South Asia is the name given to the region of the Indian subcontinent. It includes the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldive Islands, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Culturally, if not geographically, Tibet is sometimes also considered part of South Asia.
What does “desi” mean? In Hindi the word “desh” means “country.” “Desi” means “of or from my country.” It can be either an affectionate term or a mild put-down, depending on who’s using it!
Amma? Appa? Mom? Dad? What do Indian-American kids call their parents?
A small sampler of South Asian narratives in North America
Turns out we’ve been here for a while. The first Asian writer to win the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literaure was Dhan Gopal Mukerji, in 1928. Pooja Makhijani examines his legacy in this article in The Atlantic.
The first Asian American elected to congress, Dalip Singh Saund, was from India.
Fazlur Rahman Khan, the architect who designed the Sears Tower in Chicago, was born in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh).
The Barbour Scholarships for Oriental Women, endowed in 1917, brought young women from India to the University of Michigan beginning in 1929.
SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive, works to document the rich history of South Asians in the United States. Why does this matter? Just compare today’s anti-immigrant sentiments with the Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917.
The Archive of the South Asian Diaspora at UC Berkeley contains publications printed and distributed by the Gadar Party, a nationalist organization founded in 1913 by South Asian immigrants on the Pacific West coast of the United States and Canada.
And Now, in the 21st Century?
Today English has taken root in the subcontinent, flowering into a dazzling variety of accents, idioms, and expressions of regional genius. And now, after that really long gap since Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s Newbery, voices of the South Asian diaspora are now being expressed in literature for young readers around the world. Anjali Banerjee, Nidhi Chanani, Sheela Chari, Sayantani DasGupta, Narinder Dhami, Chitra Divakaruni, Jamila Gavin, Ronojoy Ghosh, Tanuja Desai Hidier, Rukhsana Khan, Pooja Makhijani, Mitali Perkins, Kashmira Sheth, Bali Rai, Padma Venkatraman: and that’s a growing list! There are enough of us doing this work now that it doesn’t feel lonely any more.
What of children’s publishing in India? A range of homegrown publishing houses are pushing the limits and experimenting with form and content.
Are American publishers up on all this? They’re getting there, although I’m still not ready to retire my common errors list. Not yet.