The American Gaze on Silent Winds, Dry Seas

Image of Silent Winds, Dry Seas book cover.

We desire many things from stories. The narrator’s interiority, perspectives of characters other than the protagonist’s, additional lines or ‘beats’ that would complete a thought, an idea; a scenic description to give us time to linger longer, or catch our breath. Sometimes we desire a concrete setting, more imagery, depth, a commentary on the historical background of the setting, physical and metaphysical character description, more tension between characters, a tighter beginning, a tighter ending, less or more dialogue, a purpose, an obvious transformation undergone by the protagonist, more mainstream point of views (i.e. first-person, third-person). The list goes on.

Sometimes we stop to wonder whether these desires and exigencies are merely manifestations of our overbearing nit-pickiness; our need for avenues of self-expression; maybe catharsis.

And yet, it needs be said that many novels, short stories and other forms of artistic productions have eschewed tending to our innumerable desires and exigencies. Desires and exigencies that would have supposedly rendered them “perfect”. Instead, outlier works of art have gone on to be seminal in one way or another, sometimes marking the beginning of a new style, a new genre, a new era. After all, everything new is often derided as incoherent, senseless or ugly until it is recognised for a peculiarity by someone significant, and turned into a new trend. When that happens, people suffer from lapses of memory about what they had first thought and said. Common examples include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (the first ‘realist’ novel); Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Proust’s Swann’s Way (both marked by endless digressions, or sub-plots); Joyce’s Ulysses (no concrete storyline and a masterpiece of allusions), and the short story Trauma Plate by Adam Johnson, which in defying convention, employs three different point of views (POV) in a single narrative. Additionally, Jane Austen wrote a novel in 1813 about handsome suitors in military uniforms courting characters she conjured up, without delving into details about the war France and Britain were embroiled in. Critics of the caliber referred to in this essay could very well excoriate Pride and Prejudice for failing to satisfy the craft-related desire and exigency of connecting the story to an important moment in history. But they don’t. No one discusses its imperfections and still, Pride and Prejudice has stood the test of time.

What we may have forgotten is that all works of art, including those that are instantly appealing or ugly, are imperfect. “Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned,” said Oscar Wilde. Stories will not give us everything we want. That is why many established writers are critical of the “MFA style” which seeks that perfection. Arundhati Roy said in an interview in The Paris Review “the MFA novel, (is) often (…) a beautifully confected product. There are no rough edges. The number of characters, the length of chapters, it’s all skillfully orchestrated…” It is also known that the MFA style tolerates no double adjectives, no adverbs, and tends to shape stories into symmetrical works of art, often with clear-cut beginnings and endings. Endless possibilities lie at the feet of enthusiastic critics should they wish to pronounce themselves on the asymmetry of an artistic production.

It is through this lens that I approached fellow Mauritian author Vinod Busjeet’s first novel Silent Winds, Dry Seas (Doubleday, 2021). In the process of exploring his work and reading reviews in American newspapers and magazines, I noticed that many comments about its flaws were touched upon by critics and reviewers who did not necessarily grasp the idiosyncratic context and setting of the country Vinod Busjeet and I come from. The result was often a scathing commentary reflecting a misunderstanding of who we are, and if these reviews aggregately represent the American gaze, they certainly displayed a lack of understanding of the peculiarities of our culture and reality.

Silent Winds, Dry Seas is a coming-of-age novel that recounts the life of Vishnu, growing up in the 1950s in an orthodox Hindu family on the Indian-ocean-island of Mauritius. Vishnu experiences a number of family tragedies and turn of events, and navigates through them with the religious, cultural and political lenses offered to him, as to every child, by an accident of birth. These, Busjeet lays out in an honest and unapologetic account, while hinting at an awareness of their limitations in the subtext. Vishnu, the protagonist, eventually puts the fair share of dogma and prejudice he was brought up with into question when his world grows wider as he travels to and lives in Madagascar, the UK and the US where he wins a scholarship to study at Yale.

One of the comments made by Kawai Strong Washburn about Silent Winds, Dry Seas in the New York Times, in a review titled Vinod Busjeet’s Debut Sets an Origin Story on the Island of Mauritius, was the lack of characters’ interiority both in the narration as well as dialogue. But to speak of it as a flaw seemed hasty a judgment. The author adopted what is known as an objective style of narration. In the craft of writing, choices are available to the writer, one being the freedom to select an objective rather than a stream-of-consciousness style, so that the focus be on acts and events, rather than the inner life and musings of characters. In an objective style of narration, interiority is to be guessed and evaluated from what is perceived on the outside. Here is an excerpt on the matter by Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren from Deepening Fiction:

An objective story gives no thoughts or commentary, but only shows us what we might experience through the senses if we were in the room with the characters. Stories at the objective end of the spectrum resemble movies with no voiceovers, while stream-of-consciousness stories seem to consist entirely of the character’s thoughts, in all their digressive glory.

Of course a mixture of both, exteriority and interiority of characters, events and descriptions can also be opted for to make sure every desire and exigency is tended to, but again, this is a choice entirely the prerogative of the author. Sometimes decisions on POV, style of narration and other craft-related matters are planned before writing, but more often, they are not. How these initial subconscious decisions are made remains a mystery.

Second, Washburn’s criticism is that Vishnu, the protagonist of Silent Winds, Dry Seas, is rather passive and fails to take a stand in matters of morality, especially in encountering incidents related to “colonialism, class or race.” Instead it is said that he acts “as if they are neither good nor bad, but simply the way life is.” Incidents such as these are replete. But throughout most of the novel, the protagonist Vishnu is a young boy or teenager, and experiences life under the tutelage of his parents and relatives when these events take place. In some cases, expectedly, he takes a stand, in others he doesn’t. For instance, he fails to condemn the behavior or actions of his parents and relatives when they play out the tropes of their high caste, by asserting their superiority towards others. Yet, he takes a stand when he sees injustice being perpetuated by his father against the interests of a widow whose inheritance is coveted. Arguably, this combination of action and inaction on Vishnu’s part merely reflects the real-life scenario of an average teenager in those conditions. Washburn overlooks how much is taken for granted by people living in settings unexposed to diversity and difference, and where so much is done to preserve identity. In other words, a critique about Vishnu’s passivity is not only partial, but also ignores a golden rule of good writing: no moralising. Stone and Nyren say the following on the subject:

Using a story to teach moral lessons is a noble intention that never seems to work in practice. Instead readers, like anyone undergoing a moral lecture, start to look for a chance to escape.

As an illustration, Harper Lee avoided the trap in writing about life in Alabama. She told the story and let the reader draw a conclusion—a sign of showing respect to the reader’s intelligence and powers of discernment.

Third, however tempting and widespread a habit, assigning the main character’s thoughts and motives to the author as Washburn does is problematic, especially when the work has been qualified as fiction, not nonfiction. In the review, Vishnu is referred to as the alter ego of the author, and is criticised for his moral failings. If every writer operated under the pressure of this conclusion by readers and critics, it would curtail their  freedom and power of expression and creativity. It would impose the additional burden of portraying only morally upright individuals for fear of reprisals, and in the course of that, turn the work into something constrained and periodic. Without a doubt, Holden Caulfied, Humbert Humbert, Scarlett O’Hara, Heathcliff, Wanda von Dunajew, Emma Bovary, and Constance Reid would have never seen the light of day under this exigency.

Fourth, Washburn is critical of Vishnu’s desire to be part of “the one percent” since the “American pursuit…of excess has resulted in one of the most pernicious societies in modern history.” While moral condemnation of a character’s motives has already been underscored above, the other question this criticism raises is, should the American experience be imposed as a model on Mauritians? Is America to be looked up to as a country set in the future from the standpoint of nations comprising The Rest of the World? If so, wouldn’t it be adverse to its current aspiration of getting over “exceptionalism”, and recognise other nations as autonomous, individualised entities?

It would make more sense to look upon us Mauritians as being on our own journey of self-realisation as a people, as a nation. Our reality is different. So is our experience. We may or may not end up at the same point as America who is set on her unique journey of self-realisation. And should we despite it all, end up at the same intersection, striving to be part of “the one percent” (however reprehensive this may sound to those who can afford to express the sentiment) is in truth, the dream of many, whether in America, Mauritius, or other countries and territories, and what better than to create a protagonist who reflects this longing. Perhaps a different approach would have been to view Busjeet’s novel and its protagonist Vishnu Bhushan as a representative of one of the many voices of the world—especially one so little known in America.

Fifth, one of the criticisms made about the novel regards a scene when Vishnu eventually migrates to the US, and in the course of making ends meet, is offered a job in the kitchen of Yale’s dining hall to wash dishes. In this segment, the author expresses Vishnu’s disappointment: “I had been hoping for a clerical job, where my hands wouldn’t get dirty. My sookwaar hands.” Washburn criticises Vishnu for the display of haughty superiority in his “work-study job.” What is perhaps not known and appreciated is that blue-collar jobs in many countries across the world, including Mauritius, are far from remunerative as in America. In Mauritius, dishwashing, bartending, and waitering are seldom work-study jobs. They are career jobs. Moreover, employment benefits and protection derived by blue-collar workers in America are very different from the experience of Mauritians, and often do not involve the same level of skill-education. These factors, put together, largely determine the local individualised social gaze cast upon these professions, and for this reason, it is unfair to expect the Mauritian social gaze (and its effect on people’s outlook) to be comparable to the American one. It is noteworthy that the author does not leave this supposed haughtiness unresolved, but exposes Vishnu’s attempt in coming to terms with his new situation: “But the university was giving me a scholarship, and the job was to supplement my stipend. I knew I should be grateful to them and not sound like Oliver Twist asking for more. Yale owed me nothing: I wasn’t American; I was an unknown student from an unknown country whom they selected over hundreds of deserving students from Asia, Africa, and so many poor nations. Nonetheless, it was hard to digest the thought, the notion of doing manual work. The whole purpose of my seeking a university education was to avoid the backbreaking work that my ancestors from India and my parents had to endure in the sugarcane plantations. Laborers toiled in the fields hoping to save enough for their children to get an education that would secure them an office job.” This is not an argument condoning classism, but a request to show empathy for a very different culture, setup, and therefore reality.

Silent Winds, Dry Seas is a novel primarily about Mauritius and Mauritians, and a sensitivity to this point as well as an understanding of who we are is a must if the work is to be assessed on merit.