Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I am a student, first and foremost...simply because I pay quite handsomely and it is a priority. Other than that, I am a fairly level-headed lady, even if I am guilty of having a single-tracked mind. By that, I mean that I am focused on what I want, and even though I want many things (a new car, to pay off all my debts, lose weight, get an internship, etc), I have learned to compartmentalize in order of priority.

For example, if I have a test, I will forgo the gym and just study. If I am almost done with a book, I will leave my homework for the next hour to finish the amazing novel. I have my priorities and nothing I sacrifice ever bothers me because no matter what I do, I know that it had to be done. For instance, if I had to ditch a class to write a paper, then I will not beat myself up about it.

However, I am bothered by one thing in my life.

All of my romantic encounters have been from a third party source. That is to say, any emotions I feel over the opposite sex is triggered by a novel, magazine article, picture I stumbled upon on Google, or definition. In my art class, my professor relayed a story about one of his earlier teaching years when he taught English. Apparently, he had his class read a Tennyson play about a woman who was forced to take care of her ailing mother and fell in love with her neighbor-cum-doctor. She realizes that he did not return her affections and ran off with a traveling salesman. He told us this story because he was shocked that one of the girls from his class told the dean of that college about this "horrible play". Turns out, it struck too close to home for her and she resented it.

It is my impression he was mocking her.

One term he said today to describe the girl from the play was that "she had never received sweet nothings in her ear, or any male attention."

I was walking back to my room, feeling sorry for myself for being in the same boat as both girls when I realized my situation. I'm not saying that I live in a continual state of ignorance to the fact I have never in my life had any prospects for dating, or have even received signs of interest concerning my person from the opposite sex. I just don't focus on it because I know if I do, I will depress myself. After all, out of sight out of mind, right?

The reason I am writing this post is because I resent my romantic-less situation. I was pondering my professor's statement when I realized that I don't even know what a sweet nothing would be! The distressing part of that was my immediate thought: "I'll look it up on Google."

How is it that my life is so pathetic and void of romantic/sexual/interactive-with-the-opposite-sex-on-things-not-pertaining-to-academia experience that the only way I know what the lingo is, like I mentioned already, by third-party means? I resent that I am almost 21 years old and I have never had a man whisper sweet nothings into my ear, have had my hand held, been regarded with affection, sparked interest in someone's eye, or have even been lusted after.

I cannot hold it against every member of the opposite sex because I do not blame them for passing me by. For God's sake, I live in the plastic surgery capital of America...maybe the world, and if an attractive man can get with an attractive woman, I understand. I am also shallow. But I see plenty of ugly women around who have a man. I see girls who are half my age who lament being single for more than a week.

At the same time, I am ecstatic that I am not dependent on a man for my happiness because I am completely capable of taking care of myself. I just want a man to take an interest in my life because I am interesting, not because he thinks chatting me up at work will get him a better review, or because he feels compelled to smile back at me when I say hello.

Damn it, I am an interesting, fun, compelling, smart, and funny lady! I hate that the only people who recognize that are my friends and my mom.

Like I already said, I do not focus on this issue of my life because I know if I do, I will just depress myself beyond anything. It is the most emotional issue in my life and you would know how intense that is if you could see me now. Even my mom doesn't know how to handle me on the rare occasion that I cry.

I think the part that upsets me most in the voice in my head that can now add to its ridiculous repertoire of laments the line: "There aren't even any traveling salesmen who can sweep me away."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Plagarism without Cheating

I cannot help but notice this will be the second post of the month, which, until now, has been irregular for my blog. But let's face it--you aren't around my blog often enough to know that.

Anyway, in searching the interweb for Mystical Realism stories to expand on my knowledge of the genre to adequately produce an assignment on the topic in question, I stumbled upon this article. I wish to share it with you because it is beautifully written and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Happy Reading!

The God of Literary Trends
By Noy Thrupaew, AlterNet. Posted June 24, 2002

Wanted: South Asian beauties to pen delicious tales of kitchen squabbles and sparkly saris, imbued with quirky, food-based exoticism.

"You know, you really should be looking for the next Arundhati Roy."

I plucked at the phone cord wrapped around my neck, sighed, and said, "Oh, absolutely."

It was 1998, and I was working at a publishing company that had just launched an imprint featuring "the writing of women of all colors." It was my internly task to call independent booksellers across the country to find out what and whom they thought we should publish. Their advice inevitably boiled down to variations on one response: "That Indian subcontinent is really hot. Oh, oops, do you say 'South Asia' now?"

"Nah, our customers don't really like stuff in translation. But have you read that Jhumpa ... "

Yes, yes, yes.

Literary brown ladies were the new new thing. Arundhati Roy's poetic, multilayered novel "The God of Small Things" had just garnered the Booker Prize. Jhumpa Lahiri would debut in 2000 with "Interpreter of Maladies," her collection of elegantly written short stories that went on to win a Pulitzer. But Roy and Lahiri were just the beginning of what was to become a craze for South Asian and South Asian-American women's writing.

Of course, this wasn't the first time the publishing world had found its newest darlings in female writers of color. And it wasn't the first time bookstores would create pretty displays of books by authors of a "hot" ethnicity, or the first time readers would strip those displays as neatly as ants eating a sandwich at a picnic. The early '90s saw an explosion of Latina narratives a la Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate." And Terry McMillan's success with "Waiting to Exhale" in the mid-'90s ushered in a rash of books in which middle-class black women griped about their no-'count men.

Color has become a marketing boon.

Interviewers probe into a writer's upbringing, seeking out ethnic factoids for a voracious public. Details about unusual foods, struggles with immigrant parents, and cultural oddities are all fair game. And in the case of attractive authors, whose images are emblazoned all over magazines and poster-size publicity photos, one can hardly be sure what is for sale anymore -- the "company" of a beautiful, exotic woman or the power of her words.

The Importance of Being Exotic
What is it that makes a certain ethnic genre hot? If I could nail that one down for sure, I'd be rolling around in a room filled with nothing but money. But one can hazard some guesses.
Many of the Asian-American and Latina books had lots of incense and spirits -- "ancient Asian wisdom" and religious tidbits, or mystical realism in the form of pissed-off ghosts and fantastic visions. They also featured nearly pornographic discussions of food; Isabel Allende's "Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses" even had recipes. The mystical stuff and the food seem to reflect the reasons why some white people are drawn to different cultures -- either in search of religious or spiritual enlightenment, or to exhibit their open-minded adventuresome selves by eating our food. Our cultures are tagged as "better" somehow -- closer to the earth, purer, more attuned to sensory pleasure -- but in nice, non-threatening ways, wrapped up neatly in fortune-cookie wisdom or duck tamales.

The doyenne, the matriarch, the empress dowager of all women-of-color literary trends is Amy Tan. The success of "Joy Luck Club" prompted a flood of Asian-American novels, whose "exotic" content was mirrored in their titles. Asian-American women's fiction titles often featured either: a) some nature-related motif to show that we are in touch with the elements (Gail Tsukiyama's "The Samurai's Garden," Mia Yun's "House of the Winds"), b) a familial relationship that displays how wonderfully traditional we are (Tan's "The Bonesetter's Daughter," "The Kitchen God's Wife"), c) or the number 100 or 1000 which demonstrates that we are an ancient, wise people fond of the fairy-tale trick of enumerating knowledge. (Yoshikawa's "One Hundred and One Ways," Tan's "The Hundred Secret Senses"). Some titles even double up on these themes, such as Mira Stout's "One Thousand Chestnut Trees."

Two other Asian-American mini-trends emerged in the late 90s. One comprised novels like Mei Ng's "Eating Chinese Food Naked" and Catherine Liu's "Oriental Girls Desire Romance." Instead of Tan's bickering kitchen wives, here were hard-bitten, angst-ridden Asian-American protagonists who had ostentatious sex by page 30. Hot-pants Asian books seemed to fulfill readers' appetites for sex that was extra-spicy for being ethnic.

But if Asian women weren't screwing, the publishing world wanted them suffering (and maybe bravely triumphing after they got themselves to the United States). The Asian historical memoirs were based on a simple formula: Asia was hell; the United States is a hell of a lot better. This is not to disparage the truly awful circumstances of many of the authors' lives. Being abandoned, purged, "reeducated," jailed, tortured, chased, hunted, raped, and/or nearly murdered in Cambodia, Vietnam, or China would leave scars on anyone's soul. But the Asian- hell-to-Western-heaven motif leaves a U.S. reader in a nicely complacent spot: reclining in a La-Z-Boy and thinking, "Well, thank god for America!"

Attack of the South Asian Women
Despite all the doom and gloom I've laid out so far, literary trends can be good for women writers of color. At least more voices are finding their way onto the store shelves; one can't protest the fact that Americans are expanding their reading horizons, or that female authors of color are receiving much-deserved attention. I'm not advocating a return to the color closet for authors -- why shouldn't ethnicity be ripe for novelistic exploration? And even if the books are published as part of a trend, they are often far from formulaic.

While "My Year of Meats" fits the multigenerational aspect of Asian- American women's writing, the tale of a feminist documentary filmmaker who uncovers the sordid underbelly of the U.S. meat industry is radically wonderful. And even the much-imitated The Joy Luck Club hit on something lasting and powerful -- the fierce, complicated love between mother and daughter.
So I tried to feel optimistic when the South Asian craze appeared in the late '90s. It became a juggernaut among ethnic trends, shaking the book world from top to bottom with the potent combination of crossover appeal and literary acclaim. The work of Indian women had been notably absent from our bookshelves. But now stores were suddenly flooded with it -- Kiran Desai's "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," Indira Ganesan's "Inheritance," Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Mistress of Spices," among others. The books and the attention they brought with them were especially welcome, considering that the modern Western literary realm was already a rich one for South Asian male writers like Vikram Seth, V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie.

On the happy side, the books were generally wide-ranging in style and topic, some drawing on Raymond Carver more than Rushdie or Seth, others exploring the complexity of a diasporic identity. As much as one can generalize, these authors were writing some wonderful literature. And although the texts were often seen as part of a single, monolithic publishing identity, their styles and subject matters varied greatly, with a broader range than was usually present in a given ethnic trend.

Inevitably, however, I started to feel an itch of irritation. It wasn't just the spread of the craze and the concurrent cultural obsession with all things Indian -- something chafed beyond the sight of a Sanskrit-mangling Madonna, blotchy with, or the ubiquity of foul-tasting boxed chai. There were many other dark reasons why this infatuation annoyed as much as it pleased.
For one, there was the distasteful fawning over the authors' beauty: Roy was gushingly named one of People's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" in 1998. After her Pulitzer, Lahiri was crowned a "Woman We Love" in Esquire. There was the awful sameness of the booksellers' responses when asked about exciting female authors of color -- all South Asian this, Indian that.
And although most of these writers avoid the kind of mystical realism (also labeled as "Rushdie-itis"), some share a certain tinkling, quirky, food-based exoticism -- offering a tired roundup of the angst of arranged marriages, bitchy squabbles over whose chutneys and pickles are better than whose, and slobbery details about saris.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Kiran Desai's debut features Sampath, an affable dreamer who seeks to escape the hubbub of life by climbing into a tree. Unfortunately, he then finds himself besieged by crowds who claim he is a holy man. Riotous high jinks ensue -- drunken monkeys marauding through the village, Sampath's mother embarking on a mad quest to plunk a monkey into her curry, etc. This pleasant, pastoral, chutney-flavored fable is sort of entertaining, but Desai's characters are that easily dismissed brand of colorful, weird, and harmless; one can close the book and think fondly disparaging thoughts about their foreign little ways.

Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Punjabi-Canadian critic Phinder Dulai offered up a biting criticism of what he termed the Indo-North American novel: "In the North American-style Indian novel, the focus is on domestic family prattle while larger themes of migration, racism, caste and generational conflict are barely touched. When things get too hot, the characters can slip away to the kitchen or the pickle factory to cool off."

The Failure to Represent
While Dulai's attack on such gloppy romanticism is well-deserved, his critique also reveals trendification's double-edged sword: Readers of color can place as many restrictions on "their" writers as mainstream expectations can. Many do grapple with serious themes: Lahiri, for example, addresses the bloody creation and partition of Pakistan and India, poverty, harsh discrimination against women, and familial fractures. However, there is a certain amount of variation in any given literature -- is the onus of political seriousness necessarily greater for writers with brown skin?

Some would say it is: that if someone has made it past the gatekeeper of literary trends, they have a responsibility to speak for the people. When an author of color makes it big, he or she is sometimes viewed as the returned messiah, full of potential uplift but also heavy with the responsibility to take on all the experiences of the oppressed and relay them to the world in great tablets of wisdom. When the author reveals him- or herself to be a mere human telling a tale spun from one imagination, the crown of thorns is angrily snatched back, to be placed on the head of the next likely candidate to come along.

This sort of pressure is almost too much to bear: Who wants to be a sure-to-fail Jesus, dealing with the dashed expectations of a disappointed people? And critics of color often blame the wrong individuals. Those crushed hopes have more to do with the gatekeeping forces of literary cool than the power of any one author's pen. If there were truly more diversity in the literary realm, we wouldn't have to rely on only a handful of imaginations to represent us.

Another oft-heard criticism of immigrant literature is that it is not true to the motherland. It's part of the endless debate about the effects of diaspora on cultural identity -- and no one's going to win that fight. People have been waging it since kids first left their parents' homes. What boils down to arguments of purists/traditionalists against rebellious hybridists/iconoclasts ultimately makes for tiresome book reviews. Better questions might be: Is this author exoticizing her ethnicity? Is she just feeding the public more stereotypes of lotus- blossom ladies and guacamole-hipped mamas? If she's inaccurate or exceptionally critical or dewy-eyed in depicting the culture of her forebears, is it done in a way that suits the general public's fixed ideas? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then there's a problem. But if not, I'm happy to read South Asian-American novels for exactly what they are -- South Asian-American, with all the complications and richness that might arise from that hyphenated identity.

Then there's the final pitfall of being the darling of a literary trend: Stray from the pigeonhole into which you've been placed, and you can kiss your darlinghood goodbye. Two years after her People Beautiful Person crowning, Arundhati Roy cut off her long hair, telling the New York Times that she doesn't wish to be known as "some pretty woman who wrote a book." Instead of another work of fiction, she has since produced two books of essays, "The Cost of Living" and "Power Politics" and wholeheartedly thrown herself into activist work. But Roy's radical activism has received little support either in the U.S. or India. Critics who once lauded her have turned their backs: "One Indian intellectual compared Roy to Jane Fonda -- a celebrity troublemaker superficially grooving on cultural uproar," notes Joy Press in the Village Voice. For Western critics, her intense scrutiny of the World Bank and globalization marked her as just another famous face touting the political cause du jour.

Just as being too politically ethnic can make one unpopular, not being culturally ethnic enough can also bump a writer from the in crowd. Aspiring authors attending the South Asian Literary Festival in Washington, D.C., last year told stories of editors who declined their manuscripts because it didn't deal with traditional Indian life. Their works were, in essence, too American. In seminars sarcastically entitled "There Are No Poor or Huddled Amongst Us" and "No Sex Please, We Are South Asians," participants grappled with widening the diversity of South Asian and South Asian-American narratives appearing in the Western press.

Critic Amitava Kumar once wrote, "If immigrant realities in the U.S. were only about ethnic food, then my place of birth, for most Americans, would be an Indian restaurant." The language of cultural consumption is particularly apt here. At its worst, South Asian and South Asian-American writing is just like tasty Indian food -- to be chewed, digested, and excreted without a lot of thought. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps Americans, having tasted something delicious, will seek out books that outrage and challenge, narratives written from the diaspora or in translation that don't rely on bindis or kulfi to make their points.

In the meantime, South Asian and South Asian-American writers are making themselves at home on the New York Times bestseller lists and within literary-prize committee sessions -- but they have their eyes wide open. "I would be wary of the notion that South Asia is hip and can attract publishers," said Yale English professor Sara Suleri at the literary festival. "Those fashions come and die. Maybe in five years, we will be hunting for Tasmanian writers."
Maybe so, but maybe some readers will demand more, and writers will be able to find success while defying trendiness. Perhaps we can all wedge the door open a little more firmly, making room for stories that will last longer than a peel-off mehndi tattoo.

(Noy Thrupkaew is a fellow at the American Prospect. Lamentably, she consumed no Indian foodstuffs while writing this piece. A version of this piece first appeared in Bitch Magazine.)


Any questions? Comments?? Let's go crazy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Monstrous Commercialism

They come around once a year. I have not grown so addicted that I can predict when they are hear like a sixth sense, and every time it sneaks up on me. This year it was during an impromptu sugar-seeking excursion to Albertsons. I was entering and there they were--lurking behind a pillar like sirens.

I guess that's a bad simile. Sirens do call out a person's innermost desires, but they are also very beautiful. While Girl Scout Cookies are always a part of my desire, I have more imminent desires on that list, and God knows the cookie boxes should undergo some cosmetic surgery...maybe by the same people who dealt with Starbucks. But there they are, all the same.

Do not let these little girls fool you, either. They are shrewd business people. Their demographic: overweight, single women. In my area, we are a niche market and these piranahs pounce on me every chance they get.

I used to be a Girl Scout. I know how the tune goes. I am not trying to get a badge anymore, but if there was an Anti-Girl Scout Club, I would get a badge for refusing to take yet another student loan in order pay $4.00 for one box of Samoas. It is inhumane to make people (ok, me.) attached to these delicious renditions of the Twix-cum-cookie with coconut flakes and only bring them around once a year.

Honestly, that's basically what that Samoas cookie is, right? A Twix bar with coconut, and I have no idea why I love them so. I am not overly fond of Twix bars, nor of coconut. Combined, however...it is, evidently, a lethal combination.

Then there is the Trefoil shortbread cookie. To be honest, I don't know why this is fetching $4.00 a box. I would rather eat the shortbread cookies with jelly that Knott's sells for $1.99. But people eat these up. "Can't get enough of that Girl Scout Shortbread!" Ugh.

Thin mints I can understand. Who is not seduced by that minty green box, promising the delight of mint flavored chocolate wafers dipped in chocolate? I know my family isn't. The other day, we found a box in my mom's freezer and ate it for dessert. To spice it up, I wanted to see how it tasted with marshmallow creme. Try marketing that, Girl Scouts!

But then if you aren't so into chocolate because it makes you break out, there is the "Thanks-A-Lot", which I think should be a complimentary cookie box with every purchase. "You just spent $20.00 on four boxes of Samoa cookies! Thanks-A-Lot is what we say!" And I wouldn't even begrudge Emerill a nice, loud "BAM!" of appreciation. I mean, the shortbread dipped in fudge with embossed "thank you" messages in five different language? Wow. What a decorative cookie. I can see why these might be $4.00 a box...

Two brands I would rather not see ever again, much less imagine spending $1.99 on are the Do-si-dos and Tagalongs. When I was a Girl Scout, I remembered selling TONS of these. I remember they were more popular with the men, but they would ask, "Do you have any of those peanut butter and chocolate cookies?" I would exclaim, "Yes! Tag along and buy them from me!"

Peanut butter and chocolate is...ok, I guess...but peanut butter and crunchy oatmeal? I don't hold it against the Girl Scout Corporation for trying to hide the ingredients to this gooey mess by calling it a Do-si-do. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I need a glass of milk.

The three cookies I have yet to try are the Lemonades, aka Lemon Chalet Cremes, the Cinna-spins, and the Sugar free Chocolate Chips. The later two seem to have been introduced in 2008, but I think I would rather fork out $4.00 for a Ben & Jerry's Cin-a-Bonn pint of ice cream than the cinnamon flavored cookies that come in 100-calorie packs, even if they are shaped like mini cinnamon rolls. And really...sugar free cookies is not a novel concept and it is requesting a lot of a person, regardless their intellectual capacity, to spend that much for a product that has been out for like, 25 years.

Lemonades...I am not sure how I would feel about buying these. I would have to have a free taste test or something, but with these little women in green suits looking out to find buyers to free up their mother's garage which is filled to the rafters with $7,000 worth of cookies to gain a badge that costs .10 cents to make, I cannot imagine anyone offering a free taste of anything.

Damn Girl Scouts.