I have a friend who is Jewish.
For the sake of argument, let us call her Rebecca. Rebecca and I met in college. The how I’m a little fuzzy on; it probably had something to do with a mutual class or maybe one of those icebreaker activities I love to hate. Fancifully, I’ll say we met at a rave, because, well, if I were the kind of person to go to a rave, then Rebecca would be the kind of person to utilize my manatee physique as a safety net from the more vibrant personalities.
Rebecca is, of course, not only Jewish. She loves Disney World, is attending grad school for a degree in Children’s Writing, and can probably list all of the current and former installations in the Haunted Mansion ride. She grows her pinky nail long, has hair that can’t decide if it is red or brown, and when she talks, you want to listen, if only because any story she tells is a funny one, even if it is tragic.
Rebecca being Jewish was and is something I joke about. I once called her from a phone with bad service in the middle of Downtown Crossing in Boston just to share with her the important fact that I was looking at a bagel shop, a bank, and a law firm all in a row. Of course, this wasn’t a one way street- as a recovering Mormon it was highly insinuated that I had, perhaps, fifteen husbands, all of whom had me on alternating weekends.
Only recently has Rebecca begun to go to Synagogue again. She’s been thinking about children, a ‘nice Jewish boy’. Basically, she’s rediscovering who she is, in accordance with where her people have been-combining the old with the new. It’s been a tumultuous process. And she’s in her twenties.
Born Confused is a book that deals with the melding of cultures, in this case those of Indian and American. You think that’s a twisted path, then throw in a seventeen year old narrator whose name is..wait for it..Dimple Lala.
Written by Tanuja Desai Hidier, the story follows Dimple through the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, touching on all the old classics- a fracturing friendship, boy troubles, drug and alcohol experimentation. It also takes a goosey gander at cultural identity in this melting pot we call America.
I had trouble seeing Born Confused in a realistic light. Dimple waxes poetic quite often for a seventeen year old who believes her parents don’t understand her. Since the book is a first person narrative, all the reader gets is a Dimple’s eye view-a view which betrays the writer’s roots in music, since paragraphs read more like epic lyrics than a scene setting. Of course it’s good when what a first person character thinks is different than how they speak- how many of us say what we’re really thinking, or explain to anyone what it is we really see? Even then, however, there is a thin thread which connects the two separate images. This thread doesn’t exist with Dimple. Her descriptions and thoughts are so far away from what she says and how she acts that it is like you are reading the explanations of two different people. Distracting isn’t even the word for it.
Is it bad that I think Dimple’s narrations are not in keeping with her personality? Normally, I would. In this case, however, the endless song that makes up the book is important to the feel of the story, and while I don’t consider it a sign of good craft, it does make for a good read. Often enough, you’ll find that these things are close enough to be twins.
Dimple’s problem is one I will say most of us have. What is Indian, what is American, and how does she balance them out? Her parents set up meetings between her and a suitable young man, yet in the same breath they extol the virtues of the internet. The cousin she remembers as being so properly Indian back home in India attends film school and is now a lesbian. Her best friend- a very white girl- begins appropriating the Indian culture in order to attract a boy, and does this by demanding it from Dimple. Dimple’s eyes are opening up and they aren’t really sure what they see.
I am going to say something now that a lot of people would argue with. This is that everyone in America, regardless of their race, has this battle with themselves. Yes, that includes white people like me. Do you know how many different cultures are ‘white’, and how different all of them are? In America there is and has always been a movement to understand where we have come from. In that way, Born Confused does a good job hooking the mess of being an Indian in an American world.
The more chicklit moments in the book- falling in love with a boy, the falling out with the best friend- all pale in comparison to the psuedo bollywood feel of the book. They seem almost contrived. Born Confused hasn’t decided if it is dealing with the problem of ethnicity or the problem of being a teenager. It isn’t fair that books make more sense one way or another, but the truth of the matter is that often enough, we don’t want to wrap our heads around two such concepts at the same time. Dimple’s struggling attempts at photography, her passive-aggressive feelings towards Gwyn, her crush on Karsh, each of these things just..gets in her way.
Of course, if you’re a fan of bollywood musicals, you know how Born Confused ends. In one fell swoop, the protagonist has an epic shift in paradigm and all is, if not well, then on its way to well. The only thing the book is missing is the dance sequence and rolling credits. I have to approve of the wrap up, if only because of how the book played out; it was a bollywood story, and needed that bollywood ending. In real life, friendships broken by romance are not so easily fixed, and acceptance of a polytheistic religion you thought a hundred pages ago was hokey doesn’t come while you’re sitting quietly in temple. Of course, I could be wrong- would the party who has experienced something even remotely like this please stand up?
Despite the hot mess that Born Confused does eventually turn out to be, I would suggest it. Why? It’s a beautiful read. You see, you smell, you taste and you hear. These visceral experiences are gems to be loved and cherished, especially when most young adult books nowadays consist of the words ‘vampire’, ‘sparkles’, and ‘love’.