This isn’t about the right to write. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying a writer of one race or culture should never write of people from another. That would mean I couldn’t, for example, write about protagonists who might be of European or alien or bunny ancestry. Me, I’m not about to give up those possibilities! But the truth is that we’re inheritors of our common history, and we’d be fooling ourselves if we pretended that the past didn’t involve the stealing and appropriation of story, as well as land. Further, in the children’s market, we’re writing for “readers-in-progress,” so to speak, since young readers are still developing their knowledge and sense of the world. Don’t we need to make sure we give them material that is accurate? Here are some common errors that can be found in books with South Asian characters, background, or setting. All examples cited below are from actual books, published by major American publishers within the last 15 years.
- Factual errors: errors in historical dates, or omission of significant material. A nonfiction book about Pakistan refers to the pre-1947 region as Pakistan. Excuse me. Did we imagine the entire saga of Partition?
- Errors of cultural representation: names specific to one religion or geographical area are given to characters from another, such as a Hindu kid called Karim; the misnaming of things, e.g., a rural Indian character uses the anglicized term “Ganges” to refer to the river instead of the more natural Sanskrit and vernacular “Ganga.” Or people from one area behave in ways consistent with the cultural practices of another. E.g., a well-known YA novel has southern upper-caste Hindu women covering their heads when men enter the room. That might happen in some circles in northern India, but in southern Hindu traditions it’s mostly considered inauspicious for a girl or married woman to cover her head. Minor quibbles? For those who know their geography, these things could make the difference between a convincing story and a disappointing one. Ignoring them definitely conveys the message that people from the region concerned don’t count.
- Errors of spelling in transliteration of names (e.g., Daskin for Daksin, Kirshna for Krishna).
- Layout and captioning errors: e.g., a stunningly beautiful nonfiction book about one part of Bengal includes a page about the Bengali language. The author has obviously done her homework. But the image of a bit of wall graffiti in Bengali is–upside down! A book about Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala has a picture of a page with Hindi lettering, but the caption tells us this is the Tibetan language.
Turning a cultural tradition or social problem into the raison d’etre of a plot in a work of fiction is another problematic common practice. I read books like that and think, Hmm, where’s the story?
- Finally, that elusive thing, voice. It just doesn’t work to set a story in Afghanistan or Tibet, and then make the protagonist think and react the way an American child would. Surely such “geographical fiction” ought to be approached with the same meticulous research and steeping in attitudes and norms that we are told we must bring to the creation of historical fiction.
If you’re a reviewer, please don’t get swept away by a lush locale or a sorry social context. Give the story the same critical look you would give to one set in a more familiar place and time. Don’t accept the need for narrative to step back and deliver social commentary, any more than you would accept that from a book set in New York City. And ask yourself if the story is doing justice to the place it purports to represent. If you’re not sure, it’s not too hard to find an informed reader to offer additional opinions for you to consider. I was recently sent a review copy of a nonfiction book on Sikhism. I’m not Sikh, so I got a friend who is to read the book and give me his comments. He found a few errors I might have missed, yet confirmed that the author had, all in all, approached the subject with care and respect.
If you’re an author or an editor working on a book set in South Asia, and you are personally unfamiliar with imagery, cultural and social nuance, or other contextual material, please consider using a consultant familiar with the region. Keep in mind that all parts of South Asia are not alike, so if your story is set in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, for example, it will not do to get readers whose knowledge is of Tamilnadu or Bangladesh! In this age of instant comunication, in which every overseas consulate in the continental United States has fax, e-mail, and a Cultural Attache, viewpoints and opinions can be traded and shared with greater ease than ever before.