I was imagining that little Kaavya had written some kind of poetic Sylvia Plath-esque South Asian Bell Jar, documenting the darker side of growing up different in America. Or perhaps it was a J.D. Salinger-esque outsider novel about a South Asian teenager growing up in the aftermath of 9.11. I had fantastic dreams that she was our Zadie Smith, appearing on the literary horizon to shake up the Asian American literary community like a laptop-toting Joan of Arc.
Then I found out that How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life is really – as the New York Times described – "a chick-lit-meets-admissions-frenzy novel." Okay, I admit, it sounds funny – the over-achieving Opal Mehta wants nothing more than to get into Harvard and when the admissions officer tells her that she must be more than just scores and grades, she and her parents create the HOWGAL plan, or “How Opal Will Get a Life.” This plan includes “reading Teen People, watching Beyoncé videos, wearing Jimmy Choo spike heels and Habitual jeans.” When I read that the book had been optioned for a movie, I knew I would go see it when it came out and be entertained but I was also, well, kind of disappointed.
I actually already discussed this feeling of disappointment in detail back in issue seven when I did a little survey of Asian American chick lit (“Can I Get a Purse with That?”). Here’s was my main question in that article:
[A]fter perusing a handful of the Asian American chick lit titles out there—Caroline Hwang’s In Full Bloom (Plume), Kim Wong Keltner’s The Dim Sum of All Things (Avon Trade) and Buddha Baby (Avon Trade), and Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)—I felt the same kind of pride I did when Miko, Barbie’s Pacific Islander friend, was introduced back in 1988: Is this something I should really be proud of?
Go ahead, call me a snob. I’ll accept this label. But I am more interested in reading and supporting new Asian American authors who are pushing past the model minority stereotypes and writing about class struggle, passion and politics in a way that doesn’t have to include discussions of brand-names and, in this case, super-elitist academic institutions. I think my critique of Viswanathan goes beyond her chick-lit genre, because this critique applies to authors like Jumpha Lahiri as well, and is more about my frustration with the lack of fiction out there about the working class South Asian community. Can we only write about first generation immigration experiences, living in the suburbs or the homeland? I don’t mean to favor subject-matter over writing quality but I think if South Asian writers continue to write about the same subjects and place their stories in the same settings, we are just limiting ourselves.
Now that I have gotten my rant about what Opal Mehta is about out of the way, I can move onto the plagarism scandal. Mehta’s own Harvard Crimson, the school paper that has so recently touted her fame, came at her Smoking Gun style and said that her Opal Mehta was surprisingly similar to Megan F. McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts. The Crimson even goes on to show “13 instances in which Ms. Viswanathan's book closely paralleled Ms. McCafferty's work” (NY Times).
My first reaction was : “Well duh, all chick lit books are alike, that’s why they suck!!” But then Hyphen fiction editor Sabrina Tom had a slightly less inflammatory and, well, smarter comment. She said: “I think this has to do with the heightened attention in the press right now given to author's accused of making things up (James Frey and the whole J.T. Leroy weirdness). It’s not just chick lit books. All authors, essentially, borrow and steal. Which author, under microscopic scrutiny, could claim total originality?”
Anyway, even if I am not totally in the Viswanathan fan club, I don’t think the plagarism was intentional. And even if Viswanathan’s plot closely parralelled McCafferty’s – Opal Mehta’s South Asian-ness sets the book apart and makes it an original.
So, what’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure, maybe just that I am and will always be a literary snob or maybe that there are no original stories out there. Regardless, I still hope How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life is made into a movie, because more than we need a South Asian American Zadie Smith, we need a South Asian American Lindsey Lohan.