Of Foreigners and Fetishes

The more things change, the more they actually stay the same. Lest that aphorism resemble the wisdom of exoticized Indian characters populating the stories of Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni, I'll contextualize my claim. It used to be the case that despite the obsession with South Asian fiction in the late 1990's era of Indo chic, South Asian American fiction was hard to find. These days, however, with new and continuing publication of works by authors like Meena Alexander, Anjana Appachana, Marina Budhos, Mohsin Hamid, Ameena Meer, Kirin Narayan, Ajay Sharma, Shauna Singh Bauldwin, and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, among others, stories about and by South Asian Americans seem to be everywhere.

Increased availability does not mean, however, that the diversity of South Asian American experience is represented. Paradoxically, in the place of the plurality of identities one might expect, the perspectives continually offered by some authors actually limit the possibilities of new Indian American writing. Of course the diverse subject matter of texts mentioned above might disrupt the process of canonization and easy marketing, but the fiction examined here repeatedly offers strangely similar versions of immigrant identity. While these narratives appear to celebrate the fluidity and mobility of immigrant identity, they reduce the historical contexts to tensions in the text that are too easily resolved through the tropes of romance. In effect, they serve to fetishize the experience of immigration, so as to perpetuate easy translation and dubious interpretation, processes that uncannily resemble Orientalist and imperial projects of literary and critical representation.

A fetish may be understood as an object onto which an individual passionately invests and displaces a contradiction that the individual cannot resolve personally. The act of fetishizing something represents an attempt by the fetishist to gain symbolic power over its potentially terrifying contradictions. The fetish therefore becomes crucial as formal strategy because it indicates an attempt to resolve a contradiction by focusing on an alternate and easily consumed representation of that contradiction. So, for example, the new literature deploys a recurring narrative of the mobility and access of the South Asian American subject, which allows the fetishist to disavow the social crisis that produced the situation of migration in the first place.

A series of questions arise for us then: what, in this case, is fetishized? what is disavowed? Lisa Lowe offers us some answers. She analyzes how U.S. immigration policy seeks to mark the Asian immigrant simultaneously as a part of the nation-state as well as a racially marked 'foreigner.' She argues that: "in a racially differentiated nation such as the United States, capital and state imperatives may be contradictory: capital, with its need for 'abstract labor,' is said by Marx to be unconcerned by the 'origins' of its labor force, whereas the nation-state, with its need for 'abstract citizens' is formed by a unified culture to participate in the political sphere, is precisely concerned to maintain a national citizenry bound by race, language, and culture."

Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Errors of Our Lives are not only popular texts, but are also marked by their inclusion in academic syllabi and anthologies as emerging canonical works in the fields of Global Literature and Asian American Studies. Mukherjee, Lahiri and Divakaruni write within the context that Lowe describes. Their fetishized versions of identity, however, allow these authors to ignore the social contradictions that constitute the conditions of immigration and citizenship, the very conditions that also produce this literature in the first place. Their narratives continually displace the experiences of immigration out of the time and space of the present into a temporality of nostalgia. The present issues of immigration: access to rights, political participation, representation, and economic disparity, are met and resolved formally within the cozy embrace of the domestic romance. It is here that nostalgia repeats and reproduces tropes of romance, which continually defer the act of resolving these contradictions in any substantive way. So instead of fiction that confronts the contradictions produced by the racist violence of the Dot-busters in New Jersey in the mid 1980's, or that perpetrated against Rishi Maharaj in 1998, the systematic exploitation of South Asian domestic labor, or anti-immigration legislation; we are instead provided recurrent narratives of romance that imagine a stable or unified South Asian American identity.

But what does this recent explosion mean for the experiences and histories that are represented in these new fictions? The increased visibility of South Asian Americans, as evinced by the spread of their representation in popular media, does not necessarily signal the end of marginalization. The new literary trend demands that we consider the conditions of former exclusion and current inclusion. The spread of the Indo-chic phenomenon into the South Asian American realm neither means that South Asian American authors are part of mainstream cultural representation of South Asian Americans nor that any story that is told will necessarily be sold. The logic of marketing the margins works to privilege certain kinds of narratives as well as certain kinds of interests. Texts produced by "minority" writers are marketed and capitalized. The marketing of particular ethnic "multicultural" or "Third World" experience has serious consequences for producers of marginal texts because as consumer desire dictates the market, the question of literary quality or political import falls to the wayside. That marginal texts are available does not indicate then that what is being represented in the texts and in their circulation actually tells us anything about the history of those represented.

In the commodification of certain kinds of fluid and mobile identities fetishized in these authors' works, we see the machinery and manipulations of the market at work. The continued success of Indian American fiction becomes contingent on the repetition of the particular formal strategies deployed in these texts. If only texts that participate in the reproduction of certain identities and narratives dominate the market, South Asian American texts that do not stand to be excluded or marginalized as a result of this particular process of limited inclusion or visibility. Narratives that refuse the construction of South Asian American identity hinging on the nostalgic and romantic representation of South Asia, or even that diverge from the problem of identity at all -- simply will not be considered for publication. The autobiography, The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez recalls the author's unwitting editor's response to his attempt to include the political contexts for his personal development: "But the New York editor is on the phone and he can't understand: "why do you spend so much time on abstract issues? Nobody's going to remember affirmative action in another twenty-five years. The strength of this manuscript is in the narrative. You should write your book in stories, not as a series of essays. Let's have more Grandma." Between new South Asian American authors and publishers, one might imagine a similar scenario: "Let's have more Jasmine."

Bharati Mukherjee is undoubtedly the grand dame of South Asian American fiction with numerous critically acclaimed novels and short story collections to her credit. In Jasmine, Mukherjee broke into the mainstream with a story that exploits the myth of American manifest destiny. In this tale of immigrant assimilation and aspiration, the narrator recounts through flashbacks and memory, her dramatic journey: She begins as a young widowed survivor of Sikh terrorists from the backward banyan-treed Hasnapur in Punjab, becomes a survivor of rape in the dangerous swamps of Florida, suffers confinement as a hair-donor in the ghettoized streets of Queens, translates perfect Jullandhari in the well-heeled halls of academia in Morningside Heights, adopts a Vietnamese refugee in the wholesome cornfields of Iowa, and finally, pregnant with an old lover's child, goes west with a new lover, to the promised land of California. Her various "incarnations" as "feudal" Jyoti in Hasnapur, "sati-goddess" Jasmine in Florida, mid-western plain Jane, and finally just Jase, are markers in her path to becoming a bona fide American. Mukherjee seduces the reader into accepting, not only the authoritative voice of Jasmine whose ironic point of view seems always already to be shaped by an Americanized sensibility, but also the idea that if all immigrants simply possessed Jasmine's ravishing beauty, skill for transformation, and simple desire to fall in love with America, their success, like hers, would be guaranteed.

Romance defines cross-cultural encounters for Jasmine. The persistence of romance as a strategy of resolution in the narrative brings attention repeatedly to Jasmine's body the site of exotic sexuality as well as "darkness, mystery, inscrutability." Because her recurrent migrations and transformations only occur within the dynamics of romantic and sexual relationships, her husbands and lovers are responsible for renaming her and providing her with the opportunities to come and go. The contradictions of a typical immigrant experience such as lack of access to mobility and opportunity are denied in her repeated romantic encounters. In fact, the narrative downplays the actual structural relations that produce these romances in the first place. It is easy to overlook the fact that all the men who love Jasmine -- Prakash, Taylor and Bud -- employ her in one capacity or another. Their relationship is structured within a transactional framework that is much larger and more insidious than the cozy domestic circuit within which all the tensions of the narrative -- those of migration, citizenship, and assimilation -- are resolved in the sexual dialectic that Jasmine offers. Indifferent to the social relations that bring her into their lives, the men are enabled by her seductions to experience the materiality of her body erotically, and as a result, are freed from considering their complicity economically, in exploiting the circuits of labor and trafficking of bodies that bring Jasmine to them in the first place.

Jasmine serves as a template for the South Asian American fiction that has followed. Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, juxtaposes the experiences of immigrants with those rooted in India. Lahiri was praised for being a perceptive translator of culture. Mukherjee lauded Lahiri's role as "a sensitive chronicler of the immigrant experience" and Divakaruni praised her voice for being "filled with quiet astonishments." At first it might be difficult to relate her work to Mukherjee's, as Lahiri's immigrant characters are surprisingly vulnerable and hesitant. They lack Jasmine's ironic sensibility and self-assurance. In "A Temporary Matter" a young grieving couple comes to terms with the loss of their baby against the backdrop of electricity shortages in Boston. In "This Blessed House," Sanjeev and Twinkle make sense of their unusual marriage and new adult lives in a context that lacks models or precedents. These characters embrace each other and American culture tenderly and tentatively, but once again it becomes apparent that the contradictions of the immigrant experience are resolved again in the unit of the heterosexual couple. When these stories appeared on their own in the New Yorker, the characters' uncertain but subtle responses to their changing lives struck critics as moving and compelling. These claims, however, ignore Lahiri's lack of rigor in the task of translation or interpretation as is evinced in the title story.

In "Interpreter of Maladies," the Das's, an Indian American family visits the Sun Temple of Konarak and encounters a translator and guide, Mr. Kapasi, whose job as an interpreter strangely enchants Mrs. Das. While her husband navigates and her children bicker in the backseat, Mrs. Das projects her impression of Mr. Kapasi's life to him; she tells him his job is "romantic." Mr. Kapasi immediately becomes infatuated with her, experiences her interest as "intoxication" and sees his occupation and life in a new light. Finally after a conversation in which Mr. Kapasi fails to satisfy Mrs. Das's quest for a diagnosis for the ailments of her life and when a group of monkeys attacks her son, Mrs. Das rushes the family back to the hotel and promptly forgets their interaction. Mr. Kapasi, though weary now of Mrs. Das's passing interest, still holds onto a memory of her. She reduces him to just another tourist attraction but he is unable to discount her as just another tourist.

The collection's success depends on the juxtaposition of the above-mentioned immigrant stories with stories like "A Real Durwan" in which Boori Ma, an old refugee sweeper woman is kicked out of her humble abode by a group of families in their quest to improve their apartment building, or "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," in which a young woman suffering from seizures is ostracized by her family and becomes mysteriously pregnant. This strange pairing of stories of American immigrants whose complex and urbane lives are set against stories of cruel, provincial, and narrow-minded Indians has the effect of celebrating the evolving and self-reflexive immigrant identity at the cost of representing the Indian identity as one that is determined by a backward and static traditional community. While the immigrant characters possess depth and a keen self-conscious interiority, the Indian characters' responses are represented through a communal voice and experience that remains untouched by the global flows that have produced the conditions for all of Lahiri's stories. It is because of the static quality of their lives that the immigrants' lives seem fluid. It is also the unlikely pairings that give Lahiri the appearance of serving as a translator when really two very incommensurable experiences are simply juxtaposed without very much explanation as to the logic of their positioning. What, for example, is the relationship of a subaltern character like Boori Ma to cosmopolitan Twinkle? Because Lahiri refuses to work out these relations, the reader can't help but feel that she is fetishizing the fluidity of immigrant identity at the cost of projecting a fixed and static identity for her Indian characters.

In Divakaruni's The Errors of Our Lives, we return again to the theme of romance as resolution. In these stories, as in Jasmine, the tensions of immigrant experiences are often worked out within sexual and romantic dynamics. My focus, here however, is on the romanticization of India. While life in America itself is not romanticized, and the fluidity of immigrant identity is perhaps more fraught, India as the site of superstition, irrationality and continuity is romanticized, albeit negatively. In "The Lives of Strangers," Leela's ordered but lonely life is challenged by a fellow pilgrim whose evil eye throws Leela's life into a crisis. It is only through her interaction with "the real India, the spiritual India" that realization and knowledge come to the immigrant. In "The Names of Stars in Bengali" a young mother and her two American sons come to vacation in her family's village after a very long time. Hearing the elders fabricate stories about the village: "The mother fell into the tales, let their current take her." She wanted desperately to believe them, to believe that through them she was learning back her past, what to pass on to her children, what America had leached away from her."

In some ways the response of this character epitomizes the sensibility of many of the immigrants' stories in all these works. The nostalgic and repeated desire for a representation of India that is static and continuous to serve as a foil for a dynamic and transforming immigrant identity is pervasive and desperate, much like the passion and enchantment of the fetishist. If fetish objects are unable to resolve the contradictions that produced them, so too are these narratives. We would do well to remember that the fetish and the concept of fetishism are products of cross-cultural, economic, cultural, and religious exchange. To continue to rely on the same fetishization of particular narratives and to disavow the contradictions that interrupt the production of a unified identity is to risk that the contradictions themselves, of racial and cultural violence for example, remain unresolved only to reappear in altered, uncontrollable, and even more terrifying forms than before.

Postscript

The more things change, the more they actually stay the same." The opening line of this essay, written months before the events of September 11th, and the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan, does not hold -- not in reference to literature or very much else. Nothing seems the same. To focus on the changed context of South Asian American literature seems to overlook the magnitude of recent changes not only in our frameworks of global cultural understanding, but in the make-up of our geopolitical landscape. Why would a consideration of literature be at all important when people all over the world, in the U.S. as well as in Central and South Asia, suffer as a show of shocking violence grips the globe? It is in fact precisely at this moment that cultural and racial difference and the contest over its representation become crucial.

Seldom in recent history have we witnessed a popular discourse in which the binaries of modernity and tradition, West and East, Good and Evil were evoked by everyone -- from political leaders to talk show hosts -- to organize our response to global events. In the wake of the World Trade Center bombings, the representation of people from the East as barbaric, foreign, and other has facilitated an unprecedented racist and violent backlash against South Asians as well as other minorities in the U.S and elsewhere. The contradictions of immigration repeatedly disavowed in the narratives of romance discussed above emerge now in forms that show up the limitations of romance as a strategy for contending with the racial violence that seems to have constituted terms of citizenship in the U.S. all along. It is at such a juncture that the demand for literature to contend with these contradictions must override consumer desire for nostalgia so that our practice of reading yields not a dangerous disavowal of the contradictions of difference but a mobilization of pleasure and desire into a politics of change rather than sameness.

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http://www.call-kc.com/ The act of fetishizing something represents an attack by the fetishist to accretion allegorical ability over its potentially alarming contradictions.

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