Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Exploring South Asian identity politics & the art of the short story

Jhumpha Lahiri has a remarkable ability to charm the socks off her high-brow reviewers. "Lahiri is 'wow,'" says Caleb Crain for The New York Times, on Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies. Colleague Michiko Kakutani calls The Namesake "a debut novel that is as assured and eloquent as the work of a longtime master of the craft."

I’ve tried to like Lahiri’s writing. I really have. I found Interpreter of Maladies to be beautifully written, but thematically tepid. I read a few pages of The Namesake and became irate with her generalizations of Americans and Indians. I perused a few stories in Unaccustomed Earth and nearly threw the collection out the window. Ah, the art of the short story! The exposition of identity politics!

I became so fed up with Lahiri’s focus on identity that I vowed to write short stories where identity politics were incidental and irrelevant to the story. In trying to mask the politics of identity, I think I missed the point. As recent events and conversations have revealed to me, identity politics are heated and salient as ever. It’s that Lahiri presents them in clich├ęs, platitudes, and obsessions with infidelity and apathy. She also writes about a very tiny subset of Indians – first and second generation wealthy, Bengalis who have studied and/or live in the one mile radius of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived in Cambridge for two years – this profile isn’t even me.

Where are the other Indians? East Asians? Jewish people? Other Bostonians? (Oh wait, I forget that people in Cambridge hardly ever cross the Charles River). Young professionals outside the medical field? Almost nowhere to be found – it’s like they don’t even exist, exposing both the limitations of Lahiri’s personal experience and imagination. Lahiri’s angst isn’t the issue – her characterization of it is outdated. A friend of mine remarked to me, “You know where Americans are stuck? Mississippi Masala. People still ask me if my life is like that.” Let me remind readers that this Mira Nair film was released almost two decades ago. Identity politics and culture is mutable and ever-evolving.

Admittedly, Lahiri has a fine flair for expressing tragedy. However, her characters are recycled and under-developed. I keep thinking to myself “Thank gods, I am not these people.” Her protagonists are passive and lukewarm, and her command of suspense incredibly poor. Her stories give me so little hope. There is no triumph after struggle.

In many ways, film and comedy are well-ahead of the curve over literature. Nair's films have always been visionary. Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002) is a film about South Asian identity politics; however, it’s also about the challenges young people face whenever they want to do something different. Harold and Kumar (Danny Leiner, 2004) is ground-breaking, because it’s really a story about two smart guys being total idiots. The cultural elements -- the pressure on Kumar (Kal Penn) to get into medical school and the need for Harold (John Cho) to stand up against his manipulative, fraternity-boy co-workers -- are presented through comedy. Comedian Russell Peters makes fun of Indian stereotypes and makes us laugh.

Short stories are difficult to write. An author has about 2500-5000 words to place point of view strategically, develop major and minor characters, frame the setting, spin the plot, and reveal the themes – in other words, to make the point. In my opinion, there are very few genuinely good short story writers: William Faulkner, Flannery ‘O Connor, Angela Carter, Edgar Allen Poe (who arguably invented the genre in English literature), and Anita Nair. Now there’s a South Asian writer you should read, along with Chitra Banerjee Divakuruni, who addresses domestic violence in her work. All the writers I mentioned incorporate the weird and gothic, strong elements of suspense, and/or even magical realism.

Why shouldn’t I write a collection of short stories focused on identity politics that is salient to my generation? Suddenly, the inspiration for stories and themes was all around me: pan-Asian identities; the relationships between first and second-generation South Asian peers; similarities in the immigrant story across cultures; where exoticism can turn out to be perceived as a liability for image-creation rather than an asset; the apparent success of Jewish-Indian romances; the paradoxical experience of being a third-culture kid; racial profiling; vulnerabilities in the workplace, where being young and a woman is equally problematic; and how class differences, of even the minutest kind, are often far more dividing than cultural ones or color lines.

Electing President Obama, who is white, black, second-generation, and a third-culture kid, is just a first-step; we as Americans still have a long, long way to go. The unfortunate fact is that humans are 99 percent similar to each other. Unlike Lahiri, who is obsessed with cross-cultural differences, I'm obsessed with cross-cultural parallels. The more I travel, the more I see that we are more similar than we are different. But we focus on the one percent that’s different: the one percent that causes all the conflicts, the one percent that is the reason for rich, cultural diversity in the world. “Identity politics are a whole lot more complex than they need to be,” I said to my friend with a deep sigh.

True lack of prejudice and worldliness is a necessary, two-way dream. To understand curiosities, one has to be curious. To be accepted, one has to accept. To globalize, one needs to be globalized as well. The real question is can we all get over ourselves in order to genuinely eliminate racial and cultural discrimination? I will not give up on the possibility.

A powerful short story of identity politics would be one which they are the undercurrent of the story and not the story itself. One in which the multiple layers of identity draw us together just as much as they pull us apart. The themes can (and perhaps should) be universal in nature. After all, as Lord Alfred Tennyson said, there are no new stories, only new ways of expressing them.

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