A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Dynamic Literacies and "Word Work": Review of South Asian in the Mid-South: Migrations of Literacies by Iswari Pandey

Vani Kannan, Syracuse University / Lehman College, CUNY

Review of South Asian in the Mid-South: Migrations of Literacies by Iswari Pandey

(Published December 18, 2018)

In South Asian in the Mid-South: Migrations of Literacies, Iswari P. Pandey tracks the migration, circulation, adaptation, and reconfiguration of literacies and meaning-making practices in South Asian-American communities. A recipient of the CCCC 2017 Advancement of Knowledge award, this book tackles prescient questions in the field with depth, breadth, and theoretical impact. South Asian in the Mid-South helps to animate the nexus of literacies and mobilities studies in composition and rhetoric.

Pandey’s ethnography of South Asians living in the mid-south of the US engages with the ways in which immigrants move through daily life by engaging in “word work,” or a constellation of everyday cultural, pedagogical, literate, linguistic, and community-based practices. “Word work” cuts across the interdisciplinary fields of literacy studies, cross-cultural communication, globalization studies, South Asian American studies, and transnational cultural studies (which comprise Pandey’s identified audiences). Pandey’s research also has implications for translingualism, community literacies studies, and gender studies, as he describes gendered multilanguage practices that shape and are shaped by South Asian American communities in complex contact zones in the US. The book complements and extends South Asian American rhetorical scholarship such as Subhasree Chakravarty’s “Learning Authenticity: Pedagogies of Hindu Nationalism in North America” and Manisha Basu’s The Rhetoric of Hindutva; it also joins a constellation of scholarship mapping the intersection of Asian American rhetorics with issues of race, gender, religion, and ethos, such as Haivan Hoang’s Writing against Racial Injury and Mira Shimabukuro’s Relocating Authority.

Throughout the book, Pandey deftly traces and theorizes literacies-in-motion as a way to navigate the tension between New Literacies Studies (NLS) frameworks that argue for situated, contextual studies of literate practice and globalization-era frameworks that push for a focus on movement and hybridization. “In Place of a Preface: Cautions, Considerations,” poses central questions about South Asian immigrants’ literate lives in the post-9/11 US, and emphasizes the methodological need to trace multidirectional migrations of literacies across contexts. Specifically, Pandey is concerned with “how literate practices are re-created and recirculated in the process of relocation and socialization across spaces”; he forwards a complex, mobile understanding of literacies as constantly being reshaped and renegotiated as new exigencies arise (xiii). This is a complex approach, and throughout the text, Pandey redirects readers’ attention to the tension between situated, localized studies of literacy and cross-border movement. Pandey demonstrates the mutually constitutive nature of these contexts, how “the very idea of locale itself is in motion,” and the “complex web of local-global and internal-external forces” that shape and are shaped by the migrations of bodies and literacies (xiv).

The book’s chapters continue to dwell in the generative, complex space of literate practices in South Asian communities—a space where considerations of geography, race, language, religion, caste, class, culture, gender, and generation are ever-present. Chapter 1, “Departures and Returns: Literacy Practices across Borders” situates literacies, reading, and writing in constant movement, recreation, and transformation in the context of material struggles including labor conditions, debt, and refugee status. Emphasizing the (re)appropriation and (re)negotiation of power, literacy, and language in immigrant communities, Pandey draws methodological attention to “exigencies, processes, and consequences” of literate practices, specifically in the post-9/11 US. (14-15). Actively moderating the tension between globalization and situatedness, Pandey simultaneously moderates the tension between assimilation and the maintenance of cultural practices, attending to immigrants’ “hybridized cultural space(s)” that “respond to immediate local as well as transnational contexts” (40).

Chapter 2, “En Route: Reconsidering Sites and Subjects or Research in Motion” counters the myth of static geographies, settings, and/or scenes for rhetoric and literacy practices. Rather than “uninhibited mobility,” Pandey asks readers to consider “the phenomenon of constantly re-creating roots and routes” (51). Part of his methodological challenge is to deal with how his own subject position (including his university affiliation, religion, and immigration status) shaped interviewees’ perceptions and responses to his questions, breaking down simplistic notions of “insider” status. Importantly, he dwells in how the layers of gender, caste, class, and religion shape migration experience. For example, the undercover infiltration of Muslim communities in the post-9/11 era deeply shaped his engagement with interviewees.

Chapter 3, “Genes and Jeans: Sanskrit South Asia in the US Mid-South, and Back Again” teases out the complex social forces shaping and shaped by “word work,” particularly in terms of religion, class, and gender. Specifically, this chapter details the space carved out by teachers at a Hindu school and maps the Hindu and Sanskrit literacies of class-privileged, primarily Indian, Hindu-identified South Asian immigrants. Pandey notes that although literacy practices are often depicted as moving in one direction, the Sanskrit curriculum developed by his interviewees actually traveled bilaterally between India and the US, linking class-privileged Hindu students of Sanskrit across geopolitical locations (103). Furthermore, the multiple languages comprising the linguistic landscape of the classroom and community surrounding the Hindu school render impossible any homogenous portrayal of “South Asian America.” Through his analysis of teachers’ pedagogical practices at the Hindu school, Pandey demonstrates how gender both constitutes and is constituted by Hindu and Sanskrit literacies. The gendered labor of teaching—in other words, the fact that women are situated as keepers and teachers of culture—opens up space for women to reinterpret Hindu texts to push against gender and caste oppression.  By “refiguring” the “roots” of Hindu/Sanskrit South Asian identification, the teachers in this chapter indicate that diasporic invocations of “home” cultures do not preclude reinterpretation and re/trans-contextualization.

Chapter 4, “Detours and Diversions: (Re)Writing Gender Roles” elaborates on this relationship between gender and “word work,” surfacing the ambivalences/tensions that were not apparent in the last chapter—namely, the tensions faced by the teachers of the Hindu school as divorced women (111). Pandey notes that although the teachers’ ethos was compromised because of their marital status, their ethos was simultaneously boosted by their deep knowledge of Hindu texts. Thus, the teachers “attempted to reorganize the community from within its norming apparatus,” reproducing both identity and culture through a reconstituted understanding of religious and cultural roots (114). These women simultaneously disrupted the orientalist trope of South Asian women as docile/submissive, existing only in the private sphere. This chapter showcases the multiplicity of Sanskrit/Hindu literacies, mediated through teachers’ gendered subjectivities, their class privilege and access to formal education, and their access to model minorityism. In the “word work” of these teachers, the past becomes a resource for reimagining community. This chapter showcases the strategic, discursive gendering of Hindu value systems, as Pandey describes the teachers’ reinterpretations of religious texts to push back against gender and caste norms.

If the Hindu school represents class-privileged hybrid spaces that can situate themselves as multiculturalist, or as having the “best of both worlds,” the next chapter reminds readers that this is not a generalizable condition of South Asian American life.  Chapter 5, “Arrivals, Interrogations, Responses: ‘Islamic Ways of Life’ or the Literacy Practices of an ‘Other’ Nation,” shifts to an engagement with how Muslim South Asians navigated the dire post-9/11 exigency of hate crimes, workplace discrimination, and the reality of informants/infiltrators in their communities. The “word work” of these Muslim South Asians included situating Islam as an American religion, interfacing with dominant cultural institutions, monitoring media representations of Muslims, and organizing community groups.  Here, literacy, identity, and “word work” can all be understood as deeply rhetorical—as Pandey puts it, “a rhetoric and defense of being” (167). For example, the media literacies developed in a men’s discussion group became resources for renegotiating individual and community identities (167).  As in the Hindu school, the Muslim groups strategically remember histories in order to resituate Islam as an American religion and use religious texts to build ethos and navigate gendered identities (178). These reinterpretations indicate that religion and culture are not static. Similarly, there is not a “pure” home culture that is replicated in diasporic settings because both religion and culture are shaped by everyday practice and “word work.”

The final chapter, “Between Departures and Returns: Literacies of Migrations, Migrations of Literacies,” crystallizes the book’s central claims in terms of the “uses and functions of literacies” in an era of rapid global and technological change (188). Pandey emphasizes the migratory nature of literacies; “word work” as negotiation of in-between space; the deep constitutive ties among language, literacy, identity, and culture; and cultural “roots” as subject to constant reinterpretation and refiguration. He calls readers to action to “transform the structures that (re)produce and legitimize the very elitism and authority from which and with which we speak,” reiterating the multiplicity of negotiations in immigrant “word work” across multiple axes of social identification (206).

Pandey’s study seamlessly integrates the axes of language, rhetoric, geography, literacy, community, identity, religion, gender, class, caste, and race, demonstrating the multilayered, multivalent quality of literacy practices. Its broad contributions to the field of composition and rhetoric complement a variety of graduate-level courses, including qualitative research methodologies; Asian/Asian American rhetorics; transnational rhetoric, writing, and literacy; and/or cultural rhetorics.The tension between state-level shaping forces/ascribed qualities and everyday practice remains throughout the book, inviting readers to dwell in dynamic sites of negotiation. Considering ongoing struggles to contest racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia in the US, 2018 is a crucial moment to be thinking about the urgent exigencies for literate practice and “word work.” For example, how are the intersecting axes of language, race, religion, and citizenship shaping South Asians’ literate practices and identity formation post-Trump? While participants in Pandey’s study reject an ascribed person-of-color identification (136), where is it being claimed as part of a political coalition? How are the tensions between identity formations privileging cross cultural understanding and/or interfacing with state power, versus “oppositional” rhetorics of identity, currently manifesting within and across diasporas (169)? In all of these possible threads, there is an emphasis on creating and sustaining “word work” in complex, dynamic, transnational contexts.

Vani Kannan’s interview with Iswari Pandey, November 13, 2017. In this interview, Dr. Pandey talks about his research process, the implications of his book in the current political context, and his plans for future research:

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Works Cited

Basu, Manisha. The Rhetoric of Hindutva. Cambridge UP, 2016.

Chakravarty, Subhasree. “Learning Authenticity: Pedagogies of Hindu Nationalism in North America.” Representations: Doing Asian AmericanRhetoric, edited by LuMing Mao and Morris Young, Utah State UP, 2008, pp. 106-126.

Hoang, Haivan. Writing against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. U of Pittsburgh P, 2015.

Pandey, Iswari P. South Asian in the Mid-South: Migrations of Literacies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2015.

Shimabukuro, Mira. Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration. Utah State UP/UP of Colorado, 2015.