Ethnic or Postcolonial?: Gender
and Diaspora Politics
Suchitra Mathur, University of Wisconsin -- Whitewater
Copyright © 2000 by Suchitra Mathur, all rights reserved. This
article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT:
Journal of Postcolonial Studies.
Book Review: Shamita Das Dasgupta, ed. A Patchwork
Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
- Introduction [Shamita Das Dasgupta]
- Grace Poore. "The Language of Identity."
- Naheed Hasnat. "Being Amreekan: Fried Chicken versus
- Lubna Chaudhry. "We Are Graceful Swans Who Can Also Be
Crows: Hybrid Identities of Pakistani Muslim Women."
- Surina Khan. "Sexual Exiles."
- Naheed Islam. "Naming Desire, Shaping Identity: Tracing the
Experiences of Indian Lesbians in the United States."
- Manisha Roy. "Mothers and Daughters in Indian-American Families:
A Failed Communication?"
- Sayantani DasGupta and Shamita Das Dasgupta. "Sex, Lies, and
Womens Lives: An Intergenerational Dialogue."
- Rinita Mazamdur. "Marital Rape: Some Ethical and Cultural Consideration."
- Satya P. Krishnan, Malahal Baig-Amin, Louisa Gilbert, Nabila
El-Bassel, and Anne Waters. "Lifting the Veil of Secrecy: Domestic
Violence Against South Asian Women in the United States."
- Anannya Bhattacharjee. "The Habit of Ex-Nomination: Nation,
Woman, and the Indian Immigrant Bourgeoisie."
- Sunita Sunder Mukhi. "Underneath My Blouse Beats My Indian
Heart: Sexuality, Nationalism, and Indian Womanhood in the
- Sonia Shah. "Three Hot Meals and a Full Day at Work: South Asian
Womens Labor in the United States."
- With the announcement of Jhumpa Lahiriís Interpreter of Maladies as
the 2000 Pulitzer prize winner for fiction, the literature of the South Asian
diaspora has attained official recognition as a part of the "American"
literary tradition. This is not to say that Lahiri is the first member of this
immigrant group to make an impact on the American literary scene. The name, in
fact, that is best known in this context is that of Bharati Mukherjee who won
the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, and whose works have become
part of the American multicultural canon. Mukherjeeís work, however,
especially since the award-winning The Middleman and Other Stories ,
has consistently focused on issues of migration from an American perspective.
Lahiriís collection, on the other hand, includes three (out of nine) stories
that are not only set exclusively in India, but also privilege the
perspectives of Indians settled in India. What then does it mean when such a
book wins the award "for distinguished fiction by an American author,
preferably dealing with American life"? By what definition is Lahiri, a person
of South Asian descent, born in London and raised in Rhode Island, an
"American"? Does she belong to the ethnic category "Asian American" or is she
a diasporic postcolonial best identified as "South Asian / Asian Indian"? And
what are the implications of such classifications? A Patchwork Shawl:
Chronicles of South Asian Women in America grapples with such questions in
thirteen theoretically illuminating essays.
- The word "chronicle" in the title foregrounds this collectionís focus on
experiential records rather than their fictional renditions, distinguishing
it from anthologies such as Our Feet Walk the Sky , Contours
of the Heart , and A Lotus of Another Color that bring
together writings in many different genres. This collection, in
fact, does not even offer interpretative critiques of such fictional
works as found in Between the Lines, edited by Deepika
Bahri and Mary Vasudeva. And yet, the essays in A Patchwork
Shawl are not historical or sociological documentaries by
putatively objective scholars. Many of the authors use the personal
essay form, highlighting their subjective position as the grounds
from which they begin their theoretical explorations into the
conditions of South Asian women in America. This form, as Dasgupta
points out in her "Introduction," allows the authors to "facilely
mingle the creative with the critical, the subjective with the
objective, and the emotional with the analytical" (15). The essays
thus break through the barriers imposed by disciplinary and/or
literary requirements. At the same time, the privileging of the
personal also justifies the differences in theoretical rigor and
ideological perspective that characterize these thirteen essays.
The collection then lives up to its name; it is a "patchwork shawl"
that foregrounds the ragged seams of this textual fabric as it
attempts to cover the "unlimited woman, the diasporic woman who
gladly renounces security within the confines of four walls to
walk the path of freedom" (ix).
- The precise definition of the confining "four walls" differs from essay to
essay. Broadly speaking, the three sections that the essays are divided into
may be seen to represent the three levels at which South Asian womenís
self-definition is restricted in America. While the first, "Who am I?
Re-Questing Identity," focuses on the ways in which language, religion, and
sexual orientation define individual womenís identities, the second, "Me and
We: Family and Community," emphasizes domestic hierarchies between mothers and
daughters as well as husbands and wives, and the third, "Nation and
Immigration: Rethinking the ëModel Minorityí," examines the cultural as well
as material rigors of geopolitical divisions within a global context. In each
case, the limitations imposed by these categories are exposed and undermined
by making visible the liminal spaces, the cracks that mark any faÁade
constructed by essentialist identity politics. Grace Poore, for instance, uses
her self-identification as a "South Asian of dual Tamil heritage born and
raised in Malaysia" to question the efficacy of politically correct terms such
as "Asian American," and "woman of color," and to point out that "language was
never meant to be a culmination, only a movement toward transformative change"
(27). Similarly, Naheed Islam undermines any easy monolithic definition of
"lesbian" by examining the different ways in which "sexuality is expressed
within historically and culturally specific contexts" (73). By referring back
to their countries of origin and invoking frames of reference alien to the
American cultural landscape, these authors challenge the existing models for
anti-racist and feminist work within the United States. Since the local is
inextricably intertwined with the global, the ethnic (Asian American) cannot
be separated from the postcolonial (South Asian), and western feminisms have
to engage with conceptual frameworks emerging from other geopolitical
locations to become a part of the global feminist conversation.
- An important step in recognizing these interconnections is exploding
stereotypes that define a "self" in terms of an "other" by placing "Asia" and
"America" on opposite sides of the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy. Over the
past couple of decades, this opposition has been especially acute with
reference to religion, resulting in the demonization of Islam as a rigidly
patriarchal belief system that fosters political terrorism and the brutal
repression of women. Such an ahistorical and monolithic characterization of a
complex religio-cultural discourse facilitates the consolidation of a
seemingly secular and gender-equitable image of "America" and encourages a
simplistic reading of immigration as liberation for all muslim women in the
United States. Combating such stereotypes requires a careful process of
recovery as well as recreation that foregrounds not only the rich diversity of
Islamic traditions, but also the agency of muslim women in defining their
culturally specific immigrant identity. In "Being ëAmreekaní," Naheed Hasnat
traces the complex histories of Islamic philosophy and cultural practices to
carve out a space where she can successfully balance "religion, culture, and
an American way of life" (44). By naming this her "Amreekan" identity, Hasnat
draws attention to the necessary transformations diasporic women create in
their places of arrival, making immigration a complex process of transcreation
rather than simple translation.
- Hasnatís essay is followed by Lubna Chaudhryís which provides multiple
examples of such hybrid identity formation through an analysis of the stories
of four Pakistani muslim immigrant women in the United States. The two essays,
however, offer an interesting study in contrast; while Hasnatís piece is
written as a personal essay, Chaudhryís article follows the more scientific
format of reporting a research project. This strategy of juxtaposing the
experiential with the theoretical appears to be maintained almost consistently
throughout the collection, and may be seen as a conceptual weakness that
undermines the explicitly stated commitment of the editor to blur the
distinction between the objective and the subjective. However, a careful look
at the essays reveals that any easy classification of their style or content
in singular terms ignores their complex interplay of the personal and the
political. In some essays, this results in a redefinition of these two terms.
In Bhattacharjeeís case, for instance, the personal is invoked through a
collective rather than an individual identity; it is the authorís experiences
as a member of Sakhi for South Asian Women that provide the springboard for
her discussions of immigrant national identity. And several other essays, such
as those by Chaudhry and Roy, that focus on the construction of theoretical
models not based exclusively on the authorsí personal experiences, do include
an awareness of the interdependence of theory and practice. These authors not
only undertake a rigorous examination of their own roles as
activist/researchers, but also allow a space for the voices of their subjects,
even when these voices do not support their ideological framework. The essays
thus become truly dialogic, offering the readers a glimpse into the gaps and
fissures that mark the intersection between experience and theory.
- And yet, the editorís introductory emphasis on the personal essay as "the
most appropriate vehicle of expression" for the "previously silenced" does
raise some questions (15). Does the "previously silenced" include the entire
population of South Asian women in America, or is there a distinction within
this group between intellectuals and subalterns, between those who can and
cannot speak? A few of the essays, especially those related to marital rape
and domestic violence, seem to emphasize such an internal hierarchy based on
class. Almost all the examples in these essays refer to women whose cultural
and financial resources place them in a lower class than the
activists/researchers who are writing about them. The authors of these essays
do carefully negotiate between re-enacting the victimization by speaking for
the victims and rendering their own positions transparent by allowing the
victimsí words to speak for themselves. However, this balancing act, while
preventing any easy distinction between subjective experience and objective
theory, does not prevent the continued silencing of violence as a reality that
affects all classes of South Asian immigrant women. Ironically, the
women who "cannot" speak then are not the subalterns but the intellectuals
whose experience of violence is not addressed in these essays.
- On the other hand, the focus on class distinctions within the South Asian
community is instrumental in exploding the model minority myth that has not
only been perpetuated by the images of Asian Americans created by the dominant
media, but is also actively embraced by the bourgeois South Asian American
community. A Patchwork Shawl explores the costs and consequences of
such ideological assimilation, including the denial of any heterogeneity
within the South Asian community and the complicity of this group in
maintaining the international division of labor. In the process, the
collection becomes not only an expression of resistance, but also of activism
that, in Shamita Das Dasguptaís words, "piece[s] together our experiences,
experiences that bridge two worlds, the one left behind and the one newly
adopted" (12). Through this back and forth movement the authors draw attention
to hitherto ignored cultural and material resources that can be sources of
strength for a minority population. Several of the essays, for example,
include references to Shakti as an empowering model of womenís strength in
Hindu mythology that needs to be re-established in diasporic communities. And
Sonia Shahís careful analysis of South Asian American class politics ends with
a call for cross-ethnic alliances, as exemplified by the Committee Against
Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), that recognize the common economic interests that
bind together different minority groups within the United States.
- A Patchwork Shawl then, though focused on South Asian women in
America, is an important contribution to the growing voices of resistance
emerging from the margins of U.S. society. As a collection committed to giving
voice to the silenced and making America a part of a global diasporic
community, this book makes an equally important contribution to the fields of
ethnic (Asian American) and cultural (postcolonial) studies. At the same time,
its recognition of its own limitations, its inability to "represent all
perspectives. . .[or even] all South Asian countries" (15) makes it a work in
progress that invites further investigation into the strategies for crossing
disciplinary and national boundaries in theory as well as practice.