Long-Distance Radicalism: In Conversation with SAMAR’s Virtual Editorial Collective

In the early 1990s, a new wave of second-generation South Asian Americans graduated from high school and college and began moving to cities like New York, where identity politics was dramatically reshaping the urban landscape of art and activism. Collaborating with first-generation artists and activists in the U.S., these young South Asian Americans founded arts collectives and political initiatives that challenged both the conservatism of the first Bush administration and the communal tensions dominating the South Asian subcontinent and diaspora. Perhaps no resource has captured the critical debates that have shaped the resulting radical South Asian American movement than SAMAR. Since the publication of its first issue in 1992, SAMAR has highlighted the emergence and development of South Asian American cultural and political organizations dedicated to community outreach and advocacy, and provided a forum that bridges political struggles on the subcontinent with queer, feminist, anti-racist and labor activism within the diaspora. Alongside other alternative South Asian diasporic publications, like the queer quarterly Trikone and the Toronto-based arts journal Rungh, SAMAR has enabled a community of like-minded readers to connect and dialogue with one another. Most remarkably, SAMAR has been powered over the past twenty years by an all-volunteer editorial collective who embody the magazine’s community-based spirit. Here, a few of the magazine’s long-standing editors share their reflections on SAMAR’s past, and look ahead to its third decade.

The current generation of SAMAR editors largely chose to become involved with the magazine following 9/11. Invited to join the collective in 2002, Saba Waheed comments that she was drawn to the magazine because she knew it “would intervene in the dominant, war mongering, othering narratives that were building and exploding all over the country” after the collapse of the World Trade Center. Then working with the Urban Justice Center to document the impact of 9/11 on low-income communities, Waheed’s participation in SAMAR, as well as other South Asian diasporic organizations like Youth Solidarity Summer and 3rd I, helped link her interest in social justice to South Asian American radicalism. SAMAR similarly provided lawyer Beena Ahmad with an important diasporic venue for post-9/11 political discourse. “The writing in our pages is designed to encourage our community to take part in a movement and that has always been SAMAR’s greatest potential,” she says. Surabhi Kukke joined the collective in 2004, around the same time as Ahmad, after returning to New York as a program officer for Planned Parenthood and getting reacquainted with South Asian community activism in the city: “I was looking for a way to be connected to what was happening on the subcontinent and in the diaspora and SAMAR represented that opportunity for me.” Like her fellow collective members, Kukke is deeply committed to community activism and advocacy. In addition to her professional role at the Texas Council on Family Violence, Kukke organizes with Mamas of Color Rising, an Austin-based collective that seeks to improve birth outcomes for poor women of color.

The community investments of SAMAR’s editorial collective members reflect not only the range of their expertise across the fields of art, law and public health, but also their varied locations across the U.S., from New York to the Midwest to Los Angeles. This geographic diversity marks a shift from the first decade of the magazine’s production, which took place entirely in New York City. “When I first started at SAMAR,” Waheed recalls, “we were all based in New York and would meet in person,” a format that allowed editors to base each issue of the magazine around a collectively chosen current event or theme. This single-theme structure has become less sustainable since the editors began working remotely, as the ability to discuss issues affecting the diaspora must now contend with time differences and the technical challenges of video conferencing. Kukke and Ahmad concur that the very advances in social networking that enable a fully national collective to exist have ironically distilled the social feeling of community around which SAMAR is based. “When we all lived in one place, collective meetings felt like an event,” Kukke explains. “We would spend hours together, preparing pieces for publication, eating and drinking together, getting close....Now that we are scattered around the country, it is harder to maintain that sense of connectedness.” Ahmad adds that collective members are “more removed from each others’ lives that we would like to be. We can’t provide the day-to-day support, encouragement or celebration that otherwise comes with being part of a team.”

Despite the obstacles of working independently to produce a community-based magazine, the editors find that SAMAR’s move in 2004 from a print to online format has been positive and beneficial. The transformation of the magazine to an online publication has allowed the collective to minimize the prohibitive expenses of print production that sunk many other publications founded in the 1990s. It also enables editors to directly manage the website and content, so as to present more timely coverage of current events. Kukke admits that while the print version of SAMAR was a “labor of love” whose back issues remain treasured by archivists in the community, it also restricted the collective’s ability to distribute the magazine globally. The online structure, by contrast, has resulted in an increase in both the volume and geographic reach of readers, who visit the website from the subcontinent as well as the diaspora. This wide-ranging circulation “is able to reflect the diversity of the South Asian left across the diaspora by drawing contributions from folks all over the world,” she comments. “Certainly in the age of social media, a web-based platform for the magazine has made the most sense in terms of visibility and community impact.”  

In the midst of significant changes to SAMAR’s publication and editorial structure, the content of the magazine has consistently provided a radical perspective on issues relevant to the South Asian subcontinent and diaspora. For this reason, Kukke considers SAMAR “an incredible platform for the South Asian American left to present our politics in formation.” As “one slice of an archive of South Asian American critical social and political thought over the past twenty years,” the magazine “provides a window into the development of a movement outside of the academy” that has grown in solidarity with wider social justice efforts. SAMAR’s role as an archive for South Asian American radical politics has become increasingly relevant in the past decade, as the magazine has served as a key resource for accessible yet critical perspectives on 9/11 and the centrality of the South Asian region to the War on Terror. By covering issues like the use of drones in Pakistan and the stateside backlash against Muslim Americans, Waheed remarks that SAMAR’s major editorial goal has been “to challenge the terror machine.” The magazine’s importance as a source for alternative coverage of post-9/11 politics, in tandem with its online presence, has further expanded its readership. Between August and September 2011, during the time between the Park 51 controversy and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, SAMAR’s website received the largest number of visitors in its history.

The shifts in South Asian and U.S. history and politics over the past twenty years have clearly impacted SAMAR’s content and focus. Yet the magazine has also been shaped by the less visible force of the collective itself, whose particular interests and experience influence each issue. The fact that the current group of editors, who also include Ahalya Satkunaratnam and Sulekha Gangopadhyay, make up an all-women collective is, on one hand, a testament to the sustained participation of women in the South Asian American left. On the other hand, it also signals the potential for SAMAR to foreground feminist analysis of communalism, militarism and xenophobia. Most recently, the editors transformed the article-based structure of SAMAR to include podcasts and a collaboration with the South Asian Solidarity Initiative (SASI) that features a monthly column on subcontinental social justice issues. In the immediate future—this anniversary year—Waheed looks forward to “tak[ing] time to reflect back on the changes in the community” that have taken place since SAMAR’s founding, and of taking stock of the challenges the diaspora continues to face. As the collective looks ahead to the magazine’s next decade, they hope to continue expanding SAMAR’s multi-media and collaborative content. Ahmad adds that she envisions SAMAR growing beyond its structure as an online forum in the future. “I would love to see us bring our stories to life by putting together a symposium,” she says. “I would love see us use our name recognition to subscribe to causes that we believe are in line with SAMAR’s mission. I would love to see us turn out with banners and slogans and show that we are not just virtual, but visible and vocal with our dissent.”

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