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Jhumpa Lahiri’s Feminist Cosmopolitics and the Transnational Beauty Assemblage


This essay examines Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s literary engagements with cosmopolitan Indian beauty and style in her short stories “Sexy” and “Interpreter of Maladies” (2003). It situates these engagements as part of a transnational beauty assemblage, a heterogeneous set of transnational cultural flows of Indian beauty and fashion, first in order to map the transnational dimensions of Indian fashion and beauty, which have remained under-explored within existing feminist scholarship on cultural economies of Indian fashion and beauty. Second, the essay shifts focus away from this scholarship’s ideological critiques of the Indian fashion and beauty industries and thus away from concerns with shifting standards of beauty (what beauty is), and toward a mapping of beauty as an affective force (what beauty does). Specifically, I examine how Lahiri’s stories infuse Indian female beauty with affective capacities that reassemble the semantic messages of exoticism, commodification, gendered nationalism, and transnational mobility that underwrite Indian female beauty’s attachments to an elite cosmopolitanism at the end of the twentieth century. In Lahiri’s stories, beauty operates as a deeply, if unevenly, socializing force within moments of cross-cultural and interracial encounter, generating affects such as estrangement, identification, and desire, which open onto articulations of citizenship and belonging. The essay further argues that Lahiri’s attachments of Indian female beauty’s affects to experiences of citizenship and belonging can be understood as part of her feminist, cosmopolitical literary project: Lahiri mobilizes Indian feminine beauty’s affects in order to illuminate and critique late-capitalist globalization, migration, and travel as they shape narratives of citizenship and belonging.

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