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On Relatability

Mira Jacob is the author of The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing - peoplewhowrite

Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob wrote the critically applauded novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing which she says was thoughtfully and enthusiastically handled by her publishers. But as she went around the country and world promoting the 2014 release, she found certain members of the press, and some readers, unable to get past the fact that though she is Indian her story touches upon universal themes applicable to people of all backgrounds. Whether it was a radio show producer calling her characters’ East Indian names confusing or a donor at a book festival party remarking on her good English, Jacob writes on Buzzfeed.com of a frustrating battle to alert people to the fact that white people, and white audiences, are not the only people or audience there is; and that she and her writing are not as “different” as some might assume. Even more demoralizing, as she tried to explain all of this to a room full of publishing industry professionals, she says many of her colleagues were not listening.

Here’s an excerpt of what Jacob had to say:
Mira Jacob on race and writing_peoplewhowrite

This producer feared his audience would not be able to relate to Jacob’s characters or story if they were not dumbed down, but as Jacob wrote, “American audiences are capable of so much more than some in your industry imagine.”

I’ve written here before that I willingly embrace being categorized as an African/etc writer. I am proud of who and what I am, and I do believe that the many things that make me who I am inform my writing to a large extent. I also believe that the reticence by some to be so labeled is because certain labels are more confining than others. An “American writer” or a “British writer”, for example, is not usually judged as being unable to tell a universal story or pigeonholed to write particular content, while writers of color or expressed sexual orientation or avowed religious affiliation have traditionally been charged with / expected to produce a particular kind of content. For my part, I aim to embrace my identity markers even as I break their expected molds, just by being myself. This ambition notwithstanding, it is not any less exhausting to be ignored, glazed over, or assumed to be a certain way because people only see or hear one thing when they meet you.

The point of a category or synopsis is to help you filter out the clutter of choice and get a snapshot to assist you in making a decision — it is not meant to enable you to stop at the superficial. Kind of like dating, you know what you tend to like physically or what your “type” tends to be, but soon after making contact, you have to determine if there is something more, underneath the surface, connecting you. This is why you might be surprised to find yourself dating or marrying someone who isn’t usually your type.

Relatability is not solely contingent on a shared background, race, gender, class, etc. While points of similarity are definitely powerful connectors, they are not the only ones and they are not always the most meaningful. As poet Sherman Alexie found out/Michael Derrick Hudson exploited, they can lead us astray if we don’t move past the surface. As Mira Jacob pointed out in her speech, refusing to delve deeper or resting in the instinct to make snap judgments about people who don’t look or sound like you is counter to “solid, actual business sense”. She adds, “White Americans can care about more than just themselves. They really can. And the rest of us? We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere. …There is a vast, untapped audience out there. You need to get to us.”

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