Writing Ethnicity: Sona Looks for the Universal in the Specific

220px Monsoon Wedding poster Writing Ethnicity: Sona Looks for the Universal in the SpecificA few years ago, when my sister Meena and I first started writing screenplays, we pondered this: do we make our protagonist a brown girl like us? Or a white girl like most of the members of some vague future audience for our films?

At first, it was a bit of a no-brainer. Did we want to actually sell a script? Why yes, we did. So we wrote about a white girl. Relatable. Fun. And still, deep down, a bit like us. Did she not suffer from frizzy, uncontrollable hair? Did she not have a bitchy boss from hell who made her life miserable? Did she not lust after the exact wrong guy? See?

But we weren’t satisfied with just that. So we made sure we put a brown character into the script, albeit in a small role. Then a funny thing happened when we were taking pitch meetings in big, bad Hollywood. When they inevitably asked what else we were working on (they always ask that, by the way), we told them about this little project I’d been developing for my thesis script at NYU, you know, the back pocket one that you’ll eventually have to make yourself because it’s so specific. It was about another floundering twenty-something (our specialty!) in the city who fell for the wrong guy, had the bitchy boss, and was essentially just a hot mess.

But this feisty chick — well, she was brown. Like us. There was something about her, though, that made her relatable to all those aforementioned potential white girls in that imaginary audience. And so that ended up being the script that everyone wanted to talk about, that everyone wanted to work with us on. It didn’t hurt, also, that Bend It Like Beckham was a surprise hit, and Monsoon Wedding had done well right before that. But of course, by the time we’d worked out all the kinks with our would-be producers, another flick with subcontinental flavor had TANKED, and so we lost our shot.

Writing fiction has been an interesting journey for me in this regard, especially when compared to the previously ethnically barren landscape of Hollywood. (Now, there’s a requisite brown sidekick on every hit sitcom or drama. I’m not kidding. I could make a whole slideshow full. Maybe I will, in fact.) (Anyway, I digress.) Given the healthy interest in South Asian Diaspora fiction the past decade, I didn’t feel nearly as intimidated writing an ethnic character as I had in the past. There’s room in publishing for brown folks like me, at least to a certain degree — and in a certain market. (Mostly literary fiction.) But! And you knew there was a but!

There are still some stories that I want to write that don’t really have anything at all to do with being a brown girl. Case in point? My first YA project, which is about as high concept as they come. If I made one of the two protagonists an Indian girl, it would leave readers scratching their heads. Why did the author make that choice? What does it bring to the text? In that novel, it really wouldn’t bring a whole lot to the text. But, as always, I want to represent. So I did put an Indian girl into the book — in a bit of an unexpected way. And there’s a black character in it, too, but not just to make it uber-diverse. It’s in a way that makes sense for the story and the character. The book isn’t about race, really. But the diversity adds a layer to the text. It works in the novel without overtaking the novel.

My second work-in-progress — my thesis project — is a whole ‘nother story. Ethnic identity is one of the key components in this book. It has a flavor to it, if you will. One of the biggest challenges I’m facing in working on my thesis project is that I’m writing three narrators — and they’re all brown girls, all from New Jersey, all Upper Middle class. All too easily, these three voices could meld together and sound the same, given their shared history and ethnicity, their shared community. But you see, that’s where the other components of storytelling come into play here. These are three very different characters — each has a different want, a different way of achieving it or expressing it, a different take on the world. Or at least I hope they will. The key for me in telling this story is to not just make them three brown girls. It’s the universality of the situations they face — the heart of the novel is about the implosion of a friendship, something that’s relatable to most readers. The setting and culture is specific — and therefore, I’m hoping, interesting in its own right — but the conflict is universal, graspable by a wider audience. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that I’m not just writing a book about brown girls for brown girls, but rather a book about these girls, who happen to be brown, but they’re also very much just…girls.

That’s kind of how I view writing ethnicity. Do I always write what I know? Not exactly. But there’s usually some intrinsic part of the character that I can relate to, something that makes the character universal in some way. The angst of the character, their hovering mother, their bond with a sibling, the way they tie their shoes or hate their job or eat breakfast for dinner. My characters tend to be human, after all. (No sci-fi here.) With all my writing, it seems, I’m trying to tell an everygirl story in a specific and interesting way. Kind of like with that script that was a hot property for ten Hollywood seconds.

And that script, by the way? The story’s still in my back pocket. Maybe you’ll read it one day — in novel form.


Find more of my fiction-related writing on my MFA group blog, TeenWritersBloc.com.


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