One windy morning in the vintage Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, I pulled my car into a spot on 17th and Stanyan to call Sharmila Sen, author of Not Quite Not White (Penguin, 2019). Her insightful and at times arrestingly funny memoir relates her discovery of race in America. Discovering racial politics in America after experiencing the caste system of India, Sen exchanged one system of discrimination for another when she was 12 years old. She laid out the book’s theoretical premise early on: how a history of racism has impacted not only the legal but psychological livelihoods of its subjects, with her own experience as the scaffolding. She completed the book while at Harvard University Press, where she is currently editorial director. After our initial exposure to each other, I observed that she is refreshingly open, even zesty — a delightful surprise, since she is at one of the most established academic presses in America. Early on we meandered off topic — mainly talking about what her book was fighting against as opposed to what was inside of it — but the journey was fascinating.
Sen initially intended to compose a book about the complex ways Asians and Asian Americans experience race and political engagement. She revealed to me that despite being well-versed in academic theory — she is a sophisticated thinker with a doctorate in English from Yale — she wanted to write a book that a teenager could read. Her journey includes the diaspora experience of South Asians in the ’80s and ’90s to the present. She described how each event in her life was impacted by the situation of Asians and Asian Americans in her life. Her tone in the book is catchy but poignant: “Why do blackface and brownface bother me? Because I have been wearing whiteface for so long. Because my Halloween never ends.” Reading this made me simultaneously laugh and cry inside.
Her desire to reach a non-academic audience is in part in deference to her three children, to whom she dedicated her book. She said, “Just as I wouldn’t put crap in a meal I cook for them, I wouldn’t put crap in a book for them.” According to Sen, her writing style also represents a shift from the prestige culture of the academy towards a truth that could cause discomfort for people who are not familiar with delving into the subject of race. She said, “I have no patience for people who discovered racism in November 2016.” That date is when the concept of race exploded; words like “privileged” became tired with overuse, and people became fed up with the institutions and systems of racism (police departments, for example).
Not Quite Not White explores the poignancy of wanting to belong. Sen recounts learning how to do things white-style: how to decorate her house cosmopolitan-lite (mid-century modern furniture, Noguchi lamps); order food (not loudly or with big gestures); behave (thank you notes on handwritten cards; ordering meat rare and wine dry). Writing against the market’s desire for a white-friendly book meant also writing against a history of racism and exclusionism, as well as subverting narratives of American exceptionalism. Sen was careful to avoid a story of self-realization where America is the final, glorious destination for its subjects, a kumbaya moment for the immigrant who finally arrives. Such a story is probably anachronistic in any case, as the next wave of American immigrants may diaspora from America to other countries. Their lives are subject to exigencies and contingencies of historical events; the flow of capital and jobs, or natural disasters.
Fortunately, Sen didn’t need to write a kumbaya moment, and she wasn’t working with an editor who needed her to be a cultural conduit since her editor at Penguin is an Asian American woman. Sen observed:
It was a precious gift to work with Elda Rotor because for Asian Americans it’s very rare to find a publisher with whom one has so many things in common. My editor and I are exactly the same age. While she arrived in the United States as a baby, I came when I was 11. We both learned to be Asians in America against the backdrop of ’80s and ’90s popular culture. We both had children around the beginning of this century. Now, our sons are starting college at the same time. I’m surrounded by people for whom it’s very common to find a publisher who’s roughly the same age, gender and race. But this is not as true for brown women.
Sen added, “While I was writing the book, Elda and I would often text each other about various ideas I had for different sections of the book. Once I hit upon an idea while at the gym. I texted her once I got off the treadmill. She texted me right back. I felt we were in perfect sync. White men have been enjoying this feeling with their publishers all along."
We spent a while exchanging observations about how American exceptionalism trickles downward with a polluting effect on publishing. As a publisher, Sen often buys English language rights from publishers around the world. She noted, “The American book market, especially in nonfiction, is quite allergic to translation. Upscale literary fiction is a small exception, such as novels translated from Polish or Persian and maybe Hindi, after Geetanjali Shree's novel won the International Booker. But a work of serious nonfiction translated from Portuguese or Bengali into English barely has a fighting chance here. I admire publishers such as Seagull who continue to bring out important translations.” Only a small percentage of books and translations from non-English languages are published in America. A recent New York Times article supports this observation. We took the conversation further and spoke about how the situation differs in the Chinese book trade, which publishes exponentially more translated books from other countries. Sen said wryly, “There are places in the world that are far more curious about ideas from other societies than we are. Not because people in those societies are insecure about their own culture, but because they understand that good books are being written in many foreign languages across the planet and translations are key to accessing those books.”
Sen continued, "In the United States, many publishers keep the name of the translator off book jackets, as the assumption is that everything good that is said or written is going to be said or written in English. Let’s take a look closer at that assumption: All smart thoughts are being thought in English all the time all over the world. It’s absurd.”
Turning back to her book, Sen said, "Those of us who immigrated to America didn't just learn America, we had to get perfect scores.” In my mind, I have replayed the fact that immigrants earn a doctorate in Western white culture while citizens can coast on their nativeness. Immigrants have to make sure their game faces are on at work. Sen does not feel free to make what some view as cultural gaffes: “There’s very little room for error. If you’re a new immigrant without a social safety net, you have little room for those cultural mistakes. As an Indian woman, if I made a mistake in English, no one would find it cute, unlike a person of French or Italian descent where the mistake might be considered chic or sexy. I’ve lived in America for 40 years now. I have a doctorate in English from Yale. I have been a professor of English at Harvard. Yet, there are some words that still terrify me. For instance, the word 'perpendicular' is my kryptonite. I always worry about putting the stress on the wrong syllable." She paused and then added hesitantly, "I hope I said it correctly right now."
In truth, Sen said “perpendicular” with a standard American accent, hitting each syllable with the appropriate emphasis.