I recently watched this video, in which author Chimamanda Adichie talks about The Danger of A Single Story. It was very good, as TED talks tend to be, but what she said at the very beginning left me simultaneously intrigued and horror-struck. She said she was an early reader, and then an early writer, and when she started writing stories, she did not write about people who looked and lived like her. She wrote about little white girls with blue eyes, who ate apples and talked about the weather.
It was a hauntingly familiar story. I remember when I first began to write. For the longest time, I wrote about animals. I gave them human personalities and then wrote about their thoughts and feelings as creatures. They were easier to write about because I never had to go into great detail about the physical features of, say, a rabbit. Eventually, I started writing about people, but always in a stilted fashion. I could never give characters names. Even now, it feels especially burdensome to christen them with something elegant. I am tempted to just call them “Person A” and “Person B” for the entirety of some pieces. When I was younger, I censored myself to using the blandest, most common names. There were usually Katies, Davids, Megans and Erics in my writing. I never wanted to make it obvious that I was thinking of a brown person like me, but it sometimes showed when I gave somewhat mismatching characteristics like black hair and blue eyes. Characters often had dirty blonde hair, I remember, or brown. I had to imagine what it was like to live in a home that was not like mine, in a home where people did not eat rice every day, did not light incense sticks when they pray, did not take their shoes off at the door of the house. Not surprisingly, I was never too pleased with the result, which felt like a counterfeit of what I was really thinking about.
I realize now that I could have very easily shared the stories about unique experiences that only I have. I could have talked about India and my visits to my grandmother’s house, and my many relatives against a backdrop of northeast India in the heat of summer. I could have talked about my classical Indian dance lessons, where we told the stories of Indian epics through dance. I could have talked about the friends I had as a child and what we really did, playing together in one another’s houses and seeing them at Indian gatherings throughout the year. But I never felt I could share any of that. I refused. I always thought I would have to answer so many questions if I wrote about those things. People would ask me what I meant if I wrote about pujas, wearing salwars, eating mithai. It would mark me as different to write about these experiences. It would be an open declaration of my foreignness, so I thought. I had no desire for such attention, nor was I ready for it at that age.
The similarities between my story and Chimamanda’s are that our writing was both funny and sad. It was funny for us as children to think we could write about things we did not know, and sad for the same reason. My writing has since undergone a transformation that is not yet complete. In my teenage years, there was a time when I would not describe physical features at all. I would simply give a character a name and then drag them through a story. The writing circles (of mostly white people) where I shared these pieces begged me to give them something physical about the character to hold on to. I usually did not oblige them.
As of yet, I have not returned to prose. I am still wildly wary of using names like Namrata, Anjali, Shaam, and Preet. I still falter when it comes to describing things like height, facial hair, eye shapes, noses, and of course, skin color. At least I now know I can describe those features. There was a time I would not acknowledge them at all.
Still, there are now things that escape my precision that I never would have expressed before. Things like “grape-colored lips”, or “uncles and aunties”. Descriptions of tandoori chicken, curries with cumin and cardamom. Colorful pajamas and kurtas. Bangles on wrists, payal on ankles. Perhaps one day, my writing will reflect a second-generation Indian community in the flesh. It will convey Desi America in all its glory. Perhaps one day, these specks of color will become the story itself, my story. My entirely different story.