Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Archie Panjabi's Emmy Win Makes My Heart Sing

The first chapter of Zadie Smith's most recent book "Changing My Mind" is an eloquent essay on Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. (The line that opens chapter three is probably one of the most memorable in literature -- "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." But I digress.)

Smith discusses how she was hesitant to read it when her mother presented her with a copy at fourteen:
"You'll like it," her mother said.
"Why? Because she's black?"
"No, because it's really good writing."

And it is, by Smith's account (and my own). But then Smith says something more profound:
"At fourteen, I couldn't find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech. These forms of identification are so natural to white readers -- (Of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me!) -- that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least believe that they are identifying only at the highest, existential levels (His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human). White readers often believe they are colorblind."

But in reality, as Smith points out, they are just more characters written in their image, allowing them to harbor the illusion that their "like" or "dislike" of a novel is based on more esoteric factors, such as writing style, theme, or plot. They also have the benefit of white privilege, where every ethnic story is made relate-able to them (i.e., the rampant use of the word vermilion in South Asian fiction, a word I did not even know until I read it in a "New Yorker-approved" South Asian American book).

Smith then goes on to explain how Hurston creates such a complex, layered character in Janie Crawford in Their Eyes that it leaves her speechless. The book "allows me to say things I wouldn't normally," Smith writes. "Things like 'She is my sister and I love her.'"

Which is exactly what my heart sang when Archie Panjabi won the Emmy for her role in The Good Wife.

It's probably not fair to draw any parallels between a television drama, no matter how good, and canonical American literature. I admit this is somewhat pretentious on my part. But Archie Panjabi speaks so eloquently backstage after her win about the true value of being able to play a character that is proud of her heritage without being defined by it.

When people say "you can do anything you put your mind to" or believe, or whatever New Age slogan is en vogue at the time, I often want to roll my eyes and say "if you're white." As Archie Panjabi and co-star in Bend It Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra, know, the brown girl doesn't get cast in Pirates of the Caribbean or Pride and Prejudice, like their co-star Keira Knightley did, no matter how good an actress you are. So it's refreshing to see a South Asian get to play a character that's as complex and layered as Elizabeth Bennett, albeit on the small screen. I am left without words to express the marvelous feeling of recognition that bubbles up inside me when a woman with my hair and eyes and skin plays it tough and guarded, but with wit and grace. All I can say is "She is my sister and I love her."

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