Full disclosure: Apprentice Writer is partly of Indian descent. As such, she enjoys 'collecting' novels with Indian settings or features - even while cringing every time she picks up a new one. Why this paradox?
There is something about the timelessness, exoticism, color and spice of the south Asian subcontinent that gives flight to the imagination of multitudes of novelists, within and without its borders. Therein lie two potential novelbuilding pitfalls:
Cultura Non-Equus + Non Persona.*
Some stories set in this region** involve overt or subtly negative portrayal of South Asian people and/or culture, contrasting with positive portrayal of the protagonists' culture. This can range from older texts supporting colonial mentality (i.e. "India is filled with backward heathens in desparate need of British enlightenment to save them from themselves"), to newer texts wherein South Asian characters range from non-existant, to window-dressing equivalent to furniture in a room, to stereotypically villainous or comical secondary characters at most. How many South Asian-set novels mention the landscape, weather, foliage and animals - but no indigenous people, with all the action taking place between, say, European or American characters? How many mention local characters solely to comment upon turbans or saris worn and curry eaten, without any description of their actual lives or families? How many only allow love interests to develop when Western characters encounter one another, with the unspoken rule that cross-cultural romance is out of the question?***
To be fair, balancing all these elements fairly against one another is a tricky business. Happily, there are many new and established novelists willing to wrestle with the issues in an intelligent, entertaining manner.
Specimens from Apprentice Writer's India collection:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (dramatic fiction): A beautifully written, wrenching book about living under a dictatorship and how there can be no excuse whatsoever to maintain the caste system. Not a light or easy read, but should be on the required reading list of anyone who strives for an informed world view.
The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kaye (historical action adventure): An epic novel set in colonial times, describing a fairytale bygone era and lovers trying to reach across a cultural divide.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (contemporary fiction): A doorstopper of a book telling an appealling tale of family relationships in modern India. The author skillfully makes all three suitors of the young heroine equally attractive; she chose well in the end but Apprentice Writer keenly felt the loss of the other two.
The Sandalwood Princess by Loretta Chase (historical romanctic suspense): An entertaining novella of romantic and cultural intrigue.
Brick Lane**** by Monica Ali (contemporary dramatic fiction): Mirrors the struggle of a traditional young wife to adjust to modern London and the expectations of her co-expatriates there, with the struggle of her sister at home to surmount misogynistic attitudes. An eye-opening tale.
Bollywood Confidential and Goddess for Hire by Sonia Singh (chicklit): Both novels have great cover art, Indo-American heroines, and a modern chick-lit feel. Though Apprentice Writer didn't fully engage with either heroine or either novel resolution, she did like the author's imagination and new territory coverned. It was a refreshing change, and raises interest for the new imprint Harlequin will shortly launch in India.
The next specimen to be added to the collection:
DUKE OF SHADOWS, by Meredith Duran
This new historical romance release received mega buzz. Hopefully the story will live up to its impressive publicity, and - just as important - avoid CULTURA NON-EQUUS and NON PERSONA.
* (Apprentice Writer's Latin is next to non-existant. Apologies to Latinphiles everywhere.)
** (Yes, Apprentice Writer is aware that this pitfall afflicts other geographies as well. African cultures and peoples are often especially hard done by in terms of non-cultura equus and non persona.)
*** (This does not mean to imply that stories set in India without prominent Indian characters, etc. automatically indicate a negative attitude. There could be all kinds of reasons to structure a story that way. But: the longer the story in such a setting without a significant Indian character(s), the greater the risk the author runs of giving such a perception.)
**** (Yes, Apprentice Writer is aware that the protagonists of this book are from Bangladesh rather than India. She thinks the same principles apply.)
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