Volume IV, Number 1, Spring 2008

"Ethnic Literatures of America: Diaspora and Intercultural Studies Ed. by Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri" review by Fruzsina Balogh

Fruzsina Balogh graduated from the Institute of English and American Studies and the Department of Media Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail: baloghfruzsi@yahoo.co.uk

Ethnic Literatures of America: Diaspora and Intercultural Studies Ethnic Literatures of America: Diaspora and Intercultural Studies
Edited by Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri. New Delhi, Prestige Books, 2005.
312 pages, ISBN 81-7551-163-X

The volume entitled Ethnic Literatures of America edited by Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri is a useful collage of selected papers presented at the 2003 MELUS-India [MELUS: The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States] International Conference on “Scene, Space, Scenario: Contexts of Multiethnic Literatures in Americas” brought together with the works presented at the 2004 International Conference entitled “South Asians in the United States: The Diasporic Experience.” According to the intentions of the editors this volume (as much as the foundation of MELUS itself) is to bring new perspectives into the purview of American literary representation of ethnic presence by ethnic, especially Asian scholars outside the American academia. In doing so, the authors of this academic collection bring to the surface several interrelated issues in connection with race, gender, ethnicity and immigration mostly on the basis of literary interpretations and the evaluation of immigrant experience as it is expressed in American literature.

The most common paradigms representing the above-mentioned concerns are: Third World, postcolonial(isms), Oriental, Asian American, black, Eastern, ethnic, immigrant, minority, diasporic, hyphenated, hybrid, inferior, subaltern, other, refugee, outsider, expatriate and many more. The major issue with the use of these terms is the lack of exact definitions. However, this can open up more space for interpretation, too. And this volume is another successful attempt to do so. Moreover, in accordance with the title of the conferences these texts were first presented at, the volume’s focus on the term “ethnic” broadens the terrain of this anthology by aiming to deal with a multitude of “Other Voices” that are connected with general theoretical paradigms of American literature(s). Nevertheless, besides the topics discussing the identity of African Americans, the book’s main focus is on the representation of Asian diasporas of the United States, which makes this volume an entirely authentic document for the study of American texts outside the U.S.

Theoretical Paradigms is the first section of the anthology, a chapter that could be regarded as an entrance for even more specific interpretations, an overall outline that provides the basis for the profound analyses of the texts that follow it. Mohan Ramanan’s essay – which is the text of the Presidential Address delivered to the MELUS conference – points to a remarkably interesting but not often mentioned paradox of otherness. According to Ramanan, the ones who write about the difficulties of being “other” in an American white society have the chance to publish their writing and make their living only because they live in the United States of America. He remarks that “those who theorize about ‘Home and Abroad’, about ‘exile’, about ‘diasporic consciousness,’ are the ones most comfortable in their tenured academic positions form whose vantage point they can interrogate their Third world origins.”1 These authors experience certain “uprootedness” combined with a quest for identity generated from extensive travels that fuels further opportunities for them and thus, make their otherness a special source of inspiration.

Jasbir Jain rejects all types of exclusionary labels. She believes that writing acts like a mirror in political reality, and thus evokes a lively dialogue and action. The text uses the term “evolving ethnicity” in order to describe its ungraspable nature and pictures its unfixed value. The author of the article further explains her position by defining ethnicity as “an articulation of the invisible strands which constitute [the community]”2.

Manju Jaidka elaborates on the issue of the homeland, a topic that is later discussed by many other essays but which inaugurates the topic in “Traveling with Walls: the South Asian intellectual in the United States.” Here, Jaidka resorts to the example of “traveling with walls” previously used by Salman Rushdie. She describes how the migrant leaves a place behind (physically) and carries it with himself (psychically), although “the wall” delineating the new circumstances starts to act like a ghost and not only ties the migrant to the homeland but at the same time distances her/him from it because of its anachronistic nature. A migrant, thus, tends to over-cling to traditions, with the mystical notion of the homeland becoming a burden for her/him, as well as for other from the diasporic community. Another notable point that Jaidka makes is the description of how the South Asian intellectual himself can become a creator of the oppressing system by “interpreting” the Third World for the First World audience. She associates this Western scholarly position with the process of homogenization. I would, however, further question her standpoint because this description raises more intriguing questions. It is important to decide whether this act of “translation” indeed generates oppression and whether it is a negative process at all. Can’t we pose the question the other way round? Translation is always a tendency toward convergence, so however impossible an “interpretation of a culture” is, we cannot disapprove of this endeavor if it is done with the favorable purpose of bringing cultures closer. If I am not mistaken, this approach stands at the very basis of the MELUS itself, too.

Sukapla Bhattacharjee’s inquiry in “The Text as Narrative: Reading Ideology” starts out from narrative as a basis for the location of self-definition. She claims that a narrative is not only a symbolic, but also a political tool, a “hidden transcript” of ideology that represents its aesthetics also. All the texts discussed in this volume are located in the framework of multiethnic literatures of the U.S. and might represent a hidden transcript of ideology with which they also contribute not only to the mainstream culture but also to its interrogation, too and offer variable solutions to the members of certain ethnic groups by describing intercultural, shared values. Nonetheless, all these texts, Bhattachajee writes, always have to be handled with care in order to examine to what extent these narratives are reliable sources of representations.

The article “Crossing Borders: In Search of Aesthetics” by Himadri Lahiri studies Amitav Kumar’s work in order to formulate a more unique approach to identity and to find an overall aesthetics of “border-crossing literature.” According to Lahiri, the blurring of the genre boundaries is one of Kumar’s tools to express the identity of the traveler. In this context Lahiri intelligently elaborates on Kumar’s metaphor of the “passport” in order to problematize the in-betweenness of the diasporic subject.

The second section entitled Chinese American Voices contains two essays on Chinese American literature, both of which deal with the stereotyping process and its expression in contemporary Chinese American writers’ works. One of the strong points of Gulshan Rai Kataria’s work entitled “Racist Stereotyping and Contemporary Chinese American literature” is that he enumerates not only literary but also filmic examples which provide more telling illustrations for the stereotyping of the Chinese people in the United States. However, writing about stereotypes is a delicate matter as one can easily fall into the trap of refusing stereotyping but using them as starting points at the same time. Kataria seems to refuse the stereotypes of the Chinese as “model minorities,” but at the end of the essay he concludes that: “[T]he Chinese Americans are no longer the quiet, submissive, demure community living quietly in their pocket boroughs they used to be. They are decent civilized people who know their rights as American citizens. They no longer shy away from being aggressive when needed”3. Here the author reveals that his starting point is the very stereotype he has just rejected in the first part of his essay. Moreover, this way he does not eliminate the stereotype but rather offers a new one for use. The lack that appears here as well as in the essays of many other authors of this volume is that Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants are mentioned, but the discussions are only on Chinese literature in detail. Kataria mentions that in America these nations often create a unified diaspora, one (particularly in this volume where the aim is to do away with misconceptions) has to be aware that these are separate ethnicities with distinct cultural heritage and also different immigration patterns.

One of the best-structured papers is Gönül Pultar’s interpretation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in “American Circumstances and Chinese Character: Narrative Strategies in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.” Pultar links the novel’s narrative strategies to the author’s cultural position which enables her to successfully express her in-betweennes by mixing Eastern storytelling and Western-type flashbacks. What is interesting here is to refer to another essay of the volume by Indrani Datta Chaudhuri entitled “Past the ’Shadow’ and the ’Silence:’ Interpreting Arab American Women’s Poetry,” and link the two theoretical positions depicting the situation of the Chinese and Arab women as similar ones. In both cases the authors describe the double oppression of the women: on the one hand, their involuntary subjection both to the patriarchal order of the colonizers and their own ethnic community and, on the other hand, their voluntary clinging to their inherited values and traditions, which can be interpreted as oppressive, too.

The third section called African American Voices contains four essays on the artistry of protest against racism. Mina Surjeet Singh in “Ballad of a Dream Deferred: Blackness and Bleakness in the Poetry of Langston Hughes” discusses the poetry of Hughes emerging it in the world of jazz, blues, and the historical period when this poetry was conceived, when Harlem was not a mere place but a “state of mind, a metaphor for black America itself”4. Two different approaches of black literary figures are introduced by Punam Gupta’s interpretation in “Folk Creativity as a Subversive Gesture in Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God_” and R. G. Kulkarni’s analysis of Ralph Ellison’s _Invisible Man in “Racism and the Literature of Protest in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” While the former refers to storytelling as the artistry and form of resistance of black women, the latter shows that a protest against racism lies in the act of writing about the struggle for identity. The most outstanding in this section is Jap Preet Kaur Bhangu’s study of the development of black theatre, entitled “African American Drama’s Journey Towards the Centrestage.” Bhangu does not fail to notice how effective theatre can be to express the identity crisis of the blacks because African American drama is rooted in the everyday practices and achievements of the diaspora. The author explains how theatre has created an aesthetics drawing inspiration from the African roots, which can be applied usefully in order to demonstrate the quest for a distinct identity and at the same time “a yearning to cross over and embed itself into the mainstream American culture”5.

The fourth section on Indian American Voices contains seven essays. The first two deal with the poetry of Meena Alexander in a very dissimilar manner: while E. Nageswara Nao’s text “ ‘A Forest On Fire:’ The Literary Imagination of Meena Alexander” analyzes the poet’s metaphor of the world as a forest on fire, a metaphor for aggression, cruelty and racist violence, Nila Das elaborates in “Questing Otherness Along the Fault Lines” on the inner crisis, the “violence from within.” Anil Raina’s interpretative essay, “Straddling Two Worlds: Diasporic Dislocation in Vijay Lakshmi’s Pomegranate Dreams,” strucks one as an article with powerful original thoughts and with a very precise use of terms. He reflects on the often neglected fact of India as a less homogeneous country, and points out that the very term of “Indian” culture seems most inadequate to show the realities at work. The article also displays the misconceptions that appear when one talks about India and/or America, and points out how the two “myth-makings” work in relation to each other. The major strength of this work is the profound understanding of India as an absent topos that works as a constant point of reference in Indian American immigrant literature; his use of the term “Indian dream” (as parallel with that of the American dream) is synonymous to the wide-spread notion of the “imaginary homeland” or the previously mentioned “anachronistic” India from Manju Jaidka’s article.

Anu Celly presents in “ ‘Stuck In Dead Space:’ The Sense and Sensibility of the Indian American in Bharati Mukherjee’s Short Stories” a symbolic third space into which immigrants appear and links with to the issue of sexuality in her analysis of Bharati Mukherjee’s A Wife’s Story and The Tenant. Both texts, as Celly sees it, present their protagonists in search of an identity. The originality of her approach lies in her attempt to link the fragmented self of the main characters and highlight their values added to their sexual roles in the new environment (as opposed to their traditional ones). Ila Rathor’s argumentation is similar to Celly’s as she also approaches the multicultural space from the perspective of a woman’s sexuality although relating it to the importance of family structure in her essay on “Tightrope Walk: Relationships in Multicultural Space.” She sheds light on how everyday stories inside an immigrant family and their intertwined relationships mirror the politics of racism and immigration, and how these relationships present in the short stories of Indian women writers explore the specific diasporic experience. Rathor points out that the challenges to the roles of the patriarchal family are translated as “threats” to the nation itself and continues to emphasize the need of sexual freedom and the changed body politics for women. In this regard, her position is similar to the women’s ambiguous clinging to oppression as seen by Gönül Pultar and Indrani Datta Chaudhuri above.

Alka Saxena uses Anjana Appachana’s and Shauna Singh Baldwin’s short stories to unveil the contradictory diaspora literature expressing pain and nostalgia and the positive act of creating a homeland in a multicultural space at the same time in her study entitled “Cultural Displacement in the Stories of Anjana Appachana and Shauna Singh Baldwin.” In “Strictly Male Voice: A Study of Prem Chopra’s Salaam New York,” Eami Mathew unfolds the problematic relationship of fathers and sons. Prem N. Chopra’s Salaam New York can be regarded in this respect as a ‘male counterpart’ of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club: here, too the parent appears as someone clinging to the old culture of their home while the child destabilizes this culture and acculturates to the new circumstances. In this case, as Mathew points out, sons do not have to challenge an existing world order (both Indian and American, both patriarchal) but the authority of the father figure promoting the image of the masculine subject. Mathew describes this conflict adding the creative aspect of language as a means of expressing masculinity.

The editors included a fifth chapter entitled Other Voices. Paradoxically enough, one cannot resist observing that even a multiethnic studies volume can create its own margins (and centers, as well) because the title of the section suggests a sense of marginality of other, minor diasporas. What is more, Mukul Sengupta in the essay on Native American female writers “‘The Ignored Americans Speak:’ Critiquing Native American Female Voices” refers to a process of decolonization through which the canon is destructed, and other voices start to be heard. She observes that “entering into the centre from the margin, the margin itself becomes essential and canonized”6. If it is so, is it possible for a margin to ever cease? The reader’s answer is “no,” while the question of peripheral remains open: if the center is de-centered, who will stay on the periphery? The editors of the volume seem to have submitted to this view, too, in compiling the collection of essays into this category that seems to encapsulate other, quite diverse subcategories under one, working file name. With a possible broadening of the literary purview – and Mohan Ramanan’s suggestion in his closing article points towards this up-coming process – this paradox could be made even more critical.

As for Mukul Segupta’s article, he contributes by calling attention to Native American female voices and he succeeds in summarizing the major aspects of their writing. He touches on the complex relationship between the strongly oral culture of the Native Indians and the written language of the colonizers and offers a new image of this culture instead of the distorted and misinterpreted one having been promoted by anthropologists. An undoubtedly crucial article is the one by I. H-Shihan, “Robin White’s Works: A Reverse Navigation.” The concept of reverse navigation is a quite useful one. Taking into consideration the perspective of the immigrant observing India from an Americanized point of view further broadens our horizon of understanding of the ethnic dimension and it helps reinforce an interactive intercultural discourse.

Indrani Datta Chaudhuri in her interpretation of Arab American’s women’s poetry in “Past the ‘Shadow’ and the ‘Silence’” states that to the contrary of general assumption, Arab women are not only beginning to struggle against male oppression on the basis of the Western feminist model. They “were emancipated long before western women could unite themselves”7 and it was only with the colonizing process and the decline of the Arab world that these women became “veiled commodities”8. Arab American women in their poetry, thus, struggle to liberate from these misconceptions and other stereotypes. Although the problem of a distinct Southern identity is obviously a distinct one in American culture, it might be the conference frame an the less discussed issue of ‘whiteness’ that might justify or justifies, in this present volume, the choice of Pratibha Nagpal’s essay dealing with the literary work of Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty (“Self and Southern Heritage: A Reappraisal of the Short Fiction of Katherine Porter and Eudora Welty”) among the other essays with multiethnic content.

The first article in the next section titled Intercultural Studies is K. B. Razdan’s comparative analysis of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (“Ethnic Tribulations in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and William Styron’s _Sophie’s Choice_”). His experimental insight is worth considering. Razdan compares the two novels on the basis of many similarities that do not seem very obvious at the first sight but are well explainable in the end. Both are representations of journeys of the protagonists who are constantly searching a way out of fragmentation but whose past never ceases to haunt them. Their journey is interpreted as the odyssey of the philosophical ‘I’ through which they attempt to create a self-definition and to interrogate the powerful ideologies.

In “Politics of Complexity: Mapping Societies of Multiethnic ‘Her’Stories,” Deepshikha Kotwal also deals with the role of ideology in literature and she questions the canonizing processes from a feminist point of view. In her article the international space is also the field of feminist criticism. She suggests the use of progressive feminist politics through which reality can be reconstructed by the fiction of ethnic women writers such as the ones she compares here: Toni Morrison and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. She encourages the Indian novelists to “validate themselves as something more than mere oriental exotica” (270) as opposed to Toni Morrison, for example, who is acknowledged as a classic American writer. The most stringent question, thus, is why Morrison is seen as an American writer, while Bharati Mukherjee is constantly trying to call herself one?

The objective of S. S. Kumar’s article, “Ideology and Attitude Towards Nature: A Comaprative Study of Claude McKay and Bharathidasan,” is twofold. On the one hand, the author refers to the ancient maxim of Horace about literature as a source of aesthetic pleasure and at the same time social utility and shows how this theory works in the poetry of the African American poet, Claude McKay read in tandem with the works of the revolutionary Tamil poet Bharathidasan. On the other hand, he also applies this paradigm to multiethnic literatures and makes the reader think about the aesthetics and the purpose of multiethnic studies. Furthermore, he says that adding the two motivations of comparative literature – universality and the uniqueness of each culture – to this approach will make multiethnic studies successful.

Shukla Saha discusses to what extent women share experiences from cross-cultural perspective in “‘Within and Without Margins:’ Cross-Cultural Spaces in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.” She shows the similarities and differences between the works of Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston. The protagonists of the two novels express their agony over self-image and self-esteem in a world where they are perpetual outsiders. However, Saha contrasts the mother role in the novels and points out that the mother figure is crucial in the narratives. Although in both books the main characters fight against their stereotype roles in the culture they inhabit: Kingston’s heroine is active in her rebellion and her search for identity is rooted in her ancestral heritage; Morrison’s protagonist rebels by trying to shake her own culture off and transfigure her own identity in order to melt into a culture where she was never accepted.

The Performing Arts section is the penultimate one in Ethnic Literatures of America. This remarkable part examines the issue of performing arts and discusses two different trends of Indian filmic endeavors. Somdatta Mandal’s “The South Asian Diaspora vis-à-vis the Ubiquitous Bhangra” enumerates diasporic filmmakers’ documentary films in which the two-ness of the diasporic consciousness is expressed by the folk music of Punjab – bhangra – which has become the most popular music among Indian immigrants. In “From the Margin to the Mainstream: Analyzing Manoj Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense_” Menpreet Kaur Kang takes the example of Manoj N. Shyamalan’s film _The Sixth Sense in order to prove that new identity marks are created by the existence or lack of communication between people.

By revealing the active dynamics of diasporic existence and immigration in a colorful literary discourse enriched by multiethnic literatures, this volume is the result of a multifold effort. In the last concluding article about the future of this field, “MELUS: Where Shall We Go From Here?,” Mohan Ramanan stresses the importance of political issues in American Studies linked with the Multiethnic Studies, because according to him, only after recognizing this practical aspect will such discussions, as the articles review above, become meaningful. He also encourages the MELUS to expand its (literary) horizon and involve more, previously neglected and/or marginalized authors. Ramanan points to the importance of interdisciplinary and intercultural approaches that make effective communication between cultures possible. In a world where certain groups still have to face hostility and racism, these endeavor, and the spirit in which the volume was published, serve a purpose that can be but praised.


1 Mohan Ramanan, “’Eat Me America’: Some Aspects of Indian Writing in America,” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 9.

2 Jasbir Jain, “Political Realities and the Colors of Imagination,” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 31.

3 Gulshan Rai Kataria, “Racist Stereotyping and Contemporary Chinese American Literature,” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 68.

4 Mina Surjeet Singh, “Ballad of a Dream Deferred: Blackness and Bleakness in the poetry of Langston Hughes,” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 108.

5 Jap Preet Kaur Bhangu, “African American Drama’s Journey towards the Centrestage,” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 90.

6 Mukul Sengupta, “’The Ignored Americans, Speak’: Critiquing Native American Female Voices,” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 195.

7 Indrani Datta Chaudhuri, “Past the ’Shadow’ and the ’Silence’: Interpreting Arab American Women’s Poetry” in Somdatta Mandal and Himadri Lahiri, eds., Ethnic Literatures of America Diaspora and Intercultural Studies (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2005), 224.

8 Chaudhuri, op. cit., 225.