23.2.07

Currently reading...


I recently purchased a beautiful volume of essays edited by Amitava Kumar, Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate. Included are essays and selections from the writings of M.K. Gandhi, Amitav Ghosh, Rabindranath Tagore, A.K. Ramanujan, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Meera Syal, Anita Desai, and Pankaj Mishra, among others. Highly recommended.

Below is an extract from Bharati Mukherjee's brilliant piece, "Two Ways to Belong in America."


Like well-raised sisters, we never said what was really on our minds, but we probably pitied one another. She, for the lack of structure in my life, the erasure of Indianness, the absence of an unvarying daily core. I, for the narrowness of her perspective, her uninvolvement with the mythic depths or the superficial pop culture of this society. But, now, with the apegoating of ‘aliens’ (documented and illegal) on the increase, and the targeting of long-term legal immigrants like Mira for new scrutiny and new self-consciousness, she and I find ourselves unable to maintain the same polite discretion. We were always unacknowledged adversaries, and we are now, more than ever, sisters.

“I feel used,” Mira raged on the phone the other night. “I feel manipulated and discarded. This is such an unfair way to treat a person who was invited to stay and work here because of her talent. My employer went to the INS and petitioned for the labour certification…I’ve obeyed all the rules, I’ve paid my taxes, I love my work…I love the friends I’ve made. How dare America change its rules in midstream? If America wants to make new rules curtailing benefits of legal immigrants, they should only apply to immigrants who arrive after those rules are already in place.”

To my ears, it sounded like the description of a long-enduring, comfortable yet loveless marriage, without risk or recklessness. Have we the right to demand, and to expect, that we be loved? (That, to me, is the subtext of the arguments by immigration advocates.) My sister is an expatriate, professionally generous and creative, socially courteous and gracious, and that’s as far as her Americanization can go. She is here to maintain an identity, not to transform it.

...

Mira and I differ, however, in the ways in which we hope to interact with the country that we have chosen to live in. She is happier to live in America as expatriate Indian than as an immigrant American. I need to be part of the community I have adopted…I need to put roots down, to vote and make the difference that I can. The price that the immigrant willingly pays, and that the exile avoids, is the trauma of self-transformation.



Comments?

6 comments:

melissa said...

I think that's a pretty thoughtful idea. I'd be interested in reading the rest of this essay though because I feel that no matter which way one goes about living in the US, both will find some degree of bitter disappointment. That the self-exiled will eventually realize s/he cannot be completely unaffected by living here, that the immigrant will eventually realize no matter how hard s/he tries, s/he will never be truely accepted as authentically American.

a.kini said...

exactly. what's interesting is to put this piece in relation to Mukherjee's fiction, which privileges the concept of 'mongrelization' (her term) in terms of culture and location. she advocates for a very broad form of hybridity, one that is possibly too idealistic in its 'multicultural' leanings.

melissa said...

so after reading this essay as a companion piece to her fiction, how do you feel about her actual feelings and what she writes about in her novels?

a.kini said...

unfortunately, mukherjee is not a great fiction writer. at least, the novels i've read are pretty tedious. her short fiction and her essays, though, are consistently high quality. regardless, i think her writing is important in the larger context of south asian literary culture because she has a pretty singular perspective. she shies away from the almost cliche diasporic perspective of the static 'backward glance.' instead, her characters are literally and figuratively in the process of reinvention. there is an element of looking backward, but also of forward motion. i highly recommend 'the middleman and other stories,' her national book award winning collection of short fiction; and in particular, "the management of grief," the last story in that text.

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