Decolonizing [My] Literature, Part I: Asian Courtesans and Folklore

Comment: Image from Manjeet Singh Yadav at

After reading several articles and reflecting back on my own limited scholarship in South Asian Religion, I had considered the many ways I could approach the prospect of decolonizing our literature; more importantly, how to decolonize mine. This sort of endeavor is both rewarding and challenging in its own right. When I was a graduate student, I began my studies in hopes to do just that: address the prevalent Orientalistic sociology applied to the study of South Asia and by extension, Asian cultures as a whole. In kind, I had hoped to do this without facing the danger of “reverse Orientalism,” and censoring content just because it was a negative find in my studies. To avoid romanticizing a place to where I still exoticized it. For anyone curious as to what I mean by Orientalistic sociology, I recommend seeing Philippa Levine’s work on the subject. Otherwise, it should be alluded to sufficiently later in this post.

In summary, the European colonization of Asia (especially India) had a drawback in the academic research on the topic, something that affects our understanding of the area to this day. More pervasive an effect is the impact on the natives and how they view the world, some cultural norms that were once celebrated by them now demonized as an affront to their ways. Before anyone says anything: no, I do not speak of sati in this case. Though, I certainly can talk about this another time if I am permitted to modestly quote Lata Mani on the topic.

One instance that comes to mind is the Western understanding of the Kamasutra and what it is. A small handful of chapters of a large masterpiece became the central focus of the book for Western audiences. Our pop-culture proliferates items and literature that convey this understanding in kind, resulting in people only thinking it a book on sexual pleasures without regard to it containing many examples to the contrary. This is not a tendency exclusive to Euro-American individuals, either. Several natives approximate themselves to desired resources and influences by playing off the ignorance of others on this topic, while others never learn the truth just like many West-borne. Nonetheless, this is but one of many examples of how Asian cultures had been commercialized, commodified, and portrayed as exoticized (and not just eroticized).

With my own work in academia, I admittedly had a difficult task. One, my eventual interest was in courtesans, and researching such a topic was not without delving into theories regarding sexuality as much as gender studies. Importantly, information on courtesans that was not already tinted with an Orientalist lens was quite difficult to obtain. Such information also could not be acquired without running into examples of sexual exploitation, along with many more stories of propaganda meant to legitimize Western-centric institutions. Still, in my research, I found a much more complex, nuanced image of courtesans that deviate from these accounts. I found how courtesan stories involving exploitation started with their marginalization and their lack of adherence to puritanical, conjugial normalcy.

When I sifted past these cases, I found women who were also engaged in the arts, politics, and everyday cultural events. They were in part responsible for arranging meetings between figures who later commanded men during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Anyone who looked at the extensive, academic translations of the Kamasutra might also find that among these many arts the women had to master, one of those arts was the art of warfare. Yes, you heard me: there was an allusion to the idea that women were capable of fighting, and some accounts in other writings have noted that some salon guards were women. In the reading of the courtesan and her role in South Asian society, I found nothing particularly ‘exotic’ or excessively ‘erotic’ about her sexuality. She hardly expressed such intimacy any more than the everyday housewife. Her only difference in this from the idealized wife was that she was not bound to a heteronormative, monogamous ideal.

Even more fascinating was I found stories of not only women who were sophisticated, educated, and exercised more privileges than the stereotypes surrounding women in India suggested (a place too diverse and easy to overgeneralize). I found that they did not all enter the lifestyle by early abduction and being sold into it as common literary stereotypes suggest. Many of them had retreated to the salon life of their own volition, based on one circumstance or another in their previous life. Veena Oldenburg (1989) gives a thorough account of the courtesans of Lucknow in her article, Lifestyle as Resistance, which can be found for free here.  Here, one also finds multiple examples of how these courtesans defied patriarchial norms in Lucknow, while still retaining a respectable social status until the official birth of the British Raj.

Part of what I hope to share in my original fantasy setting is what I learned in my research. I will not make any pretense of representing a pure South Asian setting, though I am certainly bringing elements inspired by Hinduism, and South as well as Southeastern Asian histories. The keyword here being, inspired. If my research has taught me anything, it is that these areas of the world are far more diverse than colonizers might have writ in their letters home.

In none of my drafts of my novel have I really written any sexual scenes, even if I know my protagonist is not particularly a prude. My challenge will be disrupting the racist dragon lady trope that has been commonplace in these narratives. Still, what is important to me is showing the ways courtesans engage in society without being trapped in the archetype of a ‘high-class prostitute’ that many narratives have treated them. Even more important to me is showing them as individuals, not an exotic extension of Orientalist fantasies pertaining to Asian-centered cultural norms.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am writing from a different perspective than one purely reinforcing colonial narratives of old. Being a multiracial woman who had studied the subjects of interest from the perspective of the natives, I remind myself this when I feel self-conscious about this task. Still, I understand the delicacy of portraying all things Asian. This truth still holds for when it is an inspiration for an original fantasy world. And, as it stands, I am not beyond the problematic dynamics that I criticize. Being born in an imperialist country carries this baggage.

I have even contemplated whether I am right to make minor, nuanced modifications to the appearance of some Asian folklore creatures (e.g., diwatas) to match how contemporary Asian art portrays them (which is sometimes Western influenced; yes, irony does not evade me!). My only justification for adding this tiny touch of the Western cosmology to my world building is to establish something minorly familiar for audiences not accustomed to Asian mythos. Doing this, I still would want to make clear that the core of the original world cosmology is strongly influenced by South and Southeastern Asian folklore. The variation of diwatas in my world, for instance, does not take kindly to colonizers in the setting calling them ‘elves.’ This would be establishing how doing so might be no different than calling a Scotsman an Englishman in today’s world. Ergo, I would like to think my reasoning extends beyond a ‘cheap’ attempt at adding flavor.

Still, again, in the end: I am not immune to the way being raised in the West has shaped me. After all, we have been a product of past colonizations in some form or another. The Americas, South Asia, and portions of Southeast Asia are influenced by British understandings of the world even after decolonization, while as the former French Indochina has been a part of my own personal history. To this end, I will keep my initial intent in my heart inside this process of writing original worlds: that I want to challenge people to take a tiny step away from Western-centric narratives. My end-goal, through big steps or wee ones, is to decolonize my literature. In the process, I will do much of the critical work on myself, and have the criticism of my work in kind, to help with this, while giving credit where due on my inspirations.

This process also includes something I know will be occasionally uncomfortable for me: recognizing years later where I could have improved the stories I tell. On one hand, I want to always do right. At the same time, I understand the process of decolonization is not an easy path to take for anyone, no matter where one is born or their racial-ethnic identity.


Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: