The Story is About + Swati Avasthi

Guest Post: Swati Avasthi

Unpack This

The other day, a woman said to me, “Your work stands out because you’re a writer of color who doesn’t write about being of color.”

Suddenly, I felt like I had just moved. Oh, the unpacking! So much to do!

Unpacking Box 1: White is Normal.

(Let me quickly correct this factually. I have written about the struggle of first generation kids to bridge the cultural gap with their immigrant parents in a short story entitled “Swallow.”)

She was talking about Split, my debut novel, which I wrote from the perspective of a white, 16-year-old boy who shows up on his brother’s doorstep after finally hitting his father back. While she went on, I stood there wondering: does she know Split centers around a white family for a reason? Does she know that I’ve been repeatedly asked why I wrote about a wealthy, white family since so often domestic violence is seen as a “projects problem”?

Which is exactly why I wrote it about a white, wealthy family. To break that stereotype. Domestic violence cuts across all walks of life – rich, poor, POCs, and white. When I write about characters who are white, I am writing about race. I’m just not assuming that white is normal.

Unpacking Box 2: I’m a Traitor.

I grew up in a white neighborhood, going to white schools, and hanging out with white people. My family comprised one of the two Indian families in my high school, and in my graduation picture, my skin is the darkest. While I could never pass as white, I blend easily. So easily that I’ve had to defend myself against white people calling me white (as a compliment) and Indian people calling me a coconut (as an insult).

In the author’s note at the end of Black Box, Julie Schumacher writes that books “can acknowledge our experience and take the lid off our isolation and make us feel less alone.” I could not articulate that constant lack in my childhood until I found myself weeping when Jhumpa Lahiri recognized my experience on the page. And then threw the book across the room when it differed from my experience … And then picked it back up, after listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the dangers of having a single story. And finally, I came to this: If I want myself represented, it’s going to be up to me.

But, here I am a person of color who isn’t writing about being of color. Clearly, I must be a traitor, a coconut. Right?

Unpacking Box 3: I’m a post-racial genius! Happy Days are Here Again.

Deepad sent an ARC of Split on a sort of tour experiment to her readers/bloggers, most of whom are interested in representation of race. I was terribly nervous about it. Now everyone would call me a coconut.

But the bloggers got that the Split questioned race by casting what is typically represented as a PoC problem in a white family. And they went further, articulating beyond what I could -- how I want others to view my racial identity. Merope wrote, “Avasthi writes like she is transcending – not ignoring or defeating – cultural, gender, and other sociological divides. Which is very rare. In some senses, the more frequently and powerfully – and loudly – cultural differences is [sic] emphasized, the less it is granted the courtesy of affirmation.”

Not a coconut at all! Needless to say, this is my favorite interpretation of race in Split. But is it right?

Unpacking Box 4: It’s All About Me!

These bloggers and PoCs asked a question that I’ve never heard from a white reader: Is Dakota, my protagonist’s love interest, Native American? Dakota is described as having very black hair. She takes Jace to eat “Indian Fry Bread” and, of course, is named Dakota.

Whether it looks like the author is bringing race to the page may not be about the author at all, coconut or race-transcendent. Maybe whether race is on the page is up to the reader. Our interpretations of books are based heavily on how we identify ourselves. Even how you read this post might be about your own race. Let me ask you this. The woman I mentioned at the top of the post – how did you picture her? Like you? Like me?

Unpacking Box 5: Or maybe not. Maybe writers do have an obligation.

She’s Indian. A PoC writing white characters stood out because it led her to understand that she didn’t need to write solely about race. Like her, I’m a writer of color, but Indian isn’t my only identity. If I write loudly and exclusively about race, then I’ve strayed from who I am.

While I’m not going to search out stories that are All About Race, I will always see the world as a PoC and that will come into my writing. That said, I will write the stories that speak to me. Which is, after all, my obligation as a writer: to define my own story.


Swati Avasthi has been writing fiction since she read Little House in the Big Woods at age five. Emily Bronte, Harper Lee, and many others furthered her addiction. She institutionalized her habit at the University of Chicago, where she received her B.A., and at the University of Minnesota, where she is currently studying for her M.F.A. She has received a Loft's Mentor Series Award, a Marcella DeBourg Fellowship, University of Minnesota's GRPP, the Thomas H. Shevlin Fellowship, and her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has or will appear in numerous publications, including The Portland Review, Water~Stone Review, and Special Gifts (Wyatt-Mackenzie, 2007). Her first novel, Split (Knopf), was published in March 2010, and her second novel, title still pending (also Knopf), is scheduled for 2011. She lives with her riotously funny family - two large dogs, two small kids, and one (but worth two) husband(s) - in the Twin Cities.

You can learn more about Swati and her novel at SwatiAvasthi.com

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