Academic journal article American Studies International

Nowhere Woman? A Reflection on Being Indian, Lesbian, and Academic in the United States

Academic journal article American Studies International

Nowhere Woman? A Reflection on Being Indian, Lesbian, and Academic in the United States

Article excerpt

In early 1997, when I was completing my Ph.D. at the Pennsylvania State University, I was interviewed for a public radio show called "Odyssey Through Literature." The focus of the interview was to be my doctoral dissertation, a study of how Indian writers construct the U.S. and Britain. However, upon reading my abstract, the interviewer had become more interested in the personal impetus behind my research, my search for narratives about lives like my own: of Indians creating homes away from India. As a result, his questions focused on my identity rather than on my literary criticism.(1) Later, when I received the season schedule for the show, I noticed he had titled my interview "Nowhere Woman" -- without a question mark. I pondered whether this was accurate. Was I really a "nowhere woman?" Did I belong nowhere at all? Or was I more like the woman in the statement by Virginia Woolf, a quotation posted in my office during those graduate school years: "As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I need no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world?"

Woolf's claim to an identity that defied boundaries has always resonated with me -- not because I am a woman but rather because of the various places I have called home. I spent my childhood in India in an international community that included English and Dutch people in addition to people from all over India. Then, at eleven, I moved to Kuwait, where my father had accepted a job, and stayed there through high school, after which I came to college in the US. While in Kuwait, I attended Indian schools. During those years, I traveled to Western Europe with a colorguard directed by an Englishman and returned to Europe to visit penfriends. I also spent a good part of my free time volunteering backstage at the American Community Theatre of Kuwait as well as with the more British-dominated Kuwait Players, working with people of at least a half-dozen nationalities. As a result of these experiences, I can feel as nostalgic for the smell of cotton in a busy Bombay textile shop as for the aroma of green apple soap that brings back memories of a London winter. While working on my M.A. in Boston, I was drawn to a group of Tunisian students, finding comfort in the familiar rhythms of their Arabic speech; I understood only a little Arabic, but being surrounded by it made me feel almost back home in Kuwait.

So wasn't I really an Everywhere Woman?

Although I was exposed to many different nationalities in India and Kuwait, I always lived in communities where Indians were a significant presence. This changed when I moved to the U.S., where I became more and more aware of being Indian, mainly because I was often the only Indian in any group. At my liberal arts women's college in Pennsylvania, where I was one of only a handful of international students, I was suddenly treated like an expert on both India and Kuwait. Everything Indian I wore raised questions about significance and symbolism: what did that "dot" on my forehead mean? Why was I wearing Indian clothes? Was it a holiday? I was completely unprepared to be so conspicuous and was surprised by my role as cultural ambassador.(2) At the same time, I was adjusting to 1980s U.S. teen culture: sweatpants and sneakers, drinking and parties. I was surprised by how unfamiliar it was; after all, I reflected, I had been reading Seventeen magazine for years, trying to learn U.S. Teen culture. Slowly I realized that much as I was in love with the beautiful campus of Cedar Crest College, the students I shared it with saw me as quite different from them. However, without a car, I found that Cedar Crest was my world during the school year, and I eagerly made it home, finding comfort in its enthusiastic, approachable faculty and in the literature I studied.

Once I left that familiar world, Rough, ! began to yearn for an Indian community so that I wouldn't always be something of an outsider. However, at around the same time, I came out as a lesbian, and my ability to fit into communities was altered. …

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