A Multicultural Writer's Dilemma

An essay by Tejas Desai

A Multicultural Writer's Dilemma


Mention “multiculturalism” to most Americans and you will probably get one of two responses: confusion or excitement. Confusion in a society often assumed to be a melting pot, or excitement that multiculturalism is being acknowledged and celebrated. But what will be the reaction when they are confronted with multiculturalism's realities?

As a writer trying to document, within fiction, the social and psychological realities of a multicultural society, including its ugly and unexpected conflicts, I am going against either tendency and thus reaching into relatively murky territory. Doing it within the most ethnically diverse place in America, the borough of Queens in New York City, is an even greater challenge.

Here people of all backgrounds, races, religions, beliefs, nationalities get along, work together, hang out, date, get married, live side by side in harmony. Or some people want to believe this is true. And it is true, in part. But beneath and often on the surface more pernicious truths are revealed, and isn’t it the job of any true artist, whether a writer or not, to explore this?

Yet people often reflexively believe that multiculturalism should be celebrated and not examined. They would rather engage in ideological ideals or positive propaganda. Otherwise they refuse to believe multiculturalism even exists, and certainly not that conflicts of culture, race, class, religion, and gender are plentiful.

I have always had a dichotomy in my work between the real and ideal, and personally I’ve felt an urge to believe the propaganda. My ideals have told me that I should be post-racial, post-class, and not care about religion or money. That’s how I’ve tried to live. But when I’ve interacted with and inspected the society I feel duty-bound to depict, I’ve often found other things altogether.

We live in a time when motivational speakers, spiritual gurus and diet experts tell us what to think, what to eat, how to feel better about ourselves. On television we are warned that we will see graphic and disturbing images, even when there is nothing disturbing to be seen. We’re told to constantly be positive, confident, take out anything controversial on our resumes. We’re taught, in a sense, to block out the bad bits of life to focus on the good, within ourselves, and to grow. Certainly that is what the religion I was brought up in, Hinduism, teaches on one level. Yet that same tradition's arts don’t shy away from depicting the realities of life. Neither have many great American writers of the past: Dreiser, Faulkner, Richard Wright.

Aren't harsh depictions of reality a sign of a rising artistic culture from a staid and backwards one? Think of Gustave Courbet defying the Paris Salon to found Realism in art, Zola writing articles to encourage Naturalism, or Imamura and Oshima leading the Japanese New Wave in film. All these movements were reactions against censorship, artistic complacency and society's inability to see truth beneath surface pleasantries.

Our current “multicultural” American fiction today needs a similar antidote. The conflicts presented are often banal, or hackneyed, or they occur in some other country, or they involve a foreign romantic relationship. A vampire or teen theme might be thrown in to make it more marketable. It might focus within a particular group (like Indian-Americans) struggling with their cultural contrasts. But conflicts between Americans of differing backgrounds are rare. After all, not only do they defy political correctness, but they also don't “sell,” or at least that is the perception.

Thus a writer like myself who dedicates himself to depicting the realities of our contemporary multiculturalism is in a tough position from both a social and literary standpoint. And yet, isn’t this what we, as a society and literature, need so desperately today? To sober ourselves from our illusions, before those illusions are snapped?

Tejas Desai is the author of the novel The Brotherhood (2012) and the short story collection Good Americans (2013). He is the founder of The New Wei literary movement, which seeks to promote provocative narrative artists. A professional librarian, he holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a MLS in Library and Information Science.

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