I’m not proud to admit that I went through a phase, as an awkward teen, of casually calling myself “culturally white.” It was a defense mechanism, a joke I’d throw out for laughs. I’d spent my first few years as a brown immigrant kid with a thick Indian accent being mercilessly bullied, and this seemed like an OK way to deflect all of that.
But it was also a symptom of disconnect. All of my friends and most of my teachers were white. I loved Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Depeche Mode. And though my family was tight and I had my parents and my brother to look up to, I didn’t see myself reflected in the world outside my family.
And that’s when Indian writer Arundhati Roy appeared in my life, with a novel punctuated by familiar words in Malayalam and populated with characters who could have been my extended family. This was an imagined world that served as a window back to my roots in South India, and started me thinking about why it should matter to me that I came from this post-colonial place.
I go back and read this one passage from Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, about a kathakali folk dancer reduced to performing his sacred art for tourists, at least once a year:
In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them. He collects his fee. He gets drunk. Or smokes a joint. Good Kerala grass. It makes him laugh. Then he stops by the Ayemenem Temple, he and the others with him, and they dance to ask pardon of the gods. Rahel (no Plans, no Locusts Stand I), her back against a pillar, watched Karna praying on the banks of the Ganga. Karna, sheathed in his armor of light. Karna, melancholy son of Surya, God of Day. Karna the Generous. Karna the abandoned child. Karna the most revered warrior of them all. That night Karna was stoned. His tattered skirt was darned, There were hollows in his crown where jewels used to be. His velvet blouse had grown bald with use. His heels were cracked. Tough. He stubbed his joints out on them.
Later, a friend introduced me to Zadie Smith. Her protagonists, with their big city angst and messy multiculturalism, resonated with me on another level: a reminder to view my confused teen self with compassion.
In a publishing industry that’s still harder for writers of color to break through, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Pico Iyer, and Isabel Allende were the ones who built worlds that led me to more deeply explore my own.
For others, that might be Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, or Sherman Alexie. Or maybe it’s Angie Thomas, whose Black Lives Matter-inspired young adult novel The Hate U Give debuted this year at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.
In honor of National Library Week, we’d like to hear about the writers of color whose work you love and why. Did you see yourself in the daughters of the Joy Luck Club? Or walk to Pathmark like Junot Diaz’ characters? Did that glimpse of the internal world of a biracial kid in North East London stay with you? Tell us about the writers of color whose work you’d like to share in the comments below.