Figuring Out ‘Good’ Representation as a South-Asian Writer

When I sat down to write my first novel, I felt a lot of pressure upon my shoulders. As a British-Asian woman, I knew my characters were going to be British-Asian too – I’d decided that before the birth of a single plotline. I yearned to see myself in the pages of a book. Through all the years I’d been reading, it had never escaped my notice that people like me weren’t occupying the bookshelves. This left me with a problem to solve as I stared at the blank page. How do you begin to represent a culture that is largely absent from the world of fiction?

Worries and concerns started to swarm my mind. I doubted my ability to represent my culture ‘correctly.’ How do I capture being British-Asian without seeming too British or too Asian? Was it OK to tackle deep-rooted cultural problems? Or would that invite disappointment from my own community for ‘fixating on the negatives’? When white people read this book, shouldn’t they be exposed to all the positives surrounding South-Asian culture? The pressure to write my culture with the sensitivity and authenticity it deserved seemed quite daunting and called into question what could be deemed ‘insensitive’ and ‘inauthentic.’ It seemed impossible to locate my sliver of truth among the voices of a thousand (albeit imaginary) people in my head, pushing and pulling me in opposing directions.

White writers enjoy the privilege of writing their white characters without these concerns, knowing conclusions won’t be drawn about their race from their creative work. If a white reader fails to connect with a character, they have thousands of other books to choose from – thousands of opportunities to find themselves and the experiences they wish to dive into. Asian readers and other readers of colour don’t enjoy the same freedom. So, naturally, when we are faced with a novel holding ‘us’ within its pages, we come to it starved for representation. This book, right here, will reflect my life experiences, we think. However, can one book be relatable for every person belonging to the community it has risen from?

We can reflect on the recent Netflix show ‘Never Have I Ever’ and the stream of mixed responses that came from the South-Asian audience. Most people were celebrating a South-Asian cast, but there was a lack of agreement on whether the representation was ‘good.’ Yet, whether the representation was judged as good or not was dependent on if the one judging could see their experiences included. Here lies the issue. Writers and other artists of colour feel pressured to satisfy everybody’s need to view themselves in a piece of work – to match their concept of good representation. It’s not possible. A culture is a large, complicated tapestry. One novel is just one thread of that tapestry. To create the full tapestry, possessing every facet of culture, we need more threads! One thread will never captivate the fullness, the corners and edges, of a whole community.

Once artists and audiences of colour come to terms with this, they can appreciate the creative work as it is – a fragment of the whole, a piece of the larger picture. Writers can then write with freedom, drawing on personal experiences to create something more authentic, instead of something artificial that stretches itself to fit every expectation of their readers.

But what about white people? We don’t want them to read about our culture and form a negative view, right? We don’t want to perpetuate any negative stereotypes they already hold, right? Here’s my advice to writers of colour… Don’t write for the white gaze. Why would we adapt and change our novel to appease the white gaze? If we begin to worry about the white gaze, we limit our chances of producing something authentic and true. And if we can’t satisfy every reader of colour due to reasonable limitations, why even begin to try to satisfy the white gaze?

When writing All the Words Unspoken, I knew I was going to tackle cultural problems. Did I want white people to view Indians as excessively concerned with what others think? And what about homophobia. If I tackled this prevalent issue within our community, wouldn’t I be painting our community as, well, homophobic? It is not my business if somebody chooses to make these  senseless conclusions. Culture is complex, and we deserve to write about every aspect of it – the good, the bad, the beautiful etc. We deserve to express ourselves.

My advice? Write for your community. Forget the white gaze. The moment you start to pander to the white gaze is the moment you stop writing for the people you are writing about. It becomes the moment you mark your white reader as superior.

The white gaze will always distort and change our stories. We’re stuck with a publishing industry that is overwhelmingly white.  Our stories will be considered too exotic or not exotic enough. As a writer, you will need to defend your choices and watch as your editors and agents fail to understand the differences between Indian culture and religions. As a writer of colour, you’ll continue to worry about representing your culture. However, if you write with honesty and nuance, that’s enough. You cannot please your whole community nor the white gaze. Write something real. Produce your single thread as we work on this tapestry together. In time, other works will join, and we’ll have our tapestry.

Until then, we must try to elevate the voices of those from our community. We deserve to be heard. We belong on the shelves.

Bookread2day – Page 3
Serena Kaur’s book is now available to buy on Amazon and Waterstones.

Links to buy/ preview her book is below

Links to buy/ preview her book is below

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