In Fashioning Diaspora: Beauty, Femininity, and South Asian American Culture, Vanita Reddy asks how our use and understanding of critical theories of race, gender and sexuality, and social class deepen and change when discourses of beauty and fashion are at the center of intellectual inquiry. Reddy employs a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on South Asian American and primarily Indian American literature, visual media, art, and drama from the 1990s through the twenty-first century. She presents nuanced readings of beauty and fashion that offer a framework in which to think thematically about material icons of South Asian femininity and beauty, including the bindi and the sari. Her work illustrates how women’s narratives and dialogues of Indian beauty go beyond aesthetic and physical attributes and are linked to histories and theories of the social and political economies of the United States and the Indian diaspora. Indian Americans, as Reddy and other scholars have noted, occupy an ambiguous status in US racial and economic discourses. On the one hand, Indians are situated with Asian Americans and triangulated in a black-white racial position. On the other hand, Indian Americans are also claimed by British colonial histories or, in contemporary times, represented by India as Non-Resident Indians, or NRIs (an economic and government designation). To view Indian Americans through the lens of beauty and femininity is to elucidate a racial position that is seen as an “accomplishment but not representative of the nation.” Yet, as Reddy argues, “Indian feminine beauty” also has the power to “animate the social” (2). In her first two chapters, Reddy focuses on two key authors in South Asian American Studies, Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri. These chapters offer a detailed literary analysis that brings about new ways to contextualize the authors’ narratives. The discussion of Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine (1989) focuses on an alternative vision of how an Indian immigrant woman challenges conventional narratives of immigration and assimilation. Reddy argues that Mukherjee’s eponymous character represents “unexceptional” (62) ways of characterizing South Asian immigrants that are not upper-middle-class narratives but instead gesture to the illicit world of migration. Reddy challenges earlier interpretations of the novel as an assimilation narrative by looking at the social and economic aspects of Jasmine’s beauty. One of Reddy’s most astute observations concerns the narrative of Jasmine’s hair and the politics of hair that link her story to larger themes of the hair industry and global trafficking in ethnic studies. She argues that Jasmine’s beauty allows her to move across different social and economic environments that reveal social constructions of race and various arguments and attitudes about immigrants. In her chapter on Lahiri, Reddy focuses on the materiality of the body, or the body as prosthetic, and argues that the narratives in the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Interpreter of Maladies offer a cross-coding between white/American bodies and Indian bodies from multiple points of view, including gender and race. Discussing the influence of Bollywood in commercial imagery, Reddy examines the consumer and cultural products of the beauty industry and how beauty-industry influences not only appear in Indian American literature but also extend to the external branding of Lahiri’s “stylized beauty” or public image (90-91). The media representations of Lahiri’s image mirror how beauty operates in Indian American literature. Reddy argues that Lahiri is pursuing a “feminist cosmopolitical project” (68) that both highlights and critiques globalization and transnational movements, economic trade, and interpersonal intimacies. Reddy gestures to multiple stories, but her focus on “Sexy,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” and “This Blessed House” is particularly engaging as she talks about how the representation and history of Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit runs through the three different stories. Reddy’s final chapter on literature further examines the idea of fashion branding within young adult or youth movements. The book moves from physical attributes of beauty to present events staged around the production of beauty—namely, cultural beauty pageants or public expressions of beauty in material girlhood or youth culture such as dolls or young adult fiction. The young adult market in Asian American literature has increased exponentially in the twenty-first century, with authors such as Cynthia Kadohata and Gene Luen Yang gaining attention and garnering awards. Reddy discusses how young adult fiction is related to consumer branding and commodity activism that stems from representations of beauty pageants to youth branding. The last two chapters transition from the discourse of beauty in literary narratives to the practice of beauty in cultural, artistic, and activist contexts as Reddy considers two Indian-specific fashion symbols, the bindi and the sari. In “The Bindi: Fashion and Feminist Visual Media,” Reddy argues that art installations and film can challenge branded notions of Indo-chic. She examines the film Dothead (2001) and the fake pornographic website Bindigirl (1999). Reddy makes an incisive point about how fashion, and the notion of the bindi in particular, changed between a pre- and post-9/11 world. She argues that in the late twentieth century, South Asian American women and the bindi were associated with racialized and gendered violence by the 1980s New Jersey hate group “The Dotbusters,” the racial slur of “dothead,” and an eroticized Asian femininity. But in the twenty-first century, the emphasis on fashion and the bindi appeals to a consumer mentality that emphasizes heteronormativity through the rise of the number and cost of elaborate Indian weddings. The issues Reddy raises have gravitated to a consumer market around the Indian bridal and wedding industry and open up avenues of exploration around the proliferation of the NRI wedding industry and the depiction of wedding and bridal culture in Western media. In her concluding chapter, Reddy chronicles the history of the sari and the operation of global fashion markets. In particular, she chronicles how the sari is used as a prop to undertake and deliver political testimony. In her close reading of Shalilya Patel’s one-woman show “Migritude,” Reddy shows how the sari pushes the boundaries of racial and geographical definitions of South Asian and Indo-chic. She comments how the discourse of migration and the sari involve Afro-Asian relations and interrelations under British colonialism and within the scope of the South Asian diaspora. Reddy examines two questions: how does the idea and notion of the sari travel, and how does a regional draping of a sari (Gujarati style) reflect the cultural and political relations between mothers and daughters and subsequent generations? Reddy delivers an in-depth study of how beauty and fashion operate and influence gender and sexuality in South Asian American studies. Her textual readings are rich, and the historical contexts she develops around material culture such as the bindi and the sari highlight the intersections of art, labor, sexuality, and race relations embedded in discourses of beauty and fashion. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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