OCTOBER 9, 2013
TWENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, when I took my first Asian American literature class, there was one South Asian author on the syllabus, Bharati Mukherjee, a first-generation Bengali immigrant who beat out Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver for the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection, The Middleman and Other Stories. These were tales of cultural dislocation and assimilation, of forging new identities in the liberation of immigration. Mukherjee’s immigrants came from many places, including Vietnam, Iraq, and India by way of Trinidad and Canada, each in a process of exuberant, heroic reinvention. Jonathan Raban, in his New York Times review (June 19, 1988), called Middleman, “a romance with America itself, its infinitely possible geography, its license, sexiness and violence.”
Twelve years later, another Bengali writer (this time one who grew up in the United States), won the Pulitzer for Interpreter of Maladies. This quiet collection of stories was a contrast to the grand upheavals in Mukherjee’s collection. It revisited themes of cultural dislocation and immigrant transformation, but without the sweeping mythology of American reinvention. Perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri, in her depictions of crumbling marriages and melancholic domesticity, was working not only with a different sensibility but also a different global context. Interpreter of Maladies was published in 1999, just before the end of the 20th century. More than three decades had passed since the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which brought new immigrants from South Asia and renewed, in a sense, the ideal of the American Dream. After the first wave of professional immigrants, the influx continued with growing diversity over the next 35 years. Each subsequent wave of South Asian immigrants brought an ever-widening range of economic and social experiences. And just as significantly, the Cold War ended, hastening a new age of American empire. In the years that passed between the publication of Mukherjee’s and Lahiri’s seminal works, the idea of the individual immigrant finding liberation in the heady free market chaos of American culture had lost its resonance. Although Lahiri’s characters are by and large well integrated into the middle-class niches they inhabit, they are not there to portray a romance with the infinite possibility of America.
This year, 13 years into the new century and 12 years after 9/11, four debut writers are creating an evolution in the small body of South Asian American literature. This evolution, again sparked by a combination of individual talent and historical circumstance, brings with it a refreshing sense of irony and risk. In different ways each of these writers represents a departure from both the typical immigration experience and the stories they are expected to generate through them. From Mukherjee to Lahiri, a recurring concern is one of loss and gain. What is lost through immigration? Family, culture, and a sense of home, however illusory. What is gained through immigration? Material wealth and an elevated ego in the freedom of American individualism. But in these new works the question of loss and gain is largely bypassed in favor of new questions. What parts of the past do we explore when the future is so tentative? With whom do we align ourselves? How do we weave ourselves into the stories that are considered essential to American literary culture? How do we insert our stories into the American folklore and mythology, or does that even matter? Loss and gain is no longer a simple sum — the stakes have been mired for these new writers with terms that are far more complex.
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American writer and playwright who moved to the United States from Dhaka when she was three weeks old. She lived here seven years, moved to Ethiopia for four years, and finally returned to settle in the United States, though she has also lived for a time in China and Dubai. She also travels between Bangladesh and the United States frequently. This complicated migratory history is apparent in her carefully curated collection of eight stories, The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai. This collection is populated with characters who are engaged with the world, reacting to it, who are often not settled in one particular place but belongo many places, traveling back and forth across multiple landscapes. There are observations of cultural differences, but it is always with a sense of unreliability, and an acknowledgment that the forces at play are much broader and more complex than we can grasp.
While Lahiri has been criticized for writing characters and situations that seem devoid of political or historical context, Ahmed’s stories are heavily contextualized. Her characters are dropped into situations that are specific, localized, while also being unmistakably affected by the world at large — its wars, religions, politics, movements, and racial and class differences to name a few. In her title story, an elderly Japanese woman wants to return a relic to the family of an American soldier. This relic had been given to her by her husband in the early years of their marriage.
When Shimizu gave her the only gift he would give her in the first ten years of marriage, she had not asked any questions. It was a ring. He gave it to her proudly, but his eyes clouded over when she asked how he had come by it.
Later, she tells an American woman that she found the ring at Grand Central Station. The American woman offers to locate the owner of the ring and return it to him.
Mrs. Nagai wanted to say that she did not think the boy could be located, for he was somewhere in Asia, buried in the moist earth of a jungle in the Philippines, his grave overgrown with snaking vines and orchid flowers. And possibly he was missing a finger.
In other stories, a carefree Bangladeshi American woman loses her fiancé to a cause she doesn’t believe in, and the Kennedy assassination forces a young immigrant boy to face not only the notion of death, but also his utter dependence on his mother and father for love and survival. In the devastating story, “A Foreign Exchange,” a narrator who returned to Dhaka after years of living in the US is faced with an unthinkable task, to host a grieving mother whose daughter, along with the narrator’s sister, was brutally murdered in a Bangladeshi village.
I am telling this story from a great distance away. If I didn’t I would not be able to do it justice. This was how I planned to start telling Katherine’s mother what happened to her daughter and to my sister, neither of whom can tell it for themselves.
Ahmed moves seamlessly between the public and private, the political and the domestic, the humorous and tragic. This movement brings a feverish energy to her writing. For me the least resolved story, though still compelling, attempts to layer an allegory about scapegoating into a post-9/11, politically charged climate of paranoia. In “Alexander Detained,” a Bangladeshi American woman finds out that her young son has been picked up from school and taken into custody. Because the victim of the incarceration is a young boy in a somewhat secular household, the story does not quite issue a challenge or resonate in the way it is meant to. Perhaps the reality of indefinite and arbitrary detentions has not quite made its way into the constraints of fiction. It cannot compete with the nonfiction of hunger strikes at Gitmo or torture at Abu Ghraib, but still Ahmed is trying something few writers would dare. I would rather see a writer try something grand and struggle than relegate us only to small-canvas stories of troubled domesticity.
Another short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, is the debut work of Nina McConigley, a writer who grew up in Wyoming with her Indian mother and Irish father. Unlike Ahmed’s collection, this one is anchored to the American prairie — the frontier, a place so precisely evocative of the American landscape it is difficult to fathom a writer of mixed South Asian and Irish ancestry emerging from it. The book opens with a fitting epigraph from Laura Ingalls Wilder: “Ma despised Indians.”
We were the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming. There were Arapahoe, Shoshone, even some Crow. And then there was us. We were the only brown faces in school and they called us niggers.
I first heard of Nina McConigley in 2009 when I read her story “Curating Your Life,” in the literary journal American Short Fiction. Her humor, complexity, and contemporary edge set her apart, with a story of an Indian American woman who takes an internship in Chennai, where her two white American roommates are embraced and brought into the Indian experience in a way that she is not. She is both too familiar and too foreign, the perennial outsider who is forced into the role of observer. Meanwhile, her two roommates begin blogging, or “curating” their lives.
I started commenting on their blogs several times a week. When Kate wrote about buying a sari and how hard it was to pick a color, I wrote “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” When Mark told us about the temples of Kanchipuram and how it was not worth traveling there, I wrote “This land is your land, This land is my land.” […] To my disappointment, sometimes they didn’t even look at the comments. But other times they agonized over them.
When the three roommates discover they themselves are the subjects of a blog by one of their Indian acquaintances, that they are being curated into someone else’s life, there is an immediate sense of betrayal, a sense that the gaze has uncomfortably shifted.
“Curating Your Life,” is the final story of McConigley’s debut, but most of the previous stories are set in Wyoming, a place she writes about with tender authority.
The Shirley basin seemed to be a big stretch of nothing that fell between Casper and Laramie. There was no cell phone coverage and not many houses except a few small ranches slipped between strips of cottonwood-lined creeks and the bases of rising hills. The basin at one time had been a forest. Lush, tropical, a swamp. Now every summer and into fall, people combed the sagebrush and scrub for petrified wood, for a small piece of Eden preserved.
Against this backdrop, McConigley’s deft prose takes people who don’t quite fit, who are not supposed to fit, and makes them part of the landscape. In the title story “Cowboys and East Indians,” Faith, a young woman who was adopted from India by an American couple, has a moment of crisis when she gets to know a group of Indian exchange students at the University of Wyoming. In most ways Faith is a quintessential child of Wyoming. She even has a horse named Bigger Bigger.
My first two years of college I had been at the community college in Torrington and boarded Bigger with me at school. I wanted to live in a dorm and all the ranch kids were allowed to bring their horses with them. So after packing my bedding, books, and knickknacks, I packed Bigger into a trailer. Since I was a townie, I usually spent most holidays, Thanksgiving, and Easter watching the horses of ranch kids. It was a great job. The campus was quiet, the stables with just me and the horses. It was cold all right, but I loved bringing hay and feed down to the barns and looking at all those brown coats and black eyes watching me knowingly.
McConigley writes about Wyoming with the same mythic nostalgia that many Southern writers write about the South, or in the same way, aptly, that Wilder wrote about the prairie. But she subverts the mythology of Wyoming with these stories of the wrong kind of Indians and their unsettling encounters. It is not for McConigley to judge the place and its people. Wyoming is neither a good nor bad place to find oneself. It is simply home, whether you are perceived to belong there or not.
In a similar vein, Bushra Rehman’s exquisite novel in linked stories, Corona, inserts unexpected South Asian characters into places of deep cultural significance. It begins in an immigrant enclave of New York, no longer the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan, but Corona, “a little village perched under the number 7 train in Queens between Junction Boulevard and 111th Street […] The Corona F. Scott Fitzgerald called the ‘valley of ashes.’”
Our neighborhood was a hand-me-down from the Italians. When we moved in, most of them moved out. But some of the old ones hadn’t left. They sat on stoops with milky-white skin and let the sun drip over them, or they hid behind doorways with stacks of old newspapers and cold salads. They watched us all the time, frowning. They’d spent a generation planting and creating gardens out of the hard rock soil of Queens. When Italians lived there, gardenias and roses grew. Cherry trees and magnolias burst from the ground. But in our hands, these same gardens filled up with weeds, old sofas, and rusty cars.
In this Corona, Pakistani urchins roam the streets, wandering from house to house and shop to shop, from the Dominican bodega to the Halal meat store to the mosque where the children learned Quran in the basement. Episodes from the narrator Razia’s childhood are interspersed with her experiences as a young woman, still wandering but out in the world, far beyond the streets of Corona where she’d been safe as a child. In one chapter she lives with a boyfriend in a filthy hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and in another she hitchhikes though Florida with a girlfriend. She also dresses up as a Puritan to give tours at a reconstructed 17th-century village in Salem called “Pioneer Spirit.” It turns out to be a place where Razia fits in rather well among the staff of stoners and drunks. She tells the story of one of her tours, given to a group of Harley bikers and one older couple:
The bikers were grizzly-bearded and big and made me look like a tiny Puritan doll when I stood next to them. I was terrified, but I pulled myself up to my full five feet and looked them in their faces. If I took away their motorcycles and muscles, they looked just like my bearded Muslim uncles in Queens.
While she wins over the bikers with her historically inaccurate but entertaining tour, the older man is not as amused, neither by her cavalier attitude toward history nor the blasphemous conceit of allowing a Pakistani woman to play the role of an English Puritan. He succeeds in ending her short-lived career at Pioneer Spirit.
While so many immigrant narratives are about the transformation of the immigrant, what Rehman’s novel does beautifully is illustrate the transformation of the places immigrants inhabit. Her Corona is vibrant and dynamic, a crossroads where various ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures rub against each other, sometimes clashing, sometimes mingling, but in the process creating a place that is entirely new. Next to Corona the rest of the country seems strange — alien, absurd, and stagnant.
Finally we have a shift in genre, a novel by A. X. Ahmad called The Caretaker. As Amin Ahmad, this writer has published literary short stories and essays in New England Review, The Missouri Review, and Narrative, among others. His choice to write a commercial thriller is in itself an interesting departure for an immigrant narrative, creating the first South Asian hero in what is an overwhelmingly white genre. It also opens the way for other South Asian writers to experiment with form as well as content.
The hero is Ranjit Singh, a former Indian army captain and a turbaned Sikh who finds work as a caretaker to an African American senator’s estate in Martha’s Vineyard. This New England is quite different from Lahiri’s New England. Ahmed’s New England is less opportunity and more peril, the stuff of thriller.
When he first came to the island with his wife and daughter six months ago, the water was warm and shimmering, the beaches were lined with parked cars, and long-tailed kites fluttered in the hot sky. […]
But now winter is upon them and the tourists are all gone. The ice-cream parlors and clam shacks have closed, and the migrant workers — the Jamaicans and Bulgarians and Czechs — have left. Even the sky feels like a gray bowl jammed over the island.
To appease his unhappy wife, he secretly moves his family into the senator’s vacant house during the off-season. Very quickly the situation begins to deteriorate. After two men break into the Senator’s house, Ranjit and his family flee the island, but on the mainland his wife and daughter are taken into INS detention. To save them from deportation, Ranjit is thrown into a dangerous game of cat and mouse, with global repercussions.
While the thriller is engaging, Ranjit’s tenuous immigration status gives the story an added poignancy and weight, as well as an elevated sense of foreboding. He is constantly skirting the mainstream, whether it is among the African American elite of Martha’s Vineyard or the working class immigrants whose “papers are not in order.” For Singh there is the added pressure of his visibility. Turbaned Sikh men, easily identified as particularly foreign, were among the first targets of jingoistic violence after 9/11. The only way for Ranjit to blend in while staying two steps ahead of his pursuers is to cut his hair and shave his beard.
He gathers up the drifts of hair from the floor and stuffs them into a plastic bag, all the while avoiding his reflection in the mirror. When he can delay no more, he is forced to look at himself.
A stranger’s face stares back from the mirror. Short, spiky hair. A long face with a strong jaw, a sharp nose, and tired eyes. And there is the scar: a thick ridge that starts under his jaw and curves to his left ear. With his beard gone, it is exposed.
Ahmad is testing the boundaries of the traditional immigrant narrative with this genre, twisting many of its elements in exciting ways. Here the immigrant’s agency is paramount. Even if his new surroundings are alien to him he must make them his own, quickly and intimately because his life depends on it. He must take decisive action to change the course of the future. So much of the immigrant experience is about observing and accepting, of making oneself malleable and letting the environment shape the individual. What happens in a situation in which the immigrant doesn’t have that luxury, when being the good immigrant might endanger the lives of millions?
All four of these authors are more preoccupied with place, with geography, than with the process and conflicts of immigration. After almost 50 years of South Asian immigration, perhaps this is the natural evolution in an emerging literature. Still, among these new works, there are some echoes of Mukherjee’s immigrants seeking to reinvent themselves, or Lahiri’s immigrants struggling to make sense of their new world. The characters in The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai are often trying to find their place as they move back and forth between continents; in Cowboys and East Indians they experiment with different identities and states of belonging. Perhaps the characters who most closely resemble Mukherjee’s unmoored immigrants are Razia, who rebels against an arranged marriage and is cast off, and Ranjit Singh, who tries to escape the trauma of his past, but these narratives are not about the transformation of the characters alone. They affect the setting as much as the setting affects them, and the writers, in telling these stories, both record and contribute to that transformation. We can believe New York City is a place where a Bengali boy and his mother might watch the Kennedy assassination unfold on the television screen, and Wyoming a place where a South Indian girl might take care of a horse named Bigger Bigger. The images of a Pakistani girl in a Puritan costume and a Sikh caretaker on Martha’s Vineyard are a part of our cultural history now, made indelible by the writers who brought them into being.