Cynthia Dettman:  Author

 Agree or Disagree:  “South Asian” literature published in the West tends to be stereotypical?

There’s a proliferation of Indian and other South Asian literary novels published in the West, mostly written by writers of South Asian descent who come from Westernized, elite and educated diasporic communities.  Think Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Thrity Umrigar, and of course Pulitzer-prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri.  The list goes on.

Writer Jabeen Akhtar has a lot to say about this literature and about the Western publishing world’s distorted view of South Asia.  She has many gripes:

  • Much of the literature is about the struggle South Asians face as they acclimatize to their new lives. She says “Of all ethnic fiction, diaspora fiction is the most problematic. It is inherently limited in scope. The idea of an ethnic person feeling awkward in a Western country is stale, and these characters start to sound like whiny assholes. One critique of diaspora novels I hear often from US-based middle- and upper-middle-class South Asian immigrants (the people most of these books are about) is an unglamorous truth — growing up in the United States is boring, and it’s just not that hard.
  • Secondly, says Akhtar, South Asia is romanticized by both writers and reviewers. India is filled with mangos, spices, palm trees, and colonial fantasy.  That’s what publishers are looking for!
  • This includes, she says, stereotypical stories about arranged marriages and honor killings, as though India is only a land of oppression. Akhthar complains:   “On the news, we see powerful, heartbreaking images of acid-burned faces and teenage girls hung from trees in so-called “honor killings. But we have become too used to these images, and they overrun our narratives. There is little room for South Asian women who are educated, living in a flat, holding down a senior position at a big telecommunications firm. She can’t blow coke at a nightclub and then some stranger in the bathroom stall, at least not in a book marketed to Westerners. The South Asian woman is oppressed, and she should behave accordingly.”
  • Finally, Western publishers ignore the vibrant, active writing cultures in South Asia’s regional languages.  If the book isn’t already translated into English and employ some of the themes they are looking for, those “real” stories are ignored.

Which of these complaints do you think are most valid?  Why or why not?  I have thoughts myself- check out my next post!



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