Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lapata on authenticity in Indian English fiction

From Flyover Country:
"To my mind, the so-called “authenticity debate” is a red-herring. Authenticity is a slippery quality that seems better suited to descriptions of food (“that restaurant serves a truly authentic Paella”) or artisanal crafts (“her wall-hangings are made with authentic Native American wools and dyes”) than for characterization and dialogue in fiction-writing. What seems to me to be at stake, beyond the upper class guilt of his accusers that Chandra cites, or the exile’s distanced perspective that troubles Kumar, is the art and craft of creating a realist narrative. Kumar seems to move just shy of this conclusion when he continues:

"Unlike Chandra, I don’t think there is freedom at hand from the entire question of authenticity, largely because there is no escape from the yearning for the real. The painfully real, the brilliantly, euphorically real, the emphatically real. Either in our lives, or in our writing."

Realism is not reportage, and even in a novel such as Home Products, which is told from the narrative perspective of a reporter, the inclusion of Binod’s journalistic assignments, his reactions to them, his interviews with subjects of his stories is a form of realistic (meaning in the realist mode) writing. In Kumar’s critique of Adiga’s stereotyped portrayals of Biharis in The White Tiger, he is not saying that these portrayals are ‘inauthentic,’ he is saying that in their obvious cartoonishness, they are unsuccessful (and in their de-humanizing stereotyping, also offensive) in the art of realism.

Writing realism set in India is a special challenge, and the arguments about authenticity as well as ongoing discussions about whether or not an author has ‘captured’ (as a snapshot) a particular slice of life successfully seem more to do with the endless obstacles in using one language spoken by a relative few to create the illusion of even just one small corner of a society that is deeply multi-layered in terms of language, culture and class. Like a bas-relief sculptor, an author must make us feel that we are seeing multiple dimensions while using what amounts to a possibly limiting single layer of language. Even if words from Indian languages are thrown in, there are limits to how much this can be done before the narration gets bogged down under the weight of too many words from other languages.

I don’t wish to end on a note that implies that one kind of story-telling, or one kind of aesthetic, is objectively better than another. Reading literature is not running a science experiment and ultimately we will read whatever books subjectively please us. On the other hand, a novel like Home Products is not only an excellent read, but it also avoids reifying the dehumanizing and possibly dangerous stereotypes about an under-privileged area, while simultaneously opening up for readers all around the world the complexities of the every day lives of people living in the flyover country that is Bihar. If you like that sort of thing."

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