Can South Asians only write one story?

If we’re not invited to the table, we need to build our own.

Welcome to the third issue of Lychee, an advice column for South Asian Americans. We answer questions that range from the salacious to the serious, gathered from conversation with friends, academics, and industry experts. Got a question you want to see answered? Ask below.

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This week, a reader asked: I’m a writer and I feel like South Asians are only allowed to tell a few stories — of immigrant despair, of arranged marriages, of hyper-conservative families, of slum life. But will we ever see something as simple as a South Asian Twilight? I got Jenny Bhatt, whose novel Each of Us Killers came out yesterday, and who has been running the “Desi Books” podcast and thinking about this topic for a very long time, to answer. (Do you have a different answer? Write back and I'll feature you in the next newsletter.)


Dear Lychee,

I am a published writer, and have lived in the US for a decade now. As a writer from a minority community, though a very visible, and “high-achieving” one, I find writing is expected to be on certain themes (immigrant despair) and topics (arranged marriages, conservative families). There's been a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement in publishing, which is so often skewed towards the dominant white writer (often male). Will the moment affect how publishers and the broader writing world see diasporic writing? Will we be able to write about things we hold important rather than having to ask others what's important, interesting, and what isn't? As writers, will we get to finally stop explaining the story, and just write like writers do?


Aspiring (trapped) writer

Dear aspiring (trapped) writer,

This is a great, timely question, one that I’ve been considering during my own first book publication journey, and for years before that. As you well know, the life of a first-generation naturalized immigrant is typically held hostage to their citizenship status, and I was limited from focusing on writing full-time due to the need to earn a steady living (I wrote about it here.)

One benefit of working my way out of that quagmire is that I now have frameworks. First, to your question, I want to say: let’s take action instead of waiting for others to change. Here is how I would frame a two-part approach to make the industry better for all of us.

a) How can we influence and change how publishers and readers see or position writing from the South Asian diaspora? How can we elevate topics and themes that are important to us instead of only what the dominant culture considers relevant?

The biggest hurdle to solving this question is gatekeeping. The reality is that most literary agents, publishers, editors, publicists, literary critics, booksellers, literary event organizers, and so on, are still white — and they’re the ones choosing books and putting them in stores. 

Of course, things have improved considerably. We now have more independent presses that are willing to consider non-mainstream topics and themes from minority communities. Though there are more editors, agents, critics, etc., of South Asian descent, it hasn’t helped as much as one might expect. We’re still not seeing a wide range of South Asian stories being published or pushed to the forefront— when was the last time you saw a Twilight featuring a South Asian? 

We can tie some of this to South Asian culture. Generally speaking, my parents' generation did not think the arts were worthwhile for full-time professions or careers. We were driven into medicine or engineering if we wanted to work. And there are South Asians of my generation and younger who took the arts route but have not been able to get to those influential gatekeeper roles in sufficient numbers to drive large-scale change. So we need to reach out to those already in such positions to actively mentor others. Do you already know some people in these kinds of roles? Nudge them nicely and tactfully, please, to do this.

Next is visibility. If we’re not invited to the table, we need to build our own. This has been my goal with the Desi Books podcast. I saw that many South Asian writers weren’t getting media attention with their new books and wanted to do my bit to spotlight them. There are many other ways of spotlighting writers from our own communities. We can do interviews and reviews in mainstream publications, we can share their work on social media, we can teach their books in our classes if we’re academics, we can recommend their books to our book clubs and libraries. Every bit counts. Let’s remember that a rising tide will lift all boats. So let’s be generous with our fellow writers. Let’s raise the tide.

That also means acknowledging the privileges we do have. You say you’re from a “high-achieving” minority background. Among South Asians, it’s still easier to get published as an Indian author. There are a handful of bestsellers from Indian Americans. As we elevate South Asian voices, we also need to acknowledge the hierarchies inherent in our own literary world. Some voices and communities — often Indian, wealthy, upper caste voices — are more easily recognized in book publishing than others.

Related to the point above, let’s also be more conscious about the voices and works we amplify. I’m purposeful about this on social media. I generally avoid amplifying works that pander to those timeworn stereotypes and tropes. Whose posts are we liking/sharing? Whose tweets are we liking/retweeting? If we’re celebrating our own rich, diverse cultures with our writing, why aren’t we celebrating the same when it comes from fellow writers? It will not diminish us or our work if we spotlight other writers from our own community. If anything, it validates and confirms the work we are also doing. And, if our own work is good enough, it will stand well on its own.

b) How do we get past our own and our community’s censorship and write beyond timeworn stereotypes and tropes (e.g. immigrant despair, arranged marriages, conservative families, slum life, religious fundamentalists, etc.)?

This is the toughest question of all. In my case, the challenge wasn’t writing with stereotypes; my entire adult life has been about going off-script from what my parents and siblings have expected or needed of me. But I wasn't writing about the expected stereotypes and tropes that I mentioned earlier, so I didn’t get the usual sort of validation. Which meant that I lacked the confidence to know if I was any good. As I’ve grown older, some of those insecurities have fallen away and I have more courage in my own convictions.

Yet, we continue to see writers from our community billed as “breakout” and making it onto bestseller lists by holding fast to those stereotypes and tropes. Sadly, there are tangible benefits in going with the flow. The hard truth is that, if we’re going to write “against the grain”, we cannot have that writing be our main source of income. It's the old argument, in a way, from Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own: that, if a woman is to write well and freely of her own mind, she must have a room of her own and $500 (or today’s equivalent of that) a year. If she's not depending on anyone else, she can choose to write what she must. This applies to all writers of minority communities, of course, not only women. 

So, as difficult as it may be, we need to have a day job or some other source of income while we write what we want and endure the long, rocky journey to publication. But if we, as a community, work on some of the above, the journey will eventually become smoother and shorter for future generations. 

All the best.

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Some internet reads:

  • Hua Hsu's The Asian American Canon Breakers — on the Asian Americans who broke ground in the 70s to explore their identity in full, moving past the “writers [who] were interested in being ‘prizewinning poodles’ answering the beck and call of ‘the master race.’”

  • Jenny Bhatt’s The Unexpected Politics of Book Cover Design — on the politics of book covers, and how Jenny decided upon the cover for Each of Us Killers, designed by Indian artist Harshad Marathe