Foreign Correspondence

Writing in the Huffington Post, debut novelist Ru Freeman discusses American readers’ bad habit of turning a fiction writer of foreign descent into a spokesperson for an entire culture. Freeman is Sri Lankan, and she’s noticed how a lot of people reflexively peg her book as a statement about her homeland:

Why is it that when a book is written by a South Asian author and is set in a South Asian country, the reading public expects a dysfunctional stew of communal warfare, misogyny, and abject poverty? Why is it that even when the book is not a last-word on an entire culture but, like any “American” fiction, a story about a particular family, set of circumstances and time period, it is taken to be a definitive statement on the entire culture? I get an email a day from someone who loves my book, which I appreciate – keep them coming! – but whose missive ends too often with some variation of “Thank you for highlighting the sad status of women in Sri Lanka. I’m so glad I live in the United States where I take so much for granted.” No, no, no. This is not a book about The Status of Women in Sri Lanka.

It’s a fair point—foreign-born or “ethnic” writers (to use Freeman’s quotes) tend to be celebrated for bringing the news about their native culture as much as they are for their talents. That doesn’t diminish those talents, or at least it shouldn’t—Jhumpa Lahiri, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, and Ha Jin are important writers in any event. But the expectation of spokesperson-hood is built into those writers, either as a function of readers’ presumptiousness or—to no small degree—a nudge from the publisher. The promotional patter for Freeman’s novel, A Disobedient Girl, exacerbates the very problem she’s agitating against:

Set against the volatile events of the last forty years of Sri Lankan history, A Disobedient Girl traces the lives of three characters whose interwoven fates and histories force them to answer life’s most difficult questions…. A Disobedient Girl is a compelling exploration of personal desire set against the volatile backdrop of class and prejudice, as three women journey toward their future, united by a shared history but separated by different fates.

I haven’t read the novel, but if all I had to go by was Simon & Schuster, I’d figure I was in for a big, broad historical novel about The Status of Women in Sri Lanka.

That’s not to say that Freeman is being disingenuous, just that It’s not unusual for ethnic writers get jacket copy that emphasize that all-encompassing spokesperson-ness. Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, for instance, “evokes the wonder, terror and heartache of her native Haiti—and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women—with a vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bears witness to her people’s suffering and courage.” Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is “a vivid portrait of feudal Pakistan, describing the advantages and constraints of social station, the dissolution of old ways, and the shock of change.” Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu is “suffused with Hindu mythology and the exuberance of Bombay cinema” and becomes “a metaphor for the social and religious divisions of contemporary India.” Never mind matters of style and storytelling—the books are sold as field reports. A decade or so of readers confronting that on the bookstore shelves, and condescending thank-you letters about how powerfully you’ve explained a whole country practically become an occupational hazard.