If you're someone who has ever had their identity questioned, either with an innocuous "Are you sure you aren't [fill in the blank ethnicity]?" or a more aggressive "No, where are you really from?" you know how exhausting it is to answer such queries. In his first book, Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, Toronto-based writer Naben Ruthnum revels in questions, using them to guide his exploration of "immigrant stories" or, as he calls them with only a bit of derision, "currybooks." Why, he asks, does this genre persist as the primary example of books written by South Asian people who live outside the subcontinent?
In Curry, Ruthnum argues that constantly using identity as a unifying force in "immigrant fiction" and food writing is detrimental to both audiences and writers. "I don't want to self-define as part of a brown identity that is still shaped by outside perception, by the imagination that the majority imposes upon us," he writes. Just like calling a meal "curry," he says, the category of the "South Asian writer" is too simplistic to be accurate or representative of the thing that it really is. And just like curry, South Asian writers are diverse in themselves, representing countless histories, identities and points of view.
Curry is divided into three sections: Eating, Reading and Race. In his first section, Ruthnum lays out his issues with the way South Asian-ness is presented in food writing and cookbooks, setting up later critiques of diasporic writing in general. Here is where he points out that the history of curry the food is as varied and diverse as the people who are associated with it; tikka masala, pulao rice and even chilis are not all part of the same ancient recipe. To assume that curry is a dish invented in India and exported with no modifications erases the histories of those who have cooked and eaten it over centuries of colonialism, war and immigration. It's a cycle that further stereotypes the diaspora and those who live in it, Ruthnum argues. "When genres and forms have been around for long enough," he writes, "there comes a point when they risk calcifying: becoming the same stories." This calcification is found in a never-ending parade of clichéd pieces on a similar theme: Cook your mother's curry right and you will either find connection to your ancestors or realize that you can't connect any more. Either way, the symbolism is clear and, according to Ruthnum, in need of an update.
In the more literary currybooks discussed in the second section, Ruthnum laments that the internal battle over identity always plays out the same way: The protagonist's home country, frozen in nostalgic and authentic amber, offers a respite from feelings of displacement. But for second-generation people living in Canada, Ruthnum says, things are more complicated. He returns often to the very particular "weirdness" of being a racialized person in a diaspora, recognized as a tourist in your parents' home country, yet rarely accepted with no questions in the country of your birth. He knows his family's history in the "East" (Mauritius) informs his sense of self and his writing, but he resents the idea that this history must define him going forward. This internal push-and-pull is a classic currybook set-up, but in writing Curry, Ruthnum wants to change the ending to the story.
As the narrator of the reader's journey through a recent history of "immigrant fiction," white-people-with-wanderlust travelogues and wistful memoirs of spicy home cooking, Ruthnum marries his sarcastic wit with fascinating history and prescient observations about pop-culture representations of Indian-ness. He may think I'm focusing too much on identity, but for me, Curry is most powerful when Ruthnum places his own writing and reading decisions and desires into his analysis. His humour comes through perfectly in Eating, where he criticizes the overreliance of South Asian food writing on domesticity, authenticity and nostalgia while simultaneously recounting his own experiences learning to cook Mauritian food – careful to explain that he did it out of "self-sufficiency," not some misguided attempt to understand his culture. The coda is the most satisfying part of the book, in which Ruthnum writes about his experience publishing his first successful story, Cinema Rex, set in Mauritius. The anxieties that follow that success reveal Ruthnum's fears that he has capitulated to the clichés of the currybook genre, even as he fights to distance himself from it. It's a complex and introspective account of his own place in the quagmire of modern literature and it speaks volumes to the emotional work that creators who are not white men have to do before they even sit down at the computer.
For all of the questions Ruthnum asks, there are many that he wishes he didn't have to engage with. But the ability to simply exist in the world is a luxury and, in the West, it is a luxury largely given to white men. Given this, Ruthnum's convincing arguments about self-definition would have been much stronger with more discussion of the politics that make this so difficult for marginalized people. The excellent coda about the anxieties and revelations of publishing Cinema Rex would have been even greater had he included, in his discussion about the use of pseudonyms in literature, a mention of why women and people of colour have used pen names for hundreds of years and continue to alter their names for publication today (not just for reasons of vanity or experimentation). We may not want the racist history and current realities of Canadian life to affect our decisions as brown writers, but we can't pretend to be immune to them.
Ruthnum's book is an engaging and entertaining examination of fiction and his voice is a welcome addition to the discussion. He doesn't boast to have all the answers, but he has a few solutions. "As brown people in the West, our stories don't have to explain ourselves to white people or to each other," Ruthnum writes toward the end of Curry. It's an effective and necessary way to propel the conversation forward: a rallying call for those who are usually the ones bombarded with questions, and giving them the space to ask their own.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor whose work has been published by Hazlitt and Lucky Peach.