Friday, March 16, 2012

Reflecting on Sepia Mutiny, South Asia and South Asian Americans

So, Sepia Mutiny is shutting down.

At its height, from 2004 to about 2009 or so, I think it was the most active South Asian diaspora-oriented forum on the web. Posts on everything from M.I.A. to Bobby Jindal to interracial dating would routinely draw 200, 300, sometimes even 1000 comments. And while some of those comments were less than thrilling, we as bloggers could always count on interesting new voices to show up in between. Blogging on Sepia Mutiny was addictive for me (and I think not just me) during those years in large part because it was impossible not to be excited to encounter so many different perspectives and ideas.

Sepia Mutiny was always somewhat divided over its function and focus. On the one hand, the directive from Abhi and the other founders was quite clear: the point was to create a space for a South Asian American perspective. The "South Asian" part was important and essential (and we had many fights, mainly with skeptical readers, about whether it wasn't after all just an "Indian American" blog). Also important was the "American" part of the equation; Sepia Mutiny was never intended to be an "Indian subcontinent" forum.

This policy of not focusing on South Asia itself was, however, always a challenge for me, since I have a deep personal and professional interest in what is happening in the subcontinent itself in terms of politics, culture, the media, and of course literature. And this past decade has been a really interesting one on all those fronts, from the debates over communalism and secularism (and we had many good arguments about those issues in the comments), to the rapid changes in the style of commercial Hindi cinema, to the debates about economic trends like outsourcing and globalization. Despite the blog's stated policy of focusing exclusively on the diaspora, many of my colleagues at Sepia Mutiny joined me in posting frequently on these types of issues, leading to some very rich discussions. As I see it, it was a policy honored more in the breach than in the observance, and that's a good thing.

Another source of tension, not within the circle of Sepia Mutiny bloggers, but rather between bloggers and readers, was around generational issues. All of the founders of the blog were second generation Indian Americans (later Bangladeshi American, Pakistani American, and Sri Lankan American contributors would also join). However, many, if not most of the readership during the years I was involved seemed to consist of first generation immigrants (and many 1.5 generation folks -- people who immigrated between age 5 and 15). This reflects the demographics of the South Asian American population -- there are more immigrants than second or third generation South Asian Americans in the United States -- and the fact that these readers were all interested in hearing about and talking about the same stuff underlines the commonalities between different generations of immigrants. Recent immigrants from South Asia might be interested in reading my post in 2005 about Katrina Kaif, but they might also be interested in hearing about Kal Penn or Padma Lakshmi. I think both bloggers and readers evolved quite a bit on this kind of issue over the years. In the beginning, first and second generation commenters used to make fun of each other as ("FOBs" or "ABCDs", respectively), but somewhere along the line a more respectful and intelligent kind of conversation started to occur. The first generation scorn for ABCDs speaking Hindi badly started to lose its edge, while the second-generation's dislike of the "awkward immigrant" stigma also evolved. In short, I think we all grew up, and started to appreciate and understand one another better.

My dream would have been a half diasporic, half "home" oriented blog; it was very nearly there for a little while. Luckily, there are fantastic new, highly professionalized blogs hosted by the New York Times (India Ink) and the Wall Street Journal, that provide much of what used to be my Sepia Mutiny fix. I read them every day. And I get just a little smidgeon of what was once the excitement of the Sepia Mutiny comments on venues like Twitter (not so much, these days, from Facebook).

Finally, I should say that while the new social networking venues are helping to carry on the kinds of conversations that went on at Sepia Mutiny, they are a little lacking on some respects. For one thing, both Facebook and Twitter require super-compressed conversations. While it's true we may have been a bit too long-winded in some blog posts over the years, I think there really is value in spelling out an idea or a perspective at some length, and then giving readers as much space as they want or need to discuss it with you. I don't think I have ever changed my mind based on a discussion I had with someone on Twitter. But I did, often, in response to discussions on Sepia Mutiny.

I am not sure what the solution is. There's no question that social networking is here to stay, but maybe as that ecosystem continues to evolve we can again find a space for long-form (but still immediate, and unfiltered) discussions of the issues that are on our minds.

***


I was a contributor at Sepia Mutiny for about 5 of its 8 years, and a full-fledged blogger for four of them (2006-2010). That period saw the birth of my first child (we now have two!), a period of severe illness in fall 2007, the publication of my book in early 2007, and the dramatic and sometimes difficult experience of going through tenure in 2007 and 2008. There was a Sepia Mutiny post (by Ennis), celebrating the birth of my son in 2006, and I relied quite a bit on the Sepia Mutiny community during the fall of 2007, when I was home sick. I also used the space to talk a bit about the ideas in my book when it came out in the spring of 2007. All of this meant quite a lot to me; my blogging was an extension of who I was in a very personal way during this time period.

I can link four academic articles to my blogging, and three of those four relate to Sepia Mutiny. The most directly relevant is an essay I wrote on Jhumpa Lahiri and the problem of naming of the "South Asian" diaspora. (I also have an essay out on Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, which had its origins in a Sepia Mutiny post about the pluralistic nature of the Ramayana; an essay on Tagore's travel writing, which started as a Sepia Mutiny blog post; and finally, a more theoretical post on blogging pseudonyms and the changing nature of authorship.)

The years 2007-2010, when I wrote and published those essays -- while also blogging quite frequently at Sepia Mutiny -- were very productive ones for me in terms of scholarly productivity. At times I have thought that I was hurting my career as a scholar by blogging too much (and there's no question that the content of some of my public statements and interventions may have harmed me, especially during the 'Sonal Shah' debate). But considering that my academic writing has actually slowed down a fair bit since I left off regular blogging in 2010, I'm not so sure about the "distraction" argument against blogging. It may be that the daily regimen of composing in public is actually conducive to better discipline in academic writing, even if it means one is sometimes distracted by the latest outrageous comment from "MoorNam."

You can see a collection of my Sepia Mutiny posts here: http://sepiamutiny.com/blog/author/author11/

6 comments:

phillygrrl said...

Your blog posts on SM were one of the reasons I started blogging. Thanks, Amardeep.

vivek said...

I really enjoyed your contributions to SM, Amardeep!

And I agree completely about the shortcomings of social media. For me, it's too fleeting. I think easily searchable archives are incredibly important to have in a website - and Twitter and Facebook are anti-archives.

Melvin said...

It was all downhill for SM after you left, Amardeep! I blame it all on you! :-)

Your posts were always must-reads.

portmanteau said...

Amardeep, your discipline of "composing in public" is both inspirational and aspirational. Keep rocking! Your students and colleagues are very fortunate.

Anonymous said...

Moornam was the greatest ;)

Anonymous said...

Your posts on reviewing Guha were the best.

SM comments were as much fun as some of the posts. I had 'portmanteau' above as one my favorites.