The New Voices of South Asian Young Adult Literature
Five authors discuss writing about South Asian cultural identity without getting pigeonholed
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I n recent years, the variety of books being published by South Asian writers and about South Asian children and teens has exploded — from historical fiction to romance to fantasy to thriller and everything in between. I’ve written extensively about “how publishing success waxes and wanes with shifts in groups’ social and economic capital,” and I believe this boom in books — in so far it is; publishing is still extremely white — is attributable to the arc of 20th-century U.S. immigration history, the establishment of culturally-specific arts networks, and South Asians’ accrued cultural capital.
This year we again see a bump in the crop of books about the South Asian experience. I gathered five South Asian young adult writers, all who have books hitting shelves in 2018: Sandhya Menon (From Twinkle, With Love, May 2018), Sheba Karim (Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, June 2018), Tanaz Bhathena (A Girl Like That, February 2018), Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent’s Secret, February 2018) and Nisha Sharma (My So-Called Bollywood Life, May 2018).
We chatted about writing race, ethnicity, culture, and identity, and the politics of publishing.
Pooja Makhijani: What does the term “South Asian literature” mean to each of you? What kind of work can and does it encompass?
Sayantani DasGupta: South Asia is a geographic region — comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives and sometimes Afghanistan. When I hear “South Asian literature,” I usually think of writers from those regions, and not necessarily writers from the diaspora. Even though it’s not perfect, lately, people have been using “desi.” I like it better because, to me, it implies people from the region of South Asia, as well as all of us far-flung folks in the South Asian diaspora, all of us from immigrant families who code switch and border-dwell, mixing garam masala in our Thanksgiving turkey as it were.
Sheba Karim: I agree with Sayantani that, for me, “South Asian” literature refers to literature from SAARC countries, while “South Asian diaspora” or desi literature is all encompassing. The field of desi literature is so incredibly expansive, and it always amazes me how there are as many differences as there are commonalities, whether in regard to language or identity politics.
Nisha Sharma: For me, books like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is set in 1950s India, and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused about a New Jersey out-of-sorts teen, both occupy space in the South Asian literature arena. The settings are different and the authors are from different continents, but they both share stories rooted in South Asian community and culture.
Sandhya Menon: I agree that the term “desi” can be so accessible. It’s an instantaneous connection with others of similar backgrounds and cultures. It’s a shorthand to friendship, especially in the diaspora.
Pooja: Do you all remember the first South Asian books you ever read? What possibilities and limitations did reading those works offer you as a writer?
Tanaz Bhathena: I went to an Indian school in Saudi Arabia and, by virtue, was lucky to have early exposure to South Asian literature at my school library. As a child, I devoured short stories and was really into a comic series called Tinkle Digest. Suppandi, Shikari Shambhu and Kalia the Crow were as popular as Archie, Veronica, and Betty — I remember racing to the library to get my hands on one before anyone else! As a teen, I slowly began writing my own stories; I vividly recall being inspired by Ruskin Bond’s short stories and R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days. That said, there were definite limitations to the books I read. As a Zoroastrian, I rarely ever saw depictions of my community in literature. My earliest reference was a Rudyard Kipling story, “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin,” where the character was simply referred to as “the Parsee.” It wasn’t until I reached my teens and got hold of novels by Bapsi Sidhwa, Rohinton Mistry, and Thrity Umrigar that I began to see the possibilities of being able to write about Parsis. Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag inspired me to start my own short story collection — about a group of South Asian teens who went to school in Saudi Arabia. One of those stories became my debut novel.
I remember being both embarrassed and excited to see Indians in ‘Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom’ — depicted as brain-eating savages of course.
Sheba: I grew up in the U.S., and I remember reading The Secret Garden as a little kid and becoming so excited that there was a Hindi/Urdu word (ayah) in the beginning of the book that I ran and showed my mother. Looking back, that’s pretty sad as India only appears in the first few pages as a place of death and pestilence. As a kid, the only book I read with a South Asian protagonist was The Jungle Book. I remember being both embarrassed and excited to see Indians in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom — depicted as brain-eating savages of course. One of my first (electrifying) exposures to South Asian literature was Midnight’s Children, and later, Cracking India by Bapsi Sidwa.
Nisha: I remember kids asking me about India and if it was like Indiana Jones, Sheba. When I first saw the movie, I thought, “What in the hell is this garbage?” But of course, that came with conflicting pride that Amrish Puri was acting in a Hollywood movie. It’s appalling how even bad representation sometimes makes us shrug and say, “Well, we’ve got something.” I’m glad we’re here changing the dialogue.
Sandhya: Even growing up in India, I remember that there was a very clear hierarchy. Books by people like Stephen King and Robin Cook were in far greater supply and much more prized, it seemed to me, than books by Indian writers. When my aunt handed me a copy of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which had gained international fame, I realized that the world at large did want to read books by Indian women, and that perhaps my voice was more valuable than I’d internalized.
Sayantani: I love The God of Small Things, but I was already an older teen when that came out. I grew up in the U.S., and when I was younger, there was always a huge disconnect between my personal identity and the stories I loved — from Little House on the Prairie to Betsy, Tacy and Tib to A Wrinkle in Time — there was never room for me in those books. No brown girls got to be heroes in those worlds. It’s probably one of the reasons I fell in love with science fiction films and television, such as Star Wars and Star Trek. At least in those distant galaxies, there seemed to be the possibility of someone who looked like me. It wasn’t until I started to read writers of color — Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Julia Alvarez and Isabel Allende — that I learned to see myself in literature. Salman Rushdie was one of the first South Asian writers I read as a teen, and I fell in love; his novels were funny, profound and irreverent, with tons of unexplained Hindu and Urdu words and South Asian cultural references. His books not only opened up possibilities to me as a reader, but gave me an inkling of what I could be as a writer — unapologetic, energetic and funny!
It wasn’t until I started to read writers of color that I learned to see myself in literature.
Nisha: Because I was in training as a kathak dancer, I was fortunate enough to study Hindu mythology as part of my coursework. I read about gods and goddesses, South Asian folklore and love stories featuring kings and queens. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t diving into a story from the “Mahabharata” or the “Ramayana” or a regional folktale. I was in my twenties when I started searching for contemporary romances with positive representation of South Asians. That’s when I realized the industry limitations I faced as a writer. These limitations were partly why I wrote my novel. South Asians make up over 1.7 billion people in this world and, according to my mother, it’s our mission in life to get married young and have babies. I have no idea why there aren’t more love stories out there.
Pooja: Have you ever felt expected to write to a certain narrative of South Asia or the South Asian diaspora?
Sayantani: I love the Chimamanda Adichie quote about the danger of the singular story. I think the singular story about desis, particularly desi women, is that one of suffering and oppression. I’m not saying gender oppression isn’t very real in South Asian communities, but I think there’s a deeply problematic reason that I kept being told, back when I was subbing my joyous brown girl heroine adventure story, to think about writing a realistic fiction story about my heroine’s conflicts with her parents. But I didn’t want to write a story about oppressive parents and “cultural conflict”; it wasn’t actually my experience. The singular story that’s told about desis is one about oppression, not one about resistance.
Tanaz: As a first-generation Canadian immigrant, who wrote a book about the South Asian community in Saudi Arabia, my experience with this was very similar when it came to the typecasting that Sayantani describes for South Asian Americans. I’d query agents, who would get excited by the fact that my novel was set in Saudi Arabia — only to reject me when they found out I wasn’t Saudi and/or Muslim. There was an instance when a publisher wanted me to completely change the setting of my book to Mumbai, likely because I was of Indian origin, even though I’d lived for 15 years in Jeddah and Riyadh. I guess this is why it took me five years to find a publisher! But I had faith in my story and so did my agent. We kept pushing. I refused to be boxed into a narrative just because I’m South Asian.
Sheba: When my agent sent out That Thing We Call a Heart, one editor who rejected it wrote, “I was excited to read this because I really want to publish a Muslim book.” The phrasing “Muslim book” stuck with me, as if there is a such thing as one “Muslim” book. The problem remains that the vast majority of gatekeepers in publishing are white and many have a certain vision of “ethnic” literature that doesn’t jive with reality.
The problem remains that the vast majority of gatekeepers in publishing are white and many have a certain vision of “ethnic” literature that doesn’t jive with reality.
Sandhya: It’s pretty ridiculous that we’re in such a global age, and yet people expect us to tell the same old stories about ourselves over and over and over. I want people to see us laughing and loving and and chasing our dreams and falling flat on our faces and succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. I want vampires and werewolves who are Indian American and I want fictional (and real) presidents who are Indian American and female and gay. I just won’t stop dreaming and creating until all of that becomes true.
Nisha: An editor once told me that South Asian literature can only sell if it’s literary. An agent at a conference said that writing South Asian young adult was a waste of time because she knew South Asian teens and “they don’t read fiction.” My very first agent I signed with appeared to love my story at first, but then she told me that she refused to go to market with it unless I re-wrote the hero to be white, and changed the heroine’s conflict so that she was fighting against her parents so that she could break free from cultural shackles and be with her white savior. I’ve felt the expectations of others to write to a certain narrative. Those expectations stalled my writing for years, too. I had to consciously separate the expectations of others, and expectations that I developed for myself. Once I did that, I was able to get clarity in what I wanted to do and the stories I was meant to tell.
Sayantani: I’m so unsurprised, but also so sad, to hear so many of us got this same feedback about South Asian stories needing to be of a certain literary type and about oppression and cultural conflict. It’s so frustratingly about Orientalism, racism and colonialism — demanding those kinds of stories is justifying the status quo, justifying this idea that critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak talks about of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” We don’t need anyone to rescue us; we’re happy rescuing ourselves.
Nisha: In My So-Called Bollywood Life, my heroine even says, “I don’t need saving. I’m my own hero.” Desi women are strong, resilient creatures. We read romance, act as political leaders and fight rape culture. Why would any of us here and across the world want to read and write stories about stories enforcing a status quo that we’re all trying so hard to change?
Desi women are strong, resilient creatures. Why would any of us want to read and write stories about stories enforcing a status quo that we’re all trying so hard to change?
Pooja: Where do you find your stories? Why are these the stories you choose to tell?
Tanaz: Writing, for me, has always been a way of processing my thoughts and emotions, and that is usually reflected in my work in some form. When I started writing my first book, I wasn’t thinking about the market or what stories were already out there or what would get me an agent. In Saudi Arabia, I had to be really careful about the kind of stories I wrote; I never felt I could be completely honest with my work. I wanted to be able to write something uncensored — to tell a story the way it needed to be told — without the safety net I’d always set for myself as a writer. And I think that’s incredibly important to me whenever I’m writing — the ability to challenge myself and take risks.
Sheba: For my first novel, I drew heavily on my own experience growing up desi in the U.S. The idea for That Thing We Call a Heart was inspired by a short story I wrote for an Indian anthology in which the narrator finds solace in Urdu poetry. My goal in Mariam Sharma Hits the Road was to capture the intensity, power and beauty of best friendships
The idea for the next book I’m working on came to me in a dream. Gotta love those dreams!
Sandhya: Tanaz, I love the idea of challenging yourself and taking risks. When I wrote When Dimple Met Rishi, I was terrified. Although I’d loved YA and rom-coms for many, many years, I’d never thought about writing one myself. And I’d never written so honestly about Indian American culture! It was scary on so many different levels: Could I do all of those things justice? Would people connect with what I was saying? Would anyone understand my humor? Thankfully, through reader response, I’ve realized that my fears were all for nothing. It turns out the world was really hungry for just such a story, which makes me feel so much better about all the other stories I have cooking on the backburner.
Sayantani: The Serpent’s Secret is based on the Bengali folktales I heard as a little girl: stories of flesh eating rakkhosh demons and evil serpent kings, brave princes and princesses and wise-cracking birds. The novel is the fun, fast-paced, space-inspired adventure fantasy that I wanted and needed as a girl but never found. It’s has an intergalactic, demon-fighting brown girl heroine that my now-teenage children never got when they were younger readers. The other thing that’s really important about these Bengali folktales and children’s stories that inspire The Serpent’s Secret is that they don’t belong to any one nationality or religious group. Bengalis from India, Bangladesh and the diaspora know and love these tales, as well as Bengalis from many religious backgrounds, including Hindus and Muslims. I wanted to tell this story to honor those connections between South Asians of different backgrounds, while resisting a homogenizing narrative about these being somehow pan-South Asian or pan-Indian stories — they’re not, they’re really regionally specific.
Sandhya: I’m a firm believer that art creates art. When I experience visceral responses to movies, other books, a visit to a museum or a really great song, my responses, along with the mental commentary that comes with it, are the fuel I use to write my novels. Although I’m fortunate enough to understand and appreciate art from two cultures, South Asian and American, I find that love exists across continents. It’s my favorite emotion to evoke in my work because of its universal nature. That’s why I choose to write romance; I want readers to feel like they’re falling in love, just as I feel like I’m falling in love every time I write a story. It’s a cycle of joy that keeps me going as a writer.