How to Build a Powerful Community of Brown Female Voices
Piyali Bhattachayra on Good Girls Marry Doctors and creating her tribe
I spent nearly a decade of my life pursuing women. I found them on Facebook and Twitter, through friends of friends and in the acknowledgments pages of novels. I searched for them through literary listservs, sending out impassioned emails like a collector of uncommon objects, until I had acquired a full set of one of the rarest kinds: feminist South Asian American writers.
I was looking for contributors to an anthology I was editing: Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion. The idea for this volume had come to me one night in the fall of 2008 when I found myself at a gathering of Asian American women at a tapas restaurant in England. Graduate students at the University of London, we met once in a while to talk about our place in the world: how we’d spent our lives bouncing back and forth between Asia and the United States, and how being in the UK disturbed that equilibrium in both problematic but also pleasantly surprising ways.
That late October evening the conversation veered, as it so often did, to identity politics. As Asian Americans, we wondered when the discussion of race in our country would move beyond a black and white binary that rendered us invisible. It wasn’t that we saw our position as being equivalent to that of Native or African Americans—we knew and still acknowledge that the racial legacies borne by those groups in the US are made of the heaviest material. Still, we hungered for recognition beyond being grouped into some kind of unknown “other.” We didn’t want to be labeled the “model minority,” which implied that each of us, in order to be legible in our sect of American society, needed to find success as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. And we didn’t quite identify with the umbrella term of “Asian.” Such labels papered over the stark differences within our communities between rich and poor, documented and undocumented, Sri Lankan and Japanese, Hindu and Muslim. They suggested a uniform and largely trouble-free existence that few of us had actually experienced. We wanted to be seen for the diverse group that we were.
But what, in all honesty, would that visibility mean to us?
“What is the point in being visible to the government if we’re not visible to our own families?” a friend asked with a dry laugh.
She had a point. At many of our previous dinners, the discussion of our families had been a focal point. How they viewed us—their difficult reactions to some of our decisions regarding our careers, our choices in our partners, our thoughts on how to parent ourselves—seemed to be a familiar refrain in all of our stories. That night, we got into a conversation about visibility, family, race, obedience and rebellion.
Finally, I said, “We should write a book and call it Good Girls Marry Doctors.”
There were a few giggly moments followed by some eye-rolling.
“Would it be non-fiction?” one of us asked.
“I mean, sure,” I said, clearly not having thought it through.
“No way, then,” she responded. “I can’t write that essay, my mother would kill me. And besides, nobody will publish it.”
True, true, we all nodded, and then we paid the bill and each took the tube home.
On the train, I couldn’t shake what the evening’s discussion had stirred up inside of me. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that all of us would be terrified to write such an essay, was it true that the publishing process would be that difficult? Would it really be so impossible to market a book full of brown women’s voices?
Over the next eight years, I would find out exactly how challenging it would be to create such a manuscript and get it published. I would hear from over thirty agents and editors at both large presses and independent publishers that perhaps this work would be more publishable if it were a solo-authored autobiography (which didn’t make sense, as the point was to include multiple voices from multiple demographics in order to take the pulse of a community that had rarely been examined before), or that maybe asking a celebrity to write one of the essays would make the collection more marketable (never mind the fact that Asian American women are so thoroughly underrepresented in the media that we can count on one hand the number of celebrities we have to look to in such moments).
Almost everyone I contacted agreed that the idea of the anthology “had heart,” but that the stories of this particular minority might be too offbeat, too niche—essentially, too trivial. The lives of Asian American women, and brown South Asians in particular, would simply not be interesting to the general American reader.
I wasn’t ready to accept that. Perhaps the wise thing to do would have been to heed everyone’s advice and give up on the project, but I felt strongly that stories like the ones this anthology was collecting deserved to be called American and be part of an American canon. I had a feeling that if we managed to get them into the hands of readers, we might have a surprising response. So I took all of these impediments as precisely my impetus for continuing to pursue the project. After all, what was the point of trying to become a writer and a chronicler of the South Asian American experience myself if I couldn’t find even a few women who were going to be in that community with me?
This became the problem: I couldn’t find that community. Or, when I did, it kept slipping through my fingers. Almost all the South Asian American women I asked to write for the volume shied away from it. Those who agreed did so with great trepidation. Some asked to use a pen name. Some genuinely wanted to write but, after many phone and email conversations with me, realized that they just couldn’t do it—it was too heart-wrenching to write about family in this way.
I completely understood their hesitations. I myself felt the same way. My relationship with my parents was built on love, trust, and immense respect and gratitude for all the sacrifices that they had made for me by giving up a life in their homeland. I would never want them to be hurt by the book. But I did feel a need to talk to other women of my generation about our experiences being parented in the US by immigrants.
What kept me focused on the project was the idea that the gathering of these stories was also the creation of a clan. Already, I was starting to feel the crystalizing of a virtual community in the many discussions I was having with the writers who I did find, and who were working on essays for the volume. Something was taking shape among this group of women: we were beginning to rely on each other. Even though many of us had never physically met, we were texting each other during particularly complicated moments with our families—our marriages, our children, our divorces, our parents’ health, our trips to South Asia and our multifaceted feelings about “home.” We were sending each other emails about job opportunities and artistic collaborations. We were calling each other to talk through our career plans and we were taking advice from each other, becoming each other’s mentors and cheerleaders. We were feeling stronger simply for knowing the others existed, we were depending on each other as if we had all grown up in the same, large family.
What would happen, we wondered, if we could spread this feeling to others? To women we might never meet and to young people who might not even know that this is the kind of tribe they need? How might we have felt if we had had a book like this when we were most craving the safety of sisterhood?
We were about to find out. I finally pulled together 27 essays, got the manuscript a grant, and found a wonderful publishing house that was willing to take a chance on us. I thought that would be the major accomplishment: seeing the anthology in print, holding the physical copy in my hands. But I couldn’t have predicted the kind of reaction it would elicit.
It started slowly, a few reviews here and there, several shares on social media. Then came the readings. The Facebook invitations to our events in New York and San Francisco started to garner hundreds of responses. In Manhattan, our event at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop sold out overnight. More than 250 people crammed into the room that evening in September. The same was true a few weeks later in San Francisco, where we read to an audience of over 200 people. Crowds came out to support the work in Nashville, TN, in Washington, D.C., in Madison, WI. I had to pinch myself when I saw the numbers. I had to remind myself that these people were responding to an anthology full of brown women’s stories—a book for which I had repeatedly been told there would be no market.
Now, not only were they registering their physical presence as a community in solidarity, they were coming up to us after the readings, weeping. They were telling us about how desperately they had needed this conversation. So many people bought the book that it sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of publication, and only six weeks after the book’s original release, we went into a second printing. I don’t fool myself into thinking that this response can be attributed to our special talents. I believe that this community has simply needed to be seen and heard for a very long time, and we opened that door, provided that space.
Most recently, just a few weeks after the presidential election, we held a reading at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. The event was attended by over 400 people, and the number who expressed interest in it was over 1,000. The energy in the room that night was palpable. The scene was visually arresting. A room full of brown and non-brown bodies, standing in solidarity, ready to protect each other, each wearing the fierceness of their love on their sleeves.
In some ways, I think this community-wide reaction to the book is just as important as the book itself. I wonder if, since the election, this book has become a touchstone for those looking not only to connect to a community of women like us, but also more broadly to a society of immigrants and their descendants in this country.
To understand it best, I think back to our event in San Francisco, where we read at Southern Exposure Gallery against the backdrop of an art installation called “Estamos Contra El Muro—We Are Against the Wall” by the artist Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik in collaboration with several other artists and organizations. The piece was an artistically crafted “wall,” meant to represent The Wall our President Elect would like to build at the border our country shares with Mexico. In Bhaumik’s clever imagining, the wall she built was, in actuality, made of piñatas. A few nights after we read in front of it, Bhaumik invited members of the community to come and tear her wall apart with bats and sticks, and watch a symbol of hate dissolve into a flurry of confetti and candy. I like to think of our anthology as being one of those sticks. I like to think it is quietly but confidently driving a hole into the center of patriarchy and prejudice. If it is, then maybe these book sales and events, these cathartic moments in which several hundred of us exchange our stories, are the healing that we’ve all needed. Maybe our standing together in one room is, in itself, a kind of confetti. A celebration of our tribe, a reassurance that we are here, and we aren’t going anywhere.