Exotic Poor India

Craft and literary talent mean nothing without global insight, argues Kitaab’s Blogs Editor Rheea Mukherjee in this essay, her response to Jennifer Sinor’s  One Hundred Days in India.

Rheea MukherjeeThe second paragraph of Jennifer Sinor’s short lyrical essay, “One Hundred Days in India,” reads:

“As we exited the airport, we watched the slums of Mumbai unroll for miles in all directions. Each home, constructed from cardboard, tarps, and corrugated metal, held the other homes up, so they leaned like brothers in the sun.”

This inevitable brush with slum-romanticizing could be forgiven if the essay evolved into more textured passages.  I can appreciate a perception of poverty as one layer, but then I expect other layers to fold and produce literary origami.  What does good place writing do?  I say It should say something about the larger world, collide cultures, shake them apart, ring out archaic notions, and soak the reader with an original perspective. ”One Hundred Days in India,” published in Brevity magazine, poetically describes memories in intimate scenes.

Sinor (or her literary proxy) sums up her perception of India with sensory skill:  uneaten pasta her children have refused, the onset of guilt as the waiter takes back full plates. Amputated arms, and beggars who sit outside like it were a parade; their only floats were “poverty and need”.

As one of those “MFA” writers, I picture myself back in a grad school workshop, and remember discussions on craft. The talking points orbited around super specifics and the importance of building a scene. Originality as a writer has much to do with editing precision, the slick cuts, the soldering of raw emotion, and the melting of thick wordy sentences into a song.

And this is what Sinor has done, crafted an exceptional narrative, and rendered us a hybrid experience: micro-essay, creative non-fiction, and prose poetry. This is the craft that literary magazines look for, this awareness of words, of self, and scene.

As a reader, a resident of India, and a writer, I am thoroughly alarmed and disappointed. “100 Days In India” is a brazen example of craft being held above purpose, above global dialogue, about an utterly one-dimensional privileged point of view.

This week, I discussed the essay with members of Kahini, an organization that creates a platform for writers across nations, and holds international workshops.

“The point of good writing is to demolish stereotypes and give us new ways to look at the world. Especially given that this is 2015 and we (hopefully) know better than to fill our writing with tired clichés. I am offended by it as an Indian, but given its lack of self-awareness, I am even more horrified by it as a writing teacher.”

Sayantani Dasgupta tells me this as we chat online; our conversation largely about the popularity that poverty pornography has in film and writing. Sayantani teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho and is a board member of Kahini.

The larger problem isn’t the essay itself; Sayantani talks about something much more problematic. Brevity has been screening reader comments by uploading the more appreciative comments and holding off on its more critical ones. Jordan Hartt, writer and member of Kahini, illustrates how much we lose as writers and publishers if we censor critical thinking.

Kahini believes that empathy fuels good writing craft and increases understanding across borders of all kinds. While the narrator of Sinor’s piece—who, creatively speaking, may or may not have been Sinor herself—fails on this level, Kahini has no problem with a magazine choosing to publish whatever work they wish. However, by choosing to censor comments that question the worldview of Sinor’s narrator, Brevity magazine has lost an opportunity to host vital conversations about power, privilege, and the role that creative writing plays in building empathy and understanding in ourselves as humans.”

What is clearly missing in Sinor’s piece is her inability to discern the complexities in cultural perception.

“I had fifty coins to give; a thousand hands reached.”

Here lies the crux of the author’s humanitarian dilemma. She has, in one sentence, put the entire nation on crutches and squarely defined all the people she came across in the country as a sea of melancholy, a pit of dark hopelessness. She has equaled poverty, the act of begging, with abject suffering, without for a moment contemplating the textures of the human heart, the many levels and dimensions a human can derive pleasure and hope from. If these pleasures and hopes cannot align with what Western privilege has taught her, then they cannot exist.

The essay continuous–a lone dog is being attacked by a pack of strays; Sinor saves it by throwing stones at its attackers.

Peers have accused me of caring more about dogs and their welfare when compared to the plight of humans, and to a large extent this is true, but even this line did not stand potent. It fell into this series of thick miserably humid descriptions unable to be distinguished from the rest. Her sons find an animal shelter on top of McLeod Ganj, and play with an injured dog, they are happy, so happy that they “return to the boys they were before India, where dogs had owners and poverty was concealed”. this line was an absolute hoot and contains as much honesty as these two sentences: Animal abuse and bad owners do not exist in America. America does not suffer from poverty and miserable people.

The river Ganges is here too: exotic, sacred, and disgustingly dirty. Here Sinor can wash her sins off, and she decides to take a bullet for the country, play hero, she asks the river what India cannot–“The sins I asked her to remove were those of inattention and apathy”.

Craft has won over voice, balance, autonomy and purpose. It has for not a second questioned if a nation so complex and layered in class, religion, food, language, and ranging economic and social experiences, can all be kicked into a dingy cage filled with distraught beings, zombies of poverty.  It has failed to acknowledge that people, poor, poorer, rich, have an ability to love, experience a conversation, know a language, birth a child, and enjoy the morning sun rising.

If the argument becomes the importance of writing about poverty, how it exists, and why it exists in this delicious slum, sun, and uneaten- pasta- kind-of-way, then, this is where good literature should come in. This is where we need questioning literature, where words are built from the molecules that create our world, where we compare and study, and use our collective echoes as sounding boards. This is the time for literature to bring scope and purpose to pain, find joy in unusual corners, climb into the very center of our body, measure our cells, how they replicate, die, and are reborn, every second.

Literature is more than craft, literature must be more than craft, or we risk isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. Writing will remain sheltered, and only in the hands of those with shiny talent, the elite schooling, the networks, and the literary magazines. Dancing to craft alone risks living in a flat world, where we measure our potential by the perceived misery of others, where we carry bags of guilt that have been deflated by lazy translations. We cannot risk literature to craft. We cannot manufacture guilt and misery, dirt, and squalor in exchange for lovely sensual twists, and literary melodies.