Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Got me thinking...

Ack... Another, uhm, month I've been gone here. Where does the time fly, eh? Now I know I say this a lot, but this time I mean it. Why else would you see me posting on a Wednesday? Oh well, aside from the fact that I just put the darndest and most harrowing uni semester ever behind me and getting on my own two feet after the other happenings...

This blog is gonna roll again! Twice a week. One for a perception-tunnel type of post (can include links to articles on the Web) and the weekly life-and-writing round-up.

Now since today is not Friday, guess what? Yup, it's the new Perception Tunnel spot on my blog.

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article on stereotypes, especially when one is writing multiracial characters. I won't post it here today, coz my focus is on another article I stumbled upon when reading that. It was a post by author Camy Tang, and you can find it here. In it she was talking about how she got the 'revelation' and decided she'd write what she knows best, namely Asian-American fiction.

This struck a chord in me, because she reminded me of me when I started writing. At the time, I had just finished reading the humongous A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. While the political scene-type of plot and descriptions made my eyes glaze over, I was completely taken in by the life and woes of the characters in there. Latta, the heroine, who loved a Muslim boy, Kabir, in the time of India's Partition that seemed to have set the wheels of Hindu-Muslim hate and animosity in motion. Her nagging and drops-in-a-faint-with-nerves-at every-opportunity mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra. I was lol and most of the time going, this is so much like the life me and my friends live even today.

At around the same time, I watched Bend It Like Beckham, and other culture-type movies such as Bride and Prejudice and American Desi. Movies, and ultimately stories, that called to every young person of Indian origin the world over.

That's it there - Indian culture. Be it my friend who lives in India, my cousins who live in England, acquaintances in America, random strangers in Mauritius - we all share something in common, and that is the Indian culture. We all know that when there is a wedding, you're expected to wear kurtis and churidars or saris that bare your midriff but goodness gracious, girl, your legs should not show! We all know that as long as you're playing Indian music, be it A.R Rahman or movie soundtracks or bhangra, as long as the lyrics are Indian, go on and go balle balle! No matter if the music is telling the story of girl power and how every girl should go out and just hook up with that great-looking bloke for a night of great no-strings-attached sex, it's Indian, you know. Shania Twain and her profound lyrics a la From This Moment does not stand any chance coz, shame, she's Western!

I've grown up in this kind of world, and yes, it is the one I know best. So what better than an Indian-cultural inspired story for my first novel? Now Indian-based is done out there. What would be my difference? Well, no one had written about my land, Mauritius. Mind you, there are lots of Mauritian reads out there, but the Bend It Like Beckham type? Nopes. I had my angle. The rainbow island, where almost every culture on Earth dwells in peaceful harmony. Uh, let me correct that - seemingly peaceful harmony. No, we don't break out in religious fanatism-type of riots or anything like that (thank goodness!) but there are definite little currents running beneath the surface. Like the fact that you stick with and marry your own 'kind'. That friendship is okay with others but remember your 'own'. That 'why would you do like them others?' I guess you cannot escape all that - it's human nature after all. But in all the differences, there are way lots of similarities.

Like every young girl, whether White, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Black, Chinese, gets asked the question at and after she turns 20 - when are you getting married, dear?
Like every mom, from whatever cultural, ethnic or religious belonging, goes into a fainting spell the day she hears her daughter has a boyfriend (usually tipped off by an anonymous phone call).
Like every young person, be it whatever his or her cultural and religious upbringing, having their gaze crossing that of another across a crowded room and going, could he/she be the one and immediately thinking, I hope she's of the same religion/culture/ethnic origin as I am otherwise there'll be hell to pay.

I've written my first story, The Other Side, with all this in mind, and I guess people have noticed. I've been told the issues and situations and the way they were depicted were profoundly Mauritian, but done in a light and humourous way that was light-years away from the usual drudgery of Mauritian literature. This was by Mauritians. I've had Indians telling me I could just transpose the setting for India and the issues would still apply. Even 'weirder' to me was having African-Americans telling me they 'got' the story and plot and issues too coz it had striking similarities with their world.

And then something happened. I was 'told' culture-based 'does not cut it anymore'. I was advised to steer away from the culture-issues even if I did keep the setting. Stories are universal, apparently. I was to focus on characterization and plot and leave the culture threads behind, or weave them in as little as possible coz 'culture-based is not cutting it anymore.'

From this blow and discouraging note, I moved onto culture-free writing, developing the Nolwynn Ardennes novels. I had, and still have, fun with them, but they're not all I wanna do. I want to write about nagging aunties, overwhelming moms, cultural divides, roots, identity, the culture that shapes us into who we are.

As I am now at a point where I can afford to take stock of my writing and decide what to do with it, I realise I miss the culture-based fun. Every time I watch American Desi I laugh just as hard. There is definitely something about over-confident Indian guys who brag that they can cook Indian food and then you see them tossing a chapatti directly on the flame and emptying a whole 1-pound packet of garam massala in a dish of 1-pound raw dhal (lentils)! Every Indian or anyone who has Indian culture in their makeup will laugh at this scene and shake their heads. Or when the hero, Indian-American who is totally clueless, goes to the Indian shop and asks for N-ayyy-n (when it is pronounced N-aahh-n). Or the shopkeeper who is trying to pass the barcode twice to have the customer pay more and the old auntie notices and starts whacking the shopkeeper with her mojri (flat, bejewelled sandals).

Where is that in my writing? Sadly, it's gone. I took the advice I was given and tried to streamline. I was 'scared' by the prospect that every one of my books would sound the same if I had overbearing and nagging old aunties in them. But you know what? Overbearing nagging old aunties is what maketh a big part of the world I know. I recently lost an aunt, and with her I thought we'd lost a whole generation of nagging, question-asking type. But lo and behold - her daughters and daughters-in-law are stepping in as the new wave of nagging, question-asking and overbearing aunties! Which means these type of old ladies will always be a feature and a fixture of Indian culture.

You may ask why I always mention culture and never religion. That's because, to me, religion is between you and whoever/whatever you choose to believe in. And culture is a way of life. A Muslim in India, while praying exactly the same way, will not live and experience the same kind of setup and setting as a Muslim in the countries of the Maghreb or other American Muslims. But a Muslim in Mauritius, a Hindu in India, a Sikh in England, a Marathi in Singapore, a Tamil in Australia, a Jain in America - all of them have one thing in common, and that's the Indian culture and way of life. Complete with nagging, overbearing and question-type aunties! That's what I write about, and if it never sells, well, it is what I write about, in the context of today's modern Mauritian society, a land that is about 300 years old and only stood on its own two feet 42 years ago.

So there you go - my writing as Aasiyah Qamar. Mind you, I'll still write as Nolwynn, but now I'm out to have some fun too. Starting with, you know what, overbearing, naggin-- I'll stop before I get overbearing!

From now till later, Cheers!