Tuesday, February 20, 2007

further proof that the "Auntie Patrol" exists outside of my imagination

last year there was quite a stir over allegations that 19-year-old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan had plagiarized something like 40 sections of somebody else's work for her book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. later it was shown that her writing was in fact very similar to passages by author Megan McCafferty.

of course, a college sophomore whose book was in the process of film adaptation is already a talker, but several people found it an especially good conversational piece for me, "local representative of all indian-americans worldwide," because obviously, having similar heritage means i have a direct connection to her brain. yet i was embarrassed for my people. because as much as nobody likes stereotypes, you know there are those out there who made mental notes about this and will associate it with the entire group in the future. there was so much media attention, i had to check this one out for myself. besides, i wanted to know just what the hell was so great about it that ole girl got a book deal so young.

one of my coworkers had bought the book on eBay for four dollars and lent it to me. i'll save you the trouble of hunting it down (supposedly the publishers recalled most copies), but forgive me if i get some of the details wrong. basically this girl opal and her parents' lifelong goal is to get her into Harvard. she has no social life because she's busting her ass garnering the collective achievements of all the characters on tv's Head of the Class. she goes to her early admission interview with the Harvard people and they tell her to come back again when she has a life.

opal has a meltdown and, after her parents remake her into one of the "Plastics" from Mean Girls complete with manolo blahniks, she --SURPRISE!-- gets into that clique. of course it goes badly: she screws over the boy she didn't realize she liked while pursuing somebody she thought she ought to be with, realizes that being fake sucks, comes into her own, lands her man, goes back to Harvard and gets in. hooray! along the way, her parents tivo The O.C. and spout phrases like "gettin' jiggy wit it" and "bling" with what i can only imagine is a thick indian-parent accent. (hearing that in my head was by far the best part.)

after finishing the book, i couldn't help but feel sad for Kaavya Viswanathan. her character, backed by the blessings of her parents, is prepared to sell her soul in order to get into the ivy-league. and while the hoops opal jumps through may have been intended to be funny, how different are they from what the author herself did to get ahead? those of us whose parents sacrificed their own dreams to give us better opportunities know exactly what that means in terms of pressure to show them it was worth it.

Viswanathan has said in interviews that the book was a work in progress from when she was in high school. and while one can't argue the similarities between her words and the phrases used by McCafferty (whose books, Viswanathan admits to admiring), there are some things such as a desi*-minded take on current popculture that i doubt she could have gotten from anywhere but personal experience. that's the saddest part of this story. did she deliberately mimic McCafferty to ensure her book's success? or did rote-memorization techniques that likely helped her get that ivy-league admission unconsciously do her in? we'll never know. regardless, had Viswanathan's book not risked her credibility by piggybacking on somebody else's ideas, she could have still written a decent novel. but now that the damage is done, she'll never get the chance. it's a tough lesson for a kid, and an irreversible one at that. but it's okay, she can always go to medical school, right?

personally, i thought this description of what i like to call the "Auntie Patrol" was especially vivid:

Since all the Indian families lived in identical large center-hall colonials, drove the same cars (black or silver Range Rovers and Benzes), and shared the same twice-a-week Guatemalan housekeeper, Chlorinda, the only real topics of discussion at the ladies' weekly Wednesday lunch were (a) whose child was smarter/ more successful, (b) whose husband bought them the largest emerald set, and (c) do you think she really cooked that paneer herself? (If the hostess in question was ever caught trying to pass off catered food as her own, her days in the Woodcliff Indian social circle were numbered.) In the weeks surrounding crucial dates (November 1: early application deadline; December 15: early application decisions; January 1: regular application deadline; April 1: regular application decisions), topics B and C were completely submerged by A.

Competition between the parents was fierce and unforgiving. Last April, when my mom had hosted the lunch, I had seen the superficially pitying, inwardly gloating glances exchanged over masala dosai when Shalini Gandhi was rejected by Yale. The day Kishan Patel announced that he was dropping the premed track at NYU and entering Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, his parents shuttered their blinds for three days to avoid the shocked stares of their neighbors (everyone knew that an Indian who didn't study medicine was a failed Indian). Relations between Mrs. Kumar and my family were always strained because she had a son in my grade, who she was determined would make it to the Ivy League. I never had the heart to tell her that Amit was notorious throughout WHS for pretending to be a Sikh so that he could keep marijuana stashed in his turban.

the sentiment is dead on, even if the details are ridiculous. but just to be safe, i should get a copyright on the term "Auntie Patrol" before someone steals it for the big screen and i get no royalties. you know, it takes some serious cash to make sure Chlorinda does a good job buffing the rims on the 'Benz.

* desi (they-see): a word used by indians to describe something or someone as being from the motherland


The Stormin Mormon said...

"Gettin' jiggy with it" in a thick Indian accent...

OK, hearing that in my head had me laughing uncontrollably.

jinius said...

yeah i felt sorry for the girl. the media skewered her as much as james frey and she was just a kid! but, hey, at least she's still at harvard.
and yes u should copywright auntie patrol.

beenzzz said...

The "gettin' jiggy wit it" and "bling" part cracked me up! Yep, the auntie patrol is straight from the depths of hell. My brother coins it as, "Let me take this opportunity to tell you that my son (or daughter) is far better than yours." This is also said in a thich Indian accent. Isn't it true though?

Jon said...

I'd like to read a little more about what exactly was plagiarized. I don't know about you, but pretty much every paper I ever turned in for school was plagiarized. That what they taught us to do. They didn't want us to give original thoughts, they wanted us to regurgitate other people's smart thoughts in a slightly more concise and re-formatted manner. Major deduction in points if you didn't have your bibliography in proper MLA format. Maybe that's where she screwed up. She must not have formatted her bibliography correctly.

ML said...

I agree with what Beenzzz said. Our brother is famous for saying that very thing and it's extremely funny!

Too bad about Kaavya's trouble, though.

Ale said...

omg that's so stupid, all them books are the same! there is a girl, she got an issue, she goes for the wrong guy, at the end she figures it out AND gets the good guy. everyone happy applause- so what now anyone that writes based on this formula will get sued!???? boooowlshit! anyway, same thing that you reffer to as "desi" can be branded as typical behavior in a "jewish" family-

cadiz12 said...

the wikipedia link at the top of this post lists several instances, side by side of viswanathan and mccafferty.

it's amazing that she pretty much wentthrough in real life what she had written for her character.

Lia said...

As ale said, the desi mentality applies in a whole bunch of other societies. Just we never had a Chlorinda. But I wish we had!

Why is the lesson irreversible? Do you really think that everyone will remember her with such contempt that she'll never be able to get away with writing another book? I bet she could. Maybe not right away, but I think she could get back into writing and get famous on this experience.

Demosthenes said...

Hell, heaven and purgatory combined hath no rage like competitive teenager writers. I loathe Kaavya.

Don't. Even. Get. Me. Started.

Demosthenes said...

Nice, "new" template by the way. And I say it like that because I've been away for awhile, so I'm sure it's actually ancient. But still, I like it.

Syar said...

I'm with Dem, but less out of 'righteous' rage and more out of misplaced envy. But really, those stories are so typical. But they sell so well, so she gets a book deal. Factor in her young age and = literary genius? I don't think so.

However, if *you* were to write about the Auntie Patrol, I feel like I would be in for a "rip-roaring literary romp" (How's that for a front cover blurb? Think about it.)

cadiz12 said...

well, now that i've got the book cover blurb, i'm going to have to get started!

guyana-gyal said...

Man Cadiz, I keep telling you that you write well, and you have a great sense of humour...here's your chance to write your Auntie Patrol book!!!

This 'plagiarising' business has me worried, I keep thinking, suppose I write something and unconsciously copied someone's style, seeing that 'nothing is new'.