Being (and Feeling) Gogol: Reading and Recognition in Jhumpa Lahiri's the Namesake

By Bhalla, Tamara | MELUS, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Being (and Feeling) Gogol: Reading and Recognition in Jhumpa Lahiri's the Namesake


Bhalla, Tamara, MELUS


In January 2006, Manish Vij, a regular contributor to the popular South Asian American cultural interest blog Sepia Mutiny, posted an incisive send-up of the commodification of transnational South Asian novels in Western markets. (1) The illustration "Anatomy of a Genre" identifies several of the more common cliches that broadly comprise popular representations of South Asian culture in the West: Eastern sensuality, ethnic dress, Indian cuisine, arranged marriage, interracial romance, and second-generation cultural confusion--tropes that name a set of cultural symbols so identifiable that they can be easily labeled (see Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

"Anatomy of a Genre" parodies the features that drive the publication of transnational South Asian literature, such as book covers, reviewership, and exoticising marketing strategies. Eliciting more than fifty enthusiastic comments, this small cyber-event reveals a community's self-consciousness and indignation about the powerful marketing initiatives and strategies of commodification employed in the service of selling South Asian culture to Western consumers.

And yet, the frustrations that inspired "Anatomy of a Genre" and elicited such fervent commentary seem to contradict another instance of everyday readership that I encountered during an interview for a broader interdisciplinary study on the uses of transnational South Asian fiction within a South Asian American reading group. (2) Explaining how this fiction affects her life, Priya, a young Indian American woman who participated in my study, asserted a powerful sense of recognition in reading this literature. (3) In contrast to the reactions elicited by "Anatomy of a Genre," in which blog readers were responding specifically to the cliches used to market transnational South Asian literatures, Priya and several other young women and men of Indian descent asserted feelings of comfort and self-realization because of the thematic consistencies of the literature. In fact, Priya explained that after her marriage ended, she took solace in reading novels, particularly by female writers of South Asian descent, to help her make sense of the cultural and romantic struggles she faced as a young Indian American woman:

I think whether you get an arranged marriage or whether you marry somebody that you fall in love with, you still face a lot of the same struggles, especially with family.... And a lot of the stories that I read explored that whole conflict. I think for somebody with my own personal experience--[marriage] didn't go very well for me--I like reading about it. It makes me feel like it is research, you know? You learn something. (Priya) (4)

Both instances of lay readership, the blog and Priya's response, present distinct responses to literature written by female authors of South Asian descent. (5) On the one hand, the blog readers' wry, witty responses to "Anatomy of a Genre" indicate a jaded and frustrated response to the tropes of arranged marriage, interracial dating, and exoticised South Asian femininity in popular transnational South Asian literature. One blog reader even amended the infographic by suggesting that with the addition of a few more cliches such as "crazy aunty,.... wedding scene," "white boyfriend/girlfriend," or "reconciliation with 'East' and 'West' (pathos filled)," "Anatomy of a Genre" offers a veritable guide to writing the exoticised Indian diasporic novel. However, Priya expressed a sincere longing for many of the same tropes that inspired such irritation in the blogosphere, explaining that they provide her with insight into her ethnic and gender identity and comprise a type of research into her own sense of personal and social identity. Put in context, these instances of lay readership are quite distinct: "Anatomy of a Genre" was posted by a savvy male reader and self-fashioned cultural critic, whereas Priya's response was elicited during a one-on-one interview about the uses of this literature in her life. …

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