Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Marketing Schmarketing: Evolution Is What It Is ... Fascinating

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I prefer my family sagas thick and juicy, so reading Diya Das' "fictional family history" was a bit of a departure for me. The Evolution of an Identity isn't thick (it's a slim 72 pages), it's not really fiction, and it's not all that juicy (dang it). It is interesting, though, and definitely a unique read.

Das began researching her family tree as part of a project for a high school American studies course. She wanted to chronicle her own experiences as a first-generation immigrant in the United States, but found the task wouldn't quite fulfill the requirements of the assignment. So, she began digging into her family's history. Although Das was born in India, her parents emigrated to the U.S. when she was still a baby. They left all family behind. At least, that's what Das believed until a discussion with relatives in India led to the discovery that she did, indeed, have some family living in the United States. Communicating with long-lost kin gave Das a much broader sense of her family's history. Finding the writings of two ancestors was especially helpful, as they shed much light on the experiences of early Indian immigrants. For the school project, Das used the diaries she found as well as excerpts from her own journal to offer glimpses of Indian-American life over three generations. Like every story, hers had gaps - she filled the missing spaces using research and her own imagination.

Even though some parts of the book are fictionalized, The Evolution of an Identity is not a novel. It's basically a memoir - although all the details don't come from direct familial experience, they are generally truthful. Most importantly, the accounts Das presents provide a meaningful snapshot of the Indian-American experience. It shows the changing face of Indian immigrants - from poor, uneducated migrant workers in the early 1900s to wealthier, better educated career people in the 1960s and '70s to today's Indian-American teens. It examines more than just the evolution of an identity, but also the evolution of an attitude. Das explains how the earliest Indians put up with low-paying jobs, racial slurs, and great ignorance about their religion and culture, focusing only on returning to their native land with money in their pockets. Years later, young doctors and scientists entered the U.S. because their knowledge and skills were in high demand. Along with them came a wave of non-professionals who set up shops, restaurants and services specifically designed to cater to this wealthy new class of Indian-Americans. Unlike their predecessors, these immigrants practically shouted, "We're putting down roots. We're here to stay." Representing Indian-Americans of the 21st Century, Das describes her own attitude toward her "double heritage" (60). Since Das dwells in both worlds, she must assume a split-personality disorder, acting more Indian in the Indian community and more American with the outside world. She accepts both sides of herself while at the same time admitting to feeling intruded upon by "Americans" (read: white non-Indians) who come to Jackson Heights (New York's "Little India") to gawk during religious festivals. She acknowleges the irony, saying, "It is somewhat hypocritical that I wish for the acceptance of Indian culture but have an aversion to explaining it to others ... I do not feel as if I have the patience or the time required to explain what it is to be Indian American to someone who cannot possibly understand conflicting value systems and cultural behaviors" (58). A bold statement for someone whose peasant ancestors spent their time kowtowing to the kin of these same American "intruders."

The Indian immigration experience isn't something I've read much about, so I found Das' account fascinating. It's a quick read, but one that inspires a great deal of thought. My biggest complaint about the book has little to with the book itself and more with the way it's being marketed: The Evolution of an Identity is not a historical novel for teens. Young adults are not going to grab this one off the shelves. I'm not saying they shouldn't, I'm just saying that this marketing tactic is not going to work. The book is a serious work, with a personal, but very non-fiction-y feel. If you're interested in Indian history and culture, or just in another perspective on the immigrant experience, pick it up. But don't expect a novel, or a rich family saga. It is what it is, and what it is is fascinating. It's a quick, thought-provoking read that will appeal more to adults than teenagers. And that's okay.

Having said that, I have one suggestion for 18-year-old Diya Das: write a real novel. In a lot of ways, I think a nice, thick saga based on her family's unique history would have been more compelling and satisfying than this thin, essay-type volume. I would definitely be interested in a more fleshed-out, historically-rich story exploring the plight of the Indian immigrant from the early 1900s until now. Indian-American authors are sorely underrepresented in popular literature. It's just a suggestion, Diya, but I think it's a pretty good one.

Until Das becomes a best-selling novelist (who owes all her fame to moi), you can purchase her work here on Tribute Books' website.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for themes of persecution, revolution, and racism

To the FTC, with love: I received a copy of this book from Tribute Books in exchange for this review. The fact that I got it for free didn't influence my opinion in the least.

5 comments:

  1. It sounds like an interesting book. However, would just like to say that there are a LOT of non-Indians in Jackson Heights, white and otherwise, and I don't think people are necessarily coming to gawk. They live there (there are a lot of Indians, a lot of whites, a lot of Hispanics, Tibetans, Nepalis, etc--every nationality/ethnicity you can think of) and see festivals happening and stop to learn.

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  2. Susan - thank you for your detailed and honest review. I appreciated the amount of detail and effort you put into it.

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  4. Thanks for the clarification, Fiona. I've never been to New York, so I was going off the author's description of Jackson Heights.

    I agree - I'm a white person and I go to these kinds of cultural events to learn, not to gawk. That's why I found Das' comment so interesting. I honestly never thought of participating in cultural events as "gawking." Interesting.

    Nicole - You're very welcome!

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  5. Thanks for the review.

    I just discovered your blog today and I absolutely love the header you have on your blog.

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