I live in India.

And the stories I write don't want to.

The thing is, as you all might already know, my country has an extremely- excessively, perhaps- rich cultural and historical heritage. It's imbued in each and every part of our daily life in some capacity or the other, and the Indian subcontinent has a very particular flavor when it comes to the people here and the places here. It's different from the first world, and proudly so. The stories we write, the movies we make, the music we compose all have a heavy root of 'Indianness' in them (in terms of content, character, language, setting) and while we may be extremely erudite of external culture, all of art produced in our country chooses to remain sundered from it and exploit our own cultural bounty.

But the thing is, I don't really want to.

I want to be a fiction novelist. And growing up as a millennial, my exposure to world literature and cinema and music has naturally been much more varied and diverse than previous generations. So the style of stories I want to tell, and the kind of plots I want to cook up, are such that just won't fit in the Indian context. I'm not saying that the Indian audience wouldn't consume something like that- we have a rich market for international authors and artists- but while writers from places like Europe or the US may benefit from already hailing from countries which have already influenced the world's taste in modern literature, I don't.

I want to tell stories free from the cultural restrictions of my country- but the problem is that even a fantasy world would seem incongruous with 'unindian' names and 'foreign' mythical creatures coming from an Indian writer. I want to make it in this country, the one I live in. But the content and type of stories I want to write- very different from the mainstream writers/filmmakers of the current industry- feel like they won't fit in. I'm not saying we don't have good artists to boast of- filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and writers like Amish Tripathi constantly push the boundary of what the Indian audiences can consume. But like I said! While their ideas and stories may be very new-age, they're still rooted heavily in India, stemming from Indian stories and settings and characters!

Be it a potboiler, or a noir style thriller, or a Bradbury style SF, I am constantly and continuously restricted by the tone/style of literature produced/consumed in my country. While American writers can without restriction cook up a diverse fantasy world with wild ideas and crazy conjurings and names (all rooted in American culture perhaps), I cannot really. Because it would seem out of place for an Indian writer of fiction.

Can someone help me figure out this dilemma?

EDIT: Okay, I'm just so overwhelmed by the complexity of the answers I've received here on my first question on SE. I've used this website previously too but am putting my own perspective out there for the first time so must thank everybody for their beautifully researched answers.

Now a little about myself for further context in case anybody else comes digging with the same quandary.

I'm a 19 year old from India who published a SF/Fantasy novel 2 years ago. That story involved Indian characters in Indian settings but were quickly whisked away to foreign arenas (ie different planets) where such cultural idiosyncrasies become irrelevant because well, you're a representative of all of Earth there, not just a country. So that's how I subverted my dilemma in that particular story. Meanwhile, I've also written a bunch of short stories/poems/pieces over the years which try to tackle this problem by giving characters unique names (which can't immediately be associated with ANY particular country/region/culture in the world) or placing them in settings free from national boundaries. So basically, that's the dilemma that plagues me often whenever I begin a new story, so I decided to pose the question here. Thanks so much for all the answers here, and I sure do have a lot of thinking to do in relation to this- it's not an easy one-size-fits-all resolution for sure!

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    Welcome to Writing.SE Udbhav Seth. We've got a tour and a help center you might want to check out. I have to say just how much I love your question. It's refreshing to see a nuanced exploration of culture and how it influences writing. Whatever you end up writing, own it for what it is and see where it takes you. Also, I bet there are already SF/fantasy/mystery/etc writers in India (or Indian immigrants elsewhere) who are pushing the boundaries the way you want to. Find them. What you create will be Indian (just like anything I create will be Jewish, even if the concept never comes up) (more) – Cyn says make Monica whole May 19 '19 at 16:17
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    but it will be you. It will be real. It will take Indian literature to new places. And that's a good thing. The best books push the limits in some way. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 19 '19 at 16:19
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    Let me first congratulate you to your excellent English. But to your question: I don't believe it is possible or consistent to suppress your heritage like that. All American works of fiction I have seen are already "imbued" with their local doctrine quite heavily. I'd say, don't worry about it and let your culture flow through you. – Zdenek May 19 '19 at 17:48
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    Try using a non-Indian pen name and publish in foreign markets and media. Then you can just be yourself when you are writing, and still be yourself when out and about. Use two pen names even, one for in your country and one for outside - that way you can compartmentalize and write for both markets. – nijineko May 21 '19 at 0:50
  • Rather than adding new info with an unnecessary edit note at the end of your question, you should edit the question to read as if it were always the best version of itself. Anyone interested in older versions can view the revision history. – V2Blast Aug 25 '20 at 8:33

You may benefit from taking a big breath and looking at the situation from outside.

You are Indian and you grew up in a society with richly pervasive traditions to which you feel bound.

A Japanese person has also grown up in a society with richly pervasive traditions to which they naturally feel bound and which will influence everything they write. An American person has surely grown up in a society with richly pervasive traditions (even if not as ancient as the Indian or Japanese ones) to which they are equally bound and which undoubtedly influence how they write.

As a Portuguese, I have also grown up in a society with rich traditions, but not as pervasive. Recently in my country's history, there was a generation long dictatorship that caused a backlash against national culture and a blind embracing of everything foreign (which is fortunately wearing off). In that sense, it might look as if I have an advantage over you in the sense I don't feel bound to my culture, right? Wrong. Even my growing up in constant contact with foreign culture means I'm bound to my very Portuguese culture.

What it does mean is that I'm more aware of the foreign traditions and their 'clichés'. A diverse fantasy world with wild ideas and crazy conjurings and names? Wild and crazy is so American. A sweet school girl who gathers the courage to confess her feelings to the popular school boy, even though she knows he's outside her league and the other girls will look down at her? That's so Japanese. A countryside village with a still inhabited mansion nearby? That's so British. A slow paced, instrospective film? That's so French.

We are all bound by our traditions. They feel natural to us. They may become clichéd to our eyes (whether they are or not) but they still feel natural. The lesser known traditions of other cultures, on the other hand, feel more spontaneous, more free... It is an illusion: they are not.

My suggestion is for you to sit down and look analytically at the fiction surrounding you.

What do you think is great about the Indian traditions that seep into the writing?

What do you think is old and worthy of getting rid of?

Why? This is an essential question that you must ask constantly. What do you find annoying about them? In which way to they bring or take away the value of a story?

What do you think is great about the 'world traditions' you admire? Do not stick to 'they're free and spontaneous'. That is only the glittering of novelty blinding you. Find something real, that brings value to the story.

Now look critically at those 'world traditions' and find their faults. There is very little in this world that has only advantages or only disadvantages. You will have more of one or the other, naurally, but you'll have both. Do not let the enthusiasm for what is different blind you to their shortcomings.

Now, it is the time to focus on you.

it would seem out of place for an Indian writer of fiction

Focus, my friend. What do you want? Do you want to be an Indian writer of fiction, a foreign writer of fiction or a world writer of fiction? If you choose the first, forget your qualms and simply work with your traditions, remaking them in new ways. If you choose the second, forget everything you know and embrace only what is new and different. If you choose the third, then go back to the questions above. It's time you forge your own path accepting what you feel has worth in every world tradition you look at, including your own.

I shall now give you a fourth path that breaks away before the three paths I mentioned above.

You want to be a writer of fiction. Good. Now I embrace who you are, including all those pervasive traditions you seem to be fed up with. They are part of you. Nevertheless, you are not simply an Indian; you are also a citizen of the world. Embrace that too.

Once more, go back to those questions above and look critically at the fantasy stories you've been exposed to.

Focus on you again.

What do you want to do? Do not let the answer be a vague 'something new and different'. Be specific. Do you want a fantasy world of wars, or politics, or commerce... or maybe all of it. Do you want Nordic dragons, Chinese dragons or a new type of dragon altogether? Do you want people wearing veils and multicolour see-through fabrics, or sturdy and dull clothing?

Make deliberate choices and be aware of what they have within that is Indian and what they have that is American, or Japanese, or whatever. And when you make those choices, make them for a reason.

But the thing is, I don't really want to [remain sundered from [external culture] and exploit our own cultural bounty].

I want to tell stories free from the cultural restrictions of my country- but [...] a fantasy world would seem incongruous with 'unindian' names and 'foreign' mythical creatures coming from an Indian writer.

I want to make it in this country, the one I live in. But the content and type of stories I want to write [...] feel like they won't fit in.

it would seem out of place for an Indian writer of fiction

Your words spell a little paradox. You want to break away and yet you do not want to break away, for fear of being shunned.

I find it particularly curious that you say the 'unindian' characteristics would be incongruous coming from an Indian writer. If that is what is holding you back, write under a nom de plume. But you want to be seen as an Indian writer, don't you? Go the Rowlings way. Using initials, no one could tell immediately she was a woman; make use of a name that is ambiguous and will give you more freedom. Once the reader likes your work, it will not matter that you are Indian.

And yet I'm sure it is an unnecessary ruse. While some may accuse you of renouncing your heritage, many more will praise your courage. And, let's be honest: writing a fantasy world without 'Indianisms' (if the word exists) is not a sign of renouncing one's heritage, especially because one's cultural heritage will always be present.

Forget your fears and write the story you have within you. Build the world without worries of what your Indian readers will think.

Good luck.

  • Terrific answer. I also love learning more about your perspective. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 19 '19 at 16:10
  • jeez, this is such a brilliantly detailed answer, thank you so much! You've given me much more of a unique perspective than I bargained for and thank you for that. As for your questions on focusing on myself- yes, I think the option most applicable to me would be being a world writer of fiction. While I'm having a little difficulty separating it from the fourth alternative since both of them involve embracing my own heritage and fusing it with the world heritage I've been exposed to, I think you've enumerated my primary goal very well, which is to write fiction purely based on what I have – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:17
  • inside and not concerned about cultural restrictions/pseudo-freedoms. Because like you said, trying to fit into those cliques will only lead to another dull, ordinary run-of-the-mill fictioneer who churns out stories free of any unique character. So that is something I definitely don't want. Thank you so much for your insight and I'll definitely dwell more on it and try to apply it to my thought processes while writing :) – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:22
  • @UdbhavSeth: To be a 'world writer' you embrace everything - including your own heritage. The 4th option is supposed to be less about everything there is out there and more about what you have inside, your aspirations, which probably means using some of your own culture and some of a few other cultures but not necessarily make it as universal as possible. I wanted to be a 'world writer', including a little bit of everything in my fiction, but have since decided to focus less on everything that's out there and more on what my instincts ask for. – SC for reinstatement of Monica May 27 '19 at 18:34

Allow me to introduce you to a game-changing author who at age 19 wrote a morally complicated "pot boiler" about a privileged jerk who plays god then abandons his responsibility. This novel has everything: an anti-hero who fails his redemption arc, a villain who is articulate and sympathetic, and a heretical theme so aggressively feminist that Christianity is cancelled. Men's moral-compass comes not from religion but through education and compassion (and maybe listening to women but that panacea doesn't happen in the book). The real villain is "white guy arrogance". There're revenge killings, suspense, thrilling descriptions intended to keep you awake at night, and a fatalistic elliptical ending where god and creation hound each other to the end of the Earth (literally an unmapped blank spot on the top of the globe at the time).

It borrows a mystical tone from earlier "discovered manuscripts" we'd call literary hoaxes – er, Romantic Fantasies. Stirs in a stewpot of social radicalism. Winks at the classics. Sprinkles with the latest scientific discoveries (not too specific with the science, or the worldbuilding gets out-dated), and heaps of transgressive melodrama floating on top like whipped cream on a Starbucks™ Mocha Frappuccino®. Narratively, it de-centers the hero-protagonist creating the best-known negative change arc since Oedipus, and the most iconicly tragic badguy since (before?) Darth Vader. Sure, it gets SJW-preachy and drags in the middle, but the best thing about this novel's structure is the horror climax is at the beginning – then the story asks "What if…?" Today, bookstores need a whole section for this kind of "science-fiction" but this was the first.

Before this gets too long I'll just announce my thesis statement here in the middle of my answer: Outsider perspectives lead to radical storytelling.

The published title is Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus – that subtitle is to make sure everyone catches that this is a heady re-invention: a very old story from a radically new perspective. I like to pretend the original working title Atheism; or If I ever Catch Up with God I will Make Him Suffer for this Bullshit was too long to fit on the cover. Did I forget to mention the author?

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His name is Anonymous because despite being the child of a famous literary reformer and publisher, and a possibly even more famous revolutionary feminist author – 2 bankable last names – Anonymous is actually a woman who has run off with a married man, will be denied the credit of writing her own work even after it becomes obvious (her husband would never de-center a hero-protagonist), and all her carefully debated, radical atheist SJW themes are dropped from the pop-culture version in favor of a stupid monster (fire: Grrr), a whiteguy redemption arc, and a decidedly Christian theme that is 100% not atheist at all whatsoever to get past the censors. (Silly Feminist, man cannot create life just poke at some dead things God in His Wisdom™ had previously created. Now get to the kitchen and make your low-tier aristocratic f-boi husband a sandwich.)

No one can "solve" your outsider dilemma – a bunch of feminists are trying but it sounds like you'd rather join the other team. Ok fine, but stop insulting the rest of us who love stories written by, and for, the other point of view.

Change your name to Stan Lee and rob your creative partners blind. The world might even hail you as a great whiteguy genius even though the stories are lowest-common denominator entitlement fantasy tinsel. Other alternatives are George Lucas, Elon Musk, Thomas Edison… there is no end to the list of "great whiteguys" who capitalized on the creative work of others to much popular acclaim and swollen bank accounts. I suggest you use a specific whiteguy's name, anyone who is already successful and well-known. Hemingway for example. Let's not beat around the bush, what you want is a shortcut. Good luck, I hope you become famous. (If you get rich let me know which name you choose, I will use it too!)

I don't think your stories will speak to me, but that's just my personal taste. I prefer radical thinkers with revolutionary perspectives over generic Happy Meal™ mass-marketing and monsters who say "Grrr" at fire while stupidly wandering into a fire.

Mary Shelley's name will be remembered forever – although admittedly not for what she actually wrote. The point of the story is her name didn't appear on her own best seller. After 200 years she is still an undiscovered radical icon in the literary world (with an ironically over-exposed novel). Stan Lee is 15-minute-famous right now for telling the same 10¢ plot and 1-note character over and over, and it wasn't even original to begin with (Lee's outsider heroes were created by Jack Kirby, and his kids had to sue to get recognition).

You're a better writer than that, your essay is showing off a little. If you want my outsider, de-centered opinion, you're already a clever writer with a social critique posing as a Stack Exchange question. I don't think you'll fit in with the generic whiteguy POV, you've already let it slip that there something a little more radical and interesting there.

  • First of all, I'd like to just how much i love your flamboyant and absolutely smashing intensity of your writing- the words, phrasing, ideas just crackle with energy and seem to whip the brain with every punctuation mark. Rollercoaster of a read. As for solving my 'outsider's' dilemma, i'm afraid I might need a little elaboration. I don't get how I implied that I want to write from the Insider's perspective since my argument was based itself on the fact that I want to break free of the cultural restrictions imposed by the artistic conventions of my country and want to be free to write – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:39
  • whatever I want, even if it involves imbibing hues of a culture not my own. I agree with your points on the white-guy go-to easy shortcuts, and how radical storytelling will always be much more capturing than just another fiction with a drab formulaic plot (I'm gonna keep that in mind for sure) but perhaps if you could explain to me why my question implied a leaning towards the Insider's perspective and where it went wrong, I'd be grateful. Thanks so much! – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:40

Stop being an Indian writer, and become a writer. There is an Elton John bio movie coming out. He was born Reginald Dwight and changed his name. In one of the preview clips somebody tells Reginald "You have to stop being the person you were born to be, and become the person you want to be."

Same thing for you. Being born Indian doesn't mean you have to write Indian. I don't think it is bad to set your stories in India, it is something you can do far more authoritatively than I can do sitting in the USA. But even that is not a requirement; in the modern world you have all the resources you need to research what daily life is like for most people in the USA, in cities or small towns or the suburbs; fictional and non-fictional resources.

As I repeat often on this forum, I finish novels, but I couldn't do that if I didn't love writing and getting my imagination on paper in a finalized form. It is too much work. There is no guaranteed money, and even most published authors don't earn what I can earn in my regular non-writing professional capacity. But I truly enjoy the escape of writing, it's the first thing I do every day, about 360 days a year. It's like my alternate life. It's an escape from reality.

If I were only in it for the potential money, I wouldn't do it; I already make enough to live on comfortably. If I didn't love what I was writing, it would be a *job. Some people can do that. Perhaps I am too spoiled, I wouldn't bother.

In any case, I don't recommend it. Write what you will truly enjoy writing about; your enthusiasm for the topic will make your writing better because you will really want to get it right and say exactly what you truly mean. And when you finish you can be proud of the art you created, and want to put it in other hands.

Write a western book. Publish under a pseudonym; or initials (U. Seth). India isn't the only market that counts, find an agent or publisher willing to consider non-Indian books, be they inside or outside of India. Working with people in other countries is no longer difficult to figure out; especially since you already speak English.

It is already hard enough to create a work of art, don't make it harder by creating art you don't even like.

  • I absolutely agree with you. My question becomes a moot point if I don't even consider the barrier that halts me before i ever reach that dilemma- of writing fiction enjoyable to me. That is it, that should be the sole and only requirement. If i enjoy it i should let it flow regardless of any cultural strangulation i may feel and whatever is released from inside me should do so without censoring/filtering. I agree with you that step 1 is enthusiasm all along the way. So I'll definitely not let it hinder my craft/stories/conceptualising at all from now :) – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:25

Language you already mastered - your writing does not come across as too typically Indian, at least when you consciously address an international audience. Just stick to that.

Fantasy names in western fiction are only sometimes borrowed from the cultural background - and even then, more as a pun or a hint than as a norm. In many cases, especially in sci fi and fantasy, the names are more or less random combinations of letters chosen to be different from the usual, and sounding in a way that fits the theme. While crime and action stories tend to choose short (and not always unusual) names for the heroes and names which are connected with aristocracy or weirdness for the bad guys. Here, cultural norms play a role. But you can easily jump on that train by choosing names which sound similar to the good and bad guys you find in the news. Or look up common names in some countries and choose one which sounds right.

You can also combine this with your roots by concentrating on Indian names which are well known abroad, and similar-sounding names. Buddha, Bhagwan, Singh, Gandhi and many more are known all over the world. I assume some international names are also common in India - Khan, Mohammed and many more.

Check for local sensitivities before using some names too freely. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and many other such names may not convey the sound you think they do in some countries. Or provoke in a similar way as in yours.

The same rules go for location names and such.

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    that's true. I love how you've given so many practical applications of the dilemma i've posed with implementable solutions. While every other answer here is also a necessary thought experiment for me, i love how you leapt straight to the point and answered my question and answered the anxious core of it. Thanks so much! – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:46

In my personal experience, it's more restrictive to try to NOT be what you are than to expand the horizons of what a YOU-type person can be. In the first scenario, you're constantly second-guessing everything you do, and judging it as "too Indian" or "not Western enough." The result can't help but be derivative and stifled. In the second case, you're saying "Yes, I'm Indian, and yes that's my context and background, but I can still write whatever I want to write." Of course, people may still try to put you in boxes and limit you, but that's the same struggle of every artist from every place and time.

For me, as an African-American, I look to authors like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Kiese Laymon and Marlon James, who don't hide or deny their blackness, but who also don't write what people expect them to write (literary science fiction for Delany and Butler, surreal magical realism for Laymon, and epic African-inspired fantasy for James). Murakami doesn't pretend to not be Japanese, but his books have a very Western-style that works because it matches his voice, not because he's pretending to be other than what he is. Mira Nair is an Indian director but her films aren't Bollywood. Salman Rushdie is an Indian writer, but he quite literally writes whatever he wants to and damn the consequences.

I had a similar experience to yours recently when I wrote what I thought would be a novel with mainstream appeal, and then struggled to get people interested. It wasn't because of my race, or because people wanted me in boxes, it was because I wasn't presenting the themes, settings and characters I had the deepest personal connection to. I was giving myself an unnecessary extra handicap in the task of creating a great book. When you write from your own experience, it's universal. When you don't, it doesn't reach anyone.

  • but wouldn't you agree that perhaps deriving too much from your own experiences limits your capacity to conjure up random/wild/NEW fiction with no context/logic to back it up? Yes, ultimately a story appropriates itself and builds its own logic if the writer sticks with it from beginning to end, but I wouldn't want to write stories with only deep personal connections- but i would want to write stories which i feel about strongly. That's what i can strongly attest to. So thanks so much for your perspective on this! – Udbhav Seth May 27 '19 at 18:44
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    @UdbhavSeth What you're saying SOUNDS plausible but in my experience --after having tried it that way --it doesn't really work like that. I'm NOT saying stick to reality, or that you can't go beyond your experience. But I am saying that this concept that you're more free when you're less yourself is bunk. The book I'm working on now is set it a wholly invented world filled with magic and set in places I've never been. But it's built around themes --race, being between two cultures, and so forth --that are very personally resonant to me. – Chris Sunami supports Monica May 28 '19 at 12:14

I totally get how you feel, and, I'm sorry to say, there isn't really a quick fix. You're right in that stories in styles very specific to western culture can feel out of place in an Indian setting - you can always tell the story of detective Ram taking down the Bombay mafia after a lady in a red sari came begging for his help, but it isn't the same (bad example, but you get it). I just use unindian names and places for stories like these, and people usually don't say things like "you're Indian, how can you write stuff like this?"

I think the key factor here is that we've been so inundated with western media that we're kind of qualified to write in their cultural contexts (KIND OF). I would never fully trust a non-Indian to deal with Hindu mythology fairly, but I think anyone writing about Greek mythology probably knows how to do it. The colonizers forced their culture on most of us - they don't get to take it back now. If you really feel weird about it, use a pseudonym like some people have already suggested. The good news is that Indian names don't need to mess up your fantasy setting. The universe in Terry Pratchett's famous Discworld series is based off of Indian mythology (A flat world on four elephants' shoulders, the elephants stand on a turtle moving through space). I once wrote a magic style story for a workshop class full of Americans, and they all said that 'Sita' was a good name for my MC because it reinforced the idea that it wasn't the US or a real world we were in (yeah, kind of yikes). Even if you don't want to write about India, you can write about the dusty warm kingdom with monsoons instead of fall and spring and princess and princesses who wear heavy gold jewellery and colourful clothes and ride on elephants etc etc

TLDR; Use American names and places if you think they fit better, there's nothing wrong with that. Use a pseudonym if it helps. Indian culture does have more of a place in fantasy - don't be afraid to use it or mimic it if you want to.

Your stories are valid, no matter what amalgamation of cultures they may come from.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE tryin. Thanks for jumping in with an excellent answer. I appreciate your point of view and am glad Writing.SE is big enough to have multiple people from so many cultures (enough with us boring Americans). Please check out our tour and help center to learn more about this site. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 24 '19 at 16:01
  • Americans aren't boring at all! The vast amount of media catered specifically to them can be, though ;) – tryin May 27 '19 at 11:46

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