Diaspora writers that perfectly capture the South Asian experience
Covering a variety of genres and styles so there’s something for every literary taste
“Na mein lion, na main tiger, dono ka mix, they call me liger,” says Vijay Deverakonda’s character in the Liger film. He is a true third culture kid (TCK), if we may say so ourselves since his mother describes him in the trailer as “Ek lion aur tiger ki aulad hai yeh, cross-breed hai mera beta.”
The term TCK was coined by sociologist Ruth Hil Useem in the 1950s, referring to children of immigrants who are constantly playing a balancing game between the inherited culture from their parents’ birth country and that of the country where they grew up. Multi-hyphenated by birth, TCKs can access the best of both worlds but also deal with the societal expectations of each, a lifelong tension that Balli Kaur Jaswal neatly captured in her book Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Tweak Book Club’s November pick (get a copy here). Set in Southall, London, we follow the protagonist, Nikki, a law school dropout who takes on a job teaching a creative writing class for women through the local gurudwara.
The class becomes a way for the widows to learn basic literacy but evolves unexpectedly when the women start sharing and writing stories. Ones that challenge societal norms and the traditional roles expected of them, sparking conversations about empowerment, autonomy, and the right to explore their own desires.
Once you’re done devouring the troubles and triumphs of these lovely ladies (and maybe even solving a murder), you may be revved up for more TCK experiences.
South Asian writers capture what some have come to call the “immigrant time capsule effect.” “The homeland of their memories haunts the descendants in their new land and remains alive in the diaspora,” as Minyoung Lee puts it.
TCKs are finally finding their lived experiences reflected in the work of South Asian writers. And the homeland natives, like some of us, gain a new perspective on our brethren abroad. Widening the lens through which we view identity and redefining what it means to be desi instead of quarrelling over people’s fashion choices.
Our selection of reads from South Asian writers covers a variety of genres and styles, something for every literary taste.
South Asian writers you’ll want to become best friends with
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
This book crosses generations, decades and international boundaries as the alternating voices of our five female protagonists take the story ahead. We start in the 1960s and move forward through time, following the Indian-American Das family settling to make a life for themselves in New York City.
Women are central to this story as are their growth and struggles. An immigrant mom fears for the future of her two daughters in a strange new land. Will they be able to hold onto their conservative Bengali traditions? We then follow her two daughters, frustrated with restrictions; one finding catharsis in writing, the other fighting her own inner demons while trying to live up to the demands of the dutiful eldest daughter. There’s the ‘shame’ of interracial love and a biracial child’s struggle to reconcile both sides of her identity while her cousin, American by birth wants to completely reject. the world she’s been brought up in.
The character’s growth is interwoven into the central theme of the desire immigrants have of wanting to preserve their culture and identity and the way it clashes with the desire of their children to assimilate and/or adapt while touching upon subjects of racism and anti-blackness within the Asian community, colourism, islamophobia, feminism, identity and immigration. This coming-of-age story is classified as a young adult novel but through the stories of the five women, their unique searches for identity, love and connection, there’s something you will definitely relate to.
Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu
On the face of it, you could say this is a love story. Lucky and her husband Krishna are happily married. Happy, because like Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar in Badhaai Do, they have a lavender marriage, one of convenience.
The queer best friends married each other to keep their conservative Sri Lankan-American families off their backs. They live their individual lives and have managed to settle into it. But Lucky’s world is shaken when she has to travel to her childhood home to look after her ailing grandmother.
Reconnecting with her former best friend Nisha, who also happens to be her first love, all the while the latter is getting ready for an arranged marriage. The ‘western ideals’ of open-mindedness and sexual freedom clash with the inherited conservatism and rigid traditions in Lucky’s mind.
Through the pages of the book, you’ll nod along as you watch Lucky swing between attempting to stand her ground and create her own identity while also craving validation and approval from her parents. The story is going to touch a nerve for a lot of diaspora desis who have grown up with two at time seemingly contradictory cultures and the desire to live their truth while still being a part of the community that has served as their lifelong support system.
Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Love, Hate and Other Filters is another Young Adult novel that hits home for a lot of not-so-young adults. Especially, the Muslim diaspora community following the 9/11 attacks in the US. This story has its fluffy side. Our protagonist is 17-year-old Maya who is caught between her traditional parents who want her to get married to a suitable Muslim boy they have picked.
Maya, meanwhile, has other plans for herself including a career in film-making as well as a crush on Phil from school. When a terrorist attack takes place in the state capitol, Maya’s world is shaken when she realises the extent of the prejudice that her family and the Indian-American Muslim community are hit with.
While the narrative doesn’t dive deep into the bigotry and microaggressions Maya has grown up with, it serves as an additional layer of reality on top of the romance and self-exploration narrative.
Gold Diggers: A Novel by Sanjena Sathian
If you liked Never Have I Ever then be excited about this pick because the magical realist coming-of-age story has reportedly been picked up by Mindy Kaling for screen adaptation.
Neil Narayan is a second-generation Indian American trying to find his place in life. He doesn’t share the same drive as his ambitious sibling, and his parents don’t let him forget that either. As much as he wants to achieve their goals set for him (relatable) he’s busy crushing on his neighbour Anita Dayal. He chances upon a Dayal family secret. Anita and her mother Anjali have the ability to brew a magical potion from stolen gold that lets you channel the gold’s previous owner’s success. Anita and Neil take big gulps and push forward in life to fulfil their parents’ American dream. With a time jump ahead we get to see just how their ambitions pan out and the impact it has on those around us.
What readers will find easy to connect with is how the younger generation is shown to have typical ‘American’ problems, attitudes and perspectives, while still having the very Indian guilt being held over their heads, namely by their parents. The pressure to ‘become something’ would justify all the hardships older generations of immigrants faced to get them where they are now.
Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home by Nikesh Shukla
How do you raise a child in a world where anyone with a hint of melanin in their skin can be the target of microaggressions, hate and violence?
It is the question that writer Nikesh Shukla seeks to answer in this book that’s part memoir, part advice and part letter to his daughters about his own experience dealing with life, loss, parenting and more. As a third-generation British-Indian, Shukla is candid about his experiences of racism and discrimination and what it means to be bringing mixed-race children up in a world that will only ever see them by the colour of their skin.
Brown Baby is full of wise nuggets, brutal honesty, and heartwarming, tender moments from a father to his daughters as he raises them to be the best version of themselves while coming to terms with the loss of his own guardian, his mother. His grief seeps through every page of the book and it can be tough to read.
You’re taken through family meals, visits back home, community bonding and more, everything that makes a big fat desi family what it is while living up to the expectations of the Western world.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
In this young adult novel, Nishat faces the consequences of coming out as a lesbian to her religious and conservative family. We say consequences, because coming out isn’t easy, and coming out in a conservative desi family is even more difficult.
While trying to reconcile with her parents and not lose her family just because of who she is attracted to Nishat attends a wedding where two life-changing things happen. She meets Flavia, her former childhood friend with him she drifted apart and it’s almost like love at first site. Nishat also realises her love for intricate, delicate mehndi designs.
Their conflict arises when a school project asks students to set up businesses and Nishat excitedly picks a henna business to create. Flavia does too. To make matters worse, Flavia has teamed up with her cousin, who happens to be the one who has been Nishat’s bully.
It’s an easy read about school antics, drama and relationships but it’s all woven so beautifully with traditions and desi culture.
Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors: A Novel by Sonali Dev
Sonali Dev gives us a gender-bending Pride and Prejudice-inspired story mixed in with South Asian elements and immigrant experiences.
Dr Trisha Raje is our female Mr Darcy who despite being an acclaimed neurosurgeon is still the black sheep of the family. The male Lizzie Bennet in this book is DJ Caine, a chef, who finds Raje intolerable after their first few meetings. But she also ends up being the only one who can save his sister’s life.
Serving as a caterer to Raje’s affluent family would pay the medical bills. As tensions between the two rise and arguments ensue, they’re only drawn closer to each other. Spoiler alert: There is sensuality in the book, but our characters never get down to brass tacks.
Beyond the Austen storyline, Dev dives into creating side characters that you get invested in as well. Reading about the South Asian immigrant experience as Raje’s wealthy and erstwhile royal family settles in the US is enjoyable on its own. Diaspora desis will relate to the desire to hold onto your heritage while trying to make a name for yourself in a whole new societal setup.
That said, we should give a trigger warning for this book regarding a certain scandal in the plot that’s been classified by readers as abuse.
Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted edited by Gabrielle Deonath and Kamini Ramdeen
In a collection of 32 stories, we get to read about the real-life diaspora experiences from the US, UK and Canada. These stories touch upon subjects ranging from relationships and sexuality, identity and mental health, to racism and colourism.
Bits and pieces of every story hit home for readers whether you hold a singular cultural identity or belong to the multi-hyphenated diaspora. Each page is filled with such vulnerability that it feels as though you’re having a deeply intimate conversation with a friend or loved one.
Some subjects can be tough to digest but pop that Digene and keep reading because that’s the only way we break the taboos on so many of these subjects. Given the sensitive nature of some of the subjects, it’s recommended for readers above the age of 16.
Among our favourites is Neha Patel’s Someday, Maybe, talking about her experience as a daughter-in-law, side-lined and invisible. Experience which thousands of desi women will relate to
The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara
The Immortal King Rao is part immigrant desi family drama and part dystopian future nightmare where AI and big tech rule the world under a singular government.
We have three time lines in this story with quite a bit of a time jump that traces King Rao from his birth into a Dalit family of coconut farmers in a village in the 1950s to his education in the US and co-founding of a tech company Coconut (a wink to Apple), with his wife.
As tech evolves and the internet becomes even more ingrained in our lives, Rao’s incredible invention changes the world and puts him, a Steve Jobs-meets-Jeff Bezos at the top of it.
The final timeline is of his greatest creation, perhaps, his daughter Athena in prison, recounting her father’s memories (which she has access to) and taking us on this journey.
The book is a lot to take in and maybe a challenging read for some, but it’s worth the joy ride into the capitalistic hellscape that could very well be our future. Blended into the sci-fi narrative of the book are traditional desi elements of cultural traditions and practices, but also some casual sexism that makes its way into Rao’s marriage, casteism in his village and the racism and colourism that prevail after he manages to make the big shift to the US.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
Mira Jacob explores a lot of different topics surrounding identity, racial identity, and parenting, and more in this graphic memoir. Including, her life growing up as a brown girl in America, her parent’s migration to the US and how their relation parent-child relationship forms how she views herself and life now.
The book started off with questions from her biracial son about his own identity; the questions Jacob, and many others in her position may have been evading for a long time. Jacob is forced to reckon with a lot of questions and lingering doubts to give her young son the answers they both needed.
They are seemingly simple questions, but ones which are complicated to answer. One such is whether the newly elected president (Donald Trump, at that time) hates brown people. She does this beautifully with some back-and-forth scenes of conversations with her kid, ones she had with her husband, and even imaginary therapy sessions with celebrities like Bill Murray. The mixed media comics are so well done and it keeps you grounded in the story with contrasting text bubbles and illustrations of people against real or stock photographs as a reminder that this indeed is a memoir – real-life experiences and not a fantasy graphic novel that some may be used to.
If They Come for Us: Poems by Fatimah Asghar
If you love poetry then we highly recommend the work of Fatimah Asghar, poet, performer and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated series Brown Girls.
This collection is a poignant exploration of what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim, a brown woman in America while reckoning with personal and social history. Asghar touches upon personal experiences of coming of age without the guidance of parents, navigating womanhood, sexuality and racial identity in post-9/11 America when it seems like everyone is out to get you.
The rawest and most touching poems take us through the many pains of partition and the very real devastation it caused. Brace yourself for a rollercoaster of emotions because reading this book is like getting a peek into Asghar’s diary where she doesn’t hold back when it comes to sharing her fight to find a voice in a world that’s more than happy to drown it out.
Anita and Me by Meera Syal
We’ve adored Meera Syal for years, and if you haven’t read Anita and Me yet then you’re really missing out. This semi-autobiographical novel speaks of clashing cultures and looks at racism and prejudice in a small English factory town through the eyes of spunky nine-year-old Meena.
Meena belongs to the only Punjabi family in town. She is trying to learn how to balance her heritage along with assimilating into her community, and making friends while also rebelling a bit, as all kids do.
Generational conflicts arise as Meena’s parents want her to grow into the ‘good Indian girl’ who is well-behaved and demure, while Meena’s rebellious streak is brought out more and more through her friendship with Anita.
Syal’s quintessential wit and charm fill the pages of this book that’s as much a coming-of-age story as it is a comment on attitudes towards immigrants in the 60s and 70s in the UK.
Kalyan by Rajni Mala Khelawan
Did you know that Fiji has a bit desi population? You get to learn all about the community through Kalyana, the narrator of the story who is a third-generation Fijian-Indian. Growing up in the late 60s when Fiji had just gained independence from British rule, Kalyana’s world opens up. She listens to Indian folklore and mythology as well as tales of the feminist revolution taking place in America.
The community Kalyana grows up in is very traditional, holding onto their tradition and heritage as hard as they can. But watching her aunt Manjula, who has a limp and was thus rejected by all suitors, defy societal expectations and learn to drive and live her own independent life gives Kalyana hope for change. That is until a tragedy changes her life forever, along with her relationship with her mother as the traditional cover of shame and secrecy takes over Kalyana’s life.
Political coups shake Fijian society and Kalyana is stuck between wanting a home of her own, and navigating adulthood while dealing with her traumatic past and broken relationships.
This book comes with a trigger warning for sexual assault.