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 Chicken Tikka."
  • 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 Women’s 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 United States."
  • Sonia Shah. "Three Hot Meals and a Full Day at Work: South Asian Women’s Labor in the United States."

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.


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Last Modified: 7 March 2002