The South Asian American reviewed in News International

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Stepping outside the ‘brown’ box

An anthology of an emerging wave of South Asian writing that unashamedly explores issues of otherness and marginalisation.

The rich hues that paint the cover of independent literary journal Chicago Quarterly Review’s South Asian American Issue are colours typically associated with South Asian cultures: reds, oranges, blues, and greens; falling raindrops symbolising narratives of loss and displacement that are expected of South Asian writers. The real surprise lies inside, within the collection of short stories, poems, and essays edited and curated by Moazzam Sheikh.

The stories stretch across continents: the South Asian homelands represented as much as the migrant’s experience in the Northern Hemisphere. This is an anthology of an emerging wave of South Asian writing, with every author and poet appearing to be intent on pushing back the parameters of literary space conceded to ‘brown’ writers.

In his introduction to the volume, Chicago Quarterly Review’s (CQR) guest editor Sheikh notes that South Asian American writers are generally a ‘fractured bunch’, their ‘competing master narratives’ a stumbling block in achieving a cohesive identity. Differences exist within and outside, with stereotyping placing the South Asian American writer and their art in a convenient little box labelled ‘brown’.

The CQR’s special edition picks up that perception and shakes it to display the overlapping fluid identities of a South Asian American as an artist, an immigrant, an American, and a South Asian. For far too long, South Asian writers have been grudged entry into the sphere of English language writing due to their lineage. But the 40-plus artists featured in this anthology are having none of that. While the tropes of alienation and displacement do make their appearance, the invocation of pity has disappeared. Writings that explore issues of otherness and marginalisation are unashamed, irreverent even, in owning English as their medium of expression.

Befittingly, CQR’s South Asian American Issue is a compilation of intense thought. Each entry touches upon a different vulnerability of humankind. This is the strength of the collection: universal in emotion, South Asian in character.

Language and the appropriation of expression continue to be at the heart of the South Asian experience abroad. However, the writings in this collection attempt to step beyond the post-colonial identity and locate their bearings in a global context. Neelanjana Banerjee’s story about a reluctant Indian’s part in Operation Desert Storm, “The Songs in Sam’s Head” finds space alongside Madhushree Ghosh’s poignant essay, “#Aylan, Or How to Treat Refugees”. Violence rears its ugly head too, retold in Pireeni Sundaralingam’s poems, “Lynch Mob” and “The Gecko Remembers, as laments to war-torn Sri Lanka, and against the individual as the molestation of a little girl in Sayantani DasGupta’s non-fiction “The Butcher Shop of New Delhi”. Tanu Mehrotra Wakefield uses the familiar South Asian attachment to traditional music in her poem “Threading the Ghazal” to capture what Neelanjana Banerjee describes as being “giddy with America”.

Dipika Mukherjee’s “Descent from the Winter Garden” holds as true for the Black Lives Matter movement as for socio-political turmoil elsewhere in the world. Sikha Malaviya spins strange odes to India’s underbelly and Vikas Menon ponders upon cultural practices in sharp-edged words. Sophia Naz’s poetry takes this play on words a bit further; juxtaposing Urdu meanings onto English words and vice versa to create poetical paragraphs that mock the reader. The list of writers is long and varied, all attempting to define their multifaceted identities in a world of shifting reality.

Nadia Chaney captures this literary awakening in “There’s Really No Such Thing as the “Voiceless””, taking her cue from Arundhati Roy’s famous quote “There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” The ‘erasure of self’ that Chaney terms ‘shape-shifting’ is a preoccupation of every migrant group. But the difference is in manner of looking inwards. It is, perhaps, best summed up by Amit Majmudar’s lines:

“The brown, who once studied how to be white,

now study the brownness of brown.”

(From Brown Study; Or Poem Ending with a Line by Goering)

The emotionally charged writings are punctuated by the inclusion of sketches and photographs, the visual art acting as a reprieve from the heaviness of ‘cultural reconstruction and self-knowledge’. That is not to say that one art form is disconnected from the other. Rather, the fragmented pieces of Sadia Uqaili’s collages overlay each other; transgressing lines much like the identities of the writers showcased in the issue. Faisal Mohyuddin’s ink on paper “Caliban”, borrows its title and subject from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, once again hinting at the universality of this edition of South Asian American writings.

The modern South Asian writer is caught at the crossroads of what Nayomi Munaweera calls “the story of what it means to be both a child of a mother and a child of history” (What Lies Between Us: A Novel). Befittingly, CQR’s South Asian American Issue is a compilation of intense thought. Each entry touches upon a different vulnerability of humankind. This is the strength of the collection: universal in emotion, South Asian in character. It is not an anthology for the reader looking for saffron-scented sweet words. It is an unapologetic scrutiny of modern life. Highly recommended.