- Understanding Bharati Mukherjee by Ruth Maxey
According to series editor Linda Wagner-Martin, Matthew J. Bruccoli (the founder of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series) meant for the books to be "guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers" (ix). Ruth Maxey's Understanding Bharati Mukherjee fulfils this task very well: it is a comprehensive introduction to and critical study of a pioneering South Asian American author written in an accessible style. Born into an upper-class Bengali Hindu family, Mukherjee moved to Iowa as an adult, married Canadian-American author Clark Blaise, lived in Canada for several years, and then moved back to the United States, where she found a sense of belonging. Maxey's book, which is the first posthumous study engaging with Mukherjee's "complete published oeuvre in terms of her thematic variety, formal experimentation, and ideological reach" (Maxey 6), interrogates some of the enduring themes in her writing.
Maxey's book is divided into six chapters. The first chapter gives a brief introduction to Mukherjee's life and situates the book in relation to existing scholarship on her writing. The following chapters organize Mukherjee's writing through time and place: the second chapter, "India versus America," engages with Mukherjee's writings on America and India in the 1960s and 1970s; the third chapter deals with, as the title suggests, "Canada in Mukherjee's 1980s Work"; and the fourth chapter is about America in Mukherjee's late 1980s work. The final two chapters, "Mukherjee's 1990s Writing" and "Novels for the Twenty-First Century," continue to follow Mukherjee's oeuvre chronologically. This structure gives the reader a comprehensive overview of Mukherjee's work and showcases the consistent patterns and themes in her writing. Maxey summarizes and analyzes each of Mukherjee's texts, dividing her focus equally between celebrated works such as the novel Jasmine (1989) and relatively neglected texts such as the early short story "Debate on a Rainy Afternoon" (1966).
The book conveys an image of Mukherjee as a pioneering figure whose work "paved the way for the success experienced by later South Asian American writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni" (5). However, Understanding Bharati Mukherjee never loses its critical grip on its subject and is always aware of the nuances of class, race, religious identity, and the politics of representation. Maxey's assiduous analyses of class and religious [End Page 191] identities in Mukherjee's writing on immigration and multiculturalism reveal the upper-class and Hindu underpinnings of Mukherjee's worldview. For example, Maxey notes how Mukherjee's depiction of Calcutta as a "vibrant cultural center" in her 1971 novel The Tiger's Daughter is undercut by her portrayal of the poor people in Calcutta as "an undifferentiated lumpenproletariat" (12). In a similar vein, Maxey contends that the timely critique of Canadian racism in The Sorrow and the Terror (1987), a nonfiction book co-authored by Mukherjee and Blaise as a response to the Air India bombing of 1985, is undermined by the authors' "problematically elitist framing of Canadian Hindus" (49). Maxey's text takes a measured and balanced approach to Mukherjee's oeuvre while asking readers to be wary of proclamations that do not recognize the heterogeneity of immigration and multiculturalism.
The book also demonstrates how Mukherjee initiated a new way of imagining and writing about South Asian Americans, especially women. Mukherjee's female protagonists are resourceful, and they use their ethnicity and sexuality to empower themselves. Yet this form of empowerment has its own limitations. Pointing out how "[t]he pull of feminine beauty" is a key aspect of the sexual politics in Mukherjee's 1997 novel Leave It to Me, Maxey notes that "the intriguing question of what happens to less physically attractive women is not properly developed" (91). Additionally, Maxey's critique draws attention to how Mukherjee's "customary suspicion of non-Asian minorities of color in the United States" (62) undermines her celebration of immigration and multiculturalism.
Understanding Bharati Mukherjee also provides wide and insightful filmic intertexts to Mukherjee's work. Mukherjee started...