April was a great month in reading, mostly because I finally got around to Samira Ahmed’s New York Times best-selling YA novel, Love, Hate and Other Filters. In turns relatable and harrowing, it’s a story about growing up Muslim and American while trying to embrace your own path, your own destiny. (And Samira’s author’s note at the end almost made me burst into tears.) Then there was Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret, which is based on Bengali folktales. It totally sent me back to my childhood! I wish I’d had this book, and a heroine like Kiranmala, when I was 10 or 11 years old.
I also really loved V.S. McGrath’s fantasy western, The Devil’s Revolver, and need to pick up sequel The Devil’s Standoff for May! If you like TV shows like SyFy’s Wynonna Earp, this is definitely a series for you! It’s got adventure, a diverse cast, magic, a kickass female lead, and a really interesting world.
The reading rundown:
Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed (young adult fiction, YA romance)
The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta (middle grade fantasy)
To Tame a Wicked Widow by Nicola Davidson (erotic historical romance)
Bad Assassin by S. Doyle (erotic suspense/romantic suspense)
The One You Can’t Forget by Roni Loren (out 6/5, contemporary romance)
The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (western, fantasy, speculative fiction)
Seduced By the Badge by Deborah Fletcher Mello (out 6/1, romantic suspense)
Pretending He’s Mine by Mia Sosa (contemporary romance)
The Viking Queen’s Men by Holley Trent (erotic paranormal romance)
The Chieftain’s Daughter by Holley Trent (erotic paranormal romance)
Escort by Skye Warren (dark romance, erotic romance)
High Lonesome Sound by Jaye Wells (horror)
In backlist adventures, I picked up Lea Griffith’s 2013 release Bullet to the Heart, because it was free on Amazon. Dark romance before dark romance really became a thing, it’s superviolent and bananas and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I definitely want to skip the second book, as the protags are Asian and Native American and the author seems to think that naturally makes them more woo-woo than her white characters. No thank you! Still, the concept of embittered lady assassins is kind of my catnip, so I’d love to find less problematic books with similar themes.
Rock On!! is one of my favorite Bollywood films of all time, so when I heard a sequel was in the works I was thrilled. That elation turned to horror as I found myself watching 2016’s Rock On 2 on a cross-country flight. A piece of self-indulgent, masturbatory rot that nearly destroyed all of the warm fuzzies the first film instilled in me, Rock On 2 is glorified fan fiction, centering Farhan Akhtar’s character, Aditya Shroff, as an anguished, self-involved hero figure. Gone is the relatable human Adi from the first film, who sacrifices music to become a corporate drone and must find his way back to his dreams and his friends. In his place is a guy with so much manufactured manpain that he can’t be bothered to pay attention to his wife and child. Instead, he has to go work in a remote village in the far northeastern state of Meghalaya to atone for his perceived sins. Why is a businessman/rock musician opening schools and farm cooperatives and neglecting to wash his hair? Beats the hell out of me.
Earlier this month, Disney announced the cast of their upcoming live-action Aladdin: Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine, with previously announced Will Smith as Genie. We need a lamp and a genie of our own to wish this travesty away.
When I was a kid, the only Barbies I had were the Hawaiian one and the random Asian one that came wearing leopard print and had some sort of sidekick animal. Because those were the Barbies that looked the most like me. Keychains with my name on it…? Forget about it. As for movies…? Well, my parents took me to Octopussy and Gandhi because they took place in India. Yes, reader, that was the option available to me. Enter 1992’s Aladdin. Enter 1998’s Mulan. Two films with strong women, strong people of color and strong love stories. made exclusively for kids! Sure, they weren’t Indian stories — and both are stacked to the gills with painful racial and religious stereotypes — but for me at the time they were close enough.
Dal, a lentil-based soup, is a staple of Bengali cooking — at least in my family. It didn’t matter that we grew up in Ohio, about as far from Kolkata and Dhaka as you can get, we had dal with dinner almost every night. Moog dal, musoor dal, cholar dal, toor dal, yellow split-pea dal. You know that whole Forrest Gump riff on shrimp? That was the Bhattacharjee household’s relationship to every kind of lentil in existence. It was one of my late father’s favorite dishes, and my mom liked to joke that he could eat just dal-bhaath (lentils and rice) for every meal. Me? Not so much. I looked upon dal with the kind of horror that middle American white kids saved for their broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
The only way you could get me to enjoy lentils was in khichuri, a classic Bengali comfort food that combines dal, rice, spices and ghee and usually comes with a side of something fried. Let’s face it, fried potatoes on the side make any dish a winner.
My defection to ABC Family began years ago, with Greek (2007), The Middleman (2008) and Make it or Break It (2009). Now, it’s the channel I turn to first for smart, fun, diverse youth-oriented programming.
If you still think ABC Family is the “Family Channel” of yore, rife with conservative, preachy, Seventh Heaven-esque shows run back-to-back with The 700 Club, you’re missing out on some great TV. The network’s tagline is “a new kind of family,” and it delivers on that promise: putting forth fresh projects and taking risks on stories that might not get traction anywhere else. For instance, weekly sitcom Melissa & Joey is refreshingly adult, Who’s the Boss for a new generation, with fast and flip sexual banter and teens who can more than hold their own. But it’s the dramatic field where ABCF really shines.
PLL’s Fields family
When I was growing up, Beverly Hills, Sunnydale, Capeside and Roswell were very white, heteronormative enclaves. It didn’t matter if their corresponding real-life geography boasted more diversity, the shows were pretty homogenous. If you weren’t fair-skinned and straight, you didn’t really see yourself on teen TV. By and large, if there were characters of color, they’d be wacky sidekicks, the first to die in a murder mystery or part of a brief Afterschool Special arc wherein somebody fell for a person from The Wrong Side of the Tracks. ABC Family changed that. Lincoln Heights, about a black family in LA, ran for four seasons. Greek had a college-age cast, with black characters Calvin and Ashleigh each getting their own love interests. Calvin, black and gay, actually had two — complete with onscreen smooches and implied sex. Got any pearls? Feel free to clutch ’em. The Middleman featured Natalie Morales as lead character Wendy Watson. The flighty bestie? A blonde. How many times does that happen? Then there’s Pretty Little Liars‘ lesbian teen Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell). Her parents are portrayed by Eric Steinberg and Nia Peeples, and you don’t sit around wondering, “What are the Fieldses?” because you already know: a family trying to support each other while crazy crap happens around them. And ABCF continues to…you know, I don’t want to say “push the envelope.” Because it’s not scandalous. They’re just putting a bigger, better envelope on the table! This summer’s Twisted and The Fosters are prime (pun fully intended!) examples.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s period drama Lootera (“Thief”) is appropriately titled, as it steals slowly into your consciousness and deftly exploits your vulnerabilities before leaving you alone with nothing but your thoughts. This is not a loud film; it features no dance numbers, no bombastic “Bollywood moments,” but it still delivers the beautifully melodramatic payload that makes Hindi films such a joy to watch.
Lootera is the story of Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), a pampered Bengali landowner’s daughter, and Varun (Ranveer Singh), the mysterious archaeologist who comes to dig on her father’s property. Pakhi is instantly entranced, but as Varun is wooed by her charming, single-minded campaign to win his heart, he’s waging a dangerous war of his own. He’s no archaeologist. He’s a con artist, part of an expert ring of thieves, only there to worm his way into her and her father’s good graces so that he can simultaneously worm his way into their coffers.
Sometimes, when I talk about “white people” in front of actual white people, there’s this pause…this moment of awkward. It’s a combination of “Did she just call out our skin color?” and “But…we’re people.” Yes. Welcome to my world on a daily basis. How does it feel? That, my friends, is the luxury of being the default in the western world. “People” means “white.” “American” means “white.” The “reader” is white. The “audience” is white. It’s the baseline, the normal…and why would you point that out?
That’s EXACTLY why I point it out. Because “people” should encompass everyone, but it doesn’t.
“Being The Default is the largest privilege granted to white Americans, yet it is so deeply entrenched it is the most invisible,” says Kartina Richardson in this April 24 article on Salon. And she’s right. Because it’s there in everyday speech, in the simplest of words: “us,” “we,” “them.” In the South Asian and South Asian American community, elders still say “Amrikan” to mean “white,” even if they themselves are citizens and their children identify as American. Because it’s the norm, the bottom line — and, often, the aspiration.
There’s this unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, sense that the only true western legitimacy, in terms of success, place and identity, is in whiteness. Everything else is the Other. “Black people.” “Indian people.” To just be people is the goal, the driving force of ambition. Too bad that slot is occupied…largely by folks who don’t even realize they have it.
It would be nice to never, ever have to specify someone’s race, ethnicity or skin tone. It really would. To just be like, “Duh. This is a person. With a name. A history. An individual identity.” I’ve been fighting that linguistic battle my whole life. But as long as Default privilege keeps fighting back, the deck is stacked. As long as “everybody” and “anybody” is presumed to be white…nobody wins.