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My O-Word Conundrum

Before you get any weird ideas, let me clarify that the word I’m talking about is the word “oriental,” and at the outset I want to admit that I used to use this word. My excuse is that I grew up in the South (as in Southern United States, not South India where my parents are from :) ) and I didn’t come across many Asians, East or South or otherwise, so I gleaned the appropriate vocabulary from books and TV. And according to books and TV, East Asian people were described as “orientals” (I am realizing though that I did read a lot of Agatha Christie and similarly old-fashioned British literature). So I thought this word was in regular use until a friend in high school (thank you! you know who you are!) informed me that the word “oriental” was for “furniture and rugs, not for people.” I immediately changed my mental vocabulary because it did make a kind of sense to me since, as an Indian-American in a place where there weren’t many Indian-Americans, I knew inherently what it was like to be “other”-ized, (though I certainly didn’t think about it in those specific terms until I was older–I wasn’t a very sophisticated teenager).

Fast-forward to a week ago when I read The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (originally published under pseudonym Robert Galbraith), in which a very minor character is described in passing as a “flat-faced middle-aged oriental woman”. I quickly tweeted about it and posted to Facebook wondering whether this description would be considered okay in the UK. I didn’t get much of a response from my Facebook friends who either didn’t see my post or wisely chose not to get into it on Facebook, though one friend did say she personally didn’t take issue with the word “oriental” but did associate it with people who were generally racist. After a cursory search online, I’ve found some indication that it *is* considered okay by many in the UK (here and here). But to some in the US, it is somewhat akin to using the N-word (see discussion here and here ) and was even banned from state documents in New York back in 2009. (And after doing some of this cursory online reading, I have realized that I, as an Indian American, would also be considered “oriental” by some.) Anyway, I did some googling, complained to my family who didn’t care, then shrugged my shoulders and moved on. I haven’t seen anyone online complaining about racial descriptions in Rowling’s book, so whatever, it’s not like I was personally going to use this word.

And then, this week, I finally got around to reading a self-published book that had been sent to me to review, and lo and behold an Inuit side-character is described as having “oriental features” which, we are told, spoke of her ancestor’s long journeys (a description which irked me in context, but I suppose could be considered factually correct). Unlike many other self-published books I’ve been sent, the book was easy to read and very fast-paced, but was littered with descriptions like this exoticizing and other-izing its characters. Several characters read as unintentionally condescending “civilized” people trying to teach backwards jungle people (to put it bluntly), rather than what they were meant to be, which was experienced anthropologists seriously studying an indigenous group in the Amazon. There was also a genetic angle to the book, which troubled me and I’m not going to get into that. The book felt well-intentioned, and the author’s interest in depicting diverse cultures came across, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it and review it on my blog (side note: I had other issues with this book. This wasn’t the only reason I didn’t finish).

But here was my conundrum–was it up to me to tell the author about my problems with his treatment of his indigenous characters in the book? Can I assume that I, as an Indian-American have the right to tell the author about these issues, and his use of the word “oriental” when, presumably, not everyone would be similarly annoyed? Ask my writing group members and they will probably tell you I tend to be overly sensitive when it comes to racial descriptions in books (another book that offended me that other people probably though was fine). And who the heck am I to judge when it wasn’t “my people” he was describing? It’s not like I’m an expert on depictions of race in literature. And what is offensive to one person, might not be offensive at all to another. No one person can claim that they speak for a whole population of people. Is it even possible to write a book that doesn’t offend at least one person in some way?

At the very least, is it my responsibility to tell this author (who is American, I believe) that that he probably shouldn’t use the word “oriental” in a book intended for US readers? As a writer myself, I would hope someone would just flat out tell me if I had written something offensive when I hadn’t mean it to be.

Anyway. In the end I decided to write this blog post and hope that the author reads it, recognizes his work, and makes his own decisions about whether his book should be revised or not.

I welcome constructive comments about this post! I know race is a touchy and uncomfortable topic to discuss.

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