American Readers Like Unconventional Characters, but…
In an article Amit Mujmudar wrote for the NY Times on May 5 entitled Am I an ‘Immigrant Writer‘?, he explores writing for the American fiction reading world as a minority. Almost immediately he concludes that “a minority author may well have an advantage”. It stems from the American reader’s appetite for stories about people who live in “other” ways. So, there is the element of novelty when readers pick up a book written by a minority author, but there’s also a rub: readers want to see themselves in the characters they read about. Is this a deal breaker?
Attaining the Universal Through the Particular
Mujmudar notes that minority writers in particular need to hurdle any divide whether it’s religion, geography, ethnicity or anything else that would prevent readers from recognizing themselves in the characters of a story. It goes with the territory. My mind immediately leaps to movies. In the foreign movie Monsoon Wedding, audiences relish the novelty of the lush Indian music, sensuous dancing, and thoroughly Indian family participation in, and the lavish preparation for the wedding. But what carries the movie in the end, is the moral dilemma facing the father of the bride, a dilemma that all audiences recognize. The way in which the father resolves the dilemma resonates with all audiences, and together with his generosity toward lower class newly weds reveals a crack that is opening in the inborn Indian caste system. Mujmudar writes “the book’s (or movie’s) success is proportional to the extent its cultural strangeness dissolves in the reading (or viewing).
Realism in Stories
Mujmudar points to the current of realism that runs through popular American literature of the day. Let me add theater and cinema to this. Realism is enhanced by observed detail and authoritative voice provided by the author. This works in favor of the author who can provide it. Amit writes: “Readers don’t want differences to estrange them—for all their curiosity, they actually want the differences to disappear. They want to recognize themselves.” The context of the immigrant writer begins to fade right about here. In some sense, aren’t we all immigrant writers? If we follow the mantra of current realistic story telling, we write about what we know, about our own experience. If we do it well, we can write as Amit says, “characters specific enough to be anyone”.
What novels, plays, movies can you cite that transcend the particular to achieve the universal?