Did I Write a Gay Book? An Indian Book? A Diverse Book?
Rumaan Alam on Figuring Out Where to Sit at the Table
When I was 14 years old, my mother gave me a few pages she’d torn out of a copy of the Atlantic that had appeared in her doctor’s waiting room. It was a short story, called “Grace,” by a writer named Robbie Clipper Sethi. “Grace” tells the story of a young white woman falling in love with an Indian man, and how his family encroaches on that love. Not really the sort of thing most 14-year-olds read, but that was not the point. My mother was telling me this: that it was possible for people who looked like us to write the sorts of stories she knew I wanted to write, and about people who looked like us. It was a gift, and it was a portent.
Decades later, after the internet was invented, I looked up the author and learned that her surname came her way via marriage. Knowing that she wasn’t Indian herself didn’t diminish my experience of her work (if someone cites a work as an inspiration a quarter century after encountering it then it’s got to be pretty good). Still I have to admit: my mother would be disappointed.
The desire to be a writer must seem to all parents to be little but delusion, but from the distance of adulthood I can appreciate that mine encouraged it as best they knew how. Much as, from that same distance, I can appreciate the ways in which I’ve disappointed them, and to that list, we can add that when I finally got around to the task of writing the story I wanted to write, it turned out to be decidedly not about people who looked like us. Sorry, mom and dad.
As a first generation immigrant, I probably ought to have written an immigrant novel—something about the tensions specific to the immigrant, the pull and divide between homeland and chosen land, the isolation from what in this country we call extended family but what, across the sea, is simply family. But those struggles are something I know, ironically, from fiction. The grinding of spices, the wearing of saris; this is stuff I know more from reading than from life.
The experience of immigrating here (from Bangladesh, in the early 1970s) had to have been difficult for my parents—we’ve never discussed this, as I think is common in immigrant families—but as their kid, I wasn’t privy to it. My parents came to the United States to become professional, upper middle class people. Mission accomplished! My mother made tuna casserole and terrible recipes involving salad dressing as marinade. She and my father listened to Andrew Lloyd Weber and Julio Iglesias. We went to the country club, rode bikes around the cul de sac, got braces, and were given presents at a Christmas that had nothing to do with Christ. The ideal for immigrants—then perhaps more so than now—was assimilation. My parents pursued that ideal relentlessly.
The fruit of my parents’ rigorous assimilation is a cultural divide that separates them from their own children. My mother gave me that short story, those many years ago, because it represented my hopes for my life (to write!) and at the same time contained the stuff of her life. It was a bridge across that aforementioned divide. She could not know that my life—tuna casserole, a suburban cul de sac, secret gay crushes—would be so different from her own. The immigrant story as I knew it was something that came from books, not from my life, but from that short story by Robbie Clipper Sethi, from novels by Salman Rushdie and Gita Mehta (India as Oz, that magical land!), Sunetra Gupta and Bharati Mukherjee (the genteel diaspora in the United Kingdom, the genteel diaspora in the United States).
At the end of 2007, Jhumpa Lahiri published a story called “Year’s End” in the New Yorker, and my friend David called to ask if I’d read it because it was, he said, basically my life story. I assumed this to be the sort-of racist ribbing a close friend can get away with—oh it’s about an Indian hahahaha. Except: he wasn’t joking. The story focuses on a young college student whose father, recently widowed, remarries a much-younger woman, with two children of her own. He brings this woman and her children to the family’s New England home, the architecture of which is described in detail. It’s a good story, collected in the author’s very good Unaccustomed Earth.
As my friend David pointed out: the tale uncannily echoes my own life. I was in college when my parents’ marriage reached its terminus. My father retreated to Bangladesh (maybe you can go home again!), vanished really, then reappeared some time later with a much-younger wife who had two children of her own. Obviously there are many differences between my story and Lahiri’s fiction (my mother is alive; our family home isn’t in New England; I’m not heterosexual) but these were outweighed by the similarities, particularly all the stuff about the family home. My father is an architect, and I grew up in an idiosyncratic, starkly contemporary home of his design. It felt so much that Lahiri was describing my parents, my house, my life that I wondered for a while if she hadn’t somehow heard about me. We were neighbors at the time; I pictured her lurking beneath my bedroom window, taking notes, Harriet the Spy with a Pulitzer Prize.
I was 30 when I read Lahiri’s story, years into a lifetime of voracious reading, but this was the first time I felt that a work of fiction actually depicted my own life. This moment—of recognizing myself on the page—was intoxicating. Maybe this is a common feeling; maybe this is the reason the white boys I most loved in my adolescence were always going on about Salinger. Maybe in this respect, as in so many others, my development was stifled. I doubt any of my undergraduate writing teachers ever advised me to write what I know—in the end, it’s not great advice—but until I read Lahiri’s story it never occurred to me that the stuff I knew from living, as opposed to the stuff I knew from books, could be the stuff of fiction.
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There was a catch, though (there always is!). In showing me how to write the literature of the first generation immigrant, Lahiri simultaneously showed me there was no point in my attempting it. Because, as many writers who look like me are already aware, there can really be only one. Many have articulated a theory of only one; my favorite such is Hilton Als’s, from a profile of Andre Leon Talley:
Talley’s fascination stems, in part, from his being the only one. In the media or the arts, the only one is usually male, always somewhat “colored,” and almost always gay. His career is based, in varying degrees, on talent, race, nonsexual charisma, and an association with people in power. To all appearances, the only one is a person with power, but is not the power.
Talley exists within the cultural/corporate ecosystems of fashion and publishing, but Als’s formulation applies universally. Take Jhumpa Lahiri. When we’re talking about American writers of literary fiction, she’s the brown one we think of. This is power, but it’s not the power. Seven figure book deals notwithstanding, she’s a cog in the machine, not its architect.
While not all writing aims for universality, all of publishing does. Publishing is a business; businesses aim to make money; creating products with universal appeal facilitates just that. Publishers can’t be blamed for searching out stories they feel possess such appeal. The catch is that we extrapolate universality from a certain kind of writer, and he’s usually named John (or Richard, Philip, whatever). If you’re not a writer named John, writing about people called John, you may get lucky, but you have to remember that there can be only one.
I’m all for the hashtag activism of our time—#weneeddiversebooks to be sure, but what, precisely, is a diverse book, and who is deciding what meets the criteria?
Were I a writer named John, the fact of someone having already told my story would hardly preclude my trying to write what I know. (Worth noting: I’m not qualified, and don’t have space here, to get into what things look like when you’re a writer named Jane.) The themes of American literature—men fucking around with their students or secretaries, men trying to succeed in business without really trying, men being noble or ignoble while at war in distant lands—became themes by virtue of repetition. It’s not universality but ubiquity. There’s always room at the table for another John.
Any writer with skin like mine is aware of the paucity of chairs at that table. Writers like us are meant to shoulder the responsibility of representation, and do it well, and hope one of those chairs opens up. I’m all for the hashtag activism of our time—#weneeddiversebooks to be sure, but what, precisely, is a diverse book, and who is deciding what meets the criteria?
I’m a writer; I am also an Indian writer (Bengali, if it’s political specificity that interests you), an immigrant writer (first-generation, for clarity), a gay writer (of the married-with-kids sort). Our culture needs this taxonomy—it’s useful, albeit oversimplifying, to say this is an Indian book, this is an immigrant book, this is a gay book. By logical extension, the product of an Indian writer should an Indian book; the product of a gay writer should be a gay book. My own mother expected no less of me, back when I was a teenager, possibly still does (she’s not read my book).
Yet my book is called Rich and Pretty, and it’s about the evolving friendship between two New Yorkers in their thirties. The protagonists are both heterosexual, both white, both women; is this book, by virtue of the fact that I wrote it, still an Indian book, is it still a gay book, is it one of those sorely-needed #diversebooks?
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Representation is a burden I’ve chosen to ignore. Maybe it’s because I can’t manage it. It was only a few years ago that I truly realized there might be fiction to be wrung from various aspects of my life, after all—perhaps it’s just a failure of my imagination that I can’t figure how to represent, in fiction, what I represent in reality. Or maybe it’s righteous indignation. When white writers stretch across difference, they get a Times profile; when white writers bestow their own names upon their protagonists, we applaud it as postmodern conceit. Brown writers, by some stupid agreement we seem to have reached, must turn out fiction that engages with someone’s—the reader’s? the editor’s? the publisher’s? the critic’s?—preconceptions about their life. It’s not enough for me to live as a brown person, as a gay person, as a person with two black sons, as a person born of parents from a foreign land. I’ve got to perform that role even in my imagination.
If you’re a brown writer of literary fiction, you’ll probably be measured against the standard set by—fill in the blank. An impossible conundrum. Lahiri, Morrison, any of the only ones you could name (I bet you can name them all!) are damn brilliant writers, setting a standard nearly impossible to meet. The only one is so great at what she does that you’re flattered to simply be mentioned in the same breath. The only one is so great at what she does that it doesn’t even matter to you, not really, that your project/characters/voice/style has nothing in common with hers. But the only one is planted quite firmly in the one seat at the table you could occupy, so even as you love her, you can’t help but hate her.
When you’re trying to sell a novel—first to agents; if you’re lucky, to editors; if you’re very lucky, to readers—you have to perfect a stump speech, and mine has to address the most pressing question that all of my readers to date have come back with: why on earth would a man write a book about women? Unasked, perhaps because it’s a question that betrays its own bias, has been why a brown man would write a book about white women.
It’s not uncommon or unusual for a writer of fiction to stretch across the gender divide, of course. One of my favorite imaginary women was created by Norman Rush; several of my favorite imaginary men were created by Willa Cather. But my readers have had this response because my book, despite being the work of a man, is almost wholly uninterested in men. When one of the editors on my book drew me into the game of fantasy casting a film adaption (Scott Rudin: call me!) we came up with our ideal actresses quickly, but concluded that for the men, it didn’t really matter. There are men in the book—an exhausting political blowhard, a sexual object, an affable but amorphous love interest—but they’re not the point.
My canned answers for interested readers have to do with the women in Edith Wharton and Henry James. I might throw in something about how Mary McCarthy could handle eight characters but I could only manage two. I might say a bit about marriage, and Shakespeare, and what “chick lit” means, and Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret, and Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers.
Here’s what I don’t say: Having never engaged very deeply with the question of who I am and how I am to be categorized might be a personal failing (I’m almost forty!) but with it has come a certain liberty. I did write what I know, after all, I just don’t know myself. Assimilation is erasure, and erasure affords invisibility, and invisibility is most useful for a writer. That, right there, is the way in which my book is an Indian book.
Racism, pernicious but brilliant, left me unable to conceive of a world in which people who look like me are the central focus, surely the one prerequisite for someone who claims to be an Indian writer.
Here’s what I don’t say: I knew I was gay as a boy, and knew it was the wrong thing to be, and sought the company of girls: safer, gentler, kinder, maybe because they sensed my gayness and that was their instinct, maybe because I didn’t want to kiss them and that made friendship easier to achieve. My novel depicts the world on the outskirts of which I’ve dwelt almost my entire life: the world of women, with their extravagant intimacies with one another, their many secrets from those same friends, not to mention their husbands and lovers, their ease/grace/struggle in a world that doesn’t actually value women. I’ve far more experience living vicariously through their romances than I have had romances of my own. I’ve witnessed up close the evolutions in their friendships with one another, the delirium of marriage, the disaster of divorce, and have been granted this access for one reason. That, right there, is the way in which my book is a gay book.
I’m aware of how self-serving this position is. Racism, pernicious but brilliant, left me unable to conceive of a world in which people who look like me are the central focus, surely the one prerequisite for someone who claims to be an Indian writer. You’d be within your rights to call bullshit on my claim to be a gay writer; even Capote couldn’t pull off Answered Prayers, and he was a genius. These notions of what a gay writer is, what an Indian writer is—they’re received ideas, but ones I hold close. I feel nearer a failure than a renegade.
A full decade before the publication of “Year’s End,” the New Yorker published a fiction issue focused on Indian writers. The cover depicts two white people clearing the brush before a statue of Ganesh cradling a book (no, really). I was 19, living in Boston because I was in love with a dumb boy who lived there, working at a bookshop because I’m a nerd. I fantasized about Bill Buford finding me in that Cambridge bookshop and making me what I most wanted to be, the only thing I could be—an Indian writer—as fervently as I fantasized about kissing that dumb boy. It must be exhilarating to be a writer named John, to be truly free from any burden of representation, to know that if you call your work art then it is, simply because you’ve said so. But I’ll never be that writer. I still have that 15-year-old issue of the New Yorker. Hell, I still have those pages of Robbie Clipper Sethi’s story, torn from that issue of the Atlantic in 1991. I keep them hidden in my office closet, as if they were pornography, which in a way they are: vaguely shameful, devices of pure fantasy, lives I’ll never lead.
I’ve got a little talent, if you’ll forgive my saying so; I’ve got nonsexual charisma to spare; I’ve got an association with people in power (the editor who bought my book, the agent who sold it); I’ve got my brown skin. I’ve got all the ingredients in Als’s grim formula. I have what it takes to be the only one. It’s not necessarily a status worth coveting, but it’s the best I can hope for, and like every brown writer who’s being honest with him or herself, I want to be the only one. I’m ready. Where should I sit?