Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America

Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America

by Bakirathi Mani

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What does it mean to belong? How are twenty-first-century diasporic subjects fashioning identities and communities that bind them together? Aspiring to Home examines these questions with a focus on immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Advancing a theory of locality to explain the means through which immigrants of varying regional, religious, and linguistic backgrounds experience what it means to belong, Bakirathi Mani shows how ethnicity is produced through the relationship between domestic racial formations and global movements of class and capital.
Aspiring to Home focuses on popular cultural works created by first- and second-generation South Asians from 1999–2009, including those by author Jhumpa Lahiri and filmmaker Mira Nair, as well as public events such as the Miss India U.S.A. pageant and the Broadway musical Bombay Dreams. Analyzing these diverse productions through an interdisciplinary framework, Mani weaves literary readings with ethnography to unravel the constraints of form and genre that shape how we read diasporic popular culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804778008
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/11/2012
Series: Asian America
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bakirathi Mani is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Swarthmore College.

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Aspiring to Home

By Bakirathi Mani


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7799-5

Chapter One

Postcolonial Locations

Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake

"Mr. Sen says that once I receive my license everything will improve. What do you think, Eliot? Will things improve?"

"You could go places," Eliot suggested. "You could go anywhere."

"Could I drive all the way to Calcutta? How long would that take, Eliot? Ten thousand miles, at fifty miles per hour?"

—Jhumpa Lahiri, "Mrs. Sen's"

In Jhumpa Lahiri's story "Mrs. Sen's," the newly married wife of an Indian immigrant complains to Eliot, a young boy in her charge, about how far removed she is from Calcutta. Mrs. Sen understands her own locality in terms of distance, which she comprehends in spatial as well as phenomenological terms. For Mrs. Sen, distance is an affective condition, one that is felt through the sheer number of miles that demarcate her family home from her current residence in Rhode Island, and which is also felt through her absence from the rituals of daily life in Calcutta. Even as Eliot encourages Mrs. Sen to secure her driver's license—a quintessentially American emblem of freedom and mobility—she remains unconvinced of the utility of such a legal document. In her first and only drive without a license, to procure a freshwater fish similar to what she ate in Bengal, Mrs. Sen crashes her car. Not only is it not possible to drive from Rhode Island to Calcutta; it is also impossible to return to a time before her marriage, to a time before her migration. It is impossible, in other words, for Mrs. Sen to go back to a time when she was unbound by America. Even as Mrs. Sen describes her experience in the United States through meta phors of spatial distance, her locality is also a temporal condition, one that ties together her immigrant experience in the United States to her continued participation in everyday life in South Asia.

In Asian American literary studies, the historical relationship between South Asia and America is often represented through narratives of migration, narratives depicted in terms of individual journeys out of the subcontinent. Mrs. Sen, for example, comes to the United States for a job—not her own but her husband's. The rather dour Mr. Sen works in a tenure-track position at a local university, and so the couple's trips to Calcutta as well as their time together in Rhode Island are bound by the calendar of academic life. Their migration is part of the larger wave of professional immigration spurred by the 1965 Hart-Celler Act and its abolition of "national origins" quotas for skilled Asians. This legal provision forms the temporal conditions of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, both texts that feature stories of middle-and upper-middle-class Bengali immigrants. However, mapping the distance between the United States and the subcontinent is not only a matter of highlighting the legislative practices that recruited South Asian immigrants. Writing the relationship between South Asia and America also requires attending to the temporalities that differentiate colonial and postcolonial histories of the subcontinent from imperial histories of the United States. What it means to be South Asian is not singularly defined by U.S. immigration law, but also by ongoing movements for decolonization, independence, and modernization on the subcontinent. For South Asians who embody these differential histories, the time of immigration engenders a postcolonial subjectivity that binds the history of nation-states on the subcontinent to the racial formation of the United States. Mrs. Sen's postcoloniality is evident in her extensive preparations for the nightly meals she shares with her husband; in the closets full of saris that were given to her as dowry; in the ways that she expends time to find ingredients that remind her of home. Postcoloniality becomes one name for the phenomenology of locality that South Asian immigrants produce and inhabit in their everyday lives.

Accounting for a postcolonial reading of South Asian subjectivity requires broadening the geographical as well as historical framework of Asian American studies. As an immigrant group, South Asians are marginalized from normative histories of Asian American studies that originate in the civil rights and ethnic studies movements of the 1970s, even as such movements for Asian American representation were informed by histories of decolonization in South Asia. While contemporary fiction by South Asian immigrants is now regularly featured in Asian American literature courses, the specific histories of independence and partition on the subcontinent do not figure into the domain of Asian American literary studies. The disjuncture between the exclusion of South Asia from the geographical framework of Asian American studies and the incorporation of South Asians as ethnic and literary subjects in the field is a problem of locality, one that is constituted by the intellectual parameters of the discipline. Unlike former and current U.S. territories in the Ca rib be an and the Pacific, South Asia is not part of what Allan Isaac calls the "American Tropics," the chain of empire that binds the United States to Asia throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The spatial boundaries of Asian American studies, which once focused exclusively on East Asia and has more recently shifted to include Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim, is defined by the contours of U.S. imperial policy: wars in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam; the annexation of Hawai'i; the colonization and ongoing military occupation of the Philippines. From this perspective South Asia remains outside the proper geographic domain of Asian America, for there is no documented history of U.S. colonialism in the region. Locating South Asians within Asian American studies thus requires a longer temporal and spatial perspective, one that is triangulated between the legacy of British imperialism, decolonization movements on the subcontinent, and the emergence of the United States as a global power.

Over the past decade postcolonial theory has been deployed by Asian Americanists as a critique of U.S.-as-empire (by literary theorists such as Isaac and Kandice Chuh), and as a category of naming ethnic subjects (by critics such as Jenny Sharpe, Lata Mani, and Ruth Frankenberg). Postcolonial critiques of U.S. imperialist expansion in East and Southeast Asia have importantly drawn attention to the Pacific Rim as a site of contested histories and subjectivities. As Kandice Chuh notes in Imagine Otherwise, postcolonial theory highlights "the ways that national identities come into being through negotiations with global nexuses of relations of power" (117). However, in most cases this scholarly consideration of Asian American postcoloniality operates from the United States outwards—that is, by prioritizing local (continental U.S.) conditions as the starting point from which the ethnic subject becomes a postcolonial subject. For those immigrants whose histories of migration are conditioned by U.S. colonial intervention in Asia—such as Korean, Vietnamese, or Filipino Americans—postcolonial theory reveals how local conditions of ethnicity and race are bound to global events. However, such a scholarly maneuver of reaching outward from within—of incorporating histories of war and neocolonial ism into a reflexive critique of U.S. nation-formation—has the unintended effect of reinscribing the imperialist geography of the United States. While a postcolonial critique of empire broadens the intellectual scope of Asian American studies and American studies more generally, it has a limited effect on decentering the United States as the primary terrain on which diasporic ethnic and racial subjectivities are formed.

In my reading of popular South Asian literature, I move away from using the term "postcolonial" as a name or claim to ethnicity. Instead, I ask a different set of questions about the relationship between postcolonial theory and Asian American studies. Taking seriously the difference posed by South Asians, I deploy Lahiri's work as a means of rehistoricizing the conditions of postcoloniality. For first-and second-generation South Asians, how does postcoloniality operate as a phenomenology of belonging? In what ways does the history of British colonialism in South Asia come alive in the United States, as an act of memory and as a condition of everyday life? What would it mean, in other words, to theorize immigrant subjects as postcolonial outside the imperial domain of the United States? Asking these questions shifts our focus away from the dominant American studies narrative of the U.S.-in-Asia, toward understanding how colonial and postcolonial histories on the Indian subcontinent produce new life forms in the United States. Broadening the parameters of what constitutes a postcolonial Asian America re orients our location as scholars of Asian American literary and cultural studies. Because I direct our attention to histories of other colonialisms rather than limiting scholarly inquiry to those imperialist narratives produced by the United States, I enlarge the scope of "Asia" within "Asian America." I emphasize that my intellectual engagement with South Asian history is not in the ser vice of identifying Asian Americans as essentially Asian. Instead, it is a means of provoking a more dynamic conception of where and what "Asia" is, and how that enlarged spatial formation impacts the shape of immigrant communities in America. It requires being cognizant of the ways in which histories of colonialism outside the directive of the United States continue to structure racialized identities produced within the U.S. state. Postcoloniality is not a fixed or an essential historical condition but a means of performing locality, one that South Asian immigrants repeatedly, if not consistently, embody.

In my readings of Lahiri's short stories, I demonstrate how first-and second-generation immigrants embody postcoloniality as a structure of feeling integral to their identification as Americans. In her ethnography of Indian immigrants in New Jersey, Keya Ganguly argues that postcoloniality is embodied through a series of material practices, for example, through memory (via oral narratives of immigration) and consumption (of foods and cultural texts that remind immigrants of "home"). Such acts of consumption consolidate and reproduce postcoloniality, even as second-generation immigrants contest many of these practices (by rejecting food or literary or visual texts). Likewise, in Interpreter of Maladies the postcolonial subjectivities of South Asian immigrants emerge through acts of everyday life: by watching the nightly news on television, reading books, preparing familiar foods. These rituals also function as "invented traditions," generating normative constructs of nationhood in diaspora. The process of sharing such intimate acts with other immigrants from the subcontinent creates ties of fictive kinship among South Asians who, for reasons of religion, national origin, or language, may not otherwise have forged a community. Postcoloniality operates as a material practice that constitutes and defines a "South Asian" immigrant community, one that may be different from normative constructs of nationhood on the subcontinent. Participating in such rituals of production and consumption is the means through which diasporic subjects reconcile the difference between their national, religious, and regional identities on the subcontinent and their ethnic and class identities in the United States.

The postcolonial time of immigration is also structured in relation to nationalist and decolonization movements on the subcontinent. In The Namesake as well as in Interpreter of Maladies, I situate the post-1965 migration of South Asians in relation to contemporaneous historical developments in South Asia. The formation of South Asian immigrant communities during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, for example, recalls both the 1947 partition of the subcontinent and the 1905 partition of colonial Bengal by the British. Further, the fact that the Bangladesh Liberation War was central to U.S. foreign policy in South Asia during the cold war links the project of post-independence nationhood on the subcontinent to the expanding parameters of U.S. imperialism in Asia. In this context Lahiri's protagonists identify variously as Bengali, Hindu, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Pakistani, and Indian, as the conditions of subcontinental nationhood are constantly being renegotiated through wars and riots. That these regionalist, national, and religious constructs are consistently inadequate to capture forms of ethnic and class identification in America demonstrates the difference between histories of postcolonial modernity and the temporality of U.S. citizenship.

Reading contemporary fiction by South Asian immigrants as postcolonial literature is not only a means of recuperating diasporic texts into the story of "other" nationalisms (including narratives of Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani independence); more important in my view is the fact that such a historicized reading of immigration rewrites the story of what it means to be American. Realigning the relationship between immigration, postcoloniality, and citizenship enables us to see the ways in which South Asians produce and inhabit locality. In turn, such narratives of locality draw attention to how the contradiction between the immigrant and the citizen—what Lisa Lowe has centrally defined as the difference of race—can be obscured by class, particularly in terms of the middle-class backgrounds of Lahiri's fictional subjects. Her protagonists are university professors and librarians, executives and architects, students and teachers. As bourgeois subjects, these men (for with few exceptions Lahiri's protagonists are largely male) are accustomed to embodying the full privileges of citizenship. The problem of locality arises when, as immigrants, they recognize that access to U.S. citizenship is determined by race, and when, as diasporic subjects, their participation in historical events in South Asia is curtailed by distance. For such immigrants, embodying postcoloniality is a means of stitching together racialized and classed locations in the United States with the practice of politics on the subcontinent. Insofar as Lahiri's protagonists identify as South Asian, their embodiment of locality cannot be reconciled within hegemonic formations of U.S. citizenship. Together, these temporal and spatial narratives of diaspora shape the postcolonial topographies of Asian America.

The Time of Citizenship

In the pastoral setting of New En gland, the protagonists of Interpreter of Maladies are out of place in the new world they inhabit. News from home, whether Bangladesh, Pakistan, or India, comes via the television set, letters, and the occasional phone call. Neighbors and teachers are oblivious of familial and national struggles that shape immigrant lives: civil wars and insurgencies fought on the subcontinent, wives left behind, the death of extended family members. Against this backdrop, recent immigrants come to terms with the mundane challenges of life in America, learning to drive on freeways and dutifully carving jack-o'-lanterns on Halloween. In my reading of the stories "The Third and Final Continent" and "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," I examine the ways in which immigrants bind together their experiences as racial minorities in the United States with their religious and national identities in South Asia. Each of these short stories establishes the difference between, first, the racialized immigrant subject and the U.S. public sphere and, second, the diasporic subject and colonial/postcolonial histories on the subcontinent. For first-generation immigrants who leave the subcontinent, political movements in South Asia divide existing national homelands and create new ones. For their second-generation descendants, the logic of American citizenship provides no space for multiple homelands. The fact that South Asians are bound by competing logics of nationhood without fully resolving their citizenship to either geographic site reveals the ambivalent embodiment of locality.


Excerpted from Aspiring to Home by Bakirathi Mani Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Becoming South Asian....................1
1. Postcolonial Locations: Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake....................30
2. So Far from Home: Documenting Immigrant Lives in Knowing Her Place, Calcutta Calling, and Bangla East Side....................75
3. Beauty Queens: Gender, Ethnicity, and Transnational Modernities at Miss India USA....................122
4. The Art of Multiculturalism: Diasporadics, Desh Pardesh, and Artwallah....................163
5. "Somewhere You've Never Been Before": The American Romance of Bombay Dreams....................208
Works Cited....................287

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