Go Hari

I get really annoyed at this “authenticity” business (see an old complaint) about who has the rights to do exactly what for which community. So I really enjoyed this letter to the Guardian about their nonsensical op-ed, The Trouble with Brick Lane:

As a mixed-race novelist (hell, just as a novelist), I would like to say to your leader writer (The trouble with Brick Lane, October 27) that I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being “authentically” none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms “real people” living in “real communities”. My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone – white, black or brown, let alone any “community” – to represent them in any particular way.

If Monica Ali isn’t brown enough or working-class enough or Sylheti enough for you, then, well, that’s your weird little identity-political screw-up. Presumably she’s not white enough for someone else. I’m sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on “minority” writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn’t about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It’s about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That’s called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.
Hari Kunzru

Apparently, they are all talking about this. Yawn.

update: An intriguing counter-argument:

And Eggers’s book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What’s innocent expropriation of another man’s identity is a post-colonial arrogance — the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people’s stories the way we need other people’s oil.
The Niceness Racket , Lee Siegel, TNR

Author: sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

11 thoughts on “Go Hari”

  1. Lapata:

    “Meenakshi Mukherjee was talking about pandering, by which she meant marketing to a lucrative audience, and VC has turned this quite advantageously into a lifelong crusade against ‘the cult of authenticity.’”

    Very good point about the lofty platform thing you mentioned. The “pandering” to a “lucrative market” is something I want to pick up, with Sepoy opening the gate here:

    “but the dynamics of the market make the whole thing rather, um, academic.”

    It’s not so much pandering as what gets picked up to get published, and I want to emphasis the GETS PICKED UP part. You will find this hard to believe, but VC wouldn’t have consciously written a lengthy book as long and involved as Red Earth Pouring Rain was (I read it) tailored for a white, middle class audience. He wrote what he sees and what he believes (I am assuming). Much of what he saw played with Hindu mythology, the wonderous properties of tumeric, Indian immigrant student having lots of sex with white girls and doing drugs, and mystical realism. This is what publishers think that the Western audience will like.

    Ali’s Brick Lane, which I also read, has those expected themes: oppressed immigrant South Asian Muslim woman whose marriage is arranged to a stereotypically chauvenistic man, and whose daughters find themselves “straddling two cultures” type of thing (she also achieves “independence” by staying in the UK when her husband returns to Bangladesh), and the attraction to Islamic fundamentalism. This is not to doubt that Ali sees things the way she does, as her recent passionate defense in the Guardian illustrates. What’s noteworthy is that Chandra, Ali, Rushdie, have garnered massive publicity (as Lapata points out) for books which I suspect inform people of a different “kind of world,” but not too much because in many ways, those books feed many stereotypes. I do not, however, think that someone would take the time to do research, think hard, and take on writing a book which ends up being a process spanning years with a conscious market model in mind.

    That said, there have been many writers whose manuscripts have been turned down because they don’t discuss the stereotypical aspects from an “authentic” point of view, and this has happened to South Asian American writers who might write about life and all of its quirks, but not about the immigrant predicament, culture clash tropes, etc. And they have actually been told this when their work gets turned down. This is the market criteria, and Sepoy, even if you don’t think it’s interesting, it is to me because publishers are the gate keepers of opinion and knowledge as well. They see something that fits the audience’s expectations, pleasures, blah blah blah and they bank on it. It has very real effects and those market forces should not be underestimated in the types of books we actually get to see and therefore have access to (in the interests of disclosure, I work at a place where we recieve a gazillion books everyday, and they all discuss the same damn themes, and from a particular point of view. It’s what “sells” and what’s “hot” I was told rather cynically.)

    In the end, I think we should take issue against the game, and not just the player.

  2. lapata: The relationship between ‘pandering to the Western audience’ and ‘authenticity’ is worth looking into (if we are having a really, really boring dinner) … but the dynamics of the market make the whole thing rather, um, academic. And, academically speaking, I cannot possibly be convinced to read through more than 2 paragraphs of VC’s intensely righteous tone to have any opinion on his cause celebre – besides avoiding it, him.

    I do know that more than a few of our heritage writers love them some code-switching; some like Upamanyu Chatterjee, I have enjoyed; others, not so much. If they do it to sound more “authentic” or to sell more books to white people, are matters left for discussion during that boring dinner.

  3. VC has managed to turn his pique at a remark in a conference setting into his cause célèbre. Meenakshi Mukherjee was talking about pandering, by which she meant marketing to a lucrative audience, and VC has turned this quite advantageously into a lifelong crusade against ‘the cult of authenticity.’ Intellectuals in Delhi and elsewhere in India (and perhaps in most other parts of the world) are not prone to the flattering and safe circumlocutions we are accustomed to in the US (“I find your point fascinating– I’d just like to nuance the argument a little bit;” “Oh yes, I agree with you entirely, and your book is lovely — I was wondering if you could elaborate on one perplexing element of your argument;” etc.). A good debate should be bracing and strongly expressed. MM drew her sword, and expected a clattering duel. VC was shocked, hemmed and hawed defensively (as per his own description), and went home to pen a lengthy rebuttal. Notice that while his rebuttal is available on the internet and widely read, she has not bothered to respond in kind (she may have published something on the matter in print, but I have not seen it).

    I’ve never read his work (though I did sit through an incredibly tedious reading of Sacred Games, which was like being read aloud to from a Robert Ludlum novel), nor Monica Ali’s, but it is interesting that these controversies, both great (Satanic Verses) and small (someone insults VC in a public setting) give the authors in question a lofty platform on which to speak of their creative processes and the purity of their artistry. From there, one begins to be convinced that they might be genuinely interesting writers, only to be disappointed, again and again, by the vast number of potboilers that are being marketed as great works of literature. But if they were not potboilers (which do have their place in literature, of course), and they were not marketable to a large Western audience, then these authors would not be receiving multi-million dollar advances, now would they? But who wouldn’t have it both ways, if given the opportunity. In the end, it’s not really about who is speaking for whom, and who is more authentic, but who is peeved at whom for getting lots of publicity and valuable currency, and who wants to defend their acquisition of said assets. Follow the money, as they say on The Wire. (and for anyone who wants to argue that Satanic Verses would never have had the sales it did without the fatwa, and that it is no potboiler, yes, you are absolutely right, it wouldn’t, and it isn’t; the potboilers came later)

    As a side note, according to this, VC’s latest novel includes a 15-page glossary in which readers can look up the definition for savory and authentic words such as gandu (italics added for foreignness).

  4. I agree with why people get so upset with the “authenticity” and “nativist” arguments. No doubt that they are flawed and inaccurate designations (see my comment about Mukherjee above).

    But a part of me also thinks that the discussion has been set up between the two poles of “authenticity” and not, with nothing in between. I, however, think there is something to be said about knowing the language and being exposed to different kinds of realities, and here, class, socio-economic understanding, and so on aren’t things to dismiss under the guise of rejecting authenticity and nativism. For example, you don’t have to be of 100% Indian parentage or even 50% (yes, yes, I know, none of us are “100%” anything; I’m talking about having both parents come from the Desh, which some people take to believe that this automatically means you know certain things about the said country, etc, which is not true) to intimately know a language and tune into the subtle workings and understandings that arise from interactions- interactions which will inevitably form one’s writings.

  5. Hi Manan

    Yes this authenticity business is exasperating indeed. Here is a link below to an interesting (and scathing!) critique of the bogey of authenticity by Vikram Chandra in the Boston Review, for those who may be interested. It is a response to Meenakshi Mukherjee’s contention that Chandra and other diasporic writers did not represent the real India.

    Vikram Chandra
    The Cult of Authenticity: India’s cultural commissars worship “Indianness” instead of art.


    It’s also interesting, of course, that along with the Indian nativists who use problematic criteria of authenticity in their assessment of works, there are several Western commentators who assume the right to decide what is authentic and inauthentic about Indian culture and who is a real Indian and who is not. Dalrymple’s comments about Pankaj Mishra, Sunil Khilnani, and Vikram Seth, critiqued by Ram Guha, come to mind. Those are easily dismissed but Dalrymple was writing in a long tradition of Western commentators championing the ‘real’ Indian against fake, inauthentic, urban Indian elites. There is also a tradition of Western men of letters patronizing particular Indian figures who purportedly embody the essence of the east- Yeats, for example, was the patron of an Indian swami.

    The disciplines of Indology and anthropology, as taught and studied in the Western academy, for long treated the abstraction of Hindu society, and Hindu being as equivalent to India itself. Caste is the heart of India and of Hindu society; the village is the soul of India, and so on.
    Perhaps what we see in that nonsensical Guardian article is some vapid watered down liberal-Left version of this legacy mingling with some mangled invocation of discourses of radical difference. This does an injustice both to the more sophisticated legacies of Marxism and to the best theorizations of radical difference and exposes these to the tired, populist charges of moral relativism and the like.

    Perhaps you may have seen Stanley Fish’s equally dubious argument, at the time of the Danish cartoon controversy, suggesting that ‘we’ (i.e., the West) should not judge the reaction of Muslim protestors by ‘our’ (i.e., ‘Western’) free speech standards.

    Dalrymple-bhai though has an interesting article in the Sunday Times, October 14 titled, “A lesson in humility for the smug West” where he talks about eastern and Western values.


  6. “people who get annoyed by this “authenticity business” are usually the same ones that don’t know what they’re talking about”

    Does Bharati Mukherjee, one who was born and raised in India and of 100% Indian parentage, fall into the “authentic” category? And if so, do you think her books are in any way more valid, legitimate, or truthful renderings of India and Indians than books written by, say, Vikram Seth or Anita Desi (who are both multi-ethnic, BTW)?

  7. Jay “How much o Biggie’s rhymes gonna come out yo fat lips?” Z, I have never liked. Never felt that he knew how to keep it real, ya know?

  8. Itz, I hear what your saying about people exploiting their ethnicity for self gain (I’ve had some bitter run ins with several of them), but the term ‘authentic’ is widely used – not just by Muslims – as a means of lending weight to what they say, rather than being judged on their beliefs/ideas alone. Hence RMWs use authenticity as a rebuke to Islamists who want to approach the Quran/Sunnah directly, which is challenge to their ‘expertise’ (apparently God only speaks to us through intellectuals). I agree it’s important to defend marginalized communities, but equally, it’s important to defend diversity.

  9. people who get annoyed by this “authenticity business” are usually the same ones that don’t know what they’re talking about. like jay-z said, “we don’t believe you.” i’m sick of the token brown people eager to exploit their exoticism for self-gain. of course they don’t care, they’re not a part of the community they exploit anyway. and they certainly won’t suffer from the backlash, prejudice that the “majority” is all to eager to impose.

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