Sapna Magazine Archives

The Archives 2004-2020

Indian Writers in America

The past few decades have witnessed the emergence of a myriad of cultures into the mainstream of Western self expression. Hip-Hop and Latino music became popular, Japanese art became the décor of style, Gay and Lesbian theater became conventional, and the overall U.S. culture became a true melting pot. Though South Asians are notoriously slow to follow such trends, our ubiquitous presence in recent years has proved that when we finally arrive on scene, we do so with a bang.

South Asian culture is officially popular. Defining new styles of music, breaking into Hollywood and Prime Time TV, inspiring an entire Broadway show, taking over fashion runways, and infiltrating the art world, South Asians are demanding to be noticed for more than just computer programming and good food.

Among these artists that intertwine Eastern magic into Western culture are a less glitzy yet astoundingly powerful group of people known as writers. Beginning over 30 years ago with Salman Rushdie, winner of the Booker McConnell prize, and his few contemporaries, the prominence of South Asian writers has multiplied to admirable levels. It is no longer unusual to find an Indian author resting deservedly amongst the Top 20 on the New York Times Bestsellers list, and a significant amount of highly coveted nominations for prestigious awards land in the hands of South Asian authors.

Finalizing the importance of South Asian talent in the literary world was the triumphant awarding of the Pulitzer Prize 2000 for fiction to debut author Jhumpa Lahiri for her compilation of short stories titles “Interpreter of Maladies.” Not only was Lahiri amongst a small handful of authors to receive the Pulitzer for their first work, she was also the first South Asian to ever receive the celebrated prize.

In 2001, Oprah added “A Fine Balance”, by acclaimed author Rohinton Mistry, to her famous book club which guaranteed bestseller success for any book. Not only did Mistry’s novel bring him into the spotlight and win him numerous awards (he was short listed for the Booker Prize), he also received praise and adulation comparing his work to that of Leo Tolstoy.

Vikram Seth is another mainstream South Asian author whose novel “A Suitable Boy” was a highly acclaimed National Bestseller and sold over a million copies worldwide, despite its daunting length of 1,349 pages making it the longest single volume novel ever published in English. His contemporary, novelist Arundhata Roy who used her influence as a writer to promote social activism, was the first Indian woman to have been awarded the Booker McConnell prize for her novel “The God of Small Things.”

With these prominent writers laying out their paths, books by South Asians authors have built a respectable reputation of their own with their vivid tales describing the lifestyles of South Asian people. Some take place in India, some in Pakistan, and many in the U.S., Canada, or Great Britain. But they all have one thing in common, the struggles and passions of South Asians that are so inherently similar to all of mankind that anyone can empathize, yet so simply different in how they are handled that they open up a new world of understanding. South Asian writers have been praised for their ability to capture the essence of their unique and exotic characters and skillfully place them in universal situations.

Publishers have opened up to the South Asian genre and are now more than willing to risk funding a novel that is selective towards one particular country. Writers themselves are more willing to devote their lives to writing about “foreign people” since the growing interested in their culture. The anthology of short stories titled “Best New American Voices” had budding writers Shanti Sekaran of Johns Hopkins University and Devika Mehra of S.W. Texas State University featured in their 2004 edition as writers to look forward to.

A book that becomes a part of Oprah’s Book Club is undeniably read by millions in America. A book that is awarded the Pulitzer Prize is read by millions around the world. Both Mistry and Lahiri wrote of the pain, strength, sweetness and reality in the lives of Indians, thus providing a brilliant means of insight to the minds of millions of readers who may have previously known nothing about them.

Music, movies, and fashion have their distinct roles in bringing South Asian culture into the spotlight. They entertain and accentuate the minds of pop culture and are working well together to create their own niche in the U.S. But it’s the literature of the past decades that has provided the greatest amount of understanding, admiration, and respect to the lives of South Asians. Linking the lives of Indian characters that are so foreign and misunderstood to most of the world, the prominence of South Asian novels in the elite world of literature has brought clarity and unity to our culture that could never be achieved by watching Apu on TV or listening to Punjabi MC on the radio. — SAIRA DOJA