29 December 2014
Can an Indian American magazine speak for the larger Southasian diaspora?
In March 2012, eight years after its debut, Sepia Mutiny, the popular Southasian American blog, announced its retirement. The reason given was that the blog was simply no longer “able to keep up” in a changing sphere of corporatised (read better-funded) blogs as well as with the advent of privatised spaces for online debate, namely Facebook and Twitter. But the individual reflections of Sepia Mutiny’s bloggers suggested that its closure was tied to a mounting sense of the inadequacy of Southasian identity as an organising category for the content of an American media outlet. Contributor Amardeep Singh wrote, “South Asian America is a big enough, and mainstream enough, world that it does seem a little forced to presume it all goes together anymore.” Abhi, another contributor, offered this reflection: “I also truly feel that the mission of Sepia Mutiny is complete… Back in 2004 there was very little brown representation in the media and very little ‘voice’ representing us. There was not a single loud speaker for the South Asian American community. Now there is quite a bit more and brown is everywhere. There seems much less need for a ‘Mutiny’ given our strides.”
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Despite its Subcontinental rubric, Sepia Mutiny was responding in part to the inauguration of country-focused blogs like the New York Times’ ‘India Ink’, which debuted in September 2011 (the blog was folded into the Times’ world section in June 2014), and the Wall Street Journal’s ‘India Real Time’, which continues to take “the daily pulse of the world’s largest democracy”. These mainstream outlets had begun to encroach on Sepia Mutiny’s territory: the role of curating and commenting on all things Southasian, or desi, in American politics and culture, from the election of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, to the need for bone marrow donors within the Southasian community, to the reductive representations of non-white Americans in the public sphere.
Of course, this was never just Sepia Mutiny’s territory. A wide range of English-language, Southasian American print publications had been offering similar content since at least 1970, when New York-based immigrant Gopal Raju founded India Abroad. But these earlier print outlets – including India-West and Pakistan Link – had national frames of reference, a tendency repeated by the blogs in the Times and the Wall Street Journal. India Ink’s content extended from “the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley”, but didn’t officially reach across the border to Bangladesh or south to Sri Lanka, never mind their diasporas. The strides Sepia Mutiny had discerned in mainstream discourse – the “brown everywhere” that made their representation of Southasian American culture seem less urgent – might have just meant the appearance of more Indian faces, standing in for the Subcontinental norm.
Less than a year after the close of Sepia Mutiny, a group of former contributors launched another Southasia-focused blog, The Aerogram, as a corrective to what they called the continuing “boxed up” representation of desis that was not reflective of the “broader South Asian community”. Their early posts discussed the work of a range of artists, from Pakistani British novelist Nadeem Aslam and Sikh American poet Preeti Kaur, to photographs of India by Nigerian American writer Teju Cole. I had two reactions to this blog when it debuted. First, a raised eyebrow: wasn’t this just Sepia Mutiny by another name, with contributions from the same writers who had a year ago declared “mission complete”? And second, annoyance: didn’t the magazine I regularly write for and once edited, India Currents, already cover this broad swath of Southasian subjects? Hadn’t we been doing this for years? Why hadn’t these bloggers taken note?
Fifteen years ago, I had my first article published in India Currents magazine. I was fourteen years old, the California-born daughter of Indian immigrants to the United States, and already cultivating an oppositional sensibility. My article about ethnic politics in my suburban hometown had a decidedly strident title: “Why I Never Became a Girl Scout.” I remember the feeling of first publication well: the thrill of an inked byline, the simultaneous fear of and hope for recognition, and an urge to say more.
India Currents was “where you found the Indian travel agent who could get good air fares to India. Or the dentist who already knew that the turmeric in Indian food stained your teeth.”
That youthful desire to be heard tapped into a broader, communal aspiration that long predated my arrival (literal and writerly) on the scene of Indian American journalism. India Abroad was arguably the pioneer; over four decades, its mandate has expanded from disseminating news from India, to addressing the nuances of life in the United States, although its purchase by Mumbai-based Rediff.com in 2001 complicates its claim to diasporic location. Over the years, a number of other publications have also served the needs of a growing, bicoastal Indian American community, including India-West, a weekly newspaper founded in California in 1975, Little India, founded in 1991 on the East Coast, and Khabar, founded in 1992 in the southern United States.
India Currents was launched in 1987 by a prominent gay couple in San Francisco Bay Area’s Southasian community, Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani. Their goal was a publication that could be at once international in scope and absolutely local; it would provincialise the nation from which it derived its name, demonstrating to American readers that, as Kumar recently told me, “India’s not this foreign concept; India is in the neighborhood.” Kumar envisioned a publication that would not simply deliver the news – as subscription-based newspapers like India Abroad were doing – but could also serve as a reliable collective resource. The magazine would be a repository of information to be shared and circulated, and a platform through which event organisers, spiritual groups and arts institutions could connect with and constitute potential audiences. He hoped that India Currents would make its way from mailbox to coffee table, table to couch, and end up in a living-room magazine rack, as opposed to the garbage bin.
When I was growing up, India Currents was a mainstay of desi homes in our area. You could have it delivered to your house for free, or pick up a copy at the Indian grocery store. In longtime contributor Sandip Roy’s description, India Currents was “where you found the Indian travel agent who could get good air fares to India. Or the dentist who already knew that the turmeric in Indian food stained your teeth.” Such pedestrian concerns would earn the magazine its place in, as literary scholar Sandhya Shukla has written, the ranks of the “middlebrow”, but it also made it relevant to a broad range of readers, from grandparents visiting from India to the children of immigrants, like me. In the past three decades, it has gone from an eight-page newsletter to a 132-page magazine printed in three editions across the United States.
For a young Indian American who imagined herself a budding writer, India Currents was the ideal venue for an early foray into publication. Here was a magazine whose very premise was to tell the stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told, by, about and for the Indian diaspora in the United States: stories about the hate group called Dotbusters, who terrorised desis in New Jersey and New York in the late 1990s; stories breaking the Indian community’s silence around issues like infertility, depression and homosexuality. Here was a self-identified community of readers who would be receptive to my unpractised voice by virtue of, in cultural theorist Rey Chow’s words, its audible “skin tones”. I hadn’t yet developed the vocabulary to criticise the ‘coercive imperatives’ of an ethnic ‘politics of recognition’; that self-consciousness, and the desire to work both with and against an academic discourse on ethnic identification, would come later. My ongoing association with the magazine has included a regular column, now in its fourteenth year, and my tenure as editor from 2007-2009.
The most common misconception about ethnic and diasporic media is that their chief purpose is to be cheerleaders for their communities.
Research on the US-based ethnic media has flourished in the last decade, as scholars work to specify precisely how the mainstream, or ‘mass’, media sphere has been transformed by the combination of increased migration from the developing to the developed world, the global circulation of information, and the proliferation of new technologies that make it easier to connect across boundaries of space and time. According to New America Media (NAM), over 57 million people “connect to each other, to home countries and to America” through ethnic news media. NAM’s 2005 national poll on ethnic media, which is still routinely cited in the relevant scholarship, found that 29 million adults, nearly 15 percent of the entire adult population of the United States, were “primary consumers” and another 22 million adults “secondary consumers” of ethnic media, which means that publications like India Currents are the next source Indian Americans turn to after the mainstream press. In fact, the American ethnic media actually grew in the first decade of the 21st century, even as publications like Newsweek verged on bankruptcy.
The most common misconception about ethnic and diasporic media is that their chief purpose is to be cheerleaders for their communities: to celebrate the minor and major achievements of ‘brown’ people in the United States, from spelling bee winners to newly anointed CEOs in Silicon Valley. Granted, applauding ethnic subjects who have achieved public recognition is a major feature of these outlets. For example, when it was still active, the South Asian Journalists Association’s ‘SAJAforum’ blog used to regularly engage in ‘desi spotting’, from mainstream reviews of Southasian books and films to things as banal as an Indian American’s failed run on the reality-television programme American Idol. Over the years, however, and given my long involvement with India Currents, I see these media to be doing something far more important than community boosterism.
In my experience, ethnic and diasporic publications have at least five distinct goals. First is to serve the community; these are resources for the communities they both address and call into being. Second is building solidarity; they hail different readers into recognition of themselves as being part of an addressed community, as well as into practices and activities that lead to identification with fellow community members. Third is the goal of celebration or re-valuation; these publications foster sentiments of self-worth, pride, and investment in the achievements of one’s fellow community members. Fourth is the pedagogical aim of teaching both community and non-community members about the community’s history, concerns, ambitions and collective goals. And finally, fifth is the corrective imperative, to produce narratives that counter misrepresentations and misperceptions of the community, especially those trafficked by dominant or hegemonic media forms.
From its founding, India Currents was envisioned in all of these terms. It was, and remains, a publication available for free, which matches its content on arts, entertainment and dining with substantive editorial features that tack between India and the United States as their primary focus. The magazine also features a lengthy calendar of events, with listings ranging from bharatanatyam workshops to entrepreneurial summits to an evening of ‘pre-Valentine ghazals’. Today, India Currents regularly publishes articles on the politics, and consolidation, of minority identities in the United States, critical perspectives on the discourse around ethnic exceptionalism, and challenges to normative conceptions of Americanness. The magazine covers stories that are not registered in the mainstream media. For instance, in March 2012, it countered dominant representations of the ‘Dream Act’ as legislation of relevance only to undocumented Latinos in the United States with a cover story about an undocumented Indo-Fijian immigration activist who was brought to California as a young teenager.
In 2014, India Currents’ challenge is to assert its relevance to the ‘next generation’ of Americans who identify themselves as having Indian and Southasian origins. When I was editing the magazine, I assumed that our two primary obstacles to greater dissemination were the fact that we were offering a print publication in a digital era, and that our content tended to address India-born immigrants in a diasporic sphere that is now dominated by the America-born second generation. Revisiting Sepia Mutiny’s closing and The Aerogram’s opening statements, I’ve begun to wonder if our primary limitation hasn’t always been our India-focused national frame. Blogs like The Aerogram and Sepia Mutiny opt for ‘Southasian diaspora’ as their organising rubric in order to extend laterally around the globe to capture the concerns and stories of people with ties to multiple nations in the East and West. India Currents does the same thing, but without titular acknowledgement of its scope. Would a Southasian Currents be more representative, less boxed up, or more tuned in to contemporary discourse? Where does the word ‘India’ take us, in a world of increasingly transnational, multinational and cosmopolitan affiliations?
Everywhere boxed up?
Founder Arvind Kumar once described India Currents’ content to me as “writing from the Indian American point of view for a general audience”. I realised early on in my editorial tenure that the “Indian American point of view” wasn’t a literal descriptor of a writer’s origins. Far from being a purveyor of ‘authentic’ points of view, India Currents was invested in alternative modes of authenticity, even creating Indian American points of view. For example, Teed Rockwell, a non-Indian Lecturer in Philosophy at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, who has trained in Hindustani classical music, has contributed a music column to India Currents for nearly two decades. In the late 1990s, Ashok Jethanandani asked Rockwell to write a column for the magazine on the basis of Rockwell’s unsolicited, music-related press releases. “I was now, apparently, an expert on Indian music,” Rockwell has written. Over the years, Rockwell had to study genres of Indian music like bhangra, qawwali, and bhajans – music he “had known almost nothing about” – in order to write for the magazine. This was an exercise in cultivating expertise, not displaying it, and Rockwell’s interest in Indian music was able to evolve into his own brand of ‘Indian American’ artistic perspective.
It was easy enough to assimilate the white American Indophiles into the Indian American point of view, but what about other Southasians and other diasporas? How did we avert producing exclusive notions of the ‘Indian’ community? When was ‘India’ a Subcontinental signifier? Could we be ‘India Currents’ and still tell Southasian stories?
It was easy enough to assimilate the white American Indophiles into the Indian American point of view, but what about other Southasians and other diasporas?
These questions have relevance beyond the sphere of ethnic journalism. Take ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation’, an exhibit that began in February 2014 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) produced a series of exhibits documenting the Asian experience in the United States. Each of these exhibits – ‘From Bento to Mixed Plate’ (1999), ‘On Gold Mountain’ (2001), ‘Singgalot: Ties That Bind’ (2006), and ‘Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon’ (2007) – had a national frame; they focused on Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese American immigrants, respectively.
In 2007, a young, second-generation political operative named Parag Mehta approached APAC, asking, “When are you guys gonna get around to doing South Asians?” As Mehta recounted to me, the Center baulked. How were they supposed to deal with the motley desi population? “Should we do South Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi…?” They eventually settled on an ‘Indian’ frame, in part for the appeal to a base of Indian American donors. The exhibit’s curators, Pawan Dhingra, and his successor, Masum Momaya, who saw ‘Beyond Bollywood’ to completion, were hired after the decision to frame the exhibit as ‘Indian’ was made. Both curators were sensitive to India’s over-representation in conversations on Southasia, and each strove to make the exhibit as nuanced as possible given its national frame. When I asked Momaya about it, she said that the “Smithsonian felt it would be difficult to cover Southasians in their diversity.” Mehta told me that the decision was as generous as it was pragmatic: “Pakistanis and Bangladeshi and Sri Lankans deserve their own exhibits, just like the Koreans and the Filipinos and the Vietnamese and the Japanese.”
Nevertheless, in the days immediately following the opening of ‘Beyond Bollywood’, there was pushback to the exhibit’s selective appropriation of non-Indian Southasians in the section on music, which was framed as ‘desi beats’. At a listening station, viewers heard the sounds of Ali Akbar Khan, Asha Puthli, Penn Masala, Anoushka Shankar, DJ Rekha, Vijay Iyer and Falu, among others; the list included musicians with roots in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Twitter, one viewer criticised the exhibit’s appropriation of “transgender Tamil Sri L.A.nkan-American” artist D’Lo into an exhibit on ‘Indian Americans’. The official Smithsonian response (“In the exhibition, we note that some Indian American narratives encompass South Asian Americans collectively”) reminded me of my own aspirations for India Currents: to honestly and thoughtfully communicate Southasian American experiences in their varied complexity.
Can an exhibit on Indian Americans take on the challenge of representing other Southasians? For that matter, can a magazine like India Currents do this without being hegemonic? The magazine has reviewed books by Southasian writers including Afghan American Khaled Hosseini, Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam, and London-based Sri Lankan Romesh Gunesekera, as well as printed travel columns on Lahore, Pakistan; Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka; and Paro, Bhutan. But it isn’t always clear when the magazine is referring to ‘Southasia’ and when to the ‘Subcontinent’; or when an issue is of relevance to Indians, and when to all desis. A January 2014 column addressed the topic of “Raising an Indian-American Teen”, while another from May 2014 generalised about “the South Asian belly”. Reviewing Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, Jeanne Fredriksen credited the novel with illuminating “the face of Afghanistan”, while at the same time arguing that the novel “isn’t about Afghanistan on a contemporary global stage” but rather about the shared humanity of its protagonists. In my own columns, I have made references to non-Indian Southasian figures, literatures and politics, while nevertheless describing my work as that of “an Indian on Indians”.
But are these violent, Indian appropriations of Southasian narratives? Or merely reflections of the fact that ‘India’ is only ever an aspiration, a signpost, an occasion for writing, thinking, and pushing the bounds of the desi identity? Similar questions are currently being asked in identity-oriented fields of academic study, like women’s studies, which has in a number of universities been renamed ‘gender studies’. This renaming is supposed to signal the field’s engagement with issues of relevance to women, men, and transgender and transsexual populations. But, as the feminist theorist Robyn Wiegman has asked, why assume that ‘gender’ as a category is immune to the exclusions, omissions, and limitations of ‘women’? In that vein, are there not exclusions enacted by ‘Southasia’ as an organisational occasion for ethnic and diasporic media in the United States?
In any case, an absolute focus on the term ‘Southasia’ at the cost of national affiliations (Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian, etc) might not always result in a more comprehensive and capacious understanding of the Subcontinental diaspora. For one thing, it risks eliding the fact that we often make affiliations through, and not despite, our national differences. In the April 2014 issue of India Currents, Pakistani American journalist Ras Siddiqui reflected on how life in diaspora illuminates the fallacy of “the great divide” between India and Pakistan: “We Pakistanis in the United States have Persian and Arab friends but when it comes to appreciating a good Punjabi beat or a soothing and sad Urdu-Hindi ghazal no other people besides Indians can relate.” Perhaps, then, the name ‘India’ serves as a crucial reminder of the challenges, pitfalls and possibilities of any representational project in an America in which “brown is everywhere,” but everywhere “boxed up”.
~Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently based in Chicago and has written for academic and journalistic publications in the United States, India and the UK.