#DesiLitBiz: Community Question on writing beyond the usual South Asian themes

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This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


“I’m an aspiring fiction writer who grew up in India and now lives in the US. From what I see of the South Asian novels that get published or win awards in the US, they either present South Asia as some exotic or poverty-stricken part of the world. But there’s more to our stories than arranged marriages or slums or immigrant alienation. Are US publishers really only interested in the proverbial single story from us? Will this ever change? I don’t want to have to write like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahiri to get my book published.”

~Desi Books Community Member (name withheld)

This week’s question is from a Desi Books community member about writing beyond the usual South Asian themes. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks

Jenny Bhatt: You know, this question or comment about the usual themes and tropes comes up so often within desi writing and reading circles. We’ve even got a hashtag for it: #mangodiscourse. And I’ve also mentioned in interviews and on social media about how we need to be allowed to go beyond the arranged marriage plot, slum saga, terrorism drama, and immigrant narrative. That said, it’s a complex issue with no quick, easy answers. Let’s unpack this a bit. I’m going to answer your publisher question but then I want to go deeper into three root causes and what we can do about them. And I’m going to end with an invocation to the late, great Bharati Mukherjee. Stay with me, please.

First, it’s not a simple matter of US publishers getting stuck on these themes, tropes, and stereotypes due to confirmation bias alone. Publishers are for-profit businesses and they will naturally lean more toward what has worked well and sold well before. They have to pay salaries and bills too. So, yes, that means that books by writers of South Asian origin that don’t conform to these expectations will have a harder time finding publishing homes.

But real change can only take place if it’s across the entire publishing ecosystem with readers, critics, reviewers, media venues, established writers, and publishing professionals. For example:

  • Readers could demand different kinds of desi books. Do you know how often I come across readers of South Asian origin who mention the same few desi books as their favorites? Or, worse, who say they don’t read desi fiction at all?
  • Critics, reviewers, and media venues could spotlight different desi books. Because, despite everything, there are different kinds of desi books getting published out there. Just look at all the writers featured on Desi Books alone. They’re not getting the amplification needed. Or we get what Maxine Hong Kingston has famously called “cultural misreadings” (yes, sometimes, even from critics of South Asian origin.) Which is why we will always need more thoughtful desi reviewers and more media venues to highlight our works.
  • Established desi writers could publicly champion different kinds of desi books too. Yes, literary citizenship is harder when our a good portion of our bandwidth goes into jostling for the few seats available to us at the big publishing table. But then we have to create our own tables, right?
  • And, finally, we could definitely use more desi publishing professionals across the industry to bust open those gates for the rest of us now and then too. People who go beyond virtue-signaling on social media and truly walk their talk.

This kind of sea change takes time and effort. We all have to do our bit if we want to see diverse desi stories out there. Let me ask you: which desi books did you uplift and amplify today?

Wait. Sadly, I’m not done. I see three even more complex challenges. And, because of these, I don’t simply dismiss desi writers who aren’t able to break free from certain expectations, biases, and traditions. There’s this evergreen trend where certain desi readers and writers enjoy quickly dissing other desi writers, describing their works set in South Asia as colonial hangovers, mythologized pasts, or misplaced nostalgia. It’s not so simple.

There’s this evergreen trend where certain desi readers and writers enjoy quickly dissing other desi writers, describing their works set in South Asia as colonial hangovers, mythologized pasts, or misplaced nostalgia. It’s not so simple. #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

The first challenge is that our specific diasporic literary traditions are still evolving. If you’ve grown up reading a particular set of desi writers and seen them constantly lauded as the gold standard, it’s understandable that you might be drawn to write like them or even be expected to write like them. It takes a certain amount of courage, patience, confidence, and skill to break away and create other literary traditions and narratives. And, for a literary tradition to get accepted and established, it has to be proliferated more widely first. One small way we can do this is by changing how we talk about our books. For example, rather than describing a desi book as the next [insert the name of a famous white writer], let’s place our books within our particular literary traditions (Anglophone and regional language ones; local and diasporic ones; contemporary and classic) and explore the related sociocultural, historical, and political interpretations in an accessible manner.

…rather than describing a desi book as the next [insert the name of famous white writer], let’s place our books within our particular literary traditions (Anglophone and regional language ones; local and diasporic ones; contemporary and classic)… #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

The second challenge is that the literary world operates on a grid of networks and communities. Often, emerging desi writers don’t have access to this grid unless they’ve been through the MFA system and availed of fellowships, residencies, literary awards, etc. And, in desi culture, this is not so common yet. So it takes a lot of faith in oneself and a good amount of hustle to get the word out there about a book that doesn’t conform to expectations, or confirm biases, or have the support of powerful literary communities behind it. One thing we all could do better here: community-building. Each one of us can do something at some level to build and support our communities. That word, “community”, gets a bad rap these days and we’ll dive deeper into this problem someday soon too.

Often, emerging desi writers don’t have access to this grid [of literary networks and communities] unless they’ve been through the MFA system and availed of fellowships, residencies, etc. And, in desi culture, this is not so common yet. #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

The third challenge is: who gets to decide what’s authentic, what’s a colonial hangover, what’s nostalgia? Writing is a very personal thing. Even if I wanted to write like the pre-Italian Jhumpa Lahiri because those books sold like hot samosas, I couldn’t. This is not to say desi books with tiresome themes and tropes don’t exist. But there are underlying root causes (see all of the above) that need to be understood and addressed.

…who gets to decide what’s authentic, what’s a colonial hangover, what’s nostalgia? Writing is a very personal thing. Even if I wanted to write like the pre-Italian Jhumpa Lahiri because those books sold like hot samosas, I couldn’t. #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

Personal story: For over a decade, as I took writing workshops and courses, I tried to write in the accepted or expected ways. These were either western literary traditions or weak emulations of the desi writers I looked up to. And the person most unhappy with this kind of writing was me. I didn’t like it enough to even submit it for publication anywhere. It was only when I went back to my roots (for me, that meant moving back to live in India from 2014-2020 but it doesn’t have to be that drastic) and began rereading the Gujarati literature that I’d grown up with that something shifted for me. The gears finally clicked into place. I can’t write exactly in those Gujarati storytelling traditions because they don’t fit my world today. But I believe that I’ve found a way to take all that I’ve learned formally in western writing workshops and marry that with my Gujarati literary aesthetics to create a sort of personal tradition of my own. Did this bring me overnight success? Heck, no. Did this turn me into an amazing writer? Not yet. Did this allow me to create works I’m personally happy with sending out there? Yes, a thousand times over. I don’t have access to that support grid I mentioned earlier, though, which means it’s a lot about personal faith and hustle. (But I’m also working in my own way to build a community for desi writers right here.)

I started my answer to your question saying this is a complex issue. I haven’t even unpacked half of it here and will need to write an entire essay someday. I want to leave you with two things to mull over and revisit from time to time, though.

First, I’m requesting you to please check in with yourself frequently to ask the question I’d posed earlier: which desi books did you uplift and amplify today? You may think you don’t have much of a platform but, listen, every bit counts. And a rising tide lifts all boats. Help raise the tide in whichever way you can because you may need it someday yourself.

Which desi books did you uplift and amplify today? You may think you don’t have much of a platform but, listen, every bit counts. And a rising tide lifts all boats. Help raise the tide […] because you may need it someday yourself. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks

Second, read this excerpt from Bharati Mukherjee’s August 1988 essay on immigrant writing in the New York Times Book Review. All diasporic desi writers need to revisit her wise words from time to time.

I would rather we all cashed in on the other legacy of the colonial writer, and that is his or her duality. From childhood, we learned how to be two things simultaneously; to be the dispossessed as well as the dispossessor. In textbooks, we read of “our” great empire and triumphs (meaning British); “our” great achievements in the arts (meaning the Muslim Mughals); and “our” treachery in the Sepoy Mutiny (meaning “native” troops.) History forced us to see ourselves as both the “we” and the “other”, and our language reflected our simultaneity. [. . .] Perhaps it’s this history-mandated training in seeing myself as “the other” that now heaps on me the fluid identities denied to most of my contemporary American counterparts. That training in our ethnic- and gender-fractured world of contemporary American fiction, allows me without difficulty to “enter” lives, fictionally, that are manifestly not my own. Chameleon-skinned, I discover my material over and across my country, and up and down the social ladder.

When I visit writing classes around the country and see younger versions of myself—Asia-born and United States-raised writers now in their 20s who probably couldn’t wear a sari or other native dress even if begged to do so—I feel immediately envious of the experiences they’ve lived through and the stories they could tell. It’s with a sinking sensation that I read their stories, too often hokey concoctions composed of family memory and brief visits to ancestral villages. Here they are, masters of America in ways that I can never be, turning their backs on some of the richest material ever conferred on a writer, for the fugitive attraction of something dead and “charming”. Third-world material will never be harshly received, that’s true. Your wit and poise and delicate beauty will always be warmly applauded. Editors and classmates will indulge you, and faintly condescend. And your material is dead.

Let it die, I want to shout. We’re all here, and now, and whatever we were raised with is in us already. It’s in our eyes and ears and in some special categories in our brains. That’s enough. Turn your attention to this scene, which has never been in greater need of new perspectives. See your models in this tradition, in the minority voices, the immigrant voices, the second-generation Jews and Italians and Irish and French-Canadians. We are in their tradition. We may look a little different and carry different-sounding names but we mustn’t be seduced by what others term exotic. Don’t choose to be an exile out of fear or out of distaste.

When Mukherjee says “see your models in this tradition,” I don’t think she means we have to write like other minority communities but that we don’t have to keep writing the same old stories about arranged marriages, slums, immigrant alienation, etc. in the same old ways. And, even if we choose to write on these themes, there are fresher, newer ways to approach them.

I hope the above has been helpful. I wish you all the very best in the journey ahead and hope we’ll be able to feature your writing right here on Desi Books someday soon.

This week’s question is from a Desi Books community member about writing beyond the usual South Asian themes. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks


This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.™
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