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:
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.