Finding My South Asian Identity in Literature

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I want to explore a little bit more about South Asian identity and where it comes from for young South Asian Americans. I grew in a multi-racial (but still primarily white) neighborhood with few Indians and no Bangladeshis my age, so I may only speak for myself in this post, but where I found a lot of my role models was in books. After the jump, I give some examples.

Lacking comprehensive television shows about South Asians or Muslims (does Bend It Like Beckham count?) and having little contact with others until college, I still found a broad range of perceptions in books. I read Jhumpa Lahiri before I was ever interested in attending her alma mater, found solace in historical fiction about the subcontinent, and absorbed everything from The God of Small Things to Sacred Games.

Not all of these books were helpful. Indeed, some of them led my young mind in directions that I distinctly remember as exoticizing the Indian experience. For instance, at one point I thought that all South Asian girls needed to balance books on their heads to show off that they were poised to their future husbands. Clearly, there are some accuracy issues in reading these works out of context. I also could only rarely find a book about or by a Bangladeshi author, besides Tagore. But I also found some wonderful things in these books - I found that one could be conflicted about being South Asian in The Namesake and that the subcontinent as a place had a lot of different facets besides its fascinating history (for instance, Sacred Games is a fiction about Indian cops and mobsters). I read works that were far removed from South Asia itself, which made me feel more comfortable far from "the home country" and much less like I was meant to be there (as some of my classmates rudely told me).

I still wish, however, that I had a helping hand to navigate those waters with me. Unlike some families where culture is emphasized heavily, my father decided to let me make my own decisions about it. My teachers never once touched on a South Asian author and it was only a chapter in our World History textbook. My journey was, and still is, mainly independent.

Hence, I will share with you some of the books that led me on my way. Here is a bibliograpy of selected South Asian titles that caught me in my youth:

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri
Brick Lane - Monica Ali
Sacred Games - Vikram Chandra
Darjeeling - Bharti Kirchner
The Mistress of Spices - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Life of Pi - Yann Martel
The Glass Palace - Amitav Ghosh
Desirable Daughters - Bharati Mukherjee

You may also be interested in my post The South Asian Question in a New York Minute and its follow-up "Where Are You From?" (Racial vs. National Identity)
Interested in what I'm reading now? Check out my book reviews.