I have sometimes wondered how much of the ghettoization of Asian American writers has been self-inflicted. Maybe the onus is on us to branch out more from writing about race and identity, immigration and assimilation…
In an interview with Guernica Magazine, Don Lee is unabashedly honest about being an Asian-American writer and of the cultural burdens/expectations associated with it. He also talks about what writing out of the ethnic literature box might mean and why it has taken Asian American writers so long to do so. Which makes one ask, is it really possible? Can the ‘great Indian immigrant novel’ ever be written? Many applaud The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, for its portrayal of Indian immigrant life in the U.S., during the 1970s and 80s, which is when I grew up there too. I was so excited to read The Namesake. But after I did, I couldn’t help but think, ‘This is not my life. This is not how my parents were. This is not how we lived.’ I found Lahiri’s portrayal of Indian immigrant life to be two-dimensional, passive and with an angst that didn’t seem compatible with the struggle. But why the expectation to see my life in someone else’s story in the first place? What is it that we, as cross-cultural readers and writers, seek?
I am no Don Lee or Jhumpa Lahiri, but I am a writer. And I do struggle with issues of identity. In fact, my first poetry collection was so steeped in it, that I decided not to publish it. Like the internet, once your words are out there, they are out there. I wasn’t this angst-ridden confused cross-cultural soul and I didn’t want my writing to identify me as such. As a 19-20 year old, I was really excited to explore poems/stories that talked about being caught in the middle of cultures, assimilation, and while assimilation will always fascinate me, twenty years of reading the same thing over and over again makes me think, “yeah, yeah, whatever, cry me a river.’ I think an immigrant writer having to write about identity and culture is like puberty, a rite of passage before getting to where you really want to go. Twenty years ago, when I sat in creative writing classes at the University of Minnesota, people were still trying to understand what other cultures meant. They nodded in recognition when one of their own shared a piece on how the mighty Mississippi was a metaphor for their own turbulent life, but couldn’t understand how the mighty Ganges pouring out of the locks of the Hindu God Shiva might be a metaphor for something powerful too. Suffice it to say, we’ve come a long way. At least the reader has. I am still waiting for an Indo-American novel that addresses the immigrant experience in a way that makes me say ‘Yes, yes, yes!’
Don’t get me wrong, that ‘inextricable tangle’ will always thrill and fascinate me, but I want it to connect with a greater whole, something more universal, which when I read it, doesn’t leave me with sticky mango juice on my hands or the song of the peacock ringing in my ears or the scent of jasmine tickling my nose.
(And yes, the writer of this post is guilty of writing about all three of these things).