Into the Gap


Josna E. Rege

Dartmouth College, Hanover NH

Copyright © 2000 by Josna E. Rege, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Lavina Dhingra Shankar and Rajini Srikanth, eds. A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.


  1. This collection considers the gap between South Asians and Asian America, what can be done to close it, and the risks involved in doing so. It is only quite recently that people of South Asian origin in the United States have begun to think of themselves as Asian American, and the term is by no means universally accepted. Indeed, thinking of themselves as broadly South Asian rather than in terms of their national origin is also a new and a particularly American phenomenon. The first collection to focus on South Asians as Asian Americans, A Part, Yet Apart joins a number of essay collections and anthologies on and by South Asian Americans, including Desh-Videsh, a special issue of The Massachusetts Review (1989), Our Feet Walk the Sky: Women of the South Asian Diaspora (1993), Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America (1996), and Between the Lines: South Asians and Postcoloniality (1996). In their introduction, "Closing the Gap? South Asians Challenge Asian American Studies," co-editors Lavina Dhingra Shankar and Rajini Srikanth problematize both the categories "South Asian" and "Asian American," challenging readers' assumptions and setting a self-critical tone for the volume as a whole. They explore both the potential and the pitfalls of an Asian American identity for South Asians, who are often considered neither Asian enough nor American enough.

  2. In the first section, "Limiting Names and Labels," Deepika Bahri's essay warns of the potential divisiveness of the category "Asian American" if it perpetuates the historical notion of Asia as Europe's Other or "papers over the differences" between the different Asian American groups. Instead, she proposes "a kaleidoscopic and forward-looking perspective that will allow us to apprehend the benefits of coalitionism while retaining a focus on the dangers of identitarian constructions." She advocates a "principled unity for the moment" that acknowledges responsibility to and commonalities with other U.S. minorities while remaining clear-eyed about the differences. Lavina Dhingra Shankar's essay discusses the different terms used to describe South Asians since their arrival in North America in the eighteenth century and the changing census categories designed to enumerate them in the twentieth. Noting that the terms "postcolonial" and "(South) Asian American have limited significance outside Western academic circles," she considers the implications of South Asians' prominence within U.S. postcolonial studies and of their entering the field of Asian American studies. She further examines the representations and self-representations of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Bharati Mukerjee, two eminent writers of South Asian origin, both from India -- both, indeed, from West Bengal -- neither of whom would describe herself as South Asian or Asian American. The former, she says, has preferred to describe herself as an outsider or regionally and linguistically as a Bengali rather than in national terms, while the latter has chosen to identify herself as an American immigrant in the tradition of Ellis Island. Each position brings with it certain possibilities and limitations. Shankar reminds readers that "in trying to bridge the gaps, the collection risks reifying the binary schema" as well as glossing over serious divisions within the South Asian category itself, dominated as it is by Indians and riven by nationalist and religious/political conflicts.

  3. In the second section, "The Disconnections of Race," Nazli Kibria discusses South Asian Americans' fuzzy racial ascription as "ambiguous nonwhite," and argues that "race is at the heart of this gap" between South Asians and other Asian Americans, who are primarily of East and Southeast Asian origin. Part of the problem of their not recognizing themselves or being recognized as Asian American is historical and demographic, and part involves racial misrecognition. South Asians are caught between the American obsession with skin color and the scientifically discredited but still current nineteenth century racial categories. Kibria notes that, besides their more recent immigration, their clear physical differences from East and Southeast Asians contribute to their marginalization from Asian American groups, and concludes that the racial gap will not simply go away, but is likely to "ebb and flow over time and...circumstances," further complicating existing tensions and conflicts of interest within Asian American coalitions.

  4. Min Song's essay, "Pahkar Singh's Argument with Asian America," is an "exposition of an identity formed through a historical process." It explores the racial and inter-ethnic implications of a 1925 incident in which a prosperous Indian farmer in California's Imperial Valley shot and killed two white men before turning himself in. Under a law that discriminated against Japanese and Indian farmers, the men were trying to relieve him of his crops and his land. There was little cooperation between Indians and Japanese in the Valley, but Song shows that they were similarly discriminated against. He argues that historical studies help us to understand both the commonalities and important differences between the histories of different Asian groups in the United States, and enable more nuanced explorations of the possibilities for coalition-building among them.

  5. In the third section, "Topologies of Activism," Anu Gupta's essay on college activism and Asian American identity formation investigates the relationships between identity-based student groups at four private universities in the Northeast. Gupta notes that since "South Asian American" is a relatively new identity, most second-generation students of South Asian origin still tend to describe themselves as "South Asian." She discusses the contradictory racial identities imposed upon them as they grow up in mostly-white suburbs. Entering college, the choices of student groups they are offered have a significant effect on their identity formation. Because of the isolation in which most of them have grown up, they often choose ethnicity-based rather than pan-Asian groups in order to explore their specific cultures. Gupta finds that the relationships between Asian American and South Asian student groups on campus -- as well as among minority groups in general -- influence how students will identify themselves. They are more likely to identify themselves as Asian American if there is a good relationship, and more likely to identify themselves with their specific ethnic group if there are tensions.

  6. Growing up in New York City, Sumantra Tito Sinha had a great deal in common with his friends, many of whom were Asian Americans of different ethnicities. In college, he discovered that his urban, multiethnic environment had given him a different experience from that of most other South Asian students. He joined the Asian American group, founded a South Asian group and worked successfully with other people of color on campus to foster links with the existing Asian American organization, oppose racism, and gain representation and access to resources. He found that, "ultimately, this desire to fight racism and cultivate a diverse, tolerant, and just community played a major role in closing gaps within the Asian American and student of color populations." Sinha's subsequent pan-Asian American community work fostered his sense of belonging to a larger Asian American community. As the first South Asian staff member at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the early 1990s, when Indians became the second-largest ethnic group in New York City after the Chinese, he discovered that South Asian Americans were not the conservative voters they were purported to be, and that a majority of them voted Democratic. Nevertheless, he found that the community remained largely apathetic. Supported by his organization, he found that there were other non-South Asians in Asian American organizations who wished to close the gaps dividing the community. Sinha observes, however, that there remains a mutual "lack of knowledge and communication among pan-Asian organizations, South Asian community groups, and the South Asian community." Many South Asian Americans do not realize that Asian American organizations could serve them and, for their part, many Asian American groups do not reach out to South Asian Americans. He also reports the "perception among many other Asian Americans that the South Asian American community does not face serious problems" as particularly disturbing because it suggests that "Asian Americans may have internalized the model-minority mythmaking of the society at large."

  7. Based on his experience working with Trikone in San Francisco, Sandip Roy discusses the position of lesbian and gay South Asians in Asian American "lesbigay" organizations. He notes that while few mainstream South Asians choose to identify themselves as Asian American, the Asian American gay community is often the only one with which South Asian lesbians and gays can identify, since they rarely find support in their "own." They have different issues from mainstream (white) American gays, and although they may have little in common with the East Asians who form the majority in the Asian American gay organizations, they "seem to have better relations with their Asian counterparts than do many mainstream South Asian groups." Rajini Srikanth's nuanced analysis of Tennessee Democrat Ram Yoshino Uppuluri's 1994 campaign for U.S. Congress explores the different reasons why he was unable to involve the Japanese American community in his campaign. At the outset of his campaign, Uppuluri, whose mother is Japanese and father Indian, had identified himself primarily as a Tennessean, and more specifically as a resident of the scientific community of Oak Ridge. Although his publicity and fundraising efforts had initially reached out to the national Japanese American community, they had received very little response. On the other hand, he was eagerly embraced by Indian Americans, and increasingly came to focus more and more upon the Indian American community and indeed, to identify himself with them. Political, historical, geographical, class, and gender factors all helped to account for the campaign's failure to project Uppuluri as a Japanese American or a pan-ethnic Asian American candidate. Srikanth discusses the historical gap between the different communities and concludes that closing that gap would have taken much more concerted coalition-building efforts on both sides.

  8. Vijay Prashad's essay, "Crafting Solidarities," is refreshingly unconcerned about the putative gap between South Asians and Asian America, arguing instead for the category, "people of color" as a more useful link between different communities in the United States. Citing the history of the model minority stereotype, used as a weapon to wield against American blacks and to divide racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants, he reminds readers that the Asian American movement has become absorbed in identity politics and narrow self-interest. South Asians, he asserts, would do better to look to their own internal gaps of wealth and power. He suggests that their history of British imperialism and colonial rule equips them to recognize the oppressiveness of contemporary capitalism and argues trenchantly, "there can be no radical politics of South Asian America that does not deny the model minority stereotype and ally itself with the black and Latino Liberation Movement as well as with currents of American socialism."

  9. In the final section, "Literary Texts and Diasporics," Ruth Yu Hsiao measures three recent South Asian American texts -- My Own Country by the physician Abraham Verghese, The Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee, and Coming Through Slaughter by Canadian-based Michael Ondaatje -- against a model of ethnic literature that sets out three different "modes of self-identity" which "echo the social and psychological stages migrants pass through," as immigrants, children of immigrants, and "native-born ethnic Americans." In the first mode, the emissary explains his or her ethnic culture to a mainstream audience; the second mode declares the American self and claims Americanness; and the third mode "deconstructs fixed identities, explores the limits of the ethnic self, and reconstitutes notions of ethnicity." Hsaio argues that each of the above texts expresses one of these three modes, thus "situating South Asian American writers squarely within the conventions derived from...earlier Asian American writers," in spite of a few differences that are a function of their different immigration histories and colonial pasts. She concludes that "the gap in this case is . . . negligible." Samir Dayal's essay, on the other hand, seeks not to deny or resist the idea of a gap but rather to "mind" it, "keeping the fracture open within the category of Asian America," and exploring the "lack of 'fit'" between Asian America and South Asian America. He discusses Faultlines, the memoir by poet and novelist Meena Alexander, as exemplifying this lack of fit. He also notes that despite its title, Faultlines contains little mention of tensions between and among ethnic groups, and while recognizing that Alexander's focus may be on collaboration rather than conflict in the interests of solidarity among minorities, he warns of the danger of suppressing differences in the interests of assimilation into an undifferentiated "Asian America." He concludes that their diasporic identities and histories may play as much of a role in the complex positioning of South Asians in America as does the term South Asian American.

  10. In the past two or three years, South Asian America has come of age. The field of fiction alone has seen the spectacular success of Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things (1997), the media attention given to Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), and the critical acclaim accorded to Jhumpa Lahiri's first collection of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is interesting to note that the first of these three writers is an Indian living in India, the second a postcolonial diasporic Indian living in London (and soon in New York), and the third a South Asian American living in the United States, indicating the simultaneity of all these different, overlapping categories. And all these categories remain in play even as South Asians claim their place in America more confidently.

  11. A Part, Yet Apart reminds us that inclusion is a two-way process, demanding good faith efforts from both sides. In the time it has taken for the essays in this volume to be published, the field of Asian American studies has expanded considerably, due to efforts both from within its more established founding groups and from its newer constituencies, such as South Asians, Koreans, and South East Asians. A quick survey of this year's conference program for the Association of Asian American Studies makes this new inclusiveness very clear. Four years ago South Asians were represented on only a handful of sessions, while this year they are involved in over 25 out of a total of 92 sessions. Furthermore, they are not segregated into separate sessions in a kind of Asian American apartheid, but are speaking in mixed sessions on a large variety of subjects not limited to specifically South Asian issues. The editors of this volume and many of its contributors have been active participants in this process of cooperation and growth. In fact, the most recent Amerasia is a special issue on South Asians in America, co-edited by Biju Matthew and Vijay Prashad, whose unambiguously activist standpoint further extends the coalition-building initiative of A Part, Yet Apart.

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