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An Equal Place at the Table: A guest post by Neesha Meminger

February 8, 2011

{Trisha’s note: My most recent post at the Kirkus blog is about Neesha Meminger’s new novel, Jazz in Love. I said, among other things, that it was predictable but fun, and I was intrigued by Neesha’s response on her blog: “I don’t mind ‘predictable’ – there are thousands of predictable books on the shelves featuring white teens. In a sea of books about PoC who suffer nobly, are rescued by white or western saviours, or are living amidst despair and violence, I am delighted that in this book, South Asian teens get to star in a light, fun, somewhat predictable read that was compared to some of Meg Cabot’s (The Princess Diaries) writing :).” Oh, I thought, I want to hear more about this! So I asked Neesha if she’d be willing to write a guest post about why predictable can be a good thing, and (yay!) she agreed.}

My first novel, Shine, Coconut Moon, which I am very proud of, was about race and identity–not groundbreaking themes in South Asian literature, or literature by and about people of colour in general. The book explored issues of racism, discrimination, terrorism. These themes have been done time and again, superbly, by many an author of colour before me.

My second novel, Jazz in Love, is steeped in teen culture and gets very close to the teen view of life. I was clear at the onset that I wanted to write a light, fun, contemporary novel featuring South Asian teens. I didn’t want to focus on the identity of my characters, but I didn’t want to ignore it either. I wanted to place my story smack dab in the middle of popular culture, and I wanted to create a world that consisted of teens from a variety of cultural backgrounds. While there are issues of class (Jazz’s parents are working class, unlike the usual Indian-American narrative), caste, spousal abuse and dating violence, there is no identity struggle, no overt racism or racial issues, no overt mention of discrimination and no references to terrorism. The “heavier” issues are dealt with using a light touch, and the focus is the universal journey of teens navigating the often volatile landscape of teenhood.

My first novel was picked up by a large, New York publisher and my second novel was self-published. I think the reasons Jazz in Love didn’t get picked up by a large publisher are complex. But one of them had to be the big economic crash in 2008. My (then) agent sent the manuscript around on Monday and on Wednesday news broke of what became known as “Black Wednesday” in publishing. Editors were laid off left and right, and most were afraid for their jobs. The last thing, I’m sure, an editor was thinking of doing at that time, was fighting to acquire a manuscript others might consider “risky”. There are so many reasons a book is successful or not, and a lot of them have to do with a publisher’s expectations for a book at the onset. One editor responded most honestly to passing on Jazz in Love, saying that while she loved reading it, she just didn’t have a strong enough vision for where the book could go. But I did. I knew there were readers for this book–books like the Bindi Babes series by Narinder Dhami have enjoyed enormous success in the UK, and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused which has been described as “chicklit” and is edgy with a dash of romance and fun, did remarkably well in the US and abroad. Even if that editor and others were not aware of such examples, I was. I also felt it was important that teens of colour have access to this type of story–one that delves into the harder issues of South Asian teen life, but also entertains.

In an online article I recently read, the author writes about the marginalization of people of colour in general, and women of colour in particular, “We deserve an equal place at the table of fantasy and play and romance, and we deserve to own and nurture our desires free from colonialities that exploit our longings in order to perpetuate white heteropatriarchy.” (I recommend reading the entire post if you’re interested in representations of race, gender and sexuality in books and media.)

Fantasy and play and romance. Play. It’s the space where creativity happens. It’s a place of joy, hope, rejuvenation, innocence, and a throwback to childhood when things are (or should be) carefree. In the vast majority of books featuring people of colour and other marginalized voices, the offerings are of overcoming suffering, the pain of being “other”, and the untimely loss of innocence. Not that there isn’t a place for these novels. They are vital and necessary, and offer a most important mirror for those in similar situations–and I reserve the right to have my next book explore suffering and pain and violence, and maybe even identity. All I am saying is that to only put forward stories of marginalized people suffering nobly or weathering hardship, to the exclusion of other types of stories, is where we once again risk falling into the trap of what Chimamanda Adichie terms the “single story” trope.

When I was a teen, all the books I read for fun featured white protagonists. When I think of some of my favourite books in the YA romance genre now, books like those of Sarah Dessen, Megan McCafferty, and Meg Cabot–I doubt that any of the authors were expected to create artful, powerful narratives about social issues. These books are allowed to be pure entertainment because there is a vast plethora of novels showing the full gamut of the white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle/upper-middle class teen experience. In terms of racial representation, there are white characters in horror, fantasy, romance, historical, and whatever other genres exist on bookshelves, while teens of colour are offered a limited array of options.

South Asian teens rarely see themselves depicted in mainstream media, if at all. They are not all immigrants (though some are), they are not always-all-the-time focused on being “other” (though some are). And they don’t always see themselves as outsiders–especially now, when there are second and third generation teens who are as versed in mainstream American/western pop-culture as they are in their home culture.

The truth is that people of colour, LGBTQ folks, working class folks, and other under-represented communities are comprised of complex, multi-faceted experiences. Most of us love at least some aspects of popular culture. Some of us enjoy watching/reading Twilight, others love Sex and the City, still others are die hard Lord of the Rings fans–even while our voices and images are, at best, erased from the worlds created in these narratives, and at worst, denigrated, stereotyped, or belittled.

Storytellers get to make their own rules in the imagined worlds they create. The creators of Friends envisioned an all-white world until there was pressure to include people of colour; the creators of Sex and the City saw a similar world, as did the creators of 90210, Gossip Girl, and most other prime time television shows and Hollywood films. So, for me, creating Jazz’s world was about challenging commonly-held beliefs and assumptions about what is “normal” and the realities depicted around us, without making that the focus of the book. Perhaps because Cindy, Jazz’s best friend, is biracial (her father is Puerto Rican and her mother is Italian), most readers don’t realize Jazz in Love features a full cast of teens of colour. I take this as a compliment.

I wrote Jazz in Love because I believe teens deserve all kinds of stories. Teens who fit the mainstream ideal could benefit from reading about teens of colour dealing with the same sorts of issues all teens face, and teens of colour deserve to see themselves reflected in the complex multiplicity of their experience. They deserve an equal place at the table of fantasy and play and romance.

About the author
Neesha Meminger’s
Shine, Coconut Moon made the Smithsonian’s “List of Notable Books for Children” in its debut year, as well as the New York Public Library’s “Top 100 Books for Teens–Stuff for the Teen Age” list. It was also nominated for the American Library Association’s list of “Best Books for Young Adults” and the online CYBILS award. Jazz in Love is Neesha’s second novel for young adults. Neesha can be found online at NeeshaMeminger.com

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 3:06 pm

    I found Jazz in Love through The Rejectionist, read it and loved it. I hadn’t read much South Asian literature before, but because of Jazz’s lighthearted and easily accessible I’m eager to read more about the lives of these teens. Besides, not every teen’s life is full of meaningful and important “issues”, sometimes life is just fun and sort of silly, no matter what color or class you are.

  2. February 8, 2011 6:10 pm

    I love this post! It is so true

  3. February 8, 2011 11:12 pm

    WORD.
    I really thought that Bindi Babes series was fluffy — but I liked it like a guilty snack of salty taro chips in bed, and that’s where I read it, wrapped in soft comforters and snickering at their ridiculous adventures.

    I thank you very much for eliciting this interview from Neesha — this is the type of stuff I need to tattoo on my hands so I remember: not every story featuring a person of color must be about The Struggle. I always wanted to write fiction which depicted the commonality of the HUMAN experience …and in that experience must be both lightness and grief, comedy and confrontation, and the occasionally fluffy novel about boys and girls in love.

  4. ohthatanya permalink
    February 9, 2011 1:38 am

    YES. Thank you so much for this, Neesha. And I have to agree with Tanita, my new mantra is now not every story featuring a person of colour must be about The Struggle too. That’s exactly what I’m trying to write at the moment – a story about a girl who has to join the witness protection programme, who also happens to be mixed race – and I keep questioning whether I’m getting the balance between acknowledging that the MC is a CoC and not beating the reader over the head with it. I’ve found it very difficult so what you said is so reassuring. Thank you again. And I wish you every success with Jazz in Love.

  5. February 9, 2011 2:47 am

    I love this post, and I am looking forward to reading Jazz In Love. I completely agree with everything Neesha Meminger says! I had a hard time placing my YA novel about LGBT teens which is NOT about coming out or how hard it is to be gay, but just an entertaining time travel story where the main characters happen to be queer. I am impressed at the flexible way Neesha decided to self-publish, and what gorgeous cover and book design Jazz In Love has.

  6. February 9, 2011 5:11 am

    Loved this! Thank you Neesha Meminger for saying so clearly how so many writers and readers feel. We are not, none of us, one monolith “community” that all think and feel the same. And, let me add, I know plenty of African American readers who are reading and loving Meminger’s books. Wish you continued success!

  7. February 9, 2011 5:25 am

    I loved how you said that teens of color need to have books with fantasy, play, and romance. All books don’t necessarily need to delve into the “dynamics.” Great reads also involve escape and fun.

    I think the industry may underestimate how much teens of color would love to see more of these types of books featuring characters that reflect themselves.

  8. February 9, 2011 6:12 am

    What an excellent post! Thank you for sharing it.

  9. February 9, 2011 5:11 pm

    Thank you for this.

  10. February 9, 2011 8:04 pm

    fantastic post, neesha! so eloquent =)
    and i loved reading your thoughts–and totally agree.
    thanks for featuring neesha and Jazz In Love, trisha.
    i really enjoyed Shine, Coconut Moon and looking
    forward to Jazz!

  11. Snow permalink
    February 10, 2011 3:13 am

    Thank you, Neesha, and thank you all also who commented to say that you are going to try to work on books featuring characters of different races living everyday lives. As a librarian, I am always frustrated by the lack of romance novels, fantasy books, spy thrillers, etc. starring non-white characters. I had a African-American young teen tell me one time that she didn’t want any books with black characters because they were always about the Civil Rights Movement or slavery. That was about 10 years ago, but it’s stuck with me because it was such a sad thing to hear, especially when I had a lot of trouble finding anything else for her.

    I was born and raised in the Southeastern United States and, speaking as a white person, I find books without diversity in them to be odd. I’ve always lived next to, gone to school with, and had friends who were of different races and so have the teens I work with. When we read books that are completely white, there is something in our brains that registers that they are not “real,” for lack of a better term. But when I’ve mentioned this to publishers, I always get either a blank stare or I get told about their new book coming out which “focuses on the friendship between a white boy and a black boy in the Jim Crow South…” I grew up in the South; I know things can be bad. My teens are the same way. But is that the only thing they’re allowed to read that features characters who look like them?

  12. Kristi Bernard permalink
    February 10, 2011 7:39 am

    Very insightful. Great post I am glad to see and hear that your books are doing well and made it through the pitfall of the economy. Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge.

  13. February 12, 2011 3:54 am

    I think this article about editors at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/11/lost-art-editing-books-publishing is very illuminating about the “standards” writers must meet to get published these days (not to mention, the lack of quality in editing).

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