Does the Diaspora Novel Need an Update?

Despite diverse South Asian stories and authors, publishers keep seeking out the same narratives.

Kavya Srikanth

August 23, 2022

Does the Diaspora Novel Need an Update?
"Reclining Nair Lady" by Raja Ravi Varma

It’s hard to forget the opening lines of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Ashima Ganguli, one of New England’s most recently-arrived residents, concocts a peanut and onion mixture common on the streets of her home city of Calcutta from paltry American replacements. Right out the gate, Lahiri’s work doesn’t claim South Asian American or even Indian American identity. It’s unmistakably, unapologetically, and specifically Bengali, from the cities referenced to the foods consumed to the way Ashima calls out for her husband with shuncho (“are you listening?”) instead of his name. And yet, the 2003 novel became a runaway hit across the South Asian diaspora. It’s now the fourth-most rated “South Asian book” on Goodreads.

Today, the “South Asian book” genre has a far more established following. We all know its familiar tropes: juicy mangoes, strict and overbearing parents, kids making fun of your school lunch, and the (usually young, usually wealthy) protagonist’s overwhelming desire to just “be like other kids!” As the South Asian diaspora has grown, these stories have become touchstones of cultural relatability. And many prominent diaspora novels continue to receive rave reviews from (usually non-Brown) critics.

But there’s a disconnect. For many South Asians, the storylines can seem tired, perhaps because publishers repeatedly reward only a handful of novels with big marketing dollars. This means that as the South Asian diaspora — and its spending power — grows globally, the diversity of the community’s stories is woefully left behind.