Monday, July 31, 2006

Hindi v. Hindu: Owning Up to My Cultural Ignorance

This morning I was searching for a particular comment on my novel Divas Don't Yield. Sometime ago I had inadvertently came across a blog by a lesbian author who was concerned about the character Hazel's subplot. To paraprhase her comment, she said that she while she was enjoyiing the novel so far but remained wary of another storyline where the gay gal is secretly in love with a straight friend. This is something that always worried me about the novel even when it was a screenplay called Interstates. Since I decided to devote this Monday to cyber housekeeping, I wanted to locate that blogger and write her to say, "Hey, don't hesitate to call me out if I messed up."

Yeah, I do things like that, and boy, did I have to own up to more cultural ignorance than I bargained for this morning.

In my search, I came across a completely different blog called Four Lucky Feet. The author is a South Asian woman named Mathu Subramanian. She was reading -- and loving -- Divas Don't Yield until the end when I introduced the femme lesbian South Asian character Trishna. While flirting with Trishna, Hazel asks her if her name is Hindu.

What Hazel should have asked, writes Mathu, is whether Trishna's name was Hindi. Hindu is a religion. Hindi is a language. I thought the word Hindu was used to refer to both the religion and the language, and I was dead wrong. And in making this stupid mistake, I spoiled my own book for an appreciative reader and possibly alienated a community with which I only wanted to build alliances.

Should I contact the author and tell her about her mistake? Mathu writes in her blog. Will she be receptive, or will I come off as uptight or crazy? Should I just get over it and realize that no one is ever going to really get what its like to be me, and that every character that resembles me either drives a range rover through the suburbs or cooks lamb curry through her tears over her abusive husband? Should I write my own feminist hip hop novel with a South Asian protagonist, even the closest Ive ever gotten to gangstah is listening to my students debate the relative hotness of Beyonce and Aliyah? Or am I whining over something completely unimportant, and should I just get over it and move on with my life?

To read my comment on Mathus blog, click here and scroll down. In a nutshell, I apologize for the mistake, commend her for speaking her truth and appreciate that she called out my error without attacking my humanity. Oh, and I correct her equation of hip hop with "gangstah."

Despite my best intentions, I took a risk when I attempted to be inclusive in my storytelling and include characters from communities that I do not know that well. I dont regret that risk although I do regret the mistake. Not because just because it was stupid and embarrassing but also because other readers who do not catch the mistake may duplicate it. I think artists should take such risks but only if we are as willing to be held accountable for our misrepresentations as we are accepting of kudos for our accuracy. If were unwilling to do that if we believe our good intentions should absolve us from legitimate criticism when our ignorance can result in more confusion or misunderstanding then we should step aside and let other communities tell their own stories.

I also share this story in the hopes that others will follow Mathus example. Speak your truth, allow others their complexities as human beings. Theres a fundamental difference between assuming the responsibility of educating people who clearly dont bother to educate themselves and giving a sisterly tug on the coattails of someone who has demonstrated her desire to be an ally. You bet that as I continue writing my multiple-part commentary on street lit, I will keep this lesson in mind.

1 comment:

Rod said...

wow... incredible response..
you showed accountability for
your "bubu"... at the end of the day
you both learned something new
about each other... Hindi vs Hindu
and Gangsta vs Hip Hop...