English Professor Bakirathi Mani Explores Globalization, Race, and Identity in New Book

By Maki Somosot '12
Aspiring Home: South Asians in America
In her new book, Mani explores how immigrants of different national, religious, ethnic, and class backgrounds come to identify as "South Asian," despite their differences.

In Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America (Stanford University Press, 2012), Associate Professor of English Literature Bakirathi Mani examines how first- and second-generation South Asian Americans from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh come to terms with their American citizenship, along with their unique attachments to South Asia. To explore this relationship, Mani advances a theory of transnational locality, which characterizes how immigrants of different national, religious, ethnic, and class backgrounds come to identify as "South Asian," despite their differences.

In her book, Mani uses an interdisciplinary cultural studies framework to explore questions of immigration and globalization, and employs ethnography to understand what it means to live as and be South Asian in America. She also uses literary theory to analyze South Asian popular culture works, like Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories and Mira Nair's films, to explore novel conceptualizations of South Asian identity and conceptions of the immigrant experience.

Mani, who specializes in Asian-American studies, transnational feminist theory, and cultural studies of globalization, also attempts to provide a new way of understanding the Asian American identity and experience in the U.S. 

"One of the ways in which we traditionally understand Asian American identities is through focusing on domestic racial formations, for example, how do Asian Americans negotiate the 'black-white' divide in American racial politics? By contrast," Mani says, "I argue that thinking about Asian Americans simply within the racial context of the U.S. does not do justice to the complex histories of wars and nationalist movements in Asia that produce the context for Asian immigration to the U.S. and that continue to inform the lives of second-generation immigrants. Bringing together an analysis of race relations in the U.S. with a theorization of the political and economic relationship between South Asia and America helps us to understand the broader context of immigrant experience, and the specific ways in which immigrants understand themselves as South Asian."

Mani's personal background informs her motivation for writing the book.

"Growing up in Tokyo, I had always understood myself as 'Indian,' even though India was a tourist destination and I was more familiar with Japanese popular culture," she adds. "When I came to college, I realized there was a whole community of students who, like myself, had parents who had immigrated from the subcontinent. However, instead of understanding themselves as 'foreigners,' they identified as Americans - specifically as South Asian American. It was a way of inhabiting a racial identity in a multicultural America, but it was also a way of underlining their difference, particularly in terms of religious or class background, gender, or sexuality."