A non-Desi co-worker raved about two South Asian themed books she had recently read. The next week, I find in my mailbox a copy of Anjali Banerjee’s Imaginary Men. It’s obvious from the cover that the book is light romance reading—the stuff of airport bookstores—and not in line for any major literary prizes. I am reminded of the hundred plus Sweet Valley High books I had read as a pre-teen, which both lured and repelled me. I enjoyed the endless daydreams of relationships I might once have (but didn’t) in high school and, when older, would have happily reincarnated into an avid consumer of Harlequin romance novels.
But the writing bug bit me, and I look back with embarrassment on the SVH era (the Ayn Rand, too). My bedside table is now a mess of avant-garde poetry, two Junot Diaz books, and past issues of The New Yorker, Gastronomica, and Fence. My writing group just finished Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and we’re reading The Sound and the Fury next. Though the feeling of trudging backward into an awkward history of teenage romance novels intimidates me, I convince myself that it’s something to blog about and dig in.
I read Imaginary Men in a day on my commute (the 38 Geary Limited) to and from work. No doubt my instincts about the book are true; it’s not literary fiction. But two things surprise me. I am relieved not to follow a protagonist who is “blonde” and a “perfect size 6” like the Wakefield twins. It would’ve done wonders for my self-esteem to have been reading about Indian women like me who fall in love with their dream guys. The other thing that strikes me is that with Jhumpa Lahiri being one of the only literary fiction voices in the United States, it might just be that books like Imaginary Men (and I’m told that The Hindi Bindi Club is great fun by this same co-worker) fill in the holes of the second generation Desi experience, albeit in a simplified way. And while I’m not rearranging my reading list or my bedside table books anytime soon, this foray was a good reminder that I, as an Indian American writer, need to know what others are consuming about my culture, as well as what’s missing from the big picture.