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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #8 (February 22, 2005), page 20.

"… South Asian American writers’ … contribution to … the American imagination is the delineation of narratives and spaces that enable the conception of a nation as simultaneously discreet and entwined within the fold of other nations."

— Rajini Srikanth


Understanding the world next door

The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of America

By Rajini Srikanth

Temple University Press, 2004

Hardcover, 296 pages, $29.00

By Polo

Rajini Srikanth’s The World Next Door is a rather dense inquiry into the place of South Asian American literature in the American imagination. But apply gently your brakes and allow me a brief regress, for explanation’s sake.

For those of us as yet un-savvy with those weird and wondrously shifting identity groupings intermittently assembled by really smart census bureau apparatchiks and clever university academics alike, by "South Asia" these folks mean Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

It seems to bother neither bureaucrats or academics that those thus counted as "South Asians" are not easily herded, either into columns or ethnic enclaves. South Asia, you will recall, is represented by all of our packed planet’s major religions. Indeed, some of those great spiritual traditions have subdivided violently, and almost every one of them has brutally battled another, in the region called South Asia. South Asians speak over 20 languages. They are, as author Rajini Srikanth so succinctly puts it, "a pastiche of contradictions, correspondences, and unexpected linkages."

The community called "South Asian Americans," says Dr. Srikanth, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, includes that very raucous cohort resettled inside the geography of the U.S. and Canada, all of them actively and collectively negotiating a new social ethos within the cultural topography of America.

The American soil these newcomers settle into is not passive. On the contrary, according to Professor Srikanth and others in literary circles, rather than referring to America as place, call it instead the enduring "Idea of America." Central to this Idea of the place is a self-ascribed exceptionality. Americans see themselves as unique, and uniquely capable of extraordinary human enterprise in a world resigned to ordinariness.

America’s immodest exceptionality, says Professor Srikanth, has been just as central to the development of a South Asian American identity as anything several hundred years of diaspora may have hurriedly tucked inside steamer trunks and Samsonite.

"The idea of America as a nation unto itself from other countries," writes the author, "is at odds with the global sweep of much South Asian American writing." And herein lies the extraordinary achievement of overseas South Asians, the American type or otherwise. Bengalis, Tamils, Punjabis, among so many other regional sojourners, have been shipping out as merchants and laborers for nearly a thousand years. The result seems to be an easy sort of cosmopolitanism side-by-side with an aggravated sense of cultural uncertainty. All that, shared by a distinct community.

Among the extraordinary intellects and unique voices discussed by Professor Srikanth are Meena Alexander (Fault Lines), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Muneer Ahmed ("Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day after September 11"). They are thinkers and writers and activists all at once steeped in a loosely shared cultural ethos and the bondlessness common among exiles from home.

All this apparent contrariness is evident in The World Next Door’s chapter titles: "Transnational Homepages, Safety in Multiple Addresses"; "Writing What You’re Not: Limits and Possibilities of the Insider Imperative"; "Trust and Betrayal in the Idea of America."

It’s all so clever. Cleverness seems to have taken on the centrality of a core cultural concept. Central to gritty survival, central to soaring success.

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