Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Serial" as an Asian-American Story

I had been hearing a lot about Serial for weeks this fall, though I didn't actually start listening to the podcasts until I heard family members discussing it at Thanksgiving. And then I pretty much devoured it, listening to episodes 1-10 in a single week on my way to and from Lehigh. It was addictive in the best way; for that week at least, my long commute pretty much flew by.

For weeks, various Asian American writers have been criticizing aspects of the podcast. It's not surprising, given that this is a story where the three principal players are people of color (Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee, and Jay _____ ). Meanwhile the entire reporting and production team behind Serial are white.

It's a thankless task to say that a given cultural artifact isn't racist or exploitative -- you get much more traction on social media if you're angry than if you are pleased with something -- but I'm going to do it anyways. I'm here to say that I think Sarah Koenig and company do a pretty responsible job dealing with issues related to the respective cultural backgrounds of the three main characters in the story. I think of Serial as in effect a new part of the canon of Asian American literature.

I've come across a couple of different examples of writers criticizing Serial along race/ethnicity representation lines,  but both seem like flawed critiques. Jay Caspian Kang's essay in The Awl raises a number of issues early in the series, mainly focusing on the first few episodes. To my eye it seems like he's nitpicking more than making substantial criticisms:

Jay Caspian Kang, Serial and White Reporter Privilege

Conor Friedersdorf has a pretty solid response to Kang here:

Conor Friedersdorf, The Backlash Against Serial -- and Why It's Wrong

And more recently, there's an essay by Aditya Desai at The Aerogram that I have been discussing with friends on Facebook today:

Does Serial Fail South Asian Americans?

I find the main point of Desai's essay harder to suss out than Kang's. Indeed, the author himself doesn't appear to have a clear answer to the question about Serial he raises in the title to his piece. At various points he seems to be accusing Koenig and her team of sensationalizing the murder to create a True Crime potboiler -- and there are certainly elements of the podcast that work that way (though the issue has nothing to do with the race/ethnicity question). At other times he suggests that Koenig is out of her depth dealing with the multiethnic cultural stew of Woodlawn and the Baltimore suburbs, but he doesn't point to any concrete aspects of that cultural space that Koenig gets wrong.

I myself wasn't thrilled about the "Rumors" episode (Serial episode 11) initially, but then I read Rabia Chaudry's funny and quite insightful long blog post about the episode here. Rabia actually liked the episode despite its triviality (can anyone really care that Adnan once pocketed a few dollars from the mosque collection fund?), because it showed us something true about the local Pakistani community:

I come now to what I think was the heart of this episode, which is community. What it means to be a community, and what it means to rely on a community.
Sarah pulled back the curtain ever so slightly on the inner-workings of what most insular religious communities are like. People deeply connected to each other, but not always liking each other, spreading rumors quietly, doing things secretively, coming together in times of crisis, but not always being in solidarity. There should be no surprise when things like this happen in any group of people, on some level all communities operate like the Jersey Shore. Its just a bit of a shame when it’s religious community.
And it was not just a shame but deeply painful for Adnan when, after he was convicted, the community interest and support waned. I’ve gone on the record a few times and called the community out (it’s easier for me to do because I wasn’t raised in that community and my ties aren’t so deep) for abandoning Adnan. I’ve gotten some pushback and my mom has told me people in the community don’t like my stance on it. (Rabia Chaudry)
So while people who might be looking for ammunition to critique Serial for the way its handled Adnan's ethnic background might find it in "Rumors," one of Adnan's closest friends and strongest advocates actually seemed to see the value in airing some of that community dirty laundry.

I would also recommend Rabia Chaudry's commentary on episode 10 of Serial, which is the episode where Sarah Koenig deals at length with the questions of racial bias in the prosecution's case against Adnan Syed. That bias was definitely there -- and it was definitely troubling -- and it's possible that had Adnan been of a different ethnic or religious background it might have been easier for the jury to see him as innocent. It's also likely that a better defense attorney might have handled Syed's ethnic background more intelligently. But Adnan's religion and ethnicity by themselves weren't the core of the case; that core was in Jay's testimony and the cell phone records.

According to Rabia's account, Sarah Koenig did seem initially clueless when faced with that weird document that a consultant had drawn up for the prosecution ("An Overview of Pakistani Muslim Thought and Culture"), which talks about Pakistani blasphemy laws, punishment for fornication, the debasement of women, etc. Rabia says that when Sarah first showed her that document, she was livid at the misrepresentations in the document, but that Sarah seemed not to know what to think ("So this isn't true...?) Ouch. However, by the time this document is discussed in the podcast, Koenig seems to be pretty clear -- perhaps Rabia helped her see it more clearly -- that this is a nutty piece of anti-Islamic propaganda that has nothing at all to do with the mindset of a teenager like Adnan Syed. There is a real and lingering worry that anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani bias was a factor in Adnan's conviction, but I don't think Rabia Chaudry is critical of Koenig for how this topic was handled on the podcast itself. And the possibility that anti-Islamic bias was a factor in Adnan's conviction lines up with the overall attitude of the show (as encapsulated in the final episode today) -- that we may not ever know for sure either way whether Adnan did it, but that there's certainly enough reasonable doubt now that he should not have been convicted in the first place.

* * *

Above I said that I consider "Serial" to be a new addition to the canon of Asian-American storytelling. Let me unpack that a little. We've had a number of great works dealing with generational gaps and questions about assimilation (my parents don't understand me... but am I Asian enough?). We've had stories dealing with interracial and intercultural relationships and families (I really want to marry my non-Asian girlfriend, but my family wouldn't understand...). From Gene Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, we've seen the struggles of middle class Asian Americans to sort out their identity and find a place for themselves in the middle of American life. On screen, we have the eminently likeable and untroubling figures of people like John Cho and Kal Penn to make us laugh (mostly; I guess #Selfie was kind of a dud after all).

What we've had less of is the idea of Asian Americans in a complex multicultural setting, where people of several different ethnic groups are all close friends and dating across racial and ethnic lines: whites, blacks, East Asians and South Asians. We've not seen so much the kinds of things that can happen when Korean girls -- with parents who speak little English -- date Pakistani boys who lead prayers at the local mosque. And we've definitely not seen writers like Lahiri deal with what happens to immigrant communities when one of their members gets accused of murdering an ex-girlfriend. So the world and the experiences depicted in "Serial" are new -- and valuable -- additions to the kinds of stories we have seen Asian American writers producing. It so happens that in this instance our guide into that world of Asian American voices happens to be a white woman named Sarah Koenig. For me at least, that isn't a problem. 

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