Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Syllabus: "New Brown America: Race and Identity in the 21st Century"

Spring 2019
Instructor: Amardeep Singh, English Department

Short Description

What does it mean to be brown in America in 2019? How have recent historical events -- from 9/11 to the election of Donald Trump -- impacted the status of immigrant communities? This course will explore a range of contemporary texts from popular culture, including novels, memoirs, films, stand-up comedy albums, poetry (both on the page and performed), and musical recordings, all of which explore the changing nature of identity. Many of our primary texts will explore points of intersection between different ethnic and racial groups, including black/Latino/Asian intersections, multiracial identities, and the broad, trans-racial appropriation of hip hop culture. We will also read from critical race theorists who will help students develop a conceptual vocabulary to engage these issues. In terms of performance, starting points will be Hasan Minhaj, Trevor Noah, Sharmila Sen, Eddie Huang, Rupi Kaur, and Mohsin Hamid. Students will be encouraged to bring their own interests and suggested materials to the course.

January 22       First Day of Class: Welcome.

What does Hasan Minhaj mean when he uses the phrase, “New Brown America”? How might his concept – which is poetic and moral – align with demographic trends, showing how a growing number of immigrants might be changing American society? Is the U.S. becoming more ‘brown’, or is it more accurate to say that ‘brown’ immigrants will eventually become ‘white’ – following the path of earlier immigrant communities?
                        In class: Hasan Minhaj, Homecoming King: clips

                        U.S. Census Document, “Race & Ethnicity” (Definitions)

January 24       “New Brown America”: Defining Terms
                        What do we mean when we describe some groups as ‘races’ and others as
‘ethnicities’? What exactly do sociologists mean by ‘ethnicity’? Second, what
exactly are the immigration trends that have conservative Americans so
disturbed? Is the U.S. becoming more ‘brown’ or is it more accurate to say that
new immigrants are becoming ‘white’?

Omi & Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: Preface and Introduction (2014 edition) (PDF CourseSite)
Pew Research: “Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2016”

                        Thomas Edsall, “Who’s Afraid of a White Minority?”

January 29       Blackness/Whiteness

Where do the concepts of Whiteness and Blackness come from in American culture? How did waves of European immigrants ‘become’ white? How are white and black identities defined dialectically, historically? What might it mean to say that “whiteness is a lie” (as Baldwin and Coates both claim)? If whiteness is a lie, what does blackness mean?

Read: Claudia Rankine, Citizen (poetry)

Read: James Baldwin, “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984) (PDF

Woody Deane, “Rethinking Whiteness Studies” (2014) (PDF CourseSite)             

January 31       Blackness/Whiteness Continued

                        Read Claudia Rankine, Citizen (poetry)

Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Donald Trump is the First White President” (October 2017)

Poem: Cecil Brown, “Integrating the Strawberry Swimming Pool in 1998” (a poem)

February 5       Brown (as in Latino@ [Latinx])

Q: What might the concept of brownness mean for the Latinx community? When and how did this descriptor become popular and accepted? Is it embraced? When and why do some Latinx people identify as “white”? As “black”? How do we understand the relationships between the terms Latino/a, Latinx, Chicano/a/x, and Hispanic?

                        Pew Research: “Hispanic Identity Fades Across Generations”

                        Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America (chapters 1 and 2)
                        MTV Decoded: “Are Hispanics White?”

February 7       Poetry in Performance: Slam Poetry; Nuyorican Poets Cafe

                        Q: How do Latinx poets and writers perform their identities in the spoken word /
slam poetry idiom? How do we understand this style of poetic performance in relationship to Hip-Hop?

Susan Somers-Willett, “The Cultural Performance of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America.” Introduction and Chapter 3, “I Sing the Body Authentic: Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity” (2009)
Elizabeth Acevedo, “Afro-Latina” (performed poem)

Additional examples of performed poetry -- student exercise (find the best instances of Latinx slam poetry you can for sharing with peers)

February 12     South Asian American ‘Brownness’

                        Q: How do South Asian American immigrants understand themselves in the
American race/ethnicity configuration?

Read: Sangay Mishra, Desis Divided: The Politics of South Asian Americans. Introduction: “Situating Desis in U.S. Ethnoracial Politics”

Read: Sharmila Sen, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America. Chapters: “Preface: The Mask That Grins…”; Chapter 3: “The Autobiography of an Ex-Indian Woman”; Chapter 4: “Heart of Not Whiteness”

February 14     Global Brownness: Migrants, Exiles, Refugees

                        Q: How do we compare the experience of various ‘brown’ communities in the
U.S. with migrant communities globally? Is there a global brown? Is there a difference in how this dynamic plays out in other societies? Is it possible ‘brown’ is only a relational idea?

                        Read: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today 
                        Means Chapters: “Introduction: Brown. Like Me?”; Chapter 1: “A Colour, A Vanished
Race, a Metaphor”
                        Read: Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (70 pages or so)
February 19     Global Brownness, Contd.

Read: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown…
                        Chapters: Chapter 2: “Colourism: Fair is Fair?”; Chapter 4: “The Philippines: At
the World’s Service”; Chapter 5: “Hong Kong: Workers, Women, Mothers”;
Chapter 10: “The United States: Undocumented”

                        Read: Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

February 21     Finish Exit West

February 26     “Ethnic” Hip-Hop

                        Q: Why do many brown second-generation youth turn to hip-hop as a means of
finding and expressing cultural identity? How do they negotiate the act of cultural appropriation (i.e., of an African-American cultural idiom and vocal intonation) even as they attempt to perform a version of ‘authenticity’?

Read: Nitasha Sharma, “Hip-Hop Desis” (Select Chapters) (PDF)
Read: Evan Young, “Keepin’ It Real: Hip-Hop and Cultural Appropriation” (2016)

                        Listen: Das Racist, “Ek Shaneesh,” “Rainbows in the Dark”
                        Listen: Heems, “Flag Shopping,”
                        Listen: Swet Shop Boys, “T5,” “Zayn Malik,” “No Fly List”          

February 28     Brown: Arabs and Persians

                        Q: Are Arab Americans and Iranian Americans ‘brown’? Many identified as ‘white’
for years on census forms. Has 9/11 changed their sense of ethno-racial identity?

                        [Reading on history of Arab Americans and Persian Americans identifying as
White in earlier census data. The change to brownness -- often along religious
lines -- post 9/11. The Racialization of religion in the American landscape.

Read: Suheir Hammad, Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996/2010)

                        Watch: Suheir Hammad clips on YouTube (Def Comedy Jam)

                        Watch: Zahra Noorbaksh (comedy), “Heaven Points”

March 5           Brown Poetics: South Asian American Poetry

Q: How are brown poets negotiating race and ethnicity in mainstream American poetry?

                        Read: Amit Majmudar, Dothead (book of poetry)

                        Minal Hajratwala, “Miss Indo-American Dreams” (poem)

March 7           A Brown Instagram Poet: Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey (2014)

                        Read: Selections from Rupi Kaur

            “The Life of an Instagram Poet” (2017)

                        “Why Rupi Kaur and Her Peers are the Most Popular Poets in the World” (2017)

March 11-15: Spring Break

March 19         “Yellow” vs. “Brown”

                        Q: To what extent do the dynamics we see around brownness also apply to east
Asian American immigrants? Huang’s book suggests the engagement with hip-
hop, the second-guessing with respect to assimilation, the growing sense of
self-consciousness -- are all happening in “Asian” culture as well. Is “yellow” a
synonym for “brown”? On the other hand, writers like Min Zhou might suggest
that many east Asian Americans are ‘becoming white’.

                        Read: Eddie Huang, Fresh off the Boat
                        Read: Min Zhou: “Are Asian Americans Becoming ‘White’?” (2004) (PDF
                        Listen: Awkwafina, “Yellow Ranger,” “Testify”

March 21         Read: Continue reading Huang
                        Read: Frank Wu, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White

Read: Eugene Volokh, “How the Asians Became White”

March 26         Read: Continue reading Huang and Wu

March 28         Defining an Identity: Brown Stand-Up Comedy

                        Q: How do brown stand-up comics use humor to work through their own
ethno-racial anxieties? How do they use the form to assert a distinctive voice in
the American mainstream? How do they negotiate the complex landscape of
‘Ethnic’ humor in the present moment? Can you actually be funny and not be hurting someone’s feelings?

Listen/Watch: Hari Kondabolu Comedy Specials, “Waiting for 1942” (audio), “Warn Your Relatives” (Netflix)

Read: Joanne R. Gilbert, “Performing Marginality: Comedy, Identity, and Cultural Critique” (1997) (PDF)

April 2             Brown Stand-Up Comedy Contd.

                        Watch: Aparna Nancherla, “The Standups (Season 2 -- half-hour episode on

                       Listen: Aparna Nancherla, “Just Putting It Out There” (comedy album; Spotify)

April 4             Brown Stand-Up Comedy Contd.

Watch: Hari Kondabolu documentary, “The Trouble With Apu” (2017)                 
                        Watch: Early Hari Kondabolu film, “Manoj” (YouTube)

                        Read: Ian Brodie, “Stand-up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy”

April 9             Brown Stand-Up Comedy Contd. (Precedents / the earlier generation)

Watch: Russell Peters, “Outsourced” (2006)
Listen: Margaret Cho, “Notorious C.H.O.” (2002)

April 11           Brown Stand-Up Comedy, Contd.

Listen, Aziz Ansari, “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening”
                        Watch: Aziz Ansari, “Master of None” “Parents” Episode

April 16           Brown TV

Mindy Kaling, Mindy Project (select episodes)
Sarayu Blue, I Feel Bad (pilot episode)

Jane the Virgin (TV: select episodes)

April 18           Mixed/Biracial

                        Q: To what extent are the experiences biracial or multiracial linked to the
experiences we’ve seen discussed with respect to the immigrant brown
experience? How might we compare the racial formation in South Africa to that in the U.S.?

                        Read: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime (select chapters)

April 23           Mixed/Biracial Contd.

Watch: Trevor Noah, “You Laugh But It’s True” (Netflix special)
Read: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime (contd.)    


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Some Brief Notes on Sharmila Sen's "Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America"

I picked up Sharmila Sen's book, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America, as I was beginning to prepare for my upcoming spring class, "New Brown America: Race and Identity in the 21st Century." I have been looking for writers who help us theorize an emerging concept of 'brownness' as an identity formation in the U.S. Here are some of the other books I've been looking at:

  • Kamal Al-Solaylee's Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means
  • Richard Rodriguez's Brown: the Last Discovery of America, and 
  • Steve Phillips' Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.

These are of course very different books. Phillips' book is really a political strategy essay -- pointing out how immigrant groups tend to lean democratic, and what this ought to mean for the Democratic party going forward. And Rodriguez' book is more a literary essay and memoir than it is a broadly applicable 'theory' of brownness as an emergent racial formation. Finally, Kamal Al-Solaylee's Brown -- a book I would actually strongly recommend -- is more globally focused than it is an account of race and ethnicity in the U.S.  Al-Solaylee's book looks at migrant movements around the world and notes a striking pattern: there are 'brown' migrants working in the middle east (think of the South Asians in Qatar and UAE) and Chinese cities like Hong Kong (many of them Filipina maids and nannies), as well as in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. These workers are 'brown' mainly relationally: their brownness is a sign of their subordinate and migrant status. But they don't form a group or an identity; by and large they are defined only by their relationship to dominant communities wherever they are.

Taken together, these books, along with essays by people like Jose Munoz (who surely would have published his own book on brownness by now had he lived) and the performance and creative writing of people like Hasan Minhaj (Homecoming King), Elizabeth Acevedo (see "Afro-Latina"), Suheir Hammad, and others, are giving us a critical mass of conversation about an emerging 'brown' cultural moment.

As I see it, Sharmila Sen's book is an important part of that unwieldy, wide-ranging, and sometimes awkward conversation. As a community of writers and teachers, we don't quite know what we mean by 'brownness' yet -- but we're increasingly using the term in our conversations nonetheless. We don't quite know what the implications of demographics changes will be on American concepts of race and ethnicity yet (think: "Waiting for 2042"), and we don't yet know whether Trumpism will remain in place in our system (specifically after Trump himself is gone) as a counter to those changes.

In the interim, brownness remains an awkward subject position, a coalitional politics more than a coherent identity. (We need to keep working on it.)

* * *

As I was reading Sen's Not Quite Not White, I was struck by how similar her story of migration was to my own family's story, though there are of course some significant differences. The most obvious one is that she was born in Calcutta and moved the U.S. around age 12 (whereas I was born in the U.S., and lived here my whole life). She had a whole life and cultural world emerging as a child in India that she essentially jettisoned in the earnest attempt to fit in and 'Americanize' herself as a new arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1980s. I always had an American accent, but because I was raised in an observant Sikh family I was always marked as different -- and this made straightforward 'Americanization' somewhat elusive. We both did Ph.Ds. in English, and started teaching as English professors. Sen later left formal academia, and is now Executive Editor-at-large at Harvard University Press. (I stayed.)

Many of the discoveries and dilemmas from her adolescent experience of American acculturation in Sen's book dovetail with my own version of this experience. One is the way her family came to intuit dominant cultural definitions and boundaries, such what it means to describe someone as "American":

At home when Ma and Baba spoke of Americans, pejoratively or admiringly, they really meant white Americans. No one had to spell it out. Most Indians of my parents' generation, as well as some who are younger than them, continue to believe that 'real Americans' are white Americans. All others are marked as deviations from the normative. [...] After three decades in this country, my parents continue to think that real Americans are white Americans. Everyone else is Not Quite. In those early years, when Ma and Baba spoke of American food, American homes, American customs, American habits, it was implicit that they were not speaking of those Americans who also happened to be black, or Chinese, or Hispanic, or Jewish. (129)

Everything here rhymes with my own family experience, with the exception maybe of whether or not our family understood our (Ashkenazy) Jewish friends in suburban Maryland to be 'white' (we did).  As Sen points out, her family's absorption of white America as the norm also implied an acceptance of American racial hierarchies. Many Indian Americans start with a strong bias against black folks:

My family is no different from the majority of Indian families who immigrated to the United States after 1965 in at least one aspect--our anti-black bias is strong. When I tried to pass as white, or silently accepted the badge of honorary whiteness, I was trying to proclaim to our neighbors that I was not Black, that I was Not Hispanic. Every news story we saw on television, every innuendo Ma and Baba picked up around the workplace, every suspicious glance we spied in grocery stores, every gesture I clocked in the schoolyard taught us that blacks and Hispanics occupy the lower rungs of American racial hierarchy. [...] Once you see the American racial hierarchy through the newly arrived migrant's eyes, you will understand why Toni Morrison once wrote that the road to becoming American is built on the backs of blacks. (122-123)

In effect, what she is describing here is the strong compulsion many immigrants feel to perform 'model minority' status -- even when they come to know the model is flawed. It's not that immigrant communities are more 'racist' (here, meaning specifically anti-black) than white Americans; it's that their education into the workings of race and ethnicity in America lead them to understand that the way to success is to emulate whiteness and disavow the traces of their own difference. (It takes a lot of time and work to come to realize how damaging this process of disavowal can be to less-privileged people of color.)

Sen has many compelling anecdotes of her quest, as a young person growing up in New England in the 1980s and 90s, to get as close to the Heart of Whiteness as she could -- before eventually becoming self-conscious about the absurdity of that project as a young adult. Many South Asian Americans of our generation might relate to her stories about trying to learn American cuisine, manners, and rituals, from how and when exactly to say 'thank you', to gift-giving rules and etiquette. Growing up, many of us lived double lives, with a 'home' personality and Indian friends connected with one's parents' social circle, and an 'American' life that was sometimes radically at odds. In adulthood, we tended to learn to reconcile those different lives -- or, in some cases, choose which was the more important to us.

The hardest step in this process of growing up 'brown' along the lines Sen describes is to challenge the system itself. This is the real payoff of her book -- and it comes in a series of brilliant passages towards the end of Not Quite Not White. One such passage might be the following:

I learned to name whiteness for their sake so that the white officer in front of the consulate door--the man I saw as a sahib-- did not go unnamed while the other men were made extraordinarily visible with an array of adjectives. A person of color. An Asian man. A Hispanic man. An Indian man. A South Asian man. A black man. A brown man. A yellow man. Having been a young immigrant, I already knew that real power lies in being so dominant that you need not be named. The normal needs no name, no special qualifier. In the United States, there is no need to name the male, the white, the Protestant because these are attributes of the normative. And when we who are not male, white, or Protestant choose to name these things, we risk sounding like people with grievances--angry, shrill, dangerous. (173)

Coming as it does after Sen's entertaining -- but at times slightly depressing -- account of trying to emulate whiteness, this passage seems like an important revelation. The first step in really pushing back against the white as normative, and whiteness as the American default, is to name it as such. (And take the risk of "sounding like people with grievances.")

The next challenge -- and this might be one the next generation of brown Americans might have to solve for us -- is to work with others (including, especially black Americans) to radically challenge the American race-ethnicity formation itself. If whiteness is no longer the destination of acculturation into Americanness, what else can we imagine? 

Monday, January 07, 2019

A Long List of Works Now Out of Copyright: Let's Digitize Them?

Updated: thanks to everyone for their suggestions and additions. The list is now significantly longer than it was when I first started putting it together. 

A Note on Method: This list is cobbled together from magazine articles related to Public Domain Day, Wikipedia lists of books published in 1923, and Balfour Smith's extensive spreadsheet of works.

Works published in 1923 are now out of copyright (the reasons for this are complicated; look up the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act for more, or see this article in Smithsonian Magazine for a quick primer). I expected there would be a big rush of digitization to coincide with "Public Domain Day," but thus far there doesn't appear to have been all that much activity.

Perhaps one reason is that many texts now entering the public domain can already be viewed online in page view / PDF at Hathi Trust (see links below). A couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels show up at Project Gutenberg Australia. But the number of working plain text or HTML editions at sites hosted in the U.S. is quite small. Moreover, a number of major texts appear to have no digital versions available at all at present (see especially e.e. cummings' Tulips and Chimneys and Wallace Stevens' Harmonium).

It seems worth mentioning that a lot happened in 1923. The British authorities seized a copy of Ulysses in the mail and declared it obscene in January. The pulp magazine Weird Tales published its first issues. Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman had its debut, as did George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. The Surrealists and the Dadaists had a riot in Paris, and decided to part ways. And all of the books below were published!

Here's a longish list of texts that were published in 1923, and that are now out of copyright. Where I've been able to find Hathi Trust, Gutenberg, or Archive.org links I've provided those. I will add to this list as I learn of more.

Works Published in 1923 -- Now in the Public Domain


Jean Toomer, Cane (Hathi Trust). UPDATE: My bare-bones digital edition here.
e.e. cummings, Tulips and Chimneys (no edition as of yet)
Joseph Conrad, The Rover (Hathi Trust)
Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Gutenberg Edition: January 4, 2019)
Robert Frost, Selected Poems
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (Wikipedia)
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Wikipedia)
Carl Sandburg, Rootabaga Pigeons (Hathi Trust)
Willa Cather, April Twilights and Other Poems
Vachel Lindsay, Collected Poems
Vachel Lindsay, Going-to-the-Sun
Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems
George Santayana, Poems, revised

Fiction (literary)

Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay (Hathi Trust)
D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo (Hathi Trust)
D.H. Lawrence, Three Novellas (The Fox, The Captain's Doll, The Ladybird)
D.H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers
Ernest Hemingway, Three Stories and Ten Poems (Wikipedia)
Katherine Mansfield, The Doves' Nest and Other Stories (Hathi Trust) 
Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories
Edith Wharton, A Son at the Front (Hathi Trust)
H.G. Wells, Men Like Gods (Hathi Trust; Wikipedia)
Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (Hathi Trust)
William Carlos Williams, The Great American Novel 
Samuel Hopkins Adams (publishing as Warner Fabian), Flaming Youth (Wikipedia Entry. Hathi Trust lists this as published 1924)
Sherwood Anderson, Many Marriages (Hathi Trust; Wikipedia entry)
Sukumar Ray, Abol Tabol (Wikipedia)
Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Jungle Beasts and Men
John Dos Passos, Streets of Night
Carl Van Vechten, The Blind Bow-Boy
Djuna Barnes, A Book
Gertrude Atherton, Black Oxen (Gutenberg link.)
Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps (class study involving shell shock; Wikipedia)
Elizabeth Bowen, Encounters (Archive.org; short stories)
John Galsworthy, Captures
John Galsworthy The Burning Spear
Rudyard Kipling, Land and Sea Tales for Boys and Girls
Vita Sackville-West, Grey Wethers
Olive Schreiner, Stories, Dreams and Allegories
Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" (short story that would later feed into Mrs. Dalloway [1925])


Anton Chekhov, Love and Other Stories (trans. Constance Garnett)
Jules Verne, The Castaways of the Flag (first English-language edition)
Jules Verne, The Lighthouse at the End of the World (first English-language edition)
Colette, Green Wheat
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers (trans. Philip Shuyler Allen)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (trans. Constance Garnett)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat and Other Stories (trans. Constance Garnett)
Maxim Gorky, My University Days (trans. Louis P. Lochner)
Knut Hamsen, Victoria (trans. Arthur G. Chater)
Heinrich Heine, Poems (trans. Louis Untermeyer)
Emond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (trans. Brian Hooker)

Notable Nonfiction

Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Caste and Outcast
Bertrand Russell, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization
G.K. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads
Winston Churchill, The World Crisis
Jessie Conrad, A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House 
Arthur Conan Doyle, Our American Adventure
Theodore Dreiser, The Color of a Great City
E. M. Forster, Pharos and Pharillon 
James G. Frazer, Folk-lore and the Old Testament (abridged edition)
Aldous Huxley, On the Margin: Notes and Essays
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
David Lloyd George, Where Are We Going?
H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 3rd revised edition
Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America
Woodrow Wilson, The Road Away from Revolution

Popular fiction and Genre Fiction

L. Frank Baum, The Cowardly Lion of Oz
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (Gutenberg Australia)
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Girl From Hollywood (Gutenberg Australia; Wikipedia Entry)
Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links
Marie Corelli, Love and the Philosopher
Austin Hall, People of the Comet (Science fiction serialized in Weird Tales in 1923)
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (Gutenberg)
Herman Hesse, Demian (first English-language edition)
Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body? (Wikipedia)
P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (Archive.org)
P.G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith (Hathi Trust)
P.G. Wodehouse, Mostly Sally
Maxwell Bodenheim, Blackguard
Thomas Alexander Boyd, Through the Wheat (an American World War I novel; Wikipedia entry)
Max Brand, Seven Trails
John Buchan, Midwinter (Gutenberg Australia)
James Branch Cabell, The High Place: a Comedy of Disenchantment (Wikipedia entry)
Hall Caine, The Woman of Knockaloe
Susan Ertz, Madame Claire
Jeffery Farnol, Sir John Dering
J.S. Fletcher, The Charing Cross Mystery (Gutenberg Canada)
Zona Gale, Faint Perfume
Garet Garrett, Cinder Buggy
Philip Gibbs, The Middle of the Road
Talbot Mundy, The Nine Unknown (orientalist fantasy involving the Emperor Ashoka and Kali worshippers)
Liam O'Flaherty, Thy Neighbour's Wife
Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas (Wikipedia entry)
William MacLeod Raine Iron Heart 
Rafael Sabatini, Fortune's Fool
May Sinclair, Uncanny Stories (illustrated by Jean de Bosschere)
James Stephens, Deirdre
Margaret Wilson, The Able McLaughlins (Wikipedia)
Anzia Yesierska, Salome of the Tenements

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Introducing Mira Nair: a slideshow video

I put this video together to help introduce folks to Mira Nair. Some people know her films well, but I've found in recent months that many friends -- even those who know their world cinema -- often don't know the full range of her work.

Many of the images in this slideshow are also screen captures I use as illustrations in my book on the filmmaker.

The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité is now available in paperback from Amazon.com

Thursday, October 11, 2018

New Brown America: Revisiting Sepia Mutiny in 2018

[I'm giving the following as a conference talk at the Madison South Asia conference on Friday, 10/12/2018] 

I view Sepia Mutiny as a space where second-gen South Asian Americans worked on their identity issues publicly at a moment when a generation of talented artists and performers were on the cusp of emergence into the American mainstream. While the site is now defunct, I would argue that the debates occurring on the site have continued to be live since it went offline, often now in mainstream venues and an evolving set of social media frameworks.

Some of the key themes of Sepia Mutiny writing include:

1) The significance of emergent South Asian American identity in the broader North American context. What does it mean to be ‘brown’ in the U.S. in the early years of the 21st century? What terms do we use to name ourselves? (Do we, for example, use the word 'desi' or not?) How strong or weak are our alliances and affinities as a group (across religious, national, caste, and regional boundaries -- to name just four huge fault-lines)? How do South Asian Americans situate themselves against the white mainstream as well as other minority identities -- other Asian Americans, Arabs and Persian immigrant communities, African Americans, Latinos? What kinds of cultural and artistic products document that emergence and work through some of the key obstacles we’ve faced – including especially 9/11 and the election of Trump in 2016?

2. The many, many ways of being hybrid, mixed, split. South Asian Americans are notably defined by generational and intra-cultural variation, but one thing we all seem to have in common is a kind of internal culture clash. How to connect ‘home’ tastes and values to the versions of ourselves we perform in public? How to position ourselves both with respect to mainstream western cultural icons and South Asian aesthetic worlds -- from Indian classical dance to Bollywood/Bhangra? How much does your identity really mean if, as a second-gen, you don’t speak a South Asian language very well or at all? What is your relationship to ‘home’?

3. The ongoing problem of appropriation as an indirect mode of racism and cultural diminishment. In the mainstream, this could be in the form of western performers appropriating Indian cultural or religious symbolism: a pop star wearing a bindi, or the complex appropriation of Hindu devotional practices in westernized versions of Yoga. It could, of course, also be a matter of accent appropriation -- and here, our own frequent criticisms of western appropriation of bad Indian accents clearly anticipated the kind of critique Hari Kondabolu would later make of Hank Azaria and the creators of the Simpsons in his 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. I also can't help but think of the "Macaca" controversy of 2006, the many, many examples of stereotyping and typecasting of South Asian Americans as either model minorities or terrorists.

* * *

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Shades of Brown: Notes for a South Asian American Media Studies Project

I'm starting a sabbatical, and hoping to restart this blog with a series of posts related to the thinking I'm doing over the summer and and into the fall. Here's the first of what I hope will be a series of meditations building towards what might become a new book project

What does it mean to be 'brown'? What are the parameters and limits of brownness -- as a skin complexion, as a racial category in American life? Many Latinx people identify as 'brown'; and slogans like "Brown Power" have been part of the Latinx and Chicanx political vocabulary since the 1970s. South Asians identify as 'brown' as well -- and there's as much complexional variance amongst South Asians as there are amongst Latinx people. Are South Asians the same 'brown' as Latinx people? We need to explore this; we need to have a conversation about what we mean by brown. When is it a term of pride? What are the different browns -- moreno/a, mestizo/a, Indio/a -- and east Indian shades of brown?
"Boricua morena
Boricua morena
Boricua morena..."
-Big Pun

Admittedly, as a color (and not necessarily as a complexion), brown has its own values and aesthetic legacy in English. Brown can suggest mud, it can suggest shit, it can suggest a combination of too many colors (when painting, a mess, or a mistake). To claim brownness as a political and racial category is to push back against the ways in which the color is devalued (though it should be noted that the negation of 'brown' is different from that of 'black'). Brown is also a natural, intermediate, and inclusive color -- not an extreme color defined by purity of one kind or another. Brown is the earth -- the ground, out of which other brown things grow. Only some of us can be white or black; potentially all of us have some shades of brown in our skin, including people who trace all of their ancestry to Europe. If brown is the American future, could 'brown' become the racial default, displacing 'white'?

Arguably, large numbers of biracial and multiracial people might be understood as 'brown'. Some of them have also been understood, sometimes awkwardly, as black (Tiger Woods). Others proceed in their careers with a degree of ethnic and racial ambiguity (Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel). If we're going to have a conversation about brownness, we need to have a conversation about multiracial identities as well, especially given the rapid increase in the number of families who identify as multiracial in the past three decades. If America is turning brown, it's doing so as much through intermarriage as through immigration (sometimes both at once).

Unlike blackness or whiteness, brownness seems to be a porous category -- not a term historically shaped (as blackness is) by the legacy of the American slave trade or the one-drop rule. Unlike whiteness or blackness, Brownness can continue to grow and evolve. 2042 is coming; what happens then?
"Listen made intently when you make the sound
Tell you that it's all love,
They care about the browns
The truth is when you down,
They be out making the rounds
Like, brown boy, brown boy, what's up with that sound, boy?"

Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, there were really two options for an aspiring South Asian diaspora performer -- mainstreaming (which usually entailed deracialization and assimilation to a state close to whiteness), or orientation to a small constituency of fellow South Asians (peforming for other browns -- other desis). Much of the South Asian diaspora fusion Bhangra music that circulated in the 1990s and 2000s operated in this model, with independent music labels and a subcultural nightclub circuit. It was anchored in a vibrant college scene, with dance clubs on many campuses and intercollegiate competitions like Bhangra Blowout.

In many ways the model for minoritization came from the African American community, and that imprint is not unimportant. Blackness and black culture is a huge part of South Asian diaspora media culture. The musical idiom with the most cachet since the 1990s has of course been hip hop, with the play between minoritization and mainstreaming that has been central to that subculture playing out in the South Asian version as well. For every mainstream, crossover success (i.e., Panjabi MC), there are figures like Bohemia and Dr. Zeus, who stayed underground. And a version of this might adhere with Latinx music as well, where Reggaeton in particular is deeply indebted to Afro-Jamaican dancehall reggae and hip hop. But hip hop is not just a musical idiom and a subculture; for 'brown' performers it's served as the primary pathway to mainstream legibility. 

(And we could talk about some of the interesting brown cross-references that have occurred, as for instance when the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, in his breakthrough 2001 single, "Culo," used the "Coolie Riddim" -- a dancehall beat with an East Indian sound. Or, conversely, the influence of salsa and other Latinx musical forms in Bollywood music...)

The debt to hip hop is sometimes fraught, as Heems discovered when he received pushback for Tweeting lyrics to a song (by an African American rapper) that included the n-word. And, for her part, M.I.A. got into trouble when she questioned the racial singularity of the Black Lives Matter movement ("Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That's a more interesting question"). More broadly, though the advent of "brown rap" raises a question about the nature of the performance -- is a rapper like Heems performing "brownness" or "blackness" if and when he uses black vernacular phrases and cadences? What might it mean to engage with hip hop as a brown rapper and not attempt to mimic African American voices?

I'm not from here
Please be patient
I be ragin' face displacement
I'm obsessed with the space between spaces
Eh, f---ing racists
I get caged in a box cause I'm Asian  

Perhaps, sometime around 2008, a third option started to emerge in bits and pieces in mainstream American popular culture. That option might be described as the brown option. This option entails mainstreaming without necessarily disavowing ethnic or racial difference. Neither 'white' nor 'black' -- something else.

If you catch me at the border,
I've got visas in my name
-M.I.A., "Paper Planes" 

The year 2008 is imprecise, but it seems like a good yardstick. 2008 is the year Das Racist had its breakout hit with "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell"; in a more mainstream setting, 2008 was the year British South Asian pop/R&B singer Jay Sean signed to Cash Money records (he released "Down" in 2009 -- it went to #1 on the Billboard charts).  2008 is the year M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" was a hit on American radio stations (though the song was actually was released in 2007). Naveen Andrews was breaking hearts with his dreamy character Sayid on Lost in 2008.

2008 is just before Aziz Ansari hit the mainstream with Parks and Recreation (2009) and his cameo as "Randy" ("Raaaaaaaandy") in Funny People, though as of 2008 he was very much on the cusp. Kal Penn and John Cho's Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was of course released earlier, but Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the more explicitly politicized and highly improbable sequel to the multicultural stoner classic, was released in 2008.  Also in 2008, Aasif Mandvi was a regular correspondent on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, while he was also playing prominent roles on shows like Jericho. Sendhil Ramamurthy was one of the break-out stars on Heroes. And Mindy Kaling was a star writer and actor on The Office -- she got her own show in 2012.

And of course 2008 is the year of the biggest 'brown' mainstreaming event one could imagine: the Presidential campaign and election of Barack Obama. This was a campaign where South Asians were prominently and consistently aligned with the biracial ('brown') Presidential candidate. Barack Hussein Obama shared the problem, which many people of South Asian descent feel acutely, of the 'funny' name -- a name people might struggle initially to pronounce. He still ran for president on his own name (he could easily have presented himself to the world as 'Barry' -- the nickname he used as a young man). And won.

And yes, alongside Barack Obama, we should duly note that 2008 was the year Bobby Jindal was sworn in as the governor of Louisiana -- the first Indian-American governor in American history. Arguably, however, if people like Barack Obama or Aasif Mandvi were finding ways to enter the mainstream while embracing their complex identities and backgrounds (their 'brownness' and, in Obama's case, 'blackness' as well), people like Jindal seemed to be downplaying any signs of racial or religious difference.

The political legacy of these events has been beautifully and comprehensively discussed in Sangay Mishra's groundbreaking book, Desis Divided: the Political Lives of South Asian Americans. Mishra also uses the dual pathways I have been describing, though he uses a slightly different vocabulary ("pluralizing"/"assimilationist" vs "racializing"/"minoritarian"). He also limits his scope to politics -- here I'll be primarily interested in media figures, including actors, musicians, and stand-up comedians. I'll be interested in in politicians like Jindal and Nikki Haley insofar as they perform versions of brownness in the American public sphere.

Through much of this period, I was writing about these issues on the internet with a very active group of readers and co-contributors. The site where we were having these conversations was a group blog called Sepia Mutiny. One of my goals, going forward, is to review the scope of the conversation we were having on Sepia Mutiny between 2005 and about 2010 to retrace our steps -- to find the contours of the evolving conversation about brownness and the emerging new forms of racialization in the American landscape.

Along the way I want to look at precursors to the 2008 moment -- the long tradition of South Asian American (and maybe also Latinx) media presence in the American landscape through the 20th century. And also think about what's happened since then -- Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Aparna Nancherla, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu. I'm also interested in Youtube stars like Lilly Singh and the Instagram poetry sensation Rupi Kaur. How do all of these artists, in their respective fields, navigate brownness in the new media landscape?