For me, this presented a conundrum. I was born in the 1960s in England to parents from India and Germany, but immigrated with my family to the US in early childhood. I have a straightforward American accent based on a lifelong education here. Still, when I shared with writing friends that I wanted to write fiction, I got a standard response. People suggested that write about India, or perhaps Indian-Americans. Mind you—not Germans or Brits or Americans—Indian-Americans! This could only be fueled by my name: Sujata Banerjee Massey.
I nodded, considering these two ideas; but inside, I argued against all of it. What if Melville hadn’t dared to write in the voice of a whale, or if Arthur Golden thought he couldn’t assume the literary identity of young Japanese geisha? I wondered if Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote a fantastically detailed novel from the viewpoint of an English butler, was ever told to roost in the same kind of pigeonhole. It irritated me that nobody suggested that I write about the US or Germany or England. Of course, I could just barrel ahead and consider these settings—but unfortunately, none of the patches in the quilt that made up my past seemed inspiring.
Then I had an unexpected chance to leave the Baltimore newspaper where I worked and move to Japan with my husband. Living in a small seaside town called Hayama, I felt enthralled by my environment and realized that an expat’s inside-outside relationship was not only interesting to me, but might make a good set-up for a sleuth. Many people reading the first Rei Shimura novel, The Salaryman’s Wife, didn’t pay attention to my unknown author name on the book jacket and assumed I was partly Japanese. But what would the Japanese think of a foreigner writing about their country? From reviews and conversation with Japanese readers, it turned out that I would always be regarded as a foreign writer--but one who had observed small things that were meaningful about the culture. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and wrote nine more mysteries about Rei, using her adventures to talk about the juxtaposition of contemporary Japanese life and its wonderful cultural history.
I kept writing about the Tokyo area, even after I’d moved back to the U.S., but again something unexpected happened. I was growing interested in India as a book setting. Over a three-year period, I traveled twice to India to adopt my children, visit relatives, and live in homes in Kerala and Bengal. I sent my young daughter to Indian dance class and got my son involved in tabla drumming. All of three of us studied Hindi, some more enthusiastically than others. I even became a social studies teacher, folk dancer and board member with the School of Indian Languages and Culture. As the years went by, and I began researching my books setting, I sent holiday cards and Facebook-friended Indian relatives. I was becoming more Indian--but as with my Japanese experience, it was driven by my interest in traveling, history, artistic traditions and politics.
And thus was born a historical novel set in 1930s Bengal that took me more than four years to write! I felt I couldn’t write about modern Indian life without taking up residency there. But I’d been to Calcutta often enough since the 1970s to know what the city felt like. I had a strange, almost protective love for the old Indian and British colonial buildings that were slowly fading from its streets. I wondered about the rich Europeans who had once lived inside the stucco beaux-arts mansions of the so-called White Town, and the Bengalis who lived in Black Town’s narrow streets filled with all sorts of fascinating shops and homes. Once I learned that Sleeping Dictionary was a nickname for the young Indian women who once taught European company officers the local languages and manners, I knew I had a great book title, but more importantly, a clever, brave heroine with a foot in each of the towns—and a secret interest in Indian independence.
And you know what? While I figured out that I could actually pull off writing about India and enjoy it—I learned something deeper. It was the understanding that if I put the research and heart into it, I could enjoy writing books set in Britain and Germany or the U.S. without feeling stereotyped. Not because I was born with some kind of genetic link, but because I’ve really explored a place and talked to people.
This is very simple writing tenet that all writers should know—but that took me about twenty years to learn.
Did you ever feel pressured by family or friends to follow a certain path? How did you come to terms with it?
Sujata is offering two free copies of THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY to two lucky commenters!
Over the course of eleven books, Sujata Massey won the Agatha and Macavity mystery awards and was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more about The Sleeping Dictionary and The Ayah’s Tale, and to get a copy of a free short story sent to your inbox, sign up here