Overcogitation and the wrinkle of appropriation

I wrote a book.

Ok. So, that was a lie. I wrote a first draft of a book.

Then, I did what all good writers since the invention of the printing press have done. I procrastinated.

I procrastinated hard. Until I became a statue like the trolls in Tolkien’s trilogy. Until I forgot my own book, my memory protecting me from the pain I had written, the pain I had yet to write.

I received feedback on the book. My readers were confused. I needed to rework the frame. My book had no plot. So much for Excel spreadsheets charting structure!

I was in a literary fiction hellscape populated with unfocused ideas and disconnected connections. Saying too much and nothing at all.

How the hell did I get here?

Overcogitation, of course, dear reader.

And appropriation.

Wait. What?

I hear you, dear reader. You thought this post was going to meander down the well-worn navel-gazing tunnels of writerly insecurity and doubt. Oh no. I’m sorry, dear reader. You’ve come to the wrong blog for that. This post is about culture and its appropriation.

Let me explain.

Or vaguesplain.

Or overexplain.

Or whitesplain.

Or overly vaguely whitesplain.

That’s probably about right, isn’t it? As I type, little red squiggles signal that I am making up words again. Even Microsoft Word is so racist it doesn’t recognize the neologism of whitesplaining unless I make it a gerund. Like Word didn’t recognize Ranbir the first time I typed it.

But, I digress.

Without giving too many book details away, here’s what happened.

The main character (MC) in my book is a white American female editor. Original idea. I know. Unlike other American female fictional characters, however, instead of just visiting India, my MC lives there. The original ideas are just flowing from my pen now!

But, hold on. There’s a twist.

My MC isn’t the center of the story. She’s the frame, the connective tissue between characters and their stories. She touches each part of the story, but the focus isn’t on her. It’s on India—and more importantly Indians themselves. I have often said the most beautiful thing about India isn’t her monuments, but her people.

As the MC meets Indians, they tell her their stories. These stories are rooted in my own experiences of Indians. Many have shared not only their culture, their history, and, of course, their food with me, but also themselves.

My love for India and Indians is deep and abiding. I am equally at home walking the streets of Bangalore as I am walking the streets of Philadelphia.

I finished my first draft in India. How perfect is that, right?

I had three beta readers—all Indians. They gave extraordinarily helpful comments. One even suggested the book needed editing. I will love that reader for as long as I live for calling me out on my bullshit. No one questioned my decision to tell the stories I did or even the way I told them. They all questioned plot points. “Ah, Jean, you know an Indian would never actually do that, right?”

Based on their feedback, I realized the book needed a significant rewrite. I either needed to do a better job of world building or I needed to reframe the whole damn thing.

I came up with a solution but needed to wait to implement it. I needed to give myself time to process the change and its impact on the story. I also needed to process through my major life change and the impact that was having on my mental health—and my creative life.

Yet, I continued to read, to write other things, to think (or overthink) about the looming monster of appropriation that hung like a sword of Damocles over my head.

I also occasionally mixed my metaphors.

I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

You might also say I procrastinated. But it’s more than that.

I’ve felt this whole last year as if I’ve been waiting for something or someone. Godot maybe. Who knows.

In the meantime, I started a vlog on YouTube about books. I have 19 subscribers (almost 20!), but at least I am doing it. I flailed around for a theme and toyed with “diverse books,” and eventually decided to focus on Indian writing in English. Meri jaan.

I called the channel: Jean’s Literary Vlog Tour of India. The concept was to take American readers around India through books. I highlighted writers I love. Some people might argue that I know some of the writers personally and can’t be objective. Fuck objectivity. But, honestly, the Indian writing in English book space is not as big as you think, and everybody does kind of know everybody else. That can be both extremely awkward and totally awesome.

I recognized that my demographic (white, college educated woman) was a powerful one. I wanted to use that privilege to get these stories heard.

But, I had this dark secret lurking on my Apple iMac. I had stolen their stories for my book.

Not in any literal way. I didn’t plagiarize any ideas. But, I had often told the stories in the book from the perspective of Indians. While POC writers in America cried, “Stay in your lane!” I had driven through my plotless plot with a reckless abandon matched only by a certain Bollywood actor. For example, telling the story of the crawling order through the eyes of a little Punjabi boy who experienced it.

Is that appropriation? Can I legitimately tell his story? I overcogitated again and again about these questions.

Then, I saw a YA Twitter thread from writer and editor Kate Brauning—and got my answer.

YA has been wrestling with the appropriation beast far longer than most other genres. Quite frankly, the conversations around appropriation in YA are far more nuanced and more sophisticated than other “adult” genres. I don’t actually read much YA. My book doesn’t target that audience. Even my short story, My Name Is Alex, targets just above that readership toward college students. Yet, in YA Twitter, I found great thought leadership on the subject.

Among the points made on this particular thread was not pitching in with a book about your perspective shift. That comment was targeted toward white writers who become woke to their racism and rush to show other white people the path to wokeness.

Early in development, I considered that my MC would be a racist white lady who realized the evils of her embedded structural racism. Part of her arc would include the realization that Indians are actually human beings not just tokens to be played with in giant political chess games.

But two things bothered me:

First, racist white woman is boring. For it to be a character trait is one thing. To build the plot around it is another. As an answer to the question why, it’s uninteresting.

Second, a white person realizing that Indians are human is dumb. Why should Indians need to prove their humanity?

I moved on. By the time I completed the first draft, this idea was long gone. What remained was my love for India and her people. What remained was an acknowledgment that India was not and is not an easy place, even for Indians themselves. What remained was a sense that Indians don’t need our help to solve their problems. Quite frankly, we don’t understand them. I did hope that we Americans would gain a bit more understanding. What I wanted to come through were their voices, not mine.

And thus we come full circle on the wheel of appropriation. I felt like a hamster. Spinning, spinning, spinning, but going nowhere.

Over the last few months, I’ve sensed that amplifying Indian voices is my “thing.” It makes me happy. I’m most confident talking to people when selling Indian books. Or fangirling them. Whatever you want to call it. My passion comes through, my words come easily, my body language actually changes. I get taller. My back becomes stronger. My front becomes softer as I open myself to being vulnerable about my passion.

As I read the Twitter thread, however, the last part of the final tweet hit me hard:

I want to repeat that:

“Listen. Serve. Listen more. Read. Keep challenging yourself. You, your world, and your fiction will be better for it.”

I broke down. Kate had given me permission to do what I knew I needed to do:

NOT FINISH THE FUCKING BOOK!!!

Editor’s note: Please note the use of all caps and exclamation points are generally discouraged.

She released me from a burden I could no longer bear to carry.

As I’ve been trying to focus on getting a job, and not succeeding, the book had been laying dormant, yet distracting me, demanding I return to it. Demanding that I finish it. That I have something to show for the last five years. That I have selected the checkbox Job Well Done.

In short, I had put so much pressure on myself to finish and publish that I had lost sight of the truth.

I didn’t want to be a bestseller.

All along, my true purpose had not been to be a bestseller, but to help others tell and sell their best stories. That truth has hit me particularly hard as I released My Name Is Alex. A friend noted that for someone who loves marketing as much as I do that I sure do seem to be allergic to it for my own book.

That’s because I am happiest developing other writers. I am happiest helping them with their marketing and publicity. I am happiest writing short stories and essays. This novel writing thing is over-rated.

That my value as a writer is tied to writing a novel fails to capture the inherent elitism in that idea. It’s an old-fashioned notion tied to a nineteenth-century narrative that includes colonialism and white supremacy. Ideas I reject and rail against. In this present age of data and Internet of Things, an age marked by its diversity and globalization, how we think of literature is changing. Even the Nobel prize committee admitted that when they gave Bob Dylan the prize in literature.

Bookstores are dying. And while it makes me sad, I do question whether we are ready for another cultural shift. A shift as monumental as the printing press itself? A shift that envisions a literature that moves beyond the physical dimensions of a book and lets us travel to another dimension, while still retaining the essence of a book. A literature that reflects the reality of IoT and the fantasy of A Wrinkle in Time. In that book, time and space collapse on themselves to help Meg journey across, through, and beyond our known galaxy.

In short, books need to wrinkle.

And so do I. Not literally, of course. More metaphysically.

All these words jumbled together aren’t meant to say, “I quit!” No. Not at all. But, to say, “I give up.” And to ask, “What next?”

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