Friday, October 10, 2014

How to read diversely AND authentically



A little over a week ago, Trish wrote an excellent post about the difficulties of reading diversely and how you can really tell if you are doing it right.  And what's right?  How can you tell if you are reading an "authentic" story if you are not from the same group that the book is written about?

Trish linked to an article that I found particularly interesting called "Why am I brown?  South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences.

I found this article spot on in many of its observations, and I really hope that some of you click through to read it.  I mentioned in previous posts that it is SO FRUSTRATING that most of the diverse books that  get published and publicized are ones that tell an immigrant story.  And then the words that are used to review them are so stereotypical - colorful, a bright tapestry, spicy, etc.

I originally interspersed this post with quotes from Akhtar's article because it is a long article and I feel like people won't click through to read it, and I think that's a missed opportunity.  But then I was quoting from her so much that it started to feel uncomfortably like plagiarism, so I stopped.  Suffice it to say that I related very strongly to many of the comments Akhtar brings up in her article.

Akhtar's point is that South Asia is a diverse place with many things going on besides arranged marriages, remaining baggage from colonialism, and people emigrating to the West.  However, the majority of stories that get published are about arranged marriage, colonialism, and people emigrating West.

In the comments on Trish's blog, many people were frustrated with Akhtar's article and with an essay by Roxane Gay (that I have not read, so can't really comment on) because both Akhtar and Gay expressed frustration but did not offer any solutions.  But, honestly, what do you expect them to do?  They don't control the publishing world.  They can't decide what kind of books and stories get published and which ones don't.  All they can do is express frustration and bring attention to books that focus on different aspects of life as a POC in hopes that more people read those books and more of those books get published.  From what I read, Akhtar was not expressing frustration with readers but with publishers.  (Well, and reviewers who use stereotypical language.)

 So it appears the odds are stacked up against the person who wants to read diversely and understand other cultures, partly because publishers think the only stories that will sell are those that are based on pre-existing Western stereotypes about other places and people.  So what we're getting is a single story.  And, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fantastic TED talk about the danger of a single story:
...show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. ...The single story creates stereotypes,and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. ...The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
There are many Indian people who had arranged marriages, moved to the United States, and dealt with the consequences of those actions.  My parents, for example.  There are also many Indians who used to own a lot of land with peasants to work it, and who got respect due solely to their caste.  And India as a country IS still dealing with a lot of the fall-out of British colonial rule and the Partition.  Those stories are all true, and just because they've been written about many times, that doesn't make them less true.  And it does NOT make them less authentic.

India is home to over a billion people and its history (like the history of every other place on earth) stretches back thousands of years.  Jabeen Akhtar doesn't get to decide what is an authentic story and what is not.  That's just a different kind of single story, and no one wants that.  Akhtar DOES have the right, though, to ask people to scratch a little deeper and look for authors who want to share different stories.

So how do you do that?  The only solution I have found is to read as widely as possible.  Don't make assumptions based on just one data point.  To use words that show up in reviews of Indian books all the time, weave your own colorful tapestry out of many different saris!  Or cook a meal with a cupboard full of exotic spices!  Read widely and see just how many different kinds of stories can be true about the same place at the same time.

For instance, do you want to learn about India?  Then don't just read The Namesake and learn about what it's like to LEAVE India, but read books that are set in India, too.  And then read books that are set in Pakistan and Bangladesh, because until 1948, those were all one country.  And read a wide variety of authors, not just your favorite author.  That will give you the power to compare and contrast, to look at what you thought you knew and compare it against what someone else says is true.

For example, I didn't love Akash Kapur's India Becoming, but I did appreciate how Kapur shed light on the life of both a gay man and a sexually active single woman in Bangalore.  I have my own pre-conceived notions about life in Bangalore (a city I visit quite often), and Kapur gave me new perspective, which was very valuable.  He never once mentioned arranged marriages or colonialism.  And he taught me new things that made Bangalore more real to me, and shared the stories of two people who it would be hard to come across in US-published novels about South Asia because they do not fit the stereotype.

That's really all the advice I have!  But seriously, just to reiterate:
NO ONE gets to decide what is authentic and what is not.  One story being true does not negate another.  But there is always more than just one story.

26 comments:

  1. Just like with Trish's post, I agree. Reading diversely about diversity is the goal. Authenticity is, if not impossible, at least not able to be judged.

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    1. I don't really like the word "authentic" at all. It is overused and never really defined in situations like this one, and it implies that only certain people that meet specific criteria can achieve it. I disagree with that idea, mostly because it negates so many other points of view.

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    2. Yeeeeees. Which always reminds me of all the brilliant things Thomas King says in The Truth about Stories.

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    3. YES. Absolutely, but some accounts are more valid than others. More on this later.

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  2. Brilliant post, Aarti. It all really does come down to reading as many different stories as possible.

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    1. Thanks, Ana. I suppose all of us just need to ramp up our reading EVEN MORE. It's sad, as I was writing this post and thinking about how many books most people read, it's completely understandable that if you are only reading 10 books a read, that those books are all by people of similar backgrounds or ones that probably fit stereotypes because those are the ones that get the most publicity.

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  3. I love this post, Aarti. Sometimes with certain countries I'll start thinking "alllllll the books from this country are about the civil war!", and then I get anxious wondering whether all the books from that country are about the civil war because that's what's really occupying the minds of writers in that country (super fair) or because that's what publishers think will sell because "civil war in Africa" is what American readers recognize (annoying, and I'd like to read other things). It is tough. But as Ana says, it comes down to seeking out and reading as many different types of stories as I can find.

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    1. Yes, exactly. I bet if you were to go to a bookstore in those countries, there would be many books that were not about civil war. Probably lots of mysteries and romances there, just like here :-)

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  4. One of the things I started trying to do last year was read books that were originally published in other countries and later brought into the US and translated. Example: The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō for the fact that they might tell me something different or more authentic than the immigrant stories that so often are published here. Just my way of hopefully scratching a little deeper. I found the experience wholly satisfying when I did something similar with The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstoya of Russia. Such a different kind of story...nothing stereotypical about it...but telling of Russia and its people and struggles and attitudes nonetheless. That was one I discussed with the International Reads group on Goodreads and some of our Russian participants had some great insight, and great insight came of our conversations about it. Wonderful, wonderful post, Aarti!

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    1. That's a fantastic idea! I think I'll try to do the same. Did you enjoy The Makioka Sisters? Would you recommend it?

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    2. I've been trying to do something similar to Andi by reading more classics from different places. That's why I read a Narayan novel for Diversiverse.

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    3. Anonymous11/05/2014

      Great idea. Yes The Makioka Sisters was a great book. See my review. Marilyn

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  5. Absolutely and I'm so glad you wrote this post in answer to some of the questions that I've been having lately. I love this tongue in cheek response of yours: " To use words that show up in reviews of Indian books all the time, weave your own colorful tapestry out of many different saris! Or cook a meal with a cupboard full of exotic spices!" and laughed out a loud a little bit.

    And this is why I so appreciate events such as Diversiverse that have readers discussing so many different books. I've read a dozen or more books set in India (or outside of India) by Indian authors and I still wouldn't say that I know the Indian experience--just as another mom from another part of the US could tell the same story that I could. It's such a valid point to read widely.

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    1. I'm glad you caught that joke ;-)

      And I think you hit the nail on the head. I grew up in the US, but can I speak for all Americans? No. But I can speak for myself as an American.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post!!! The things you said are the sort of things I felt in my gut after reading Trish's post and spending time thinking about that idea of reading "authentically." But I wasn't sure if my gut should be trusted. I've always hated hearing people say things like, "But that doesn't match up with my experience" or "I've heard that story before." Not because those statements might not be true for the person saying them, but because it sounds like they're somehow trying to invalidate someone else's story. Like you said, ALL THE STORIES should be told. And hopefully we'll be able to get our hands on as many of them as possible!

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    1. Yes, exactly - statements like that basically say "well, you're wrong." Which isn't really helpful. I think something MORE helpful would be, "Oh, if you liked that, have you tried X? I thought it was a great contrast to that one." Though it can be hard to think of something right on the spot like that!

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  7. Thanks so much for writing this. I really appreciate in particular the thoughts around how stereotypes and predominant narratives aren't necessarily "wrong", but there are more stories out there that aren't getting told. I remember loving Adichie's TED talk about that when I first saw it.

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    1. Yes, Adichie is often quoted for that talk, I think - it's a brilliant way to talk about the dangers of stereotypes and racism.

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  8. Great post, Aarti! Trish's post made me think of the Adichie talk as well. It's such a powerful message!

    What you say about Indian books makes me think of my own reactions to U.S. southern fiction, which seems to be all mint juleps and the Junior League, both of which have zero to do with my life as a southerner. And when I try to get people to think a little more in terms of the mountains and less of the deep south, about all anyone can come up with is Deliverance, which is not accurate either. There are just too many different types of experiences for one type of story to capture them all, so we need lots of different kinds of stories.

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    1. Yes, so true! My view of the South is very different than what I think the South is actually like. Just like many people think Chicago is a land of gangs and gun violence. Which it is, but there is more to the city than that.

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  9. This is exactly what I was trying to say but didn't say it as well. I believe authenticity is a very subjective concept. I stayed in India only 8 eight years out of my 30 and I have my own annoyances about books set in India. But I know for sure that a book I consider authentic enough is not going to sway someone who was born and brought up in India and has traveled through the length and breadth of the country. I believe the read more diversely and authentically is just to read more diversely without worrying too much about if the book is authentic enough. You are always going to be more informed that you were before you started the book and that's a plus.

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    1. Yes, I agree. And hopefully by reading lots of different stories, you can see just what a diversity of experiences exists for people that are all from the same place or similar backgrounds.

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    2. And I think your comment on Trish's post was excellent - it's a really good point. As Indians, that doesn't mean we should hold everyone up to the standard of judging "Indian-ness" the way that we do.

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  10. I totally agree with you that reading widely is the most important thing and to also pay attention to what you're reading, because it's difficult to know what you're missing unless you're actively seeking it out. I think bloggers often run into the problem of reading books they find on other blogs? Or the next big thing? Sometimes you have to read the book no one has recommended yet, you have to do the research. I know I fall into this trap! I kind of failed on my reading widely goal this year... I ended up falling back on fantasy series this year for some fast reading when life got too hectic, but I'm excited to regroup and focus now that I'm going to be in one place for the next year! Thank you so much for posting about this! I love all the discussions about diversity that are happening in our community and that people are really paying attention.

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  11. I'm linking to this for my Shout Outs this week. I love this post so much, Aarti. After talking with Trish and everyone and reading her post, I got to thinking about this more and more. It is so true that while books are becoming more diverse geographically and ethnically, the stories are (as a majority) based on stereotypes and they've been, well, whitewashed to an extent.

    While we do have to start somewhere with reading diversely, I agree that voicing our frustrations over authenticity and varying experiences in our books will eventually force publishers to begin offering these stories to us.

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  12. Anonymous11/05/2014

    Thanks for this great post and the links to Trish and Jabeen Akhtar. And thanks to all those who have commented. This is such an important discussion. Sorry I came to it late. The fact that there are many stories doesn't mean they are all equal. I agree that identifying and avoiding stereotypes is a good place to start evaluating what we read. but mostly we need to keep reading diversely and to think about what we read. I'll do a post with more of my response as soon as I can. Again thanks for igniting this discussion. Marilyn

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