A note from Headbuzzer: Check out this guest post Swati Avasthi wrote for Diversity in YA on Chasing Shadows and one of the dual POVs featured in her book - Savitri! Feel free to join the discussion with us on Twitter @Randombuzzers, @SwatiAvasthi and @diversityinya! You can also chat with Swati about it on her author board this week!
Swati Avasthi Guest Post for Diversity in YA
I wrote my second novel, CHASING SHADOWS, in two points of view – one from an 18-year-old Indian girl, Savitri and one from an 18 year-old white girl, Holly. At its heart, the novel is about their friendship and how that gets tested in the face of over-whelming, reality-shattering grief when Holly’s brother, who is also Savitri’s boyfriend, is shot and killed.
Given that I’ve been an 18-year-old Indian girl, you’d think that writing Savitri’s point of view would have been easier. But I struggled with it, whereas writing from Holly’s point of view was a breeze. Her voice felt immediately authentic. Savitri’s felt tentative and fearful, (which as a freerunner, she certainly wasn’t).
Who was fearful? Me. And I was interfering with the clarity of her voice as my apprehension slipped in.
Harold Bloom wrote about “the anxiety of influence” – how authors become nervous given all the greats that have come before them. But perhaps equally concerning is the anxiety of the unknown: that insecurity involved in broaching a topic that was unexplored – interracial friendships. Was this experience was universal enough, I wondered, for anyone to relate to? Would it have cultural resonance to first generation kids? Would others “get” that interracial friendships can be, by their very nature, uneven?
I grew up with two other Indian families who were close to mine – so close that we just call each other cousins to try to explain the intimacy. But the nomenclature was about more than inter-ethnic intimacy; it was also to claim a piece of the relationships and communities our parents talked about. In India, family is everything; community is vitally important. Like my parents, we assumed we’d find connections like that in the US; it was so natural, so expected. But, as we each discovered when we were in high school, the relationships we had with our white friends were uneven. While our friends would fade and return, we wanted a constancy that we could never find – except in each other. It made our friendship more valuable, but also taught us that that kind of loyalty wasn’t to be expected, that what was natural there is overreaching here.
What we couldn’t articulate at the time was that unevenness in friendships could manifest in lots of different ways:
The person of the mainstream culture (in this case, white) does not have a “need to know” the minority culture but the person of the minority culture must know the mainstream culture in order to get by. So, for instance, I can quote from the Bible, without having to explain what the Bible is, but few know what the Ramayana is or that that calling its stories “mythology” is as inappropriate as calling Biblical stories “mythology”.
In CHASING SHADOWS, Holly elects to know Savitri’s culture, but then, misappropriates one of these stories. Because the unevenness can present itself in another way: a passing interest in a culture in an effort to adopt it, change it, own it, and sometimes profit from it without much regard to the original. We’ve seen enough of this to recognize it easily (Miley Cyrus, Selina Gomez).
Or 3) Exoticizing.
I am the only PoC in my neighborhood and when I moved in, one man immediately started asking me questions about my heritage. Oh, he loved India; he’d studied India; he’d even been there. He could get his “India fix” just down the block after he’d finished his morning of mispronouncing namaste while doing yoga. Grabbyiness does not equal good friends.
When I discovered that this element of uneven friendships was a huge part of the novel, that Holly’s loyalty does not match Savitri’s, I called my cousins. Did they remember this? Did they still experience it? Sure, but that was only two people. Universal enough? I contacted PoCs I knew via facebook, via twitter. Did they share these experiences? “Well, not exactly.” “Um, no.”
Turns out those replies that gave me the understanding I needed to write from within my own race: it wasn’t my responsibility “to get it right” because who’s to judge when it’s “right?”
Maybe I just need to tell my truth about race through the novel, that power can be uneven, that friendships can fracture because of it, and that some friends – those who are comfortable enough to even out the ground– are the ones that last. No matter what their race.
Maybe not every first gen’s experienced uneven interracial friendships, but it was mine. And, as it turns out, maybe that’s enough.
Swati Avasthi is the author of two YA novels: CHASING SHADOWS which is a Junior library guild selection, and received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and SPLIT which received the International Reading Association Award, Cybils Award, a silver Paren’ts Choice award and made numerous “best of lists” including YALSA, CCBC and Bank Street.
Swati teaches at Hamline University and lives in Minneapolis with her two dogs, two kids and one husband, though he is worth two.
This post was originally published on DiversityinYA.tumblr.com on September 23, 2013.