Write More “Indianly,” or Else: Asha Thanki on the Trap of “Authentic” Writing


In 2000, Vikram Chandra wrote for The Boston Review on questions of “authentic writing.” He spent this essay pushing back against gatekeepers who believed in a particular canon of Indianness and who then labeled other works as pandering to a global or Western (read: white) audience. These gatekeepers pitted regional writers against Indo-Anglian writers, and through this false binary, Chandra argued, these critics did exactly what they claimed Indo-Anglian writers were doing: they reduced the Indian experience.

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I never considered authenticity of any kind, and especially not as related to my racial and ethnic identity, as a question for my writing until it was brought directly to me. In a meeting with an early reader, I was advised to write my novel more in the style of Indian writers publishing in English.

My book, apparently, read American; couldn’t I write more “Indianly?” Could I be more subtle with the queer love on the page; wouldn’t an Indian author use more symbolism—the peeling petals of a flower, maybe, or a metaphor about water, to depict this longing?.

But I also knew I couldn’t possibly write Indianly, whatever it meant; my influences have never been only Indian writers. I don’t even know that I would limit my influences to diasporic writers—what a small world we create, if we can only write into a canon.

If it weren’t for this early reader noting my style, the argument of authenticity would have felt silly or outdated to me. I understood the role of the white gaze, the male gaze—the way readers might pick up my book and, because it is about queer brown women, believe it is biographical in nature. I was prepared to counter that bias, that Otherization, but I was not prepared for the question of whether or not my writing was South Asian, or Indian, or anything, enough.

I was prepared to counter that bias, that Otherization, but I was not prepared for the question of whether or not my writing was South Asian, or Indian, or anything, enough.

And much as I rejected the criticism, I began to ponder it. Chandra’s twenty-four-year-old argument read to me like a precedent something Jhumpa Lahiri said in a 2015 interview with Francesca Pellas:

To me, writing means freedom, and therefore when I find myself in a cage, in a trap, or in front of someone who tells me “No, you have to write like this, in this language, about these subjects and conditions.” I get a very unpleasant feeling. Of course, one always has to expect to be judged, but some judgments can be damaging.

I think, somewhere within Chandra and Lahiri’s notes on ways of writing, I found my answers and tools around the question of authenticity. It became a game, even as I resisted the critique: What could such a thing as authentic writing mean?

I made it an experiment, to figure out authenticity in a way that only meant something to me. Slowly, the experiment became an exercise in craft.

*

Let me introduce you briefly to A Thousand Times Before—to Ayukta and the story she shares with her wife, Nadya.

Ayukta doesn’t have a succinct way of explaining to Nadya why she’s hesitant to have children. For Ayukta, this decision is a complicated one. Her family has a fantastic inheritance, passed down for generations, that she has never shared: the ability to access ancestral memory and, through it, immense power. In order to decide if they will have a child, and if they will, who will carry the child, Ayukta must explain the wide-ranging consequences of a lineage with a gift like this one.

A Thousand Times Before is an intergenerational, speculative novel examining girlhood and queerness; familial, ancestral, and romantic love; and the true meaning of home. It is also completely told, an oral history on the page. In this way, it makes the speaker of the novel—its narrator, Ayukta—bear the brunt of authenticity.

*

In the most reduced sense, my narrator wore a version of my filter—my politics, my knowledge of history—to orient the storyworld. But her precise identity wasn’t meant to be representative—not of myself, not of anyone else. Rather, the opposite: In her specificity, with a particular family history of migration and cultural experience, I knew her identities and experience to be unique to the woman I’d created. As I walked a fine tightrope in the novel, Ayukta maximized my desire for political complication while minimizing my personal discomfort.

When I considered authenticity in a vacuum, away from the drafting process, I wondered why I was trying to meet gatekeepers halfway. V.V. Ganeshananthan said it best:

Some, of course, argue that a diasporic position is inherently inauthentic. You should stay in your lane. But history lays the road of a diasporic person wide and far. My lane winds across oceans. Who is policing my route? Who is one person to declare another authentic, and what is the motive of a person who wishes to run me off the road? Many diasporas are, of course, formed when people seek refuge. To deny diasporas their voices is, in some regard, to practice the politics that drove them to do that in the first place.

If diasporic writing was inherently inauthentic, as the critics seemed to support, I would never meet the minimum threshold.

So I set my own bounds.

First, I did not want to homogenize. Quick-take nonfiction often feels this way to me: mobilize behind the VP because she’s a South Asian #girlboss; watch the latest Never Have I Ever because any and all representation should be lauded.

These stories ignore subgroup privileges as well the differences in experience around caste, religion, class, color, language, dominant historical narratives, and more. It cares more to complain about the airbrushing of a show like Bridgerton, but not of the imperialism, labor, and migration implications of its narrative.

I wanted a narrator who could question their role, and their family’s role, in a specific identity politics and that identity’s history. I wanted them to not place so much stock in what the fantastic element implied about their role—I wanted the gift to feel like an undeserved privilege, to see it as something they shouldn’t use.

A third of the novel, thus, takes places in the early 1970s, against the backdrop of India’s Green Revolution, rise of Marxism, and student movements. The protagonist of this section see power in organizing and in young people effecting change, and less so in fantastic elements. How would this type of person raise her daughter? And how could that daughter’s voice – Ayukta’s voice – shape the novel?

*

Second, I did not want to nostalgize.

This was hard; I am admittedly a nostalgic person. Yet because of dominant culture representation in the marketplace, I know what is nostalgic to me is also often a homogenizing project, a cultural imperialism. So long as the market prioritizes this particular understanding of nostalgia, I’m feeding into a system that gives me my (dominant) nostalgia over and over.

So I allowed my narrator nostalgia only as grief.

This was easy for me, because my subconscious was already consumed by grief. When I began to draft the novel, in October 2019, my maternal grandmother passed away.

With her went my last direct connection to Partition, as all other grandparents had already passed. She was the only person from that history with whom I had been able to speak as an adult. I had spent time interviewing her about her husband’s migration while I was in college, and her too-soon departure left me stranded in a history I didn’t feel I knew well enough.

Months later, during the pandemic, my maternal grandfather’s brother passed away. He was in his nineties, and was the last person in the family to remember life in Karachi before Pakistan was Pakistan. I began transposing interviews we’d completed in the summer of 2019, when my mother and I sat on his tiled apartment floor in Bombay.

I began to wonder what it would be like for the people I missed to be alive. And so, in fiction, I could do what reality could not. I crafted a narrator Ayukta who could remember the lives of people that came before her. For Ayukta, no one was truly gone; they were housed someplace in her mind, in her bones, and she could access their lives at any time. This was the fantasy I wanted in my grief, and slowly, as I shifted from granddaughter to writer, I found a way to carry onward.

But I also wondered what would happen if I could not move forward—if Ayukta had the choice to not move forward either. I housed this in her central question to Nadya: What do you decide, then? Do you keep the memory of people you grieve alive—how can you possibly decide?

*

Third, I did not want to write a book that hinged solely on trauma. Nostalgia, historically, is easily hijacked. Traumatic stories, especially intergenerational ones, can focus on cultural inheritance, like patriarchy and gender norms, but fail to critically analyze sources of these issues (purity/virtue systems, class power, and casteism, among others).

The Indian Hindu diaspora, in particular, revisits colonization and Partition over and over, blaming India’s history solely on the British without analyzing the role of Islamophobia and Brahminical patriarchy in the evolution of the country afterward.

Nostalgia, trauma—they can be used like tools to rally some and subjugate others. Trump’s election made this obvious in its “great again” schema, but the tactic was already around long before then.

The Indian Hindu diaspora, in particular, revisits colonization and Partition over and over, blaming India’s history solely on the British without analyzing the role of Islamophobia and Brahminical patriarchy in the evolution of the country afterward. We mourn what we have lost—the nostalgia seeping through—but the trauma narrative begins to paint a picture that skews toward particular politics.

This is how the fascist Bollywood machine functions. And the sheer amount of fiction writing—and especially including fictionalized screenplays through the Bollywood machine—on this topic is a testament to how much of a wound Partition was and continues to be within this particular diaspora’s literary hivemind.

By instilling a narrator who was grounded in the present, I could avoid this. Through Ayukta, the story begins seventy years after Partition; the reader knows that even if the novel begins in 1946, we will care more to carry through time than to linger endlessly on Partition. This narrator would know the impact of historical events on her present, and would be able to track the rise of political parties, Islamophobia, and more.

By placing a contemporary, more progressive lens on the past, Ayukta is able to separate her storytelling from the intense, reactive narration of Partition that her grandmother might have had.

*

Fourth, and finally, I did not want to mine myself. The market has made this rule the most difficult—it is hard not to bleed for the industry, for a book, in a market that might reward me for doing so.

I considered some of those market expectations when I drafted the contemporary Ayukta-Nadya scenes. For example, despite its potential marketability, I knew I did not want to write out a Western coming-out trope. I knew I did not want my narrator to struggle with Orientalist otherness, or to write the overdone narrative of East-West push-pulls between children and their parents.

I wanted fathers who were more than stern and mothers who were more than silenced. I wanted to show love that felt as real to me as the loves I’ve lived, both familial and romantic, and to show them without metaphor. I wanted a narrative and chronology that was at its core antifascist and which lived within the bounds of my privileged identity locations.

I wanted the question of home without relying solely on the trauma narrative of Partition; I wanted mothers and friendships and ancestral connection, without stereotype.

*

When Chandra penned his essay on authenticity, he also referenced a speech by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” which pushed back on the assumption that writers should abide by particular norms to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular regional canon. Chandra agrees with Borges’ critique of the gatekeeping around authenticity, especially when questions around “catering” and “pandering” come into play.

The white gaze, or the white fascination with immigrants’ novels, is not new. But I do think that the preoccupation with white readers, or the desire to create distance from whiteness, means that we criticize details or descriptions that even vaguely gesture towards catering to a dominant identity. I can’t help but think of Chandra’s essay, and of Borges, and of the avoidance of ideological restrictions on writers.

In an interview with Harpers Bazaar, Bangladeshi writer Tanaïs speaks to this:

I’m not translating for whiteness. I don’t do that. But I am translating this for my readers who are not South Asian but are Black, Indigenous people rejecting dominant cultural ways of storytelling. They’re my people, but they’re not people who come from where I come from; they’re coming from a different place. And you have all these young people who have been wanting to hear this truth of our experience in a larger context, a way that doesn’t feel like we’re selling out or whitewashing or erasing ourselves. I’ve been wanting that my whole life, so I had to write it. I had no other choice.

When I think of this translation and its value to my own writing, I think of Ayukta and the person she is, telling a story to a person she loves, and wanting to describe her favorite parts of every moment she re-experiences via ancestral memory. It does not have to be for the white audience. It does not have to suddenly be inauthentic if she must describe the smells, the sights.

This was the authenticity I needed: for it to be okay to write this book, first, for myself as its primary audience.

I let myself linger in these descriptions—not for the audience, not even for Nadya, but for me.

This was the authenticity I needed: for it to be okay to write this book, first, for myself as its primary audience. The research, the interviews, the photographs and objects I pored over—their discovery was for me, first. The rules became my way of staying true to myself, even as the story became larger than its four-page seedling. Isn’t this what we can do in fiction—clutch at histories we have not lived, at ancestries that have already slipped through our fingers?

As readers begin to read the book for themselves, I find myself feeling freed. In A Thousand Times Before, I have grasped at a language, time, and place that feel both very close and very far away, all at once. And it felt, at the time, like it was authentic to the writer I was.

Even now, I feel myself shifting toward a new experience and way of being. The needle is always adjusting. Ayukta, the text—that is what remains now. Through her voice and in her narration, her story can only be her own.

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A Thousand Times Before - Thanki, Asha

A Thousand Times Before by Asha Thanki is available via Viking.



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