Books

Short Stories: American Writers of South Asian Origin

Architecture image by Pexels (CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay)

In the US in this year alone there have been new short story collections by at least five fine writers with origins in the Indian subcontinent: Vandana Singh; Akil Kumarasamy; Neel Patel; Chaya Bhuvaneswar; and Anita Felicelli.

In 2015, author Mira Jacob gave a keynote speech about race to the publishing industry. In the article she wrote about it, she described a frustrating back-and-forth with a radio show producer about how to refer to her story's characters, who were of Indian origin. East Indian? Asian Indian? South Asian? Asian American? She was describing a more widespread problem of casual discrimination in publishing and media where works by writers from parts of Asia were not being published much at the time and they were also being told their characters and stories were "unrelatable".

Things have gotten better in the short time since. This year, especially, has seen more ethnically diverse works being published than ever before. Big-name awards have more writers of color on their longlists, shortlists, and winner lists. Literary sites and reviewers are being more careful about highlighting books by writers of color. Literary festivals and events are making sure their panels have more diverse names headlining them. Much good has happened. Much more needs to be done.

And yet, when people in the US talk of fiction writers of Indian origin, it seems that the usual few names are always repeated, e.g., Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Arundhati Roy. Surprisingly so, because there have been many more American writers with origins in the Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) writing novels, short stories, and nonfiction books for decades and even winning awards for them.

Interestingly, this is not as big of an issue in the UK. The primary reason could well be the greater visibility and assimilation of multiple generations of British-Indians across many parts of British society. (Although, with Brexit, this has created its own set of problems for some of them.)

More puzzlingly, in India, the attitude toward diasporic writers is divided. Those from Britain are more well-known and well-regarded than those from the US. This is likely due to old, colonial ties with Britain that will never be severed. But more often, it's because British-Indian literature is marketed much better in India than Indian-American literature. India-based outposts of global publishing houses also prefer British-Indian writers' books for the local market over Indian-American ones. In fact, given the way Indian-American fiction is reviewed in India, there seems to be an inexplicably widespread and high-handed disdain for it. This is somewhat reflective of a larger preference, in general, for British writers over American ones. Nevertheless, it's a weirdly persistent phenomenon.

In the US in this year alone there have been new short story collections by at least five fine writers with origins in the Indian subcontinent: Vandana Singh; Akil Kumarasamy; Neel Patel; Chaya Bhuvaneswar; and Anita Felicelli. Spanning vast geographies and a range of themes, the five stories below are rooted together in the same longstanding sociocultural identities and traditions with all their associated conflicts.

'Cry of the Kharchal', by Vandana Singh (Clarkesworld)

Vandana Singh is a speculative fiction writer from India and teaches physics at the university level in the US. This 14-story collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (Small Beer Press; February 2018), is filled with scientists experimenting with life and relationships as naturally as they do with the space-time continuum. The settings vary from parts of India, parts of the US, and even otherworldly parts.

There are many complex themes in these stories and the language gets rather dense with technicalities at times. But Singh often makes even weird science concepts sound like beautiful poetry. The most engaging aspect of this book is her own widely-ranging and visionary imagination, where she merges eastern and western tropes and traditions and even blurs the lines between genres and narrative styles.

She was no more than a breath, a tongue of air, tasting, sensing, divining. She swept through the hotel ramparts like the subtlest of breezes. She had done it: made time stand still. Her people, so scattered now, so weak, had helped her draw the power from the sandstorm, turning its energy against itself so that, for a brief moment, it lassoed time itself. Perhaps the moment would be long enough...

Incorporeal though she was, she still thought in physical terms. Thus she thought of the threads of stories that she held in her hands, ready to be woven into something that would change the fabric of reality. She thought of the heavy attire she had worn as queen, and the wings, the yearning for flight over the desert sands, the flight west. All that was gone, but she was still here.

'At the Birthplace of Sound', by Akil Kumarasamy (Boston Review)

This is from Akil Kumarasamy's debut collection, Half Gods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; June 2018.) The ten stories are interlinked and span across parts of America, Sri Lanka, and even Angola. The characters are mostly displaced people searching for identities and connections as they deal with war and other large and small conflicts. Mostly, we follow two brothers, Arjun and Karna, who are named after demigods from the ancient Hindu epic, Mahabharata. That said, this is not a mythology retelling but a loose, fluid interpretation through a contemporary narrative.

Kumarasamy's prose is certainly well-crafted and riveting, though some stories have an uneven pacing — meandering or galloping unexpectedly. There are many beautiful lines throughout, highlighting the kinds of typically unnoticed details or emotions that merit a pause and reread. These are not traditional plot-driven stories but more event or moment-driven ones. As such, the characters are not always fully-dimensioned but they are carefully etched with just the necessary contours and nuances.

You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student. An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it's something borrowed, not owned. Like all those hand-me-downs that belonged to your brother your mother saved, so you were always five years behind the latest trends. Who you are right now is temporary, you tell yourself when you break out with acne and miss an audition. You are careless with your mouth and say things you shouldn't say to waiters, to pedestrians, pretend you are tougher than you really are. The fact that you're an actor makes your off-screen bullshit feel natural.

'Everything About John's New Boyfriend Is Perfect – Except He Has A Wife' by Neel Patel (Buzzfeed)

This is one of 11 stories from Neel Patel's debut collection, If You See Me, Don't Say Hi (Flatiron Books; July 2018.) Almost all the characters here are first-generation Indian-Americans from across the US. Patel looks closely at the clashes of west versus east, tradition versus modernity, and more. Like Kumarasamy's people, these are not the typical "model minority" folks often portrayed in news media (although, that has been changing recently too.)

Patel's voice is more ironic, wry, even satirical. His language is spare and he takes great care to avoid caricatures as he explores themes related to racism, sexuality, sibling rivalry, etc. Despite that, there are moments when the narratives get predictable and the plots run sluggish. Still, overall, this is a daring collection because it presents Patel's own Indian-American generation in ways that have not been seen in fiction so far.

Every now and then, I asked Ashwin about his wife: in line at the movies, or after a beer.

Or after we'd screwed.

He would reach over and take the cigarette from my hands, kissing my smoky mouth. Then he would change the subject. I never believed for a minute they were intimate. I never believed he was in love.

I'd met him at a gay bar. He was shy and even a little rude when I walked over to him and introduced myself, shaking his hand, and later, when he'd rejected me, going home with someone else.

I wanted him then and there.

'Elephants in the Pink City' by Anita Felicelli (Joyland Magazine)

This is from Anita Felicelli's 13-story collection, Love Songs from a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press, October 2018.) It won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Fiction Contest, judged by Porochista Khakpour. It has also received high praise from writers like Laura van den Berg, Shanthi Sekharan, Chris Abani, and several others.

Felicelli has written a couple of other books but this is her first full-length adult fiction. The stories cover a wide geography — from Rajasthan, India to Silicon Valley to France to Madagascar. Focusing on first and second-generation Tamil Americans, the themes here are about immigrant identity, sexuality, motherhood, memory, reinvention, and that perennial struggle of being caught between two cultures. Indian mythology is threaded through in places with elements of magical realism. Felicelli's storytelling often starts out in a deceptively benign manner before plunging into sudden depths. Her language is mostly restrained and subtle so that the big moments are not so much about explosive drama as about essential revelations.

In the morning, the Sarma family explored the Jaipur palace hotel grounds, Kai lagging a few paces behind his parents and little sister. As they strolled through the spring gardens past blue iridescent peacocks with fanned-out tails, he daydreamed about what it might be like to be a prince, to have the world at your feet. But, as they passed the long gravel drive, his thoughts shifted to consider the mystery at its end—the chaotic streets of the Pink City, a phantasmagoria of forts and street markets and fortune-tellers.

Reading to his family from the guidebook, Gopal explained that the palace, a sedate tan edifice with Islamic filigree and blood red railings, had been converted to a hotel in 1925. "We got special rates because I'm still an Indian citizen."

'Neela: Bhopal, 1984', by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (Narrative Northeast)

Chaya Bhuvaneswar's debut short story collection, White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books; October 2018), is the winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. Praised by the likes of Lauren Groff, Jimin Han, Anthony Marra, and many more, this collection has already made many "best-of" and "to-watch" book lists for the year.

All the stories here are about women of color dealing with sexual and racial harassment and violence. Bhuvaneswar's own medical background is reflected in many places. There is plenty of Hindu mythology and magical realism too. The settings vary from London to India to various parts of the US. Bhuvaneswar's narrative register ranges wide between gritty and poetic. At all times, however, her language is vivid and visceral. The pop culture and political references scattered across some of these stories give them a compelling immediacy and specificity.

You have always trusted the forest. Here, danger could be seen and is known. The floor of the forest is layered with cool leaves that can be used to cover up faces. You're lying here, laughing and out of breath; your brothers are lying beside you. The first one to move will be tickled by the rest, who will pretend to be monsters and fake-growl with the hunger of thin ghosts. All of you watch for the glint of teeth and the dazzling coils of predators.

The dense brush holds tigers, snakes, and water in a tiny creek that tastes fresh after the rain — your younger brother knows the best places. The edge of the pretend forest, a neglected city garden, is where you and your brothers purchase time by tickling each other, or running and scrambling over rocks. As if the four of you never had to work. As if your father never accepted a packet of rupees and four quintals of wheat, one for each of you. As if he never told you when you were nine, Neela, go.

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