Being (and feeling) Gogol: reading and recognition in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake

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Author: Tamara Bhalla
Date: Spring 2012
From: MELUS(Vol. 37, Issue 1)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,961 words

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In January 2006, Manish Vij, a regular contributor to the popular South Asian American cultural interest blog Sepia Mutiny, posted an incisive send-up of the commodification of transnational South Asian novels in Western markets. (1) The illustration "Anatomy of a Genre" identifies several of the more common cliches that broadly comprise popular representations of South Asian culture in the West: Eastern sensuality, ethnic dress, Indian cuisine, arranged marriage, interracial romance, and second-generation cultural confusion--tropes that name a set of cultural symbols so identifiable that they can be easily labeled (see Figure 1).

"Anatomy of a Genre" parodies the features that drive the publication of transnational South Asian literature, such as book covers, reviewership, and exoticising marketing strategies. Eliciting more than fifty enthusiastic comments, this small cyber-event reveals a community's self-consciousness and indignation about the powerful marketing initiatives and strategies of commodification employed in the service of selling South Asian culture to Western consumers.

And yet, the frustrations that inspired "Anatomy of a Genre" and elicited such fervent commentary seem to contradict another instance of everyday readership that I encountered during an interview for a broader interdisciplinary study on the uses of transnational South Asian fiction within a South Asian American reading group. (2) Explaining how this fiction affects her life, Priya, a young Indian American woman who participated in my study, asserted a powerful sense of recognition in reading this literature. (3) In contrast to the reactions elicited by "Anatomy of a Genre," in which blog readers were responding specifically to the cliches used to market transnational South Asian literatures, Priya and several other young women and men of Indian descent asserted feelings of comfort and self-realization because of the thematic consistencies of the literature. In fact, Priya explained that after her marriage ended, she took solace in reading novels, particularly by female writers of South Asian descent, to help her make sense of the cultural and romantic struggles she faced as a young Indian American woman:

I think whether you get an arranged marriage or whether you marry somebody that you fall in love with, you still face a lot of the same struggles, especially with family.... And a lot of the stories that I read explored that whole conflict. I think for somebody with my own personal experience--[marriage] didn't go very well for me--I like reading about it. It makes me feel like it is research, you know? You learn something. (Priya) (4)

Both instances of lay readership, the blog and Priya's response, present distinct responses to literature written by female authors of South Asian descent. (5) On the one hand, the blog readers' wry, witty responses to "Anatomy of a Genre" indicate a jaded and frustrated response to the tropes of arranged marriage, interracial dating, and exoticised South Asian femininity in popular transnational South Asian literature. One blog reader even amended the infographic by suggesting that with the addition of a few more cliches such as "crazy aunty,.... wedding scene," "white boyfriend/girlfriend," or "reconciliation with 'East' and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A285089657