The Default of American Fiction Can No Longer Be White and Male
Nadeem Zaman on Being a South-Asian Writer in America
In my earliest stories, my characters were always white, the situations always some refashioning of a story by a white writer. I believed, subconsciously, that this was what it meant to write American fiction.
Those earliest stories were based on what I was reading in writing and literature courses; in four years, I read exactly one story in a writing course that was written by a South Asian writer. For my first attempt at a Bangladeshi story, a piece set during the 1971 Liberation War, was generally well-received as a subject matter by my classmates, but I felt as though the story had entered the classroom on a temporary visa; it needed to leave as soon as its time had expired.
I thought I was writing American fiction—fiction that would be accepted by American journals and publishers—by not writing about Bangladesh. This wasn’t a conscious effort; it was not that I didn’t want to write stories that were about, or took place in, Bangladesh. It was that I didn’t think I could get those stories read and understood by “American” readers. This was not based on empirical evidence, but it was also not completely off the mark either.
American fiction, as far as the canon is concerned, has historically been primarily white and male, and so was seen through that gaze. Black writers were African American, Latinx writers also hyphenated by heritage from American, Asian-American writers meaning mostly Chinese and Japanese, and that, too, being ethnicity-led, and so on, all of it pushing American writers of color into tighter corners to write themselves out of and prove the Americanness of their fiction.
In the 90s, when I was an undergrad, writers of color were feeling this lack of diversity in American writing, both in academic institutions and in the world of publishing. While I was not wholly ignorant of this problem, I was also not tuned into it as aggressively as I have been over the last decade or so.
For one, the idea of the canon (for those that subscribe to the monolithic idea of the canon at all). Just as English literature has been drawn out of the sole jurisdiction of white British writers, largely male, most dead by the end of the 19th century, American fiction has been freed from the notion that it has to necessarily take place in America or even deal directly with issues and concerns that keeps it contained and rooted to the country.
Just as Rushdie and Ben Okri, and a host of non-British born British writers were writing and redefining British fiction near the end of the 20th century, so too were Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and many others writing and redefining American fiction with characters, stories, worldviews, and American journeys that defied being pigeonholed as “immigrant” or “ethnic” fiction through the 90s and into the new century.I thought I was writing American fiction—fiction that would be accepted by American journals and publishers—by not writing about Bangladesh.
There has been, of course, little to no sign of including Indigenous fiction other than Louise Erdrich. Two decades after graduating college I learned of N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author and poet, when he came as an invited guest to the college where I teach. And the dearth still remains. Of the younger generation of Native American fiction writers, Tommy Orange is one of the most celebrated in recent times.
Trying to define my type of American fiction didn’t become an active part of my work until I began trying to sell my work to agents. About two years after graduating college came the first leap into a novel. It was a shameless attempt at recreating Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which had not too long-ago gob-smacked me to attention. If that was considered British fiction, even Indo-British fiction, then what I was creating could absolutely be American fiction
Another decade, abandonment of that novel, and many drafts of the first one I would publish later, talking to agents in the US brought to the surface, in a new way, how and why my fiction was not “American.” Some rejection letters noted liking the book but not feeling confident that it could be sold to American publishers or readers. Confident as in, in their own words, they didn’t feel confident they could sell the work to an American publisher or saw it palatable to an American readership. Thank you for your desire to work with me, said one letter, but I don’t feel confident about this book selling to American readers.
I received some version of this feedback more than once. It left me feeling—however wrongly—that it was my work that lacked something fundamental. And if I ever wanted to get a book published in the US, or even get an agent, something fundamental had to change. What that fundamental “thing” was, I had no idea. Some years later, this dejected, dispirited frame of mind found solace in a realization: I needed to branch out with where I was submitting my work.
In 2016, I started looking up non-US agents and journals, and had some success placing a few stories in Hong Kong and India and Bangladesh. I remember saying it out loud, that I was going to try the other end of the world, a huge publishing market that I had, until then, completely ignored. I was not interested in writing American fiction so much as getting my work in front of eyes that would read it only as fiction. How they classified or defined it beyond that was up to them.
Even now, in the classroom of an American college with a group of American students discussing stories from The Best American series, I find it difficult to define “American fiction.” In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2008, guest editor Salman Rushdie provided one of the more workable, applicable definitions for those trying to make sense or find a way to define American fiction: “The writers in this anthology must be American, or, they must make the United States their home, or, they must have done so for the most part.”
In the introduction to the 2018 edition of the series, Roxane Gay points out that she found a “profound sense of absence” in the 2010 edition. “Too many stories” in that year’s volume, edited by Richard Russo, one of her favorite writers, she notes, “focused on rich white people.” And then in 2012, her own story “North Country” was selected, leaving her “gleeful.” In other words, that profound sense of absence was filled by knowing that her work, too, belonged. She and voices like hers were not only good and necessary, but they were American stories deserving of the highest recognition.
That the stories she selected are American is implied (given the name and reputation of the series), regardless of how their authors identify themselves or which passport they carry. Her selections speak to those priorities: The 2018 edition includes stories from American and Canadian magazines; one story was first published in the British publication Granta and captures the horror and the anxiety of so many Americans the day after the 2016 election. In another piece, an Iranian man befriends an Indian man, who likes to affect an “American accent,” at the YMCA to which their respective lives have brought them to find housing, from “non-American” immigrant margins into the marginalized American fold.As an immigrant, a naturalized citizen, and as someone who has lived in the US for the most part of my life, I still question if the fiction I’m writing is “American.”
The novel I finally ended up publishing in India, and the short story collection, which was first published in Bangladesh and then in the US tell stories that are set entirely in Bangladesh. Whether it’s seen as American fiction or not matters so much less than the fact that it’s being read, as a book, for the stories, the writing, the craft, and anything else readers will find on the journey. That, as I see it, is fiction, American or not.
As an immigrant, a naturalized citizen, and as someone who has lived in the US for the most part of my life, I still question if the fiction I’m writing is “American.” For what it’s worth, all the stories, and my novel, were conceived and born in America; America is where their author became a writer, learned and honed the craft, read, imitated, discovered, and found his footing.
Perhaps that’s the point: to define my own way what American fiction is, and keep doing the work, without which there won’t be stories to read or the need to define them altogether.
Nadeem Zaman’s Up in the Main House & Other Stories is available now from Unnamed Press.