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“What Would Bubble Up, And What Would Stay In The Background”

Guernica, the “magazine of art and politics” has lately featured, in a surprisingly synergistic manner,  many topics I muse about and folks I “know” from Sepia Mutiny and other diasporic blogs.

In I Don’t Want To Fight, V.V. Ganeshananthan (aka Vasugi, Sepia Mutiny contributor extraordinaire) and Amitava Kumar discuss what makes a South Asian book and whether such a creature will forever serve up the same old themes of “at least three of the following: a large family or two, arranged marriage, misery, some violence, Bollywood, the interior design of nostalgia which uses the furniture of loss.”

I laughed out loud when I read this. Not so much at its apt round-up of South Asian literary devices, but at the fact that that is a large chunk of my life, minus the arranged marriage.  Oh my god, my life is a book! An open one, even.  Chew on it some more and you realize this is how much of the world lives, has lived, even in Northern Asia, South America, Africa and parts of the United States and Europe.  And now, after 9/11, our subsequent wars abroad and Katrina & The Flood, Americans are catching that general conflict-ridden bug.   That hum which varies greatly in amplitude and frequency given the situation but never goes away.  Vasugi on fiction, politics and people:

… All fiction is political in some way, and it’s interesting to see fiction play out in some South Asian spheres in which talking about politics has become dirty, something polite people don’t do. And of course fiction does all sorts of things, goes all sorts of places, that polite people don’t go. So I was fascinated to ask some terrific fiction writers about politics and war and see what would rise to the surface, what would bubble up, and what would stay in the background.

And some things also stay in the background because in parts of South Asia and its diasporas, war and a kind of unstable politics have been normalized. I am always fascinated to watch characters dealing with their personal lives without explicitly acknowledging the hold politics has on them, even as it affects everything they do. Have they become desensitized? And how does one write about violence without fetishizing it?

In many ways, we are the same and identify with the same.  Yet, new stories continue to emerge from that same, so is the novelty in the subtle twists and each extremely individual experience?  Is X’s arranged marriage different from Y’s?  Is one story of loss in wartime different from another overall?  Is my mom’s experience in the Kuwait of August 1990 different from that of Kathy Zeitoun’s in the New Orleans of August 2005?  I would argue not.  It is dangerous, however, to draw the same conclusions of good guy vs. bad guy and winner vs. loser from stories that are strikingly similar in their motifs.  Stereotypes do not always determine motivation and outcome.

As the world gets smaller, we turn to generalization and compartments to make things easier on us.  We like to say, “I’ve seen this before” and extend those comfortable parallels, and then vote and create foreign policy from our decisions.  This month’s Guernica also carries a wonderful piece by Sadanand Dhume called The Colonized Mind.  Dhume comments on his piece over at True/Slant:

In this essay for Guernica I examine the ongoing Arabization of Indonesian Islam through a visit to the Dieng plateau in central Java, home to the oldest Hindu temples on the island. It’s a snapshot of a civilization in transition, a place caught between an Indic past and an Arabized future. It has nothing to do with terrorism, or for that matter with textbook radical Islam, the drive to order every aspect of society and the state according to sharia law. Yet, I can’t help but feel that twenty years from now, when we look back on Indonesia, it is this moment of cultural change that will be seen as more important than the much more narrowly focused war against the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

This is all so much larger and more subtle than we immediately perceive.  Who knows what will eventually rise to the surface, and what will stay down?  More importantly, how could it not give us new stories?

In related news, Vasugi’s Love Marriage just showed up at my doorstep.  (Look, my reading list is two years long as it is.)  Will report back with my take on it.

4 comments… add one
  • suitablegirl November 18, 2009, 6:02 PM

    Yeah, I chortled at that “interior design of nostalgia which uses the furniture of loss.”-line, too. :)

  • Sadanand Dhume November 19, 2009, 9:01 AM

    Thanks for the plug, though it would have been even nicer if you had spelled my name right.

  • Maitri November 19, 2009, 10:41 AM

    So sorry, Mr. Dhume! It looks like my inability to tell m and n (and some other letters) apart when tired caught up with me. Corrected!

  • V.V. Ganeshananthan January 4, 2010, 3:42 PM

    Thanks for blogging about this, Maitri! And for picking up LM. :) Happy New Year!

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