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Mothering Siblings: Diaspora, Desire and Identity in American Born Confused Desi

From: Narrative
Volume 16, Number 1, January 2008
pp. 16-28 | 10.1353/nar.2008.0002

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Mothering Siblings:
Diaspora, Desire and Identity in American Born Confused Desi

In this essay we consider the construction of cultural identity, motherhood and the family in ABCD, a film of the Indian diaspora that had its world premiere at the 2001 London Film Festival. This film reads family, apparently within familiar narrative structures such as the U.S.-immigrant story, as portrayed in films like Goodbye, Columbus and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the "leaving home" story, as classically portrayed in Pride and Prejudice, where a young person needs to escape from her clueless family. The irritating presence of the mother in the film, and the quickness with which her two children appear to make life-determining decisions following her death, seem to invite discussions of plot and character organized around ideas of individual development, self-improvement and understanding. This is the territory of the desire plot, an account of family history captured for the twentieth century by Freudian-Lacanian readings which position sexual desire within the unconscious history of familial fantasies, understood as vertical and Oedipal. In this territory, mothers and old ladies become, as Mary Jacobus memorably phrased it, little more than "the waste products" of a system in which marriageable women are objects of exchange between men (142) and a mother's death would be expected to grease the wheels of narrative. Identity and narrative are inextricably linked here: a certain understanding of narrative as developmental and teleological paves the way for an understanding of identity as either/or. There are problems, however, in trying to read ABCD as a bild├╝ngsroman structured by what Susan Freidman calls "the temporal plots of the family romance, its repetitions and discontents" (137), rendering the "Indian" characteristics of the plot unreadable, and the apparently self-defeating nature of the characters' choices and behavior, rather pointless. A central [End Page 16] difficulty is that the film both responds to and resists readings based on the Oedipal model of the bild├╝ngsroman with its focus on linear development through time.

ABCD, then, presents something of an interpretative puzzle, particularly in terms of the role of "mothering" in structuring the plot and character development. Intergenerational relationships in the diaspora throw into relief the cultural specificity of psychosexual theories of family functioning underpinned by a narrative of desire, Indian as well as Western. Traditional temporally oriented discussions of character, which articulate themes of development and change over time that are interpreted through a psychoanalytic lens, are less useful than reading strategies which shift the focus towards more spatially plotted intercultural encounters (Friedman 136), in which the content of mothering can be understood as a function of cultural locations and interactions, and which may become available to others in the family. In ABCD, siblings provide "horizontal" mothering for each other, a role which is unusual and relatively unexplored in the West,1 and therefore rather opaque in narrative terms. ABCD insists on the significance of the mother, but challenges essentialist ideas of mothering, suggesting that the mothering function can, and sometimes should, be uncoupled from the "birthgiver," and that, in some contexts, mothering is best provided by others.2 Here we are interested in tracing both those aspects of the plot and character development of ABCD that respond to Oedipal models and those that do not, and in elaborating on the relation between the vertical and temporal Oedipal model and a more horizontal and spatial model of narrative analysis. Reframing mothering in the diasporic context enables new ways of theorizing identity, ways that are more sensitive to criteria such as space and ethnicity, and allows a more dynamic and culturally responsive reading of the possibilities of mothers and the mothering function.

The Film

First screened at the London Film Festival, ABCD was selected, alongside Boys Don't Cry, Being John Malkovich, Cider House Rules, Happy Texas and The Virgin Suicides, for a regional tour of England that immediately follows the festival. The Festival praised the film for being "shockingly accurate and charming" but its significance may not be as immediately accessible as that comfortable appeal to realist criteria suggests. Positioning itself as diasporic or fusion...