How to Become Global as a Writer

One of the criticisms hurled at American writers is that they are too narrow-minded and know very little about writers elsewhere, past and present. I have written about this in other posts (, but it is a topic worth revisiting. In listening to “The World” on NPR a couple days ago, it struck me about the importance of being well-informed about world affairs in politics as a writer. I recently Zoomed with friends from the international polyglot conference, and it was fascinating as always to talk about different languages, sounds, and cultures. I have a background in international education, so the intersection of culture and literature is always of interest to me. So here are some thoughts and suggestions for writers to expand their horizons to become more global in their sensibility.

-Read Nobel laureates. Over the past decade plus, I have chosen to educate myself about literary figures who are titans overseas but often unknown here. I have gotten to know the work of Orhan Pamuk, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Shaw (who is known but considered old-fashioned), and others. A friend from my MFA program recently started a book group to women Nobel laureates in literature, and last month we read Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind. The excitement for the group was indeed palpable, and I am certainly looking forward to the next meeting. Why not create a book group of your own to read Nobel laureates, women only or both genders? 

-Inform yourself about world affairs. Don’t just rely on American news sources but read international newspapers/news sites such as the BBC or international newspapers’ English editions. Take an interest in what is going on in the world politically, socially, culturally, etc. You might find inspiration for your own work. Susan Minot, who is educated in that most American of institutions, a prep school, and whose great story “Lust” is quintessentially American, wrote Thirty Girls, which was based on her reporting for McSweeney’s on the kidnapping of girls by the Lord’s Resistance Army in sub-Saharan Africa.

-Learn other languages. Author Lydia Davis translates French literature, and Jhumpa Lahiri has studied and written in Italian. Read literature in other languages if you can, even if it is short stories, or even websites. As a polyglot, I can say that it will enrich your mind to understand how to speakers of other languages think and use language.

-Read literature in translation. There’s no question that something does indeed get “lost in translation” as the saying goes, but still, we get a different literary sensibility with literature in translation, and it transports us to different places. The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic’ incorporates not only culture and history, but metafiction a work of literature that is mind-blowing.

-Read other genres. Popular literature has a global appeal (think Harry Potter) as does fantasy (think Tolkien). There are certain universals that readers everywhere like. Myths abound all over the world, and in non-“People of the Book” religions.

-Read myths and creation stories and tales from other religions. Hinduism is based on two great epics, the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana which are quite spectacular and Tolstoyan in their scope and number of characters.

-Tie in history, culture, politics, or a larger social context to your work. This is self-explanatory. It makes your story or novel larger than what it is.

And there are many other ways that you can get to know the stories of others around the world. What will you discover? What is your advice?

A Tribute to Gurinder Chadha, British-Indian Director and Pioneer

The film “Bend It Like Beckham” just turned 20 this year. It is my movie equivalent of mac and cheese, a movie I turn to when I want something warm and comforting and familiar. I can probably even recite most of the lines by heart! The near-perfect script is written by Gurinder Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra, and is directed by Chadha herself. The film set all kinds of box office records in the UK and was a hit around the world. Though my Indian background is quite different than Chadha’s, I have great admiration for her body of work and what she has done to pave the way for South Asian women in film.

Of Sikh descent but born in Nairobi, Chadha is British-Indian and quite an excellent representative of the community. A filmmaker beginning at a time when there were very few women filmmakers, let alone minority women filmmakers, she has addressed a variety of themes and subject matter that speak to the Indian community in Britain and in the diaspora as well as in India. But she takes things a step further, showing how these Indian communities relate to- and interact with the larger world.

Chadha usually puts women at the front of her films, and they hold key roles. Consider “Bhaji on the Beach,” which was Chadha’s breakout film as a feature film director. The ensemble cast features a group of women on a day trip to the beach–and not just women, but South Asian British women of all ages. This was a big deal in 1993, when it was released. “Bride and Prejudice,” a brilliantly fun and true-to-the original musical retelling of Austen’s classic novel, deals with marriage in a family of four daughters in the Punjab, with Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai as the Elizabeth Bennett character. Chadha shows an outspoken Indian character confronting a wealthy American man and his formidable mother; if we examine this more deeply, it is not just a tale of romance, but also a critique of colonialism and imperialism. And yet it is woven into an enjoyable story, complete with catchy songs to dance to. Chadha never loses her sense of fun as she gets a message across. 

Chadha is equally at ease with Indian characters as she is with non-Indian characters, making them all seem authentic. The Los Angeles families of different ethnicities in “What’s Cooking?” (a flawed but enjoyable Thanksgiving movie) are all different yet so similar in their humanity. They aren’t stereotypes created by a white director, but real families who are Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Black. It doesn’t hurt that her husband Paul Mayeda Berges was a co-writer, and he is from California and of Basque and Japanese heritage. The Paxton family in “Bend It Like Beckham” come across like a typical lower-middle-class English family, with the mother’s highly conventional attitudes about gender roles and Indians. In “Quais de Seine,” Chadha’s contribution to the marvelous “Paris, je t’aime,” the lead character is a Muslim young woman (not even British Indian and Sikh or Hindu) who is befriended/romanced by a young Frenchman who resents her being bullied. It is two characters of completely different backgrounds to Chadha’s, in a different country, and of a different religion, and yet it is one of the strongest shorts in the film compilation. I believe this is because Chadha has a way of getting to the emotional heart of the situation and characters, in the way only a master director can. “Blinded by the Light” juxtaposes two seemingly unlikely things–a British Pakistani teenager and the music of Bruce Springsteen–that over the course of the film come together beautifully in a way that intertwines culture, racism, politics, economics, religion, and the power of music.

“Viceroy’s House” is her most serious film and one that has deep personal meaning to her. It addresses The Partition and Mountbatten’s departure from India. Naturally, the British characters are some of the lead roles; however, Nehru and Jinnah are equally important and there is a subplot that features Indian characters and deals with religion. There are some, especially historians, who criticized its lack of gravity and accuracy, and these criticisms maybe true. However, it is rare to find a film beautifully dramatizes and makes accessible a significant event in history that too few in the West know about.

Some might find Chadha’s films to be a little melodramatic or not serious enough. These criticisms are also valid, as tastes differ. Some also find her characters or even her film “Bend It Like Beckham” to be too predictable. This is also a valid criticism. Chadha’s primary goal is to entertain, and no one could ever accuse her films of not being entertaining. But she entertains in a way that is South Asian-focused, intelligent, multicultural, and socially relevant. One could also apply these adjectives to the filmmaker herself, who always comes across as jolly and friendly in interviews. There is no one really quite like Gurinder Chadha, who has an impressive body of work, and is truly a groundbreaker in the world of film.

Film Review: Tár [some spoilers]

Being a classical musician, of course I was intrigued about the film “Tár” about a leading orchestral conductor who gets “canceled” after several inappropriate incidents. I am a Cate Blanchett fan, as she is an incredible, versatile actress who has the physicality to embody any character she plays (her Bob Dylan portrayal was the best in “I’m Not There,” better than any of the men!) Normally, I avoid films with a much higher critics’ rating than audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as this usually means the films are frankly quite boring, “critics’ darlings” that are pretentious and hard to watch. Unfortunately, this was the case with “Tár.” It raises more questions than it has time to answer and doesn’t live up to its potential.

The film is too long. At nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, the pace drags, and the film would have gained urgency had it been cut down by 45 minutes to an hour. Director Todd Field spends too much time exalting and glorifying the character of Lydia Tár at the beginning. Yes, we get it–she is one of the top conductors in the world, on par with Nézet-Séguin or MTT or Salonen. Yes, she is a woman conductor of top-tier orchestras, still a rarity these days, in the vein of Marin Alsop (whom the character seems to resemble in some ways) or JoAnn Falletta. Yes, the film needs to set her up at someone great so we can see her downfall and her abuse of power. But it all gets to be too much. As any writer knows, overdoing things and a lack of subtlety is a sign of a sophomoric work. It doesn’t trust the reader or viewer to grasp that Tár is great, and instead hits them over the head with the point. This is just one example of Field’s heavy-handed directing.

What is unique is the character herself, and a film that puts a strong woman at the center and shows that women can abuse power too, not just men: successful people of all orientations are guilty of sexual harassment and can have partners/spouses who enable their bad behavior, as is implied in this film with her wife Sharon, who never really speaks up till the end. Tár prefers young women whom she can mentor and then get involved with, as we can see with her sycophant assistant, Francesca and then the Russian cellist Olga. This is her pattern, and it keeps playing out through the film as we see from incidents both past and present. But some viewers might ask why feminism and power must be conflated with lesbianism. Does a woman have to go to a man’s tailor and wear suits to be taken seriously in a man’s world? Can she not be feminine and charismatic? Blanchett’s portrayal at times feels two-dimensional and a bit stereotyped, Murphy Brown 2.0.

The whole point is to set Tár up to be canceled for her misdeeds. But the director piles on too many themes that do not get to be explored in detail and ultimately get the short shrift. Each one is worthy of a whole film in and of itself. Tár makes insensitive remarks to a BIPOC, pangender conducting student in a masterclass and steamrollers over him when he protests what she has said. But the consequences are only returned to much later in the film. This is a very rich incident that raises so many complex questions. But perhaps the most interesting yet minimally-addressed incident in her past is the suicide of her former mentee, Krista Taylor, whom Tár was romantically involved with. She dumped Krista and viciously sabotaged her career. And she hires a new cellist in unprofessional ways and grants her opportunities that are clearly due to favoritism and romantic interest. Again, as above, this feels sophomoric because it is overdone and doesn’t trust the viewer to “get it.”

Blanchett is indeed a wonderful actress, with the dependable Nina Hoss as her long-suffering/enabling wife, as she has the charisma and gravitas to pull off the formidable lead role. The problems come when she is involved with music. Consider her interminable monologue with Adam Gopnik–it sounds rehearsed, orated, and not something introspective or spontaneous. A musician would likely go into an introverted place when talking about composers, but Blanchett makes the choice to give a speech that sounds formal. When conducting, her movements are almost comical, more like a caricature of how a conductor moves than how a conductor really moves (having played in orchestras and under conductors since childhood, this is something I’m familiar with). That a director would have not gotten a more accurate performance out of Blanchett, especially a director who has musical training, is surprising. 

I do give Field credit for the alternate reality world he has created in the film, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief for his having shown a conductor having more decision-making power than a conductor would in real life. But the execution is so poor in this film. It wasted a fantastic, formidable premise, featured a script that was all over the place, and kept a grim, distant tone that felt alienating and odd (especially when a film is about music and relationships, two of the most intimate, personal things in life). In all, a disappointment.