I’m the kind of person who will read anything. From the Ingredients List and Directions on the back of a bottle of moisturizer, to the Acknowledgements page in a book. However, domestic thrillers are easily my favorite kind of reading material. There’s something so eerie and catastrophic about a crime drama in a familiar setting, one that is filled with characters I recognize from daily life.
I’ve consumed this genre since I was a teenager, but never thought I could write one. What I was reading and watching on screens were thrillers that involved mostly white characters. These books were good, exciting page turners and gripping character-studies; but were mostly all set in the Western world, featuring protagonists I couldn’t personally relate to. It was almost as though it was left largely to the white fictional characters to do the murdering, plotting and poisoning, while the South Asian characters were being expected to narrate social atrocities and their immigrant experiences.
I was born and raised in India; a country with a rich thriving literary tradition, although a lot of it is lost to translation. In college I was a student of English literature, and the reading material we were prescribed was obviously all dominated by the Western canon, authored mostly by white males. Books by contemporary Indian authors that were being published, available at bookstores and appreciated by an international audience, usually had a similar theme—of showcasing the life and journey of the ordinary struggling Indian. While these are admirable works of literature, and have brought attention to Indian cultural practices and helped broaden the minds of international readers, I still didn’t see my favorite genre featuring South Asian characters on bookshelves.
Many years later, when I first had the idea for Dirty Laundry, I revisited this thought. At this point I had already spent some time trying to write another “Great Indian novel”, but nothing was sticking. With the idea for Dirty Laundry, came the realization that I had been struggling to write for so long because I was writing in the wrong genre. I needed to write what I know best.
I have been living in Ireland for close to a decade now, so the location for the story was obvious. A small coastal village in Ireland, with its majestic views and sparse population, seemed like a no-brainer for the setting. I began writing this book in the middle of the COVID lockdowns, as a new mother, turning to the Internet and social media for support and advice; so the characters began to take shape based on the behavior and interactions I was witnessing online. However, there was a key element I was determined to include—an Indian central protagonist.
In order for the plot to work, I required this character to behave like the others. She is in the same space as her white contemporaries, experiencing similar trials of young motherhood, and even though she has a different cultural background, her choices and actions needed to be rooted in what is human and circumstantial. I stuck to my guns and wrote the book, and I admit that the most burdensome aspect was to keep this character authentic. Her perspective hit close to home for me.
When the manuscript was in the hands of some early readers, a common question came up repeatedly: Why does the Indian character have to behave like her counterparts? As though, as a person of color, she has a moral obligation to distance herself from the rest, and not participate in their social politics, and to make better choices. I was defensive of her, and my response was always—why wouldn’t she?
As a society, we are hardwired to yearn for palatable versions of women. Picture a female version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski; the lovable slob, and she becomes less adorable and more revolting. This becomes especially true for POC female characters, or LGBTQIA+ too. If there is an underrepresented or marginalized personality, they have to work extra hard at remaining redeemable, and the expectations of “good” moral behavior seems higher from them.
It is understandable why readers have come to expect this. As a writer you feel protective of your marginalized character, fearing that they could be easily misunderstood, that an entire culture or country could be misrepresented through the shortcomings of a fictionalized figure. The same disgraceful actions would be more easily excused or understood if committed by white characters, while even in fiction, a person of color must remain untarnished if they were to be acceptable. I would like to believe that we are past that now, that readers are more accepting and more curious. That it is time to write about a demure Indian housewife, stuck in a loveless marriage, who despises her husband and covets what her best friend has, and wouldn’t be above suspicion of murder.
We still don’t see very many POC Lisbeth Salanders or Mathildes from Fates and Furies, and I wonder if it has something to do with the burden that POC writers perhaps carry. The question of how to best represent an “own voice” character. Whether to allow her to operate freely within the story and to face the same disastrous consequences as the others. While creating Mishti, my Indian protagonist, I wanted her to make equally reprehensible choices as her peers, and for her to face the repercussions like the rest. It was what seemed more grounded in reality and made the story more chilling, because we are not all always on our best behavior. I wanted to make her less about representation, and more as the appropriate piece in the puzzle.
It’s been encouraging to witness a wave of morally questionable South Asian characters being published recently, such as Parini Shroff’s The Bandit Queens, Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice, while there are some that need more international recognition, like Anita Nair’s Cut Like Wound and Mukul Deva’s books. There is certainly space for more books where POC characters are given agency to behave dishonorably if they have to, or just because they can, like anybody else would.