Kimono. Dashiki. Kilt. Sari.
Superhero. Disco queen. Flower child. Vampire.
The first list consists of native cultural dress. You know, clothes. The second list is of costumes. You know, playing dress-up. So why, in this day and age, is a well-known publisher of erotica and erotic romance like Ellora’s Cave continuing to confuse the two?
“I really need to NOT know about Ellora's Cave's Bollywood parties,” I said on Twitter. “For the sake of my blood pressure.” The thing is, people in general need to know about these kinds of themed parties, for the sake of common sense.
I hate that people think India is such a benignly "exotic" place (aside from those gang rapes that the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter concern patrol have already forgotten about) that regional culture is fair game to play with. That the “fun” parts of India can be so easily cherry-picked by the West. Yoga, henna tattoos, tikka masala, Deepak Chopra and “namaste”…that’s India, right?
Meanwhile, our actual people are considered a monolith of brown, aside from a few politicians who’ve changed their names and a few actors who make their Otherness palatable by being funny. And our authors…? Well, forget about it. Unless you’re Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahiri, writing Very Serious Literary Fiction about the homeland and the depressing nature of the diaspora, nobody wants to hear from you.
I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that my Bollywood romances aren’t marketable. That I should write interracial to get any sort of traction. That I don’t have an audience. Oh, really? Then who’s putting on all these saris at RomantiCon? I mean, it’s definitely not South Asian and South Asian American romance writers, because there’s, like, 10 of us and I doubt even less than half that will be attending this event. And, of course, that’s okay with EC, with the majority of writers and readers.
Because we may as well not exist…all people need is our clothes and our mehndi and our samosas.
A friend told me that she was shouted down for complaining about the EC Bollywood party at the RT Convention in Los Angeles, told that she was a bitter whiner and ruining the fun. Because it’s just so hard to have a good time when people you’ve offended are complaining, right? You have to silence the marginalized group you’re dancing over, turn up the bhangra and the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai soundtrack to drown out the outrage. Besides, she was just jealous her works aren’t popular. And I’m just jealous nobody’s reading my stories. That’s what it is: petty jealousy, not bone-deep anger and exhaustion at the constant erasure of South Asians from our own narratives.
We can’t have the fun; we can’t take part in the fun. But, gosh darn it, our culture is so pretty and colorful and so entertaining! It might as well be fun for everyone else!
How, in 2013, is romance publishing still perpetuating the message that South Asian culture is just exotic color for white women's fantasies? It’s a biracial duke. It’s using the Raj and the Sepoy Mutiny as angst for a naïve white heroine. And, yes, it’s a Bollywood party at a major convention. More than one Bollywood party at a major convention. Except, oh, wait — this one’s an Arabesque Bollywood party! Why fetishize just the Indian subcontinent when you can eroticize the Middle East, too?
Seriously, Ellora’s Cave?
Then again, why do I expect any cultural awareness from a company whose name is a reference to India's Ellora Caves? Why do I expect any sort of sensitivity from a company that uses an Egyptian ankh in its promo materials and pretty much makes bank on fetishizing anything they view as “mysterious” and “Other.” Naiveté, I guess?
I mean, I really am terribly, pathetically optimistic.
I keep hoping that someday we will all just be romance readers, just romance writers. Not Readers of Color or Writers of Color. Unfortunately, I keep being reminded that all many of us will ever be is bright, exotic wallpaper for other women’s happily ever afters.