I’ve spent my life living between India and the U.S.A. One blog post can’t begin to describe the challenges, privileges, lows, and highs of it all. I can, however, talk about being a bi-cultural writer and writing in various global dialects through one language. I am a weird kind of third-culture kid. I was born in the U.S and finished elementary school there. Then I did middle and high school in India and returned to the U.S for another 8 years where I finished college and my Master’s degree. I’ve since been back to Bangalore, India since 2011.
First, let me tell you about my accent. I code shift – my accent and cultural references can change according to country, and who I’m talking with. I still get teased about it.
Because of my experience, I see English as two very different kinds of languages: Indian English and American English. On the macro level you might think it’s just the accent that’s different, but there are more nuanced differences that are a result of specific cultural backgrounds and responses to very different realities and environments. I admit, it’s easier for me to write for a specific cultural audience. That’s why I’ve been involved with the way I think about writing for a global audience. How do I hold a place in a specific narrative and allow for people from all kinds of backgrounds to find a point of similarity to their own reality? Over the years, I’ve done a lot of relearning and decolonizing. Here are 3 important things I have learnt as a bicultural writer.
Letting Go Of Italicizing Culturally Specific Words
Growing up, I’d read Indian authors italicize or explain very Indian terms in strange ways. I acknowledge that for many non-Indian readers, if I made one reference too many to terms or concepts uniquely Indian, I would risk losing them, and worse, boring them. That said, using western-centric explanations and using italics takes away from the authenticity of the environment. I’d read ‘samosa’ with descriptions like seasoned potato filled pastry, and I’d chuckle. This is not because the description is inaccurate; in fact, it is probably the best way to explain what it is in English to a western audience, but it’s not how people raised in India would think of it.
I found authors who were owning their language with the English they spoke, offering more of a realistic picture of life in such a setting. Many Indians grew up reading British and American books with descriptions of food items we had never tasted in the 80s and 90s, and we had to make do with the names and imagine what they were. In fact, my father had grown up reading Archie Comics in India and assumed pizza to be a sweet dish. When he came to America in the late 70s he was shocked that pizza was savory! We never got explanations and we’re probably all the richer for it. While the world is a lot more globalized now and many readers are more exposed to cross-cultural habits and foods, there are still things that will be very specific to a culture and environment. It’s also the age of the internet where terms and cultural usage are just a Google search away. As long as you are being sensitive to your readers there is no reason to exoticize the culture you are writing from with explanations and italics. This however, is a strong stance to take and I know there are people who disagree, it’s just my evolving opinion of the matter.
Knowing When to Use Culture-specific Idioms and Expressions
Some idioms and expressions in English have become universal, especially classic ones like ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ or ‘cool’. That said, your character, their environment, and socio-economic background determines a lot of how they process the world around them. It’s good to get some culturally specific expressions in your narrative as long as you are being true to your character map. Sometimes I slip and write a dialogue that would seem more authentic to someone living in the U.S rather than India. For example ‘nah, I am good’ in response to being asked if a character wants a snack would be more authentic to the U.S rather than India. There are exceptions for everything of course, but it’s always good to check your character’s language in context to their lived experience.
Checking Social Privilege
This one can get me very disoriented at times. When I am in the U.S, a lot of people put me in the bracket of POC woman writer and therefore a marginalized voice in the U.S. All things considered, this is accurate and true. However, I don’t at all speak for all Indians, no one can. There are far too many stories, realities, and social cues at play to represent one country. In India, I am very privileged, by class as an example of visible privilege, but also by invisible ones like caste, these elements give me more access and network to the world. This means I’ll have several blind spots to many marginalized communities that live in India. I must acknowledge the responsibility I have to keep educating myself on how my privileges play a role in a grossly unfair world. I have to find a balance between creating, and using my imagination while still not attempting to be the ‘voice’ or ‘savior’ for people that don’t need me to represent them. When you have social privilege, you want to be able to do the best you can with your writing career and remember to make space for others.
How do you look at bicultural realities? Being bicultural is definitely not limited to just living between countries, many experience different forms of culture living in the same country or even city/town. How do you negotiate your curiosity and experience of our world in your writing?