Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Savitri's Stories and Girl Power: Rhetorical Approaches to Feminism(s) in Indian American Ethnic Schools

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Savitri's Stories and Girl Power: Rhetorical Approaches to Feminism(s) in Indian American Ethnic Schools

Article excerpt

Scholars in both the disciplines of folklore and rhetoric have shown interest in exploring the connections between social change and storytelling (Bauman). In the discipline of folklore, scholarly conversations concerning such intersections were initiated first by Roger Abrahams ("Introductory Remarks") who drew heavily from the work of Kenneth Burke (A Rhetoric of Motives and Language as Symbolic Action), as did many rhetoricians during that period. In recent years, a growing number of folklorists have reinvigorated Abrahams's groundbreaking investigations into the interconnections among folklore, rhetoric, and narrative.1 This article explores the ways in which Indian folk traditions are reinterpreted and appropriated to serve as inventional resources in rhetorical texts that create constituencies and support social transformation. I hope to contribute to this ongoing conversation, particularly in regard to diasporic folklore performance contexts.

My critical analysis of these narratives includes a description of the social and cultural milieu in which these stories are created and performed, as well as a close rhetorical analysis. More specifically, I trace appropriations of the Hindu folk heroine Savitri as she is transfigured within two different texts. The first is a liberal feminist retelling of the tale by Madhur Jaffrey. The second is a diasporic revision of this story by a student (identified with the pseudonym Radhika for the purposes of this article) at the School for Indian Languages and Cultures (SILC). This "retelling" is accomplished through a pictoral representation-a piece of visual rhetoric-that imagines Savitri as exhibiting a type of "Girl Power." I argue that these representations are characterized by a "critical play" that treats Savitri as a hermeneutic resource for rhetorical invention. Each appropriation draws its force from the tensions and incongruities it strategically manifests by critically playing with notions of women's "fearlessness" in various discourse, from traditional Hindu, to liberal feminist, to pop culture "Girl Power." In doing so, they advance complex arguments about the social conditions for women and their roles in various Indian and South Asian American contexts. This provides an important example of the ways in which individuals use folk narrative practices and performance to participate in pressing social issues at hand and engage in the rhetorical work of speaking, listening, and deliberating about them.

In particular, Radhika2 constructs a representation of a "fearless woman" that presents seemingly irreconcilable cultural elements. She plays with the tension this produces and embraces the fact that a synthesis is neither possible nor desirable. Indeed, the rhetorical power of this play comes from the fact that there is no closure or resolution in this representation. Instead there is an acknowledgment of the diversity and uniqueness of South Asian American experiences. Radhika's work ultimately argues that public recognition of these divisions and differences are important to the ways South Asian American women and girls understand and explore gender issues in their lives.

The School for Indian Languages and Cultures

In 1979-80, in St. Paul, Minnesota-a place typically known for its Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and German immigrant communities-a small group of Indian immigrants established a community institution called the School for Indian Languages and Cultures. Initially, this school remained unfamiliar to most outside of the South Asian community; for many people, Minnesota still epitomizes the culturally homogeneous, or "white" agricultural interior, of the United States, despite substantial diasporic movements of Mexican, Hmong, Somali, and Ethiopian individuals. Nevertheless, like many of the larger Indian communities in the United States located in urban centers such as New York City, Chicago, and Houston, the Twin Cities area has seen an increase in Indian regional groupings. …

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