on writing your own culture

As a fledgling novelist, I’m constantly learning -- how to deepen my character’s motivations, heighten the stakes in a twisty plot or improve my craft. What I never thought I’d have to learn (or re-learn) is how to write my own culture.

Recently, I sat down to start plotting out my upcoming WIP based off an idea that had captured my heart a few months ago. I had two completed manuscripts under my belt, but yet I felt an almost overwhelming fear. Not that I couldn’t write it or that I might fail -- I’d failed a number of times already and I had always picked myself up and soldiered on. What scared me was the type of book I wanted to write next, one which would be firmly rooted in the lore and mythology of India.

These were stories I grew up hearing from my parents, reading in beautifully illustrated comic books, or watching on serialized, over-dramatized television shows. I knew them by heart. As a kid, I prided myself on being able to recall the most obscure character’s name from the Mahabharata or recite one of the tales from the Panchatantra.

And I’m a writer of fantasy -- the more fantastical and otherworldly, the better. I love building new worlds and cultures and weaving magic and mythology through every word of my book. But why was it harder for me to write about the magic and mythology of my own culture than one I had made up?

When I got down to the heart of it (after talking to some of my wonderfully sensitive friends), I realized something. I consider myself American, or sometimes Indian-American. But I also spent a long time struggling as a kid with this concept, beating down my inherent “otherness” as much as possible so that it wasn’t intimidating or off-putting. I vacillated between the two -- showing off my ethnicity and culture, and hiding it. Eventually, I found a middle ground and a solid sense of self (it helped that I was no longer a teenager) but sitting down to write this book brought back every struggle, every moment of confusion.

Would I be judged for writing something “so diverse”? Would people appreciate the realities of Indian culture beyond yoga, henna and chai? Would stories of my heritage be too weird, too “other”? If this is the book that gets me to the next level as a writer, would people think it’s only because I wrote something about my culture? That I could never be mainstream?

I immediately felt a bewildering outrage. I had already written two books that had almost nothing to do with my culture or my “Indian-ness.” (Note how my first reaction is to prove I’m not “other” by touting these books) People wanted diversity! I shouldn’t feel ashamed. And what did “mainstream” mean anyway? These thoughts and more rattled around my head for awhile until I realized I was being defensive. I had some deep rooted anxiety about being accepted, remnants of a childhood where the food I loved was deemed smelly and people asked if we had a cousin like Apu from the Simpsons. I wanted to have no fear about writing this story and putting my culture and heritage out there for all to see, but it remained there, nestled into my chest.

At the end of the day, I am a writer. And the quest for diverse representation and stories is something I want to join -- no matter how hard or scary it is. That’s what writers do. We tell the stories of the world. And there is a vast world out there.

In the future, if my stories can help a younger version of me navigate the treacherous waters of being a teenager by giving her the chance to read a story that represents and celebrates her culture -- every bit of fear and worry would be worth it.

I chose to look at my fear as a sign that writing this story was something worth doing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained...right?