It made me wonder if this was not the way to go. To rise above any ethnicity, or culture and set my next story in a space which could be anywhere, but not specifically rooted in a known culture Indian, Asian or otherwise. In a way I had hoped to do that with my last series set in Bombay.
Bombay to me is a concept. Traffic ridden, dusty, sweltering, pounded by the monsoon rains. For me it’s dystopia today. It fascinates me. This effect of what happens when you pack in nineteen million people into the main metropolitan area of this city. That’s about 300,000 people per square kilometre, no kidding. Well it does something to daily living dynamics. Specifically then, which part of Bombay you grow up in (the better of South Bombay, or in one of the middle class far-flung suburbs where daily commuting times are in excess of two hours a day) changes the kind of coming-of-age years you have. Do you spend most of it in transit, packed into trains and buses? Or do you amble to college and back. Know what I mean?
So for me Bombay is the best dystopian setting I could imagine for my young hero.
So, when I took it out to readers and reviewers, I found I was promptly labelled as writing multicultural fiction. Because, I had set my story in a city that is still seen as exotic by most of the western world. And yet, if I had stripped the word Bombay out of the novel and replaced it with ‘Lowlands’ or ‘Seven Islands’ or ‘Heat-trapped-marshes’ or ‘Marshlands’ or just called it ‘City Z’ would I have perhaps moved beyond the ‘multicultural’ label, to being in the YA genre?
In Moira Young’s Dustlands series, the characters speak in a specific style. In my book the teens speak a mix of American slang mixed with British words, and use expressions specific to the city. If I had not called it Bombay, would it have been easier for readers to simply accept their style of speaking as a fait accompli. And not necessarily found the need to classify it as American, Indian or British?
Over and over, I am told I don’t write in the classical, Indian literary style. No, I don’t because I am writing a YA action thriller. And my young hero swears. And she is a young girl, who wears jeans, sneakers and cuts herself too, due to her traumatised childhood. And that comes as a shock for those going in expecting what? Arranged marriages? Poetic descriptions of jars of spices? Saffron and sandalwood? I am not sure.
Perhaps if I had simply not called this city Bombay nor given my characters Indian names… well then could I have risen beyond cultural stereotypes, and seen as being mainstream? And here it is, wait for it -- if I had changed my name to a very run of the mill Jane Smith, would I have then moved beyond expectations of the kind of prose I am supposed to write?
These are just my thoughts. After the fact.
Either way, it feels where I am headed is towards my next series being not identifiable with any culture or country. And my characters will perhaps be of indeterminate skin tone and background. At least, none easily identifiable with a specific earthly existing race or religion or language. I think. If it prevents my writing being pigeon holed and helps build a bridge with my readers then why not?
But, you know ultimately what will still tie all my books together?
And the fact that my characters, by being just who they are, will continue to shatter stereotypes.
And that coming-of-age will always be a traumatic phase, no matter which culture or country or non-human species you belong to. Certain themes and values just transcend all differences and that is what I want to tap into.
As for changing my name? No I think not.
And you? I’d love to hear about your experiences and if you think rising above cultural differences is the only way to go mainstream.
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