In this paper, I review three popular award-winning literary fictions: Samina Ali’s (2004) “Madras on Rainy Days,” Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s (1995) “Arranged Marriage,” and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s (2002) “Born Confused.” I use these fictions as sites of possible ruptures in lived experiences of “second-generation” South Asian-Americans. Here, I ask the following two questions within the popular literary context: What are the meanings of South Asian-American identities in the U.S. racial and ethnic imaginary? And, how do these meanings travel through class, gender, sexual, and cultural hierarchies in the United States and transnationally? As a second-generation Bangladeshi-American woman, I am certainly sympathetic to the South Asian diasporic novels as theories of real ruptures in the lived experiences of South Asian-American wo/men. However, as I sociologically probe the dispersion of cultural experiences through the literary fictional narratives and I compare them across situations within a set of lives in my own ethnographic work exploring the lives of South Asian-Americans, the identity formations in the popular fictions seem untenable. Too often, popular literary fictions spawned from South Asian diasporic authors for consumption by both the diaspora and ‘western’ (often read as ‘white) mainstream are laden with Orientalist dualities. The ‘authentic’ South Asian-American experience simply represents South Asia within tropes of ‘western’ hegemonic structures where ‘South Asian’ and ‘American’ are essentialized identities, never broken down into further specificity. What is being written into both the academic and popular narratives is a story of cultural displacement, which evades the specificity of gender and depends on stereotypic propositions about America and South Asia. The static composite identity of South Asians as a group is certainly a false one because identities in general are continuously shaped and defined. Indeed, the cultural displacement model plays a key role in perpetuating the cultural authority of the ‘west.’ The diasporic novels I review here implicate themselves in the project of empire and the consolidation of the American nation-state. In this paper, I am participating in an intervention by both vindicating and challenging the imagined contours of the American nation-state. My work, then, serves to rupture and shift a paradigm that serves to falsely and unidimensionally frame our experiences as South Asian-Americans. Identity must be analyzed in terms of the complex web of social relations and the contexts that frame them. Indeed, there is a call for broadening the range of ‘Others,’ highlighting the various discourses deployed to construct ‘Otherness,’ and analyzing the politics of difference. Reconfiguring the boundaries of identity may seem infeasible and even unfathomable now as we come across anti-immigrant policies. However, I vehemently argue that it is precisely at this moment of rigidity that we can mobilize resistance.
Advanced Assistant Professor of Sociology & Coordinator of Women's and Gender Studies, Department of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies, Manhattan College, Bronx, NY, USA