Americans abhor complexity.
Simplicity is the lodestar of their lives.
They like neat categories into which they can pigeonhole people, ideas, religion, food, sex and attitudes even if such categorizations make no sense.
If you’re a Muslim, you’re either a terrorist or sleeper-cell terrorist.
If you’re Black, you must be a criminal or surviving on government benefits.
If it’s an Indian restaurant, then it must be serving Naan, Tandoori Chicken and Mango Lassi (most Americans have never heard of South Indian cuisine).
If you’re an Indian, then you must be speaking either Hindu or Hindi (a lot of Americans are clueless about the difference between Hindu and Hindi and the rich variety in Indian society).
If you’re against large-scale government spying by the NSA, FBI and NYPD, then you must be a supporter of terrorists.
If you’re an Indian-American writer then you must be an immigrant fiction writer.
But the American love of neat categorization does not sit well with foreigners, particularly those of Asian origin.
(Image: Random House)
Recently, Jhumpa Lahiri (whose new book The Lowland has just come out) was interviewed by The New York Times.
Here’s an interesting excerpt:
What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?
I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.
I have yet to get access to Jhumpa’s The Lowland but as a New Yorker subscriber I got to read her short story Brotherly Love (June 10 & 17, 2013) a few months back.
Part of The Lowland novel, Brotherly Love is about two brothers Subhash and Udayan in Kolkata during the Naxalite era.
I found the short story poignant and can’t wait to lay my hands on the novel.