A self-proclaimed Kiwi "Plain Jane", author Carol Jackson opens up about the real life story behind her autobiographical interracial romance Julie & Kishore. What was it like to be an interracial couple in New Zealand in not-so-distant past? (Hint: we're talking 1980s). What sort of suspicion, scrutiny and prejudice would the two lovers combat? It's a candid, heartfelt account. It's more than just an exercise in multicultural apologetics.
Bored with vanilla?
MJN: Given India's turbulent history as a British colony, white-skinned Europeans are still regarded as predators and aggressors in India. The violent past casts a shadow on many cross-ethnic relationships. There are prejudices on both sides. When a European man marries a non-European, he'll be accused of garnering an exotic trophy. Malicious tongues will claim that he "got bored with pasty white women and wanted some spice". What happens when the roles are reversed, and a white woman marries a man of color? Is she in danger of being accused of "having grown bored with white boys?" Some of the insults probably border on comedy. You don't know whether to be offended or amused.
CS: As in Julie & Kishore and in my real life, I found that people did not believe we were truly in love. They thought for a Western woman to be with an Indian man, I must have been desperate and unable to find a guy of my own race. In my own life, my three older siblings had already left home to live with their partners so I was ready to have a boyfriend of my own even though I was only eighteen years old and had many ‘boyfriend exploring’ years ahead of me. My friends and some family members thought there must have been an ulterior motive for us wanting to be together. There was no thought from people of me having ‘grown bored with white boys’ because the reaction I received was one of him having malicious intentions and preying on the ‘naive white woman.’ I was asked if ‘he only wanted to be with me to try to get residency in New Zealand’ ‘if I was pregnant’and ‘if he would coerce me into going to India to dump (sell) me when we got there to some sort of white salve trader.’
West and the Rest: social hierarchy
MJN: I discovered that many people don't realize that India is an extremely diverse and stratified country. Anglo-Saxons and Indians have one thing in common - the caste system. Incidentally, one of the first things you mention in your book is Diana Spencer's royal wedding. Marrying outside of your ethnic group is not the only way to incur suspicion and judgment. Marrying outside of your socioeconomic circle will get as many raised eyebrows. And some people bite the double bullet - marry outside of their race AND outside of their social strata. Those are the ultimate rebels.
CS: I am so glad you realise the reasons why I mentioned Diana Spencer and I deliberately did this early on in the book. My real husband’s true family caste (surname) is a high caste but in actual fact we both come from middle class families.
Location, location, location...
MJN: Do you think it matters on whose proverbial turf the romance takes place? Do you think the relationship would've had a different dynamic if Julie was the one living in India? Sometimes people behave differently when they are in another country. They tend to be more reserved and more inclined to wear a mask. When you see them in their familiar environment, they act like you've never seen them act before.
CS: I have no doubt in my own mind that if Julie was a white woman living in India, she would have never have gotten together an Indian guy. I just couldn’t see it happening as from what I have seen while being in India, Indian men seem to travel in large groups. I feel it would be intimidating and very hard for a Western girl and Indian guy to be even able to approach each other in India. I think it would be so much harder for society to accept a ‘Julie’ being with an Indian guy in India.
Craving what you don't have...
MJN: I'm sure you are familiar with the expression "Selling snow to Eskimos." It refers to something commonplace and therefore perceived as having lesser value. You refer to your character as Plain Jane. And maybe to a European man, a freckled redhead is "Plain Jane". But to someone who grew up around dark-skinned women, a girl of English stock is something exotic. Same for Kishore. In India, he is just another boy next door. In New Zealand, he is an exotic prince. When I was a student in Philadelphia, we had an Irish friend who was very ordinary looking but attracted tons of girls with his accent. He would laugh, "I never thought my accent could get me so much attention." Was there an element of that in the relationship between Julie and Kishore?
CS: This topic is explored in the book as Julie wonders how Kishore could love her – as mentioned above she considers herself to be a “Plain Jane.’ Below is a direct quote from the book; ‘Kishore loved me dearly but really me? Indian women were so attractive with their long silky black hair, dark features and stunning eyes. I knew I certainly wasn’t beautiful. Over the time we had been together I had asked Kishore if he was sure he wanted to be with me. He had replied, I was just being silly, he loved me because to him I was different; really different to the women he was surrounded by while growing up.’
Kishore also mentions in the book that he did not want to marry a woman who spends her life in the kitchen as he had seen his mother do. He also did not want to have an arranged marriage as was his parent’s wishes, he wanted to choose his own wife – in his mind she would be a modern woman and he believed that would mean marring a Western woman.
Barefoot and pregnant?
MJN: You reference the traditional domestic role of Indian women. I imagine, when a traditional Indian mother-in-law encounters a liberal, Westernized young girl who's interested in her son, she experiences a cocktail of contradicting emotions. On one hand, it's a threat to old traditions that Indian women have been keeping. On another hand, it's promise of liberation.
CS: In Julie & Kishore there is a conversation between them and Kishore’s Mother.She wonders if when Julie & Kishore married and they both continued working in their full time employment, who would do the cooking, laundry and cleaning. Julie & Kishore explained to her that these roles could be shared by the both of them after work and on the weekend. Kishore’s Mother was old fashioned in her traditional beliefs that once a woman is married she becomes devoted only to her husband.A wife’s role in life is to be dedicated to her husband, to bear children and be a committed Mother.
Luckily and thankfully in the book and in real life my in-laws were supportive.They knew their son had a strong will and independent nature, this was proven by his determination to leave India and his family and move to New Zealand.
MJN: If you could go back and rewrite this love story, are there any additional sacrifices/concessions you would make or avoid?
CS: I thought about writing this book for many years, I knew what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. So no, there is not really anything I would change.Besides I am writing Julie & Kishore –Take Two, the sequel to Julie & Kishore so I have used this platform to add anything I may have left out from the first.