Writing About Others: Multicultural Perspectives

 I hope to share with you how I came to be a Multicultural fiction book writer, talk about some issues connected with being one,  and the social role one finds oneself playing.  I hope to conclude with an illustration of how multicultural literature serves the multiculturalism charter by  opening minds and hearts, by restoring goodwill and by renewing solidarity among members of  the society.   I am grateful for the opportunity to share some perspectives and to do some reflection about my writer’s journey.  How did I get to where I am?  Now that I am here, how do I maintain a foothold?  And how do I stay true to my work?  I ask myself these questions and often struggle to find the answers.  It’s the struggle that keeps me walking  this road.   I was apt to think what really got me started as a children’s book writer was the impulse to test certain odds.  I had no formal writing experience.  What were the chances I’d write something that would get published?  I mulled this as I walked in my neighborhood some years ago.   Was I qualified, I wondered, or even lucky enough to penetrate a tough world of book publishing? I knew enough to know writing to a niche market would probably afford me the best competitive edge.  And the more I thought about this, the more it became clear that the story I wrote ought to be distinct and to be that, it ought to be a distillation of what I knew best.   And when, by the end of the walk, the story idea for HHRFDJ, just sort of fell neatly into place, I took that small miracle to be a good omen. I got serious about writing.

            If you asked today what got me started and what continues to drive me, I’d dig a little deeper.  I wrote first, as I write now, to validate myself. I wrote first, as I do now to acknowledge who I am and to celebrate where I’ve come from and where I am headed. That is the simple truth.  Subconsciously, I write to keep a link alive.  Consciously, I write to create a minor legacy for my children’s children.

            When I stray from my core, it impacts the writing. I’ve seen it happen again and again. The sweetest water rises from the deepest well.  For me, writing  must hold meaning.  It must feel right; it must ring true.   Sometimes I ask myself who I really write for. I am a children’s writer so it makes sense to say I write to please children.  But the reality is I write first and foremost to please myself.   But even as I say that I am  aware that I write for the 21st century child and so I  consider the needs of  this special public and attempt to go about giving to the modern child, what he or she wants.  

            I was born in Hyderabad, India and immigrated to the U.S in 1967.   As most first generation immigrants, and especially during the early years, I straddled two worlds one foot in the adopted world, one foot in the one left behind; recently of a new world, not  entirely disconnected from the old. Like most other first generation immigrants, I too, succumbed to a gnawing nostalgia and I responding to it by writing.  It was, I think, purely a self serving exercise.  It was as satisfying as scratching a subconscious itch.   It was the immigrant syndrome at play- that sub surface longing that begs gratification in one way or the other.  This was how COS was first conceived.  It most strongly recalls for me the touch, taste, sound and feel of past places and experiences.  It, more than my other books, has an umbilical connection to an immigrant’s emotional womb. When immigrant writers write about their experience, they generally write to expunge the bad or to celebrate the good.  My writing is about preservation, not erasure.   My story is not a story of trauma, displacement or flight.  I write to honor and celebrate a good past.   And like most first generation immigrant writers, I too write with one eye fixed on the rear view mirror and the other on the road.      

 On not being a Mainstream Writer:  I am a person from one place, living in another, and writing about the experiences of both.  HHRFDJ is my first book.  I thought Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, would have an instant universal appeal but when I track sales on Amazon I find that people who purchase it also buy books of similar cultural content.  The picture book received a coveted Kirkus starred review and a  couple of awards, including the   Asian/Pacific American Librarians’ Association award,  but  its most enthusiastic readers continue to be  people with primary connections to   the culture it represents. Figuring out why this is so took a little bit of analyzing. 

            The truth is that we read to either consciously respond an intellectual need, or to subconsciously fill an emotional void. For instance, before I came to the west, the allure of the west was so strong that I devoured books about the western experience, written by western writers.    Once on the western shores though, I sought out books by the likes of Bannerji, Mistry, Devakaruni, all immigrant authors from India, whose narratives gave  solace to someone looking over her shoulder.     I still am drawn to authors like Aslam, Majmudar, Lahiri, Mallady, Ghosh  to narratives  that talk about familiar things and strike a deep emotional chord.

             Most first generation immigrants from third and developing worlds, surrounded by a new  host culture, they to be tenacious about holding on to aspects of their own to perhaps assert their identity.  For them finding sympathetic validation in a book is as meaningful as finding it at a place of worship or at a community event. Books with characters, settings and situations that illustrate one’s roots and one’s heritage are significant for reinforcing important cultural links. There are benefits to reading literature that reflects ones ethnic and cultural background. For children, such literature can be particularly instrumental in cultivating a healthy self-concept - one that is based on a knowledge of and a sense of pride in one’s family background. 

            When I do a reading of HHRFDJ, there is a marked difference in how a western child receives the book versus a child of Indian sub continent heritage. The latter enters the book more easily, more deeply and without explanations of background and terminology. The names are familiar; situations and settings are familiar.       Not so for the child outside of the culture who must navigate the unfamiliar to get to the universal message of the story. To him I have to explain Dada-ji is a paternal grandfather; roti is like a tortilla. When HHRFDJ was published, my niece, a first generation American was delighted that there was a book her son could claim as his own.

Books that endorse who we are, wield power.  Through simple storytelling, they achieve wondrous things.  

             My books do better in the organizational market (schools, libraries).   As a writer of MC fiction I don’t have the home field advantage of the mainstream writer whose life’s basic details overlap those of the mainstream reader’s.  To the mainstream reader, books with foreign names, characters and cultural anomalies stand out as different. Depths of specifics must be plumbed to get to the universal. And because the reader does not come from the same cultural background as the author, those moments of self recognition that bind someone to a book are less likely to occur.  Moments of self recognition are what draw a reader to a book and hold his/her attention.   

            To compete for the attention of the mainstream reader, I must make experiences and observations resonate across any divide, cultural, racial, or geographical, between writer and reader.  To quote Amit Majumdar (Abundance, Partitions) “For a minority writer, the strangeness that attracted a reader’s curiosity in the first place is also a strangeness that must be overcome”.

            It is my challenge to create for two distinct audiences:  to be specific enough to please one and  universal enough to please the other and enticing enough that everyone wants a bite.

            As a land of immigrants, America has always been diverse. But it is the relatively recent influx of non European people mostly from Latin America, Asia and Africa that has started the multiculturalism debate.  While ‘diversity’ has physical a dimension  ‘multiculturalism’ is a state of mind, and an attitude that stays abstract until  lived.

      Multiculturalism defined:        By making the broadest range of human differences acceptable to the largest number of people, multiculturalism seeks to overcome racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. 

 This is why multiculturalism must work in a diverse society. 

         Multiculturalism says, no culture is superior to another, and no culture should compete with any other. And if we understand that, we can all get along just fine. But in truth  our goodwill towards the ‘other’ is governed by the vagaries of the socio/political/economic climate of the time.

            Then there is the  argument that  multiculturalism cannot succeed because a society needs cultural cohesion to survive—shared language, shared moral standards, a shared work ethic—and that multiculturalism provides no cohesion at all because it denies the value or need for the “one” as it appears in our national motto: “ e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one.” 

            Despite the debate, or perhaps because of it, it is the role of the writer to minimize the hurdles to multiculturalism;  I view it a responsibility to honor the aspirations of both sides of the argument and to champion societal cohesion as much as societal diversity. And as a writer even as I am at liberty to create, I feel constrained also,  by questions such as:  

·         will too much emphasis on so called exotic differences accentuate a “we” versus a “they” sentiment in the young readers?

·         will my work be perceived as pushing a singular cultural view point or agenda?

·         will,  that which binds the  reader to the book,  also call attention to his or her “difference”?  And I worry, particularly for the young reader who wants  to belong to the larger group and  who does not want to be perceived as the ‘other’. 

And so when I describe the foreign and the 'strange' I strive to bear in mind, "the essential humanity" in my characters. By keeping my reader - regardless of his/her ethnicity - in mind, I try to keep my narrative in focus and tailored to the universal.

            Since it came into existence, multicultural literature has been closely bound with multiculturalism.  Starting in the 60’s and the 70’s and taking inspiration from the civil rights and the feminist movement, this movement sought to claim space in literature and in education for minority/parallel culture groups. It’s origins lay in the demand by teachers and librarians for books that reflected the growing diversity in the classrooms. And though there may not yet be a proportionate representation of all minority cultures, as a literary genre, children’s multicultural fiction has come on its own and not only that, fiction about third world cultures, is even gaining an “exotic” advantage, particularly in the adult market, as people are opening themselves up to learning about the ways others live their lives.

            Multicultural literature has a three pronged configuration: an aesthetic form of literary creation, a political weapon in the cultural war and an educational tool. As an educational tool, multicultural literature can help bring about a best case scenario to the multiculturalism argument by rallying all people, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity  and heritage around a united banner; it can, in other words, help make an aspiration a reality.   

            Educators have long recognized multicultural books as powerful tools for building awareness, for opening minds and for informing about the histories, customs and motivations of the ‘others’.    Multicultural books for children, at their best, invite young readers to use their imaginations and gain a better understanding and respect of themselves and others.  A well written multicultural book is a mirror for the child  of that  culture and  a window for the  child outside of  it . It is good education in awareness for young citizens of a multicultural society to know about diverse people working, playing, worshipping, solving problems and overcoming obstacles; to learn about and have empathy for other lifestyles, languages, cultures, and points of view 

             Books have been called, “the wisest of counselors and the most patient of teachers”.  Imagine the healing and restorative power of a book in getting people out of their heads and thinking about the big picture; in opening them to new perspectives and world views.

            At its best, multicultural children's literature helps children understand that despite our many differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations. At its best, it helps them see that diversity is indeed the one true thing we have in common. 

            And so, much more so than the mainstream writer who hardly worries about such matters, it is on the writer of multicultural books to keep the bond between literature and multiculturalism intact; to validate and to educate; to temper and to balance; to work for unity not division so that the ideals of   “e pluribus unum” “out of many, one,” may indeed prevail.  

            How do I, the author deliver on my responsibility? I do it by bearing in mind the greater and lesser answers to the question:  who do I write for and why.    HHRFDJ is about roti cooking on the tavva pan and incense burning and prayer bell ringing and dadi-ma chanting hari om, hari om and about the tongue burning mango pickle. But it is just as much about food and fun and play and family, larger themes that invite everybody in and make differences secondary to the bigger picture.   

            I’ve played a similar balancing game in TGOMI, a coming of age story of Aliya, a Muslim American pre teen.   On the one hand it is a typical story about a typical teenager, tackling typical teenage issues. On the other hand, it is about an American/Muslim pre teen of Indian ethnicity.   On yet another level, the awareness building level, it is about giving  the “outsider”  an “ insider’s” view and about answering some important questions. 

             The genesis of the book is that was intended to be  a picture book about a Muslim American family celebrating Eid (an important religious celebration).  Along with a few rejections I received a letter suggesting I expand the story into a larger Muslim experience.  The 9/11 tragedy had recently occurred and there was a lot of social tension and turmoil.  People were afraid ; they were angry. Almost overnight, the American Muslims had become suspect.    A powerful and persistent media blitz portrayed Muslims as violent and their religion as promoting violence and hate.  The words Muslim/Islam/ Terrorist were made synonymous. Misconceptions and misrepresentations about Muslims and about Islam were rampant.  Imagine the impact of the climate on the psyche of ordinary American Muslim youth. Imagine how a relentless focus on their religion might have affected how they perceived themselves and how others perceived them. 

            For a writer of multicultural fiction, it was a call to test the role of literature in upholding the multiculturalism manifesto.  So I started over.  I re wrote,  but this time to put out an alternative Muslim narrative, a narrative  that was based on reality. I wrote purposefully  to counter the narrative that was out there, being fueled every day by hysteria; a narrative that was divisive; a narrative that was successful in pitting neighbor against neighbor.  I rewrote to restore goodwill, to build bridges and wrote to create better understandings.  And in that moment TGOMI truly became a multicultural book.

 Authenticity.:    Eugie Foster, (1971-2014), American short story writer, columnist, and editor observed that  during the 60’s and 70’s when the demand for multicultural books was growing, “aspiring writers lacking sufficient background….were glutting the market with poorly researched stories, riddled with inaccurate portrayals of world cultures and nationalities.” 

            The nature of multicultural fiction requires more than good storytelling. It demands attention to high standards of accuracy and factual precision.  As the writer I bear the additional burden for being sensitive, accurate, balanced, unbiased in my portrayal of the history, customs, values, perspectives, and language of the particular group I write about so that by reading the narrative, one gets a true picture not a distortion.

             Is it even scientifically accurate that a second day moon, can appear in the early morning sky the day after the end of the month of Ramadan?  Do farmers’ fields in northern India sway heavily under the weight of rice or  wheat?  Is Aiyyo the appropriate utterance for Dadima, a person of the north or should she exclaim, Aai hai?  What is first, second, fourth action in the ablution sequence? 

             It is on me, to worry about factual and literary authenticity of my work, regardless of the significance of the data and irrespective of the fact that the work, a work of fiction, is not necessarily held to the same stringent standards of factual accuracy as a work of nonfiction.

             Screening for authenticity is much more rigorous today.  But if my inaccuracies escape an editor’s unwary or ill informed eye, they are out there for the reader to accept as true.  There can be no room for taking liberties, or for carelessness or for looking the other way.  There can be no room for, Oops!  

            A multicultural fiction writer needs more than factual accuracy.  One of the worst things you want to hear as an author is that your story or your characters do not feel real.  Authenticity connects the reader to all parts of the story and this connection is important to the author because it entirely forms the way that a reader views the book.  Anything less than will be perceived by the reader as contrived. 

            My authenticity comes from speaking to the truth of the experience. It comes from being honest about the people and the events and the places. I told you at the beginning that my writing comes from deep within, from a core that I know rather well.  But authenticity also comes from having a stake in telling the story.  The higher the stakes, the more invested the reader will be in the story outcome. The stakes that I hold stem from the charter to which I am bound.

            Authenticity is especially important if one wants to convey the unfamiliar.   If you are writing about a foreign or unfamiliar setting, you must be specific about the details so as to provide a good visual image; you need to ground your story in your setting by providing details about the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and feel of the location.  If you are conveying a foreign custom or tradition, you need to provide it through, visual detail,  through character participation and interaction and dialogue.

            Literal/factual authenticity can be researched but what about emotional authenticity?   Can it be feigned it? In the hand of a skilled writer, perhaps yes.  My emotional authenticity is inspired by an  insider’s view; it comes from knowing my characters from all angles so that nothing about them is surprising.  To know them up close is to know what they hold dear; what makes them happy,  sad; their idiosyncratic ways,  habits, manner of  speech.  Authenticity of characters comes also from the images stored inside your head which  show up in the pearly whiteness of Basanta’s  teeth,  or in Amma’s graceful barefooted walk, or  in  Choti Dahdi’s irritating  and ear piercing screeches.   

             Is it possible to write authentically about another culture without being from that culture?  Who has a better claim,  a person  from inside or a person on the outside the culture? Is an ethnic book by a writer of that ethnicity necessarily better than if written by a writer of lesser cultural competence but stronger research skills? How much cultural competency is enough?  These are questions for academics.  Well intentioned writers do what they must do.

  Eugie Foster says stories don't belong to a culture; they belong to the authors who pen them, the readers who enjoy them, the storytellers who orate them, and the listeners who love them.

            But the skilled writer who is of the culture and possesses and insider’s view of the experience has a home advantage.  Not being from the culture is not a disqualification but to be outside the culture and yet write about it, a writer has to,  as  author Suzanne F Staples, author of Shabanu  puts it, “ not only be a better observer and listener, but also be more empathetic with a desire to be under someone else’s skin.”

            And if we want to still talk about who has the better claim on an multicultural artistic work,

Slide 6: Ken Min

  Here’s someone who worked from outside in,  and has gone the extra mile to be that better observer and listener and to get under the skin.   This is Ken Men a Korean American, illustrator of HHRFDJ, a book about the Asian/Indian/American experience.   The writer achieves authenticity with the right word and the illustrator does with the right stroke. Ken’s brush strokes were right, as right as someone who’s had an insider’s view.  

             Linguistic diversity is a tangible form of realizing cultural differences and realism in one stroke.    Books set in a cultural backdrop often scatter words in the affiliated language.  This is both fun and fascinating for the young reader.  I have enjoyed playing language games.  Idiosyncratic exclamatory utterances, distinctive pattern of speech coming from  bastardized/Indianized English , native phrases, terminology and  direct translations of vernacular Hindi or Urdu into English,  add a unique flavor, express authentic cultural membership, convey feeling  as well as lend an additional layer of  truthfulness to the narrative.  

            How else to convey the idiosyncratic foreignness of  Badi Amma and Choti Dahdi but through manipulating language;  through  juxtaposing the diction and syntax of elderly immigrants against the English of native speakers; and  through  language loaded with cultural nuances,  utterances, phrases and expressions interspersed just so for this particular emotion or that: Arre Wah! A victor’s exultant  cry;  Ai hai, despair “Aii” sarcasm  “Aiyyo!” regret Go, Go, dismissal, virtually  a literal translation of Jao, Jao.   Indeed this ploy works best for the reader familiar with the language.  But it is a  powerful  technique for making the narrative more interesting for all readers.  

 Writer’s identity:    In a world of border crossing and cultural confluence it’s harder and harder to explain oneself to someone else’s satisfaction.   On an official document, if you are not this, you are the other. But which other? And why that other?  Not content with the scientific definition of who we are (and admittedly, even here we can’t escape the question of what makes a person truly human) we categorize and sub categorize to the nth degree.  The search for clarity often leads to greater and greater confusion.  

Looking up Jhumpa Lahiri on the internet, I was amused to find her described as an Indian Bengali American writer. Lahiri was born in London.  She immigrated with her parents to America when she was four. 

            Sub categories are being added in the literary world too to accommodate the new types of literary artistic works being produced.  Immigrant fiction is an example of this.    Lahiri says she does not know what to make of the term. She goes on to say:    Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences.

True. But the question to be asked is: Which world do writers like her talk about?  How familiar or unfamiliar a world is it to the mainstream reader?   

            The world of the immigrant is a world of composites, not clearly one or the other. In his book, Immigrant Fiction: Exploring an American Identity, Phillip Lopate talks of immigrant fiction as “the encounter of the foreign-born with a presumably dominant Anglo-American culture. Thematically, this fiction is the site where self-invention encounters its limits, where compromise and accommodation wrestle with the unappeasable.”

             A first generation immigrant writer, subject to the full intensity of the immigrant experience can produce a narrative that resonates strongly of this experience and is starkly reflective of  the history, culture, religion, language of the writer. The physical act of immigration is a second hand affair for the second generation writer of the immigration experience. But still, retellings, anecdotal remembrances and psychological/emotional spillovers continue to imbue their narrative enough to give their work its own unique flavor, not the least of which comes from the philological aspect of the work; the language the writer brings to the mix.

             Speaking about Immigrant fiction, the same Phillip Lopate,  says, Linguistically, it is a fertile estuary infusing the Puritans’ English with the dialect seasonings, syntactical corkscrews, and passionate utterances of the Other.”

            When a narrative stems from a treading of two places, when a “writing perspective is refracted from at least two cultures, national identities or languages,” the result, at the hand of a good writer, is a narrative that is rich and distinct enough, emotionally and linguistically to demand its own identity.

            There is no question the immigrant experience has inspired one of the richest strands in American literature. This is something to celebrate.

            So who am I?  A multicultural fiction writer for children and a first generation American/Indian/Muslim immigrant writer of the multicultural experience for children, whose work, if for the adult market would be labeled immigrant fiction.  They tell me my books are for the organizational market even though the fundamental charter of the multicultural book is to reach the eyes, ears and minds of the mainstream. They tell me I  not a mainstream writer.  And I chuckle.  Because in a growing multicultural landscape, what is any longer mainstream? 

            In the end this is who I am, as I sit before you.  A writer who wants to  make a wee bit of a difference.   In the end it is so much about what someone calls me as it is about what I answer to.