Illustration by Ning Yang

Good Immigrant Novels | Jhumpa Lahiri and the Aesthetics of Respectability

Sanjena Sathian

When I was in tenth grade, my favorite English teacher pulled me aside ceremoniously to deliver some news. That year, Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 story collection The Interpreter of Maladies was replacing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart on our “World Literature”-themed syllabus. (Never mind that most of those Pulitzer Prize-winning short stories take place in the U.S.) This was 2006, before the emergence of the bromide “representation matters,” but that was essentially the message: I was going to recognize myself in Lahiri. She exists, my teacher implied, for you. It was a lot of pressure to place on both of us.

What I found in Maladies was not, in fact, radical self-recognition. The stories were somber for my taste; their descriptive, mannered prose and sensitive psychological realism depicted lonely immigrants and quietly disintegrating marriages. (I did like The Namesake, which I read soon after.) Lahiri is a stylistically conservative writer whose revolution was one of timing: in the 2000s, she was among the first fiction writers to represent an emerging minority group, American desis, and to do so within the tradition of domestic realism. Coming first meant that hers became the way to write brown books, a fact that loomed over me while I was writing my novel, which makes its own attempt to say something about Indian America. But Lahiri is not done haunting me: two weeks after my debut, she released her third novel, Whereabouts

Lahiri wrote Whereabouts in Italian and translated it herself as part of her European renaissance. (She moved to Rome in 2012 and began publishing in Italian in 2015.) Like its title, Whereabouts is tonally dreamlike, composed of vignettes, dotted with nameless characters, and lacking a sense of place. It eschews cultural specificity. This is disappointing, as there’s much that’s fascinating about Lahiri’s middle age: in an intriguing inversion, she has gone from being an immigrant in America to being a privileged American expat; she could choose to revisit the question of migration from this new perspective, but instead she is fleeing the topic altogether. Lahiri has called her early retirement from English an escape from the “sense of expectation” that surrounded her work in the U.S. Elevated, possibly against her will, as the bard of her ethnicity, Lahiri has said she feels pressure from Indians to keep speaking for us.

It is perhaps unfair that readers like me remain hung up on the legacy of Lahiri’s early work when she has gone to so much trouble to reincarnate. But in the tokenistic literary world, Lahiri still occupies the singular throne set aside for Indian Americans. And yes, there is limited space: I have heard of an editor at a major publishing house acquiring her “India novel for the year” and a leading literary magazine filling its “India quota” for a season. Two decades after The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri remains the sole Indian American to have won the Pulitzer Prize and one of two Indian Americans to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (Avni Doshi was nominated last year, but her book is set in India, was first published there, and received scant attention in the U.S.) “Let it be known that no other South Asian authors will exist this year,” writes Substacker Poonam Mathur, “because there’s a new Lahiri book on the way!” After scanning articles about the “most anticipated” books for 2021, Mathur found that only four of thirteen lists included any book by a South Asian author who wasn’t Lahiri. (Three nodded to my novel.) To be compared to Lahiri is still the highest praise, and her books remain reference points even within my community. Just the other day, my Asian-American therapist suggested I read The Namesake.

 

Even as Lahiri herself has moved on, Lahirism, the influential style exemplified in Maladies, persists. Lahirism is recognizable for its patient, pretty prose and its psychologically realist narratives that culminate in quiet insights. It’s also notable for its tendency to provide PBS-quality cultural instruction. Take “Sexy,” a story in Maladies which follows a 22-year-old white, Midwestern woman named Miranda who has recently moved to the East Coast and begun sleeping with Dev, a married Bengali man. The wide-eyed Miranda, who has never left the country except for a childhood trip to the Bahamas, thinks that Bengal is a religion until Dev forgivingly points out his homeland on a map in The Economist. “He had brought the magazine specially to her apartment, for she did not own an atlas, or any other books with maps in them,” Lahiri writes. “He’d pointed to the city where he’d been born, and another city where his father had been born.” 

Miranda’s naiveté is self-evident, but Lahiri doesn’t satirize or even really critique her. Instead, Miranda is treated as an earnest, fumbling woman attempting to expand her horizons. She starts eating at Indian restaurants and regularly visits a bookstore to peruse a Bengali alphabet book, tracing the letters of the closest analogue to her own name, “Mira,” which looked like a “scribble” to her. This newfound worldliness leads her to reflect on her childhood neighborhood’s treatment of its one Indian family, the Dixits. “The mothers never invited Mrs. Dixit to join them around the Armstrongs’ swimming pool. Waiting for the school bus with the Dixit children standing to one side, the other children would say ‘The Dixits dig shit’ under their breath.” Miranda herself isn’t implicated in this behavior, but she does recall being too frightened to even walk near the Dixits’ house after seeing their painting of the goddess Kali. The memory shames Miranda, and it is immediately contrasted with the fact that “Now, when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon.” Having graduated from fear to curiosity and an exoticized attraction, Miranda is, we assume, making progress. We never hear what Dev himself makes of the relationship, or of Miranda. It’s ultimately Miranda, not Dev, who receives Lahiri’s classically psychologically realist epiphany (that they can never be a couple). 

In her critical memoir Minor Feelings: an Asian American Reckoning, the poet and critic Cathy Park Hong notes Lahiri’s adherence to the “MFA orthodoxy of ‘show, don’t tell.’” Lahiri, Hong argues, exemplifies the way Asian-American experience has been flattened by the white gaze, particularly in art. That is precisely the case in “Sexy.” Miranda’s thoughts are generously “shown,” but the third person narrative voice never asserts itself. Instead, Lahiri leaves any judgment up to her audience, while priming them to be sympathetic to Miranda’s efforts so that ultimately, the story better serves readers like Miranda than readers like Dev. 

Like Dev, Lahiri’s brown people never get annoyed with ignorant whites’ “quaint racism,” as Hong puts it, which allows readers to “step into the character’s pain” delicately and comfortably — without interrogating either structural causes or their own complicity. By refraining from telling, Lahiri avoids most of her characters’ internal landscapes. Of course, many first-generation immigrants don’t make a habit of confronting “microaggressors,” but most have some private relationship to xenophobia. And Lahiri dons the white (and, tellingly, innocent) perspective more than once in Maladies — “Mrs. Sen’s” is also told in close third-person, hewing to a white child called Eliot who’s being babysat by a homesick Indian woman. The story does not hinge on the experience of Mrs. Sen herself, who is suffering a breakdown induced by the difficulty of adjusting to American life and the news that, back home, her grandfather has died. Her point of view might be compelling to understand more intimately, but instead we get that of Eliot, an outsider who has no access to her experience, and ultimately no language for it. As an eleven-year-old, he also bears no responsibility. Like Miranda, Eliot never has to understand race or the pain of migration. The story is arranged so that the generic epiphany (some shade of loss-of-innocence and empathy with a stranger), once more, is his: he needs only find a beat of connection with Mrs. Sen for the reader to feel satisfied, as if having leapt over some great cultural barrier.

Lahiri’s early stories don’t just instruct white people; they feel designed to teach brown people, too. Take another paradigmatic story, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” The eponymous character is a Bangladeshi lecturer whose wife and children have not accompanied him to New England, where he has a temporary post. Mr. Pirzada serves as an occasion for the story’s narrator — again, a child, this time a young girl whose parents host Mr. Pirzada for dinner — to receive some more gentle geography lessons. When she mistakenly calls Mr. Pirzada “Indian,” her father shows her the subcontinent on a map above his desk and explains that Mr. Pirzada’s homeland, East Pakistan, has just become Bangladesh. (Alongside map lessons, characters in Maladies regularly learn from tour guides and study guidebooks; it’s all very moral and educational, which perhaps accounts for why it landed on so many millennials’ high school syllabi, or why the homework help site Bartleby.com offers this free essay on “the theme of kindness” in “Mr. Pirzada.”) Indeed, an improbable angelic kindness varnishes the whole story. The narrator reflects, dreamily, in language that avoids the messy, bratty, reality of childhood. In the Lahiri universe, there’s no second generation rebellion — instead, there are inspirational and sanguine sentences that evoke “We Are the Children”: “I remember the three of them,” the narrator says of her parents and Mr. Pirzada, “operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear.” 

The shadow of Lahirism continues to loom large over young writers. A prominent Indian American inheritor of the aesthetic is Fatima Farheen Mizra, whose bestseller A Place For Us (2018) made her perhaps the most celebrated literary-yet-commercial Indian-American novelist since Lahiri. In a quote referenced in the book’s promotional materials, Time magazine favorably compared the two.  

Like Lahiri, Mirza managed to both welcome white people and be welcomed by desis. Consider the mainstream white audiences first. A book-club friendly family portrait, A Place For Us was published by actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth. It italicizes “foreign” words like “sherwani” and “Inshallah,” as Maladies did, drawing attention to them even while forgiving non-desis’ ignorance — and letting them linger on their unfamiliar syllables. The present tense and unadorned prose serve as a warm, guiding hand. Evoking Lahiri, Mirza’s voice is gentle and genuflected and isn’t much for five-dollar words. In a scene on the Fourth of July, told in a misty-eyed “Mr. Pirzada” or “Mrs. Sen’s”-esque tone, the children watch “with wonder” as their father’s face is hued “red, then blue.” The aesthetic that made Mirza appealing to white readers also made her beloved by some desis; she respects elders, extending her sympathy to parents Layla and Rafiq Ali, and closing the novel from patriarch Rafiq’s point of view. The narrative seeks to dignify the older generation as it explores an Americanizing younger one — a very Lahiristic project. Sensitivity is not a stylistic sin. But it’s worth noting how such a style correlates with — and has arguably been a requirement for — commercial viability. 

A Place For Us comes 19 years after Maladies, and some things have changed. More desis proliferate in popular media and politics, and, perhaps as a result, A Place For Us is less explicitly catered to white readers than Lahiri’s early stories were. Mirza never relies on Mirandas or Eliots to explain exotic India. Indianness becomes more given than novelty. Mirza’s characters are devoted Muslims, unlike Lahiri’s “upper”-caste secular Hindus, and for them, identity can’t be explained solely by maps; it is personal and spiritual. They also face overt xenophobia — being called terrorists, for instance, rather than merely being misunderstood by white lovers and neighbors — which means Mirza doesn’t ignore racism as Lahiri does. The Ali family’s “lessons” (as the reading guide in the back of the novel puts it) have more to do with the brown characters’ relationships with each other, and with their religion, than with white people. 

Even so, the Goodreads and celebrity book club-adhering public still often insists on reading minority authors for the cultural instruction they could count on in early Lahiri. Blame falls not on Lahiri herself, nor on the inheritors of her style, but on a publishing ecosystem that elevates a single aesthetic above others and sometimes markets minority authors as cultural tour guides. See, for instance, one glowing review of Mirza’s novel by a reader who, like a warmhearted traveler visiting an impoverished nation, observes that “the number of rules — especially those imposed on women — are a bit stifling, but there’s an undeniable beauty to some of the customs and rich culture.” The chart-topping books in 2020 were literal manuals on anti-racism; the increasingly guilty white reader has become hungrier than ever to comprehend the Other. On book tour events, I, too, am asked by white interviewers, “Is this how life is for Indians?” Every time, I must issue polite disclaimers that my book is one of many stories of Indian America. Fiction is not a manual, no matter how often it is read that way.

 

Lahirism cannot be divorced from an associated politics — the politics of respectability, which gives rise to an omnipresent, attendant aesthetic of respectability. Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first identified a “politics of respectability” in the practice of Black Baptist women in America who believed that in order to be accepted by white society, minorities must model “good” behavior. Many Asian immigrants have been subject to another incarnation of respectability politics, one that is both advanced from within the community and legible to those outside it. Working hard and not disturbing the status quo are how one earns a visa, a green card, and ultimately, safe passage into the mainstream. 

Lahirism is a product of certain historical contingencies. The contemporary desi diaspora dates to 1965, when American immigration law was amended to let in previously banned Asians, giving preference to a select subset — highly educated, “skilled” workers, many arriving as physicians or engineers on H1B visas. A Gen-Xer who arrived in the U.S. in 1970, Lahiri was among the first wave of Indian Americans to come of age here — she reflects the model minority respectability of that era.

I am a full generation younger than Lahiri, but my Indian America is not much more diverse. There are more of us now, but in aggregate, we remain relatively homogenous, and respectability politics remain prevalent within our communities. I encounter it everywhere. Once, at a conference for immigrants and children of immigrants — all recipients of a prestigious graduate school scholarship, thanks to our high achievement — an Indian American woman asked me something like: “Don’t you feel like you shouldn’t write ‘bad’ things about our minority community when there are already so many ‘bad’ narratives about us out there?” I heard a young Black writer ask a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-white author the same question at a talk, once; I’m asked it constantly by young, desi aspiring writers. They — the outside world — hardly know who we are, the question implies. Why would you show us at our worst? 

Those already marginalized often don’t want our dirty laundry aired. But literature ought to tell truths; you can’t make good art without dirty laundry. Toni Morrison once said she wrote against a purely “positive, racially uplifting” rhetoric, rejecting sentiments like “you are my queen, Black is beautiful,” because, she explained, “it wasn’t always beautiful, you know.” Philip Roth, likewise, constantly faced criticism from his own community for making American Jews look bad. In “Writing About Jews,” Roth characterizes these concerns as pure public relations — not just “what will people think?,” but “What will the goyim think?” Reflecting on a rabbi who was furious about how a short story represented Jews, Roth groused: “I had informed on the Jews… I had told the Gentiles what apparently it would otherwise have been possible to keep secret from them: that the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority.”

I understand the instinct to perform public relations. I once gifted a white boyfriend’s father The Namesake and The Interpreter of Maladies, though he’d asked to read some of my grandmother’s translated stories; her work, I feared, dealt too much with Kerala village ritual and the parochialities of our motherland. I guessed that he would understand Lahiri’s New England autumns, her domestic disruptions, and especially her white people. I was right. He loved Lahiri and was pleased to “learn from” her. He felt closer to my family, he said, having read these books. I did not expect to feel so ill — so misunderstood — in the face of his warmth. Yes, Lahiri did capture some elements of my childhood: Dev’s polite geography lesson in “Sexy,” for instance, recalls the way my mother so often pitched her voice upward into nonchalance, straining against a stupid comment from a white person. “You know,” she’d say, patiently, “actually, Afghanistan and India are different countries.” And Miranda was a version of the mother who drove my carpool, who asked if it was a cultural thing that Indian men didn’t wear deodorant. 

But Lahiri’s tone didn’t capture me. I found the many misunderstandings of my adolescence a bit painful, but also essentially comic. White people with no comprehension of the world they’ve colonized are absurd, and brown people forced to educate them become absurd as a result. Example: once, as we approached my school’s annual holiday concert, the music teacher realized that my brother and I — the only desis, and the only non-Judeo Christians in the school — might feel left out. At a loss, she asked my mother to compose a song about Diwali. My mother has many talents, but musical composition is not one of them. The ditty she made up, to squeeze in alongside “The 12 Days of Christmas” and “The Dreidel Song” sounded like a funeral march crossed with a Gregorian chant. Lahiri might have treated it as a sweet moment of connection, but often inclusion is a comedy of errors rather than a bridging of experiences. 

Articulating the silliness of such situations shatters the aesthetics of respectability. It would have been ill-mannered to laugh at the carpool mom’s racism; I had to maintain composure to be accepted. Even years later, noting the comedy of my holiday concert assumes something of my reader — that I do not need to explain what Diwali is, let alone why the songwriting resulted in such a deranged product. It lets everyone in on a joke I might tell other brown people. This is risky, of course, and may rely on racial progress that hasn’t been made. 

I’ve felt that risk myself. I once taught a classroom of white Iowans Akhil Sharma’s 1997 short story “Cosmopolitan,” which is about a creepy desi man who memorizes jokes from magazines in order to woo a white woman, and plans “to do something romantic that would last until bedtime, so that he could pressure her to spend the night.” Sharma’s aesthetic is far from respectable, and his protagonist feels realer to me than any of Lahiri’s. But I was aware that my white students had probably not encountered an immigrant like this man in real life. Would they come away from my class believing that all brown men sought to defile white women? I don’t know if I would teach the story to the uninitiated again, but I know that I want it to exist. 

 

My family-owned multiple copies of The Namesake and The Interpreter of Maladies. Other books we had too many of: Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things, A House for Mr. Biswas, Such a Long Journey, and The Inheritance of Loss. (Also, Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City, about an Indian cop in St. Louis — my parents’ first home in America.) We also had a lot of what Mauritian-Canadian writer Naben Ruthnum callscurrybooks.” You know the type: mangos or paisley prints or veiled women in exotic palaces on the cover — see Alka Joshi’s bestseller The Henna Artist, chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club. These were the acceptable novels, the ones aunties and uncles would recommend to each other or to inquiring whites.

There were other Indian authors’ books on my parents’ shelves — books never championed by aunties or uncles or high school teachers, books that mark a second, less trodden, yet essential path for the desi novel. There was Upamanyu Chatterjee’s impertinent English, August, about a civil servant assigned to a Podunk village in south India, where he mostly masturbates and gets high. There was more of cheeky Rushdie, who, though now embraced by the respectable set, nonetheless wrote stuff to piss off the mangal sutra clutchers. And there was British-Indian Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 debut, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Like Lahiri, Kureishi is a forebear of the contemporary immigrant novelist. Some Gen-X readers of color — like Zadie Smith, who wrote the foreword to a 2015 reissue of the book — saw themselves for the first time in his work in the way brown millennials like me were told we would find ourselves in Lahiri’s. Kureishi is, however, a product of a migration experience unlike Lahiri’s. The desi diaspora in the U.K. is more diverse and working class than in America, because the British government has not selected solely for white collar migrants. Kureishi was not at risk of being called a model minority the way Lahiri was, and the way I am. He grew up with a lesser burden of respectability in a distinct political context. Rereading Lahiri and Kureishi in 2021 as an American desi is a way of tracing the genealogy of diasporic writing. And as South Asian America grows up — as the generation after Lahiri’s takes our place in the literary spotlight — we can look to these two writers’ aesthetics as two possible paths for the future of the immigrant novel. 

Kureishi exemplifies the aesthetics of irreverence. His style is droll, quippy, and agile. From the jump, The Buddha of Suburbia acknowledges the author’s social and cultural context, but refuses geography lessons, instead zooming into comedy:

My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care… Anyway, why search the inner room when it’s enough to say that I was looking for trouble, any kind of movement, action and sexual interest I could find….

MFA orthodoxies don’t penetrate British writing, as the MFA is a largely American phenomenon, and Kureishi “tells” quite baldly. “We pursued English roses,” Karim reflects, “as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes, this kindness and beauty, we stared defiantly into the eye of Empire and all its self-regard.” That line — which recalls one of Roth’s famed passages describing Portnoy’s plans to “discover America” by fucking — unites colonialism and lust in a way that’s only possible through narration.

Karim is the bisexual, biracial son of a demure Englishwoman and a flamboyant Indian father who convinces white people that he’s an enlightened yogi (though he can barely do the poses). Beginning from this essentially comic premise, the novel then tracks Karim’s bawdy coming of age. His sexcapades include handjobs delivered to his father’s mistress’s son; a lovemaking session with a childhood friend that concludes as her cuckolded groom looks on in jealousy, and a wacky foursome involving several prominent members of London’s experimental theater set. Buddha offers more than recognition — it offers something more like what my teacher had implied I’d find in Maladies. “I was excited. The world was opening out,” Karim reports of meeting the theater set. “I’d never met anyone like this before.” That’s how readers like Smith — and I — felt in Kureishi’s company.

Kureishi’s insurrection isn’t solely about layering sex onto the desi landscape. The Buddha of Suburbia refuses the aesthetics of respectability on a sentence and narrative level. It does so by appropriating conventions of English comic novels — which V.S. Pritchett called “a dominant tradition of the English novel” (think Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim). Buddha fills that comic structure with more than frustration and embarrassment — the aesthetic of irreverence becomes a Trojan horse, concealing what’s actually a political story about class and race in Thatcher-era England. Consider a moment when Karim attempts to woo a white girl, Helen. Her father, referred to as Hairy Back, shouts a colorful cocktail of racial slurs at Karim. The only action Karim gets that evening is from Helen’s dog, who humps him as he flees. (Karim’s frank precis: “As I climbed on to my bike I took off my jacket and discovered dog jissom.”) 

Perhaps the most memorable scene in Buddha is one in which Karim directly confronts the question of public relations. Tasked with creating and portraying a character in a play, Karim decides to play the role of his father’s friend, Anwar, who has recently gone on a hunger strike to force his daughter into an arranged marriage. (Due to his weakened state, Anwar is later killed when his imported son-in-law thwaps him on the head with a dildo.) Karim’s colleague, a Black actor, objects to his portrayal of Anwar. The hunger-strike worries her, she tells him (“as if all [Karim] required was a little sense”) for it could misrepresent — or, as Roth might have said, “inform on” Black and Asian people. Karim corrects her: he’s not representing Black people, or even all Asian people, as she claims he is. It’s just “one old Indian man.” The actor continues: “Your picture is what white people already think of us…That we’re funny, with strange habits and weird customs… We have to protect our culture at this time, Karim. Don’t you agree?” Karim doesn’t agree: “No. Truth has a higher value.”

Self-seriousness, in other words, is not just boring, but dishonest; comedy, Mark Twain wrote, “is the good natured side of a truth.” Buddha shows white people doing nonsensical yet accurate things around race: a director casts Karim as Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” and then demands he wear shoe polish to look darker. But it also explores how desis participate in the nonsense. Karim dons the brownface to get the part. Buddha also casts this lens on the first generation. Where Lahiri’s elders are allowed to be nostalgic, and rarely questioned, Kureishi disrespects the nostalgia itself. 

Today, Kureishi’s aesthetic of irreverence lives on, in part, in books like Amitava Kumar’s 2018 novel Immigrant, Montana, which offers both Sebaldian roving and Roth-like ribaldry. Kumar tells the story of Kailash, an immigrant graduate student whose horniness and leftism are treated with equal import. Much as Roth’s Portnoy addressed a psychiatrist, Kailash addresses an imaginary immigration judge throughout the novel and delivers an appeal about his Americanness even as he recounts his coming of age story. Kailash muses that sex is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.” And like Karim and Portnoy, Kailash is less interested in nostalgia for the old world than in fucking his way into the new one. “I have entered the body of America,” Kailash tells the judge after sleeping with a white woman, “I have spoken filth in the ear of one of your fair citizens when I was inside her.” 

It is easy to see why books like Mirza’s enjoy mainstream success while books like Kumar’s or Sharma’s have more niche audiences. For one, Kumar’s novel is stylistically complex, full of footnotes and brimming with found objects — art exhibits, historical asides. Novels of ideas are rarely commercial. For another, it is a bad time to be writing about horny men, especially those gleefully defiling American women. Those white American women — the Mirandas of the world — are also the book-buyers, the ones haunting Mirza on Goodreads, and coming for Kumar, too. 

I once saw Kumar face down such a reader, at a South Asian literary festival panel where he was discussing Immigrant, Montana. When Kumar read a passage about the Indian guru Osho opining on sexuality, a sari-clad auntie excused herself. During the Q&A, a white woman — for the audience, even here, was majority white — raised her hand. She didn’t have a question, but a comment. She said she found the way Kumar and his interlocutor, another desi male writer, were discussing Indian men’s sexuality surprising. It didn’t line up with what she’d read on the subject before. She’d understood Indian men to have more “traditional” views of sexuality. She was disturbed.

Kumar intuited what was on this woman’s bookshelf. “If you’re talking about Jhumpa Lahiri,” he said at one point, before noting that he didn’t claim to speak for anyone but himself, that it was his right to stand for a highly particular experience. How brutal to toil under Lahiri’s shadow two decades after her popular success. 

This is what it comes down to: the privilege to be singular. Roth wrote that yielding to the question of what the goyim would think was “not fighting anti-Semitism but submitting to it: submitting to a restriction of consciousness,” which ended up “making Jews invisible.” 

To be so good, so polite, so respectable, so lapped up by a white reading public, undermines our ability to be seen. Jewish literature was lucky to have Roth — an outsider who wrote his way into the American canon (and was eventually embraced by many Jewish readers) precisely by refusing respectability. In 2021, white America purports to want to understand outsiders’ narratives — to read the literature of minorities. If we give ourselves to them, I hope we insist on representing not our most respectable selves but our truest ones. That is artistic freedom. Really, it’s freedom, period. It is, as Karim says, the world opening out.

Sanjena Sathian is the author of the novel Gold Diggers. Her fiction can also be found in Conjunctions, Boulevard, Salt Hill, the Masters Review, and Joyland, and she’s written nonfiction for the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Food and Wine, Time, and more.

Copyright © The Drift 2021