For far too long, a narrow representation of South Asian people has warped society but, fortunately, South Asian authors are now filling the cultural gap by crafting true, representative characters into their novels.
One example of narrow representation is the Indian-American character Ravi, from the children’s show Jessie, who is confined to a box of awkward nerdiness and scientific prowess because of his ethnicity. Although Jessie is a great show for fun and laughter, it still stands out as a show that does not move out of the traditional Asian archetype.
As a South Asian, I have personally experienced stereotypical misunderstandings as well. People have asked me whether I speak Hindu or “Indian,” even though neither qualify as official languages. Further, the model minority myth falsely places people like me into a group guaranteed to succeed academically and economically.
A lack of proper representation and understanding plagues real lives but, fortunately, South Asian authors are actively bringing nuance to fictional lives to help counter these stereotypes.
Uzma Jalaluddin, the award-winning Canadian author of Ayesha at Last, notes that in many books and movies there is only “one character color, and they become the representation for that type of person, and there’s a lot of burden of representation on that person.” Jalaluddin counteracted this problem by creating all-brown characters, so that “someone got to be the goofy sidekick, or the love interest, or the parent,” demonstrating that “there isn’t one single type of Indian, or there isn’t one single type of Muslim.” As a result, Jalaluddin enabled readers who have never read a book about Muslims before “see a woman who wears a hijab and not immediately feel bad for her.”
New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh features characters from South Asian culture in her books Quiet in her Bones and Rebel Hard. She says that she has “a drive to write stories that reflect our multihued and multicultural world.” “It’s easy to take shortcuts with characterization by using a person’s culture as their character,” Singh adds. She therefore brings nuance to her characters to avoid this.
Fortunately, these eye-opening developments are not limited to the realm of adult and young-adult books. Children’s book author and Pakistani-American Hena Khan explores cultural representation in her books as well, most notably in the Amina’s Voice series, which revolves around a young Pakistani-American girl’s story. “Amina’s family reflects [hers] in many ways and [she] never had the chance to see [herself] or people like [her] relatives in books,” Khan says. She wants to “fill this gap in children’s literature” by showing that “Amina, Zayd and Jameela aren’t quite as different as people think.”
As these authors have shown, reading literature written by South Asian authors can help people gain insight into others who are ‘different’ from them, ultimately erasing narrow representations while amplifying important messages far beyond the page.
About the Author: Akshaya Annampedu is an International Baccalaureate student at Plano East Senior High. She is passionate about service, music, and writing, especially about pressing topics in society.