I am, I am told, an “Indian-American” writer, and my novels are Indian-American novels. Sometimes they’re called “immigrant fiction,” even though I’ve never immigrated from or to anywhere. My simultaneous Indianness and Americanness is very interesting to me, not least because my biggest literary influences have been dead white European males. To be honest, I never have thought about that fact much, as I mostly think of myself as writing about human beings in English. I’ve seen other writers, who also write about human beings in English, referred to as African-American, Dominican-American, Jewish American, and so on.
Our fixation on ethnicity and race is very American, though it extends to the Anglophone literary world generally, which is strongly influenced by the American way of thinking and American universities. The reason for it is the history of American racism and American slavery. Consider the French author Alexandre Dumas, who was a quarter black (and no stranger to racist remarks from his 19th century contemporaries). Today the French consider him a French writer, and so do we; I doubt his millions of readers experience The Three Musketeers as the work of mixed-race writer, or even think about that aspect of him. What if 19th century America had produced some equivalent of Dumas? Imagine a quarter black writer, the grandson of a slave, dramatizing American history with lasting international success—and doing it in the decades leading up to the Civil War. This American Dumas would have been a literary icon for extra-literary reasons as well. The man would have his own stamp. One can imagine Dumas scholarship in American universities fixating on his racial heritage.
America is often compared to ancient Rome, but consider how that supremely “Roman” poet, Virgil, was a Cisalpine Gaul by ethnicity. Seneca, who (via Shakespeare) became one of the most influential of Roman writers, was actually an Iberian. Among the seven cities that claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, two (Smyrna and Colophon) are in Asia Minor—which means the greatest Greek poet, at the origins of the Western canon, might have been born in modern-day Turkey, and hence technically an “Asian.” The Greeks, to my knowledge, have never cared, not even at the height of their antagonism with the Turks. The farther back you go in time, the less these matters of skin and blood seem to matter. St. Augustine was a full-blooded African: Big deal.
But we are 21st century Americans, and our eyes turn up the contrast when we see a human being. Surface shading matters a lot to us. This is a reductionist way of classifying writers, just as it’s a reductionist way of classifying human beings. We know this, but we can’t help ourselves. We classify a writer before we study her, and we use the classification to guide our study. We seek to understand her writing, which is a psychological expression, by informing ourselves about the origins of her physical body.
If we leave behind race and ethnicity, can we come up with more meaningful characterizations? How about gender? Language? Decisions of form, mode, style? It may well be that describing a writer as an “English-language male magical realist” may be just as reductionist, in each detail, as any label of nationality, ethnicity, or race. Do any of these things tell us anything about the experience of reading the novel, story, or poem written by that human being?
Such groupings may well be antithetical to the nature of reading, which seeks to bridge two minds across time and space. This mind to mind exchange takes place, anatomically, in an organ that does not differ among races, genders, religions, or ethnicities. The human brain—take it from a radiologist—looks exactly the same, no matter where you come from. It’s this organ that a writer composes with and for, this console and pedalboard at which creativity sits down, cracks her knuckles, and plays.