greater reach than any single note that harps on nationality or ethnic identity. 

A year ago, I wrote an essay titled “If my mother met Marie Kondo.” It was published in the Straits Times, Singapore’s daily newspaper. I received emails and messages from readers who had found meaning and connection in my mediation about my minimalist upbringing in a middle class family in Bombay. 

In my writing practise, I constantly strive to apply this ‘test of authenticity’ to see if my words would hold the same meaning for all readers, not just the ones who share my heritage or my skin color.

I am not there yet. But I follow in the footsteps of those who have walked ahead, learning only those things that resonate with me, regardless of their origin.

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