On Brown, White, and Rushdie

Sometime back, Venkat (better known as VGR), one of the early day Sulekhaites, wrote a blog at Sulekha, discussing the problem Indian writers (writing) in English have to face. The blog: Writing English While Brown was an interesting read, even though I disagreed with much of its central thesis and opinions.

Consistently, and quite apart from my own skills or lack thereof, I find that one of the hardest things about writing is being Indian. Like black Americans have their little joke about ‘Driving While Black’, Indians, given our peculiar relationship to the English language, might well say, ‘Writing English While Brown.’

No matter what you write – you with your very Indian names, that is – your Indianness will be part of the piece, he insists, in introduction.

The problem is this. How do you write a piece in such a way that when it is read, with your Indian name attached, it leads
to a coherent aesthetic experience for the reader?

The lack of coherence could come, I presume, from the expectations that an Indian name creates about the writing, and what the writing actually is. I don’t think Venkat would disagree with my presumption though. It’s mostly what he’s said all through in the blog.

Anyways, the two ends of the spectrum of responses, according to Venkat, are:

Some combine an incredible naivete with a lack of self-awareness and cheerfully write pastiches of their favorite English authors (say Muthuswamy Chandrasekharan writing a Ludlumish thriller with a hero named Jack Bauer, with no sensitivity to the fact that his name changes the reading of the story). Others are painfully oversensitive and self-conscious to the point that they invest all their creative effort into countering the Writing English While Brown effect, to the point where it ruins the actual intent of the piece.

And then he insists:

Somewhere in between is a happy medium where you can Write English While Brown and be aesthetically successful with respect to your intent (not necessarily commercially). We just haven’t discovered it yet.

Hmmmm. Then he goes on to exhaustively (almost) list the range of responses. I ended up commenting to the blog, which you can read here, if you’re terribly interested (which I assume you aren’t and hence I’m not embedding the comment here).

I forgot all that for a while. Then couple of weeks back, I picked up Vikram Seth’s Equal Music. And right away, I remembered that blog again! Vikram Seth has created all Caucasian characters, living in England, making Western classical music, with totally British problems, if one can call it that. Yes, remind me to put up my (yet unwritten) review, as I would anyways, but that’s not the point. In Venkat’s list this probably No. 9 response: Global Warriorization — something which he doesn’t think Fiction writers (IWEs) have tried (with any success, that is). Did it bother me? Vikram Seth, with clearly Indian name writing about characters who’re do not share a trace of Indian ancestry? Clearly, it did not. If I hadn’t read Venkat’s blog, I’d have not even thought about it. Would it have bothered the Brits? The Americans, for whom Briton is probably as alien as India, the French, the Germans (if select few of the latter two can read English at all)?

Then today, I came across this old little interview of Salman Rushdie from Salon.

When asked if he, “ever worr[ies] that using so many culturally specific references will leave many readers unable to understand what [he is] trying to say?”, Rushdie answers in his characteristic style:

No. I use them as flavoring. I mean, I can read books from America and I don’t always get the slang. American writers always assume that the whole world speaks American, but actually the whole world does not speak American. And American Jewish writers put lots of Yiddish in their books and sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying. I’ve read books by writers like Philip Roth with people getting hit in the kishkes and I think, “What?!”

That’s what I love about Rushdie (and probably that’s exactly what I hate about him, too), his spunk.

It’s fun to read things when you don’t know all the words. Even children love it. One of the things any great children’s writer will tell you is that children like it if in books designed for their age group there is a vocabulary just slightly bigger than theirs. So they come up against weird words, and the weird words excite them. If you describe a small girl in a story as “loquacious,” it works so much better than “talkative.” And then some little girl will read the book and her sister will be shooting her mouth off and she will say to her sister, “Don’t be so loquacious.” It is a whole new weapon in her arsenal.

Too bad Venkat dismisses Rushdie, who dared to write in an English that was anathema to the brown writers (more than it would have been to the whites, even) as escapist: write about anything other than the real world, or about the real world mired in so much of the fantastic that only a literature PhD can figure it out. But then, he’s entitled to his opinion.

I guess Rushdie will just sigh, after all he had taken bull by the horns, long back, in Midnight’s Children. And called the bull a bull.


10 thoughts on “On Brown, White, and Rushdie

  1. asuph says:

    Vi: No, writing style is not tied, per se. But maybe the “choice of writing style” is influenced by these complex factors, consciously/subconsciously. Even a conscious break from umbilical chord is in a way dictated by the umbilical chord.

  2. Vivek Sharma says:

    Rushdie and Vikram Seth do get away by the power of their prose. At least we Indians think that they do.

    Everytime I have read a poem about marriage, Americans have looked for connotations about arranged marriage (when I ask them why… they remark…because of my Indian name)… I have tried every reference possible, including making names, places, references which are completely American… yet when my name comes with the poem, the poem changes flavor for them…

    Perhaps the fault in two things…. the reader who puts who much value into the background of the writer… and sometimes, it is us writers, who by virtue of our inheritance, throw in words and phrases, that keep our writing Brown!

  3. uber says:

    Hmm. I read through the menioned blog and failed to understand what exactly he was pointing at. I must write a counter response or whatever to this. Soon. Time permitting of course.
    Jai Maharashtra!

  4. asuph says:

    vivek: interesting observations those.

    re. fault, i won’t call it fault, either ways. it’s just the realities of globalized world of writing. my point is, we must write, ignoring it all. let the story dictate the voice and so on.

    yoss: well how do you propose to counter something which you aren’t even sure where it points to?

  5. Nanda says:

    Nice counterpoint. The depth of any creative writing depends on the level of internalisation of new themes, new situations and new trends. One cannot write much if he/she depends on his/her childhood stories. Good enough! one can get a Booker, not beyond. Like with everything new internalised, nuances get missed or even mixed up when one recapitulates in one’s writing. But, in my opinion, there should not be any need to apologize. One does not know if such compromise may lead to newness. I cannot give example, but I feel that.

    Thanks for sharing.


  6. Shruti says:

    I think every writer needs to balance out the universality and topicality. If you pretend to dismiss your roots (writing with English pseudo-names etc.) and create English characters, then nobody’s going to publish you, or worse, respect you. Every known writer writes about his country. Rushdie and Seth who have been living abroad write about India.

    On the other hand, if you start writing about your village, giving every tiny detail about its life, then the reader, who is totally ignorant about it, will shut the book and might never pick it up again. The trick is to, as Rushdie says, ‘use them as flavoring’. Got to give them both. The whole world reads Shakespeare because he created universal characters within a topical background.

  7. asuph says:

    nanda: your comment was moved into spam by wordpress, and just yesterday i recovered it. doesn’t “internalisation of new themes” sound self-contradictory? if it’s new, how do you internalize it? very interesting comment tho.

    shruti: you’re advocating centrist approach. but “pretend to dismiss” is different from choose to dismiss. someone like Vikram Seth has done exactly that in Equal Music, but then he is Seth, and it wasn’t his first novel. on the other hand, Pamuk “does” give every tiny detail about the life/culture/geography of his home — ancient and present. and he succeeds. but then he’s translated. and doesn’t write in English. my point is, good writing is beyond all this. these issues are important, but there is world beyond. even if only for geniuses.

  8. Shruti says:

    I think my belief in universal literature has cropped up because I have taken up writing as a career which gives little or no income (most of the time). 🙂 So I need to have plenty of significant reasons to justify my choice.

    One of the most important is that I see literature as crossing boundaries, of cultures, countries, tastes, and to some extent language itself. The purpose behind that is to make your writing immortal. You know how it is with books, they go on and on. Yeah, I think I was talking of this particular genre in my earlier comment. I don’t care to analyze other genres so deeply. It’s a little tough on my little brain. 🙂

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