Every so often, I receive an article submission that is timely, fluidly expressed, and well researched, but I cannot print it. I find myself explaining why the article in question—maybe it’s about the Indian Premier League, or a new program at IIT—would be appropriate for publication in an Indian periodical, but not this Indian-American magazine.

The interests, preoccupations, and aspirations of a diasporic publication are understandably different from those of the Indian media. As populations, India’s 1 billion and the United States’ 2.5 million Indian-Americans experience radically different daily realities, no matter how porous national boundaries have become, no matter the number of NRIs who turn to India for investment and retirement.

Indians in India and Indians in America are bound to relate differently to their places of belonging and residence. Indian-Americans are caught in a narrative of exceptionalism—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we beat all the national averages for education and income. As the exception to the American norm, we must try to hash out a place for ourselves on the “privileged” margins, to find ways to describe both our relative successes and our inability to transcend our obvious differences.

The words we use to describe our reality are telling: “desi,” “hybrid,” “fusion,” all with the aid of that unflagging hyphen.

Common words, found most commonly in the pages of magazines like this one. But what do they mean? And what do they say about the content a diasporic publication produces?

Desi: of the homeland. Which one? Wikipedia cites the term’s origins in the U.K. circa 1960, the fact that “desi” refers colloquially to anyone from South Asia or of South Asian origin, and that it can be used as both noun and adjective. This year, we changed Katha, our annual short fiction contest, from an “Indian-American” competition to a “Desi” one. We intended to broaden the scope of possible entrants and entries. Yet the term-change has had little to no bearing on the entered stories.

Hybrid: a product of difference. Difference to what end? Indian-American writing generally assumes that hybrid identity, the condition of being a hyphenated subject, carries potential. That we, with our dual cultural inheritance, have unique potential to experience “the best of both worlds.” And yet there’s a parallel narrative in play: one that says hyphenated Indians are trapped between worlds, that the children of immigrants must be confused, rootless, lost, and ashamed of our inscrutable names.

I’m not always able to assist our contributors in addressing the concerns of the hyphen. But I tell them we Indian-Americans still have a lot of our own thinking, and writing, to do.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.
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