In the best-selling young adult book Diary of a Wimpy Kid, protagonist Greg Heffley starts off the book by telling readers his theories on why middle school is all wrong—mostly the size difference. Greg opines that perhaps grade levels should be based on height, not age. “But then again, I guess that would mean kids like Chirag Gupta would still be in the first grade,” Greg quips. Thus author Jeff Kinney introduces one of the most mainstream South Asian pre-teens to hit the world in recent years. While the book allowed Chirag to be Greg’s ally and (almost) equal, due to his height and otherness, in the popular movie, however, the joke was focused on Chirag’s heavy Indian accent, which Indian American actor Karan Brar had to learn for the part.
Chirag adds to the slim pantheon of diasporic South Asian, young adult fictional characters out there, including the perky, prototypical Indian American girl from Jersey in Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused and well, there’s always Opal Mehta—or is there? Not a real diversity of experience. But a couple of recent books, Blue Boy (Kensington Press) by Rakesh Satyal and Skunk Girl (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Sheba Karim bring an encouraging complexity to the South Asian literary world.
I came across Satyal’s Blue Boy last Fall, when the book was offered as a free download after 18-year-old Tyler Clementi—a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey—killed himself, shortly after a sexual experience he had with another man was broadcast on his roommate’s Twitter feed. Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi, 19, is being charged with a hate crime for invasion of privacy and other charges. Satyal’s book follows sixth grader Kiran Sharma as he prepares for his elementary school’s talent show and faces his feelings of not-belonging to both his Midwestern community and his Indian American one. In a message that accompanied the free download of the book, Satyal said: “Kiran, the main character of Blue Boy, is spurned by his classmates and peers, but the point of the book is that children, even when faced with tough circumstances, can have a beautiful resilience that sees them through their dark times if they trust their own imagination, creativity, and spirit. I think that this is a point that continues to be of the highest importance, especially now.”
I couldn’t resist such a heartfelt message. What stands out most about Blue Boy, which isn’t marketed as a young adult novel, is the rollicking humor mixed in with the distress and heartbreak. Satyal manages to capture Kiran’s innocence, desire, weirdness and confusion warmly, so the reader is left both feeling for the character and cringing at his errors in judgment. Satyal, a long-time editor, has great plot-timing and a controlled sense of melodrama, which make for great scenes like how Kiran’s penchant for trying on make-up leads him to wandering into an Auntie’s bathroom and a community gathering, which leads to blackmail and later, disaster.
Along with careful plotting, Satyal brings 1992 suburban Ohio to life with vivid and time-specific details, but it is the way he connects Kiran’s confusion about Hinduism and Indian culture to these details that elevates this book to pure comedic genius. “But Vishnu has to take care of everything, like Mrs. Garrett took care of her girls on The Facts of Life …,” Kiran thinks when making a list of Krishna’s many traits. In fact, Kiran identifies obsessively with the Hindu god, and decides to imitate him at the school talent show, which drives the plot of the novel until the final dramatic conclusion.
Along the way, Kiran’s confusion about his sexuality begins to blossom and he encounters some bold displays of heterosexuality—from pornography to a shocking threesome in a nearby park—that spin his head even further. Since Satyal chose to tell the story in a close first-person, present tense narrative style, he avoids any editorializing or labeling of Kiran’s sexuality, which I thought was an interesting choice. Though the book and it’s hero manage to maintain their flamboyant and humorous attitudes throughout, Kiran’s eventual fall-out with his parents, friends and the Indian community is especially painful and I kept wishing for something to happen in the poor kid’s favor. But regardless of Kiran’s tough road, Blue Boy addresses the coming-of-age, identity crisis tropes of South Asian diasporic literature in an entirely fresh way.
Sheba Karim also breathes fresh air into the South Asian young adult genre, with Skunk Girl—now available internationally, which takes us through the first half of Nina Khan’s junior year of high school. Nina’s outsiderness comes from being the only Pakistani Muslim girl in a small upstate New York town, but the focus of her dismay is mostly on her parents strictness, her body issues—hilariously dealing with the hirsute curse that befalls most South Asian women, and her very first crush on a popular boy.
Like Blue Boy, I found Skunk Girl to be compelling because of it’s easy humor and it’s focus on some of the intricacies of growing up a Pakistani American girl. Karim brings a candidness to Nina’s separation from her peers that I think was missing in earlier South Asian young adult novels. For example, since Nina was younger than most of the girls in her class, because of her parent’s accelerated ideas of schooling, Nina got her period later than most. When she finally, ‘becomes a woman’ – she is shocked by her mother’s reaction. “When I got home and told my mother, instead of congratulating me or crying like my friend’s mothers had, she informed me that I could no longer sleep over at my friend’s houses.” When her mother solidifies this rule by saying it is because she was a Pakistani Muslim girl, Nina dejectedly narrates: “There was nothing I could say, no arguments I could make, that would trump the … Pakistani Muslim girl statement. I could have cried for days or banged my head against the wall, but it would have been of no use.”
The focus on Nina’s awkward teenage body and the hair removal aspects ring with truth and connect this book to other YA literature about the trials of teenage girlhood—along with her painful crush on a popular boy and her estranged relationship with her brilliant older sister. Karim brings Nina’s relationships with her two best friends to life nicely and engages in some interesting scenes about race and power dynamics. Nina remembers when one of her classmates made a racist remark about how black people “should go back to Africa and live with the lions, because that’s where they belong.” Nina’s friend Helena reprimands the girl for her remarks and Nina thinks, “It was easier for Helen to do that kind of thing. She didn’t have to worry about antagonizing the racist.” I was especially heartened at her best friend Bridget’s relationship with Anthony, who is black. I find that more often than not South Asian American novels focus on the South Asian community and the mainstream white community, without showing the complexities of inter-racial connections.
Skunk Girl seemed, as far as I could tell, to be set in modern times, since the narrative didn’t give us Blue Boy’s exhausting cultural clues. And while Karim definitely allows Nina to discuss racism and otherness in a small town, and shows her family’s connections to Islam and community—I felt like the complete lack of any mention of the larger global political issues, a.k.a. the War on Terror, and what it means for Pakistani Muslims in America, was a bit of a cop out. Nina’s outsiderdom is focused on being brown, nerdy and not allowed to go to parties, but any awareness of what is going in the world is avoided. In a way, this is not totally unrealistic, since middle class suburban life is very removed from these overblown media issues, but the complete lack of discussion was confusing to me and I started to question if this book was set in the 1990s as well.
Both Satyal and Karim set the bar high for the direction South Asian diasporic fiction is heading in, especially when it comes to young adults. Let’s hope we see even more diversity in years to come. Maybe a South Asian football player? Or a Sri Lankan British girl tagger? A Nepali Australian rapper? I can’t wait.