- Between the Lines: South Asians and Postcoloniality
In recent years the field of Asian American studies has undergone a number of transformations stimulated by questions about the nature of its object of study and new theorizations of nationality and ethnic subjectivity. In many important ways, work on South Asians is situated at the juncture of a number of these disciplinary and conceptual concerns. Famously racially ambiguous in North [End Page 195] American social and legal discourses and uncertainly “Asian” in coalitional and broader geopolitical terms, both the figure of the South Asian and the international growth of the South Asian diaspora test the boundaries of well-established identity categories like “Asian American” and “the immigrant.” The daunting task of contending with these complexities is undertaken in a recent collection of essays, Between the Lines: South Asians and Postcoloniality, edited by Deepika Bahri and Mary Vasudeva.
With the intriguing title Between the Lines, Bahri and Vasudeva connote the ambivalence with which South Asian work corresponds to established categories of race, ethnicity, and history. Observing that “(t)he historical and cultural specificity of South Asian experiences is often obscured or omitted within the discourse of ‘Asian’ studies in Anglo-America, requiring expression in a space explicitly devoted to them,” the editors proceed to elaborate the difficulties inherent in a project that might seem obviously bounded by ethnic group. The concept of “South Asian” encompasses nationally defined groups from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other places on the subcontinent, and its use can artificially relieve the political and cultural differences many years in the making at home and abroad. Bahri and Vasudeva choose to use the term well-aware of the problematic, and position issues of representation, identity, and politics on the axis of postcolonialism, with stated misgivings that in some ways constitute a primary agenda, to examine the meaning, role, and complications of the rendering of South Asian work through the conceptual lens of “postcoloniality.”
Interviews with Meena Alexander, Gauri Viswanathan, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in the first section of the book, provide important articulations of the dilemmas that scholars of this veritable field, of postcolonial studies, face in their own research and teaching. Foregrounded in these discussions are reflections on the relationship between “postcolonialism” and broader communities of South Asians and others. At first glance this might seem a familiar, self-reflexive gesture, but here, the question of “representation” is given a slightly different twist when the interlocutors imply that the very definitions of postcolonialism are troubled by non-elite formations. They ask what it means to say that criticism, a way of reading or a global condition, is legitimately “after” colonialism when people in most parts of the world every day live the effects of neocolonialism. This section of interviews, then, stages questions of the role of intellectuals not only in the production of a field but also in the creation of a cultural discourse.
Essays in other sections of the book rigorously avoid submitting to glib celebrations [End Page 196] of otherness, or overlooking important fissures in a perceived totality that a unitary term like “postcolonial” might imply. Amritjit Singh, in “African Americans and the New Immigrants,” situates South Asianness in a broader social context by arguing for coalitions with other ethnic minorities. In two of the more interesting essays in the book, M. G. Vassanji and Sohail Inayatullah shift the coordinates of the South Asia diaspora by considering Canadian “multicultural” society and Pakistani-Islamic ideas about modernity and reenergize a number of theoretical debates. In discussing the critique of nationalism, Vassanji provocatively asks if there is “something retrogressive about the loss of postcolonial national identities in favor of purely racial, ethnic, or religious ones” (p. 116) when deeply local concerns (of representation and resource distribution) supplant wide-ranging imaginaries of national, anti-colonial independence and third world geopolitical critique.
Conceptual and political movements through ideas of the “national,” the “ethnic,” and the “postnational,” that formulate “the postcolonial” placed under a lens by this book, remain present through a variety of types of analyses...