ABCD Memories

The web’s been around for 15 years or so—enough time to be nostalgic about its olden days. So the news that FEED magazine has placed its archives online was enough to trigger flashbacks to my web-worker stints in San Francisco in the mid-90s, when Suck was essential reading, the only thing Amazon sold was books, and the most exciting thing a magazine could do with its articles on the web was…put them on the web. The most interesting thing about the archives, at first glance, is how many familiar names are there, particularly in the books section: Keith Gessen and Sam Lipsyte discussing Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist; a pre-Talking Points Memo Joshua Micah Marshall laying into Maureen Dowd; Ana Marie Cox considering whether Stephen King‘s online-only short story was the future of literature (nah).

Among the gems is Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “To Heaven Without Dying,” a funny, occasionally defensive consideration of the attention her debut story collection received, and of what she owes her Bengali heritage as a result of it. Lahiri read her press, and though she was mainly bemused by the way Indian critics nitpicked her descriptions of Calcutta and its residents, she took it seriously enough to turn it into an essay on why fiction, not America or India, is “the foreign land of my choosing.” As much as she wants to define herself strictly as a fiction writer, though, she realizes others were going to decide who she was for her:

Once made public, both my book and myself were immediately and copiously categorized. Take, for instance, the various ways I am described: as an American author, as an Indian-American author, as a British-born author, as an Anglo-Indian author, as an NRI (non-resident Indian) author, as an ABCD author (ABCD stands for American born confused “desi” — “desi” meaning Indian — and is an acronym coined by Indian nationals to describe culturally challenged second-generation Indians raised in the U.S.). According to Indian academics, I’ve written something known as “Diaspora fiction”; in the U.S., it’s “immigrant fiction.” In a way, all of this amuses me. The book is what it is, and has been received in ways I have no desire or ability to control. The fact that I am described in two ways or twenty is of no consequence; as it turns out, each of those labels is accurate.

In some ways the piece feels like a rehearsal for her 2003 novel, The Namesake, whose protagonist was also deemed an ABCD and generally had to weather others’ ideas about what category he fell into. The stories in 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth suggest she’s still working it out, but earlier this year she expressed a hope to spare her children the same anxiety, telling an audience at Babson College, “I think the U.S. is made up almost entirely of layers of immigrants…. [T]o be honest, the project of raising children is daunting and you just want your children to be good people, loving people, caring people.”

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