The South Asian American issue receives a stunning review in News International

Stepping outside the ‘brown’ box

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

Stepping outside the ‘brown’ boxThe 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.

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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.

CQR at the International House, University of Chicago, Global Voices Performing Arts and Lecture Series

Thanks to the Global Voices Performing Arts and Lecture Series at the International House at the University of Chicago for hosting this April 4, 2017 reading to celebrate the South Asian American issue of the Chicago Quarterly Review! Featuring Syed Afzal HaiderFaisal MohyuddinDipika Mukherjee, Toni Nealie, Ravibala Shenoy, and Sachin Waikar, moderated by CQR editor Elizabeth McKenzie.

Amritjit Singh on the South Asian American Issue

We’re honored to have this endorsement for CQR’s new South Asian American Issue from Amritjit Singh, Langston Hughes Professor of English, Ohio University:

“This rich collection of short stories, poems, and creative non-fiction not only achieves Guest Editor Moazzam Sheikh’s goals but also displays the complex issues of identity and language, diaspora and migration, culture and history, gender and sexuality, experienced today by South Asian American writers. Immigrant identities are almost always in flux, but in their century-old presence in North America, South Asians have not settled on one particular approach to their diverse lives. This “unruly bunch” loves “to talk, argue, holler,” not always choosing to learn from other ethnic and racial histories. Readers, South Asians and others, will have a chance to discover themselves in the voices they hear in these pages.” 

Happy pub date to the Chicago Quarterly Review’s South Asian American Issue!

Volume 24, Winter 2017, The South Asian American Issue

Purchase here

 “There was a time when the South Asian writer treaded the linguistic register rather carefully. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children shook things up and made many of us his children. Not anymore! The new South Asian American writer is a wild beast.”—from the Introduction by guest editor Moazzam Sheikh

Featuring Vidhu Aggarwal, Kazim Ali, Meher Ali, Neelanjana Banerjee, Nadia Chaney, Sayantani Dasgupta, Tara Dorabji, Ali Eteraz, Saadia Faruqi, Mala Gaonkar, Madhushree Ghosh, Ro Gunetilleke, S. Afzal Haider, Syed Ishaq Haider, Minal Hajratwala, Soniah Kamal, Kirun Kapur, Maya Khosla, Swati Khurana, Waqas Khwaja, Anu Kumar, Aditi Machado, Amit Majmudar, Shikha Malaviya, Zafar Malik, Vikas Menon, Faisal Mohyuddin, Dipika Mukherjee, Somnath Mukherji, Naomi Munaweera, Shabnam Nadiya, Shivani Narang, Ifti Nasim, Sophia Naz, Toni Nealie, Mahmud Rahman, Reema Rajbanshi, Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, Chaitali Sen, Moazzam Sheikh, Ravibala Shenoy, Ranbir Singh Sidhu, Pireeni Sundaralingam, Sadia Uqaili, Sachin Waikar, Tanu Mehrotra Wakefield.

“This rich issue of Chicago Quarterly Review is the perfect antidote for the cultural ignorance of those who demonize immigrants and fear the inevitable browning of America. In these memorable stories, essays, poems, and photos, we see past differences of culture, country, and religion straight into the heart of South Asian Americans, realizing that it is our own heart, one that powerfully reminds us of our shared humanity.” –Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage and The Way of the Writer

“In a time of mounting distrust of foreign cultures and unprecedented attacks against immigrants, this sweeping collection of writing by a new wave of South Asian writers is an antidote that both transports and illuminates. The irrepressible voices within rage against widely diverse assumptions and stereotypes and yet unite to remind us of the universality of the human condition.” —Manil Suri, author of The Death of Vishnu

Cover illustration and design by Laura Williams

Available now on Amazon

Manil Suri on the upcoming South Asian American Issue

“In a time of mounting distrust of foreign cultures and unprecedented attacks against immigrants, this sweeping collection of writing by a new wave of South Asian writers is an antidote that both transports and illuminates. The irrepressible voices within rage against widely diverse assumptions and stereotypes and yet unite to remind us of the universality of the human condition.” –Manil Suri

Coming soon: The South Asian American Issue

“There was a time when the South Asian writer treaded the linguistic register rather carefully. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children shook things up and made many of us his children. Not anymore! The new South Asian American writer is a wild beast.”

–from the Introduction by Guest Editor Moazzam Sheikh

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CQR #23, Fall 2016

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Volume 23, Fall 2016

Purchase here

Contributors include: Robin Barber, Andrew W.M. Beierle, J. A. Bernstein, Lisa Bloomfield, J. Scott Brownlee, Claudia Buckholts, Lucas Carpenter, Dounia Choukri, Emily Culliton, Patricia Engel, Robin Estrin, Katharine Haake, Stanley Horowitz, Michael Hutchison, Greg Jenkins, Charles Johnson, Laura Jok, David Kear, Robert Kerwin, Jen Knox, Chuck Kramer, Shane Lake, Dorianne Laux, Thomas Lee, Joan Li, Margit Liesche, Joseph Millar, Rod Val Moore, Eireene Nealand, W.P. Osborn, Cassandra Passarelli, Harry Mark Petrakis, Sofi Stambo, Jim Swierzynski, Jake Tuck, and Ian Randall Wilson.

CQR #22 is here

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Our spring issue is out, featuring terrific work by:

MICHAEL ALENYIKOV • GREG ALLENDORF • JENNIFER BANNAN • F. DOUGLAS BROWN• CRAIG BUCHNER • KEVIN CALLAWAY • GEORGE CHOUNDAS • THOMAS COOK • GEFFREY DAVIS • WILLER DE OLIVEIRA • TOBY DONOVAN • IRIS JAMAHL DUNKLE • CAROL EDELSTEIN • KYLE ELLINGSON • PANIO GIANOPOULOS • SHARON GOLDBERG • YEN HA • JARED HAREL • LAURA HEFFINGTON • RAGE HEZEKIAH • LOWELL JAEGER • TIM KEPPEL • MARIANNE KUNKEL • LAURA LEGGE • CHRISTINE LEHNER • GOTHAM MAMIK • TAYLOR MAZER • JOHN MILAS • ERICA MOSLEY • JAN NAKAO • YOUMI PARK • GLEN POURCIAU • C.R. RESETARITS • SARA SCHAFF • SUSAN SENSEMANN • CRAIG SHAW • ELEANOR SPIESS-FERRIS • JASON TANDON • RONALD TOBIAS • QIANYUE XU