[(essay date 2009) In the following essay, Chetty contends that Lahiri’s experience “is not representative.” He researches how her experience came to be considered such by Newsweek magazine and addresses the problem of popular ethnic representative typecasting.]
On March 6, 2006, Newsweek featured as its lead story “The New India,” focusing on India’s rapidly growing economy and relationship with the United States. Perhaps in an effort to appeal to its American audience, Newsweek linked the economic development in India with the role of India “inside” the United States: The article was accompanied by a brief introduction of successful young Indian-Americans, a discussion of outsourcing to India, and a piece by Jhumpa Lahiri discussing the negotiation of her identity as an Indian-American to its American audience.
Newsweek deploys Lahiri’s struggle with and resolution of her own hybrid identity as representative of the “Indian-American” experience in the United States. This deployment is problematic in that hers is the only voice Newsweek included to represent her generation—the generation that is the offspring of Indian immigrants to the United States.1 In doing so, the magazine privileges the hybridized identity Lahiri claims—Indian-American. In the article, Lahiri notes that in the United States today she can refer to herself as Indian-American, without having to explain it. She contrasts this with “growing up in Rhode Island in the 1970s,” when she felt “neither Indian nor American,” but instead felt an “intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.”2
Lahiri’s is one experience, perhaps not atypical, within the inherently variable process of cultural negotiation accompanying immigrant or cross-cultural experiences. But even within the highly specified category of American-born or -raised offspring of Indian immigrants, Lahiri’s case is not representative. The danger in such singular representations by prominent American popular media, in this instance Newsweek, is the way these representations elide alternative voices arising out of a similar space—both the specific space of Americans of Indian origin, and the more general space of Americans with recent immigrant ancestry. Furthermore, in a milieu of official multiculturalism, hyphenated identities are privileged in a sort of liberal humanism focusing on, as Homi Bhabha puts it, cultural diversity instead of cultural difference.3
Diversity becomes the unqualified and uninterrogated catchword for including a multiplicity of voices, obscuring the fact that this inclusion often reveals exoticisms and “otherings” within the United States. These inclusions raise a key question: How has the study of difference moved from interrogating subject positions and avoiding objectification, to reinscribing identities as fixed, knowable, and intended for the dominant ethno-culture? In other words, how has Lahiri, in twenty-first century United States literary criticism, become a representative of and for Indian and Indian-American culture and ethnicity?
The New Racial Mountain
Langston Hughes, in his landmark 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” critiques Countee Cullen for wanting “to be a poet—not a Negro poet.” For Hughes, “this is the mountain...