Migrating Identities by Simran Kaur
Note-Mouse over images for description
The Presence and Development of
Sikh Characters in Literature of the South Asian Diaspora
There is a thirst in the literary world for authentic stories. Literature, for good or bad, has played a critical role in providing snapshots into communities and defining or reinforcing stereotypes. It is well documented that Jewish and African American communities have long struggled to ensure representation in literary works. In parallel form, the developing field of South Asian literature identifies the need for authors, publishers, scholars and readers to pay close attention to the representation of South Asians in literary works. While South Asian diasporic literature has gained popularity over the past decade, little attention has been paid to how Sikhs, as a minority group, are represented in this medium.
The term diaspora is used to refer to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands, being dispersed throughout other parts of the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture. While sharing similar themes that exist in South Asian literature as a whole, novels dealing with the diasporic Sikh experience have mainly focused on four themes: immigration (particularly to the farming communities of California), identity (the external identity or lack of), events (such as 1984 and 9/11) and a discussion of social issues affecting the community (mental illness, caste, gang violence, honor killings and gender roles).
One cannot discuss ethnic literature without also discussing authenticity. Authors who write about certain cultures and communities are often scrutinized for their identification with or experience with that culture and/or community. It is clear that readers like to recognize and relate to characters in books – however, is it necessary for authors to belong to the communities they write about? Are expectations higher for authors of ethnic communities? When Londonstani by Gautam Malkani and Tourism by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal were published in the UK in 2006, the question of authenticity was raised. When authors write about a specific sector of society, they’re not necessarily allowed to just write about it, they’re expected to have some background in it. Is that fair?
The concept and search for authenticity runs deep in literature by and about South Asians, particularly those living in the diaspora. Given the diversity within any cultural group, however, there is never one image of life within a group. However, readers from the culture of a book seek to identify with and feel affirmed by what they are reading. It must ring true to their lives, while readers from another culture need to be able to identify with and learn something of value about cultural similarities and differences. Furthermore, as we look to support literature for and about Sikhs – should we expect that this work is educational (rather than simply entertaining) to non-Sikh readership? Since literature has the ability to transcend lines, how much emphasis should be placed on documenting the Sikh experience in the diaspora?
Leaving Yuba City (1993) is a book of poems by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, documenting the earliest Indian immigrants in the U.S. who were the Panjabi Sikhs. These collections of poems are perhaps the first reference in literature to Sikhs in the U.S. Her “Yuba City Poems” tells us about Panjabi farmers who settled in Yuba City in 1910 noting that until the 1940s, the “Alien Land Laws” precluded nonwhite immigrants from owning land, and immigration restrictions prevented their families from joining them. Due to these immigration restrictions, several men married local women, whose families had emigrated from Mexico. An excerpt from “Yuba City Wedding” describes that emotional experience,
…I couldn’t forget the ones who weren’t there. The older men, turbaned and grizzle-bearded like the fathers we had left behind, the ones who chanted every week from the Granth Sahib at the Gurdwara ceremonies I was no longer permitted to attend… Rajinder Mann, who bought me my first pair of American pants and talked to the foreman for me because I didn’t know English. I had known they wouldn’t be there, but it still hurt.
In 1995 Tara Singh Bains and Hugh Johnston wrote a book titled, The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh. Identifying himself as both an Indian and a Canadian, but first and foremost a Sikh, Bains has transitioned back and forth between Canada and India (geographically and symbolically) for most of his adult life, balancing two very different countries and cultures into his life. One of the most important parts of his tale is his experience with racism, which came not from white Canadians but from relatives who tried to persuade him to remove his turban and shave his beard. Refusing to betray his beliefs, he resisted his family’s oppression just as he later fought against the exploitation of immigrants in the saw mills where he worked. Singh became active in fighting for immigrant rights and protecting the Sikh faith among Canadian Sikhs. While Bains recounts the life of one Sikh man, his story gives voice to the collective experience of newcomers in a new land.1
Another recent novel documenting the immigrant experience is Under the Lemon Tree (2009) by Bhira Backhaus. The novel is set in a small town in Northern California, and tells the story of two generations of a Sikh family facing difficult decisions about love, cultural traditions, and familial ties. The story focuses upon the life of 15-year-old Jeeto who struggles between embracing her heritage and fitting in as an American and journeys through her reconciliation of the possibilities of freedom and love. This novel focuses on the portrayal of the Punjabi community rather than the Sikh faith, which while interwoven can be experienced quite separately. Regarding this point, one reviewer writes,
The rather bleak portrayal of Sikh spirituality and practice and the not terribly meaningful or relevant role allotted to Sikhi in terms of the everyday world of the book’s personages… was, admittedly, an unpleasant surprise. It would have been gratifying to have encountered at least one character who was positively portrayed as both a committed Sikh and a likeable, multi-faceted human being. One cannot help but wonder what kinds of impressions these unflattering images might make on unsuspecting non-Sikhs who get their first glimpses of the Sikh faith through this work!2
The point made by this reviewer is an important one. While authors don’t solely write to educate, literature is very often used as an educational tool. Even within the Punjabi Sikh community there are disagreements as to how important or unimportant Punjabi culture is to Sikhs, so how do we anticipate that readers from outside of this community understand this complex identity? Backhaus’ novel is perhaps, then, a starting point for this dialogue. Where we go from here would be the community’s next challenge.
Many of the titles reviewed dealt with specific historical events. The tragic events of 1984 Panjab culminated in another disaster itself in 1985, in which it was said that several members of the Sikh community in Canada planted a bomb on an Air India flight bound for Delhi from Toronto. All 329 people aboard were killed. The actual trial spanned 20 years, and several books were written during this time. The Death of Air India Flight 182 (1986) by Salim Jiwa and Soft Target (1989) by Zuhair Kashmeri, Brian McAndrew were two of the first books to be published on the event. During this tumultuous time in Canada’s history, the Sikh community was represented quite negatively in media reports that reported on the event and subsequent trial. The representation of one or two members of the community had an impact on mainstream society’s impression of Sikhs as a whole. Portrayal of Sikhs continues to remain opaque due to conflicting information being provided on this event. Therefore, Soft Target is an important book as it provides a strikingly different take on a story that was constantly in the media, perpetuating stereotypes.
The events and aftermath of the Air India bombing have been the subject of at least half a dozen non-fiction books of investigative journalism. However, Anita Rau Badami’s novel, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is perhaps the first attempt to deal with the tragedy in a fictional manner. This book is an important and valuable addition to the burgeoning genre of novels exploring the relation between the political and the personal. Badami’s book was published in 2007 and touches on several important events in Sikh history. Badami discusses the Partition, the events surrounding 1984 and the 1986 Air India bombing. Her treatment also makes it crystal-clear that this terrorist act was not an isolated disaster, as many Canadians tend to view it. One reviewer notes,
From all the books that I’ve read, I can say that Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami is the closest thing I’ve read to the quientiscencial Sikh-Canadian novel. In one very readable book, Badami has been able to weave a tale that captures the human element of defining moments in Sikh-Canadian history. Through the three female protagonists, she is able to carefully connect their lives to the Komagata Maru incident, the Partition of India, the June 1984 assault on the Harimandir Sahib (in Amritsar), the Sikh pogroms of November 1984 and the 1986 Air India bombing.3
While Badami herself is not a Sikh, her novel seeps with authentic feelings and readers were drawn to the descriptions of Punjab and related to the fight for the Sikh faith.
Literature than can inform an audience about significant events is important. Similar to how the Jewish community has published young adult fiction addressing the Holocaust, it is clear that South Asian authors and perhaps Sikh authors will also have to tackle 1984 in a similar way. Along with Badami’s novel, another piece of work which includes 1984 as a backdrop is Under the Moonlit Sky by Canadian author Nav Gill. This is a tale of a young woman who is forced to question her identity when she travels to India and finds herself in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times in Sikh history. Esha is Punjabi Sikh, but having been raised in Canada – there is a disconnect in how she identifies with being both Punjabi and Sikh. Along with the theme of 1984, the theme of identity is an important one, perhaps even a related one. Negotiating one’s identity particularly during a tragic time in history which leads to questions of a separate homeland (Khalistan) has had an impact of many Sikhs living in the diaspora.
Another recent young adult fiction novel which gained wide readership is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger. This book also features a young woman who struggles with her identity and questions her Punjabi Sikh heritage. Rather than using 1984 as a backdrop, Meminger uses 9/11 as the backdrop to this conversation. I asked Meminger to expand upon this via a personal conversation. She says,
That first year post 9/11 reminded me a lot of my experiences growing up in Canada in the 70s…We were harassed and bullied and our parents often faced hostility at work and in official settings. I wanted to highlight this experience and show the parallels between that and what Sikhs went through post 9/11 in the U.S. I wanted to show that, even though what I went through in Canada in the 70s and what happened in the U.S. were decades apart, there were striking similarities in perceptions, attitudes, and the “othering” of anyone who was suspected to be an outsider…
The young woman in Shine, Coconut Moon is named Samar and the relationship she develops with her uncle is an important one. Her uncle happens to wears a turban and I asked Meminger if that was a conscious decision. She said it was important because he chose not to hide his “otherness.” Meminger acknowledges the courage it takes to wear a turban and with this, Samar is forced to confront her own discomfort around her assumptions and beliefs. Shine, Coconut Moon has successfully been read and reviewed in the wider literary world and I think this is a vital point. The novel is often on suggested reads for multicultural literature. While it’s important to write books that Sikh children can relate to, it is also important to write books that can educate the non-Sikh community.
The next theme I would like to address deals with social issues that have impacted our community in the diaspora. These issues include mental illness, caste, gang violence, honor killings and gender roles. These books predominately came out of the UK and Canada. As one blogger writes on the progressive Sikh site The Langar Hall,
We are seeing the beginning of many Sikh voices coming to print and tackling some of the social problems that plague our community. Jaswinder Sanghera’s book Shame falls within this new class as well as Canadian Ranj Dhaliwal’s novel Daaku on gang violence in Vancouver. As a community we are maturing, becoming open to questioning, and beginning to challenge existing unjust hierarchies.4
Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir If You Don’t Know Me By Now (titled The Boy With the Topknot in the UK) opens up the dialogue around being raised in a working-class Punjabi immigrant family and being a child living in a family paralyzed by schizophrenia. Some of these experiences can be felt universally throughout the Punjabi community and others are more personal, but what is clear is that there is a great need in our community to dialogue about these issues and this book is a great starting point. In an interview, Sanghera speaks to this experience,
Mental illness is taboo in England, but it’s particularly taboo in Indian culture. While I was researching the book, I couldn’t find any books at all about mental illness in Indian families… Mental illness is just a source of great shame. My great-grandfather, who I now realise had schizophrenia, was tied to a bed until he died.5
Sanghera’s book also addresses the conflicting messages surrounding the caste system that were pervasive in his family and the Sikh community in general. Another important theme in Sanghera’s memoir is his description of his hardworking and devout mother Surjit, who “isolated by language and illiteracy and focused on survival” is clearly the matriarch of the family. Her commitment to her family and her faith in Sikhi ensured that this family would survive the violence and mental illness they experienced. In a letter written to his mother Sangehera says,
We’ve had such different lives, Mum. By the time you were 30, you had been ripped away from the family that had brought you up, married to a violent, mentally ill man you hadn’t met until your wedding day, were providing for four children and an unemployed husband, and for support you had to rely on a family who didn’t always respect you. Meanwhile, you didn’t speak the language of your adopted country, your view of the world was informed by just four years of education in India, you had never had a conversation with a white person, had never worked alongside a man, everyone you knew was from India, and work was something everyone around you did to survive.
Sanghera’s description of his mother is perhaps one of the most important themes pervasive in literature by and about Sikhs. There has been significant dialogue around “mama’s boys” that plague our community and the repercussions of them doing so. However, Sanghera’s mother balances that and is an important representation of strong Sikh women – the importance of which is also recognized in the Guru Granth Sahib, “we are bound with the world through woman”.6
Following this publication, two titles written by British author Jasvinder Sanghera were published in 2007 and 2009 – Shame and Daughters of Shame. These books, which are memoirs similar to If You Don’t Know Me By Now play an important role in showcasing the story of women (we know this can happen to men too) who are forced into marriages. The issue of izzat or honor is usually tied closely with this issue. Sanghera not only published this book but has done substantial work in the field of forced marriages and honor killings and runs Karma Nirvana, an organization that “supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based abuse”. One non-Punjabi, non-Sikh reader tells us about her impression of the book,
While wandering the stacks of my local library, I randomly pulled this book from the shelf…I liked the cover and was intrigued by the premise. Little did I know, Shame turned into an extremely educational, inspiring, gripping read…Even if you don’t know very much about Asian culture, this book will enlighten you to the horrific experiences that some women in these communities around the world are forced to endure. With this said, I would like to say that my intention is not to generalize; the women of which Shame speaks are only a portion of the community, not all of them. Each case is different and distinct.7
This reader’s description is an important one. As she notes, she learns about other cultures through what she reads. This reader is savvy enough not to generalize this with an entire community, however it is clear how that can happen with the wider audience. With the publication of Shame, Sanghera was instrumental in putting the UK’s Forced Marriage Act through Parliament in 2007. The sharing of her story was not an easy decision for Sanghera. Sadly, she was disowned by her family.
Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani follows four teenage boys of South Asian descent in London’s rough-and-tumble Hounslow borough. This book narrates in the first person the adventures of Jas, who recently has joined a gang of Sikh and Hindu youth, led by “Hard-jit” (né Harjit), in the “little India” of west London. The aspiring gangster swirls us into a glut of gang-fights, interfaith romance and organized crime. The novel centers on a critique of the patriarchal oppressiveness and hyper-masculinity which is pervasive in many South Asian households. For his novel, Malkani extensively researched this culture (and was indirectly connected to it). He writes,
What struck me was the extent to which ethnic, racial and religious identities were, and still are, used as proxies for the reaffirmation of masculinity. These were basically middle-class mummy’s boys combining an assertive South Asian identity with American gangsta rap culture to achieve a greater sense of potency. In the research and resulting novel, the hyper machismo and misogyny in hip-hop culture ultimately reinforces the misogyny inherent in the traditional South Asian culture of our parents.8
While many were pleased with Malkani’s extensive research, questions of authenticity still surfaced. Could Malkani write such a novel if he himself had not lived the “rudeboy” lifestyle? And if not, then does Londonstani reinforce stereotypes? Given the industry buzz about Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, it was perhaps advantageous that Ranj Dhaliwal released his novel, Daaku – a Punjabi term for outlaw – around the same time. While Londonstani depicts four young South Asian gangsters living near London’s Heathrow Airport who speak in a linguistic mash of British slang, texting shorthand, and rap, Daaku explores a parallel world with a less cultivated, more local perspective. Published in Vancouver, Daaku tells the story of Rupinder Singh Pandher, or Ruby – a young Indo-Canadian man growing up in B.C.’s sprawling Lower Mainland who graduates from childhood mishap to full-on gangster. From the lengthy Air India trial to media reports of gang shootings, drug trafficking, and organized crime, B.C.’s Indo-Canadian gang culture has steadily become part of life on the West Coast. While there are documentaries and scores of newspaper headlines addressing these issues, Daaku is considered amongst the first books to explore this world in fiction. Dhaliwal’s story is also an interesting one as this article describes.
What people attending the Daaku launch at Central City that night wouldn’t have known is that Ranj Dhaliwal was on his way to becoming – in addition to an important writer from the area – an important elected community leader. In the fall of 2008, the author was asked to join a slate of young candidates running for the leadership of one of the largest temples in the Lower Mainland: the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, on Scott Road in Surrey. That election contest would prove to be a protracted and litigious battle between two visions of what the temple should represent in the Sikh community.9
It is not clear if Dhaliwal’s growth into his faith stemmed from the novel or vice-versa. Nevertheless, Dhaliwal gives his novel the authenticity that many other authors are unable to do.
While authenticity is an important aspect of adult South Asian literature, multiculturalism is a significant factor in children’s literature. Ever since Nancy Larrick’s landmark study in 1965 revealed a lack of characters of color in children’s books in the United States, accurate and fair portrayal of diverse cultural groups in children’s literature has become an increasing concern. “From the standpoint of multicultural education,” write Barrera, Liguori, and Salas (1993), “authenticity of content and images in children’s literature is essential because inauthentic representation subverts the very cultural awareness and understanding that such literature can build”.
In 1960, author M. Sasek wrote a series of books, one of which was This is London – a guided pictorial through London. While this story has little to do with Sikhs per se, I was surprised to come across several illustrations in the book depicting Sardars (see Figure 1). While Sasek may not have realized it at the time, what the illustrations showed were that Sikhs were integral members of the London community. They were not pointed out for being different, they were just there. Due to this progressive image, one has to remind themselves that this was a book published in the 60s!
The other children’s books included in this discussion were all written or illustrated by Sikhs (Sikh women in fact!). The Boy with Long Hair by Pushpinder Singh is essentially a coloring book which uses imagery from the Sikh faith to start a dialogue about identity. In 2003, in an effort to raise cultural awareness about the Sikh community, several elementary school students in California received The Boy with Long Hair. This was a substantial milestone for the Sikh community. However, as the community moves forward with these efforts – it will be imperative to distribute educational books with supplemental lesson plans so that educators can teach the material in a meaningful way.
Bindhus Wedding, written & illustrated by Amrit & Rabindra K. Singh also known as the Singh Twins, is a delightful account by Bindhu, the youngest member of a Sikh family living in the north of England. Bindhu’s astute observations of her family’s preparations and celebrations for various weddings are told in rhyming verse to accompany the brilliantly colorful artwork of the twins. The book is a beautiful tale with exquisite illustrations. Dear Takuya (illustrated by Brian Johnston) and The Royal Falcon (illustrated by Pammy Kapur), both written by Jessi Kaur, provide Sikh children with an opportunity to share their faith with others. In Dear Takuya, a young Sikh boy writes letters to his Japanese pen pal, Takuya and introduces himself, his culture, and religion. In The Royal Falcon, Jessi Kaur places Guru Gobind Singh’s falcon in North America as a life guide to young Arjan, a Sikh boy growing up in the diaspora.
It is valuable for Sikh children to see themselves represented in books and these titles do an important job at doing just that. The books are available via Sikh websites and are usually distributed at Sikh events. However, another valuable aspect of Sikh children’s literature is that it be also be accessible to non-Sikhs. The potential to educate children about diversity, and specifically the Sikh identity, is both a necessity and responsibility of the Sikh community. Navjot Kaur is a children’s book author whose books do just that. Her first book, A Lion’s Mane (illustrated by Jaspreet Sandhu) shows a young Sikh boy on the cover tying his dastaar. This is perhaps the first mainstream children’s book where a Sikh child is seen on the cover (imagine the reaction of a young Sikh boy who sees this book in his local library!). While focusing on the Sikh identity, A Lion’s Mane weaves other cultures into the tale and by doing so Kaur stirs a conversation about the importance of diversity.
In her second book, Dreams of Hope (illustrated by Gurleen Rai), concepts of Sikhi are more subtly integrated – the story is universal but the illustrations are of a young Sikh girl and her father (who happens to wear a turban). The implications of such an effort is that Sikh authors can contribute to the multicultural field without forcing Sikhi onto readers.
The truth is that many of us, not merely writers, and not merely those who have lived in more than one country, have several different selves and modes of being. Ideas of nationhood or identity are a starting point for encounters. It is vital, therefore, that we continue to encourage writers and publishers to cultivate the growth of books by and about Sikhs.
To obtain a complete list of texts, go to:
1http://www.sikhspectrum.com/102002/tara_singh.htm – link broken
6 Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Var Asa, Ang 473