About the Author: Neha Chaudhary-Kamdar finished a PhD in Film Studies, and is now running back into the arms of an old love: writing. She enjoys good books, good wine, good (and bad) cinema, the company of cats, and sometimes even the company of interesting people.
And now, onto the post.
A few years ago, while I was a graduate student, I attended a reading and discussion at Northwestern University by a female South Asian writer of Tamil-Sri Lankan origin. She began by reading an excerpt from her newly released collection of short stories. And because I loved what I heard, I listened with rapt attention to everything she had to say after that. Though nebulous at the time, the desire to be a writer had already germinated in my mind, and I hoped I would someday create stories as skilfully as she did. (This was also before I spent more than two years working in literary publishing, learning how the process really works. At the time, therefore, my naïve view of the world had led me to believe all I was required to do was write fantastic fiction, and the agents and publishers would come to me.) So I listened to her, expecting to hear a fairytale about her experience getting her book published, a triumphant narrative that would reinforce my own writerly fantasies.
The story she actually told could not have been further from what I had hoped for. It was a story of the struggle to fit in, in the face of commonly accepted marketing tactics in the American publishing industry. A tale depicting the fight to find a niche. To be allowed a voice as a South Asian woman writer in America.
She began by drawing the audience’s attention to her author photograph, which struck me immediately as an oddly composed image. Wry, slightly awkward, it featured a person who looked and seemed very different from the woman in front of me. At first we couldn’t put our finger on what it was that made us feel this way, so we broke it down – the author in a silky, turquoise salwar kameez, looking into the camera. Behind her, draped as a backdrop, is a gauzy red sari.
“Actually, the publishers wanted me to pose in a red sari for the photograph,” the author told us. Perhaps the same red sari we saw in the picture, or perhaps another. But a red sari that fit comfortably into their notion of what a female writer of South Asian origin should look like. A red sari that played coyly into every exotic stereotype they expected their readers to assume.
As evidenced by the picture, however, this author had refused to be draped in a red sari. So they reached a compromise, the publishers and she: they let her wear a bright colored, silk salwar kameez, and draped the sari in the background.
Then there was the question of the book cover. Again, even though I had the book before me as she read from it, I was so drawn in by her prose that I hadn’t noticed the cover until she drew attention to it. And when she did, the image in front of me – a faceless, blouseless, brown skinned female body with a wet, red sari draped over its breasts – triggered a memory. I had seen this image before. It was on the cover of the annual sex survey issue of a national magazine in India.
The cover of this exquisitely crafted book was a stock photograph.
I lost a lot of my naivety that day. And at this point in my life, as I start publishing short fiction as a South Asian woman writer in the US, and start research for a novel, the questions of how I will be perceived and where I will be slotted take on gargantuan significance for me.
So I did a quick survey. I looked up book covers by South Asian women publishing in the US, and here’s some of what I saw:
Between the perfect curves of faceless brown bodies and the disembodied hands clasped daintily by the collarbone; between the painted lips oh-so-slightly parted in anticipation of being claimed by a man’s, and the jewelry resting on wrists and ankles; between the backgrounds of turmeric damask, peacocks, and the Taj Mahal, and the ubiquitous red sari, there may be enough material here for a semester’s worth of undergraduate work on textual analysis. But the bigger issue is that there seems to be a very clear tendency within American publishing to bracket the work of South Asian women writers as exotic, sensual, and ethnic. The women on the covers – the women selling the book – are not multidimensional individuals with stories and histories, desires and ambition. They are packages. Packages tied together neatly with zardozi and gold jewelry and beautiful saris, ready for immediate and easy consumption.
I can only imagine the disservice this does to the actual craft of the writers of these books. This cultural imagery projects a very specific image of what the book offers. And if you happen to be the kind of reader who loves good stories – not juicy stories about sassy brown women who put too much spice in their food and are not allowed to have sex, but just good, rich, well-developed stories about complex human beings – chances are you’d walk right past one of these books in a store, without stopping to look inside. Against our better judgement, we all judge books by their covers, it’s all we’ve got to go by.
Perhaps this is an issue specific not just to South Asian women writers in the US, but women writers belonging to any ethnic minority. Amy Tan, critical acclaim notwithstanding, has a couple of books – The Valley of Amazement, Rules for Virgins – that feature similarly exotic covers. Unsurprisingly, the one group that this marketing logic seldom applies to is male writers from ethnic minorities. Consider Abraham Verghese, a prominent South Asian male writer in America. His book covers often feature locales or landscapes that stand apart from scenes commonplace in Americana, but never disembodied brown men with the possibly wet and definitely translucent end of a dhoti gliding seductively along their waists.
Men, apparently, are just not that exotic. And that’s why they get to market their books as good stories and skilful writing.
I don’t know if there is a way for South Asian women writers publishing in the US to break out of this mould. It seems to me that the only women who are able to successfully defy the American publishing industry’s urge to package their stories as sexy, sari-clad consumables, are the ones who graduate from brand-name MFA programs (Jhumpa Lahiri is an example that comes to mind immediately). But in terms of numbers, that’s probably less than one percent of all aspiring South Asian women writers.
Do the rest of them – the rest of us – just continue to put out the best possible work, and hope that potential readers (and critics) will look past the cover and recognize the writing for what it is? Do we allow the cynic in us to take over, accept that the publishing industry isn’t a benevolent patron of the arts but a business like any other, and follow the rules of the game, no matter how unbalanced?
These questions are important because South Asian women writers have a lot more to offer than just a package tour of exotic bodies in seductive clothes. They have stories, and histories, and plots dripping with intrigue. They have complex characters that tread deliciously between nasty and noble: men who are fallible and repugnant and lovable, women who are sexy not because a piece of red muslin caresses their caramel skin, but because they are intelligent and bitchy and slightly crazy and not at all afraid.
These questions are important because South Asian women writers have a voice. They have a point of view. And if the veil is lifted, maybe we’d all see it.