Saris and Curries for American Readers, by Classics author, and guest blogger, Shobhan Bantwal
In the American fiction market brimming with Caucasian, African-American, even Latino characters, there are few that are Indian. Despite the rising popularity of ethnic fiction fromAsia, it is still a mere fraction of the thousands of fiction books churned out by American publishing houses each year. So when I decided to step into the difficult-to-penetrate realm of fiction, I knew it was going to be a serious challenge, especially since I took up writing at the late age of 50.
As a naïve neophyte I had no clue as to how I was going to capture the attention of agents and publishers with my mainstream stories when the publishing world expected every South Asian author to write somber literary fiction. My fiction was a rare jumble of genres—multicultural commercial women’s fiction with romantic and literary elements. I simply call it “Bollywood in a Book.”
Amazingly enough, despite many rejections, a highly reputable agent, the late Elaine Koster, who was once a publisher for Penguin and launched the careers of such famous writers as Stephen King and Khaled Hosseini, loved my writing and signed me on. Consequently my book rights were sold to Kensington Publishing.
But despite my editor and agent’s enthusiasm, I was plagued by doubts. Not many American readers know a lot about Indian culture. Was I capable of educating them about India without turning them off? Could I write convincing love scenes? Would Indian characters wearing saris and kurtas appeal to romance readers? I realized I would never find out unless I tried to introduce all of the above ideas to my potential audience.
I incorporate the concepts of arranged marriage, spicy cuisine, superstitions, virgin brides and grooms, India’s notorious caste system, and hot-button controversial subjects like dowry and female-fetus abortion to make my fiction not only more intriguing but vivid and educational at the same time. I believe readers have curious minds and truly want to learn. Nonetheless that learning needs to be combined with an absorbing story, the right dose of emotion, and engaging characters.
By doggedly pursuing my colorful hodgepodge of genres and cultures and topics I have gradually managed to capture the interest of a growing number of readers. They are an appreciative audience, eager to dive into a different kind of story and learn about other cultures.
And while I entertain my readers, it has been a marvelous educational experience for me. Promoting my books to a mainstream American readership is hard work, often frustrating, and very expensive. But there is immense satisfaction in stirring interest and reaching more readers with each new book.
My latest book is THE FULL MOON BRIDE, the story of a young Indian-American attorney who is so hung up on her plain looks that when a handsome man introduced to her by her parents, proposes marriage, she assumes he is after her money. Will she be able to accept the fact that she has a lot more to offer him than her wealth, and that true love can come through an arranged match?
Shobhan Bantwal has five books published to date by Kensington, with one more scheduled for release in 2012. Her articles and short stories have appeared in The Writer, Romantic Times, India Abroad, Little India, and New Woman magazines. Her short fiction has won honors/awards in contests by Writer’s Digest, New York Stories, and New Woman. Her debut book, THE DOWRY BRIDE, won the 2008 Golden Leaf Award.