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The "Ethnic" Book

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So I've been on the road a lot, reading from and talking about my novel, A Disobedient Girl. I'm grateful that there is a road, that it leads somewhere, that now and again it stops and that when it does, people come out to bookstores and buy books and talk to me. The novel, which is set in Sri Lanka, and covers the span of thirty years from the late sixties to the early part of this century, and which tells the stories of two women, a very young girl who works as a servant, and a mother of three leaving her abusive husband, usually generates a lively discussion dealing with class, gender, caste and the ways in which women, in particular, navigate those issues. I like that people all over the country think that listening to writers read from their work is as important as buying their books, and that they usually come armed with a multitude of honest-to-goodness, intelligent questions that I consider it a privilege to answer, particularly with regard to the way in which those questions allow me to bring the two worlds I inhabit, here, in body, in the United States and there, in spirit, in Sri Lanka, together. Talking about writing and books is a close third to writing and reading them and for a debut novelist such as I am, it can be quite a heady experience. But the finishing of a book should be the beginning of a conversation rather than its end, and with that in mind, I'd like to share the three most FAQ on the book tour:

  1. Since you are a journalist and activist, why haven't you added more about the political upheaval in your country in the book?
  2. Why haven't you included more historical information in the book so we understand the context?
  3. What do you want American readers to get from your book?

Which got me thinking about the way in which international fiction is approached by far too many readers and reviewers. Why is it that when a book is written by a South Asian author and is set in a South Asian country, the reading public expects a dysfunctional stew of communal warfare, misogyny, and abject poverty? Why is it that even when the book is not a last-word on an entire culture but, like any "American" fiction, a story about a particular family, set of circumstances and time period, it is taken to be a definitive statement on the entire culture? I get an email a day from someone who loves my book, which I appreciate - keep them coming! - but whose missive ends too often with some variation of "Thank you for highlighting the sad status of women in Sri Lanka. I'm so glad I live in the United States where I take so much for granted." No, no, no. This is not a book about The Status of Women in Sri Lanka. This is a book -- as Julia Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies was a book, and Toni Morrison's Sula was a book, and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible was a book -- about a particular cast of characters, their psychological hinges, their rectitude and debasements. It is about how they moved - as the Mirabel sisters moved, and Sula and Nel moved, and Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth Price moved - through a set of circumstances that belonged to them, and to them alone, within a larger story that also moves with them, and which must include these kinds of conversations.

And is it really a must that a reader be given every last detail about a historical milieu? I don't remember getting all that from say, Harper Lee or Ernest Hemingway or even James Joyce. In fact, I personally feel that their fiction would have been ruined if it had been propped up on a conveyor belt called Historical Detail. I read these stories sitting in my cement floored, brick and mortar home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and simply absorbed the detail of the stories themselves; stories to which my imagination was impatient to add further information. In that space, where the racial realities of Maycomb, Alabama including its White ruling class and its history of lynching, were literally impossible to fathom, I understood Scout's eventual empathy for Boo and the requirement to hold on to faith in human goodness in the middle of unspeakable horror. The Argentina of Eveline's dreams remained unreal to me, along with her Dublin; but her longing for escape from the dull routine of the familiar and, therefore, ordinary, found an answering beat in my Sri Lankan heart. In a 90 degree tropical island, I read about and imagined "snow" into my life. In my predominantly Buddhist country, I waited for Santa, Christmas after Christmas, only because some book had communicated his reality so well that I was assured - even in the face of annual defeat - that he would come. Thank god nobody filled in the blanks for me; imagine not having that memory of longing to look back on?

And so, to that third question: what readers will get. I am yet to hear that as an interview question from an American author whose complexion and accent is not touched by the things that apparently make it a completely justifiable question to be put to an author of South Asian (or any other part of the non European, non Western world), descent. Can you picture it? "So, Mr. Franzen, what do you hope American (or international), readers will get from your book, The Corrections?" or, "And, Mr. Chabon, what do you think American (or international) readers took away from your novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh?" Did these novels define every American family? Every institution of higher learning in the United States? Every American library? Every American cruise? Did anybody expect them to?
Our novels do not define our entire nations either. They describe small frailties and agitations being worked out between human beings, and they are usually the same ones that take place between human beings anywhere no matter what is going on in the larger - political - world. Fiction, particularly international fiction, does not play the role of making clear that there are enormous cultural differences and social abnormalities and wars between us, but should, rather, beg the question: why must we fight?

And lastly, No, that is not me on the book cover.

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