On Being an American Writer
by Bharati Mukherjee
The whole point was, Calcutta (or wherever) did not exist. We did not have interesting lives. Our own cultures were vaguely shameful, and certainly not fit subjects for serious literature.
We read Jane Austen, of course, and Virginia Woolf. We became masters of Victorian literature and some of us had much of Shakespeare down by heart. For recreation, we read the Russians and French, and for guilty pleasures we dipped into the lending-library fiction favored by our mothers. Think Monica Dickens and Daphne du Maurier. "American literature" was an oxymoron. Americans were the ultimate aliens, too busy churning out movies to bother much with books.
Then, perhaps inevitably, one book, Dubliners, broke through. This was a different kind of appeal, something urgent and disturbing. A door had opened, and I had to enter. Writing (unlike reading) was not just safe and decorative. Suddenly, I wanted to do for Calcutta what Joyce had done for Dublin. My Calcutta seethed with hypocrisy and suppressed misery. Out with Napoleon, in with Narendra.
I mention these long-ago embarrassments only to make the point that I considered myself a writer from an early age. I don't doubt that I would have been a writer if I had married the "suitable boy" selected by my father and had never left India. The kind of writer I became, however, has more to do with coming to America and the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, marrying a fellow student (an America-born Canadian) and moving with him to Canada for 14 years. We returned to the United States when we were both 40 years of age.
My Iowa thesis was titled "The Shattered Mirror," every story an "Araby"-inspired study of Calcutta disenchantment, carefully arranged as to epiphanies. One of them was published in an American quarterly, and merited a letter of inquiry from a Boston publisher. By then, I had a baby and a full load of doctoral classes. As soon I got the degree, I told the editor, I would write her a novel. What followed was The Tiger's Daughter, brought out by Houghton-Mifflin in 1972. I thought of it then as the beginning of my American writing career, but in truth it was the end of that long-nurtured Indian "project."
Because of American visa restrictions, there were very few Indians in America in 1961 when I'd arrived as a student, and because of Indian government restrictions on foreign exchange, there were practically no Indian women in the arts. As hard as it might be to imagine today, there was no Indian community, no models, no readers, and no editors ready to receive work from an Indian immigrant writer. A dozen years later, my second agent told me I had no future as a writer if I insisted on writing about downscale immigration in New Jersey and not upper-class exotica in Calcutta.
That's the reason, perhaps, that I have clung so fiercely to the notion of my un-hyphenated, mainstream place in American writing. Perhaps it's too great a stretch for critics and reviewers to see me, and writers like me, as anything other than "Indian," "Indo-American," or "Asian." I'm far more impatient with hostility from Indian and India-born American scholars in "post-colonial" disciplines who instinctively disparage anything with an American provenance. (Their mantra seems to be that if America or the West in general set themselves up as the pinnacle in social and political evolution, then it is the duty of all children of colonialism to oppose them "asymmetrically," that is, in any way they can.) The nuns in my old Calcutta convent-school were equally dismissive and asymmetrical, without benefit of post-Marxist theory.
My second novel, Wife (Houghton-Mifflin, 1975), was written while I was on sabbatical leave in Calcutta. I was then a Canadian citizen living in Montreal, a professor at McGill University, but also writing my half of a journal, Days and Nights in Calcutta (Doubleday, 1977) with my husband, Clark Blaise. We spent 1974-75 living inside my joint family in Calcutta, surrounded by all my relatives, speaking my native language for the first time in a dozen years -- and I came to a profound conclusion. I was no longer Indian in mind or spirit.
The weight of tradition, even the multifarious tyrannies of a loving family, was no longer tolerable to me. In endless conversations with my old school friends, my parents and sisters, I realized that I had slipped a cog or two. It became clear to me -- another door opening -- that I was an immigrant writer in the tradition of other, older (European) immigrant groups. I had learned more from Henry Roth (Call It Sleep) and the novels and stories of Bernard Malamud than from any Indian writer. And more to the point (since Canada had begun to react against the sudden presence of so many Indians in its midst), I valued the civil rights protections of the American Constitution over the lack of such guarantees at that time in Canada and the U.K.. We moved to the United States in 1980.
Although becoming an American has come at a cost (my husband and I have not been able to teach in the same city at the same time with anything like comparable jobs, as we had in Montreal), becoming an American writer has finally granted me the voice and authority to speak from a community, and for an emerging consciousness. During the 14 years I'd spent in Canada, a viable, even thriving, Indian community had arrived in the United States. In 1985, I published my first book of stories, Darkness (Viking-Penguin), a series of portraits of Indians-in-transition between the pride of cultural retention (exile/expatriation), and the fear of cultural surrender (immigration). In that book, I stumbled upon my true subject matter, my personal "great theme": transformation, in all its grotesque glory. Immigration often involves dislocation and social demotion. Immigrants carry the bruises, and often the scars, from missed signals and misread signs. They've traded their certain place (sometimes humble, sometimes exalted) in a fixed society for a crazy chance at something elusive called personal happiness. I don't say they'll find it; it's enough that they try.
In that spirit, I wrote a second volume of stories, The Middleman (Grove, 1988) and a novel, Jasmine (Grove-Weidenfeld, 1989). By the time of that second volume of stories and the novel that followed it, the theme of "transformation" had freed me to write from inside disparate characters and backgrounds. My concerns were now with a two-way transformation, the sometimes painful recognition on the part of America's native sons and daughters that their identity had been changed by these new "exotic" immigrants, as much as American influence had wrought unpredictable transformations upon its latest newcomers from the subcontinent, the Middle East, Latin America, the Philippines, and southeast Asia.
My three novels of the past decade, The Holder of the World (Knopf, 1993), Leave It to Me (Knopf, 1997) and Desirable Daughters (Hyperion, 2002) take up questions that seem to me a logical continuation of the same thematic concern. Now that a highly visible "new America" has established itself on this continent, how does it accommodate itself to the deeper rhythms of America, even to an American history that seems, on the surface, to have denied their very existence? The first of those novels is set contemporaneously and in the colonial America of the 1650s, restoring a bit of Mugal tapestry to the prevailing gray of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. The second takes up the legacy of Vietnam from the Asian orphan's point of view, and the latest, the unintended consequences of globalization, as it plays out in the hundred-year history of a representative Indian family, both here and in the homeland.
I want to clear the air of unmerited disparagement of American writing, this time not from Irish nuns or Indian intellectuals, but from many well-intentioned indigenous progressives. My defense may sound harsh and open me to misunderstanding. In the 1970s and 80s we heard a lot of criticism from the reading public (the high-minded sorts who routinely endorse Nobel Prize selections) that American writers -- with a few obvious exceptions -- have ignored the mammoth horrors of the 20th century.
We, American writers, are criticized for being concerned with little more than agonizing over questions of identity. And when our novels do address forms of suffering, we are accused of acting out oppression-envy. Authors and readers from countries where a book can result in the author's imprisonment or exile demand how the over-privileged can speak with authority on poverty, injustice, and corruption. What do American writers know of oppression from tradition, from family, religion, the state, and foreign invasion? Americans can settle injustice in a lawsuit. We can escape domestic brutality with a divorce. We can vote the rascals out of office. We can buy state-of-the-art medication to relieve our anxieties and enhance our self-worth.
Even the partially sympathetic critic from Latin America or post-colonial countries -- the critic who doesn't expect a Marquez or a Solzhenitsyn to pop up from our shopping malls, who doesn't scorn the U.S. publishing industry's obsession with mega-dollar advances and circus-like book tours -- is heard asking, "America, where are your concerned writers with stricken conscience?" Aren't you ashamed that you have no equivalents of post-War Germans like Grass and B÷ll, white South Africans like Gordimer and Coetzee, Israelis like Grossman and Oz, and those marvelous Australians like Malouf and Keneally? (The short answer is we have many, and for the most part, the weight of social and historic injustice has fallen upon them personally, and asymmetrically. The longer answer is, look under the bland, well-tended surface. The mini-acreage of disenchantment might hide a mother-lode of injustice.)
In other words, what have you, as a writer, done for societies lacking democratic institutions and traditions, a loyal opposition, a free press and independent judiciary and an honest civil service? As a fiction writer, what responsibilities do you feel for countries that have been oppressed by colonial powers, war, pestilence, religious and tribal intolerance, corrupt police, judges, politicians and journalists, and for societies that are overcrowded, undereducated, unsanitary, and psychologically wounded? The answer to that is: very little. As an essayist, as a concerned citizen, as a world-traveler, I'm well aware of my country's influence in the world for good and evil. I acknowledge the long history of American involvement and encouragement of global forces that often result in widespread devastation (or silence and active discouragement which have the same effect), and try to speak, act and vote accordingly. In countries that have no reliable instruments of redress, writers are often pressed into service as the first witness, or last resort. But in liberal democracies with well-established institutions, fiction writers can afford a modicum of vigilant trust, freeing themselves to celebrate the impacted glories of individual consciousness. That's why Joyce and Proust and Woolf and Borges and Nabokov never got the Nobel Prize. Probably it's why Vargas Llosa and Kundera and Oates and Updike and Roth will wait in vain.
It's not that we're navel-gazing cowards or lacking in conscience; writers are, with some exceptions, a like-minded tribe. On the international level, I've found serious writers to be universally skeptical of authority, ironic, and sympathetic to the lost and baffled. They feast on incongruity and absurdity, they're quick to appreciate another's work and to recognize the different forces that shape it. Nadine Gordimer once remarked she'd wanted to write comedies of manner -- it's the oppressive South African situation that made it impossible. The Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, wanted to make fantasies, even science-fiction films, but Calcutta with all its problems and all its charms would not permit it. The quest for relevance and engagement takes from a writer as least as much as it gives.
About the time I arrived in the United States 40 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, the precocious Philip Roth published his celebrated essay, "Writing American Fiction." The contents of that essay remain pertinent, for in it he laid out the dominant concerns of a new generation of American writers: How does the private imagination compete with the frivolity, the prodigious absurdity, vulgarity, violence, and exuberant replicability of American culture? Its sheer weirdness threatens to mock any attempt at inventing it. And here we have a major difference between American fiction and nearly everyone else's: Nothing here is a given, nor is it permanent; everything is mutable, challengeable. There is no history, there are no barriers, no taboos, no fatwa can be launched, and no secret police will knock on your door. (Or, anticipating the objections those colonial theorists will raise to such blanket assertions -- if they knock on your door, and no one says they haven't in the past and will try it again -- you at least have means of redress.)
Many writers in the world suffer an excess of givens, inherited realities of unforgiving consequence, of narrow possibilities and constricted horizons. It enriches their fiction, lengthens the odds, and raises the stakes. American writers express bafflement in a wilderness of freedom, a vast realm of spontaneous improvisation where the chances are very good that your best stab will not measure up to the next news squib on CNN. What mad satirist thought up the 2000 election in which a poorly designed ballot played a pivotal role in determining the next American president? Is such a comic turn even conceivable anywhere else in the world? And what would have been its bloody consequence?
American fiction is written in a context of relative innocence, a reality that is both limiting and liberating. If American fiction has relevance in the world it is for the odd innocence it celebrates. And this is particularly true of Indian-immigrant fiction, since many of us arrived after the cultural and political wars of the '60s and never experienced the civil rights battles or the Vietnam resistance. We are the beneficiaries of much suffering and heroism, and we've not been called on to pay our dues. Until we do, our innocence is provisional, our freedom is still qualified.
I have been fortunate that my writing-life has corresponded with the arrival of others like me -- and that I was here just a little earlier, in time to greet them. I began my career writing in the comic mode -- a reflection of my inheritance from the norms of Indo-British schooling -- because the early years of Indian life on this continent seemed fresh and exuberant, greedy, ambitious, loving, and awkward. I seemed to be witnessing a blessed interval, the generation or two in the life of an immigrant community, before memories of the Old World entirely vanish, and with them, the codes and norms that have regulated and restricted self-expression for thousands of years. I know when it changed for me. In 1985, an Air India flight from Toronto and Montreal carrying 329 passengers and crew was bombed from the skies 110 miles off the coast of Ireland. Until the bombing of the World Trade Center, it was bloodiest terrorist act of the modern era; it is still the deadliest si ngle air-assault. Nearly all of the victims were Canadians of Indian origin. So were the Khalistani (Sikh-secessionist) perpetrators. We knew some of the victims, the majority of whom were mothers and children heading home for the summer. The cream of a generation, the Canadian first-born, perished in that crash. Indian immigrants, the low-crime, high-achievement "model minority," were the first in the recent wave of modern brutality to suffer a massive act of terrorism on this continent.
My husband and I wrote an investigation of the tragedy, The Sorrow and the Terror (Viking-Penguin 1987), and in the process of interviewing the bereaved, the police and lawyers, even the killers and their supporters, my understanding of the stakes in immigration changed forever. It's not just comic, not just literary; it's a big story and one that Americans will be writing for decades to come.