Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier is a young adult novel about Dimple Lala, the New Jersey-born daughter of two Indian immigrants. Dimple is an ABCD—an American Born Confused Desi. Though many people I know are skeptical about the merits of analyzing young adult literature (or any “genre” like sci-fi or fantasy), I believe that this novel, because of its YA lit characteristics, captures the experiences of second-generation children particularly well. Aspects of YA lit such as recording day-to-day teenage struggles and the inevitable coming-of-age climax are well-suited to breaking down the constant, painful contradictions that immigrant children struggle with in their attempts at assimilation. Born Confused is an excellent example of this technique.
Efforts at assimilation often shape the stories of immigrants—in We Need New Names, Darling’s voice changes after she arrives in Michigan, in order to reflect her adoption of American culture—and I argue they manifest themselves in the little things. Born Confused candidly chronicles Dimple’s attempts to lose weight, her shopping trips with her white, size-2 friend Gwyn, her refusal to eat with her hands, and her first drinking experience. In everything that Dimple does every day, she feels torn between familiar Indian culture and the American standards her peers judge her by. In “real life,” assimilation is not the moment—as in Lahiri’s “Third and Final Continent,” when the protagonist’s wife laughs and everything falls into place—it is in the tiny decisions that pervade every moment of a person’s life.
Furthermore, the conflict of assimilation mirrors conflicts that teens face while coming of age. Both high school and immigration are in some ways a question of “fitting in” and forming a new identity. Assimilation is extremely hard for Dimple’s parents, who are set in their ways. Their accents won’t disappear, they eat with their hands, they don’t drink, and they will not show affection in front of strangers. Dimple is shocked when they support her gay cousin. That deviation from Indian culture is so unexpected that the reader is left doubtful about the ability of adults to change their ways. However, Dimple faces the same struggles that Gwyn and her other friends face (what to wear, how to talk), but in a slightly different way. Because, unlike her parents, Dimple seems to have so many paths open to her, the exploration of her decisions and actions is more complex.
Young adult fiction is often maligned and shoved into a genre box. How can the frivolous day-to-day events in a teen’s life be literary or significant? But there are countless stories of second-generation children in America, and those stories can only be told by relating tiny little moments and decisions that take place in shopping malls and bedrooms and school cafeterias. The more that books like Born Confused become commonplace in a genre dominated by books featuring white protagonists, the more the story of immigrant children will be understood by their non-immigrant friends. Will that help people like Dimple assimilate, or will that take away their need to?