In conversation with some of the movers and shakers of South Asian publishing world, including Dipankar Mukerjee, an up and coming indie-publisher based in India. Sara Naveed is a writer from Pakistan, Suleikha Snyder is an American-Indian writer based in America and Farha Hasan, is a Bengali-American writer. Thank you all for sharing your valuable insights with me. It was truly rewarding to have this discussion with you all.
1. As a reader, I was taught to be acutely aware of the difference in the ‘value’ of ‘popular’ literature and ‘elite’ literature. The former had none. Now as a writer I find this belief problematic. I am aware that as a romance writer, what I’m sharing is not ‘serious’ but I do know that it can still be and is thought provokingat some levels. I love writing and reading romances but I loathe female stereotyping. How do you feel about all this?
Suleikha: The idea that romance — and genre fiction in general — is somehow lesser in value than literary fiction is one that’s been around for a long time and, yes, the roots of the elitism and the sneering do come from the fact that it is a genre written by and for women. The literary establishment can’t fathom that pulp for the ladies is both a money-maker and a cherished part of bookshelves. And that goes double for ethnic, diasporic writing. That we are not following in the footsteps of the Jhumpa Lahiris and Arundhati Roys and writing about our post-colonial angst…gasp. Why would we choose to write commonplace, lowbrow, sexual novels? Well, because we have that choice, and because “happily-ever-after” is a valid ending for a story.
Farha: I feel that there is room for multiple types of literature. Literary fiction will always have a place and always earn awards. However, fiction can not only educate but entertain. Story telling and now popular fiction has in itself been around for generations. I would argue that popular fiction is just a valid or even better form of escapism or entertainment than gaming, TV, or browsing the web, as it opens the door to a love of reading. Once you have established this one can easily progress to appreciating other forms of writing.
Dipankar: Authors need to make a choice, a difficult one indeed. They need to decide the gallery they want to play for. Books can be written for the classes as well as the masses. Too literary a touch may alienate the casual readers and too simple a view may not please the discerning reader. Increasingly, authors are taking a middle path, where they write for the masses but give a touch for the classes. This helps them in being commercially popular as well as critically acclaimed.
Sara: In general, I hate stereotyping irrespective of what gender it is.
- Some feminists have a problem with romance writing and those who read and write it. To a certain degree, I agree. Especially since romance is based on the alpha hero. I love alpha heroes. Why alpha-ism is mutually exclusive with kindness is beyond me but I read and write romances to create kind, strong alphas. What do you think of this whole debate?
Suleikha: I think the alpha hero debate is rather silly, because the great thing about romance writing is that there are alternatives. For every rake and cad, there is a beta hero who is willing to let the heroine drive. It’s just that the alpha heroes get all the press. Are they inherently antifeminist? I don’t really think so. Because at the end of the day, writing characters like this serves the female reader. It’s about what women want. And you’ll notice that in most of these alpha-driven stories, the women either redeem or tame them. It’s not about being taken over so much as finding equal footing…and there’s a power in bringing an alpha hero to his knees, in making him a fool for love.
Farha: I feel if you go back to romance novels that were written ten or twenty years ago you will see an evolution in the role of women and the nature of the alpha male. In modern day romance novels, the hero is more likely to appreciate qualities such as independence, out outspokenness and intelligence. They may get on his nerves but this only adds to the sexual tension. The heroine is also less likely to need saving. In the end the hero wants an equal.
Dipankar: The Alphas are just one aspect of the debate. There is a lot more to it. What a lot of authors do is they create larger than life heroes for a woman to dream and desire, which builds their expectations from their partners. More often than not, reality stands miles away from such characterisations and hence the end result is mismatch of expectations, reality shocks and emotional turmoil. There should be a note saying, such characters are strictly for the fictional world J
Jokes apart, modern literature definitely appreciates a lot more of realistic characters, yet the world of heroes is not shunned. People need heroes to look up to and they should be created to ensure that we think of the ideal, at least in our dreams.
Sara: I love alpha heroes too. They bring power and excitement to a story. They are highly overprotective, in control and like to stay in charge. Of course, there is no fun reading about alpha hero alone. The story gets exciting when alpha hero meets his perfect match.
- Feminism at one point meant denying femaleness. It isn’t the case anymore. To me being a woman is a privilege. It doesn’t make me stupid, weak or any less capable. In fact, there are things I can do only because I am a woman. Romance writing is not and should not be considered a woman’s genre. It’s a genre of writing not a genre of writing for women. Anyone can read and write it.
Suleikha: I…don’t really see a question here? Though I do think “anyone can read it and write it” is a sweeping generalization that deserves closer scrutiny. When we have the mainstream literary elite dismissing Nicholas Sparks as romance, while the author himself pooh-poohs romance and claims to be something better…I think we do have to set boundaries. Romance as a genre has certain tenets, certain rules that need to be followed in order for it to qualify. And I think there’s nothing wrong in claiming romance as women’s space, because we have so little of it. Sure, we can share, but why can’t it be ours?
Farha: I agree that anyone can read or write romance but to me romance is a woman’s genre (just as porn is overwhelmingly a male interest). Women understand the value of romance better than men. They also understand women’s fantasies better than men. Just as men do not feel apologetic about enjoying sports, women should not feel trivial or frivolous about reading romance. They have just as much merit as any other genre (mystery, thriller, fantasy) or leisure activity.
Dipankar: True that! Genres can’t be gender biased. It is all about creativity, emotions and ability to express which doesn’t depend on the author’s gender.
Sara: I absolutely agree! Writing romance is not only restricted to women and should not be considered a woman’s genre only. Any person who can feel romance can write about it.
- The ‘event’ of reading romance and writing romance as opposed to the consequence of that act which lies in the meaning of the text.Why do women largely read and write romance? Are we denying something? Are we denied something in real life? Are we trying to reclaim something?
Sleikha: I think, again, you can’t generalize. What each woman gets out of reading or writing romance is hers. Some find intimacy, some find escape, some genuinely love writing these types of stories. I have always read romance. I didn’t turn to it out of some desire to reclaim anything. I just liked it better than what I viewed as boring litfic. Give me passion! Give me adventure! Give me the knowledge that happiness exists! We don’t wonder why men write westerns or spy novels, do we?
Farha: We don’t live in a culture of romance. Historically, arranged marriages have been the norm, which in modern times have evolved conceptually into “strategic marriages.” Today when you look at youth culture (especially on campus) we see the other extreme. There is less dating and more casual sex, “friends with benefits” or “hooking-up.” In this regard, I do think that romance and sentimentality is missing from many people’s lives.
Dipankar: Motivation to read romance can vary, as a young adult romance helps you dream, desire and build a world of the surreal real. As a mature individual, romance helps you connect with yourself, provided you are a romantic person. Denial is subjective and can be at best one of the reasons a person reads, and this is not limited to romance.
Sara: Being a woman, I can proudly say what I feel about writing romance. Yes, I love writing and reading romance but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am denying or trying to reclaim something. Since childhood, I was drawn towards watching romance movies and listening to romantic soft numbers. I feel romance is embedded in my soul. We read romance so we can take a break from our real life for some time and drown into the lives of the fictional characters. I read to find peace.
- Another question which arises for me is, that is South Asia leaning towards popular literature now because the way gender issues and gender politics is changing? Is it relayed to the publishing boom in India? Is it related to the Book prizes that South Adian writers have been getting? How much do the fiscal changes of the region factor in it?etc?
Suleikha: Since I’m American, I can’t really speak to the literary climate in South Asia. I can, however, say that it’s still a struggle here to make diverse voices heard amidst the largely white, Christian, field that is romance fiction. And I’ve found that I don’t fit the mold for Indian readers either. They don’t seem interested in my stories and seem to prefer the fantasy and escape that comes from reading Mills & Boon books about white characters.
Dipankar: There are two ways to look at it.
One, the market has opened up, the readers have increased. There is a lot more simplified literature that is available to read, which in turn is generating more interest and hence demanding more content. This cycle continues to drive the market.
Second, the authors, the suppliers of content have also increased, which in turn has increased the spectrum of views, thoughts and subjects that are being written about. This pluralism in literature has brought in a lot of acceptability of issue based writing, including gender.
Sara: There is no doubt about the fact that South Asia literature has risen tremendously over the past couple of years. People are coming out of their nest and mustering the strength to write about something. Publishing industry has also shown a boom in India because people are actually interested in literature. Gender issues and politics are discussed openly in the books and that’s what makes them more relatable among the readers.
Suleikha Snyder is an editor, writer, American desi and lifelong geek Suleikha Snyder published her first short story in 2011. Subsequent releases have included Bollywood romances Spice and Secrets, and Bollywood and the Beast, and contemporary short stories and novellas for a variety of publishers. These days, she’s hard at work on more South Asian-themed romance and erotic romance.
Suleikha lives in New York City, finding inspiration in Bollywood films, daytime and primetime soaps, and anything that involves chocolate or bacon.
Visit http://www.suleikhasnyder.com and follow Suleikha on Twitter, @suleikhasnyder.
Farha Hasan is a writer based out of Boston of South Asian descent. She was born and bred in the South Asian community in Toronto and has a degree in business and a passion for books. Her creativity and her passion for the written word first took her into advertising and then research. A slave to fiction Farha has been reading and writing short stories since she first learned to hold a pencil. The Mother-in-Law Cure is her first Novel.
Sara Naveed is a romance writer.
Dipankar Mukerjee founded Readomania as a platform for new writers. He is a management graduate from IIT Madras, and has worked for the consulting industry for almost eight years, with organizations like IBM and Ernst & Young, before taking the road less travelled, to pursue his passion for reading and writing. He has started a new literary social network, www.readomania.com, a platform for encouraging more and more new authors from the region. This region has traditionally been the land of storytellers and a lot of us have an inherent skill of creating good plots, good stories and good narrations. With a little encouragement and support, many more authors will be widely read and attain a place in the sun. This is the essence of Readomania-an initiative that nurtures emerging stars of the literary world.
The site also has a lot in store for the reader. Since the content is edited and curated, readers get quality reads on a platter. The variety on Readomania is impressively vast; we have romance, emotions, thrills, travel, humour and drama. Accessing Readomania makes for a perfect break of fifteen minutes from your daily grind. Read a story and unwind. It is appropriate to say, Reading gives us some place to go when we have to stay where we are. Readomania epitomises this thoughtby transporting you to new worlds of on the wings of your imagination. Visit us at www.readomania.com and enjoy a whole new world of literature.
Readomania’s first book, Chronicles of Urban Nomads has been critically acclaimed in India. Our next book, Crossed & Knotted, will be India’s First Composite Novel, is up for a release in India in January of 2015.