An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee

Fred Bonnie | October/November 1995

Bharati Mukherjee
Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee, a native of Calcutta, came to the United States in 1961 to study at the University of Iowa Writing Workshop. The Middleman and Other Stories won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award, and her third novel, Jasmine (1989), was published to great critical acclaim. Her most recent novel, The Holder of the World, was published in 1993. Her stories are about the struggles of immigrants, legal and otherwise, to adapt to life in the U.S. and Canada. Ms. Mukherjee is currently a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Fred Bonnie: Why do you think there is, at this time, so much animosity toward immigrants and such a strong push in the U.S. Congress to stiffen the laws governing entry into this country?

Bharati Mukherjee: One problem is the economic recession, which has hit California particularly hard. Whenever things are bad economically, we look for scapegoats, and Asian-Americans in California, no matter how many generations they've lived there, are suddenly seen as "the other." My colleague at Berkeley, Ronald Takaki, has written a book about the history of immigration in this country—it's entitled Strangers from a Different Shore—he points out that Asians, the Chinese being the first of them to have come here in the mid-nineteenth century, have nonetheless always been thought of as sojourners versus Europeans, no matter when they came, as settlers. This is a tactic of continually other-izing the Asian, even though there's no reason to think of them as transients and guest workers.

Some poor Caucasians, African-Americans, and Latinos, unfortunately, are seeing Asian-Americans as a rival group. They will often complain that Asians are taking their jobs. This is sometimes coming from people who have never held a job in their lives. So, economic recession and the need to scapegoat is a major reason, although not necessarily an accurate one, for much of the hostility toward immigrants.

Bonnie: You mentioned in your talk that you think the hyphenation of ethnic groups as African-American or Asian-American is doing those groups a disservice.

Mukherjee: I personally avoid the hyphenation of ethnic groups, and the reason for that is to avoid the other-ization, the self-imposed marginalization that comes with hyphenation. I have no problem with writers and others who choose hyphenation as a means of attaining a comfortable mode of self-presentation. I'm talking more about my own discomfort with that practice, or the practice of forcing that category on someone who is unwilling to be typed in that way. If you're going to call me an Indian-American writer, then you've got to consistently refer to John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates as European-American writers. And I object to that simply because the whole idea of America is different. In every country besides the U.S. and Canada, there is a fixed notion of national identity and culture—that you have to be born into that race, complexion, and religious axis in order to claim it as your own. Only in the U.S. and Canada do we still work the romantic myth that everyone who comes here eventually melts down to become a new thing. For Americans, personal identity, national identity, are constantly in flux. That's what I find liberating. I was born into such a rigid society, where it didn't matter what my ambitions or feelings were. I was who I was because I was so-and-so's daughter from such-and-such caste.

Bonnie: Are you saying that the term "melting pot" still applies to the United States?

Mukherjee: I think it was on the Bill Moyers show where I recommended that the term "melting pot" ought to be replaced by something more accurate—perhaps the "fusion vat." (Laughing) In America, everyone is being constantly changed. I dislike the term "tossed salad" as an image of American salad because that implies that each radish or wedge of lettuce maintains its individual identity, when, in fact, that's not what happens to immigrants in this country. The idea of "stew pot" is appealing because the flavors become blended in a stew, and even though you can still recognize the piece of carrot as a piece of carrot, the flavor has changed and the end product is different from the sum of its components.

Bonnie: What is it about America that seems to turn people into criminals? They're perfectly law-abiding citizens in their native lands, but when they get to the United States, some become gang members or drug dealers or gun runners. Why?

Mukherjee: Well, it's democracy, and crime is democracy's downside. In a democracy, everyone gets to do his thing, even if it's a wrong thing to do. I have to believe that many of the Asian gangs I hear of or have tried to study did, indeed, exist back home. In some cases they're drug or extortion operations. One of the reasons the criminally-inclined feel free to be criminals in this country is the American penal system. I don't want to see a Singapore style of public flogging become a standard form of justice here, but I am convinced that many people who would be too afraid of punishment in their own countries are not afraid of the consequences here; there's a very good chance that you can commit a crime and never be caught. And if you are caught, the punishment won't be very severe. Also, they're not as afraid of the social consequences here; the idea of not shaming their families seems less important here.

I don't think we're seeing a sudden appearance of ethnic gangs being formed just to protect their own communities. A lot of crime among ethnic groups, I've discovered, is intracommunal—black on black, Vietnamese on Vietnamese, that sort of thing. Another disturbing thing I'm seeing is inter-minority violence. Incidents like the beating death of a dentist in Jersey City—an American of Indian origin, Dr. Navroz Mody—by a group of teenaged Latinos is really a race crime and not about taking jobs. It's simple racial hostility at its worst. I'd hate to see anyone try to justify that kind of crime by offering some cultural rationalization because there is no rationalization for brutal murder.

Bonnie: You made an interesting distinction earlier today between voluntary immigration and the immigration of political and/or economic refugees. Do you think Americans realize this distinction and treat legal immigrants more hospitably than illegals?

Mukherjee: Absolutely not. I see no differences in treatment between documented and undocumented aliens. Everyone is lumped together as having broken the rules. I'm afraid that in this country, as it has long happened in other traditionally Caucasian countries and regions—Europe, Canada—people are going to see all non-whites as smelly, dark, cunning breakers of laws and rules. We have to be careful not to take one of two extreme courses: become paranoid about new groups and traditions entering our country, or pretend that the hostility is temporary, or that it either doesn't really exist or will simply go away.

Bonnie: What, if anything, can be done to alter Americans' feelings about newcomers? Or should we just wait until the economy improves and assume the hostilities will abate on their own when Americans once again begin to ignore immigrants?

Mukherjee: I think the media must take a large share of the blame for not presenting images of the non-European in ordinary situations. I don't want to see an Indian only in an ad that targets a South Asian audience; let's see an Indian in ads for toothpaste or dish detergent—ads that will be seen by everyone. Let's see immigrants and minorities as bank tellers and office workers. As ordinary citizens, just like anyone else.

Bonnie: With our tradition of immigration, why is the notion of multiculturalism suddenly so disturbing to the Caucasian majority in the United States?

Mukherjee: The easy answer is that immigrants used to come mainly from Europe. Now there's much more diversity among the cultural traditions of immigrants. People instinctively fear the unfamiliar, especially when they sense that the new arrivals could pose a threat to the established European, Caucasian heritage. But I don't blame white people as being the only ones responsible for the current panic over multiculturalism. Part of the problem in this matter is that, yes, liberal whites are looking for some sort of absolution from guilt over the injustices that have often surrounded immigration issues in the past and, of course, in the present. So now we have government funding for language classes, heritage classes, food fairs; this is a very easy way of trying to get off the hook of guilt. But this is not multiculturalism; it's ultimately a way of patronizing these groups who are supposed to be served in some way by the funding of such activities. Do your exotic thing, hang onto your exotic costume.

I also blame the leaders of ethnic communities who have so much money and political power invested in multiculturalism as politics. They're anxious to deliver bloc votes, to speak on behalf of their entire communities rather than see people as individuals. They don't want to distribute power to the separate members of their groups. And it's so much easier for a white political leader to see dealing with one person rather than the entire group as more efficient.

Bonnie: Have we gone too far in trying to accommodate the demands of multiculturists in the U.S.? Is it really in everyone's best interest to try to keep every immigrant culture intact?

Mukherjee: Absolutely not. I think it's a fallacy sustained by ethnic-studies types or politicians that there has ever been a culture that remains intact, even in its native environment. It is the nature of culture to evolve. I'm aware from just the research I've done about the last three hundred years of U.S. history and several thousand years of Indian history of how much fusion, absorption, osmosis, have occurred among various cultures just within India. To pretend that there is an intact culture anywhere is self-serving. Any culture that is, indeed, static, is no culture at all. I feel very strongly that if you've made the decision to come to a new country, then you cannot hang on, intact, to what worked in the old country. It does the children a great disservice because they are forced not to fit in, psychologically, with either culture.

One of the difficult issues that arises for proponents of multiculturalism is that of female circumcision. Should Somali or Nigerian or Ethiopian immigrants be allowed to continue that practice once they've arrived in the United States or Canada? Young African-Canadian girls are resisting that tradition from the old country, and suddenly all these white, liberal, pro-multiculturalism types are having to come to terms with the question that if multiculturalism means changing U.S. or Canadian law to allow (female circumcision), would they support multiculturalism quite so enthusiastically? I, for one, certainly don't want to see practices such as clitoridectomy allowed to be continued in this country.

Bonnie: What do you say to the suggestion that newcomers who insist on maintaining their native cultures intact in this country should perhaps go back to the places they came from?

Mukherjee: If they want to hold fast to the old ways, why are they crossing borders and leaving their native lands? I think it's wrong to make accommodations for one culture when it's a transgression of our own rules. You can't say it's all right to beat your wife here just because it's your culture to beat your wife back in your native land. I get in trouble on a campus like Berkeley, where they want to say that not beating your wife is a white hegemonic idea imposed by white males.

Bonnie: Whether it comes from white males or not, isn't it a good idea not to beat your wife?

Mukherjee: I think it's a bad idea to beat up anybody.

Bonnie: You talked earlier about the empowerment of immigrants and minorities; is art a vehicle by which ethnic and minority groups in this country can become empowered?

Mukherjee: Very much so, just the way boxing was for earlier generations of African-Americans and European immigrants who were trying to break out of the ghetto. In a novel, for instance, it's possible to make the ordinary reader realize how much moral and emotional resonance there is behind the faces we see at a shopping mall or selling newspapers or cleaning offices. The greatest praise I receive is from the letter writer who says, I never realized that these people who flip through the edges of my consciousness are one hundred percent human beings.

Bonnie: I've heard you draw a parallel between 17th-century Indian miniature paintings and your own storytelling methods. How does that work for you in practice?

Mukherjee: What I'm aiming for, as did the anonymous painters of the Mogul miniatures or medieval tapestries, is to have many points of focus so that the stories are competing with each other to create a different sense of perspective. This is what the Muslim artists of the 17th century intended. When European art critics discovered this art, they dismissed it as primitive, lacking a sense of perspective. Understanding this art is really a matter of learning to see it in a different way. This is what I'm trying to do in my novels and stories. I want many stories going on simultaneously to distract, to crowd the reader's consciousness; and together the whole makes up the full authorial vision. The novel Jasmine, for instance, isn't just the story of the main character Jasmine; it's also the story of every other character and detail, no matter how small. People want to simplify what I've done as being one immigrant woman's story. They want to reduce it to just the character Jasmine, whereas I'm saying that if you read it correctly, the novel is a story of America changing, as well as Jasmine changing.

Bonnie: Are you an Indian-American writer? A South Asian writer? Or simply an American writer?

Mukherjee: I'm an American writer who happens to be from South Asia. I hope no one sees me or my fiction as representing the entire Indian community. I hope people see Jasmine as one person's story and one author's take on a given character in a given situation. I think minority writers are particularly prone to turning characters of fiction into representations in a political agenda. The result is that you may produce novels that are useful as texts in social studies or women's studies courses, but they will never be fine literature.


Fred Bonnie, for most of the past fifteen years, has been a freelance writer for trade and business magazines. His fiction has been published in Yankee, Kansas Quarterly, and other journals. He recently finished his MFA in fiction writing at the University of Alabama.

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