November 2002

Roohi Choudhry


Confusion into Creativity: A Review of Born Confused and a Conversation with Tanuja Desai Hidier

Tanuja Desai Hidier
Let me start off by being perfectly honest, as usual. I began Born Confused fully prepared to dislike it. Maybe it was the title: taken from the catchall American Born Confused Desi, an often used slur for South Asian Americans ("desi" in Hindi translating loosely to "of my country"). I was immediately put off by the borrowing of an expression that's at best mildly offensive and at worst, thoroughly prosaic. Was this going to be the next assault in the current Madonna-new-age slash Gwen-Stefani-bindi slash Starbucks-soy-chai exploitation?

Do not make my mistake of judging Born Confused by its cover (or title). Yes, its protagonist, the confused desi Dimple Lala, is a 17-year-old Jersey Girl obsessed with her weight and the boy she broke up with in sophomore year. But no, it does not stop there. This teenager explores issues that surpass adolescent crises and delve into far more universal dilemmas. The book also rises above tantric-hennatattoo banalities of South Asian-ness. Its characters shrug bhangra moves at a Manhattan nightclub one minute, and drool over jalebi in Jackson Heights the next.

Born Confused is essentially a story about a girl, her camera and the complication of her relationships by culture. Dimple's best friend is painfully blonde, reminiscent of modern mainstream America: borrowing Indian culture when convenient and scoffing at it when not. Dimple's parents seem like dinosaurs to her, conspicuous by their accents and quirks in her world. The boys Dimple meets want her to be a "karmasutronic goddess" la MTV. Except for the Suitable Boy, who unwittingly forces her to reevaluate everything.

As things progress in this poetic, wistfully funny coming-of-age novel, it becomes clear that there is more to Dimple than meets the eye. She is a personality you easily fall in love with; you cannot help rooting for her and wanting everything to work out for her. It's rare to become so involved in a set of characters, to invest so much in them and feel them breathe so clearly. The voice is sharp and wry, the pace lean, the characters vulnerable and the observations very familiar to anyone who has ever questioned oneself.

I even ultimately warmed up to the title and came to see why facing the expression head on, tongue in cheek, was more powerful than cloaking it in political correctness. And after talking to the writer, I also appreciated why a phrase that direct and real is appropriate for this work. It was necessary to encapsulate a book as immediate as a camera shutter and as resonant as a bhangra beat.

Tanuja Desai Hidier is of Indian origin, was born and raised in the U.S. and is currently lead vocalist for a British melodic rock band. Born Confused, her first novel, was released in October 2002. She spoke to by telephone from her home in London.

So how did this all get started? How was Born Confused born?

It's kind of a funny story. I went in to meet with an editor at Scholastic who I'd met through a violinist in my punk rock band in New York. Before moving to London, I thought a good job would be to freelance for a publishing company. So I went in to see him -- I was there to find out about editing work and he thought I was there to pitch a book idea! Because he was about to launch a new imprint. I had no idea what the book was about at that moment, but I also knew it was not a moment where you say, "No, actually, that's not what I want to do!" So we started talking. I knew that I really wanted to write the desi American story - the coming of age of the second generation. He was immediately excited and said it wasn't a story he had seen on a bookshelf and that he would like to help me get it there. So after I moved to London, I sent him a synopsis. Then Scholastic bought the project and then I had a deadline!

Do you think the fact that Scholastic championed the project affected the way you wrote it at all, since Scholastic is primarily children's publishing?

You know I don't actually think that it did, because the imprint launched is called Push and he created it to literally push the boundaries of young adult fiction. Because it's not really clear why one book gets categorized in one area and not another. For instance, I think The Catcher in the Rye was initially marketed as young adult fiction. And then the book just worked its way elsewhere.

When I initially started thinking about the ages, I think I wanted to make the characters late teens or early twenties and I ended up moving it down younger. But I don't think that was entirely because of Scholastic. I was also thinking that the teen and high school years would be a really good temporal context for exploring multicultural identity. High school in many ways is the first time you start to take your identity in your own hands and decide what you want through the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the group of people you hang out with. So it seemed like a good temporal setting to heighten all the issues that come along with a bicultural identity.

Let's talk a little bit more about you. Now that your voice is being heard, people are curious about where it comes from -- where you grew up, your influences.

I grew up in Western Massachusetts, about an hour from the five-college area. It was a small town, the kind of town where you knew everybody. A lot of people I graduated with were people I'd known since the age of four. And then the first move I made was to go to Brown University in Rhode Island. That was an absolutely exhilarating and fantastic experience. I feel like so much of what has happened in my life since then has been very connected to things that happened at Brown. It has such a diverse student population -- that was one of the greater forces of education there. As far as this theme goes, of second generation America and what it is to be bicultural, my perceptions of my Indian-ness or my American-ness were first challenged at Brown because it was the first time I had friends who were from Bombay and Delhi and Karachi and Lahore and had grown up in those places. After getting to know them really well, it became abundantly clear that I wasn't completely Indian or Indian in the way I thought I was when I was in high school.

That was the first time I came across the term "ABCD" -- I had heard the term thrown about a little bit and finally someone spelled it out for me. When you heard what the meaning was, there was a partial feeling of "Wow, I've got this whole term that describes people like me," and then another part of me was like "That doesn't sound like how I want to be described exactly." And yet there were moments when that was accurate, but I think there are moments when confusion is accurate for anybody no matter what cultural background you come from.

One of the things I wanted to do with Born Confused is kind of change that C into something positive. Maybe there is confusion involved but maybe you can take that confusion and turn it into clarity through creativity. That's a lot of Cs. But I wanted to cram in as much as possible and turn as much as possible on its head.

I noticed from your bio that you went to live in New York after college. But Dimple's musings on Manhattan in the book are from a 17-year old's perspective. Was it difficult to show all that through her younger eyes?

I feel like that was from my eyes in my twenties actually! Initially, when I was writing Dimple's character, I started out making her a little too jaded and cynical. I think that was from living in Manhattan for many years myself and not really remembering that wide-eyed sense of being 17 and discovering a lot of these things for the first time. So part of the process was trying to get back into that mindset. But for me, it didn't require going back that far because I found that very often in Manhattan I felt reduced, or maybe elevated, to the sense of wonder of a child.

Going to these basement bhangra parties etc. was when I discovered the South Asian art scene and that for me was a huge eye opener. I had been living in Manhattan already for five years and I had never really overlapped with these people. I didn't know that there were so many desi filmmakers and musicians and actors and all of that. That sense of wonder at that particular second-generation culture -- that's really very much how I felt. That part is very autobiographical.

When I was in New York, there were so many exciting things happening on the scene. The sudden rise of these bhangra parties and DJ Rekha and Mutiny and the Asian Underground and all sorts of music influenced by India and the UK and Americana and Reggae and Hip-hop. Those parties were amazing because it feels like so many different cultures were embraced and brought together under one roof.

The setting of the nightclub was a very good setting for me because in reality, in those venues you've got people tearing off their ties and getting down and you see people letting go of a lot of their inhibitions and the roles they may be playing during the day. When you've got one song playing, and a lot of people dancing to the same beat, there's an interesting kind of unity that happens there. Because you have people doing their individual dance moves but everybody's keeping the same time. It felt like a very good metaphor of one way of trying to balance many different loyalties or identities or histories.

The book is about the Indian Diaspora experience, most transparently. Why do you think that's something people want to hear about at this time?

I think there have always been people who want to hear these stories but particularly now, there just seems to have been this whole explosion as second generation America goes out there and does it thing. It's possible because when you have this first wave of immigration to any country, the priorities that you have are to create security in the new place - home, community and keeping it safe for your children. Now that we've had South Asian culture in America, it's now going into its third generation; people feel more secure vis--vis their position in the country. The second generation is maybe one of the first with the luxury to pursue things like music and film and other modes of self-expression. Different voices have been coming out of the woodwork to be heard and tell that story.

Do you think all of this is a passing fad -- this whole Diaspora literature, South Asian interest, bindi, chai-latte thing -- or do you think it's something more that's here to stay?

I think the fact that all this is happening at all is because there was a hunger and interest and curiosity. And I think that sometimes you can lose sight of that when things become too trendy and too fad-ish. There are a lot of questions about whether it's too much appropriation of the culture by rock stars with bindis etc., but usually I tend to feel like it's not a bad thing because it's still putting these elements of the culture into the spotlight, into the media. If one of the ten people who took up yoga because Madonna took it up actually learns a little bit about the philosophy or develops a genuine interest in that whole spiritual form of body and mind connection, then that's a huge thing. I think it's good to get images of the culture out there in as many ways as possible because then there's familiarity and knowledge and that's the only way to get rid of prejudices and that sort of thing. I think, even if it's clumsily executed, if the intention is a good one or comes out of genuine curiosity and respect, it's not a bad thing.

In terms of Diaspora literature, I think it's definitely not a phase. At some point, it will maybe stop being talked about as Diaspora literature. Diaspora culture is already being viewed as a culture in and of itself, not just a transitional culture but as an actual viable place to be. And I think those kinds of stories will always be interesting. Especially because so many people are all spread out and a lot more people are maybe facing those issues than before. I think it can only grow and flourish. I hope.

Are you a photographer at all? Or did you have to do a lot of research to make Dimple's talent believable?

I did a lot of reading on the actual techniques of photography. But I have to say, after spending a year following Dimple around with a camera, it definitely has made me want to take it up. Without being a photographer, if you look at things in that way, you can at least train your eyes to see that way. I think you can go quite far just with imagination and a few facts. But of course in the sequel when she's even better, I'm probably going to have to take courses just to keep up with the character!

So there is a sequel? Is Dimple going to college?

I definitely have ideas for a sequel. A lot of people have been writing in to the web site [] saying "Is there another one, we want to know what happens later on." Part of the desire to write a sequel is because I want to find out what happens to them as well. There's so much you can't know until you put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard because the stories and characters do take a life of their own. So I would like to do that one day. I don't know if that will be the very next project that I do.

So what is your next project?

Well I thought I would turn in Born Confused and start book number two the day after. I thought the work would be done once the writing was done, but it's more accurate to say the work begins when the writing ends! I've just gotten back a couple weeks ago [from the U.S. book tour] and now Diwali seems like a good moment for me to sit back and think about project number two. I think there will definitely be a first generation-second generation theme but the treatment will be pretty different from Born Confused.

I imagine that this book was like a child - you sent it out into the world and you have some expectations from it. Do you think Born Confused has been successful? What do you hope for its future?

To be perfectly honest, I didn't think about what people would think about it or how it would sell at all when I was writing it. Part of it might have been simply that I had the deadline and I just didn't have the luxury of doubting myself.

And another motivating force for writing the book was also just to get that desi-girl story out there. To have some desi characters who rock and are also very American. Because that's a book I would have liked to have when I was growing up and even later on. There just weren't any books out there with characters of that background. I didn't really think about how well it would do later. I just thought about the story and the main concern was to stay as true to the characters as possible and honest about this depiction of the culture.

Then, it's just been very exciting to get feedback from readers of all sorts of different backgrounds. There are a couple of Filipino Americans who came up after a reading and said that there were so many parallels with their experience. I've also gotten a lot of emails from mothers who think every mom should read this book to understand their daughters! So that feels really good. In terms of success, the good feeling is that it's done now and it's out there and it seems that people are able to connect -- it's a shared thing now, it's communicating now.

My father always told me: "Let your work be your worship." I think it's from the Ramayana. He said to just focus on the process and not to have such a results-based view of everything that you do. Just give yourself wholeheartedly to what you do. Because what is success anyway? So much of it is what you feel inside.

Born Confused by Tanuja Hidier
Scholastic Trade
ISBN: 0439357624
432 pages