Anita, Natasha

Scott Eric Kaufman’s response to the ridiculous (and racist) Betty Brown thing got me thinking about names and the cultures they exist in and so forth.

I’m used to non-Indian people not being able to pronounce my name – Indian people fail at it too, frequently, even with a Famous Actress to help them. And I’ve thought (usually after pronouncing my name very slowly a few times and then being too embarrassed to keep doing it once they’ve reached a mispronunciation I feel like I can live with) it would be so much easier, if one lived in another culture, to jettison the lovely, multisyllabled names you wanted to use and stick to names that could ‘pass’ as belonging to either culture.

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And there’s Deepa D’s incredible post from a few months ago (and if you didn’t read it then you must now) where she talks, among other things, about growing up speaking Marathi and Hindi but reading in English.

I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.

This.

It was hard, as a child, to conceive of brown names as the sort of names to which things actually happened, for any sort of interesting storyline to not be rendered ridiculous by the inclusion of a character with a name like mine. It still is, in some ways. I remember the day a friend brought up the topic of the new Indian Mills and Boon books that would feature Indian characters. We (there were three or four of us) all burst out laughing at the thought of an Indian romantic hero – it seemed ludicrous.

But then, beyond the age of ten or eleven you could hardly continue to write about the Julians and the Peggys of the world, not unless you wanted to restrict your characters to one religious group. So we found ways around it; long, “authentically” Indian names (see? we’d proved we weren’t colonised) that could be shortened to reasonably European-sounding monosyllables or names that could pass for either culture – a series of Anitas and Ninas and Ritas and Natashas and Taras and the occasional Pia.

15 Comments to “Anita, Natasha”

  1. I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to agree with Deepa D’s post – I see no reason why something as trivial as the names of the characters would limit your imagination or your ability to write. If anything, there’s a fair amount of psych research out there which suggest that people who grow up with exposure to multiple identities / cultures are more likely to be creative. So being exposed to a different world from the one you live in by reading books should actually help your imagination (I know it’s helped mine). And besides, real writing is about so much more than the minor details of names or social situations, it’s about moving beyond that kind of surface noise to the deeper human truth beneath. If Deepa D can’t see that then she was never going to be a good writer anyway, and trying to blame her failings on some linguistic regime is just pathetic.

  2. Re:Names
    Like your name, even Indians have problems with ‘Bharadwaj’ but I think the problem isn’t just one of polysyllabic names; try getting people to say Manoj and you’ll get something that even I can’t pronounce! (Menage? Monuje? Manouzhe?)

    I’m also reminded of my experience last Wednesday at the ID card interview here. The young Emarati woman stumbled, but ultimately made it through saying ‘Suryanarayan’ quite properly when checking my dad’s middle name. Hope springs eternal.

    (And I wouldn’t know what to substitute my name with. Val? Vic? The ever-reliable ‘Bob’?)

    Re: Deepa D
    One of the things I didn’t fathom in Deepa D’s otherwise well-written article is the bit right at the beginning about taverns and how the lack of them in India contributed to a failure to continue writing her novel.

    I thought getting together in a room and consuming alcoholic drinks paid by the glassful is a global phenomenon?

    Re: Non-White protagonists
    For reasons I truly do not know, I have never had a problem with believing in Indians or others as valid people in books that Stuff Happened To, despite reading only English books and watching American films growing up.

    In the light of what you and Deepa D have written, this puzzles and confuses me a little given that I grew up much like other Indians, so in the absence of any explanation, I shall have to default to my standard: I blame my parents. God bless those lovely fools.

    (But! Asinine Tias and Pias and Mayas — I love the Magical Mayas expessssially — belong in their cookie-cutter hot-pink and bindi novels just like people named Dirk Cleft belong in action thrillers.)

    (And! If I wrote someone named Priyamvada Mrityunjay Gopalshastri, everyone would call her Vada.)

    V

  3. Through the whole discussion of which Deepad D’s essay was one of the focal points I felt too guiltily like I was a de facto oppressor for my stories to make a truly valuable contribution to those whose opinions, fears and hopes I agree with, support, and cheer. When I lived in the world of the Famous Five it was always as a brown-skinned girl who spoke the same language as the uppity kids of Kirrin Island. When I sent someone to Malory Towers she could always speak a dozen languages, including her native ones.

    To that extent I see Falstaff’s point of view. However, I’d like to remind him that art in fragmented and postcolonial societies does not spring up out of a perfect synthesis. The joy we take – that *I* take – in fragmented identities is also a learned response in some senses. It comes at the cost of other impulses and other influences which have been buried or lost, and which we may not even adequately remember or value.

    Prizing deeper human truth over the frills of identifying names and situations is an admirable modernist goal, but I don’t think the two are fundamentally opposed: great literature is about both the general and the particular, and the particulars of the corpus that we revere are only now expanding to be inclusive of identities other than ‘white’ and ‘male,’ an expansion which is by no means complete or unproblematic. Outside of acadaemia the prejudices still run rampant. You may come across this often in the blogosphere, in fan-run forums, in technology, and in sf/f publishing, all of which are areas that interact with the intended audience and the medium of Deepa’s post. In those worlds, it’s precisely because everyone is in search of the deeper human truth that they find it easy to excuse, ignore or ridicule it when it’s couched in unfamiliar names or social situations.

  4. Falstaff, is there anything less trivial than our own names? How are we exposed to multiple cultures when we are denied access to our own, when everything we see reflected around us pretends we do not exist, when the stories we are taught as templates for the world can’t even bother to acknowledge that our names are real names? Why can we not insist that all the Janes and Sams and Michaels ought to be improved by interacting with some Simsuangcos and Aishwaryas and Minakos and Amritas, instead of insisting that we, the brown folks, ought to be content being “improved” by only ever hearing someone else’s names called back to us?

    Names are not a minor detail. Names are the lynchpin around which identities revolve. Real writing acknowledges that. It doesn’t just pretend that telling people stories they can be at home in is surface detail. Sometimes they even teach that we ought to look beyond ourselves and acknowledge the validity of asking that we learn to pronounce each other’s names.

    The failing is in not supporting these truths because the “deeper,” “realer,” story with all those unimportant extra details cut away always seems, in the end, to be about “just normal people” who are always white, straight, able-bodied, cissexual, and so on. Cut away the surface noise to your satisfaction, and we always get back to the “neutral” and “universal”–and for some reason, that’s always white.

    Meet us halfway.

    And for the record? I use the assimilated version of my surname. It’s minus a couple syllables. I get too tired of spelling it out, over and over and over, and only call myself by it in my own home. And that’s wrong, but nobody around me was ever taught that a name like mine was a normal human name. Like “Johnson.” Why should I be the only one codeswitching between multiple cultures and identities to make it through the day?

  5. Fantastic post Aishwarya. In real life, if I don’t like someone, I don’t give them my name. My name is precious to me, my history, my culture and my sense of self. I grew up with a name that is very rare, difficult to pronounce for people who are not Irish but intrinsically part of my culture. I recognise your point about pronunciation and acceptance but I cringe inside when my name gets mispronounced. I take the time to explain it but people give up and use a familiar anglicised name which stinks of laziness and indifference in many.

    @Falstaff I had a very visceral reaction to your comment. Names are so vital to me in real life as well as in my writing. Names inform a character’s identity and sense of self.

    I struggle with naming characters precisely because names are so important.

    Also really kinda blinkered of you to dismiss Aishwarya’s point out of hand.

  6. All: The point is not that names are not important. The point is that anyone who claims he / she would have been more imaginative / better writers if only he / she had been able to read more books with names that were familiar to him / her is lying to himself / herself. So Deepa D didn’t get to read books with names / particulars she recognized. So what? I don’t see why that should have constrained her ability to write. If anything, it should have made writing easier because she had that much more fallow land to plough. After all (as the last ten years of Indian writing in English bears ample witness) there’s so much opportunity to churn out books about the ‘Indian’ experience precisely because there’s so little such work out there. Compare that to the difficulties of the average mid-west MFA student writing in the shadow of Cheever, Carver and Updike about his / her experience of growing up in US suburbia. If you choose to whine about how you’ve been ‘victimized’ into not writing instead of ceasing the opportunity to fill the gap that exists, then I, for one, have neither sympathy for your plight nor confidence in your hypothetical talent.

  7. Falstaff – I don’t think that having multiple cultures or identities or languages means that they just…add together to make a bigger lump of Imaginary (which is an awkward way of phrasing it and makes me worry someone’s going to bring Lacan into this) than that of someone who started off with one – Identities interact/fight/just generally have complex relationships with each other. Much of Deepa’s post rings very true to me for how I grew into language and if it didn’t work that way for you I can only congratulate you.
    That essay proves for me that she is a talented writer and “she was never going to be a good writer anyway” is a pretty pathetic argument. I’m sure you can do better than that. Also, everything Ros and Little Light and Mór Rígan said.

    Vishal – I knew someone who turned it into “Shally”. I don’t advise it.
    True, there are people congregating and drinking all over India (most of them very different from the sort of places the Sri Ram Sene beat young women up for drinking in). I’ve always thought if I was going to write High Fantasy in India I’d probably substitute the tavern for a chai shop, though.
    The Mayas (I’d forgotten the Mayas!) and Pias and so on now seem to have a genre of their own, yeah. But when I and people I knew put them into our stories we didn’t plan to write in that genre (I had an active contempt of it at the time that has mellowed since)-it was merely an attempt to make our characters sound less ridiculous to us.

    Ros – The joy we take – that *I* take – in fragmented identities is also a learned response in some senses. It comes at the cost of other impulses and other influences which have been buried or lost, and which we may not even adequately remember or value. Thanks for this :)
    Unlike you and your Malory Towers-going persona, I have never been entirely comfortable in any language other than English, shamefully – I think that colours a lot of the way I experience my Indianness reading English.

    Little Light – Yes to everything, particularly this: Real writing acknowledges that. It doesn’t just pretend that telling people stories they can be at home in is surface detail.

  8. *puffs for breath*

    Mór Rígan – Thanks for this :)
    I’m honestly not sure how to pronounce your name (if I ever meet you I will ask before attempting it!), and I know you’ve lived in Foreign Parts and had people not of your culture struggle with it too.

    Like you, I have tremendous difficulty with naming fictional characters for precisely those reasons.

    Falstaff – The average mid-west MFA student (if there is such a thing) then has some sort of structure to build on. Sure, amazing art could come out of not having any structutre to begin with, but it’s certainly a hell of a lot more difficult. Note too that Deepa’s post is taking place in the context of a larger debate around a specific genre, and one that many of us are sufficiently invested in for “so create a new one” to be a wholly inadequate reply.

  9. Aishwarya: The genre thing – personally I find it particularly bizarre that Ms. D chooses to focus her griping on fantasy. I’m no expert, but I sincerely doubt that there is anywhere in the world where Gandalf, Frodo or Aragorn are household names, or where children regularly have the opportunity to encounter dragons, fraternize with elves or live in fear of orcs. The whole point of fantasy is that it frees up the imagination by operating at one remove from everyday reality. Anyone who doesn’t get that isn’t credible as a capable reader, let alone as a potential writer.

    And the MFA student having structure to work with point makes no sense. What’s stopping Ms. D (or anyone) from using the existing structures (except, of course, that the old structures are boring)? Why should an inability to relate to the specific social situation translate into an inability to use the underlying structure?

    Look, either / or. Either the existing literature does speak to you despite the distance in time / space that make some of the specifics alien, in which case you should be able to draw inspiration from it; OR you can’t relate to the existing literature because there’s something in your life experience that simply doesn’t exist in what you’ve read, in which case Hallelujah! you have the perfect subject to write about. The whole enterprise of literature is about finding a ‘reality’ that hasn’t already been written and putting it down on paper – which is why a disconnect between what you experience and what you read is a boon, not a bane. It’s the kind of thing any halfway decent writer would kill for.

    Now, personally, I happen to think that the inability to relate to writing from other cultures is a symptom of a lack of imagination / literary talent, not its cause, but that’s just me. Even if we accept that that disconnect is real, it’s an opportunity, not a difficulty.

    Finally, as for Ms. D being a good writer – I thought the whole point of her griping was that she wasn’t one. If you think she’s such a wonderful writer (and I obviously don’t – that post is too illogical to take seriously) then it only goes to show that dealing with multicultural conflict makes for good writing, no? You can’t claim that Ms. D is a good writer and then argue that her experience as a child has kept her from becoming a good writer.

  10. Failstaff: per the problems inherent in using "existing structures" as a person who does not have the same relation to those structures as the people for whom they are primarily constructed, there are entire books written on the subject. See: Joanna Russ' "To Write Like A Woman" and "Why Women Can't Write," & "Toni Morrison's "Playing In The Dark," for several off the top of my head.

  11. One thing which I found surprising in Deepa D’s post is that she never mentioned her exposure to Indian storytelling. Even if you what you read while growing up is all Julians and Peggys, that surely isn’t your only exposure to storytelling in general. Hindi movies. Grandmother’s stories. Nandan and Tinkle. Do none of these have an impact on what you write about yourself?

    The objection to this is that the way we’re brought up, nicely designed and well bound English books are culturally considered more important than Hindi movies and Chandamama, which is what I think the original Deepa D post was trying to get at. But it’s not like there was never any opportunity to access different influences at all.

    Of course, I write this as a Macaulayputra who grew up reading Enid Blytons until I was eleven, never watched Hindi movies or read Nandan/ Chandamama despite my dad trying to get me to read them. So I can’t really take any moral high ground here. The thing is, I now regret not latching on to those bits while I was a kid. I just wish she had mentioned whether she too rejected these in her childhood or never got any exposure to them at all, or was exposed but they never made any impact. I should probably go and ask over at the OP this evening.

    The thing is, even if Deepa D had an inability to tap into her Indian heritage in her childhood, she’s explored it later on in life. And more power to her for that. I do realise it’s difficult to make this leap in a closed society like India’s where educational institutions and families don’t encourage children and adolescents to think for themselves, but making the leap is still not impossible.

    little light and mor rigan – re names, this is even more important in India where names come loaded with religious, regional or caste implications. And then picking names becomes an arduous choice
    between names that couldn’t possibly be true in a context, and names that are madly stereotypical (Saileshbhai and Kitty Auntyji, anybody?).

  12. belledame22: Yes, I know. But what structure remains relevant beyond its specific purpose? No one living (or writing) today qualifies as a person for whom the structures of Dickens or Flaubert or any other great novelist were primarily constructed. The whole enterprise of literature is the enterprise of creating new structures to represent new (or hitherto undescribed) realities. That’s difficult, yes, but no one said being a good writer was easy. And having access to a greater store of undescribed experiences is an advantage.

    Notice also that Aishwarya’s comment is the first time structure has been invoked as the central issue. There’s a huge difference between arguing for a lack of familiarity with appropriate structures and whining about unfamiliar names and the oh-so-crippling-unfairness of never having seen a tavern.

  13. Falstaff – “Finally, as for Ms. D being a good writer – I thought the whole point of her griping was that she wasn’t one.”
    Well then clearly you have been missing the point. I do see the post as being majorly about structures – which is why in the comments (which are well worth a read, though I’d suggest reading the post first) one of the things that is brought up is whether High Fantasy is transferable across cultures.

    I’m too tired for the rest of your comment right now, so I’ll only point out that you’ve spoken of “The whole enterprise of literature” twice now in this comment thread, and what “real writing is about” and “The whole point of fantasy” once each. It is very impressive.

    Belle – At some point I should put a recommended reading list up on the sidebar of this blog. Russ and Morrison would need to be on it.

    Aadisht – The degree to which you’re exposed to Indian storytelling varies wildly though, doesn’t it? I mean, I grew up with very little bollywood, no champak or nandan, and saw my grandparents for about two weeks every couple of years.
    (Agreed, it’s incredibly easy to fall into stereotype when naming Indian characters. Which I think ties into what Vishal said earlier about the Mayas.

  14. “one of the things that is brought up is whether High Fantasy is transferable across cultures.”

    a) People from ‘other’ cultures read High Fantasy

    b) People from ‘other’ cultures (including Ms. D) are excited enough about High Fantasy to want to write in it.

    Ergo, High Fantasy is transferable across cultures.

    In any case, all that is irrelevant. My central point is that the absence of priors is an opportunity, not a constraint. So even if High Fantasy does not transfer across cultures there’s no reason why that should limit anyone’s ability to imagine / write local-culture relevant Fantasy, if they wished to do so. The only constraint a person from another culture faces is if he / she wants to write a derivative text that blindly emulates the established classics of the genre. This would, admittedly, be harder for the ‘outsider’ to write, but why would anyone want to write like that anyway?

  15. “My central point is that the absence of priors is an opportunity, not a constraint….”This paragraph by Falstaff does bring to mind another specific problem I had with Deepa D’s post. She talks of dragons and having to figure out a way to get the characters to Tibet in order to have some show up, at which point the fiction hack in me is wondering why they don’t just show up anyway (like the taverns). It’s not like stories — fantasy or otherwise — require MLA citations, and surely the people who came up with the myths in the first place didn’t let reality get in their way*.

    (* and working through this specific knot, dragons are known to fly far and wide, so there)

    I think that there are two separate issues at work here:

    A) The subject of names and identities and tongues, which Deepa D does put forth quite well (hence my saying it was well-written). I don’t quite agree with the dramatic ‘half a tongue’ pronouncement because I think she gives up too easily, and, like most of us, has an idea of Culture as some kind of solid mass that can be created, destroyed and colonially hijacked, which is ludicrous and naive.

    Oddly enough the language of her argument is exactly the same as I hear in Marathi and Arab circles about the death of their literature. Does it have basis in fact? Yes. Is it true? No. Every culture is on death’s door. Always. Take a number.

    B) Writing and writing technique. This is a much different subject to the one above, and it's a scary, impolite, manipulative territory. Laws & Sausages. Falstaff, Aadisht and myself pick on various parts of this (taverns, dragons, influence and existing structures). Having read no actual fiction from Deepa D I can't comment on whether she's a good fiction writer, but purely from a plot and world-building point of view she's being far too rigid and easily defeated.

    If she had posed the tavern and dragon question as a problem in a fiction forum it would have been dealt with in 5 minutes. Anybody watching would be alarmed at the cultural insensitivity of it all, but that's what fiction writers do. We're bastards. It isn't a secret. Sod the morals and write the damn story.

    So when Falstaff talks of the triviality of names of characters, I know exactly what he means; when Deepa D talks of the pernicious nature of alien cultures, I understand that too; and when you talk about Anitas and Natashas and the hilarity of imagining Indian Mills & Boons heroes, I know that feeling too.

    But I'm as much a bastard fiction hack as I am an Indian or an NRI who thinks and dreams in English, and I write the damn story just as I cringe when people try to pronounce my name.

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