When My Authentic is Your Exotic
Soniah Kamal Considers Whether Or Not To Have a Mango in Her Novel
You need to rethink food in your novel, an American editor once told me. Would my Pakistani-American family really be eating so much pizza? Food being one of the easiest ways to familiarize or de-familiarize a culture, the message I got was that while white Americans eat as much pizza as they want, Pakistani-Americans eat something else, preferably something more interesting and spicy, like pizza with Tabasco or green chillies (which might be exotic, but would be authentic to me, because that is how I eat my pizza). In any case, I found myself caught between the authentic and the exotic, wondering what do when my authentic was someone’s exotic. In An Isolated Incident, my main character, Billy, is visiting Pakistan from America. It’s summertime. He’s playing with a friend in the garden and, as a writer, I needed them to be doing Pakistani things like catching toads, playing cricket, and eating mangoes.
Back in 2006, a popular South Asian blog critiqued Amulya Malladi’s novel The Mango Season. The cover featured a ripe mango in a brown girl’s hands surrounded by sari fabric. The blog pointed out all the ways the cover had “othered” Indian culture, with captions noting details such as “tropical fruit,” “sari border,” “hands in henna position,” etc. The critique didn’t acknowledge how authors, even the most successful, have little say in cover design. In 2000, novelist Vikram Chandra, his authenticity challenged (Chandra does not live in India so how can he write a real India…) cautioned writers against self-censorship no matter how seriously one is attacked. Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore such meticulously thorough accusations of pandering to the West. So what was I to do: mango or no mango?
Four years later, in 2009, Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif’s novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was published in the U.S. The cover featured a startling yellow mango with a live wire hanging out of it. Hanif, however, escaped chastisement. Was it because he is male and his novel a political satire rather than a domestic coming of age? Or perhaps we had, four years later, come far enough to realize that authors seldom dictate covers, and that if we choose to write about what we actually see in our home countries, stereotypical or not, it is not our fault if someone wants to exoticize and romanticize it.
Of course there are those writers who assume the role of go-between for East and West, seeking common literary ground, those for whom a trip to a “foreign” country becomes a life-transforming event when they meet a holy man, or a beggar, or encounter a rosy sunset over the Taj Mahal (apparently a New York Jehovah’s Witness, or the homeless, or a rosy sunset in Central Park cannot possess magical powers). Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical article, How to Write About Africa, addresses these writers, as does How To Write About Pakistan, a collaboration between four Pakistani writers including Hanif. Their list begins with “Must have mangoes,” “Must have maids who serve mangoes” and so on—mangos are mentioned eleven times in part one of the list. Luckily for Hanif, whose novel is about the assassination of Pakistani Dictator Zia-ul-Haq, there actually is a theory known as “the mango bomb theory” and thus Hanif’s title and cover.
After reading four Pakistani authors say no-no to the mango, there I was with the greatest dilemma in the world: If I put the mango in, was I a sell-out? If I took it out, was I being true to the season? What fruit could I substitute? A jamun? But what is the English name for jamun? Should an English name even matter, a jamun being a jamun, like a corn dog is a corn dog. Would I yet have to italicize jamun? Who is the audience for my novel, anyway? Everyone? But what does everyone mean? Should I stick to an apple or a banana? Or would that be too generic?
In her novel The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri was lauded for her specificity, for writing about clementines instead of mere oranges. But could I get away with specifying the Alphonso mango, or anwar ratol, or langhra, or chaunsa instead of just saying mango? (And if so, to italicize or not?) I put the mango in. I took the mango out. I spent four months playing in/out. It was tiresome and annoying.
More importantly I began to ask myself why I should substitute the mango.
It’s the American publisher who chooses fiction based on certain assumptions. Perhaps they’re wary no one will buy a story in which, for example, a Pakistan-American family eats a lot of pizza. But if they keep giving readers the same exoticized images (for instance sari and hijab clad book covers), they’re doomed to fulfill and perpetuate what readers “want.” Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine, about an Indian wife settling-unsettling in America, was published in 1989. In the novel, Jasmine also goes by Jyoti, Jane, and Jazzy, and so the South Asian immigrant story becomes one of shape shifting identity and the angst of assimilation. However, some might argue that it was Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni who constructed the set design for what American publishers would want from South Asian fiction. While Divakaruni’s 1996 debut, the lovely short story collection Arranged Marriage told immigrant-assimilation stories, her novels increasingly came wrapped in fabrics and jewels and spices. Her 1998 novel The Mistress of Spices had chapter headings like Cinnamon, Turmeric and Fennel while her 1999 novel Sister of My Heart had a mysterious Sikh chauffeur and caves full of rubies. And yet, having read enough Divakaruni, one knows this is really just her style and not some conspiracy to exploit superficial Western ideas of the authentic exotic.
In an NPR interview, author Jeet Thayil states he avoided any mention of mangoes, spices and monsoons in his novel Narcopolis, set in the Mumbai underworld. While I agree that every writer should aim for fresh subjects for their novels it is a pity to ignore details that comprise the reality of one’s domestic realism or its concerns. I can neither deny reality for fear of the disdainful Eastern eye any more than I can write in fear of needing to fulfill the expectations of the orientalist Western gaze. I don’t want to, nor should I have to censor myself, just because parts of the world have turned my reality into cliché. So here I am taking back my right to include mangos, monsoons, spices, monkeys, peacocks, snakes, mynahs, bangles, bindis, saris, sequins, buffaloes, parandas, anklets, tangas, burqas, hijabs, samosas, arranged marriage and love marriage.
Here’s the mango as it appears in my novel:
“Boo hoo hoo!” Fahad and Billy shouted, laughing hysterically and running off to suckle mangoes cooled in buckets of ice on the patio. In between the sticky fingers and thick sweet juice running down their chins, the five years younger Billy informed Fahad that Fahad was his best friend forever, no matter what.
As you can see, no big deal. Yet it took me four months to allow Billy his mango until I knocked some sense into myself: Billy is in Lahore, it’s the summer, it’s hot and muggy, summer is mango season, of course my boy is going to be eating mangoes and he will be using his fingers and because of gravity, juice will travel down his elbows and drip into his lap.
I have avoided using the word for the beverage that Pakistanis drink morning, noon and night, sometimes flavored with cardamom. Have I avoided being exotic or authentic? You decide.