One of the most rewarding parts of being a writer is interacting with readers. I love hearing their emotional responses to my novels, their stories about how my book buoyed their spirits, and best of all, their insights, which make me see my own work in a new light.
I write novels that focus on issues of class, race and gender politics, and the people who come to my readings — typically white, middle-class, liberal women — are generally sensitive to the issues I write about.
So yes, the interactions with readers are the best part.
Except when they’re not.
As a writer of color, I have learned to take in stride racially insensitive questions. And yet, it’s still hard not be blindsided by a question such as, “Do you ever wear a sari? And if so, could you tell the rest of the audience what a sari is?”
Okay, so that question was so patently ridiculous it was easy for me to laughingly dismiss it. It belongs to the same category as, “Are you Amy Tan?,” which someone asked my Asian American writer friend who isn’t Amy Tan. Heck, I was once told at a reading that I looked like Salman Rushdie!
Here are other typical questions: “Does the caste system still exist? When do you think it will disappear?”
Never mind that these issues have nothing to do with my books — or that I’m a fiction writer and most certainly not an expert on the caste system.
Here’s what I’ve taken to saying, with tongue firmly in cheek: “I think it’s predicted to end on or around the same date that American racism dies.”
Blank stares. A few appreciative, I-see-what-you’re-doing-here nods. But mostly, blank stares.
The more generous part of me understands that these questions are simply ways of making connections, much in the spirit of the women who come up to me to say that they’ve visited India multiple times and loved it, or that their daughter-in-law is Indian. So far, so good.
But what makes me bristle is what comes next: “We are so blessed to be living in this country.” Lucky? Yeah, sure. Luck, after all, is unearned, random. But blessed? Blessed implies that you did something that’s worthy of such a blessing. Which, by implication suggests that 1 billion Indians are not worthy of such grace. Not to mention that it flattens the complexity and richness of a large and diverse nation.
Recently, I went to a country club to discuss my latest novel, “The Secrets Between Us,” which tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two poor, marginalized women in contemporary India. An older white woman raised her hand. Why, she asked, was India such an awful country? Why was everybody so cruel and mean?
I was stunned by the question. My mind flitted back to how defensive and angry my Indian relatives get about what they see as negative and one-sided representations of their country in the West. I have always pushed back against their defensiveness. Now, I asked myself, was I guilty of perpetuating the same stereotypes?
Well, I stammered, I’m not describing an entire nation of 1 billion people. I’m just describing the reality of a few characters. And there are acts of love and sacrifice and valor even among the wretched conditions I describe.
Blank stare. She was not convinced.
I tried again: You know, it’s the nature of fiction to point out the most dramatic. Fiction runs on conflict. It’s a mistake to generalize . . .
She was shaking her head, no, no, no.
And you know, every country has its orthodoxies, I continued. I mean, think of America and how we’re grappling with race and racism.
She was having none of it, I realized with growing despair. Instead of opening her eyes to a different reality, I had unwittingly reinforced every racist belief she had about an entire country.
But what sent me home in a funk, what made me question what I do for a living, was the follow-up question: “You seem like such a lovely, open-minded person. How did you grow up in that country and still become who you are?”
I almost lost it then. The woman actually thought she was paying me a compliment. I suppose this was some pernicious variant on the “model community” stereotype that all of us Asian Americans deal with.
As politely as I could, I told her that there were millions of people like me in India, and the people I had grown up around were every bit as tolerant and secular-minded as I was. And that it was a mistake to conflate the characters in a novel with real life.
Weeks later, I find myself haunted by this exchange. I have this enduring image of myself on that podium, poker-faced, nodding solemnly as she wound her way around that offensive question. I ask myself if I could have given a better, stronger, angrier answer.
All of us writers of color have experienced mindless, offensive comments during book talks. We tend to laugh off a lot of these — my Asian American friend playfully calls me Jhumpa when I call her Amy. We grudgingly accept that we are expected to be experts on countries we left when we were children or have never lived in, and about subjects that have nothing to do with our novels. I still occasionally get called an “Indian writer,” although I’m an American citizen and my entire publishing history has been in the United States. And I still get complimented on my “good English” by people who come to hear me speak.
We live with this, mindful of the fact that even being able to grumble about such matters is a sign of privilege, given how many unpublished authors would willingly trade places with us. Trust me when I say we are not blind to our sheer good fortune.
But that question about how I managed to flourish despite India being an “awful country” has stayed with me because it goes to the core of why I write. It most certainly isn’t to perpetuate racist stereotypes. And this makes me even more willing to go before audiences and challenge their assumptions, even if this means sacrificing a few book sales. It makes me want to be more political, even though our hosts and publishers often prefer that we are not. It makes me want to proselytize for a literature and an understanding of the world that is rich and complex and often contradictory. And to do it with kindness and openheartedness and yes, with love.
But oh, how I would love to do a book talk where the questions are solely about my novels and the writing process and literature. Just once, I’d like to do a reading where I’m not asked about saris. Or the caste system. Or what I think is the best Indian restaurant in the area. Or whether, because I came from “someplace else,” I notice racism against African Americans. (No, I notice American racism because it’s here.)
And of course, not being told that I look like Salman Rushdie.
Thrity Umrigar is the author of eight novels, including “The Space Between Us” and, most recently, “The Secrets Between Us.”