|Q: Where did you grow up? What was it like?
A: Wilbraham, Massachusetts-home of Friendly's ice cream! It was a sanctuary of trees and fields and apple orchards and dogs on no leashes and safe trick-or-treating. And, of course, ice cream. We considered ourselves quite cosmopolitan next to the neighboring town because we had fewer cows in view. I had a magical childhood there, though I didn't really appreciate the physical beauty of the area till years of living in very urban, however equally enchanting, places.
I was one of three Indian and two African-American kids in my class; there wasn't really a big unified South Asian community in our area then -- my family was one of the first in our part of town -- though it's since grown to a significant size. I didn't feel a connection to the Indian kids specifically for their Indianness; one was actually Indian-born and recently moved to the States and, I discovered later by the very short and seedy grapevine, found me to be "not Indian enough." I had no idea what that meant. The other I became friends with a bit further down the road; the initial connection with him wasn't race, really, though now that's one more thing we have in common.
I didn't feel particularly set apart from the other kids because of my heritage. I did feel set apart -- but maybe everyone does, to some extent, at some point, have that sense that they don't fit so tidily in. Or perhaps it was also because there were a few things that were a little different about our situation: the closeness of my family, for example; I feel like my mother and I went through high school together, and much more since. I didn't have the usual rebellion against my parents; my crazy behavior was to be found primarily on the dance floor, or acting out Madonna videos in the basement. And I was also one of those strange beings that was actually into school.
Growing up, I just didn't really think about my Indianness much-when you live in a town this size, from the age of two to eighteen, with pretty much the same group of people around you, you stop seeing these things about each other. They are the whole world you know, and you are part of the only world they have ever known, and Ramona is Ramona and Jennifer is Jennifer and Brian is Brian, not black or brown or white or purple. If anything, the foreign exchange students stood out more than anyone else!
It was really only when I got to -- the aptly named -- Brown University that I began to consider these issues in a more conscious fashion. And then, in New York City, even more so.
What was it like ...? Like a million different things.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Born Confused.
A: The title is the BC from ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi, a term first generation South Asians in America, and elsewhere, have for these second generation Americans who are purportedly "confused" about their South Asian background. (Desi means "from my country" in Hindi.) The alphabet extends all the way to Z, in fact. Born Confused is a coming-of-age story with an ABCD female protagonist, Dimple Lala, an aspiring photographer living in New Jersey, and is set both there and in New York City, largely in the context of the burgeoning South Asian club scene. The heart of the book is about learning how to bring two cultures together without falling apart yourself in the process; in short, learning how to become yourself.
It is also about what happens when the "suitable boy" your family chooses for you turns out to actually be suitable-due to his sheer unsuitability. And the complications that ensue when your best friend in the world begins to appropriate your culture-and then you try to get it back from her-with unexpected results.
A principal theme in Born Confused is family: the one you are born into and the one you choose, and the moment when these two become one.
And the power of music: the way it really does make the people come together.
I'm particularly excited about it all because I don't believe this story -- the coming of age of the ABCD in America -- has been told in novel form in quite this way, putting into question the very term itself. I believe this book fills a real vacuum -- it did for me simply by writing it -- and is at the same time a very American story. I know I would have loved to have more ABCD heroines and heroes in fiction, and film, and music, when I was growing up, and later, when I was growing up again, and still would. Happily, they are arriving, with suitcases full of treasures.
Q: Why did you decide to write Born Confused? How did you get the idea for it?
A: To make sense of things, to shape a period of cultural confusion and cultural exhilaration -- which can be one and the same thing at times! What does it mean to be Indian? To be South Asian? And, at the heart of that: To be American? And at the soul within that heart: To be yourself?
The last few years have been an amazing and overwhelming historical moment as far as these questions are concerned. Take a look at popular culture, starting back a few years: Enter Madonna and her South Asian phase. Gwen Stefani and the bindi period. Chai in Starbucks; "temporary tattoos" and "body jewels" on runways and drugstore racks. Ganesha handbags and Krishna T-shirts. Tablas and sitars on Billboard hit-makers' songs (Truth Hurts, Missy Elliott). In May 2002, here in London, Selfridges department store had a month-long Bollywood theme, converting their food hall to an Indian-style market, complete with bhel puri stands and such.
From the moment it all began, I found, a little to my surprise, that I was voraciously lapping it up. I even suddenly embarked on a bindi phase myself -- something I'd never even thought about doing before I saw it on MTV. The first day I wore one, by the time I got off the subway and into the office, the bindi had slid well left of center -- something I didn't catch till I went to the bathroom a little later. It seemed symbolic of the whole situation.
All this made me think about a lot of things: Why did a bindi -- an element of an ancient culture and later, in some cases, a symbol of immigrant shame -- look trendy on a non-Indian girl but often outdated and traditional on an Indian one? Why did I even care? What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own -- before you feel like you've even gotten a grip on it yourself? How can you be a minority if the majority is latching on to so many parts of your heritage? What does it mean to be a minority, anyways? What are the prejudices directed towards that group from the outside in -- and those directed from that group out? What are the ones that exist even within that group itself? What if you could find a space (such as HotPot, the nightclub in Born Confused) where the minority became the majority-what might happen then?
Though Born Confused is not an autobiography, many of the key ideas I explore in it were those I discovered and developed from my years in New York City. It was there that I came into contact with the very rich and very intertwined and sometimes very incestuous desi scene, complete with bhangra parties and breakbeat club nights and all sorts of university panels on the subject of culture, and to whom it belongs. I had no idea such a community existed before; it was only after I wrote and directed my first short film (which follows an Indian-American girl's attempt to take a pregnancy test during a romantic meeting set up by her mother) and it screened as part of the Asian-American International Film Festival during its run of the festival circuit, that I was introduced practically overnight to the thriving South Asian (and Asian in general) arts culture in New York City. The doctor-engineer-computer programmer stereotype went right out the window (if it had ever been fully there in the first place). I discovered I wasn't so much an aberration in terms of the things I was interested in as, up till that point, simply in isolation. Dimple's amazement at the sheer number of people out there and thinking about it all is just like mine was; in the heart of it you could really feel a tangible sense of history in the making.
Ironically, this period in my life was the one during which I felt least that I could write, and that I knew least what I was doing in life in general. I had been working on a novel, a series of connected short stories, for a few years beforehand; during that process I discovered that the second generation theme was one of the ones I really wanted to explore, and the James Jones fellowship was a much-appreciated and generous vote of confidence. But a little way down the line a few people, well-intentionedly, told me to speed up and finish my book, because Indian writers were "hot" at the moment, and Indian books were the "in" thing, and if I missed the wave I'd be sorry. Absurd as it seems now, I was so stressed by this, I can't tell you! I didn't feel I was Indian enough to write a book about being Indian, and pronto, to top it off.
A couple years later, I shared this feeling with a friend one night in a little loungey bar in the East Village, and she looked me right in the eye and said, as if it were the most evident thing in the world, "That's what you should write about. Being Not Indian Enough." And then it all clicked for me -- that there was no such thing as "not Indian enough," that this was a negative way of describing a positive identity, a viable culture that exists in the spaces between things, in its own space. An ABCD wasn't a failed Indian, but a being in her/his own right. And I was going to write about that being one day, and in so doing, clear away a little C -- turn the confusion to clarity through creativity, for myself and, hopefully, anyone else who might care to read.
Q: Growing up Indian-American, what barriers did you have to overcome in your life?
A: To be honest, the only real barriers I feel I ever had to overcome were put masochistically into place by me, and weren't necessarily related to being Indian-American (for example, many years of wondering whether I could really finish a book!).
That said, there were still a few recurring themes I ran into along the way.
From the non-South Asian side: I have certainly had my share of where-are-you-froms and finding the inquirers disappointed with the response, "America." As a child, I was asked now and then what tribe I belonged to, was it Cherokee? One time, the mother of a friend from fourth grade freaked a little when she came to pick her daughter up from our house and got a glimpse of my father seated at our kitchen table eating with his hands -- until I pointed out that her own child ate her pizza like that every week in the school cafeteria. For the most part, I don't think these sorts of incidents were instances of malice, just lack of exposure to the culture.
From the South Asian side a few misconceptions, or preconceptions, have evidenced themselves as well: Since I started singing in bands a few years ago, I've noticed that very often South Asians -- usually first generation, sometimes second, and multi-generational South Asians from South Asia -- want to know right away whether I sing in Hindi. (No.) Well, then is there a sitar involved? (Not at the moment.) Tablas, at least? (Sorry, we're straight-up rock 'n' roll: bass, guitar, keys, drums, and mikes, and a little body glitter for good measure.) In New York City, I often found myself in the midst of quickly intense conversations with cab drivers, since so many are actually Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi. I have been asked repeatedly in fast-moving vehicles whether I was married and if not was I going to be married to an Indian boy and did I live with my parents and what did they do and how much did they make and why didn't I speak the language and did I prefer New York to India (no one ever seemed to register that other than a couple just-post-natal years I'd never even lived in India) -- had I engaged in premarital sex, even! I have also had both an Indian and a Pakistani driver refuse to take the fare from me "because we are brother and sister" (at least we were once, said the latter), which was very touching.
From both the South Asian side and non, there have been some misconceptions in common -- the most frequently recurring one being that people often mistakenly think I wear colored contact lenses, because they've never seen an Indian person with such light eyes. When they realize my eyes are actually blue, they usually assume I'm Indian-American in the one-parent-Indian-one-American sense rather than the both-parents-Indian-raised-in-America one. I once did a stint as a broadcast journalist for an Indian news program in New York, and just before we started shooting the producer asked me to take out my contacts and leave my eyes brown; I explained to her that my eyes are actually blue. She worried that I wouldn't look Indian enough for the role, and fretted further when she heard my admittedly hopeless accent on Hindi terms. So the "not Indian enough" can hit you from any angle!
Q: What do you hope readers will learn from this book?
A: I didn't really set out to teach a lesson, just to tell a story. I learned a few lessons along the way myself, though. Several ideas I was working with became clearer to me during the writing process: how identity -- cultural, personal -- is fluid, a continually morphing thing, and that much more of it is in your hands than you think. And that part of the process of coming to terms with your own is learning to put yourself in another set of shoes and walk. People aren't as far away as they can seem; you can maintain your differences, as Gwyn says at one point, and still hang together.
We're living in such a globalized world now -- with the Internet, with so many people having access to travel -- and, yes, there can be a sense of loss that comes with this cultural crossbreeding, but that sense of loss can be greater for those who stay in smaller, tighter communities and have a dialogue only amongst themselves, if at all. If we can find ways to make this cultural exchange more about integration than separation. That can be a positive thing. What is needed is awareness, and the truly open curiosity about "otherness" that can only come about from, at the very least, a sense of respect, and love at best.
So how do you reconcile two worlds, loves, cultures, languages, sexualities, without losing yourself, in a way that allows you to remain fierce and undiluted? It's an issue I'm still thinking about a lot, but I know the core of resolving it could be to stop seeing things in terms of dualities and dichotomies, as so tidily bifurcated, and to start to come to some sort of more global and encompassing view of the world and of identity. In the end, after all, home is where you are.
Q: What are your literary influences? Musical and cinematic ones?
A: Out of the house and hangouts, I don't know who has directly influenced my work, but I do know who gets me giddy: Michael Ondaatje, Dickens, Enid Blyton, Edwidge Danticat, Marcel Pagnol, Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Marquez, Julia Alvarez, Pablo Neruda, Anne Michaels, travel literature, and Zagat's restaurant guide (almost as good as eating out!). Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, U2, Liz Phair, Hole, Sparklehorse, Sleater-Kinney, A Camp, The Cardigans, Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, the B-52s, Asian Dub Foundation, Fiona Apple, Blondie, Serge Gainsbourg, Stevie Nicks, Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx, The The, Badmarsh & Shri, and a lot of music off the Outcaste label in London. Hitchcock, Mira Nair, Kieslowski, Satyajit Ray, Almodovar, Bergman, Gurinder Chadha, Steven Soderbergh, David Mamet, Woody Allen, the Monty Python people, much of French cinema, some Bollywood cinema. And, of course, Madonna.
Q: If you had to pick a quote to fit your life right now, what would it be?
A: "It's a beautiful day!" -U2.