On the First South Asian YA Novel: Born Confused 15 Years Later
Tanuja Desai Hidier in Conversation with Mitra Kalita
Fifteen years ago, when I was 26 years old, a YA novel helped me see my life anew. That’s why we read, of course. But this was different; Born Confused was not a book that spoke to my soul as much as told from my soul. That feeling of recognition and insider status (at last!) that popped off virtually every page stays with me to this day—and is one I strive for in my own work as an author and journalist.
Tanuja Desai Hidier’s book about a New Jersey teenager named Dimple Lala grappling with her identity is intimate in its telling and yet so universal in its lessons. Considered to be the first South Asian American YA novel, Born Confused has been and continues to be an important literature of verisimilitude for readers of all backgrounds (in addition to being a touchstone document for Indian Americans of a certain age, who encountered it as teens). When I saw Tanuja recently in London (yes, at a pub; we went to four that night), she mentioned the book will have been out 15 years this fall.
We talked about these years, this journey, how far we’ve come, how far we haven’t come—and let you eavesdrop on the whole thing.
Mitra Kalita: Hello, T—there?
Tanuja Desai Hidier: Here!
MK: Here, there, nowhere. Just like the immigrant.
TDH: And yet—everywhere!
MK: So let’s dive right in. What’s Dimple Lala doing for her 15th birthday?
TDH: Hmm. That’s 32-year-old Dimple in real time . . . who’s likely in an airport somewhere getting pulled over for a “random” bag check—and stressing about how they’re handling her camera. Could be a film camera now; since writing the sequel Bombay Blues, I’ve imagined she might move from photography to documentaries. Once through security, she’ll order a fresh lime margarita. Extra salt.
Time gets funky though when you mix on the page with off. In Bombay Blues, Dimple’s 19; that book was released 2014. So she could also be 22 now. Possibly still in that airport. But ordering a beer, no glass now (and no fake ID required!).
MK: So much has happened in the fifteen years since Born Confused came out—and the fourteen since Suburban Sahibs. I wonder what our books would be if we wrote them today. Do you?
TDH: Well, in a sense I’ve written a modern-day version of Born Confused in this same 2014 sequel. In Bombay Blues, Dimple travels to India, to experience being “brown among the brown” and feels “beige” at best. Part of what I wanted to explore in this book is this phenomenon of the reverse diaspora: people of Indian origin gone West now turning around and heading back East. But Dimple finds the motherland’s not where she left it, and begins to wonder: What if the real India . . . wasn’t even in India? But rather, amongst the diasporic denizens of other places? . . . What if it was about time, not place?
MK: Sounds familiar. In 2003, my husband, toddler and I moved to Delhi. People would say, “You’re going back?” And I’d be so puzzled: How could we go back to somewhere we never were?
If I hadn’t written my first book, where three distinct waves of immigrants are so shaped by the India they leave behind, I don’t think I’d have undertaken the reverse migration you wrote about. I was partly trying to understand what life could have been like if my father never left. And yet my entire life is defined by his leaving. My entire perception of India and America is defined by this.
TDH: Yes! Like we’re in this constant state of departure. Or, arrival . . . It’s interesting how India itself in some ways seems to move on with the times, yet those who forsook it (which it always feels like, on some level) try to freeze-frame it like they left it—forming Indian community groups, South Asian Student Associations. Stocking cupboards with mango pulp (and feeling sheepish about the Starbucks “chai”). As if to conjure it, lock it into suburban kitchens.
As far as Born Confused itself: I think I could only have written it exactly when I did. In 2000/2001, drawing from my Western Massachusetts childhood into the alchemical diasporic moment of late ‘90s NYC.
My parents were the first on both sides to immigrate. It was the 60s, and there was no technology to stay in touch with the motherland—a cultural and personal isolation hard to imagine today.
My mother often made two dinners: spaghetti and meatballs for my brother and me, khichdi kadhi for my father to eat with his hands when he got home from the hospital. Despite my assimilatory food cravings, I nevertheless wanted to, um, educate the neighborhood. When I was fourish, I’d tie a pink scarf around my waist—a little longer than a loincloth—and clad in nada else, go round knocking on doors explaining, “This is how they dress in India”. Well, that’s how it was done then: Door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen, cookie-hawking Girl Scouts . . . and the lone neighborhood earnest diasporic kid nudist.
In a way this sums up Dimple Lala’s quandary, feeling not quite Indian, not quite American. The desire to inhabit both spaces. Spaghetti Eastern.
MK: I had a similar upbringing in an all-white suburb in Long Island (“There’s plenty of diversity,” the neighbors said, “Italians, Jews, your brother and you!”), but then we moved to Puerto Rico. It was this movement to a third culture that forced us to define ourselves a little sharper in some ways, more fluidly in others. Our Assamese got better since Spanish was the main language outside the home. And Puerto Ricans, like Indians, love family functions and have a drop-in culture.
It wasn’t until we moved back to the mainland, ending up in a blue-ribbon Jersey school district, that I became exposed to a broader Indian diaspora. What a culture shock! It took the state of New Jersey for me to understand what being Indian in America was really all about.
TDH: I first realized I was of the diaspora, and not Indian Indian when I got to university—and heard the term ABCD [American Born Confused Desi] directed at me, by friends from Pakistan and India. (This was the first time in my life I had a South Asian crowd, though they were quite different from the diasporic variety, I discovered). My reaction was . . . excitement that there was a term for Us at all. But also, newly equipped with a fledgling sense of a diasporic We, I thought, shouldn’t we be naming ourselves?
Then I got to NYC. Well, I got there in 1990, but in the late 90s a new New York was brewing: an incredible moment as the subculture gained critical mass, momentum: Suddenly . . . there was South Asian everything! University departments. Film fests. Student, Journalist, Lesbian & Gay associations. The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (20 this year). And DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra (also 20).
I was at the first Basement. And the last, this August. When I walked into my first—the first—Basement Bhangra at SOB’s, Varick Street, in 1997 (in combat boots, jeans, and free tee from the giveaway desk at YM Magazine where I copyedited by day): It was as if I’d found the music I’d been waiting to hear my whole life. The music felt like home.
I’d often felt too Indian in America, too American in India—or never Indian, American enough. This room had room for both: Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott grooving so easily beside Malkit Singh—as if they’d never been apart! It was like dancing with my ancestors and coconspiring generation on an endless summer night . . . where you could feel this subculture shaping, taking form, turning culture in our very own hands. Our bhangra-shrugging shoulders.
HotPot, the nightclub in Born Confused, was inspired by this party.
“But also, newly equipped with a fledgling sense of a diasporic We, I thought, shouldn’t we be naming ourselves?”
MK: Confession: I didn’t grow up with Bollywood or bhangra. Although I eventually joined those parties you describe.
I also came to that last Basement in Central Park, and I actually have a story about it. My younger brother wed a Brazilian woman this summer, the first in our family to marry a non-Indian. They held a Christian ceremony in the park that day: A tiny wedding, very emotional, just family in Sheep’s Meadow, and when it ended, we had a little time before dinner. So my family and I wandered into DJ Rekha’s thing. We ran into neighbors from Jackson Heights, old college dormmates and artist friends of my husband’s and all these people from all those years of waiting in lines to get into clubs or book readings or concerts to find our Indianness. I was looking around at all these people dancing to the mix of music you describe—hip-hop and bhangra—and some people were so desi in their dance styles and others were doing jazz hands or whatever. I thought, for my kids and my brother’s eventual kids, this is what it means to be Indian in America. And that’s okay.
TDH: I felt hopeful for our collective future, too, watching, being part of, this diverse, determined human dance engine.
MK: I’m glad we’re reflecting on the present and the possibility. So much of celebrating Indianness often feels rooted in nostalgia or glorifying a past that doesn’t warrant it. Is this the music Dimple’s listening to in Born Confused? Whenever I hear the Itchy Itchy song [as Dimple calls it] I think of her . . .
TDH: Non-desi hits too, sometimes undercover (and in the sequel Dimple’s all about Patti Smith). However, I intentionally included South Asian acts by name (more in Bombay Blues, as they’re known and heard by Dimple then): State of Bengal, Asian Dub Foundation. Recent acts too.
Because part of what I wanted to do in both books is create a world where our world’s the de facto, to de-Other us. This was down to the style of the text: I didn’t italicize words of South Asian origin (chappal, chai) unless they were unfamiliar to Dimple. (My editor sent a note to the copyeditor to “stet” all her itals back to roman to this effect; yes, I once a copyeditor was . . . )
MK: I did the same in Suburban Sahibs, and I try to approach journalism in a similar way. It’s ironic Dimple stays off social media because in many ways, social has forced the conversation to a grassroots level; it can no longer be parenthetical or explained away. Or so I hope.
TDH: When I wrote Born Confused, no one was on social media. But the dancing itself was grassroots, political. Those songs went down easy, but it was a hard-won harmony: So many of the makers of (and listeners, dancers to) this music, in the US, UK, had grown up as The Other . . . some getting beaten up daily for the color of their skin, others, in milder situations, just running up against ignorance about who they/we were.
So many experiences I’d had—that I’d forgotten for decades—surfaced during the process of writing Born Confused: a neighborhood moms meeting where the coven of Mrs. M, Mrs. K, and one other accused me, in front of my mother, of casting a spell and making one of their cats disappear because they’d seen me talking to myself while I played on a dirt hill in our half-constructed neighborhood, and later noticed the feline was gone (How must this have felt for my mother? Was this Salem, Mass.?). Or being called the color of “dog poo” as a kid—but having ‘the best tan ever’ by high school. And I was a lucky one—no physical violence.
So, at Basement: We weren’t just partying. We were introducing ourselves to the countries we were living in—and on our terms. Even introducing ourselves to ourselves. This music wasn’t only heartpopping, danceable, but an evolving statement about the battles lived. The boogie earned.
At last, we were with the band. We were the band!
MK: So sound was a port of entry to the story for you?
TDH: The primordial heartbeat of the dance floor. It’s true of Bombay Blues, too: chaklees out the window, kids playing cricket, Horn OK please, rickshaw sputters, temple bells. Also, the languages of that city: my lack of fluency, and the very different melody of India’s English(es), often turned voices to a poignant white noise while I was there researching the book and accompanying album, Bombay Spleen. Brown noise.
MK: I’ve been thinking a lot about silence. The silence of the suburbs. And how hard it is to raise one’s voice amid silence.
Disrupting the silence, like dancing, is political. Researching Suburban Sahibs, I’d ask newcomers for their impressions of suburbia, and it was often the quiet. Which, if you’ve just left the India you describe, makes sense. Rather than speak up, it’s easier to blend into the silence. I think about that now as the suburbs form the backdrop of hate crimes after the election. The Indian man killed in Olathe, Kansas, for example. It’s hard to separate race from the suburbs—they grew out of “white flight” from cities. My book gets into how immigration was redefining the suburbs at the turn of the 21st century. Then came 9/11. And the worst recession in a generation. If I wrote it now, I think I’d push harder on that answer.
Underneath the quiet, do you feel welcome? Do you feel your neighbors bristle at your very presence?
TDH: This summer, back in my hometown, I was struck—for the first time in my life, so consciously—by its whiteness. And yes, silence (except the lawnmowers; a track about this city-suburb clash is on When We Were Twins, my Born Confused album). And the noise of my brownness.
I was nervous about flying to the US for the first time ever. In April my parents—both 80, in wheelchairs— were questioned at Logan while returning to Boston from London about what they’d been doing in Bombay, Johannesburg (er . . . being born?). My mother said she felt like telling the 30-something guy at the desk she and my father had been American longer than him—41 years!—but just wanted to get home. It was smoother when we flew over (my French husband is only honorary brown, my kids mixed).
Also knowing, from Facebook, that some of the kids I grew up with voted rather differently from me (did my family’s presence in their lives teach them nothing? Were our ‘tans’ not so great after all?), this summer in the suburbs I found myself wondering: Now that the government’s given license to human-rights defying behavior . . . oh, lawnmowing men, dear power-walker, dogwalker: Which of you feels empowered by that? And which of you would use this license?
Silence (on both sides).
MK: If I had to write my book now, I’d wonder about its tone. I felt celebratory about diversity and all its possibility in 2003. Now, I feel perhaps it was naive to think integration was possible in the suburbs when their very creation was rooted in racial unrest.
I look at the hate crimes in recent months—besides Olathe, that suspicious death outside a mosque in Northern Virginia and then another on a commuter train outside Portland—and wonder how I’d capture suburbia now.
It feels like immigrants didn’t realize their achievement of the American Dream might have been perceived by others as a loss of their own. I’d be forced to dive more into that. And you also have to hold our own community accountable. I’d need to press harder on how we’re giving back, becoming a part of civic life and institutions, etc.
“Now, I feel perhaps it was naive to think integration was possible in the suburbs when their very creation was rooted in racial unrest.”
TDH: I’d like to read that book, M. An important “sequel” . . . and you might still find some hope and beauty along the way.
Since last year, I’ve found myself craving the mindset I was in during the making of Born Confused. Writing this book was pure joy for me. The joy of honoring our families, communities. Of . . . finally writing that book! And personal life joy too: my husband and I had just started married life in a new city, London. There was a real innocence—in the story, Dimple, me: We hadn’t lost anyone yet. The world felt very clear. Full of promise.
And it still is. But since the current state of things—or the current “authorized” state —part of me wants to write another chapter to Dimple’s story and just hand her the rom-com happy ending. Just give her the damn wedding and great photography gig.
MK: Yes. It’s funny how YA endings differ from adult ones . . . In books and IRL.
TDH: Sometimes they do. But I think we can write things into being, too. Show the world not only as it is but how it could be. And show yourself how you can be, too. Fix some broken bits; even if that healing extends only to you, it’s never only to you if you then extend yourself.
You mentioned 9/11. I was on a flight that day, diverted to Halifax. I was heading to Boston, then NYC to meet with my editor. I’d planned to work on one of the final chapters of Born Confused en route (and was stoked to have a row to myself; parked in the window, spread out my “office”). I was contemplating where to end this scene near water in NYC. And in my handwritten first-draft notebook, I’d jotted World Trade? in the margin.
This was the page my notebook was open to on the pull-down tray when 9/11 . . . became 9/11.
I was blocked on my writing a long while after, told my editor I couldn’t figure out how to write about the city without making it all about this. He said Take your time, we’re all grieving. But I just didn’t know how to do . . . anything.
Until my husband suggested: Why don’t you help the city—and yourself—heal by reconstructing the New York you love, we love? The one you lived in, strong and beautiful? Rebuild NYC with your words. And that did it.
Born Confused is my love letter to New York—this city of my soul, that I’d just moved away from . . . and that very nearly was no longer. When I finally wrote the scene I’d intended to write on the flight, I wrote reams. Maybe thirty pages? In a trance, remembering every inch of that beloved pavement. The chapter in the book’s not so long—but that draft was medicinal for me.
After 9/11, of course, you couldn’t look at the sky the same way. Dimple finds herself wishing on planes, the way you’d wish on stars. For safe travels, good things. Something I still do.
MK: Oh, Tanuja, I never knew that story. So eerily similar—I was working on my book during 9/11 and had to drop everything to write about NYC, my home that had just been torn apart. I was a reporter at Newsday, and the book was just on the side. I felt like I could never return to it, let alone another story about anything else. But when 2002 came around, my parents pushed me to continue. I took a few weeks off work, moved in with them in Jersey and they cooked and did my laundry and took care of me. It was as much for the book as it was to carry me after months of reporting on trauma and terror. I recently told my colleague, “Back then, it felt like I’d never write about anything else in my career.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Well, have you?”
TDH: We haven’t, right? So many of the issues that came to painfully broader light after that . . . Race, religion. Who has the right to a country, a culture. So many of these issues were built into our very skin; we literally embodied our whole lives long.
After 9/11, I found myself casting a semi-suspicious eye on brown people. Mostly men. Especially in airports. Until my father gently pointed out: We’re all looking at them, bacchoodi—but everyone is also looking at us.
MK: I mean, even we are looking at them. I mean . . . us?
TDH: My whole life, my parents have always pointed out anyone who looks vaguely South Asian. From Pizza Hut dinners to family holidays . . . practically to India itself. Growing up, I found it vaguely embarrassing, didn’t see why their eyes would widen as if they’d never seen another desi before. Only years later, when writing Born Confused—in which I included a scene with Spot the Indian (not as in bindi application; as in Look! An Indian!)—did I realize this habit was formed in their first days in the US: When there really were no South Asians to be found.
I was moved to tears. How lonely it must have been for them! For our parents, at that time, leaving was really a capital-L Leaving, no? Once in the US, they didn’t see or speak to their family for six years; my grandparents were phoneless, and my parents had savings for just-in-case one-way flights back to India.
That sudden widening of their eyes upon sighting an Indian woman by JCPenney, I realized then it was hope. A flicker of home in their eyes.
MK: When I was twelve, we moved to New Jersey and I’d never seen SO MANY Indians in one place. We used to exclaim when we saw them on the Jersey Turnpike, or supermarkets, or the mall. And then we stopped screaming. It’s like those mid-80s in Puerto Rico hadn’t prepped us for the immigration explosion that occurred in the suburbs . . .
When we moved into our house down there, the neighbors invited us over for a party that same night. We went—there was so much food and dancing and merriment. My parents kept saying that gesture, strangers inviting them over, was the most like India they had felt since they left.
TDH: Our first day in Wilbraham, MA, the neighbors, total strangers, brought us banana bread. Mrs. Muldrew ended up being an adoptive grandmother to me and my brother, kind of even to my parents, till she died at 92. Every Christmas we celebrated with her; she never missed a birthday. New Haven-born (in 1919!) Longmeadow-raised Grammy Muldrew went a long way to making us at home.
My parents also did that for uncles, aunts. When I was five my father sponsored his best friend from India, who came to stay with his wife and daughter Preeti for three months. One of those months my mother and I went to India and Preeti attended my school. When I returned and she left…they were all calling me Preeti! There were only two of us Indians—and they still thought we were one.
“Once in the US, my parents didn’t see or speak to their family for six years.”
MK: Aww, Preeti . . . Suburban Sahibs dives into the chain migration and the goal of family reunification that the 1980s US immigration policy favored. We didn’t sponsor any immediate relatives, just a few friends here and there. So it was just the five of us.
That isolation bred cultural strength that in hindsight, perhaps was parochial? We spoke the language, did the dances and went back every few years and loved and laughed like something I cannot explain.
TDH: As my parents have different mother tongues, we spoke English at home (though they’d switch over in India, my mother acquiring a thicker Indian accent on her English for weeks after these trips). We did lots of dancing, though the songs in our strobelit basement were more Prince, Donna Summer, Bowie.
My mother’s family’s still in India—that’s just one precious Mama uncle, aunt, cousin, her son. But my father’s—almost everyone’s in the US.
MK: Oh they’re here—I’m envious.
TDH: Different “here”: I’ve been based in the UK now 17 years. My mother often notes how funny it is none of us live in our birth countries (I’m the only US-born).
MK: The part that got me most in your book relates to how you feel with your parents. When Dimple’s dad takes her to the diner and says: if someone had told me before we left India that I might lose my daughter even more quickly in the process, I would not have budged one inch. I have a lump in my throat . . .
TDH: Ah . . . yes. Same. I used to have those corn muffin dates with my Bapuji. Did your parents feel that way? About losing you?
MK: Confession two: I never had such dates with my parents and thought that Dimple was much more “American” than I. Well, my daughters would make me say “white” because they want American to include people like them. Like us.
Do you think Dimple—or confused girls like her—still exist in 2017?
TDH: Confused people. Yes! And that’s a good thing. More people should be confused! There’s humility in not knowing all the answers. An openness—part and parcel of creativity and change, which we need more of.
Dimple and I didn’t have a lot of on-page company back then. Today, the literary landscape is so different—wonderfully. Far more windows and mirrors. #WeNeedDiverseBooks! What would it have been like to grow up with this? Just recently, I realized all my writings until my mid-20s had only white characters in them. The change came not from within, but a few stories into a creative writing class at the Y, when a fellow non-brown workshopper (I don’t think there were people of color in my writing workshops, ever) asked why my heroine was white when her POV was so clearly from another vantage point. Another student cut to the chase: Why don’t you just make her Indian? And with a few strokes of Find/Replace with nearly no other revision required, Amy from Minneapolis became Indian-American East Coast Kayla. Suddenly it all hung together. Suddenly I was working on a collection of connected stories.
Of course, there were priceless books available to us too, growing up—some of my all-time favorites: Dickens, Judy Blume. But there just weren’t characters who resembled us. It’s funny it never occurred to me to lay brown ink to white page—most likely because I’d never seen me, us on the page! Which is why I had to write us there all those years ago. And can’t stop!
Now? I look at my daughters’ bookshelves and—wow! Uma Krishnaswami, Marina Budhos, Mitali Perkins. Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Coe Booth, Paula Yoo. Vivek Shraya. I could go on (nice position to be in!). And they STILL have Dickens. Blume. See? No one kicked Charles and Judy out just because Padma got a seat at the table!
MK: We have your books! And my daughter and I both read Marina Budhos’ Tell us We’re Home and had great discussions over it. And then Watched, which she set in Jackson Heights. My daughter seeks out books by immigrant and second-gen authors, and I’m elated there’s actually some choice out there.
I’ve spent so much of my career pushing journalists to reflect America as it really is. And I look to shows like Blackish and Master of None as inspiration for my industry. My kids watch these shows and feel included in their rendering of America. That’s pretty amazing progress.
And yet . . . miles to go, of course.
TDH: These windows and mirrors, they show you you aren’t alone. That you have a friend. That you can choose the hero—or be the hero—of your own story. They humanize the supposed “Other”; inspire empathy (as the acts of writing, creating, do too). Friendship and love, relationships, they do that best. But a strong story comes pretty close. Actually, sometimes a strong story comes even closer, as we can often be more forgiving in fiction, more generous in a genre other than our own lives . . .
And then if we can just cup that feeling like a little spark . . . bring it off the page, bring a little light back into our world . . .
The power of language to change things, stories to shape reality can’t be underestimated. The power of a word. Confused to Creative. Illegal immigrant to Undocumented. Events shape history, people, grand actions and little ones too. But so does language. So does imagination. We can dream things into being, speak them, write them into being.
Our stories are our arsenal, our fuel. Our example of other ways to be, alternatives that could, perhaps should, become norms. We’re a powerful chorus when we bring our voices together.
“These windows and mirrors, they show you you aren’t alone. That you have a friend. That you can choose the hero—or be the hero—of your own story.”
MK: For me, journalism was the kind of canvas where I could bring these ideas together. I think I started out covering immigration because it was easier to ask other people questions than my own parents. And then book writing helps you go deeper: The answer to “why did you come here” is never “opportunity and my children’s education.” It’s more like, “My dad was a drunk, and I couldn’t stay anymore. My mom forced me to get married so I wouldn’t marry a Muslim. I’m not the eldest son and hated the idea of growing up in my brother’s shadow. I was bored in the best university in my country so I wanted more.” Nobody tells those stories because they aren’t as convenient. I like inconvenient, complicated, messy stories.
TDH: Yes! And for me it was in fiction that I could bring these worlds together. And the idea you don’t have to fit into some box . . . you don’t have to fit in at all. There’s nothing to fit into. We’re beyond labels. Bigger than either/or. Us/them. We’re and/and.
A hyphen (and we’re all of hyphenated identities) doesn’t have to be a border, ban, wall. It can also be a bridge.
So much community building goes on when we mother the Other. It takes a village, and I saw that village at the last Basement Bhangra in Central Park. I saw it when I went to the Women’s March in London with my 12-year-old, because I wanted her to see that it’s not just us talking about these issues at home; lots of people care. So uplifting, that day, especially seeing her clock it: We’re not alone.
MK: Does Dimple get politically active?
TDH: I think Dimple is politically active. In both books. By being a brown woman raised in a white world and owning it. And with her camera: by choosing the frame, angle, and moments to illuminate the lives of South Asians in America, India, of the diaspora. By making them the focus the heroes and heroines—for all the world to see. And seeing isn’t a passive act; in so doing she’s shaping cultures, perception, and her own story too.
Even cameraless: By supporting her community, which includes the LGBTQ community. By questioning the state of things and examining herself in a sometimes unforgiving light. By making the change, and, eventually, being the change. By loving.
And I can tell you for sure: Born Confused, and Dimple Lala the First (who at first considers herself the Last)—they were written from the heart. With lots of love and joy. And hopefully that comes across to the reader, and they feel loved, a little lift, too.
MK: Did you write Born Confused for yourself, for your kids, for brown girls like me?
TDH: For you. For me. For the indomitable We.
MK: We’re everywhere.