South Asian women push back on cliches in “Good Girls Marry Doctors”

Piyali Bhattacharya, editor of “Good Girls Marry Doctors,” speaks at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. (Photo by Sharon H. Chang)

So many people told Piyali Bhattacharya that her idea for an anthology about brown women, by brown women would never sell. But — as book sales and crowds have shown — all those people were totally wrong.

Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters On Obedience and Rebellion” took almost a decade to publish before it was released September 2016. Since publication, the essay anthology has received acclaim and brisk book sales.

Hundreds of people have shown up for her book tour, which made stops in New York, San Francisco, Nashville, Madison WI, Washington D. C., Los Angeles, and Berkeley — evidence for an audience clearly hungry for more stories from brown women.

Her tour ended at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle on Tuesday.

Bhattacharya speaks about her anthology “Good Girls Marry Doctors,” which contains essays by 27 different South Asian American women. (Photo by Sharon H. Chang)

Though the book’s title evokes a specific stereotype about South Asian American women, the book itself is everything but stereotypical. Instead, the essays by 27 different contributors add  nuance and dimension to the story of the experience of South Asian women in the United States and Canada.

Voices also include a range of representation from many parts of the South Asian subcontinent.

“We really tried to make [the book] as diverse as humanly possible,” said Bhattacharya, 32, a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University’s English Department.

The anthology also represents diverse religious, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic and language backgrounds.

“Not to mention various different paths chosen,” Bhattacharya added. “Different career paths chosen, different love life paths chosen.”

Bhattacharya originally conceived of the idea for “Good Girls Marry Doctors” in 2008, when she and friends would speak about growing up as South Asian American women. The child of immigrants, Bhattacharya was born and raised in Westchester County, New York, but attended middle school and spent summers in India. She is fluent in English and Bengali and taught herself Hindi.

What struck Bhattacharya as she spoke with other South Asian American women was that their stories were often extremely identical — and yet would always end with the women feeling alone.

“I was like well this seems really wrong,” Bhattacharya recalls. “How can I have the same conversation over and over again with so many different women and yet each of those women feels like they’ve never had this conversation before?”

Bhattacharya decided to collect the stories in one place.

Bhattacharya’s vision was powerful and necessary, but also one publishers were not willing to bet on. It took Bhattacharya years to get a contract because presses were convinced no one wanted to buy an anthology about South Asian American women by the women themselves. Bhattacharya says the experience was incredibly disheartening.

“I had tried every press in the world at that point,” Bhattacharya recalls, but “I kind of knew in my heart that it should be with an independent feminist press.”

Finally Aunt Lute Books, a small multicultural women’s press based out of San Francisco, showed the most interest. With Aunt Lute’s encouragement, Bhattacharya applied for and won a grant from National Endowment of the Arts, which helped get the book published.

“When Good Girls Marry Doctors” hit shelves fall of last year the response was instant and incredible. On the day it was published, Bhattacharya’s first speaking engagement at the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York had received over 400 RSVPs.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Bhattacharya said, “and pretty much every event since then has been like that.”

Since then the volume was named “Asian American Literary Achievement of 2016” by NBC News, “Best Nonfiction Book of 2016” by Entropy, and listed among the “10 Essential Books about the Immigrant Experience” by Publishers Weekly. It also won the gold medal for the Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal for anthologies last week.

Carrying the weight

Bhattacharya’s own personal story embodies the nuances of the South Asian American narrative of a “good girl marrying a doctor.” Bhattacharya had a wonderful relationship with her late father — who was a doctor — and her mother. Bhattacharya’s father died last year.

“[My father] particularly was the one who was just like so excited about me being a writer,” said Bhattacharya, fondly and sadly. In fact Bhattacharya’s father was the one who told her, “‘You need to write your truth.”

This supportive relationship with her parents helped make this book happen.

“I was able to — for nine years — keep going through this process where I was carrying weight for other women who wrote for this volume. Because some of the stories are really heavy. Really, really heavy,” she said. “I feel that my parents support for me and my career really gave me the wherewithal to hold that weight for them.”

For all the South Asian American women contributors in this volume sharing their stories required a Herculean effort and being their editor even more so. On the one hand there is a yearning to stand in their truth but on the other hand a very real concern that doing so will further stigmatize their South Asian communities increasingly targeted by racism since the turn of the century.

Many women who submitted essays had to drop out of the project altogether. Each essay that did make it to publication, Bhattacharya said, represents around ten conversations she had with each woman writer.

But the editing process also allowed her to connect with many powerful South Asian American women and shows, Bhattacharya says, how an anthology like “Good Girls Marry Doctors” can be influential for marginalized groups in building community, solidarity and strength.

Her event in Los Angeles  — which occurred about two weeks after the presidential election  received over 1,000 RSVPs, and more than four hundred people showed up that evening.

“It was like a fierce kind of love in the room that was like, ‘We are standing in solidarity with each other. We are standing in protection of each other. All of our brown bodies are in this room for a reason right now,'” she recalled. “And I think that that is something that I hope can come out of projects like this. That these projects are not always necessarily just about the topic sentence of the anthology. These projects are also often about building community and I think that that’s what anthologies can do in general.”

She’ll be moving forward with other writing projects, including resuming work on her first novel, but “Good Girls Marry Doctors” has changed writing for her forever.

Because the anthology has not only brought people together in unprecedented ways and given Bhattacharya “an incredible community of South Asian American women writers.”

Bhattacharya has also shown — without a shadow of doubt — that people do indeed want books about brown women by brown women.

The book cover of “Good Girls Marry Doctors,” by Piyali Bhattacharya and published by Aunt Lute Books. (Photo by Sharon H. Chang.)
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