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Reading Together, Reading Apart

Tamara Bhalla interviewed by Manan Desai

Tamara Bhalla is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County, where she researches and teaches courses on Asian American and multiethnic literature and culture. Her book Reading Together, Reading Apart: Identity, Belonging, and the South Asian American Community (University of Illinois Press) examines the social, cultural, and community-building uses and values of multiethnic literature.

After attending and closely observing a South Asian American book club in D.C. over the course of several years, Professor Bhalla captured a complex conversation about identity, belonging, and representation, and how communities come to define themselves. Through rigorous analysis and candid conversations with readers, Reading Together, Reading Apart raises questions about how reading shapes our understandings of South Asian diasporic identity. What do the characters we identify with tell us about ourselves? And how can debates around culture and literature inform us about how communities and individuals define “the South Asian American” experience?

How’d you initially get into this project?

When I was doing my PhD in English at the University of Michigan, I realized that I was never quite as interested in analyzing literary texts themselves as I was in thinking about how readers responded to or used a given text. My field of literary study is multiethnic American literatures, South Asian American literature more specifically. And so I have always been fascinated with how authors within this literary field have been tasked with representing their particular cultures to mainstream (often figured as white) reading audiences. As literary scholars we can only usually surmise how readers respond to literature that describes particular ethnic or racial perspectives—and very often we have a particular set of assumptions regarding these responses. Writers, particularly South Asian American and diasporic writers are often thought to be self-Orientalizing, or capitalizing on their palatable ethnic differences to make book sales. But I wanted to know, is this really the story? Or more specifically, is this how readers who are supposedly being “represented” by this literature see it? How do they feel “the South Asian American experience” is being represented in literature? I firmly believe in the complexity of readerly response, and so I wanted to get a firmer sense of how that operates.

Your book is unique especially for scholars of literature, in that, instead of analyzing works of literature yourself you analyze discussions of literature among readers. What were some of the challenges in doing that?

Oh, there were so many—some I anticipated and some I didn’t. I knew that I would need more training in qualitative research and ethnography—so luckily I was able to do that as part of my graduate training. At the time I began the ethnography for this project (while completing my dissertation) I was pursuing a degree in literary studies and so I was aiming to write ethnography, but in a way that would speak to literary scholars in particular. And that was difficult, because I think, almost by nature, especially in multiethnic literary fields, ethnography is something we avoid rather than move toward. This is because authors who are marked by racial or ethnic “difference” are so often expected by mainstream audiences to report on their experiences and to make their literary work into a sort of auto-ethnography. So, I had all of these reservations regarding ethnography swirling around in my head as I was trying to examine readership as the object of study (rather than literature). How could I ask these questions about representation in literature, while still being attentive to the fact that the authors/texts should not be held up to simple representational or ethnographic standards? So the short answer is no surprise: interdisciplinary work is hard and incredibly time-consuming.

What was something that surprised you during the research process?

I did not expect to enjoy discussing literature in this book club as much as I did. I think that the fact that the book allowed me to think about readers and readership meant that I wasn’t cloistered in an archive—it was a social project and that was very enjoyable. These readers were experts and they knew a lot about South Asian American and diasporic literature—their interactions and individual conversations taught me a lot about how literature can enable a sense of belonging for diasporic people. I really enjoyed participating.

I was also really struck by your discussion of marketing in South Asian American fiction, and the difference in how women and men’s books are both marketed and received. Do you sense that is changing, or do you think that pattern largely continues?

I think this is a persistent issue in South Asian American literary culture. I think, at this particular moment, however, there is a lot going on with South Asian American cultural production in popular culture as well, and some of these gendered divides might be taking on new shapes there. We see that with the rising prominence of several South Asian male comedians, their mainstream success often comes at the expense of how they depict (or negate) South Asian American women in their films and shows. Meanwhile, South Asian American women who have become cultural producers (like, in the literary world, Jhumpa Lahiri or more recently Mindy Kaling in the “Never Have I Ever” debates) are often taken to task for perpetuating casteism and classism in their work. This could be the subject of its own article, but I think that, as I discuss in the book, issues of ethnicity, religion, caste, class, and gender can’t be disarticulated within South Asian American communities.
Illinois Press book signing for Tamara Bhalla's Reading Together, Reading Apart. Alongside Jason Oliver Chang's Chino, and Eleanor Ty's Asianfail.

One of the most compelling and complex arguments in your book is about how the ideas of authenticity coursed through the NetSAP reading group. NetSAP readers debated the authenticity of representations in novels. At the same time, their ideas of what was of “ethnically authentic” shaped their own understanding of what South Asianness means. Why do you think that is? In other words, why is “authenticity” such a prominent theme in conversations about South Asian American identity?

As I discuss in the book, I think that South Asians in the United States tend to do a lot of gatekeeping around what it means to be South Asian in order to preserve a sense of connection to their imagined homeland, or in the case of younger South Asians, the homeland that their parents imagined for them. Authenticity, is also desirable and can be marketable in some cases—so there is some sense that it has to be protected in order to remain meaningful.

What books would you suggest readers turn to in order to learn more?

Rather than recommend new academic work for readers to turn to, I’ll make three general recommendations for people who are interested in learning more about social practices of reading: 1. Try out reading in an explicitly social format (a book club, an online book club, a public library reading challenge). It’s really fascinating to experience reading as an explicitly social process. 2. Check out Participations journal, which is free, open source journal that publishes a lot of interesting work on diverse practices of reading. There is some great work being done, particularly outside the U.S. on reading and readership in literary studies—and you can familiarize yourself with it in this journal. 3. If you haven’t read this classic work on literary representation, read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).

What is your next big project?

My new book project continues (unsurprisingly) on the theme or readership and representation. In this project, I want to expand the focus of my analysis to include a wider swath of contemporary multiethnic literatures to look at the overlapping settings in which U.S. multiethnic literature is read publicly or communally—celebrity book clubs, literary academia, book review, and social media. The book looks at sites of literary controversy, scandal, and debate in which race and representational politics have come to the fore, such as the American Dirt controversy or the allegations of sexual misconduct that led to the “cancellation” of Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie’s work among their reading audiences. I’m really excited to apply some of the questions that came out of Reading Together to the broader field of multiethnic literatures!
Tamara Bhalla is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County, where she researches and teaches courses on Asian American and multiethnic literature and culture.