Monday, June 10, 2013

It's My Party, And I'll Face-Palm If I Want To

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.


  1. "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."

    Oh, hey, that sounds familiar. In fact, that sounds like every time I've protested sighing and crying over "inspirational" stories of people with disabilities.

    I guess we keep forgetting the eleventh commandment: "Thou shalt not make people feel guilty about their privilege."

    1. I think there's definitely a sense of "you're harshing my squee with your SRS BZNESS" that goes around, and it always makes me think... "Wow, those of you who DON'T have to think about these things on a daily basis are so lucky."

      I WISH I had the luxury of not feeling diminished.

  2. Thanks for your post, Suleikha. I went to the party and wore the bejangled...hip scarf. I'm not sure what it's called or if that kind of fashion item even exists in India! It didn't occur to me that the theme might be seen as offensive, but I know nothing of the culture. If the theme was "Cinco de Mayo" (which no Mexican I know celebrates) and everyone wore sombreros and ate chips & salsa (American appetizer) I would consider it inauthentic. Would I be offended? I'm not sure. Probably not. A full on "Mexican" Halloween costume worn by white people is in bad taste because it's mocking the culture IMO. I wouldn't mind a ballet folklorico dance performance or a genuine attempt to celebrate the culture.

    That is how I saw the party. There was a nice dance performance with mostly female Indian performers and questionable party favors.

    1. What's important to note is that "Bollywood" is not a culture. It's a film genre, a nickname for the Hindi-language blockbuster cinema industry. And using it as a catch-all for the fun, sparkly parts of various regional Indian cultures is more than just inauthentic, it's trivializing.

      Would it make sense to give out Daisy Dukes at an American party and serving apple pie and beer while passing out gun-shaped party favors? To throw a geisha party to "celebrate" Japanese culture?

      Mockery isn't just willfully wearing an all-Mexican Halloween costume. It comes in different forms, some much more subtle.

  3. What about cowboy hats at an American party? Well, the comparison doesn't really work because American culture isn't marginalized. That's why I tried to think in terms of a non-US culture I'm more familiar with.

    I guess I'm trying to argue that the dance performance (assuming it was authentic) was not cultural appropriation, trivialization or mockery. The party itself was perhaps 2/3.

    1. I don't doubt that the dance performance was authentic and sincere. But the stage/setting for it -- i.e., the party -- is what's problematic.

  4. Okay, I totally hear you. Thanks again--this isn't something I thought deeply about at the party and I'm glad to have had the convo.

  5. You're welcome, and thanks for listening!

  6. I have a few thoughts about this.

    One is that you're right know. You're right.

    Another is that certain things take on a life of their own. Yoga is a good example. It's popular because it's an effective fitness regime. The cultural trappings -- the namaste and the instructors who deliver little lectures between moves -- have mostly given way to mass-produced mats and ab intervals. I feel like that horse is out of the barn and there's no roping it back in. I'm not sure it makes sense to want to, anymore.

    Another thing that bothers me, and that I'd love to really talk about, is the damned if you do, damned if you don't nature of travel, curiosity, influence. If people stopped being interested in foreign foods, foreign places, foreign beauty treatments, etc., etc., they would be worse off for it. If the only two options were (a) clueless but likes samosas and (b) clueless, I think it's clear that (a) is an improvement over (b). Broadening your palate isn't quite broadening your mind, but it's...a step closer to it.

    Of course, there are more options. Lots more options. But ultimately, almost EVERYTHING is wrong. There is no way to educate yourself -- to become NOT clueless -- without doing harm. You take advantage of terrible colonial history, of current economic disparity, just by existing.

    I try to do my due diligence, but sometimes I wonder if it's all a wash.

    1. Yoga is a great example, actually. It's not a "fitness regime" in India, and it's not taught as one. But you can't teach it here the way it works in India because the cultural context changes it. That doesn't mean that I don't get annoyed when someone who doesn't know the difference explains the spirituality of yoga to me. I'm used to it; as you say, the horse is out of the barn. But it's more that the horses in the barn were switched and only some of us know that the switch happened.

      The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all that. I'm not asking for people not to find Sir Richard Burton (the original one) fascinating and thrilling. I'm just hoping that they understand that "explorers" were not going to uncharted territory. The fact that *they* hadn't been there is about *them* not the place (which holds for contemporary tourists and travelers).

      It's important not to conflate self-education and improved self-knowledge with the impulse to educate everyone else.

    2. I really don't think it's all a wash. I think it just requires a certain amount of honest immersion and experiencing of a different culture that isn't, as Sunita says below, the "impulse to educate everyone else." Like...I've had white people ask me if I'm a "yogini" or a "practitioner" upon seeing my Om tattoo. I had to be like.,.."Uh, no. I'm just Hindu." In a group of Indians, no one would ask me that. If we could somehow get to a place where our Indianness is not filtered through a western lens...

      Maybe that's just me being naive again.

      But I just keep thinking about I had to *adapt* to the culture around me in the midwestern U.S. No one taught me. I just did it. I've been consuming mainstream middle-American culture since I was little, like it was the normal, default way to be. Books, movies, food, everything. Why can't "foreign" cultures be treated the same way? Especially now that the U.S. is diversifying exponentially?

      That question's more rhetorical than anything. I know there's no concrete answer.

  7. (Suleikha's note: This is a comment from Sunita I accidentally deleted. Oops.)


    This is a wonderful post. I've expressed my frustration at the Bollywood parties before. It's difficult, because there is a subtle difference between having a party that basically traffics on a commercial, market-driven theme (which is basically what the Bollywood brand invocation is to me) and the whole dress-up thing, which you capture so well.

    I find the way Bollywood is celebrated here very problematic. The unconscious privileging of fair-skinned actors and actresses, without knowing how fraught that is in South Asia; the emphasis on the masala format while ignorant of what the different aspects represent and codify about South Asian culture; I could go on, but I won't. Let's just say it's not just OTT storylines, singing and dancing, any more than Gone With the Wind was just a cool semi-historical drama.

    As you know, I enjoyed your first Bollywood book very much. In large part it worked for me because it was Bollywood-set, not invoking tired stereotypes, i.e., it was like mysteries and romances set in Hollywood and the culture, not reproducing problematic aspects. If that makes sense.

  8. Thanks for blogging about this and openly talking about it! These are important subjects, and I appreciate hearing about them. It's so easy to ignore things that don't effect us directly in our lives, and I'm very happy to have you raise awareness on it for me. Thank you for reminding me to think critically and respect cultures different than my own at all times!

  9. I read this after Courtney Milan linked to it recently in light of the recent dramas happening at EC. I had no idea.

    Thank you for giving me quite a lot to think about.

  10. I completely understand. I am American, which means I'm a mixture of several races & cultures. Although, when people look at me the simply see a black girl. They don't understand what its like to be almost always be the only black person wherever I go. I too live in the Midwest. They don't know what its like to have people ask if they can touch my hair, as if I'm some kind of dog. They don't get how annoying it is for people to ask me to explain or speak for the entire black real name is Kamala, which no one ever says correctly. However, I think the Hindi name suits me...even though I have to go through a lot of crap, I am still a thing of beauty like the Lotus flower. Thank you for writing this piece!

  11. Don't know if you'll see this, Jill, but the hip scarf is actually Arab.

    Also, Erin Satie, it really doesn't benefit other peoples if this is all Americans glean from travel, so no, it doesn't make a difference if an ignorant person likes hummus or not.

  12. When I travel I try to blend in, but not play-act. If I went to an Arab country, I would cover my hair out of respect.

    I also find I get better treatment from local merchants if I at least make an effort. I was mistaken for French by other American tourists because I was so far on the down low.

    One of the biggest and quietest American cultural appropriations I see is the Amish.

    You do not make an Amish quilt. Only an Amish can make an Amish quilt. You make a quilt in the Amish-style. And as for books, of gak me on "Amish Romance." Luckily, the Amish don't care, they just take it as further evidence that the English world is off its collective rocker.

    And a discussion of the Native American experience would take volumes.

    I visited the Acoma Sky Pueblo which has some European artwork worthy of the Vatican. The guide is very specific. Don't touch, no photos, do not enter the graveyard, be quiet and listen etc. It lasted about 10 seconds, "So, y'all is Catholic?" I watched the muscle in our guide's jaw tighten.

    However, on the flip side, when the tribe does their annual festival/rain dance (not open to outsiders) they take down their Catholic saints and dance with them through the streets. I know where this comes from and take no offense. I enjoy the color and pageantry.

    As for the EC Bollywood party, yeesh, how tedious and tacky. There is a universe of fantasy worlds to draw on and they had to play Arabian Nights meets Bollywood meets Disney? My last "genie" costume was in 1975. Over it.

    I am all for learning and melding cultures. It has always happened and is the way of things. But satire and costume parties? Um, no.

    Would they hold a black face minstral party? Well, EC might if they thought it would make a buck.

    Great article, I came here via Passive Voice.