“Between Mosaic and Melting Pot”:
Negotiating Multiculturalism and Cultural Citizenship in Bharati Mukherjee’s Narratives of Diaspora

Sharmani Patricia Gabriel, University of Malaya

Bharati Mukherjee is an established, if not controversial, voice of the Indian diaspora in North America. Born into a Bengali-speaking, Hindu Brahmin family in Calcutta in 1940, Mukherjee left India for the University of Iowa in the United States of America in 1962 where she met and married the writer Clark Blaise. In 1966, she followed her husband to his ancestral home of Canada, where they lived, first in Toronto and then in Montreal, as citizens until 1980. In 1981, Mukherjee and her family left Canada to return to the US, residing in New York until the late 1980s, before the move to San Francisco, California, where she continues to live and work. Mukherjee became a naturalized US citizen in 1988.

In a critical and creative career that has spanned over thirty years, Mukherjee has been  engaged in redefining the idea of diaspora as a process of gain, contrary to conventional perspectives that construe immigration and displacement as a condition of terminal loss and dispossession, involving the erasure of history and the dissolution of an "original" culture. Concomitant with her literary and ideological reinscriptions of diaspora, Mukherjee has elected to describe herself as an "American" writer and has announced through various forums that it is the cultural narrative of America that has provided the enabling site for her own identity transformations as well as those she celebrates in her fictions. Her revisionary cultural politics has aroused considerable critical interest, itself a measure of the author's rising stature, and it is necessary at this stage to briefly gesture to the wider discourse of literary criticism in which Mukherjee is placed with a view to understanding some of the meanings accrued to her and to her writings in a diasporic context.  

One of the chief criticisms made against Mukherjee, especially by US-based India-born critics, is that her optimistic narration of the American saga of immigrant incarnations elides a consideration of the material realities impinging on Third World immigration, namely the role of race, class and gender in the workings of identity politics in America (see Roy, Knippling, and Gurleen Grewal).  Resident Indian critics and reviewers, on the other hand, have taken issue with her negative portrayal of Indian culture and traditions, viewing it as setting the context for her jettisoning of her past and cultural history so as to gain the full benefits of Americanization (see, for instance, Sivaramakrishna). Yet other scholars have attacked her pro-US orientation in the present world order, viewing it as mark of a compromised post-colonial praxis (see Banerjee and Brewster), and there are others who argue that her works, in particular the novel Jasmine, represent a co-optation into Eurocentric, colonial discourses of identity (see Inderpal Grewal). More recent scholars have linked her characters' idealism and assimilation of American culture (with particular reference to the novel Jasmine) with the author's own romanticism about America and  her conscious appropriation of American literary traditions (Li 92).

While such critics provide considered analyses for their critique of what they perceive to be the author's complicity with hegemonic practices, I nevertheless wish to argue that a nuanced reading of her texts and an unpacking of her terminology will reveal that Mukherjee has not been wholly uncritical of dominant ideologies in her literary and cultural imagining of the American nation.  While Mukherjee's professed identity affiliations in the public forum as well as the aesthetic and ideological value of the type of writing she is engaged in may be heavily invested in her new homeland of America, where they have helped her gain a measure of success,[1] her literary discourse on nationalism and multiculturalism, I contend, does engage with the complexities of national narratives to offer a negotiation that moves beyond a simple acceptance of dominant definitions of national and cultural identity.   

Like her characters in diaspora, "with sentimental attachments to a distant homeland but no real desire for permanent return" (Intro. to Darkness xv), Mukherjee locates the trajectory of her identity and cultural politics in the course of crossing and recrossing multiple borders of language, history, race, time and culture. Disrupting the constraints and absolutisms of nationalist boundaries, her poetics of diaspora embody her sense of what, as in her case, it means to be a writer who was born and raised in India, been a citizen of Canada and the United States, and who has been shaped and transformed by the cultures of India and North America. Mukherjee herself elucidates her aesthetic stand on the identity reformulations made possible by diaspora and its contexts in terms that involve a trajectory from "unhousement" to "rehousement," a process that entails "breaking away from the culture into which one was born, and in which one's place in society was assured" and "re-rooting oneself in a new culture" (Hancock 39). "In this age of diasporas," she argues, "one's biological identity may not be one's only identity. Erosions and accretions come with the act of emigration" ("American Dreamer" 4).

Indeed, the potential of minority populations to challenge linear and homogeneous nationalist narratives through the "erosions and accretions" of diaspora, what the cultural anthropologist James Clifford describes as the "routes" of identification, has emerged as an important aspect of the cultural narration of the nation in recent years. Homi Bhabha and other cultural theorists view the new forms and configurations of identification of diaspora communities as provoking a dismantling of exclusionary narratives of the nation and of national policies such as multiculturalism. In his influential essay, "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation," Bhabha contends that the nation's margins, to which diaspora and other minority communities are relegated, are highly complex and flexible recesses of cultural production from where various oppositional practices and analytic capacities can emerge. The space of betwixt and between, the margins constitute that interstitial space of overlap of cultures and histories, the very site from which new narratives of national and cultural identity can be written and imagined. As he reiterates elsewhere, "[i]t is at the level of the interstices that the intersubjunctive and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated" ("Frontlines/Borderposts" 269). 

My aim in this paper is to demonstrate how Mukherjee's experience of and positioning in diaspora, that "space constituted through and between places and [...] marked out by flows" (Gilroy, "Small Acts" 193), enable her cultural productions to map a site that reconfigures the dominant discourse of multiculturalism and citizenship in Canada and the United States. Gilroy's characterization of diaspora as a space "marked out by flows" particularly resonates with the terms of my discussion for it calls up the global dynamic of "flows" — of peoples, cultures, ideas, capital, and institutions — that has given rise to what has come to be known as "cultural citizenship," a category of analysis which has gained currency in recent scholarship on identity politics in response to the dramatic transformations that are taking place as a result of the great waves of migration of the past fifty years. Thus, while conventional narratives of citizenship frame national identity within neatly bounded spatial parameters, placing emphasis on "roots" and origins, cultural citizenship offers a flexible framework which can deal with the questions of home and belonging set into motion by the complicated "routes" of identity in an age of diaspora.  

Thus, I wish to state that my interest in this discussion is not so much with issues of political or legal citizenship, in so far as this has to do, among others, with the state's granting of political and civil rights in the public sphere and guarantee of physical security to the citizen. Such normative notions of citizenship often disregard the more informal or subjective processes by which minority communities interact with dominant views of belonging. This is what gives particular salience to the idea of cultural citizenship; as a concept that gestures to the private domain of citizenship, it brings into focus the people's emotional ties or psychological experiences of belonging, or non-belonging, to the nation.  In so employing this term, I am drawing from scholars like Katharyne Mitchell who asserts that "although immigrants may become legal citizens through a prescribed, state-regulated path, immigrants become cultural citizens only through a reflexive set of formative and locally constructed processes" (emphasis in original, 229). This approach to citizenship also echoes Paul Gilroy's distinction in There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack between "merely formal citizenship of the national community provided by its laws and the more substantive membership which derives from the historic ties of language, custom and ‘race'" (46).

As a concept that addresses the relationship between cultural identity and citizenship, cultural citizenship takes into consideration the subjective notions of race, ethnicity and otherness in the making of the national narrative of identity and citizenship. Central to cultural citizenship, then, is the idea of difference. The cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo argues that cultural citizenship involves the right for people from minority or subordinated groups (recent immigrants, women, members of disadvantaged ethnic groups, etc.) to be different and still belong to the nation. By thus linking culture and citizenship, the fundamental aim of the discourse of cultural citizenship is to call for "the positive acknowledgment of difference in and by the mainstream" (Miller 2).

Keeping these terms in mind, I will examine in particular the national and ideological significance of the short stories "The World According to Hsü" and "Orbiting" to demonstrate that these narratives of diaspora offer a challenge to the dominant paradigms of Canadian and US multiculturalisms through their implicit call for more fluid or provisional frameworks for the construction of cultural and national identities. I am aware that the particular issues which give rise to the debates on multiculturalism differ across the national boundaries of Canada and the US, given the very different demographic and historical circumstances which have contributed to the distinctive character of each nation. For instance, the class position that Mukherjee occupied when she entered the US was dissimilar from the one that she and other "Indians" or "South Asians" were associated with in Canada at the time of her period of domicile and citizenship there.[2] This issue of the author's class privilege in the US, a point already noted by several critics (see Li, Brewster, Inderpal Grewal), and as admitted to by the author herself ("An Invisible Woman" 36), would undoubtedly, I realize, have influenced both her receptivity to the American narrative of multiculturalism and national identity as well as her reception by mainstream America.   

However, even given these variables, there can be no denying that both the melting pot and mosaic are, in their own ways, discourses of cultural harmony that attempt to forge equality and national unity out of diversity. My intention in this paper, then, is not to defend the melting pot, or to favour it over the mosaic, but to show how Mukherjee's differing experiences of diaspora in Canada and the US have influenced her and her literary productions, leading to  imaginative, textual and cultural negotiations with and interpretations of dominant narratives which exemplify, through her stance on the discourse of national identity formation in both nations, an engagement beyond simplistic ways of dealing with or responding to multiculturalism, a charge often made against the author. Besides providing opportunities for contesting hegemonic narratives of national consolidation, the dynamics at work in the fictions that I will set out to examine also help us gain some sense of the relationship that exists between cultural difference and national unity or identity. At the very least, by suggesting that it is something that can be negotiated and contested, they problematize for us the notion of multiculturalism. As Chelva Kanaganayakam, in his review of a special issue of the journal, Mosaic, dedicated to "the rhetoric and reality of multiculturalism," so aptly reminds us, "[O]ne should not forget that this too is a narrative of sorts, a discourse shaped by cultural and ideological needs." (22)

Mukherjee's fictions construct their central material around "the reality of transplantation and psychological metamorphosis" ("Imagining Homelands" 70) brought about by the crossing into North America (US, for the most part) of characters from divergent ethnic backgrounds and national origins: economic and political refugees from Afghanistan, Uganda, Iraq and Bangladesh; illegal stowaways from Ludhiana; professionals from Bombay and Calcutta; mail-order brides from Nepal; and domestic caregivers from Trinidad. Despite their disparate cultural histories and social differences, Mukherjee's characters share the experience of diaspora as they explore new ways of belonging and "becoming" in America. They are America's new "middlemen," as epitomized in the title of Mukherjee's 1988 collection of short fiction, the "not-quite[s]" ("Lady from Lucknow," Darkness 18, 23) who have to negotiate "between two modes of knowledge" ("Management of Grief," Middleman 189) and remake home out of "the hurly-burly of the unsettled magma between two worlds" ("Four-Hundred-Year-Old-Woman" 37).

In this regard, it must be pointed out that the ideological importance of her writings depends not so much on Mukherjee's representation of diaspora as an emancipatory narrative of self-reinvention, although, as several critics have compellingly argued, Mukherjee's poetics is certainly committed to foregrounding the positive transformative potential of immigration (see, for instance, Wikramagamage). Rather, I would insist that the distinctiveness of her work in the tradition of diaspora literature in general and American literature in particular lies in Mukherjee's ability to mine the tension that holds in balance her awareness of diaspora as a condition of loss or "unhousement," involving a break in that link between cultures, peoples or identities and places, on the one hand, and her acknowledgement of it as a condition of gain or "rehousement," of recreation, re-imagination and regeneration in new social, political, cultural and geographical landscapes, on the other. Indeed, it is the innovation and energy with which Mukherjee's fictions chart resilient and enabling responses to diaspora in the face of its spatial, cultural and temporal disruptions that invest her identity as a writer and her writing with charged significance.    

As several critics have pointed out, Mukherjee's body of works can be divided into "expatriate" and "immigrant" phases (Alam 10). Her early work, comprising the novels, The Tiger's Daughter (1971) and Wife (1975), and four "Canadian" stories of her first collection of short fiction, Darkness (1985),[3] can be separated from the later writings by a space of ten years (1975-85) during which time she left Canada to immigrate to the United States (Brewster 51).

Reflecting the author's mood of "unhousement" as a non-white immigrant in Canada, Mukherjee's early stories are pessimistic accounts of rootlessness and despair which depict her immigrant characters as "lost souls, put upon and pathetic [...] adrift in the new world, wondering if they would ever belong" (Intro. to Darkness xiii - iv), in contrast to the expatriate whose diligently nurtured "Olympian detachment" ("Imagining Homelands" 73) from the demands and complexities of "rehousement" in the new cultural location confers on him or her  necessary insulation from the trauma of exclusion and non-belonging.   Mukherjee herself has attributed her representations of South Asian immigrants in Canada to the workings of an "expatriate" sensibility as opposed to the "immigrant" consciousness at work in her later writings (Intro. to Darkness xiii, xv).  

In relation to this, Mukherjee elaborates that it is her experience of racism in Canada that is primarily responsible for her cultivation of an attitude of "self-protective irony" and expatriate aloofness in her early works (Intro. to Darkness xiv). In "An Invisible Woman," an early essay on the workings of Canadian racism and multiculturalism, Mukherjee highlights the paradoxes involved in her everyday experience of living in Canada as a woman rendered "invisible," on a national and cultural level, by the colour of her skin, a key marker of her visibility as a non-European immigrant. Exoticized as different, but also as inferior, in Toronto and Montreal, she asserts she was never considered a cultural citizen, really Canadian, only a "smelly, dark, alien other" (Connell 12) who threatened to contaminate the white national self.  In describing this "unhoused" phase of her life in her memoirs, Days and Nights in Calcutta, she articulates the anxiety stemming from "the absolute impossibility of ever having a home" (287). In particular, Mukherjee identifies what she calls the "virulent and unabashed racism"[4] inherent in the Canadian discourse of multiculturalism as having obstructed the attempts of  "ethnic" citizens like her and her characters from staking a claim to a home in the mainstream spaces of the Canadian nation.

A few words may now be necessary to describe Canada's national project. Multiculturalism as an official policy was implemented in Canada in 1971, by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, as a sign of the nation's commitment to cultural plurality through the accommodation, within the national space, of Canada's ethnically diverse composition, heritage and traditions: its aboriginal peoples, the Anglophone and Francophone groups, the other European immigrants who arrived from the middle of the nineteenth century, and the more recently arrived "visible minority" immigrants from non-European, mostly Asian, countries. However, Mukherjee's contention is that the Canadian multicultural mosaic did not confer cultural citizenship to all of Canada's citizens. 

Mukherjee's repudiation of the cultural narrative of the Canadian nation is based on her argument that the terms of liberal multiculturalism, where cultural difference is acknowledged and accommodated within the "mosaic" of national culture, are simply another way of entrenching separateness and marginalizing those not recognized as belonging to the dominant culture. The terrorist attack in 1985 on the Air India plane which killed all 300 of its passengers, mostly Canadians of South Asian ancestry, documented in Mukherjee's non-fiction text, The Sorrow and the Terror, stands as a harrowing example, according to Mukherjee, of Canada's failure at multiculturalism. What Mukherjee found to be highly revealing and disconcerting about this incident was that the Canadian government treated the crash as an "Indian" tragedy, the underlying assumption here being that Canadian citizens of Indian origin are not legitimate, not real, Canadians.  

Thus, for Mukherjee, in the mosaic model of national community, one's visibility as an "ethnic" subject becomes a signifier of absolute cultural difference, working to "unhouse" minority cultures by depriving them of real power and proper representation, and thereby denying them full membership of the nation.

In "The World According to Hsü," one of the stories written during her period of "unhousement" in Canada and included in the Darkness collection, Mukherjee draws on her experience of the cultural exclusivity of the Canadian nation to explore and express new ways of perceiving Canadian multiculturalism and the national imaginary. Ratna Clayton, one of the story's two central characters, is a Calcutta-born journalist of Indian and Czech descent.   Although Ratna is a Canadian citizen and identifies herself as a Canadian, feelings of cultural belonging elude her in Canada. Thus, while formally or "technically" a Canadian, she is aware that she is still positioned as an outsider on account of her "being half — the dominant half — Indian" (D 36). In this instance, it is Ratna's darkness of skin, the "visible" marker of her cultural difference, that fixes her identity as a foreigner, the national other, in dominant-white Canada: "In Toronto, she was not Canadian, not even Indian. She was something called, after the imported idiom of London, a Paki. And for Pakis, Toronto was hell" (D 33).

Categorized as an "ethnic," as designated by official multicultural policy, Ratna has consequently been placed "outside" of Canadianness.  It is this cultural condition or subjectivity of unbelonging arising from Ratna's experience of racist prejudice in Toronto that Mukherjee brings to the fore in the narrative as a mark of the psychological reverberations of the exclusionary underpinnings of Canadian multiculturalism.[5] 

Ratna's husband, Graeme, is an English-Canadian professor of psychology at a Montreal university. At the story's opening, his chief concern is that Ratna will be persuaded to change her mind and agree to their relocation to Toronto, where he has been offered a job promotion.  

The Claytons' holiday on an island off the coast of Africa creates the socio-cultural context for Mukherjee's interrogation of the organizing dynamics of Canadian multiculturalism. The island setting itself offers the site for an alternative conception of Canadian citizenship, identity and belonging. While other critics have already pointed out the significance of the geological concept of plate tectonics in this story (see Spearey), I wish to show how Mukherjee employs this idea as an analogy that questions received paradigms that stress homogeneity, continuity and cohesion in the discourse of multiculturalism and national identity. The fact that the title of her story alludes to the theory of plate tectonics can indeed be read as a measure of the significance that Mukherjee attaches to it. "Now," says Graeme, reading the article written by the story's eponymous plate tectonics theorist, "Africa and Asia are colliding. India got smashed into Asia... [T]his island is just part of the debris" (D 46).

In her insightful explication of the conceptual idea of the island in her article, "Discourses of the Island," Gillian Beer points out that "the emphasis in plate tectonics is on fracture, drift, the lateral slide of plates against or alongside each other" (8). Beer explains that according to this theory, the earth, rather than being thought of as one rigid, sturdy body with fixed continents and permanent ocean basins, is broken into several large plates and a few smaller ones, which move very slowly and then collide with or jostle one another. What is particularly interesting is the similarity Beer observes as being present in the process of "unfixing" that takes place in the geological phenomenon of plate tectonics and the Derridean idea of epistemological "ungrounding" or differance.  When used as a concept to describe the construction of cultural meaning in national contexts, plate tectonics functions, like differance, to call attention to the intrinsic instability, the constantly "deferred," shifting configurations of national and cultural formations.

It is in this sense that I read Mukherjee's narrative recourse to plate tectonics as a sign that gestures to an interrogation of the inherent fixity and stasis that underpin the Canadian mosaic, a model of multiculturalism and national unity which views cultural inscriptions, and hence the notion of difference, as stable, coherent and autonomous.   

This reading takes on a particular salience in Mukherjee's characterization of Graeme, who, it is suggested, embodies the Canadian state's rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism and its idea of tolerance towards racial and cultural diversity. "[T]raining his Nikon on [the island's] chaotic greenery to extract from it some definitive order" (D 30), Graeme busies himself on his vacation by carefully cataloguing the differences in the images he sees around him. It is such a binary or static way of thinking about difference that is revealed when we are told that it is through these well-ordered images of "Ektachrome transparency" (D 30) that Graeme will "entertain and instruct" his friends back home about the world's exotic diversity, its different "genus and species" (D 31).  Through Graeme's response to his surroundings, Mukherjee articulates a Eurocentric conception of cultural diversity that reveals an absolutist view of cultures. The fact that Graeme is attempting, via his lens, to impose meaning  on the "tropical confusion" (D 30) around him through "a sharpening of line and color" (D 32) serves as an analogy for his perception of cultures as orderly and easily definable phenomena, subject to control and containment.  

Mukherjee suggests that the liberal, state-sanctioned discourse of Canadian multiculturalism is underpinned by this very view of cultures as fixed and mutually impermeable. This conception of multiculturalism denies the presence of ambivalence or hybridity through its assertion of superficial pluralism and its belief in the existence of clear boundaries between cultures. In such a "multicultural" nation, differences are organized into neat, virtual grids of distinct ethnic communities, each with its own "culture."  Bhabha elaborates:

[Multicultural policy] entertain[s] and encourage[s] [. . .] cultural diversity, [while correspondingly] containing it. A transparent norm is constituted, a norm given by the host society or dominant culture, which says that these other cultures are fine, but we must be able to locate them within our own grid. ("The Third Space" 208)

The aim of this model of multiculturalism to control or sanitize cultural difference implicitly calls for the production and preservation of norms and power hierarchies such as margin and centre, insiders and outsiders, us and them. More significantly, this conception of multiculturalism perpetuates the myth of "natural," or "real," difference, from which the discourse of racism gains its pervasive strength.

In thus consolidating the dominant discourse of the state, where forms of national identity are exclusionary, homogeneous and unitary, this all too neat and ordered model of a multicultural society fails, as Mukherjee's narrative suggests, to engage with the exchanges, crossings and complex identity "routes" set into play by diaspora, when different groups of people come to live and interact together, sharing one nation.

Thus, while Graeme actively devotes himself "to shap[ing] and reshap[ing] the tropical confusion"  (D 30) of the island's "exotic" terrain, Ratna, in contrast, revels in the unsettled and contingent characteristics of  the former colony's cultural constitution:  the "Peruvian-looking Africans" (D 38); the "gaudy paratroopers" patrolling the island; the "black faces from the coast, ubiquitous sentinels among the copper-skinned, straw-hatted natives of the capital" (D 37). Through Ratna's perception of what appears to her to be the cultural indeterminacy of the island, along with the Indian shops, the nineteenth-century Lutheran churches built by Swedish missionaries, the mission school run by Quebec priests, and the colonial relics of the King's palace and Band, Mukherjee conveys the signs of the complex heterogeneity of national space.  It is the ambivalent and mobile configurations of this island's cultural and linguistic constituency that offers Ratna the possibility of experiencing a sense of being "at home" (D 48), of attaining the full membership for herself that eludes her in hegemonic-white Toronto. 

In this story, then, Mukherjee offers an interrogation of Canadian multiculturalism from the perspective of diaspora and the transnational movements and flows of people that have made and continue to make revisions in the discourse of citizenship and national identity necessary. Classified in Canada under the rubric of "visible minority" status, Ratna Clayton finds herself consequently excluded from the dominant discourse of Canadianness. Half-European, her darkness of skin is the signifier of the difference which fixes her cultural identity as an Indian or South Asian ethnic, a category viewed to be mutually exclusive with Canadianness. By thus  foregrounding her protagonist's psychological condition of abjection and her experience of racial discrimination, Mukherjee asks where national subjects of "other" origins locate their home. By invoking the subjective narrative of home and belonging often overlooked by the discourse of formal citizenship and nationalism, Mukherjee suggests that Canadian citizenship needs to be reconceptualized as something that goes beyond the legalistic definition of Canadianness to guarantee a commitment to equality for all subjects, regardless of roots and origins or colour.

It is this "routed" conception of home and imagined community posited in "The World According to Hsü" that Mukherjee says she discovered in the US, to which she migrated in 1981, a crossing of geo-political and cultural boundaries which heralded a marked change to her aesthetic stance on diaspora. This shift was possible, Mukherjee argues, on account of the US "melting-pot" project of constructing citizenship and national belonging.

The melting pot narrative of the nation refers to the process of assimilation, where the different cultural and ethnic communities in a nation are conceived as coming together to create a new "American" race or culture.  The word "melting" goes as far back as the eighteenth century when St. Jean de Crevecour wrote about the American as "the new man" being "melted into a new race of men." It gained currency when the Anglo-Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill, coined the analogy of the "melting pot"[6] to refer to the manner in which nineteenth century immigrants to the US were encouraged to abandon their cultures of origin until, as in a melting pot, their differences would gradually melt away and they would develop into a new race of "Americans" sharing a common culture.   

It was the American "melting pot," unlike the Canadian "mosaic," Mukherjee suggests, that was able to dismantle "Old World concepts of a fixed, exclusivist national identity" ("American Dreamer" 2)[7] and confer cultural citizenship, thus moving her away from the irony and detachment of expatriation, which informed and characterized her earlier stories, towards "the exuberance of immigration" (Intro. to Darkness xv), an attitude of mind which allowed her to grapple with the complexities of identity formation in the New World cultural location.  I would argue, however, that it is not so much the US as precise geo-political territory that Mukherjee valorizes as the site of cultural change and identity transformation in her narratives of diaspora. Rather, it is the dynamics of fluidity and contingency inherent in the melting pot that are able to offer Mukherjee what she herself calls the "metaphors and symbolic location" (Connell 19) necessary for reinscribing cultural citizenship and national belonging in her fiction. 

It is this ideological refusal to write the narrative of loss and "unhousement," this intense preoccupation with creating liberating possibilities out of "the messiness of rebirth as an immigrant" ("Immigrant Writing" 28) that constitutes Mukherjee's revisionist poetics of diaspora and citizenship. In a now classic front-page article written in 1988 for the New York Times Book Review, Mukherjee articulates for the first time her revised cultural politics by calling attention to the changing cultural and political landscape of the American nation as well as the place and contribution of the non-traditional immigrant writer in these transformed contexts. This "altered America" ("Immigrant Writing" 1), whose meaning she will henceforth narrate into existence, is constructed out of the stories of a group of people never before written about in American literature, namely "the new Americans from non-traditional immigrant countries" ("Immigrant Writing" 28) who, in the words of one of her characters from the "American" phase of her Darkness collection, are "a new breed testing new feelings in new battlegrounds" ("Visitors" 149).

Conspicuous in Mukherjee's vocabulary of Americanism is the "newness" engendered by diaspora, the process of "rehousement" and  the redefinition of identities that keeps the meaning of America and its national and cultural boundaries open to expansion and continual invention. However, Mukherjee's use of the word "battleground" in her narrative of identity transformation should not go unnoticed for it points to the author's implicit recognition of the risks and difficulties involved in constructing national identity and belonging in the context of the apparently inclusionary and equitable social and political possibilities offered by the American melting pot.[8] In this sense, Mukherjee is only too aware of the homogenizing impulses and the exclusionary tendencies in the received idea of the melting pot as a narrative where the mainstream puts pressure on minorities to make their differences melt into the national community of the nation-state.

Hence, hers is not an uncritical acceptance or endorsement of the hegemonic ideology of assimilation embedded in American multiculturalism. Indeed, her rejection of dominant terms and her critical engagement with the dynamics of cultural citizenship are manifested in her description of herself as "an American writer, in the American mainstream trying to extend it" (Meer 26).

Thus, it needs to be pointed out that in actively rejecting identifications like "Asian-American" and "Indo-American" and in her avowal of a full, "unhyphenated American" identity ("Imagining Homelands" 69), Mukherjee is participating in a counter-hegemonic move that refuses to compartmentalize American national identity and citizenship along Manichean lines, in terms of mainstream and minority cultures or values, of inclusions and exclusions. In renouncing the hyphen, Mukherjee is consciously setting out to contest the essentializing strategy in this binary construction of national identity and ethnicity that upholds a Eurocentric framework of values and meanings associated with the hegemonic culture in American multiculturalism. In accordance with her refusal to treat ethnicity as a clearly divisible and dichotomous category that exists outside of Americanness, Mukherjee reconceptualizes melting-pot assimilation as something "genetic" rather than "hyphenated" (Jasmine 222).

Such a language is not at variance with her erstwhile rejection of the fixity of biological notions of identity.[9] For we are being asked to read the author's espousal of a "genetic" American identity here not as a mobilizing of a biologically-driven or essentialist idea of Americanness, but as holding true to the founding ideals of the melting pot to foster the creation of a unique "American" national character or identity. Integral to Mukherjee's rejection of hyphenation, then, is the idea that the emergent "American" identity produced by melting pot multiculturalism is "genetically" distinct — "something different, something new and unrecognizable" (Bhabha, "The Third Space" 211) — whole yet already differentiated within itself, divested of the hyphen and its hierarchical and separatist prescriptions. 

Far from constituting a simple cataloguing of diversity, Mukherjee's reconceptualization of American multiculturalism and citizenship resonates with Homi Bhabha's "third space" of cultural production within which different elements encounter and transform one another. "Such negotiation," Bhabha explains, "is neither assimilation nor collaboration," but makes possible the movement of meaning within the dominant culture ("Culture's In-Between" 58). Along these terms, Mukherjee's recontextualized melting pot aims to destabilize the cultural power relations that exist in the hegemonic "us and them" model of identity construction, not through a mere inversion of these hierarchical dualisms but by throwing them  into question. This is clearly inherent in her desire to represent the nation and American multiculturalism as a new area for negotiating meaning, as the site of "a constantly reforming, transmogrifying ‘we'" ("American Dreamer" 4).

In reconfiguring the American political and cultural fabric as the site of ongoing contestation and definition, Mukherjee also implies that while America transforms all those who make their home in it, America itself is being transformed: "I'm saying we haven't come to accommodate or to mimic; we have changed ourselves, but we have also come to change you" (Jaggi 9). In other words, just as America's melting pot transforms non-traditional immigrant communities, Mukherjee maintains that mainstream culture and values, too, are shaped and moulded, unavoidably and ongoingly, by the presence of these new immigrants. As a way of drawing attention to the productive hybrid configurations exemplified by the melting pot's inevitable two-way process of cultural interchange and interaction, Mukherjee eschews the term "assimilation," and its coercive, homogenizing connotations, in favour of an ethic where identity and difference are built simultaneously in the national project. Accordingly,  she suggests that the melting pot's intrinsically multicultural semiotics of mélange, multiplicity and inclusion are to be found in the word "fusion" (Jaggi 9).

Thus, while Bhabha's general theoretical project is to emphasize that the irrevocable  hybridity of cultures always already makes untenable or problematizes notions of cultural stability, cohesion and homogeneity which underpin nationalist narratives such as assimilation and integration, Mukherjee's imaginative interrogations of American multiculturalism aim to rid the melting pot of its prescriptive undertones, while focusing on its more empowering capacities and its democratic potential for national-cultural identity construction.

Accordingly, Mukherjee emphasizes that her literary agenda is to "redefine the nature of American and what makes an American" ("Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman" 35, emphasis in original) through the idea of cultural and ideological "mongrelization," a term she says she borrows from the writer Salman Rushdie to point to the "sense of the interpenetration of all things" ("Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman" 34). The  national undertaking to promote cultural "fusion" or "mongrelization," Mukherjee suggests, was not enabled by the hegemonic relation between centre and margin that she has said is ingrained in the official Canadian multicultural policy. The argument here being that while the image of the mosaic which underpins Canadian multiculturalism allows the different pieces to exist side by side, in discrete or clearly demarcated spaces, the very nature of such a management of difference serves to support, even preserve,  absolute notions of ethnic or cultural otherness, thereby helping to consolidate barriers and biases, as well as differences, rather than helping to overcome them.

Thus, the American cultural narrative of the nation that Mukherjee favours is endorsed for constituting other than the simple, pluralistic "politics of difference" that she sees structuring the commitment to diversity in Canada. More significantly, Mukherjee's argument for the melting pot is premised on her belief that, unlike the mosaic that reinforces boundaries and cultural stereotypes, the former offers a more "nuanced [and] accented multicoloured myth of shared values" ("Imagining Homelands" 69) where the different communities in a nation are continually engaged in a complex process of interconnection and intermixing, giving rise to a mutual constructedness of identity and otherness that blurs the boundaries between majority and minority communities and cultures.      

Mukherjee's ideas about a "mongrelized" model of multiculturalism are given sustained articulation in the short story "Orbiting," written during her period of immigrant "rehousement" in the US and included in her second collection of short fiction, The Middleman and Other Stories.  In the story, Mukherjee makes use of Thanksgiving, a quintessentially American ritual, to dismantle settled notions about what constitutes "Americanness."

A yearly event that brings together members of the deMarco family, this year's Thanksgiving dinner gives cause for apprehension to Renata, who plans to introduce her family to her new boyfriend, a political refugee from the civil war in Afghanistan. Renata's fervent hope is that her family, whom she considers "very American" (M 58) in their cultural values and attitudes, "will more than tolerate him" (M 63).

As if to undercut the narrator's preconceptions about what makes up Americanness, the text assiduously assembles a motley crew of family members for Renata. Of the members of her family who congregate in her New Jersey apartment, there is Renata herself, a third-generation American of Italian-Spanish ancestry; her sister, Carla, and her husband, Brent Schwartzendruber, son of an Amish farmer in Iowa;  Franny, Brent's twelve-year old daughter from a previous marriage, and a representative in the text of America's next generation; Renata's father, a second-generation American of North Italian origins, whose own father was "a fifteen-week-old fetus when his mother planted her feet on Ellis Island" (M 58); and her mother, an immigrant from Spain, "a Calabrian [...] born and raised there" (M 58). Of course, there is also Renata's lover, Roashan, son of a rich landlord in Kabul who has been smuggled into the US on a fake visa to escape detention by the new Soviet-backed regime. Now "gutting chickens" (M 73) in a restaurant in Brooklyn's "Little Kabul," he plans to save enough money to take engineering classes at NJIT. Renata tells us, "[Roashan]'s been in the States three months, maybe less" (M 64); he is the latest arrival into the American melting pot.

By bringing these characters together and making them inhabit the same space, Mukherjee constructs the melting pot as the symbolic site of national unity or consensus. But the text clearly suggests that this is not a space of easy and harmonious synthesis. For within the characters' interchange through their heteroglossia of cultures, accents, histories, memories, and experiences, there abound also prejudices, prohibitions, misunderstandings, and confusions. Indeed, Mukherjee posits the melting pot as a space of conflict and potential tension.  In this sense, the communal gathering itself, as a signifier of the actual dissonances of national space, is a strategic vehicle used to interrogate the "enclosed security of family myths" (Carchidi 96) and, by extension, the narrator's comfortable definitions of American identity.  

In particular, it is Roashan who, in inhabiting that ambivalent space between "unhousement" and "rehousement," becomes Mukherjee's paradigmatic immigrant figure. By writing him as guest of the deMarcos' Thanksgiving ritual, Mukherjee's larger aim, it becomes increasingly clear, is to write him into the national discourse. More significantly, as immigrant, Roashan is the figure of intervention who calls into question the narrator's — as well as the reader's — stereotyped views, expectations and preconceptions not only of other cultures but also of what constitutes Americanness. In this regard, assumptions about identity and difference, and the processes of national selfhood and othering are set to undergo a radical interrogation.

Renata is concerned that her family will disapprove of the "foreignness" which Roashan represents in their "very American" midst. Indeed, the manifest difference exemplified in Ro's  name, clothing, looks, accent, language, the way he stands and moves — "[e]ven his headshake is foreign" (M 71), Renata tells us — is the cause of the narrator's anxiety and unease.

Significantly, it is Roashan who is put in charge of carving the Thanksgiving turkey, symbolically marking his entry into and acceptance by the family and, by extension, his incorporation into American national space. However, Mukherjee suggests that the immigrant's entry into the melting pot is set to change not only him but also the dominant culture. For it is the immigrant's implicit challenge to melting pot conformism that is reflected when, instead of conceding to the use of the traditional carving knife, Roashan reaches for his own cultural resources in the form of his Afghan dagger.

The dagger itself is a sign, not of congenial amalgamation, but of peril and risk and danger — that messy "battleground" avoided by the expatriate, and which Mukherjee's immigrant has to negotiate and engage with in order to keep the national narrative of America alive and open to new meaning. More significantly, Roashan's dagger is a mark also of his difference, a symbol of his Afghan past and cultural history that, the text suggests, must be reckoned with in any conception of Americanness. Crucially in this context, Mukherjee underscores the indelibility of Roashan's history by inscribing it on his body, in the "scars that bubble against his dark skin, scars like lightning flashes under his thick black hair" (M 72).

Like Ratna of "The World According to Hsü" whose darkness of body functions as a tangible marker of her cultural difference and fragmented national subjectivity, Ro's bodily scars are palpable signs, too, of his fissured history and discontinuous memory, marks of his origins in another cultural space. By inscribing them onto his body, Mukherjee makes clear that these "embedded" (M 74) scars are emblems of a previous history that cannot be absorbed or assimilated, even by the coercive power of melting pot multiculturalism.

Roashan's bodily inscriptions exist as a trace, then, in the Derridean sense, that calls attention to the intrinsic instability, the constantly deferred and shifting configurations of national and cultural formations. What this means is that while Roashan's "new" American identity draws his difference into sameness, it does so "in a way that makes the same no longer the same, the different no longer simply different," yoking "difference and sameness in an apparently impossible simultaneity" (Young 36). This hybrid construction of identity, where notions of national selfhood and ethnic otherness are brought together in a vexed relationship so there is no longer any firm line of demarcation between "us" and "them," shares resonances with Bhabha's assertion that "to be [Americanized] is emphatically not to be [American]" ("Of Mimicry and Man" 134, emphasis in original). Such a conception of identity also parallels the point made by Clifford, who, referring to the entangled "routes" of adaptation and resistance inherent in diaspora identifications in various national-cultural contexts, argues, for instance, that to be Americanized is to be American differently (312). In other words, because Ro's "American" national identity entails the construction of cultural meaning without erasing the trace of "other" meanings, complete assimilation into the melting pot can never really be possible. Neither, as the text suggests, should it be desirable — a lesson Renata has yet to learn.

And so as she watches, "in a daze" (M 74), while her lover "slashes and slices, swiftly, confidently" (M 74) at the turkey with his Afghan dagger, it is Renata's own uncritical and compliant assimilation into the dominant narrative of American national culture and identity that is put to scrutiny and ironized by the text. For it is the coercive conformity of melting-pot assimilation that is at work when Renata and her sister Carla drop their christened names for that of Rindy and Cindi respectively,  and when Brent Schwartzendruber becomes a Bernie Schwartz.  It is for this reason also that Renata's narrating consciousness continually expropriates and appropriates the otherness that Roashan's "blemished, tortured body" (M 74) represents, subsuming his scars and narrative of difference into a familiar and sanitized celluloid image of Americanness so that "Ro is Clint Eastwood, scarred hero and survivor" (M 75).

"I will give him citizenship if he asks" (M 74), she avers, misguided by the idea that by marrying him, she is giving her lover the valuable opportunity to have his difference — "he comes from a culture of pain," she tells us — absorbed into the homogenizing narrative of American citizenship and multiculturalism, which in Renata's mind offers the possibility for complete self-transformation through the obliteration of Roashan's Afghan identity and cultural history. "I shall teach him how to walk like an American, how to dress like [an American], how to fill up a room as [an American] does..." (M 74), she vows.  However, in spite of Renata's determination to co-opt her lover into the hegemonic American discourse of easy assimilation, we are assured by the text that Ro's "nicked, scarred, burned body [...] instead of melting and blending [will] "stic[k] out in the Afghan way" (M 74-75). Thus, it is precisely these signs of difference that Mukherjee brings to bear in her ideological scheme to rewrite the national meaning of America, a difference that, as one critic puts it, "forces the deMarco family to reexamine its own rituals at the same time that it alleviates any fear we may have that Ro will be assimilated as Brent has been" (Carchidi 100).

It is clear, then, that for Mukherjee, the American national body politic, like the immigrant's body, is the site of multiple convergences and both conflictive and collaborative intermixture. By viewing the nation as a palimpsestic construction, as a space of overlap, of criss-crossing flows and exchanges, in which there is no centre, Mukherjee gestures at a real "multicultural" construction of ethnicity and national identity that is not framed within a mutually exclusive, binary opposition between assimilation within or exclusion from the dominant cultural discourse of identity. In dismantling the established boundaries between majority  and minority cultures in the hegemonic discourse of identity, she forces an interrogation of the linear, continuous and homogeneous narrative of the nation.  

It is in the context of this reading that I disagree with the contention of critic W.M. Verhoeven that "Mukherjee's crusade against the politics of institutionalized multiculturalism" is ultimately jeopardized by "the inefficacy of her concept of ethnic otherness and multicultural[ism]", which itself is seen as stemming from the author's "teleological concept of ethnicity and her belief in an authentic culture" (14-18). Grounding his analysis on what he perceives to be Mukherjee's affirmation of "[Indian] ethnicity as a self-evident...stable and natural category of identity that can be lost and regained" (14) as evidenced in her first novel, The Tiger's Daughter, Verhoeven finds that it is precisely such a nostalgic and essentialist conception of ethnicity that works to undermine Mukherjee's ideological agenda to interrogate the hegemonic discourse of American multiculturalism. While I have elsewhere provided a close reading of The Tiger's Daughter in ways that demonstrate Mukherjee's rejection of immigrant nostalgia and contestation of Indianness as a self-evident or secure category (see Gabriel), I wish to state here that many  of the arguments about Mukherjee's preoccupation with reclaiming a real or essential ethnic selfhood  (see also Brewster 57) derive from an  unproblematized correlation that is made between Mukherjee's explicit endorsement of melting pot nationalism and her renditions of assimilationist multiculturalism in her fiction. Such critics tend to read Mukherjee's professed advocacy of the melting pot as merely an acquiescence to the hegemonic American cultural policy of assimilation, a debate with which this paper has attempted to engage in order to demonstrate that Mukherjee's apparent embrace of melting pot multiculturalism is far more radical than it appears.

If in "The World According to Hsü," Mukherjee delivers a trenchant critique of any model of multiculturalism that aims to separate and entrench difference, in "Orbiting" she  proffers a positive envisioning of a more inclusive model of multiculturalism and citizenship where cultural identities or ethnicities are not necessarily compartmentalized or segregated and where national identity is forged through difference. By offering a vision of how national identity might be understood as a contestable and therefore provisional narrative of identity that is commensurable with a world of intersecting influence and flows, the text evinces how multiculturalism itself is constituted by situations emergent within changing, shifting, "orbiting" (and it is here that the story's title resonates with meaning) worlds.

In thus interrogating the idea of an essential continuity and constancy in the idea of national and cultural identity, Mukherjee's discourse of nationalism, as exemplified in these stories, opens up a space for a consideration of the notions of rupture, break and dispersal, of the multiple, diverse and heterogeneous subjectivities that form such a dominant concern in the dynamics of cultural citizenship.

By reformulating the "mosaic" and "melting pot" tropes of multiculturalism into a concept of cultural citizenship, Mukherjee suggests how multiculturalism as a narrative of exclusion which demands a model of homogeneous people can be reconstituted into a view of multiculturalism as a discourse and practice in continuous remaking, representative of the "routes" of identification brought into play by diaspora.



Mukherjee's second collection of short fiction, The Middleman and Other Stories, won the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1988, and her novel, Jasmine, was chosen as one of the best books of 1989 by the New York Times Book Review. Mukherjee is currently Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.


Large-scale immigration of Indians to the US began only after the repeal of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. These immigrants belonged to the class of educated and professional elite such as engineers (mostly software), scientists and college teachers as well as accountants and businessmen. The influx of Indian immigrants into Canada started in the post-1947 period. Although as a consequence of the 1969 Immigration Policy of Canada, the flow of Indian immigrants has been highly selective, the majority of the early Indian immigrants came to work in factories, mills and lumber yards.


These comprise the stories in the collection that were written earlier, in Montreal and in Toronto, namely, "The World According to Hsü," "Isolated Incidents," "Courtly Vision" and "Hindus."


Related to me during a conversation with the author in June 2003. This interview with Mukherjee is forthcoming in the journal ARIEL.


Although the story is told in the form of an omniscient third-person narration, it is Ratna's consciousness and point of view that frames the telling of the story.


The term "melting pot" was also made the title of Zangwill's play, produced in New York in 1908.


Mukherjee elaborates that by "Old World" she refers not only to the national and cultural contexts of Canada but also to those of India and England.


In her more recent essay, "Imagining Homelands,", Mukherjee once again refers to the process of immigration in America as a "battleground" (70), alluding to the risks inherent in the construction of identity in  the melting pot.


See the quotation on page 3.

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