In 1989, when Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine came out, I was also coming out: a college sophomore already defining myself as a lesbian feminist; an Indian American defining myself as a writer who had never come across an Indian American book.
The story of Jyoti escaping Indian patriarchy, passing through ever-more-liberating phases until she becomes her fully realized self, Jasmine, resonated with me. I had attended elementary school in her Iowa; my young mother might have crossed paths with this mirror-image young woman, both of them wearing thick snowboots to the Woolworth’s and the grocer’s, where they would not have found the spices of home, not even fresh garlic.
Plus, she had sex. An Indian girl! Sex! Nowhere else was this narrative visible, though so many of us were secretly living it; no one else was writing a brown female body moving through its lusts and hurts in white (so much more white than now) America.
Soon afterward I had my “ethnic” awakening and joined the chorus of campus critiques. Jasmine was a regressive narrative, one that would dominate Asian American fiction for at least two decades: oppressed Asian leaves home, finds freedom in America. Indian writers took umbrage, even more so when they saw how much white America loved this rendition of the American dream. A few sulky Asian American male writers decried it from their this-is-why-we-can’t-get-laid position, refusing to acknowledge our communities’ patriarchies, and making a peacock-like display of their envy over the commercial success of such writers as Mukherjee, along with Maxine Hong Kingston and ultimate literary world darling Amy Tan.
Despite the validity of some critiques (more than others), the debate had the unfortunate effect of lumping together authors who were quite different. By now we can see that Mukherjee was always much more intellectual than Tan, and far more devoted to fiction than Kingston; her body of work shows a far broader range of characters and trajectories. Most of her books do grapple with the endlessly fascinating, still-unfolding epic of diaspora, but Mukherjee resisted the simplistic and the banal.
This complexity is evident even in Jasmine, her breakout book and perhaps still her most accessible one. It must be read not only in the context of Asian America but in the context of an American feminist movement that was just surfacing the prevalence of sexual assault, a constant recurring trauma that drives the book. It followed two novels and several short stories that were more contained in scope, in which Mukherjee tried out some of the ideas that populate the novel.
Jasmine, which grew out of one of those short stories, touched my 1989 self, not only with its arc but also with its sweep. It is an epic of shapeshifting, from Jyoti through Jassy, Jazzy, Jase, Jane, to Jasmine, unfolding an “I” as multifaceted as Walt Whitman’s, containing multitudes.
We see this ambitious scope from the first two words of the novel — “Lifetimes ago” — as we open onto the village astrologer making a dire prediction. This exotic circumstance — banyan tree and buffalo feces and star-shaped wound all make their appearance on the first page — became a trope of Indian and Indian American writing, so much so that I can hardly believe my own nonfiction book, published in 2009, also begins with something like it.
Odd, since so many years and books lay in between. Perhaps, duckling-like, I imprinted upon this first literary-mother? In both her book and mine, by story’s end, it is Destiny that must be overturned, in favor of a wild and wide-ranging free will: “Watch me re-position the stars,” says Jasmine on her final page.
Mukherjee, who died on January 28th, was a key figure in expanding the destiny of South Asian writing in the United States, a subgenre that has now bloomed far beyond those first narratives. Though many diverse genres, approaches, and characters now populate our collective literary corpus, Jasmine foretold much of the field. We still have our assimilationist Janes, our sassy Jazzys, and our traumatized Jases — all pushing, as if inevitably, toward our self-inventing Jasmines.