The God of Literary Trends
The language of culture, writ large on bookstore shelves
By Noy Thrupkaew
You know, you really should be looking for the next Arundhati Roy." I plucked at the phone cord wrapped around my neck, sighed, and said, "Oh, absolutely." It was 1998, and I was working at a publishing company that had just launched an imprint featuring "the writing of women of all colors." It was my internly task to call independent booksellers across the country to find out what and whom they thought we should publish. Their advice inevitably boiled down to variations on one response: "That Indian subcontinent is really hot. Oh--oops--do you say 'South Asia' now?"
"Nah, our customers don't really like stuff in translation. But have you read that Jhumpa . . ."
Yes, yes, yes.
Literary brown ladies were the new new thing. Arundhati Roy's poetic, multilayered novel, The God of Small Things, had just been awarded the Booker Prize. Jhumpa Lahiri would debut in 2000 with Interpreter of Maladies, her collection of elegantly written short stories that went on to win a Pulitzer. But Roy and Lahiri were just the beginning of what was to become a craze for South-Asian and South Asian- American women's writing.
Of course, this wasn't the first time the publishing world had found its newest darlings in female writers of color. And it wasn't the first time bookstores would create pretty displays of books by authors of a "hot" ethnicity, or the first time readers would strip those displays as neatly as ants eating a sandwich at a picnic. The early '90s saw an explosion of Latina narratives à la Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. And Terry McMillan's success with Waiting to Exhale in the mid '90s ushered in a rash of books in which middle-class black women griped about their no-'count men.
Color has become a marketing boon.
Interviewers probe into a writer's upbringing, seeking out ethnic factoids for a voracious public. Details about unusual foods, struggles with immigrant parents, and cultural oddities are all fair game. And in the case of attractive authors, whose images are emblazoned all over magazines and poster-size publicity photos, one can hardly be sure what is for sale anymore--the "company" of a beautiful, exotic woman or the power of her words.
The Importance of Being Exotic
What is it that makes a certain ethnic genre hot? If I could nail that one down for sure, I'd be rolling around in a room filled with nothing but money. But one can hazard some guesses.
Many of the Asian-American and Latina books contain lots of incense and spirits--"ancient Asian wisdom" and religious tidbits, or mystical realism in the form of pissed-off ghosts and fantastic visions. They also feature nearly pornographic discussions of food; Isabel Allende's Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses even had recipes. The mystical stuff and the food seem to reflect the reasons why some white people are drawn to different cultures--either in search of religious or spiritual enlightenment or to exhibit their open-minded adventuresome selves by eating our food. Our cultures are tagged as better somehow--closer to the earth, purer, more attuned to sensory pleasure--but in nice, nonthreatening ways, wrapped up neatly in fortune-cookie wisdom or duck tamales.
The doyenne, the matriarch, the empress dowager of all women-of-color literary trends is Amy Tan. The success of The Joy Luck Club prompted a flood of Asian-American novels, whose "exotic" content was mirrored in their titles. Asian-American women's fiction titles often featured either (a) some nature-related motif to show that we are in touch with the elements (Gail Tsukiyama's The Samurai's Garden, Mia Yun's House of the Winds); (b) a familial relationship that displays how wonderfully traditional we are (Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Kitchen God's Wife); (c) or the number "100" or "1,000," which demonstrates that we are an ancient, wise people fond of the fairy-tale trick of enumerating knowledge (Mako Yoshikawa's One Hundred and One Ways, Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses). Some titles even double up on these themes, such as Mira Stout's One Thousand Chestnut Trees.
Two other Asian-American minitrends emerged in the late '90s. One comprised novels like Mei Ng's Eating Chinese Food Naked and Catherine Liu's Oriental Girls Desire Romance. Instead of Tan's bickering kitchen wives, here were hard-bitten, angst-ridden Asian-American protagonists who had ostentatious sex by page 30. Hot-pants Asian books seemed to fulfill readers' appetites for sex that was extra spicy for being ethnic.
But if Asian women weren't screwing, the publishing world wanted them suffering (and maybe bravely triumphing after they got themselves to the United States). The Asian historical memoirs were based on a simple formula: Asia was hell; the United States was a hell of a lot better. This is not to disparage the truly awful circumstances of many of the authors' lives. Being abandoned, purged, "reeducated," jailed, tortured, chased, hunted, raped, and/or nearly murdered in Cambodia, Vietnam, or China would leave scars on anyone's soul. But the Asian-hell-to-Western-heaven motif leaves a U.S. reader in a nicely complacent spot, reclining in a La-Z-Boy and thinking, "Well, thank God for America!"
Attack of the South-Asian Women
Despite all this doom and gloom, literary trends can be good for women writers of color. At least more voices are finding their way onto the store shelves. And one can't protest the fact that Americans are expanding their reading horizons or that female authors of color are receiving much-deserved attention. I'm not advocating a return to the color closet for authors. Why shouldn't ethnicity be ripe for novelistic exploration? And even if the books are published as part of a trend, they are often far from formulaic.
While Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats fits the multigenerational aspect of Asian-American women's writing, this tale of a feminist documentary filmmaker who uncovers the sordid underbelly of the U.S. meat industry is radically wonderful. And even the much-imitated Joy Luck Club hit on something lasting and powerful: the fierce, complicated love between mother and daughter.
So I tried to feel optimistic when the South-Asian craze appeared in the late '90s. It became a juggernaut among ethnic trends, shaking the book world from top to bottom with the potent combination of crossover appeal and literary acclaim. The work of Indian women had been notably absent from our bookshelves. But now stores were suddenly flooded with it: Kiran Desai's Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Indira Ganesan's Inheritance, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Mistress of Spices, among others. The books and the attention they brought with them were especially welcome, considering that the modern Western literary realm was already a rich one for South-Asian male writers like Vikram Seth, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie.
On the happy side, the books were generally wide-ranging in style and topic, some drawing on Raymond Carver more than Rushdie or Seth, others exploring the complexity of a diasporic identity. As much as one can generalize, these authors were writing some wonderful literature. And although the texts were often seen as part of a single, monolithic publishing identity, their styles and subject matters varied greatly, with a broader range than was usually present in a given ethnic trend.
Inevitably, however, I started to feel an itch of irritation. It wasn't just the spread of the craze and the concurrent cultural obsession with all things Indian; something chafed beyond the sight of a Sanskrit-mangling Madonna, blotchy with henna, or the ubiquity of foul-tasting boxed chai. There were many other dark reasons why this infatuation annoyed as much as it pleased.
For one, there was the distasteful fawning over the authors' beauty: Roy was gushingly named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" in 1998. After her Pulitzer, Lahiri was crowned a "Woman We Love" in Esquire. There was the awful sameness to booksellers' responses when asked about exciting female authors of color--all South Asian this, Indian that.
And although most of these writers avoid mystical realism (also called "Rushdie-itis"), some share a certain tinkling, quirky, food-based exoticism, offering a tired roundup of the angst of arranged marriages, bitchy squabbles over whose chutneys and pickles are better than whose, and slobbery details about saris.
Perhaps the most egregious example is Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Kiran Desai's debut features Sampath, an affable dreamer who seeks to escape the hubbub of life by climbing into a tree. Unfortunately, he then finds himself besieged by crowds who claim he is a holy man. Riotous hijinks ensue: drunken monkeys marauding through the village, Sampath's mother embarking on a mad quest to plunk a monkey into her curry, etc. This pleasant, pastoral, chutney-flavored fable is sort of entertaining, but Desai's characters are that easily dismissed brand of colorful, weird, and harmless; one can close the book and think fondly disparaging thoughts about their foreign, little ways.
Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Punjabi-Canadian critic Phinder Dulai offered up a biting criticism of what he termed the Indo-North American novel: "In the North American-style Indian novel, the focus is on domestic family prattle while larger themes of migration, racism, caste, and generational conflict are barely touched. When things get too hot, the characters can slip away to the kitchen or the pickle factory to cool off."
The Failure to Represent
Though Dulai's attack on such gloppy romanticism is well-deserved, his critique also reveals trendification's double-edged sword: Readers of color can place as many restrictions on "their" writers as main-stream expectations can. Many do grapple with serious themes: Lahiri, for example, addresses the bloody creation and partition of Pakistan and India, poverty, harsh discrimination against women, and familial fractures. However, there is a certain amount of variation in any given literature--is the onus of political seriousness necessarily greater for writers with brown skin?
Some would say it is--that if writers makes it past the gatekeeper of literary trends, they have a responsibility to speak for the people. When an author of color makes it big, he or she is sometimes viewed as the returned messiah, full of potential uplift but also heavy with the responsibility to take on all the experiences of the oppressed and relay them to the world in great tablets of wisdom. When the author reveals himself or herself to be a mere human telling a tale spun from one imagination, the crown of thorns is angrily snatched back, to be placed on the head of the next likely candidate to come along.
This sort of pressure is almost too much to bear: Who wants to be a sure-to-fail Jesus, dealing with the dashed expectations of a disappointed people? And critics of color often blame the wrong individuals. Those crushed hopes have more to do with the gatekeeping forces of literary cool than the power of any one author's pen. If there were truly more diversity in the literary realm, we wouldn't have to rely on only a handful of imaginations to represent us.
Another oft-heard criticism of immigrant literature is that it is not true to the motherland. It's part of the endless debate about the effects of diaspora on cultural identity--and no one's going to win that fight. People have been waging it since kids first left their parents' homes. What boils down to arguments of purists-traditionalists vs. rebellious hybridists-iconoclasts ultimately makes for tiresome book reviews. Better questions might be: Is this author exoticizing her ethnicity? Is she just feeding the public more stereotypes of lotus-blossom ladies and guacamole-hipped mamas? If she's inaccurate or exceptionally critical or dewy-eyed in depicting the culture of her forebears, is it done in a way that suits the general public's fixed ideas?
Then there's the final pitfall of being the darling of a literary trend: Stray from the pigeonhole into which you've been placed, and you can kiss your darlinghood goodbye. Two years after her People Beautiful Person crowning, Arundhati Roy cut off her long hair, telling the New York Times that she doesn't wish to be known as "some pretty woman who wrote a book." Instead of another work of fiction, she has since produced two books of essays, The Cost of Living and Power Politics, and wholeheartedly thrown herself into activist work.
But Roy's radical activism has received little support either in the United States or India. Critics who once lauded her have turned their backs: "One Indian intellectual compared Roy to Jane Fonda--a celebrity troublemaker superficially grooving on cultural uproar," notes Joy Press in the Village Voice. For Western critics, her intense scrutiny of the World Bank and globalization marked her as just another famous face touting the political cause du jour.
Just as being too politically ethnic can make one unpopular, not being culturally ethnic enough can also bump a writer from the in crowd. Aspiring authors attending the South Asian Literary Festival in Washington, D.C., last year told stories of editors who declined their manuscripts because they didn't deal with traditional Indian life. Their works were, in essence, too American. In seminars sarcastically titled "There Are No Poor or Huddled Amongst Us" and "No Sex Please, We Are South Asians," participants grappled with widening the diversity of South-Asian and South Asian-American narratives appearing in the Western press.
Critic Amitava Kumar once wrote, "If immigrant realities in the U.S. were only about ethnic food, then my place of birth, for most Americans, would be an Indian restaurant." The language of cultural consumption is particularly apt here. At its worst, South-Asian and South Asian-American writing is just like tasty Indian food--to be chewed, digested, and excreted without a lot of thought.
But hope springs eternal. Perhaps Americans, having tasted something delicious, will seek out books that outrage and challenge, narratives written from the diaspora or in translation that don't rely on bindis or kulfi to make their points.
In the meantime, South-Asian and South Asian-American writers are making themselves at home on the New York Times bestseller lists and within literary-prize committee sessions. But they have their eyes wide open. "I would be wary of the notion that South Asia is hip and can attract publishers," said Yale English professor Sara Suleri at the literary festival. "Those fashions come and die. Maybe in five years, we will be hunting for Tasmanian writers."
Maybe so, but maybe some readers will demand more, and writers will be able to find success while defying trendiness. Perhaps we can all wedge the door open a little more firmly, making room for stories that will last longer than a peel-off mehndi tattoo.
A version of this piece first appeared in Bitch magazine.
From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.