Missing Identity - Growing up without South Asian Literature
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” - Roald Dahl
I remember first reading Matilda as a young girl. In fact, it was probably one of the first few books I properly read on my own, and this is one line I never forgot. As a young girl who found her solace in books, I would always try and find myself in them. But try as I might, somewhere along the line something would fall short. The pieces just wouldn’t fit together. Whether it was something about the way they talked, their family traditions or even just the descriptions of little blonde plaited girls - I never fully felt like a part of the gang.
Most people are of the belief that art should reflect life. Ofcourse, there’s the Oscar Wilde belief that it is in fact the other way around and life should reflect art. I’m a firm supporter of the latter. Artists are way more far sighted than the rest of the world around them and limiting them to the confines of representing life as they see it is a limitation not only of their abilities but of the progress that we could be making. But regardless of what side you choose, it’s evidently clear that something is horribly wrong. For if art were to reflect life, then what kind of life are we representing? There’s been attempts to increase diversity in books and movies but South Asian literature and South Asian representation, still has a long way to go. Mainstream literature still faces the problem of stereotyping brown people, or overdoing certain aspects of brown culture which makes it seem like its written mainly for a white audience.
The same issue arises even when we look at the other argument, about life reflecting art. If life were to reflect the literature we find today, you would struggle to find a brown woman who wasn’t a dumbed down stock caricature of reality. You may be wondering why this matters so much, because a good story can be from anywhere with any kind of characters right?
While that is true, it is extremely important that these stories accurately represent the audience that they are catering to. Art and literature have an important role to play in shaping young minds and feeling like the sidekick in every universe you read about can be extremely harmful to feelings of self confidence and self worth in young teens.
Reducing brown people to the terrorist, the quiet wife, or the uneducated neighbour is not only racist, but also teaches young minds that they cannot be anything but these things. Of course when we are looking at literature being published within brown cultures, the problem isn’t as obvious as that. Because how can literature about brown people still be problematic when it's being written by brown people? Unfortunately it still can - for a multitude of reasons.
I’ve started reading more books by brown authors in an effort to gain an understanding of stories much closer to home and while its been a great journey, I’ve had some concerns. We still have a very select variety of books available, with almost no variation in genre. Out of all the books I have read, most are a serious commentary on social issues within brown culture, which while important, only appeal to adult audiences. You can say what you want about YA literature but I do believe it is an important part of young reader’s journeys and the lack of local YA literature is sad. That being said, I have come across authors like Sara Naveed, and of course I can’t forget Moni Mohsin, amongst others who are adding some much needed variety to the mix.
Even when I do find interesting books based in South Asia, I almost always find myself getting uncomfortable at the over explained and over justified aspects of our culture. We need to stop looking for validation in white western communities for our artwork. In doing so, we are losing the ability to retain our own individuality and identity. Regardless of what we choose to write about, we need to look into ourselves and write the truth about what we are. Not what an outsider would like us to be
If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don't even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that's the job of dressmakers. - Saadat Hasan Manto