[Text of speech given at the Centre for Canadian Architecture in Montreal on May 24, 2003]
By Shauna Singh Baldwin
I'm delighted to be back in Montréal. My thanks to the Centre for Canadian Architecture and the organizers of Traces of India for giving me this opportunity to speak to you about the perception of India being conveyed by writers of the Indian diaspora.
It's a subject of concern to many Indians too, for I've been asked leading questions such as when an Indian journalist asked, "Should diasporic Indian writers allow themselves to become part of a marketing machinery that exoticizes India?"
Sadly, I knew what he meant. The "machinery" he was referring to was the familiar old machinery of Raj and Raj Nostalgia Writing in English, much of it contemptuous of Indians and India, portraying a static vision of an India with a glorious past and no future. Indian sidekicks were portrayed as simple, slothful, passive, accepting, dangerously oversexed, goofy and effeminate. So the marketing machinery rewarded its authors at Indian expense. To Indian sensibilities, Kipling is a cheerleader for the erstwhile British Raj and EM Forster's Muslim character Aziz sounds completely wrong. Even geographical storage of books about India is testament to the historical imbalance of power - you can find out more about India, as viewed from the West or from India, using interlibrary loan in Canada, the US, or the UK than you can find in libraries in New Delhi, the capital of India.
However, the common meaning of exotic is "foreign." To "exoticize" means "to make foreign"- and I contend that by writing about things that may initially seem exotic to readers, readers become familiar with the subject or place. I read stories with characters and places that were very exotic to me when I was growing up in India. I read Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, and came through unscathed. I expect my readers will, too. What matters is how one describes a place and its people - with contempt or with love.
Indian concerns about "the exotic" in writing rise from the mistaken assumption that writers writing in English are addressing only a western audience - in other words, our mental colonization can run so deep we cannot imagine ourselves, South Asians or people of South Asian origin, as audience for our own work. And with reason - you can read an older generation of Indian authors and feel the many areas where they obviously address a Christian reader, making spurious comparisons, explaining the obvious, using only Christian symbolism, shoehorning the polyglot nature of Indian culture into monolingualism. All they were trying to do was say, "hey, we're human, like you."
But in 56 years of independence India has somewhat healed psychologically, if not economically, from the effects of British colonization. A new generation is less admiring of the West and doesn't feel so great a need to explain itself. As more Indians from India or in the diaspora enter the world publishing scene, Western amazement that we are present and writing, will die down.
There is also the very deep and legitimate concern in India that writing in English within India or within the diaspora is at the expense of the vernacular languages. This assumes that writers who write in English do not or will not write or popularize Indian languages. But we can't help being polylingual - we will use the languages appropriate to our stories, to sing of what we love.
No one would dream of comparing Mordechai Richler's writing to the works of Amos Oz, but academics have so far had no difficulty comparing my writing to that of Indian writers. To me, an Indian writer is someone who was born in India and lives there and writes about India or anything else he or she chooses. This of course, excludes me from the label - I was born here in Montréal, grew up in India, and live in the USA.
I began calling myself a diasporic Indian writer in 1996 when my first book of fiction, English Lessons and Other Stories, was published. I was in a category of one at the time, and even when What the Body Remembers was published in1999, I got puzzled looks from journalists on each continent at my self-description. But as you see today, there is now recognition and acknowledgment that the Indian diaspora exists and that some of us are scribes.
Within the Indian diaspora, however, there are other divisions in sensibility: there are immigrant writers (such as Rushdie, Bharthi Mukherjee, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Rau Badami), second genners like myself and Jhumpa Lahiri, and mixed race writers like Hari Kunzru.
But "Immigrant writer" is the term often applied to all of us to exclude us from full participation as writers belonging to the US and Canada. It enables the European-American/European Canadian to forget we have been on this continent since the late 18th century, though only permitted to participate with full civil rights since the 1960s. The term diasporic or "desi" writer allows my participation without simultaneously and insidiously excluding me from claiming my right to full participation in the Canadian literary world.
Second genners like me tie reviewers in very strange knots, like when a Toronto critic said as a compliment that in What the Body Remembers, I was writing about my "homeland" "with intimate knowledge" - when of course, Pakistan, though it is the setting of my novel, isn't by any stretch of my multiple identities, one of my homelands. It was the new country my grandparents fled in1947 when they joined 17 million refugees created by the stroke of an impersonal pen during the British Partition of India. To write What the Body Remembers, I had to study Pakistan's country's terrain, flora, fauna, bird life, minerals, history, mythology, etc. as any other Canadian writer would have.
Yet I and the Indo-Canadian community have questions about India and our history - if you don't know much about the place you came from, how can you figure out if you've made progress by coming to the new world? We know we have problems that rise from being Indo-Canadian or Indo-American: in the mid-80s, to many Canadians we were Pakis, and in the US today, are potential terrorists. We have problems of caste, dowry and forced arranged marriages. The Indian experience of the dot-com boom and bust caused many cultural clash situations between old and new immigrants, and sadly, a rise in domestic abuse. What better way to explore these problems than through story.
When readers ask if there a reason why Indian and Indian diasporic writers suddenly seem so cool, I answer, "perhaps it's because we have something to say." And I'm asked how come this writing was not happening before?
Of course we were writing -- we all have the urge to create, to describe our lives. Since the late 1800s, there have been poetry and storytelling gatherings held in desi homes in every city. My parents' generation didn't dream of a world in which Indians could be paid for writing; the world they knew was one where the brown person was always apologizing for his/her existence, and one in which many people of darker color had it worse. They didn't give themselves fancy labels like "diasporic Indians" - they knew themselves as immigrants, desis, at the most expatriates longing to go "home" - next year, always next year.
Why was diasporic Indian or Indian writing not being published?
Writing by diasporic Indians was rarely published by Western publishers because a generation of editors and publishers brought up in an era of racial segregation, European arrogance and the cold war mentality had to give way to a generation of editors and publishers who could accept that European culture isn't the norm and doesn't have all the answers. And a generation of desis and North Americans had to become comfortable with the idea that the English language belongs to anyone who can use it.
Unlike their grandparents who might have white-knuckled their way through a Indian dinner, younger North Americans can appreciate words like samosa and daal, and if they don't know the basic plot of the Ramayan, the Bible might also need a paragraph of exposition.
But if you are a desi writer and a Canadian or American you still have to answer the question Euro-American writers are never asked, "Who do you write for?" The answer I give is: for anyone who can read. And how very privileged we are that we can read; there are so many in the world who cannot.
So have we diasporic writers helped to reinterpret India in the minds of readers in North America?
I think the answer is "maybe" and "for some readers" Occasionally I despair of reinterpreting the orientalist image of India or changing anyone's ideas, as when after a reading from What the Body Remembers, which is from the point of view of two Sikh women in a polygamous marriage in colonial India, a little old lady raised her hand and with no intention of being malicious informed me she had seen a Sikh once and concluded that "Sikhs make very good doormen."
Whereupon I asked her if she would like me to hold the door for her or write novels for her.
I think it doesn't really matter if we are Indians writing about a recent memory or immigrants stuck in a past version of India or Indo-Canadians writing about a mythic homeland. What matters is that most diasporic writers write about India and Indians with love instead of contempt, offering glimpses of a complex active people with high aspirations. Through our writing, we have certainly reinterpreted India for ourselves, revisited it and taken our readers with us. Diasporic writers have revisited subcontinental history, as each ethnic immigrant and second generation group has done for their "old countries". We have offered Canadians contemporary and historical comparisons between our two postcolonial societies, societies that still sometimes lapse into mental states of colonization and anglophilia. I'd be delighted if you told me one of my books inspired you to talk to an Indo-Canadian or visit India. And even more, if I could raise enough curiosity in English-speaking or French-speaking readers to read writers writing in India - especially in translation from Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, the sixteen other Indian languages and their 300 dialects. Conversely, I hope if Indian readers enjoy my work, it will make them curious about Canada and Canlit.
Where to from here?
Writers of the Indian diaspora have a long way to go: many of us still restrict ourselves to writing about Indian characters from our own religion or worse, feature villains who follow any faith other than our own. So far, few diasporic Indian writers have been confident enough to write from the point of view of characters of other cultures. Pico Iyer writes from an Englishman's point of view in his new book, Abandon, Vikram Seth has done it in An Equal Music and Golden Gate. Jhumpa and myself have done it to some extent - but not many of us have made the leap so far. The question arises: when we venture into writing about North American politics, science, industry, and comparative religion, or offer our view of European and North American history and institutions, will our work be pulverized? This is not merely a rhetorical question - my next novel is based on the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a Sufi Muslim woman who worked for the French resistance in WWII. It's scheduled to be published by Knopf Canada next year.
But do I think about these things when I'm writing? No way!
I think about telling you a damn good story, I think about my characters, their situations, constraints and settings so you lose your self and come to love my them as much as I have. I live and write for what every writer lives for: for you to say you truly felt the story and became its characters for even a single minute. Then you and I will have taken one step away from the tragedy of our existence: that we are all exotic to one another.