Over the past couple years, the #DiverseReads movement has gained momentum and people have become aware of reading books that are different from cis straight white characters. Because, this world is a huge place and there are many different people here that are not straight or white. They have been poorly represented in media for a long time and that has taken its toll.
Desis are an example of such oppressed voices. We have not been represented in a good light in the western media, but, thankfully, that has changed in the last few years and with emerging authors such as Roshani Chokshi, Sandhya Menon, Tara Sim, Dhonielle Clayton, Sabaa Tahir etc, hopefully, people will see us in a better light.
The purpose of this discussion event is to make others aware of the lush, beautiful desi culture and to tell them more about us. So, for the next few days, my absolutely amazing friend, Aditi from A Thousand Words A Million Books and I will be sharing various essays by desi book people – bloggers, bookstagrammers, twitterati etc for you guys.
I hope that you learn something new by reading what we have in store for you here and that you enjoy it. Thank you for stopping by!
How I Hate Your Racist Joke
Wanna hear about the first time I saw a Bangladeshi character in western media? I’ll tell you. It was 2005, and I was fourteen or so, a geeky kid who loved stories as much then as I do now—in books, in movies, on television. Having just started high school, I often relaxed in front of the TV when I got home and finished my homework. That’s how I happened upon How I Met Your Mother.
How I Met Your Mother, for the uninitiated, is basically Friends for a newer generation, a comedy about a group of young adult best friends who deal with the ups and downs of burgeoning careers in New York City. And just like Friends, it’s hardly diverse—all five protagonists are white, cis, straight, and able-bodied.
But remember, I was used to that. At fourteen, I expected nothing more, and all of my favorite characters, actors, and actresses were the same (save in anime/manga). As a kid growing up in the diaspora, with a fear of being considered a “fob”—fresh off the boat—at school, I didn’t watch any Bangladeshi media, either. I rolled my eyes at the acting, I begged my dad to turn off the music when he played his favorite tapes in the car, and I basically never saw anyone who looked like me.
Back to How I Met Your Mother. There had been times, before this show, where Bangladesh was mentioned in passing. And every time, in spite of my feigned apathy, I would tell my siblings, “Hey! They just said something about Bangladesh on [insert piece of media here]. Isn’t that weird?” And they’d respond, “Yeah,” because it was weird. Ranjit, though. Ranjit said, “Actually, I’m from Bangladesh,” and I felt my heart skip a beat.
“How could you remember that, Priyanka?” you might ask. I’ll tell you how; because my heart does the same thing now, when I learn a character is Bangladeshi. You know what else I still do? Choke up when telling someone about HOW MUCH Ranjit’s portrayal PISSES. ME. OFF. Here is the exact interaction between Ranjit and Barney in the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother:
B: Hey, Ranjit. Where are you from? Lebanon?
R: Actually, I’m from Bangladesh.
B: The women hot there?
R: Here’s a picture of my wife.
B: A simple “no” would’ve sufficed.
How do I hate everything that’s wrong with this terrible, racist joke? Let me count the ways. First of all, Barney is a sexist jerk. You learn that as soon as you meet him. So the fact that he objectifies an entire group of women (of color!!!), and then generalizes them as ugly is just icing on a sexist, racist cake. Secondly, Ranjit is a brown caricature: a taxi driver with a thick accent who is a very, very minor recurring character in the show, there for the purpose of cracking one-liners and carting the white protagonists around in his cab. Thirdly, Marshall Manesh, who plays Ranjit, is Iranian-American, so on top of all the other ways this joke was a garbage fire, it was yet another case of interchanging brown people because we’re all the same, right?
Now, that’s my analysis as a twenty six year old. Let me tell you how fourteen year old Priyanka reacted: my heart, which had previously skipped a beat, fell and cracked on the floor. I stared at the screen, disbelieving that a character whom I’d laughed at up until now had just said such a cruel thing about Bangladeshi women—women like my mother and grandmother. As an already self-conscious little girl who kept her nose buried in a book to avoid too much social interaction, it killed me. But I kept watching. Why? That, too, was what I expected. Why should a white character know anything about a tiny, inconsequential place like Bangladesh? Why should I let it keep me from enjoying the rest of the show, which everyone said was funny as hell, the next big thing in comedy, the next Friends? So I watched, and I laughed, but that hurt never really started healing until I became old enough to process it (as well as some other truly disturbing things that happened in the series, like the running gag of Barney faking other identities to coerce women to sleep with him).
I started writing around that time. The show didn’t influence my decision. I was a geeky kid, regardless, and had fallen into the world of fanfiction by thirteen. Eventually, I left anime and manga fandoms behind for series like Supernatural, which also centered non-marginalized voices. But I adored them. I wrote endlessly about Sam and Dean, straight white men that they were. And when I started writing original works, all of my characters were white, too—or, at least, not Bangladeshi. Only in college, at the specific request of a white creative writing professor who wanted to “learn” about my culture, did I start writing own voices fiction. Even then, it wasn’t the stories I actually wanted to tell, stories about magic and wonder that I loved to read/watch, but never saw myself represented in.
Finally, I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell those stories that have been beating against my rib-cage my entire life. Finally, I can read a book like The Gauntlet, a book I would have cherished as a kid, about magic, and siblings, and Bangladeshi-American characters like me. Finally, I can watch a show like The Good Place, a legitimately funny, diverse series about the afterlife of a group of weirdos, and get a character like Vicky, my villainous Bangladeshi-American darling—in fact, The Good Place even has a British-Pakistani main character, Tahani!!! Finally, slowly, things are changing. I’ve seen worse bigotry than that initial joke in the past decade of my life—I mean, seriously, I’m Muslim, so just imagine—but I hope, by writing the stories I’ve always wanted to, I’ll help to represent people who look like me, so other little brown kids don’t have to settle for being jokes on series like How I Met Your Mother.
If you want to find out more about me, my SFF projects, and the Bangladeshi protagonists (+ other marginalized characters) who fill their pages, find me on twitter under the username bhootbabe. As the name would imply (“bhoot” means “ghost” in several South Asian languages), I love to write about monsters, magic, delicious Desi food, and more. And why not? Desi folks and our stories are worth it.