My friend Himanee Gupta-Carlson asks, “Could there be a way to think of America differently?”
She offers a model for doing just that in her honest, sometimes painful, always graceful book Muncie, India(na): Middletown and Asian America. It is part memoirs, part ethnographic study -- personally engaging, academically thorough.
I loved details like interview subjects folding peas and potatoes from an earlier meal into Pillsbury dough, transforming them into samosas to be snacked on while chatting. And I loved Himanee’s father’s impulsive hospitality when he meets a young South Asian family while shopping. Her practical mother rises to the occasion once he arrives home with them. She has just what the strangers need, a baby bottle sterilizer she’d been storing in the garage. A new friendship is sealed.
How had I missed, until reading Muncie India(na), hearing about Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girls? Nguyen’s book is about Vietnamese immigrants in America, mothers, daughters, literature and Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a little black girl on the prairie – actually, a residential neighborhood in the southern Colorado steel town of Pueblo – I had identified with Laura and found in the story of her life talismanic, practical tips on surviving against the odds.
Muncie India(na), is, among other things, about surviving – and thriving – without a disguise in a country where, as Himanee puts is, whiteness is “disguised as Americanness.” It is set in the Indiana town where Himanee grew up as the daughter of Indian immigrants and that, since the husband-wife sociologist team of Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd studied and wrote about it in the 1920s and 1930s, has been seen as the most typical of American places. The Lind Middletown studies reflected an idea of “normal America” as “white America.” The couple deliberately left out Muncie’s racial, ethnic and religious diversity.
Himanee writes of going to swim practice as a teen at a Muncie pool, not knowing at the time that black Muncie residents saw the pool’s desegregation in the 1950s as one of their town’s most important stories.
The pool’s desegregation was not something Himanee studied in local history classes. I used to think such omissions were out of guilt on the part of whites who didn’t want to remember when city fathers were petty enough to close municipal pools rather than allow blacks to swim. Or, in the small Georgia town where my father grew up, bar all black residents from the library. All except my grandmother, who had studied library sciences up north and was needed to help keep the shelves in order. She would check out books for all her neighbors on the black side of town.
After reading Muncie India(na), I have to consider whether maintaining the fiction of “normal America” as “white America” requires ignoring that some Americans have had to struggle to do normal things like going to the pool or borrowing a book.
Himanee writes about what she has learned from African-American writers like Audre Lord and bell hooks and from Muncie activist Rashid Shabazz.
Shabazz, an African-American Muslim, publicly challenged his city’s decision to hold separate official National Day of Prayer services, one Christian and one multi-faith, because a local white minister did not want to pray alongside Muslims and Jews. Shabazz declared that he knew from personal experience that “separate has never been equal.”
I wish Himanee had said more about what those who are marginalized can learn from one another, and about the challenges to such solidarity. To what extent do immigrants imbibe the racism of their new country and for that reason avoid reaching out to black and Hispanic Americans?
Himanee does confront other tough subjects, including the religious extremism fracturing the unity that Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian South Asians might otherwise find; and the hostility she faces from white in-laws who are as challenged by her quiet assertiveness as white Muncie is by Shabazz’s.
Himanee, whose Ball State University professor father and businesswoman mother have lived in Muncie since 1966, writes: “Even though I was born and bought up in the United States, I could not be seen or accepted by the wider society as American.”
That reality has given her empathy. I admire her ability to understand not just what people say to her, but their “hesitations and silences.”
In the end, her book is about listening. That’s a crucial step toward the kinds of dialogues she hopes can create “the conditions of possibility for a multireligious, multiracial alliance to evolve.”