Farzana Akhter on South Asian American Lit
At the end of this year of isolationist fear-mongering, threats of deportation, and the smearing and othering of large swaths of the U.S. population, it has never felt more important to celebrate and share the stories of immigrants in America.
In recent decades the contours of contemporary American literature have been transformed by the rise of literary texts produced by writers of more varied ethnic backgrounds, giving voice to those once considered subaltern. At the center of this literary wave is a new generation of South Asian American writers who have made their mark through their novels—writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, and Tahira Naqvi.
Although these stories mainly concentrate on the cultural negotiation and identity reformulation that go into attempting to join the American experiment, they also introduce readers to characters from an array of different geographic regions and cultures before they converge on a shared destination.
Love Marriage, by V. V. Ganeshananthan (2008)
“In this globe-scattered Sri Lankan family, we speak only of two kinds of marriage. The first is the Arranged Marriage. The second is the Love Marriage.”
Though the title and opening lines of Ganeshananthan’s debut novel suggest the sole focus of the book will be on marriages, entwined within this family saga is an exploration of the Sri Lankan civil war and immigrant experience of Sri Lankan Tamils. Through the eyes of Yalini and the retrospection of LTTE leader Kumaran, Ganeshananthan reveals the trauma of Sri Lankan Tamils as they fight a guerilla war for their homeland while struggling to build new homes elsewhere.
The Royal Ghosts: Stories by Samrat Upadhyay (2006)
The Royal Ghosts collects nine short stories by Nepali-American writer, Samrat Upadhyay, who's been called "a Buddhist Chekhov." The stories are set in modern-day Katmandu, with the violent Maoist insurgency always in the background, yet Upadhya’s characters are typically in conflict with the concerns of their daily lives—duties to aging parents, the oppression of the caste system and the complexities of arranged marriages. As characters attempt to reconcile the demands of society with their deepest personal desires, communication and connection become the fleeting rewards for compromise.
Manhattan Music: A Novel, by Meena Alexander (1997)
Sweeping and lyrical, the novel traces Sandhya Rosenblum’s search for a sense of home and belonging as she moves from Hyderabad to Manhattan after her marriage to Stephen Rosenblum, a Jewish-American. Throughout the novel, Sandhya is tormented by nostalgia for her past life in India, and yearns to fit in to her new urban context, a dream that eludes her. Her second novel, Alexander highlights the nuance and heartache of Sandhya’s struggle to move beyond anxieties of alienation and assimilation while preserving her ethnic identity.
Saffron Dreams, by Shaila Abdullah (2009)
Saffron Dreams revolves around Arissa Illahi, a Muslim artist and writer whose husband dies in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The novel traces Arissa’s gradual acceptance of her loss and struggle to bring up her newborn son in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. Hyper-surveillance and open prejudice compel Arissa to remove her headscarf to give her son a better chance at a normal life. Through Arissa and her struggles, Abdullah casts light on the plight of Muslim women in a post-9/11 reality of racial-profiling and discrimination.
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (2006)
Kiran Desai’s prize-winning novel moves through time, place and perspective to chart the lives of Sai and Biju. While Sai falls in love with her Nepalese tutor amidst the insurgency born of the 1980s Nepalese Movement, Biju struggles to survive as an illegal immigrant in New York City, gradually losing faith in the American dream.
Hopping from the foothills of the Himalayas to the seedy underbelly of Manhattan, Desai employs kaleidoscopic techniques to illuminate the fractured experiences of his characters both in the past and present. Through these shifting viewpoints, Desai captures the joy and pain of exile.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid (2007)
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist narrates the life of Changez, a young Pakistani man who comes to the United States to study at Princeton University. But his quest to fully assimilate into American society takes a turn after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Once an indispensable employee at a prestigious company, he soon finds himself a subject of suspicion, transforming his relationship with the United States and his own hopes for his future. Through Changez’s monologue, Hamid addresses and debunks America’s myth of tolerance, shining a light on the toll of Islamaphobia on America’s Muslim community.
The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai: Stories, by Sharbari Z. Ahmed (2013)
Ahmed’s debut book, The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai: Stories, is populated by a series of cultural encounters. Diverging from traditional modes of Diaspora writing that focus on alienation and immigrant identity, Ahmed instead approaches these issues by bringing people together: an old Japanese woman, a Bangladeshi child, a group of downtrodden Ethiopian youth, an adopted American woman of Bangladeshi origin. As characters from diverse backgrounds cross paths and connect under unlikely circumstances, the elements of their origins that might prevent communion fall away.
Farzana Akhter is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Arkansas. Her area of interest is 20th century American Literature with special focus on Contemporary American Ethnic and Immigrant literatures. Her dissertation, titled “The Net of Nostalgia: Class, Culture, and Political Alienation and Nostalgia in Latino and South Asian American Literature,” examines immigrant protagonists’ nostalgia and its socio-economic and political underpinning. Before coming to the U.S., she was an Assistant Professor in English at East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her publications include articles on Brecht and Amitav Ghosh. “Performing Brecht in Bangladesh: Making the Unfamiliar Familiar” was published in The Brecht Year Book 36.