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Tanuja Desai Hidier on Born Confused & Opal Mehta

The bestselling author of Born Confused talks about Kaavya Viswanathan and her plagiarism of Desai-Hidier's work while also discussing many other interesting material and observations related to the Opal Mehta controversy.
by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Tanuja Desai Hidier

We realize much has been said regarding the Opal Mehta book scandal, but as so many of you kindly expressed interest in hearing Tanuja Desai Hidier's thoughts on the plagiarism of her own novel Born Confused, we thought this might answer (and raise) some questions. This is Tanuja Desai Hidier, in her own words.

I want to thank those of you who reached out to me with care and curiosity during the Opal Mehta saga, and who also let me know about the involvement of my own novel Born Confused in this.

I was stunned to find two dozen instances of lifting from Born Confused in the Opal Mehta book (as in "identical language and /or common scene or dialogue structure"--as Random House put it in their statement regarding Megan Mccafferty's plagiarized novel).

Because I am part of this community- and grateful for its existence (as the Acknowledgments section in my novel attests to!)--and because so many of you have been so supportive of Born Confused, I wanted to share some thoughts, and hopefully answer some of the questions that have come up (though in some ways this situation raises more questions than it answers).

Ironically I first saw firsthand these sections of Born Confused on the day Ms. Viswanathan was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "I've never read a novel with an Indian-American protagonist. The plot points are reflections of my own experience. I'm an Indian-American."

It seemed like a non sequitur in the context, but possible enough. After all, I also drew largely from autobiography to tell the story of my 17-year-old Indian American Jersey girl, Dimple Lala. And I hadn't read any books I could recall with a South Asian American teen protagonist at that point (I wrote Born Confused in 2000/2001 and it launched in 2002). To the best of my knowledge Born Confused was the first book with a US female teen desi heroine; that was one of the reasons my publisher wanted it, and it is certainly one of the reasons I wrote it -- it was, and is, important to me that a young South Asian American have a voice, and that it be heard and read by people of all backgrounds and ages. And it is just as important that other South Asian American voices be heard; the more out there the more we can begin to approximate expressing the richness and diversity of this culture?the flip side being the fewer out there the more susceptible one becomes to a stereotyping of sorts, to sometimes having to carry the impossible responsibility of representing a culture that is as diverse as the number of people who make it up.

And so I was extremely surprised to find that the majority, though not all, of the passages in Opal Mehta taken from Born Confused are those dealing with descriptions of various aspects of South Asian culture (food, dress, locale, even memories of India, etc.) and the way that culture is expressed in America; essentially every scene of Opal Mehta that deals with any aspect of South Asian culture in more than passing detail has lifted something from Born Confused. One would think that these kinds of cultural details at least could have been drawn from Ms. Viswanathan's personal experience, given our similar cultural backgrounds (and the similar cultural backgrounds and ages of our protagonists).

In some ways what is most disturbing about the whole thing is to see this sort of cut-and-paste packaging approach to writing also being used in the realm of cultural identity?and the author's own no less. (It brings another meaning altogether to the term hyphenated identity culture!)

Like the heroine of Born Confused, Dimple Lala, I struggled with that issue of not feeling Indian enough nor American enough, but in my case, in my own writing life: for many years not feeling Indian enough to write an "Indian" story nor American enough to write an "American" one (this was in part due to my having a very limited idea at the time of what constitutes Indian and American). The realization that that was in fact the story, that that neither-here-nor-there identity is in fact a You Are Here, a new and completely viable space, is what helps my protagonist Dimple Lala start turning the C of the term American Born Confused Desi to Creative (and indeed I was following a parallel process in the act of writing this book).

In some ways the Opal Mehta story is an ultimate American Born Confused Desi story?and perhaps Kaavya Viswanathan shared that same dilemma I did (though granted, resolved it in a rather different way): not feeling confident enough to write the American parts nor the Indian parts of the tale, a lack of confidence perhaps aggravated by the harsh light of the limelight and the workings of the publishing/packaging machine.

Indeed, if one were to judge a book by its cover, this cultural ambiguity is reflected there as well: Even the cover art for the Opal Mehta book is noncommittal in a sense, most likely in an attempt to be 'mainstream': in the UK a faceless photograph of an ethnically ambiguous though probably white girl fronts the book, and in the US, it's an ethnically ambiguous drawing (which is not to say South Asians cannot be very fair?yes, we can have the whole spectrum of skin tones, yes we can have blue eyes, we can be short, tall, overachievers, underachievers, middle of the road, etc, etc).

I admit I don't have firsthand experience of how packaging works. I didn't even know what a book packager was until 17th Street Productions (now Alloy) contacted me soon after Born Confused launched to ask me if I would like to do an Indian-American teen story with them. Apparently they had loved the excerpt of Born Confused published in Seventeen Magazine back in 2002 and thought I would be perfect for the project. I turned down the offer.

Interestingly, several parts of this excerpt?including the opening and closing--are present and strongly echoed in the Opal Mehta book. It was a surreal experience for me, looking at these and the other parallel parts side by side. The feeling was almost as if someone had broken into your home?and in some ways this is what literally had happened, considering so much of Born Confused is drawn from my life (and home): The alcohol cabinet in my non-drinking household in small town Massachusetts was now in Opal's, the details of my family's two dinnertimes because of all the years of working late into the night by my father, too; my mother's food, from her mother's recipes, transplanted to Opal's table, her slinky black outfit too; my ecstatic and eye-opening discovery of Jackson Heights Queens during an enthralled and emotional day there many years ago, suddenly turned to Edison New Jersey.

Was Ms. Viswanathan not confident enough in her own background to rely on it? Was Alloy not confident enough in it and in her? Did either or both think you could just substitute one kind of Indian for another? A friend brought my attention to a couple observant bloggers who seemed to have caught on early to this grand error, commenting on how jarring it was to see a Gujarati/Marathi meal on a South Indian table; noting that not all salwar khameezes are gaudy so it was more than a coincidence, these similarities; and that some of the memories of India hearken back to a much older India in the Opal Mehta book (which makes sense considering the many years that separate Ms. Viswanathan and myself)-- details that may have escaped a person not familiar with the culture.

And I don't know if I can properly verbalize why, but underlying the feeling of being stunned and upset at the discovery of these passages I felt a very lonely feeling. And I felt very moved by my family, by our story, and the irony of a situation: had my parents known in their first homesick days in the US, when they were the only Indians in their town, with no reflection of them in mainstream media and the culture at large, what kind of strange "assimilation" (plagiarassimilation?) of their diaspora tale lay many years down the road...!

I wrote Born Confused in large part to celebrate my family so it is difficult for me not to think of the two in one thought. And indeed I found myself thinking quite a lot about the way in which they'd pursued the American Dream--which stands in sharp contrast to some of the ways in which that pursuit has been reduced and packaged in this case.

In an era of sampling on songs, and reality TV that has little to do with reality, and fictitious autobiographies, and, of course, some of the aspects of packaging itself, it's interesting to see what is happening to the idea of 'truth', of originality, of self-expression, where amalgamation and recombining amounts to creation and where it grows fuzzy under the influence (and the anxiety thereof). Of course, in some of these instances source material is revealed and the work is transparent to an extent--many songs that use riffs from other songs do so openly (and in fact, given the very nature of a riff as something usually repeated and hopefully memorable, and certainly audible, it would be difficult for it to be otherwise).

One wonders, though, when it will be less about X being the new Y which was the new Z, and when the focus can shift back more solidly to finding and using one's voice in a less tidily manageable and limiting space than this sort of classification often requires. (I suppose the real challenge then would be where to put these books in the bookstore, these CDs in the CD racks, and so on.) This type of packaging can lead to a situation, and in fact has already to some extent, where thinking 'in the box' is rewarded more than thinking outside of it. As art is usually about thinking outside that box, or redefining it at least, this is a bit of a dilemma. And one can only wonder what impact this has on the general public consuming the works, and reviews, and categories in question. Can it lead to a rather reductionist way of seeing art, and of viewing the world?

Certainly there have been some comments (that I've seen a couple of journalists/commentators make) in the course of this debate on what constitutes plagiarism that surprise and sadden me. Some of these people--hopefully a minority--seem to feel there are very limited ways to describe not only coming-of-age and immigrant experiences but also South Asian culture in particular. In the latter instance it's as if they suggest there are only a handful of key "ethnic" words or phrases (and ordering of these!) to use in describing important aspects of South Asian culture, such as food, dress, locales, etc. with the implied conclusion being that the lack of originality in these instances in the Opal Mehta book is somehow less egregious, or at least more understandable, as a result.

That is terribly sad to me--and reveals an extremely reductive and rather ignorant point of view when it comes to the diversity of South Asian voices and of South Asia itself--not to mention of coming of age novels themselves. The fact that at least five authors, and at least five books, were 'borrowed from' must not be lost in all this. And nor should the authors involved--each coming from different situations and histories and with unique stories to tell-- be lumped together beyond the fact of having this unfortunate experience in common. To do so would only amplify the negative effects of packaging in publishing; as we all know, authors and what they create (and people in general!) aren't cookie-cutter cut-and-paste parts, interchangeable and replaceable -- they are, at their best, individuals with voices and something to say.

When I first heard about Kaavya Viswanathan and the Opal Mehta book I felt quite connected to her, in an almost familial way. Ms. Viswanathan and I are both South Asian American women, writing about South Asian American female teens in this case, and in part that cultural experience, in a market where this story/perspective is not widely described, particularly for this demographic. I was proud of her, and thought perhaps the buzz about her signaled a door being thrown open wide for other types of voices in diaspora writing as well.

But perhaps another, more significant door, closed upon her at the same time she was presented with this opportunity. I wonder sometimes about those lost pages: the story Ms. Viswanathan was originally writing before she joined forces with the publishing/packaging industry, the story that was a little too dark for their needs. What if those pages contained a truly fresh and honest voice? What if, had her pages fallen into different hands, they might have blossomed into a truly compelling tale, written by someone with significant literary potential?

In any case, none of this is a reason to shut the larger door that may have been opened with the industry's hunger for the Opal Mehta project, for a person like Kaavya--or what she seemed to be at least. It was so exciting initially to see the glittering welcome given to a South Asian American voice like this. And so should that hunger and warmth greet the other South Asian diaspora voices out there as well: Shani Mootoo, Abha Dawesar, Marina Budhos, Mitali Perkins, Meera Nair, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Bali Rai?to name a very mere few.

I know for me writing Born Confused was one of the great joys and journeys of my life. As Salman Rushdie said regarding this whole affair, one must stand by their words, and so I do: I am proud of my work, and I am very, very proud of the people and the community I am celebrating in it?you included, and these authors included as well.

So to all the writers out there finding their voices: Keep the faith. And to the readers who know the difference: Thank you.

And despite what may seem sometimes to be signals to the contrary from some elements of the industry, I do believe that old adage holds true: Be yourself. Not always easy perhaps, but commendable to try.

Visit Tanuja Desai Hidier's website by clicking here.

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