"Knowing South Asia" -- questions on Indian Literature

Tomorrow I'm going to be a respondent at a workshop called "Knowing South Asia," at YCIAS at Yale. The writers invited include Samina Ali (Madras on Rainy Days), Suketu Mehta (Maximum City), M.G. Vassanji (most recently The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, and Meena Alexander (Fault Lines, among several others). There is a long list of academics involved, many of them graduate students at Yale itself.

We've been invited to contribute questions in advance of the workshop (in lieu of a paper). I thought I would run the questions I came up with by you guys first:

1. On "South Asia." It sometimes seems to me that "South Asian literature" is a construct that has more to do with North American university syllabi than it does with the literature itself.

All of the writers are personally connected with India, though they are also physically located in North America, some of the time at least. And most contemporary literature dealing with the Subcontinent –- including recent writing from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Sri Lanka –- is more or less national (rather than transnationally "subcontinental") in frame. Isn't "South Asia" really a geopolitical term rather than one that is culturally specific enough to actually refer to a community of people or a coherent body of literature?

2. The "Arundhati Roy Trap." When in India recently to promote Vikas Swarup's new novel, British publisher Jane Lawson referred to something she called the "Arundhati Roy trap." By which she meant, writing that is intensely lyrical or exotic in its style. Though her comments seem to be pragmatic and commercially-minded rather than critical in the objective sense (she's thinking about what is likely to sell), her dismissal of Roy raises some legitimate questions for writers as well as critics. How does the post-Arundhati Roy generation respond to Jane Lawson? [See this post]

3. Beyond East/West: the place of the Middle East and Africa in the Indian imaginary. For many years, the main point of reference to "outside" for Indian writers was England or North America. Is that changing? Most of the writers involved in this colloquium refer extensively to the Middle East as well as Africa in various ways. Meena Alexander lived in the Sudan, and has memories of Arabic and the desert mixed mixed in her memoirs with the lush vegetation of Kerala. M.G. Vassanji was born and raised in Africa, and all of the books of his that I have read refer to this quite directly (including his most recent novel, The In-Between Adventures of Vikram Lall). The Middle East in particular is also quite important in the transnational networks that define contemporary Bombay in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. And Dubai and Saudi Arabia are economically and culturally as important as America in defining the crisis facing the Hyderabadi Muslim community in Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days.

Does the Middle East symbolize something for India besides terrorism? And what about Africa? Are the patterns of interaction between these different parts of the world changing? Is India's image of other parts of the third world changing?

4. On Indian writers in Indian vs. U.S. Publishing Houses. Recently book critic Nilanjana Roy commented in the Indian magazine The Business Standard that "The general standard [for books published by Indian writers] is still low; it’s still a struggle every year to recommend great fiction that can stand beside the best of Saramago, Pamuk, Murakami, McEwan, Roth and company; some of what gets published is incredibly dreary, incredibly mediocre." She acknowledges that some very good books are being written every year by Indians (at home and abroad), but she feels that much of the Indian writing published in the west (including that written by people physically located in India) is overhyped, padded by the waves of publicity associated with the western publishing industry. She says that much of this writing is "endorsed by the Western world, stamped with the approval of publishing houses we should be able to trust, foreign editors whose names are legendary, authors who are living shrines."

In a sense this is an authenticity question, but it is also not. Roy is also pointing the finger at the seeming endorsement of writers located in India whose work is marketed for foreign readers. She singles out Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop as an example. In a sense, the problem of authenticity for her is one of marketing and subject matter, not the writer's location. Do you think this is a legitimate distinction? How important is publishing when we think about the situatedness of South Asian literature?

The basic question is: How do you compare the Indian English-language publishing industry with the segment of the American book world dedicated to books by Indian authors?

Note: Nilanjana Roy's articles on Indian literature can be read online: here and here. She also has a blog, Akhond of Swat.

5. Creative Non-fiction. Is there a trend towards creative non-fiction? In recent months we've seen prominent books and essays by people Amitava Kumar, Suketu Mehta, Arundhati Roy, and Amitav Ghosh. Some of them are best known as fiction writers, but all have used the creative non-fiction format to make powerful political critiques, even as they write with a decidedly "literary" sensibility. What is the role of creative non-fiction in Indian (or "South Asian") literature?

Most of these are questions I've raised on this blog over the past few months (see, this blog is useful after all...)

Question (1) came up just yesterday, in thinking about the PEN World Voices festival in New York. Question 2 I talked about here. I responded to Question (4) a couple of months ago. I now think my answer was a little too hostile; also, Nilanjana's follow-up column published in The Business Standard cleared up many of my concerns.

Any thoughts on any of the questions?