Saturday, October 22, 2011

Karma, by Cathy Ostlere

I read my second novel off Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I just finished Cathy Ostlere's Karma, which I almost didn't finish. I almost didn't finish it because I felt weird about this story being written by a white woman. It's a fascinating story, with a great setting that I'd never seen in fiction, but it didn't feel like Cathy Ostlere's story to tell.

It's the story of an Indian-Canadian girl who goes "back" to India with her dad, bearing her mother's ashes. It's 1984, and they are in New Delhi when Indira Gandhi is murdered. She is killed by Sikhs, and Maya is half-Sikh, half-Hindi--her father is a Sikh, and suddenly there are riots and Sikhs are being killed all over New Delhi.

Her father leaves her in their hotel room when he goes to try and get help from an old friend--but he doesn't come back.

So this is the story of what happens to her.

Is it weird that I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for what is an engaging story, because of who wrote it? Would I like it more if it had been written by an Indian-Canadian author? Except I don't think it would be the same book if it had been written by an Indian-Canadian author. Though Ostlere clearly did her research, somehow this doesn't totally ring true to me. Obviously others disagree--she got great reviews. Is this weird that this felt like such an issue for me?

I was trying to think of an example of something that didn't ring true, and here's one. Maya's mother killed herself. No mention is ever made of the Hindu standpoint on suicide, and that doesn't seem to be a factor in bringing the mother's ashes back to India, where Maya and her father will have to deal with the mom's family, who already don't like Maya's dad because he's Sikh. At least, it's never mentioned--and granted, the book is written as a journal, so maybe Maya wouldn't have had anything to say about it--but--I don't know. She is clearly grieving, but--yeah.

Anyway. I liked this book, but am not sure how much I liked it, and am also not sure how much my not loving it has to do with the fact that I feel like the author was really writing a story both outside her experience, but also perhaps writing a story that wasn't hers to write. This is something I've thought about a lot--who gets to tell which stories, whose stories--and I clearly haven't figured it out yet.

I keep thinking about who I think would have the right to tell this story. It's fiction. Do I think the writer would have to be Indian? Maybe an Indian couldn't tell this story either. Maybe s/he would have to be Indian-Canadian. But would s/he have had to be in New Delhi for the riots when Indira Gandhi was killed? Maybe Ostler was--according to her website, she was traveling in 1984, and that's when she went to India.

I don't know.

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