My Story is Mine

Mostly Fiction, 1998-2010

A few years ago I read a wonderful book called The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. In this novel, a Vietnamese servant named Binh recalls his experiences of living in French colonized Vietnam. His employers are the writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. There comes a point when the writers presume to narrate Binh’s life story for him. Upon discovery of this Binh becomes enraged, “My story, Madame, is mine. I alone am qualified to tell it, to embellish, or to withhold…the story, it belongs to me.”

The world is yet to hear the stories from many other Binhs. When India, the Pacific Islands, the countries of Africa and other lands were colonized the world saw them—their natural resources, foods, culture, language, value systems and governments, only through the eyes of the colonizer. Things were seen from the western point of the view. Coffee and chocolate became known as European specialties and tea became an English drink. The crown jewels in the Tower of London while drawing loud “oohs” and “ahhs” from tourists, were taken from India during the British Raj. The jewels can only be seen from inside their European settings. The British Museum and The Louvre hold treasures such as The Kohinoor Diamond, Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes, Rosetta Stone and The Seated Scribe—the list of such thefts is longer than anyone can compile. These treasures can only be seen in surroundings that are foreign to their origin.  If these works of art were returned to their rightful owners, would they become less artistic? My appreciation of art is greatly enhanced when it is seen in its country of origin. Anyone who has seen Italian art in Italy, Egyptian art in Egypt or Kenyan art in Kenya would say the very same thing.

Many would say to let sleeping dogs lie and that one can’t undo the damage of the past. The debate over the return of stolen artifacts goes on. But I would argue that this discussion is only a symptom of a much bigger problem:

The word does not yet recognize or acknowledge the Binhs of the world. It can only hear their voices when they are presented from a western point of view.

For example, there was a huge mass appeal for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. A movie that portrays the brash and often ugly life of poor Indians—written and directed by two British men, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy. It was an entertaining movie, but what bothered me the most, was that it was shot completely from a western perspective. While I sat in the theatre it was amusing to hear the “Indian” and “American” reactions. During particularly graphic scenes, the Indians laughed and the Americans gasped in horror. An Indian would not have created the same movie. At the same time, movies such as Water and The Namesake directed by Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair barely created a blip on the movie radar. These two films gave an infinitely superior and authentic view of India than the Danny Boyle perspective. It was interesting when The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Knight Shyamalan, was passed over at the Academy Awards for best picture and best director. Instead American Beauty, a rather pedestrian movie about a tiresome middle aged pedophile, won an Oscar in both categories. Perhaps the Academy was not ready to see America from an Indian-American perspective.

Literature seems to be coming along at a better pace. Indian English writers such as Rushdie, Adiga and Roy who write about life in India have received global acclaim. At the same time, many do not. Rohinton Mistry is a prolific and beautiful writer who writes about real life in India. All of his books including A Fine Balance have been passed by for any awards. R.K Narayan wrote many magnificent short stories and novels but many who call themselves well-read cannot recall one of his works. It was most distressing to learn that Yann Martel, a Spanish writer who had not had much success in the literary world, had won the Booker Prize for his novel Life of Pi. He chose to tell the story of an Indian boy named Pi Patel. Pi is born in India to parents who are from Tamilnadu in South India. An Indian would have never given life to such a character. Any Indian will tell you that it is almost impossible for a native South Indian to have the last name of “Patel.” Patel is a distinctly Gujarati name. Martel uses India as the backdrop for his novel, but fails to provide even an authentic Indian name for his protagonist.

Indian music and dance have only recently become popular due to artists who have reinterpreted these traditional beats and rhythms to complement their own music. Artists like Jay-Z, uses Indian artists in his music. He worked with Punjabi MC to produce a huge dance hit called Beware of the Boys. Timbaland also uses Indian singers, words and music in his song called Bombay and another called Indian Flute. Missy Elliot’s hit Get Your Freak On is written on an addictive beat with rhythms and instruments used in traditional Indian music and Sean Paul’s single Get Busy was on the billboard top 100 for 23 weeks. In this song Paul uses a sound called Diwali. It is a bhangra infected, hand clapping rhythm and sound that is heard all over the US dance floors. Sean Paul also uses samples from Indian artists in his song, Shout (Street Respect). It seems that even Indian music must be heard through the ears of a western artist before it is deemed valuable.

While it might be difficult to turn back time and undo the damages of colonialism, it is important that all of us as consumers and lovers of art and music seek to find and appreciate those artists that provide the most authentic and genuine voice, keeping our ears and eyes open for all the Binhs of the world.

0 responses to “My Story is Mine”

  1. Elisheba- this was beautifully said! I have the some complaints and concerns about how Latinos, and more specifically Dominicans, are portrayed “through Western eyes” as you say. But I have to admit that I’ve never seriously considered the same atrocities when perpetrated on other groups.

    Thanks for opening my eyes!

    I don’t agree with letting sleeping dogs lie. While we cannot change the past, we can ensure that future generations know the truth and yes, why not return these treasures to their countries of origin?

    And that book sounds interesting; I might suggest it to my book club 🙂

    • Elisheba says:

      Raquel! So great to hear your point of view! I would love to hear some examples of you concerns about the how the Dominicans are portrayed.

      • I’m thinking specifically of the film version of In The Time Of The Butterflies; it wasn’t terrible but they didn’t bother to include any Dominican actors. That killed the authenticity of the story for me.

        And even though the film Sugar is one of my all-time favorite baseball movies, I can’t help but wonder why it had to be told by non-Dominicans. Why can’t we tell it in our own words? It’s troubling, but it motivates me to hurry up and try to make it better.

  2. Melissa says:

    Interesting post as usual Elisheba! However you didn’t seem to take into consideration two things: we generally do see everything through the eyes of western culture because western culture has pretty much dominated much of the rest of the world (GENERALLY speaking). (This reminds me in a similar way that we also end up seeing history through the eyes of whoever “won” a particular war. The War Between the States is a perfect example) America’s culture IS taking pieces of other people’s culture and blending it into whatever suits them. America is a melting pot which is why you can have rap/Indian blended together in the same song. Not saying these two points are good or bad. Just making them.

  3. Elisheba says:

    My main point in this post was not so much about the melting pot but more about the idea that original ideas are completely masked or dominated by a foreign one. The idea of a “good cup of English tea” comes to mind. The fact that most people believe that tea comes from England is particularly distressing.

    The melting pot still gives a nod to the original idea and adds to it rather than obliterating the or masking the origin.

    It’s always good to hear your ideas, Melissa–thanks!

  4. Colleen says:

    Sandra Richter ‘s book The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, IVP Academic 2008, addresses these very issues (pp 21-23). First she defines “ethnocentricism.” We tend to assume everyone else’s culture is like our own–so depending on our ethnicity and cutlure–we see and portray, for example, Jesus as someone just like ourselves. The second issue she calls “canonizing culture.” It is assumed, often unconsciously, that one’s culture is superior to another’s–so differences rather than be appreciated or learned from, are seen as inferiorities, curiosities, or things to be “corrected.” The context of Dr. Richter’s arguement is one’s approach to reading the Biblical Scriptures–but it applies to every situation that’s been mentioned in this blog. We have to somehow put our own agenda’s, perspectives, biases, and interpretational grids to the side and just LISTEN, LEARN, JOIN IN, AND –my personal take–LOVE.

    • Elisheba says:

      Thanks Colleen—this is great! I have a question that is a bit off the subject, but does Richter say anything about people who “canonize” their culture above the teachings of their own faith? For instance the idea of modesty being a bit out of fashion for the modern day Christian, or that modesty was only a cultural notion so modern culture is superior to teaching of any faith.

  5. Colleen says:

    Culture should not be canonized according to Richter. Every culture has its pros and cons. For Richter, as a Biblical scholar, the gospel is the standard for evaluating a culture, and not the other way around.(p.23)

  6. Kirtana says:

    I feel as if nowadays people think mixing two cultures is more or less “the cool thing to do”. People are not aware that the more often cultures get mixed; whether it be through songs or through movies, the more a culture’s true characteristics get disoriented.

    Having been born and lived in India, I did not like watching my homeland be exaggerated in Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, there are places in India that are very poor and I agree that the movie did depict those places well. However, not all of India is a slum. While I was watching, it seemed to hint that India as a whole is nothing more than slums. The movie portrayed almost all the negative aspects of India. The protagonist is the “slumdog”- the movie seemed to show that India was the “slumdog”. It was interesting to note, nonetheless, that the director cleverly left out the negative impact of the westerns in India. If an Indian had shot the movie, I can assure you there will be something about the western influence. But if that happened, would Slumdog still be a big hit movie? Which leads to the thought of whether or not a movie incorrectly depicting a culture is more accepted than a movie criticizing the westerners.

    As I was reading the part of Life of Pi, it was interesting to see how stereotypical an author can be. I, myself, am from Tamilnadu and I can tell you that 9 out of 10 people, if not all, have last names consisting of more than 7 letters. Anyone who has not lived in India is used to the typical Gujarati last names seen in the US- Shah, Mehta, and Patel. I found it offending how the author just assumed the last names are common throughout India. My exact reaction after reading it: “wow… shows how much the author really knows about India. Who is he to write a story about it?” However, when I told my roommate (who is also Indian but was born here in the US), she was completely unaffected. In fact, she tried convincing me that it was just a mistake.

    This just further proves your point that the story of Binh should be told by Binh himself. Anyone else trying to tell his life will just not get it correct.
    This article was very eye opening and thought provoking.

    Thank you!

    • Elisheba says:

      Someone who read Life of Pi, told me that perhaps the author meant to use the wrong last name for the main character since the whole story ends up being a fantasy. But I don’t think so, I think the author didn’t do his homework and just wanted to sell books—by any means necessary. Even if that meant taking a story that belongs to Indians

  7. […] Unfortunately many minorities have adopted the global majority view of what is considered acceptable and superior in art, music, cuisine and even attitudes towards race and skin color. I have heard Indians chastise other Indians for eating Indian food with their hands, rather than use a fork. Communicating in English is considered to be more sophisticated and educated, than using a native tongue. Lighter skin is not only preferable in the South Asian community, but also in the Hispanic, Asian and black. Music and art are more acceptable when they are westernized. I outlined this phenomenon in much greater detail in an older post of mine called, My Story is Mine. […]

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