Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier #Diversiverse

Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused mixes typical teenaged angst with multiculturalism to create an original novel that both captures and transcends ethnic identity. As the book opens, Dimple Lala appears to be well assimilated in New Jersey. She shops at the mall for trendy clothes, has a blond best friend  and dates white boys. On her 17th birthday, Dimple receives a fake ID from her best friend, Gwyn, and returns home drunk.

Dimple's disappointed parents set her up with a "suitable boy," the son of their best friend from India. When Karsh Kapoor arrives in pleated khakis, doting on his mom and kissing up to her immigrant parents, Dimple rebels. Meanwhile Caucasian Gwyn tries to claim Dimple's cultural heritage as her own, dressing in traditional Indian clothes and flirting with Karsh. When the suitable boy is revealed as a less suitable DJ, Dimple has second thoughts. She focuses her camera on her heritage and discovers that her family and the Kapoors are not as traditional as she had assumed.

The premise of this young adult novel reminded me of two of my favorite books for adults. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993) follows a Hindu family's quest for a husband for their daughter Lata during the tumultuous time of post-partition India. I quit my book group to read Vikram Seth's 1,474 page historical novel. Another favorite, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake follows Gogol Ganguli from his teen years to early adulthood as he comes to terms with his Indian American identity. I wish Gogol and Dimple, both born in the USA but in different decades, could had met in high school. Interestingly, The Namesake and Born Confused were published the same year in the USA: 2003, although Born Confused was first published in the UK in 2002. Born Confused is a debut by a young author so it's not as polished as these two literary masterpieces, but there are thematic similarities, and its humor and pop culture references make it better suited to a teen audience. Nonetheless, adults would appreciate the multi-aged characters, philosophical questions and cultural depth.

The writing was good too:
Dimple explains why she use photography to communicate with her grandfather in India: "It was so much easier to make the world black and white than brown."
In a genuine teen voice, she expresses her confusion: "I guess I'm just not Indian enough for the Indians or American enough for the Americans, depending on who's looking."
I enjoyed her quirky metaphors: "A warm feeling filled me like tea."
Tanuja Desai Hidier
Scholastic Press photo
Dimple was a delight, and the secondary characters were well developed too. Karsh was an appealing love interest, although it seemed odd that no one objected to him being a college student while Dimple is not yet a senior in high school. His passion for remixed Indian-fusion music was pitch perfect (the author is also a singer/songwriter.) I loved how photography was used in the narrative to show Dimple's inner character. Her older cousin, parents and grandfather were well rendered too. It was wonderful to see a book with charismatic LBGTQ characters, who weren't there to play victims. The flattest character was the white best friend, and even so, Gwyn has more dimensions than are at first apparent.

My only (mild) criticism of Born Confused is the opening pace/length, given the teen audience. The book starts with backstory about Dimple's family, her best friend and disappointing boyfriends, and the narrative doesn't really take off until Karsh is introduced about a third of the way through the 515 page book. Then the book was hard to put down. I read the galley on my Kindle concurrently with a new release book from one of my favorite authors, and I put aside Haruki Murakami's brilliant novel without regret to finish Born Confused. I was hoping to read both Born Confused and its newly released sequel, Bombay Blues (560 pages), for this post, but I only had time to read the first book. After a break to finish other books, I plan to read Bombay Blues.

I first heard of Born Confused in 2006. The Harvard Independent (I was once a staff photographer) revealed that teen author Kaavya Viswanathan had plagiarized Tanuja Desai Hidier's novel (as well as books by other YA authors). The story was in The New York Times and on major networks with denials of intentional wrong doing. I'm still mad on Tanuja's behalf, all the more so after reading Born Confused; it's a ground-breaking novel that is still relevant a decade after its publication.

I'd strongly recommend Born Confused to readers aged 14 and up, who enjoy literary young adult fiction and multicultural books. There is underaged drinking and drug use but not without consequences. This book would crossover well to an adult audience. Teachers, Born Confused would pair very well with The Namesake in a class about multiculturalism, immigration and assimilation.

Seawall Beach at Morse Mountain, my favorite time of year.

Reviewer's Disclosure: this post is part of #Diversiverse: a challenge for bloggers to review a book by an author of color. This wasn't much of a challenge for me since I already read and review diverse books. I had requested a free galley of Born Confused from Scholastic Press before I had heard of #Diversiverse. I support efforts to broaden people's horizons by sharing books by diverse authors and/or with diverse protagonists. Over 100 bloggers have joined #Diversiverse. Thank you, Aarti at BookLust, for hosting!


Elizabeth said...

Dear Sarah,

This sounds a most fascinating book. I really enjoyed The Namesake which I thought very well done.
Cross cultural themes are always appealing - I've spent most of my life as an ex-pat.
Re your previous post - yes, I had always gone with
"guardez- l'eau" - but why would the servant class in 18th century England have spoken French? may remain a mystery for ever.
We always considered it bizarre when Americans remarked that some inhabitants of the developing world 'go to the bathroom in the street'!

Literary Feline said...

I read The Namesake years ago and enjoyed it. You've got me intrigued about Born Confused.

How horrible that someone plagiarized the book. Even having not read it, I feel mad on behalf of the author. Grr. Stunts like that really bother me.

A Cuban In London said...

Excellent review, as usual. I would probably agree with you that a novel with a slow start might not appeal tot he average teenager. Then again, me being a contrarian at times I would like authors to take more risks when it comes to writing for younger audiences without second0guessing them the whole time. I recently took a look at the books my younger one is reading these days (she is 13 and I hope she doesn't read this) and I realised that they were tailor-made for her age. Do you know what I mean? They were all full of the same phrases you hear adolescents saying. That's why I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her reading an Agatha Christie novel last week. Although still part of a genre and full of the tricks and devices of that genre, it's a bigger challenge for her.

Greetings from London.

Amanda Summer said...

Another penetrating review of a book I normally wouldn't come across. I thought at first from the title it would be about gender and not cultural confusion, but interesting that there are LGBT characters in it as well.

(I noted you mentioned Haruki Murakami's book. Another blog friend had a lot of trouble with Colorless - are you enjoying it?)

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth, I related to the expat and the multicultural issues in this book, and I think you would too.

On How to Speak Brit post: the theory is loo came from a bastardization of the French from l'eau (pronounced low) to loo since, as you point out, the servants didn't speak French, although their upper class employers would have.

Literary Feline, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed your #Diversiverse reviews too. I'm pleased that BORN CONFUSED has been re-released in paperback while the copycat book has been forgotten.

Elizabeth & Literary Feline, BORN CONFUSED dealt with similar multicultural/assimilation issues as THE NAMESAKE but with a more liberal turn of the millenium family.

ACIL, I flagged the slow start in BORN CONFUSED so that parents/teachers/librarians could encourage teen readers to keep reading. The pace really picks up after the opening and there is forward moving story interwoven with the backstory even in the first third.

Cheers to your daughter! I started out with Nancy Drew in elementary school and then read lots of Agatha Christie in middle school. I learned a lot about plotting, suspense and character from those books. I believe, like you, that reading is a habit, good to encourage without judgement in young readers.

Amanda, I'd love to hear your reaction if you read it. The book is both about both cultural identity and gender identity. The author does a brilliant job of covering both without being didactic and even throws in some feminist theory as well. One of my favorite characters is transgender.

I'm actually really enjoying Haruki Murakami's COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI at halfway through, but I doubt it will be my favorite of his books. I didn't put it down because it was bad but rather because BORN CONFUSED was so good and quite a page turner in the second half.

Stefani said...

I'm so glad to see a review of this book, it was one that meant a lot to me when I was younger. Such a great examination of what it means to grow up and fit into multiple cultures.

Sarah Laurence said...

Stefani, welcome to my blog! Thanks for sharing how important BORN CONFUSED was to you. I enjoyed your #Diversiverse review too.

Aarti said...

I have this on my audiobook wish list but haven't felt compelled to pick it up yet, I admit. I thought it sounded pretty fluffy and that I was past the age at which I would enjoy it. But I am glad it was written and published because I think it would be very beneficial for young Indians to read these days :-)

Your review made me think twice - it looks like one that I could enjoy even though I am no longer a teen!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent review. This is going on my list for sure.

Nice to meet a fellow Mainer too (although I can't claim the 3 generations that make me official...!) Enjoy the coming autumn (my favorite season there). Cheers!

troutbirder said...

Your interesting review reminded me of the time some twenty five years ago when I left teaching high school seniors and went to our new middle school to take up teaching 8th grade geography and 7th grade American History. . Creating a joint social studies/ English class we intended to use novels age appropriate for young teenagers to draw their interest and For some eras in American History it was difficult but not impossible. For geography/world cultures nigh impossible. I'm so glad to read that for teachers today there are many more good novels, multi-cultural and historical available. A good story is one of the best ways to draw children of all ages into learning....

Booksnyc said...

thanks for the review - this sounds like one I would like. I never read A Suitable Boy (intimidated by the length, I think) but read and enjoyed The Namesake so I like that this book reminds you of that one.

Sarah Laurence said...

Aarti, thanks so much for hosting #Diversiverse and welcome to my blog! It might be better to read instead of listen so that you can skim past the mall shopping, slacker guys and getting drunk in the opening chapters. I think you'd find the parts about her unconventional family and cultural identity more substantial. My favorite part was how Dimple used photography to communicate with her grandfather, overcoming the language barrier. If you do read/listen to it, I'd love to hear your reaction.

tuulenhaiven, welcome to my blog! I've only lived in Maine for 17 years so I surely don't qualify but identify with my adopted home. Autumn is my favorite time of year too and I'll be sharing photos. Let me know what you think of BORN CONFUSED. I enjoyed your #Diversiverse review too.

troutbirder, thanks for sharing your experience as a teacher. This book would be a wonderful resource for the classroom.

Sarah Laurence said...

Booksnyc, Born Confused also reminded me of the novel you reviewed last week. I think you'd enjoyed the ethnic assimilation theme. I'd love to hear your reaction it since you read so much immigrant lit.

Rose said...

This sounds like an excellent book for teens and one that could broaden their understanding of cultures. Our book club recently read "The Hundred Foot Journey"--picked at random--and I was disappointed when I read afterwards that the author not only wasn't from India, but had never visited India! This changed my whole perception of the opening part set in India, which was one of the best parts.

Elizabeth said...

I'm pretty sure I, like Aarti, would have read the blurb & thought this was just fluff. Nice to know it has substantial substance. I'm currently building a collection for my kids, and this sounds like it would be a good addition to the shelf.