Midnight in Karachi: How a Podcast Helped Me Put The Conversation of Diversity in a Cultural, Regional Context
The other day while researching podcast networks for my internship, I came across a show named “Midnight in Karachi.” It immediately caught my eye because it was a show funded and produced by Tor Books – which is an imprint of Macmillan Publishing – and yet, the host was a Pakistani-based young woman who interviewed a wide range of authors who write some sort of fantasy from her home in Pakistan. The podcast was mesmerizing in a couple of ways: 1) Mahvish Murad (who is the host) has one of the most beautiful voices and accents I’ve ever heard, and 2) she interviews wildly popular authors with such poise and grace, making it so that it doesn’t even feel like an interview- but rather a conversation among two friends about writing, the craft, the books and the audiences. Her credentials include authors like Victoria Schwab, Margaret Atwood, M.R. Carey and Patrick Ness.
While listening to a bunch of her episodes in succession, I came across two South Asian authors, both of whom said profound things that put the conversations about diversity in a personal context for me. One of these authors was Sami Shah, a Pakistani author whose book Fire Boy was recently released by an Australian indie publisher- a book I read and reviewed. The other author was Indra Das, whose book The Devourers is also a relatively new release published by Random House. And both of these authors had startlingly similar experiences with the publishing process.
Both Shah and Das wrote books set in a “foreign” land. Shah’s story is an urban fantasy set in Karachi, Pakistan which wields Islamic and South Asian folklore, while Das’s story is an urban fantasy set in New Delhi, India and involves Indian/Hindu mythology. Both of these authors wrote “foreign” books – I hate using that word, but I understand that this is how their work can be categorized. Both authors sent their manuscripts to publishers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. And here’s the deal- they faced an alarming amount of rejection, but not because their books were bad- in fact, the publishers insisted that they quite liked their books, but they couldn’t find a market because the books were too foreign.
The Meaning of Foreign: Where People Are More Comfortable Reading The Lord of the Rings than About Existing Cultures
I wonder what that means. Were they too foreign because they were not set in Western society, or were they foreign because they did not rely on a Eurocentric view of mythology to form their world-building? Were they foreign because the authors were foreign and utilized a lot of cultural dialogue and cultural elements in their stories? Or were they foreign just because they were written in a way that was impossible for the larger Western population to understand? I don’t get it, and neither did these authors.
Indra Das offered an interesting, very valid perspective. He said that there are thousands and thousands of fantasy books out there, widely consumed by people of all races, people of all ages. Many of these books have made-up mythologies, created out of one person’s mind. Invented creatures, invented races and languages, and these books are popular. They are dubbed “legendary fantasies,” and people have no problem absorbing these completely made-up cultures and worlds. The Lord of the Rings is still very widely consumed. The world is made-up, and there are many creatures and forms of lore that had not existed before Tolkien penned them down. He created languages for his series. And people are comfortable with this, and call him the god of fantasy. But when it comes to existing cultures, existing mythologies, all of a sudden they are “too foreign?” It’s interesting to see that the literary world (at least in the West) has such a disjointed, fragmented notion of the world that they find it easier to absorb abstract inventions rather than concrete, existing mythologies that have developed, evolved and matured over centuries.
I encountered this issue first-hand just two days ago. I wrote a short story with a Pakistani child as the protagonist, who moves to Europe at the age of seven. There wasn’t a ton of cultural lingo in my story, and when there was, I made an active effort to make it very clear what the words meant in the context of the story. I mentioned the traditional garb of Pakistan once in my piece; this was the sentence: “people in London did not wear shalwar kameez, but instead wore skirts and dresses.” I don’t know – maybe I’m completely wrong, but I’m assuming that from this sentence – even in its limited context – you can figure out what shalwar kameez is. It’s an outfit, or a way of clothing. One person in my class had underlined the phrase and written, “What is this?” underneath. Perhaps it’s unjustified or silly of me to be annoyed, but fuck, was I annoyed.
I’d gone my entire life reading about Thanksgiving in books. It was presented without any context, but I knew it was some sort of holiday. It wasn’t until I moved to the US that I find out that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday- it’s an American thing. I had no idea, but I read it all my life and learned to fill in the blanks, no matter how disjointedly. This person in a literature class can’t fill in the blanks from a clear-cut context? They need me to spell out every single aspect of my culture to them? Seriously? What bothered me more than that, however, was how nobody batted an eyelash when this kid wrote an elaborate sci-fi story set on a made-up planet with a made-up society and a made-up culture. But when it comes to “shalwar kameez,” all of a sudden, Google does not exist and they find it absolutely necessary to point out in my writing that it’s a foreign phrase and that I should spell it out for my readers.
Why do people find it some sort of chore to read about other cultures? Why does everything non-Eurocentric get named “too foreign” or “too exotic.” People in these places have been reading these Eurocentric stories ever since they were children, and if they can do it, why can’t you? Are you less intelligent than “foreign” people, or are you just too entitled? What’s the deal?
Expectation with a Capital E: I’m Supposed to Write Stories that Demonize My Culture; Otherwise, They Will Go Unnoticed
Sami Shah had another interesting perspective to add to the conversation- another very valid perspective that forced me to think about how art is absorbed in Eurocentric societies. Shah was frank when he said that South Asian writers, or any writers from developing countries, are expected to write a certain type of story. They are supposed to write about the monstrous nature of their countries and societies, the backward-nature of their cultures. They must write about everything bad in order to be recognized and admired by the international community. Most wildly popular Indian and Pakistani stories are ones that demonize the region: stories of barbaric violence, of misogyny and terrorism and poverty are the ones that are told and recognized. Stories about sweet romances or close-knit families, or feel-good tales about friendship, or kick-ass urban fantasies are not recognized because they do not cater to Expectation.
Think about it. How many Indian movies are you familiar with? Bollywood is just a subset of the Indian cinematic scene- in 2014, India released 1969 movies – only 252 of which were from Bollywood (Source). Indian movies encompass a wide variety of genres- we have stories like 3 Idiots, which is a tale about friendship, first-love and the importance of learning above formal education. We have movies like PK, which was a heartfelt, humorous analysis of religions in India- the message ultimately being that we are so intent on division that we don’t realize the common thread that binds us: humanity. We have tales like Kal Ho Naa Ho, a tragi-comedy with one of the greatest love triangles ever written ever. Like Devdas, which is a modern-day Indian retelling of Romeo & Juliet, of sorts (but very different too) or Barfi, which follows the story of a young man who is deaf and mute but lives life like no other. Have you heard of any of these movies? These are some of the most popular movies in Indian cinema- the highest-rated, the most prominent, featuring some of the highest-paid actors in the entire world. No.
But you’ve heard of Slumdog Millionaire, haven’t you? Which is a ridiculously mediocre tale compared to some of the gems Indian cinema has produced. It basks in its mediocrity because it makes Westerners sit back and appreciate their lives and marvel at how foreign India is, at how lucky they are that they weren’t born in a society where poverty is so commonplace. Fuck the rest. It doesn’t matter that India is a developing economy, is home to so many cultures, has brilliant minds in fields of science and mathematics. That doesn’t matter- let’s just look at the slums, because that’s what makes us feel good about ourselves. That’s what tells us that the White Man has the greatest countries in the world- look at these poor brown and black nations with their backwardness and archaic traditions.
Similarly, Pakistan has a booming television industry with incredible shows that portray every reality of Pakistan- the upper-class, the middle-class and the lower-class. We have a ridiculously talented arsenal of fashion designers and artists, and a musical platform that sparked an artistic revolution in the country, and later spread to bordering countries. We have produced scientists and software engineers as young as nine, both boys and girlls. But no- you don’t hear these stories. You don’t see them published. You don’t see our documentaries, our shows and our movies on your screens. Unless they show you how barbaric our society is. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy has won the Oscar twice – both times, she has made movies about some of the most backward practices in our country. Realities. Harsh realities that cannot be ignored, should not be ignored and are extremely important to realize and change- but the only realities that Westerners feel like recognizing. We have hardcovers of I Am Malala in every single bookstore with the words “The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban” emblazoned on its cover. Which is incredible – it is, because Malala is one brave girl who did things that I can’t even dream of doing. But is she the only humanitarian Pakistan has released? What about Abdul Sattar Edhi? The man who formed the largest welfare network in the region, if not the world. Who spent his entire life providing shelter and healthcare to the poor and the needy. At the time of his death, he was the guardian or parent of 20,000 orphaned or abandoned children. Think about that. People flocked to his funeral from all over Pakistan- people who never knew him wept because Pakistan’s “Angel of Mercy” had passed away. He died earlier this year and most Westerners don’t even know he existed. But what burns me inside is that these people claim to be well-read, claim to be educated enough to have discussions about these countries and cultures when they have ridiculously tinted, biased views of the region.
*Takes a deep breath* Sorry, went off on a tangent there. But you get my point here. We’re not expected to write foreign stories, and when we do write them, we can’t steer clear of Expectation. My story has to be about an oppressed woman living in poverty whose husband is abusive and maybe even a member of the Taliban. Throw in religious oppression for good measure. I’ll write that and I’ll probably win an award. “A stunning tale of overcoming hardship” yada, yada, yada. But God forbid I want to write a cultural fantasy, or a contemporary about a normal teenager who goes to high school, has a crush and really likes to read books. That’s not a story that makes the White Man feel good about himself; that’s a story that tells him that there are people just like him in societies that are stereotyped, stigmatized and dehumanized, and that makes him very uncomfortable.
Rebelling Against Expectation: I Will Not Write a Story that Further Stigmatizes My Culture and My Voice
It’s not so black-and-white. It never is. Sure, there are horrible things happening in the region (let’s focus on the Indian subcontinent here), but does that mean that any step to bridge the gap between Western and Eastern cultures is stifled just because our stories don’t fit an agenda? I don’t want to write a story that paints my country, my people, my history and my culture in a disgustingly dark light. I want my stories to have nuance, I want my readers to relate. Your strange desire to read books about black-and-white oppression is foreign to me, not cultural fantasies from other countries.
After all this, after listening to the podcast and thinking at-length about the implications of the phrase “too foreign,” I ask myself a question. We talk the talk- we say we want more diverse books, and we engage with authors about the lack of diversity in their books, and we try and spotlight diverse literature. But is our message reaching publishers? They reject these diverse books that they liked because they see no market- where is the market? You and me and her – we are the market. There are so many of us who “advocate” diversity by talking about it on social media – which is amazing, trust me, it is. But do you go out and actively buy books from marginalized authors, or stories that are foreign, or tales that are culturally diverse? Unless you start supporting these books and these authors’ voices, there is never going to be a market. And good stories are going to be passed over because publishers believe- rightly so, I may add- that people simply don’t want to read something “foreign.” What good is a Twitter thread to a business? Businesses do not rely on 140-character messages. They rely on money and profit- and that’s the sad truth of this world, but it’s one that should be realized so that change can actively be achieved.
What do you think? What are the implications of the phrase “too foreign” to you and do you think it’s as big of a deal as I’m making it? What are some ways you can support diversity so that a more nuanced perspective of stigmatized societies can come to the forefront? Let me know in the comments; and as always, thanks for stopping by and happy reading!