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?
South Asians in North America
Most people think the first South Asian migrations to the United States were in the 1960s. Not so. From the early 1900s on, men from the Punjab came to Canada and the United States. Many settled in California’s Imperial Valley and married women of Mexican descent. 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). And a writer from India’s Bengal province, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, won the coveted Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1928. Recently, the untold saga of people from the Indian subcontinent, who enlisted and served in the US Civil War of the 1860s, has been uncovered through the National Archives and the newly established database, Civil War Soldiers System (CWSS) in Washington, D.C. See Indolink for a fascinating article by Francis Assisi and Elizabeth Pothen. And who knew that the Virginia Gazette, in August 1768, published a notice about a runaway slave, an “East-India Indian”?
SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive, works to document the rich history of South Asians in the United States.
The Archive of the South Asian Diaspora at UC Berkeley.
Today English has taken root in the subcontinent, flowering into a dazzling variety of accents, idioms, and expressions of regional genius. India now boasts a growing children’s publishing industry. Picture books, first published in the 60s, draw from rich visual and story elements of the past, and the realities of the present. And slowly, all over the world, voices of the South Asian diaspora are finally being expressed. Anjali Banerjee, Sheela Chari, Narinder Dhami, Jamila Gavin, Rachna Gilmore, Rukhsana Khan, Pooja Makhijani, Kashmira Sheth, Padma Venkatraman–what an amazing community of writers! Others well known in the adult literary market, like Chitra Divakaruni and Shyam Selvadurai, have also turned their hands to writing for young readers. I can’t wait for a time when the immigrant story is not about arrival and adaptation but something else altogether. Or when genre fiction–mystery, humor, sci-fi–just happens to have a hero of South Asian descent.
What of children’s publishing in India? From the editors at Tulika Books, a reflection on what diversity means.
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.