South Asian American Identity in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Categorizing Asian American literature into tidy ethnic groups is problematic. The breadth, variety, and complexity of Asian cultures defy easy categorization. India is a country two-thirds the size of the United States. It is divided into twenty-three states and several federal territories. Each state has cultural, social, linguistic, historical, geographical, and culinary characteristics that are unique. It is almost impossible to talk about an Asian Indian experience because such a discussion lends itself to generalities that are not applicable to the entire nation. Similarly, organizing the multicultural nations of Asia into neat compartments for the convenience of Western audiences has given rise to severe criticism from Asian scholars and thinkers. They argue that pigeonholing vastly different people into patterns that are convenient for the West is another way of dominating and controlling other peoples.

For example, those belonging to the South Asian American category include peoples of different religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldive Islands. Individuals of Asian Indian origin living in America are generally referred to as South Asian Americans. The term “Indian Americans” tends to be avoided because it gives rise to confusion with Native Americans, who are referred to as American Indians.

South Asian American Writers

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The forging of new identities and the creation of a society that stretches its paradigms to include new Americans are the subjects of various South Asian works. A list of noted twentieth century South Asian writers includes Ved Mehta, Santha Rama Rau, Meena Alexander, Agha Shahid Ali, G. S. Sharat Chandra, Anita Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Zulfikar Ghose, Amitava Ghosh, Gita Mehta, Bharati Mukherjee, Raja Rao, and Sara Suleri.

Mukherjee, one of the most famous of the group, has exhorted immigrant writers to abandon the Third World material they sentimentalize as exiles and to take up, or continue, writing about “the messiness of rebirth as an immigrant.” She has also pointed out that as new patterns of immigration alter the American cultural fabric, the necessity of participation in literature is twofold. Immigrants must speak for themselves, and, in doing so, a new America speaks for itself.

Wanting to be known as an American rather than as a South Asian American writer, Mukherjee calls for a need to assimilate, to view life from within America rather than from its periphery. Her writing uses cinematic techniques, showing the dominant culture surrounding, all-pervasive, immigrant society. She argues that assimilation must occur. In most of Mukherjee’s works, this melding happens in violent, dramatic ways in which a resolution of issues comes with a forced break from the old culture in favor of the new.

Her first...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, ed. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Rustomji-Kerns, Roshni, ed. Living in America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian American Writers. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995.