An unchaste brown
If you have read Amitava Kumar’s books (especially Home Products and Husband of a Fanatic) or heard him speak, you would realize that there are several mentions of Patna and Bihar in his works. In fact, Home Products is a story based in Bihar.
I admire how seamlessly Kumar mentions his heritage and how clearly he defines his identity. When I was a panelist at the Kriti Festival (a south Asian art and literature festival) in Chicago in the summer of 2009, I got the opportunity to speak with the author right before his keynote session. I said, “I am amazed to see the Bihar-pride in your work. I wish I had that but I don’t.” He replied, “It’s not about pride; it’s about acknowledging where you come from.”
His words got me thinking. Knowing who you are is key. But are all of us fortunate enough to really know ourselves? My grandparents were originally from Uttar Pradesh but decided to relocate to Bihar. I was born in Rourkela, Orissa. I grew up in a boarding school in bucolic Mussoorie, around the scintillating Mediterranean Sea in Libya, and in the hip and erudite city of Pune in the western part of India. Today, I live in the melting pot called New York. What does that make me?
I feel uncomfortable if I acknowledge just a state, or country, or continent when answering the simple question, “Where are you from?” Familial obligations dictate that I call myself a Bihari, but am I really one just because my parents started living there in the 90s? By that token, should I call myself an American just because I have lived in the Big Apple for a decade? Sometimes, the simplest questions have no right or wrong answers.
The search for identity can be arduous. When my husband and I first moved to New York, we were informed that there were two kinds of desis in America: The second generation South Asians called “American Born Confused Desis” (ABCDs); and the first generation immigrant South Asians nicknamed “Fresh of the Boat” (FOBs). Second generation immigrants are supposed to be more influenced by the western world while FOBs are considered to exist in a cocoon of the traditions and memories of their motherland.
But in the community of artists and writers that I belong to, I experienced a different dynamic. The stereotypes almost interchanged roles, especially among the women artists. I sensed a dominant flavor of South Asian-ness in the works of second generation immigrants that was conspicuously missing in mine.
For the longest time, I felt self-conscious about the lack of brown-passion in my writings; I wondered if I was an unchaste brown. I started conversing with fellow FOB writers and artists. Analyzing their stance on identity, I slowly realized that while the work of creative FOBs did have flavors of South Asia, it was not with the intent of making an ethnic or political statement. One FOB friend said, “My work is representative of nostalgia that I carry. Notions of color haven’t really crept in.”
At the Kriti Festival, I was on a panel called, “What if I Don’t Want to Write about South Asia?” Hearing the speakers on that panel, I finally understood why my creative FOB peers and I don’t necessarily share the same fervor to be ethnic that our colleagues, born and brought up in the United States, do.
Second generation immigrant women, in particular, seem to have put issues of gender equality behind them. At least on the face of it, they seem to have the same opportunities and rights as their male counterparts. Emotional ties and roles don’t define their entire existence. They are permitted to have a clear sense of identity. This allows them to take up the next important creative challenge—expressing the voice of their race and color.
When asked if she thought there were any creative similarities between the work of first and second generation immigrants, an FOB artist had this interesting viewpoint: “There is certainly a common thread between artists who were raised here and those who emigrated here more recently. But artists who grew up in the UnitedStates have had a lot of battles to fight with respect to fitting in, being raised in a predominantly white society while having a distinctive South Asian upbringing.” Those battles encourage the emergence of ethnicity in the work of artists born here.
FOB women, like me, are caught between the warped worlds of aspiration versus the shackles of duty. There is this constant pressure to sacrifice your individuality. “I especially have a problem about the name change business. I hope that by the time my daughter is ready to get married, she will not have the pressure to change her name or give up her ‘identity’,” says an FOB writer. “An ambitious woman ruins her family life.” I have personally heard this chauvinistic comment a million times. “My husband doesn’t have a problem with my success, but my parents think I will wreck my marriage because I make more money than my husband. ‘Not good for his ego,’ they say,” rues a writer and banker friend.
For all artists, devotion to their craft is the truest relationship of all. The end product, be it written pieces or works of art, embodies the creator’s individual journey. My writing reflects my experiences, inquisitiveness, and struggles as a woman trying to make sense of my hypocritical world. In my first book of poetry, Pabulum, I wrote a poem titled “Indian Woman,” a piece that resonated with my FOB peers the most, as it touches upon the blurry identities we have to deal with.How do we FOB artists and writers embrace the issue of color and ethnicity in our work when we haven’t even dealt with the issue of our status as individuals in this society? The fact is that FOBs don’t have the luxury of exploring their identity in terms of their skin color or their race. They haven’t even been able to establish a clear sense of self yet.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an author, poet, blogger, and marketing professional living in New York. Her book of poetry, Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors, will be published in winter 2009. http://.swetavikram.com