Exoticizing yourself for publishers

Denunciations of the memoir machine tend to be as boregasmic in their uniformity as most of its products. But Azita Osanloo takes a slightly different tack, criticizing the pressure on “ethnic” writers to trade on their backgrounds.

When we got around to chatting about our latest writing projects, she asked me, without mincing words, why my novel wasn’t an autobiographically inspired story of a young Iranian-American woman.

“That’s so big right now. You could get published — like that!” she said with a snap of her fingers.

Our conversation wasn’t the first I’d had on this subject. About midway into my MFA degree, right on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I came to fully realize how my ethnicity and its appeal in the literary marketplace potentially threatens me as an emerging writer. As a first-generation American, the daughter of Iranian parents, I’ve been advised by peers, professors, two agents, and one editor to cash in on the latest boom in Middle Eastern literature, particularly in memoir-driven literature. In a way it makes sense. I can almost see the display at Barnes & Noble, where my book would be placed next to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003), Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (PublicAffairs, 2005), and Marjane Satrapi’s truly remarkable graphic novel, Persepolis (Pantheon Books, 2003). The problem is that I can’t in the least imagine the book I’d have to pen in order to be given a place in that company. Would it have lots of italicized foreign words interspersed throughout the prose? Would I open with a passage on veiled women and Persian rugs? None of my advisers has ever paused when I admit that my understanding of Iranian culture is mostly limited to my favorite Iranian foods. Additionally, my grasp of the Persian language is, at its very best, limited to casual conversation (with a particular emphasis on the dirty words my mother teaches me). In these moments I truly wonder if, to my colleagues, I am an Iranian first — all the evidence of my innate Westernness notwithstanding — and a writer second.

In the highly recommended Thank You For Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic discusses the flipside of the “hot ethnic author” phenomenon. Namely, when publishers decree that your region’s time of publishing glory has passed, you’ll be informed that Eastern Europe is the old black. Now everybody’s wearing navy, didn’t you know?


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