Of Saris and Spices: Marketing Paratexts of Indian Women’s Fiction

  • Belén Martín-Lucas


The editors of this collection of essays, Om Prakash Dwivedi and Lisa Lau, included the following reflection in their provocative call for contributions to this volume: ‘If one carefully notices the parameters of success of Indian writers, it becomes seemingly clear that only those Indian writers have achieved remarkable success who either write from outside or who criticize India and its sensibility, thus producing eroticized versions of Indian culture.’ The idea that criticism of India would produce an ‘eroticized version’ of the country’s culture intrigued me: why ‘erotic’? This chapter does not contend that Dwivedi and Lau were wrong to associate (diasporic) criticism of India with a certain sexualization of its culture(s) — on the contrary, it will support their perception — but it intends to examine the specific mechanisms that help construct this ‘easy’ or naturalized association. I agree with the editors that Western audiences do have a relevant influence on the ways in which Indian culture1 — I will be limiting my analysis here to the field of fiction in Indian writing in English (IWE) by women — is produced, circulated and consumed on a global scale.2 I will assert here that the Western Orientalist appreciation of Indian women’s bodies and the criticism of patriarchal cultural traditions and structures in IWE play a significant role in the preference for IWE in the global marketplace (in comparison to other postcolonial literatures) that Robert Young noticed some decades ago.3


Indian Woman Muslim Woman Indian Culture South Asian Woman Global Literary 
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  1. 1.
    ‘Western’ and ‘West’ are vague and controversial terms. I am using them here as a convenient (though imprecise) shortcut to refer to Eurocentric (neo)colonial dominance with regard to the construct of the Orient, following Edward Said (1995) Orientalism, London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  2. Though white colonial ideology is predominant in this metaphorical West, it is obviously not, in any way, a homogenous ethnic or racial space. A large proportion of the over 20 million people of Indian origin who live in the diaspora may also be considered constituents of ‘Western’ readership, in the same way that diasporic Indian authors have been denominated re-Orientalist, taking into account their double location within and outside Indian culture. See Lisa Lau (2009) ‘Re-Orientalism: The perpetration and development of Orientalism by Orientals’, Modern Asian Studies, 43, p. 572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Robert J.C. Young (1995) Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Lisa Lau has even proposed (‘Re-Orientalism’, p. 573) that ‘The reins of dominant representation [have] shifted hands from the foreign, male subject to the diasporic, semi-Oriental female’. Nevertheless, success on bestseller lists should not mislead us to think that women authors enjoy a more durable recognition than their male colleagues, or that their relevance eclipses that of men authors; my research on the circulation of South Asian Canadian fiction in Spain shows that women’s cultural capital (following Bourdieu) is still inferior: after a golden moment of media attention (especially in the context of literary awards), women writers are more quickly forgotten, while male authors tend to enjoy a more steady circulation, with more of their works being translated over a longer period of year; see Belén Martín-Lucas (2013) ‘Translation, nation branding and Indo-chic: The circulation and reception of South Asian Canadian fiction in Spain’, in Pilar Somacarrera-Íñigo (ed.), Made in Canada, Read in Spain: Essays on the Translation and Circulation of English-Canadian Literature, London: Versita, p. 87.Google Scholar
  5. For more on the short-lived glory of this ‘supposed tokenism for shortlisted black, female or diasporic authors’, see Sandra Ponzanesi (2006) ‘Boutique postcolonialism: Literary awards, cultural value and the canon’, in H. Klein and W. Görtschacher (eds) Fiction and Literary Prizes in Great Britain, Vienna: Praesens Verlag, p. 130.Google Scholar
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    Belén Martín-Lucas (2012) ‘“Grammars of exchange”: The “Oriental woman” in the global warket’, in Christine Kim, Sophie McCall and Melina Baum Singer (eds), Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora and Indigeneity in Canada, Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press), p. 91.Google Scholar
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    This is not to deny the presence of neo-Orientalist elements in some of the texts, of course. However, I think it is necessary to give due recognition to the ways in which many of these narratives resist and/or contradict the patent Orientalism in their marketing. Among the critics who have addressed this question, I find Shazia Rahman’s works most illuminating: her essay (1999), ‘Marketing the mem: The packaging and selling of a first novel’, The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad, 18(1): 86–99, and her doctoral dissertation (2002), Resisting women: Orientalism, diaspora, and gender, University of Alberta, ProQuest dissertations and theses. Another wonderful example of reading against the grain can be found in Pamela Butler and Jigna Desai (2008) ‘Manolos, marriage, and mantras: Chick-lit criticism and transnational feminism’, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Trans-nationalism, 8(2): 1–31, in which they ‘highlight literary strategies in South Asian American chick lit that identify and play on contradictions in the production of neoliberal feminine subjectivity, and thus reimagine the contradictory possibilities for subjectivity in the context of neoliberal capitalism and globalization’ (p. 9).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Belén Martín-Lucas 2014

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  • Belén Martín-Lucas

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