Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
When Neila Seshachari invited me to co-edit a special issue of Weber Studies on the literature and culture of South Asian Americans, I was pleased and surprised. I was pleased at being offered the opportunity to read and review the richness and the diversity of South Asian American literature. I was surprised at the timing of this special issue which follows at least five major anthologies of South Asian American literature published in recent years: Our Feet Walk the Skies: Literature by South Asian Women in the Diaspora (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press, 1993), Her Mother's Ashes and Other Stories: South Asian Women Writers in Canada and the United States of America Vols. I and II (Toronto: The Toronto South Asia Review Publications, 1995 and 1997), Living in America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian American Writers (Colorado: Westview Press, 1995) and Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America (New York: Asian American Writers Workshop, 1997).
It would be premature to say that with the publication of these anthologies and this special issue of Weber Studies, South Asian American literature has "arrived" on the American scene. Even though we have yet to find a large audience for our literature as well as for the discussions of our history and cultures, people from South Asia and South Asian cultures have been in the Americas for at least a century and a half, if not longer. Writers such as Santha Rama Rau, Ved Mehta, Zulfikar Ghose, Amitav Ghosh, Meena Alexander, Agha Shahid Ali, G.S. Sharat Chandra, Bharati Mukherjee, Bapsi Sidhwa, Vikram Chandra, Chitra Divakaruni and Tahira Naqvi have made a place for themselves in twentieth century literature of the United States of America. They are read and discussed in academic contexts, some of them have a following among readers who do not belong to academic institutions and many of them appear consistently in anthologies of Asian American, multicultural and American literature. And although the first collection of writings by South Asian Americans may have been the special issue of the Journal of South Asian Literature (Vol. XXI No. 1 Winter-Spring 1986) titled, The Immigrant and Expatriate Experience in the Prose and Poetry of South Asian Women Writers, a substantial number of poems, essays and personal narratives by Indian writers had appeared in the publications of the Gaddar party as early as the beginnings of this century.
Keeping in mind the history of South Asian American literature, the timing of this special issue is interesting as well as important. Many of the works in this issue give an overview of the South Asian American writings that have appeared in journals and anthologies over the last twenty years. But there are also a number of voices included here that haven't been heard before. By presenting a diversity of voices and of points of view, this issue of Weber Studies attempts to reflect a part of the vast diversity of cultures, experiences, traditions and voices that form the definitely non-homogeneous communities of South Asian Americans. The essays on South Asian and South Asian American cultures and literature form a valuable context for the discussion of the literary works that are presented in the issue.
I am grateful to Weber Studies and to Neila Seshachari for offering a forum for recording and collecting our voices, for giving us a special issue where we can continue to read South Asian American literature and where South Asian American culture can be discussed. Collections of South Asian American voices such as this one show that this literature is an integral part of twentieth century American literature. They also extend the field for discussions among those of us interested in the long standing presence of South Asians in the Americas. These discussions will hopefully lead to reviewing, revisioning and maybe even a re-fusing and then a reforming of the spaces and the margins that have been allocated to South Asian American literature and cultures within the text of American literature and culture.
Neila C. Seshachari
Like all our special issues, this one on South-Asian American Literature /Culture was planned two years in advance. India's 50th anniversary was fast approaching; Indian journals and newspapers, I knew, would review India's performance and progress in literature, arts, politics, economics, natural and social sciences, and technology. I was going to hold the limelight on South-Asian American writers after the fanfare on Indian writers in India had time to subside. I also felt that I would perhaps be the only editor in the USA to focus on the literature/culture of India and Pakistan on this special occasion.
Imagine my surprise when The New Yorker's fiction double issue on Indian writers hit the newsstands in June 1997, two months before 15 August! Then followed the other major journals Time, Newsweek, The Economist, National Geographic to name a few each spotlighting India in the month of its 50th anniversary celebrations! Had I known that this little journal was going to be upstaged by all the major publications, I would have published our special issue in Fall 1997 (September). Even so, I would have been the last one to carry the torch!
I am truly awed by the attention free India's 50th anniversary has received here in the USA. In light of this well-deserved kudos, it seems even more pertinent that Weber Studies is featuring South-Asian American writers in this special issue. Twenty-five years ago, while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Utah, I wondered why there was a dearth of Indian-American writing, why Indian immigrants were not interested in literary pursuits as other (immigrant ethnic) groups were. Only in hindsight do I realize that Asian Indians who came to the USA with graduate degrees were busy acquiring professional security, material goods, and bulky bank accounts. It's the second generation comprising of their US-born children and later immigrants that has become vocal in exploring ethnicities, class and gender issues, contested identities and complex relationships between their cultural land and adoptive country. What was latent and suppressed in the first generation of immigrants who came after the liberalization of immigration quotas in 1965 is now being articulated in splendor and aesthetic candor.
The fiction, poetry, and essays in this issue collectively shed light not only on the verities of the postcolonial diaspora in North America but on the culture of the undivided Indian subcontinent as well. The writers represented here are an astonishing mix of "professional writers" who write for a living (often teaching creative writing on university campuses) and highly literate professionals from everywhere else physicians and health professionals, scientists and computer engineers, social workers and business executives. South Asians who are known to love an argument for its own sake and prefer cerebral activities over athletic ones are beginning to find their literary voices in North America. That is cause for celebration.
Weber Studies' call for papers for this issue brought a plethora of good material that was as daunting as it was difficult to choose from. I thank Roshni Rustomji-Kerns for her ready help in spreading the word, soliciting and reviewing manuscripts, and doing the interview with Meena Alexander. She has been an exemplary co-editor to work with. My only regret is that page restrictions prevented us from including many good articles that should have been published in this issue.
Roshni's interview with Meena Alexander is unusual in a couple of ways. At the suggestion of the two involved, we used first names Meena and Roshnito reflect a sense of closeness they felt with their readers. Secondly, this interview includes a short collective session with scholars and writers who attended the Conference on South Asia at the