Cynthia Dettman:  Author

What is “good” South Asian fiction?

I agree heartily with Jabeen Akhtar (See her very well-written article “Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences) who makes several excellent points:

  • The story of the South Asian diaspora and the challenges that educated immigrants face being brown Asians in a white world – is getting a little boring! Of course each story is different and important- but the themes seem overworked.
  • Stories directly from South Asia and South Asian experiences could be about many topics, including positive and ordinary life topics- not just about the miseries of India!
  • And yes, Western publishers do have stereotypical notions of what South Asian literature should say and how South Asia should be presented. And of course they ignore the literature written in regional South Asian languages- they tend to ignore all global literature that isn’t written in the West and in English.

But I’m not sure I agree with some of her other complaints.  Perhaps her ideas are leaving me a little insecure because they touch on major themes in my novel:  arranged marriage and honor killing!

She says that too many South Asian stories are about oppressed, victimized women.   Akhtar claims that arranged marriages are not the cultural norm.  Hmm.?  Perhaps not among Westernized South Asians, but hello, most marriages in India are arranged.  Of course this doesn’t mean that these marriages are miserable.  But it does mean that the culture does not generally support individual choice in marriage.

And yes, honor killings are somewhat rare.  But I think they play an important role, just as lynchings have done in America, to reinforce inequality and to place fear in people’s hearts:  in this case, to marry whom they choose.

I hope that Akhtar might find my novel palatable, however, because my underlying theme is about sexual orientation.  She is excited that there a growing LGBT literature in India.  Akhtar says:

“One of the most surprising and, I have to say, exciting trends emerging from South Asia is the rise of LGBT literature, said to have come out of the closet after a Delhi High Court verdict that overturned a British colonial remnant in Indian penal code banning homosexuality. India opened its first online gay bookstore, Queer Ink, in 2010, to handle an explosion of LGBT literature being published on the subcontinent.”

I hope I have the courage to send my published novel to Ms Akhtar someday- she hasn’t opined on white writers writing about contemporary India- but hopefully my novel will be sufficiently authentic to persuade her that modern literature about India can be written by white writers and include arranged marriage and honor killing- and still be a good and legitimate read.

I do congratulate her about her very honest and articulate opinions about South Asian literature today- and honor her for advocating much broader approaches to both the writing and publication of literature by and about South Asians.


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