South Asian Girls Are the Stars — Not the Sidekicks —in Desi Chick Lit

Harry Potter had us in the back. Now we are front and center.

Illustration: Aishwarya Srivastava

II spent most of my childhood years completely and truly convinced that one day Warner Brothers producers would show up on my doorstep to cast me as Parvati or Padma Patil in the Harry Potter movies. At the time, my younger sister looked like my twin, and we happened to be in the ballpark of the right age to play the Patil twins—never mind the fact that we lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rather than, say, anywhere in Great Britain. Unsurprisingly, no producers ever showed up on our doorstep. Even when Parvati was recast between the third and fourth movies, casting agents did not head to Cedar Rapids to pluck me from obscurity.

Back then, the Patils were the closest thing I had to young women in literature whose lives I could imagine were somewhat like mine. Yes, they could cast patronuses and eat treacle tarts, and no, our lives really weren’t practically similar. But they were girls who wore their black hair tightly braided down their backs like I did—a classic Indian choti floating in a sea of blond and brunette heads.

For today’s young South Asian American girl, however, there are dozens of opportunities to see ourselves reflected in the pages of our favorite stories, courtesy of the burgeoning canon known as “Desi chick lit.” This broad genre, as defined by Goodreads, encompasses any piece of “popular literature (novels or short stories) written by or about South Asian women.” In reality, they often feature South Asian women of the diaspora trying to straddle cultures and reconcile their South Asian bits with their Western traits.

When I read my first piece of Desi chick lit in middle school, I stopped feeling like I had to try to shove my experiences into the narrative arcs of stories where families ate pot roast at the kitchen table or casually attended sleepovers at their friends’ houses without mounting a carefully planned multipronged parent persuasion strategy in advance.

I felt seen.

In The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, middle-school Sunita comes to terms with her Indian heritage when her grandparents make a yearlong visit to the United States. While I read, I quietly gasped and screamed to myself as I saw tiny slivers of a familiar culture in the pages of the story.

Desi chick lit gave me something that didn’t exist even 20 years ago. When Mitali Perkins, author of the trailblazing Not So Star-Spangled Life, was a teenager, South Asian culture was far less represented and understood than it is today. After moving from India to an all-White school in California when she was seven, Perkins necessarily became proficient in code-switching. This experience of “village India at home to California suburban culture” at school is a skill that informed her depiction of the heroine of her book.

WWhile marriage, family, belonging, and dialogues peppered with South Asian terms are themes that unite nearly all books in the genre, the issues addressed and lives lived by these young female protagonists are incredibly diverse. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti traces the life of a low-caste Christian nurse in Karachi who marries a Muslim bodybuilder on a nuclear submarine while doubling as a commentary on casteism and inequality in Pakistan. The Contract shares the twists and turns of a widower and divorcee navigating an obligatory-turned-genuine relationship in a tight 95 pages. And in Salaam Paris, 19-year-old Tanaya, a devout Mumbai Muslim, heads to Paris for an arranged marriage and ends up becoming a wildly successful model, setting perhaps unrealistic expectations for the likelihood of a teenage Indian signing with a renowned modeling agency and getting a visa to work in America after being discovered on the streets of Paris.

These books have become so popular they’re not even catering to an exclusively South Asian American audience anymore.

Manpreet Kaur, a young South Asian living in London, who reads at least a few books every month with exclusively South Asian protagonists, explains what unifies the genre in her eyes: “When I read South Asian American literature, it feels like I am finally privy to a private conversation between me and the author because we have similar ethics and values.”

This new generation of authors is tapping into a growing and eager market of young South Asian American girls who are aching for representation. So much so that posts in Facebook groups such as the 600,0000 member Subtle Curry Traits, which features relatable facets of the South Asian experience in meme form, usually gain thousands of likes within minutes. These books have become so popular they’re not even catering to an exclusively South Asian American audience anymore. “People back in the day used to believe that people really only want to read books about themselves and that’s not true,” explains Perkins. “I get letters from people all over the country saying ‘Naina is my best friend. I love Neel, he’s like my brother.’ They understand characters, they don’t think, ‘Oh, Neel has got brown skin, so I’m not going to read this book.’”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth and The Namesake are well-known to a diversity of audiences in every corner of the globe, and even some of my White friends have read Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaiswal and Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. Sandhya Menon may not be a household name quite yet, but When Dimple Met Rishi was a New York Times bestseller in the first week after its release, read by young Americans of all races. And when the book’s sequel, From Twinkle, With Love, was released, Entertainment Weekly hosted the cover reveal on their website and Bustle featured an extended excerpt.

LLike the early pieces of Desi chick lit that I read as a teenager, some of the works published today contain bordering-on-cliché depictions of young women trying to avoid arranged marriage or schoolgirls worrying about bringing fragrant sabjis instead of sandwiches for lunch. But with such a wide variety of titles to choose from, these moments of self-exoticization hardly typify the genre anymore. Just as many books address issues of identity and diversity that are starting to be destigmatized within the South Asian community.

In My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, for example, Tara must stay on top of her robotics project and figure out what to do after ruining a beautiful ancestral sari. This is all while coming to terms with being both Jewish-American and Indian-American, the type of multi-hyphenated identity that is becoming common in an increasingly multicultural world. Marriage of a Thousand Lies tackles the contentious Sri Lankan Tamil refugee crisis and what it means to be an LGBTQ South Asian American with a story centering the relationship between two Sri Lankan Tamilians in Massachusetts, a gay man and a lesbian woman.

In the pages of Desi chick lit books, South Asian girls are plot devices no more; they’re complex women who are eager to take up the mantle to fight for their own futures and identities.

These issues of diversity and intersecting identities within the South Asian community are more than an afterthought for Perkins. She writes each of her characters with a great sense of responsibility. “As an educated Hindu woman writing about a poor Muslim Bangladeshi girl, that’s a huge power gap,” she explains. “Here in America, people are like, ‘Mitali is writing so authentically about a Bengali girl.’ Like what’s that? I’m not writing authentically. Every single one of us has to unpack our own privilege and our own power when we write fiction because those subconscious biases are going to creep in, especially if you try to ignore them.”

On the screen, in movies and shows like Master of None, The Big Sick, and Meet the Patels, South Asian American women are depicted singularly as a romantic option to pass over on the way for the narrator to fulfill their destiny with a White woman. In the pages of Desi chick lit books, South Asian girls are plot devices no more; they’re complex women who are eager to take up the mantle to fight for their own futures and identities.

“We need many, many stories of different kinds and that is definitely happening right now,” argues Perkins. “In fantasy, we have Sayantani DasGupta; we have beautiful serious topics like The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman, historical fiction like The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, which got a Newbery Honor last year. I’m just so proud of all these South Asian authors and the wide breadth of genre we have now.”

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