Writing The Non-Western Past: The Challenge Of Moving Beyond The Clichéd And The Exotic

10/20/2014 08:31 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

At the Kriti Festival of South Asian Arts & Literature recently, the same question kept rearing its irritating head: do we (in this case, writers of South Asian heritage) have a responsibility toward the culture we represent in our books and stories? Oy gevalt. (That's my other heritage speaking.) The assumption most participants seemed to have was that yes, we do. The question they really seemed to be asking, with discernible concern in their voices, was how they should embrace this responsibility.

In a recent piece in the LA Review of Books, author Jabeen Akhtar presents a polemic against what she sees as the tendency of South Asian writers to pander to Western audiences. She makes a lot of valid points; I recommend the piece. Toward the end, she writes: "Writers should rid themselves of the burden of presenting their culture to the world." This I agree with, to a large extent. It can be crippling, this self-imposed burden. It can definitely induce paralysis and self-doubt. And it's unfair. Do writers of fiction set in the United States worry about how they are portraying America to the world? I'm inclined to say they don't. We can't allow ourselves to get bogged down, overcompensating for what has become a cliché, for example, by desperately avoiding having a character eat a mango when in fact that character is in Lahore in July when eating a mango is very much what she would be doing at that moment. We need to be true to our characters, our story, and not worry about pandering to the desire for (and sellable nature of) the "exotic" as we write. (And can we please just get rid of the word "exotic" altogether?)

However, it is inescapable that by putting our stories out there, for the world to read, we are contributing to a body of work, to what goes into people's minds. While we do not have any need to condone, excuse, or even overtly explain, I believe we need to be conscious of what we are presenting, the light in which we are representing some aspect of the culture, and to do so with intent and integrity. We must expect that people will comment, and in order to avoid going mad (or getting mad), it's not a bad idea to be prepared to speak to it. Not to be all touchy-feely, but there is too much misunderstanding in the world. As writers, we need to be ready for questions, even if we do not have the answers. It should come as no surprise that people--Western and South Asian and other--witll confer upon us some role as representatives of our culture(s).

Where things get even more complicated is in historical fiction. Many of the South Asian (especially diaspora) literary tropes against which Akhtar and others, myself included, rail--child marriage, killing of baby girls, arranged marriage, burning of widows, and general subservience of women--have their roots in the past. They have become as clichéd as plump mangoes, hennaed hands and monsoon rains, and of course South Asia is much more than this, but they become harder and harder to avoid the further back one sets one's stories. These "dirty laundry" topics beyond which more contemporaries stories could easily move are mostly vestiges of less "enlightened" times when little consideration was given to the idea of equal rights, or when superstition and ignorance were yet to be displaced by science and education.

This issue is not, of course, limited to South Asia. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See gives us a very graphic description of a little girl having her feet bound in the countryside of 19th century China. She spares no detail--breaking bones, putrefying flesh and worse. One could say that in presenting this scene, she is pandering to Western voyeuristic tendencies, its fascination with what it sees as another culture's failings. Was that scene completely necessary? I'll confess that while I was sickened, I found it luridly compelling. I'd been curious, honestly, as to how exactly that process worked. And while now I kind of wish I hadn't read the details, I don't think the scene was gratuitous at all. The fact was that her character would, in fact, have undergone this suffering. Lisa See couldn't have told her story without it.

In stories set in past centuries, these types of scenes are going to occur. There's no getting around it. Authors may come under fire for doing a disservice to their culture, or under praise for helping elucidate it. But that's beside the point. In writing Faint Promise of Rain, I did not give a moment's thought to how I was representing India. That was irrelevant. I had a specific story to tell, and it took place in a particular place and time. I wrote what I knew, what I felt, what I researched, and what I wanted. The story is set in 16th century Rajasthan, and features devadasis, or dancing "servants of god," girls and women married to a temple's deity and essentially prostituted to wealthy patrons. People ask me, in light of the recurring rapes that fill the news from India these days, what I think about the status and treatment of women in India, and whether my book relates to this. I don't really want to go there--it's too messy, too heartbreaking, too complicated--but I can't deny that the state of violence against women today has roots in something very ancient. I need to develop some answers that don't entirely avoid the question, but rather acknowledge it, and then bring the discussion back to the story at hand. Because that's what we are doing, telling stories, not being cultural ambassadors.

Anjali Mitter Duva is the author of Faint Promise of Rain: A Novel.