Was Sharmila Sen “happy” on the first morning she woke up in the United States to the strange smell of bacon frying? That’s what her young son wants to know when, near the end of Not Quite Not White—Sen’s powerful memoir and meditation on race and migration—he interviews her for a school project on immigration. It turns out we already know the answer. “It was a complex animal smell,” we read earlier of the odor she ever after associates with her 1982 arrival in Boston from Calcutta, “making my mouth water and my stomach churn in revulsion at the same time.”
Unwilling to a give her son a placating affirmative, Sen instead emphasizes that, while hardly joyous on arrival, she eventually adapted to life in her new country, just as her son would be able to should he himself have to emigrate one day. Though the prospect pains the young interviewer, it crystalizes an important strand of Sen’s reflections on emigration and belonging. “Should we only teach our children to welcome strangers among us? Or should we also teach them that one day they too might be strangers in a strange land—pushed around the globe by forces of economics, politics, or nature?” For Sen, the answer is at once clear and paradoxical: “We have truly arrived when we are no longer afraid of departure.”
What’s striking about this closing scene is not only the bold parenting or the way Sen turns a hoary Ellis Island mythology on its head. It’s also the rich critical dialogue that Sen engages in just beneath the surfaces. Her image of rooted yet transplantable cosmopolitanism has a key precursor in Edward Said’s 1984 essay “Reflections on Exile,” which asks what course can be charted between the Scylla of nationalism—with its dangerous chauvinism—and the Charybdis of exile—with its irremediable loss. Because Said understands nationalism and exile structurally to be the baneful products of each other, he seeks a third perspective, from which one does not reject attachments but “work[s] through” them to achieve a state of ceaseless arrival, a view in which “the entire world is as a foreign land.”1 When Sen ponders why “we only celebrate immigration as an arrival,” then, she is both alluding to Said’s reflections on the pains and possibilities of exile and considering them afresh as practical challenges of education and politics in the 21st century.
Sen almost certainly knows this even if she doesn’t say so directly: she completed a PhD in English and taught literature at Harvard. In Not Quite Not White, her vast though lightly worn erudition enables her to connect her own story of geographic and cultural dislocation with a fascinating, self-reflexive journey through the canons and archives of her several worlds: from Bengali children’s books to Bollywood movies, from the Reagan-era hits of US network TV to the obscure titles on grad school syllabi. She reflects on her adolescent experiences with racial passing through readings of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and references to the Borg from Star Trek. Later she traces her connections with Mary Rowlandson, whose captivity narrative was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, precisely 300 years before Sen arrived there in 1982.
As the university plays a larger role in cross-border movement, a daring, smart, and thoroughly globalized grad school novel is taking form.
While careful to observe fundamental differences, Sen seeks out these disparate histories of displacement and racialization to inform her understanding of her own. “I began to see my memory of arrival … as part of the story of large population movements,” she writes. “This story was far bigger in scope, involving millions of actors, thousands of species of flora and fauna, hundreds of years, and vast sums of money, and spanning the world from the Ganges River to the Caribbean Sea.”
Not Quite Not White is not a work of fiction, and Sen did not come to the United States for the purpose of graduate study (she arrived with her parents when she was 12). Still, as a potent mix of migrant’s tale and academic theorization, Sen’s memoir helps to highlight what is distinctive about a related emerging genre that crosses the metafictional conceits of academia novels like A. S. Byatt’s Possession or Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot with the deeply rutted, far-flung concerns of the emigration narrative. The roots of this hybrid form doubtlessly lie in the increasingly transnational nature of graduate study. In the United States today—where graduate teaching assistants vastly outnumber coalminers2—higher education counts in official tallies as an “export” service, making up 5 percent of the US economy’s export sector.3 There are currently over a million international students in the US, and nearly a quarter of all enrollees in US graduate programs are international students.4 And as the university plays a larger role in cross-border movement, a daring, smart, and thoroughly globalized grad school novel is taking form.
The forerunners of this genre were arguably written in the mid-19th century by Charlotte Brontë, whose novels Villette and The Professor each refashion Brontë’s experiences first as a student and then as an underpaid, overworked, and romantically overinvolved teacher in a Belgian boarding school. More recent influential examples include Teju Cole’s Open City, about a Nigerian psychiatry fellow and flâneur in New York, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, in which a young chemist from Calcutta pursues graduate work in Rhode Island while his brother joins the Maoist Naxalite movement back home, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which follows a Nigerian student as she becomes a gimlet-eyed observer of American race and class identities.
Part of what distinguishes the grad student migration genre, and especially the titles under review, is a bookishness and deep self-consciousness of how one’s own dislocation retraces the steps of others. Like Sen’s memoir, these novels carry their archives within them. Yet the crux of this genre is the irony that expertise in the larger histories of displacement tends to only deepen the search for affiliation. As precariously employed migrants, these grad students seek out stories that resonate with their own. As highly educated scholars, they know they have to parse the differences.
In Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana, the narrator, a Columbia grad student from Bihar named Kailash, goes to an Asia Society show of Raghu Rai’s photographs. He pauses in front of a print of a buffalo feeding pen in Bombay. “Hanging above the dark beasts, which were linked together by chains, and suspended from the roof of the shack were cots on which men sat or slept. Around them, from hooks and nails, dangled buckets for milk and also items of clothing. Small, cramped lives, but I was familiar from my childhood with what was shown here.” Kailash turns to his date and says, “If I ever write a book, I want this picture on the cover. It will be called Migrants.”
Immigrant, Montana is studded with such moments, in which Indian and diasporic archives—photographs, letters, songs—spur Kailash’s ambitions and intimacies. And yet, these citations also threaten to reveal too much, to embarrass the narrator by uncovering his desire for a history and communion that is at once his and not his. Though the image of the buffalo pen is “familiar” to Kailash from childhood memories, it holds out not just the promise of solidarity but also the irreducible contrasts of class and circumstance.
Later, Kailash himself reads Said’s “Reflections on Exile” in a seminar with Ehsaan Ali, a beloved professor closely modeled on political theorist Eqbal Ahmad. During the class discussion he thinks of his own apartment:
I had left home willingly but was still struck by how little I had brought with me. It was as if I imagined I was going to discover a new self. I thought of my own room in the university apartment. The walls were bare—there was a window but no pictures—and the room smelled of the cheap synthetic sheets I used. There was a lemon-yellow electric blanket on the bed. Instead of my parents’ photographs, I had carried in my suitcase a magazine, my certificates, my degrees, a fading diploma or two. … In my apartment, I read for class while lying in bed, music playing on my radio-cassette player. For many years, often full of self-pity, I would think that Lata Mangeshkar was singing the anthem for people like me: Tum na jaane kis jahan mein kho gaye …
Kumar includes a footnote with a translation: “A woman’s voice coming to you in the night’s silence: You are lost in another world unknown / I am left in this crowded one alone.”
The touch of bathos in this scene reminds us that Kailash’s room is not that of a migrant farm laborer or political exile, but of a precariously middle-class graduate student. He has had opportunities his own cousins will never have. But as a lowly teaching assistant reliant on an institution that refuses to acknowledge his basic employee rights for his visa, he remains vulnerable, an expendable “conscript … in the army maintained by academia.” He’s aware, moreover, that “like many others before me for the past 150 years, I couldn’t have made it out of India without this readiness on my part to be an indentured laborer.”
As the Mangeshkar lyrics also suggest, Kailash’s longing for communion is bound up with a more intimate kind of desire. But here too, his research curiously triangulates his understanding of his relationships. After he arrives in New York, he begins to imagine himself before a white immigration judge, who interrogates him about his “false pretenses and indecent acts.” In his mind, he holds nothing back. “I have chosen to speak in personal terms, the most intimate terms, Your Honor, because it seems to me that it is this crucial part of humanity that is denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK … and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.” Yet it is not enough to declare desire. Lust, anxiety, distant intimacy and the up-close kind—they all need their own histories, and Kailash roams the stacks and visits the special collections in search of them.
Part of what distinguishes the grad student migration genre is a bookishness and deep self-consciousness of how one’s own dislocation retraces the steps of others.
Pondering the jealous, sometimes mutually exoticizing dynamic of his relationship with Nina, a white American fellow student, he researches the writings of Agnes Smedley, the American socialist journalist who in the 1920s became a lover and partner of the revolutionary Indian nationalist Virendranath Chattopadhyaya. Vicariously chastened by Smedley’s accounts of Chatto’s controlling jealousy, he also finds comfort in her words, especially her critiques of upper-class left-wing smugness: “What Smedley had written about the unfeeling hypocrisy of those who idealized the working class also applied to the people sitting around me at the seminar table in Ehsaan’s classes.”
And then there is the dawning awareness that the story Kailash is telling—part fiction, part nonfiction, like Smedley’s roman à clef Daughter of Earth—is also vital because it grows in opposition to that more essential and private migrant’s genre: the letter home. For a seminar paper, Kailash reads the letters of Indian sepoys serving in France during World War I. “Too readily,” he writes, “I identified with what was in the letters: the desire to report on what was new but also to exaggerate, to make things extraordinary, to say that I eat meat every day or that I’m served juice and wine.” He realizes that the “intense vibration of sentiment” and the willingness to romanticize, which he admires in the soldier’s letters (and recognizes in his own), “could only have been the result of a long experience with separation and loneliness.” The restrictive “only” here is doubly cutting: long separation does produce some really fine feelings, and yet would those fine feelings be committed to paper—would they ever be felt at all, in precisely that way—were it not for the longing that separation brings? Home and family are sublimely messy topics, after all, except from afar.
In this light, writing home takes on the hue of a performance for Kailash, a role either willingly or guiltily played. It is certainly not a place for your true desires, as certain sepoys eventually learned when their bawdy epistles were withheld by military censors. So, as if for their sakes, Kailash pours the carnality that he senses has been sanitized out of the migrant’s narrative into his reminiscences. Sometimes the approach feels liberating. Other times Kailash’s encounters read like casually misogynistic documents of straight male wish-fulfillment, only half redeemed by his reckonings with toxic masculinity in the Smedley archives.
But what about going home—whatever “home” means? In Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, a Slavic studies PhD named Andrei Kaplan tells of returning to Moscow, which he (like Gessen) left as a six-year-old, to take care of his infirm grandmother. Andrei’s employment and romantic prospects in New York look equally grim. Vaguely, he thinks he might do some research in Russia that will result in a much-needed article. So he works remotely out of a Moscow cafe as a grader for a PMOOC (a “paid massive open online course”), tries vainly to socialize, and plays a lot of very violent pick-up hockey.
Broke and depressed from the trials of caregiving, he at last falls in with a group of anti-capitalist anti-Putin activists. It turns out his hockey team’s unprepossessing goalie is a stirring socialist speaker and ex-professor who resigned to protest the neoliberalization of the Russian university. As he listens to the goalie lecture about the transition from Soviet communism to ’90s petro-klepto-capitalism to full-scale Putinism, Andrei has an epiphany. “Suddenly everything I had been looking at—not just over these past months in Moscow, but over the past few years in academia, and over the past fifteen years studying Russia—became clear to me. Russia had always been late to the achievements and realizations of Western civilization. Its lateness was its charm and its curse—it was as if Russia were a drug addict who received every concoction”—Marxism, human rights discourse, neoliberalism—“only after it was perfectly crystallized, maximally potent … You didn’t have to go and read a thousand books to see it; you just had to stay where you were and look around.”
“You just had to stay where you were”: whether Andrei’s revelation is right or wrong as political diagnosis, his conclusion captures a persistent trouble of the global grad school novel. Suspended between his simmering academic ressentiment (he loathes the success he isn’t finding) and the nagging sense that he’s no longer cut out for life in Russia, Andrei encounters a bookish update to Sartre’s impossible choice between raw experience and the incapacitating self-consciousness that gives that experience its shape. Rather than “live or tell,” Andrei’s options are “live or read.” Can he justify his academic lifestyle, with its not-insignificant investments of time spent paging through arcane texts, in a country whose very democracy is going to the dogs? Is that country really his country? Does it matter? If for Kailash and for Sen the academic’s cultural treasures can—properly interpreted—help to delineate one’s own trajectory within the broader currents of global circulation, for Andrei their study offers only a blanched, ersatz activism that leaves the real work and the real sacrifices to others.
To be sure, some of the other activists Andrei befriends are students––including Yulia, a medievalist he begins dating who, by his account, “knew about five times more about Russian literature than I ever would.” But only Andrei is hamstrung by his lingering attachment to the fickle neoliberal institutions that might, if he’s lucky, tenure him someday. It’s a bind that Gessen has no answers for and only escapes thanks to the abundant resources of satire: the profound damage Andrei inadvertently inflicts on the anti-Putinists winds up endearing him to the very academic administrators and alumni development people back in New York whom he needs to impress. His Moscow sojourn yields an article. Sidestepping his life of activism in Russia, he chooses to read—and in salaried American comfort to boot.
A Terrible Country’s jaundiced view may have something to do with the fact that Gessen—though he cofounded the academic-adjacent magazine n+1, wrote an echt grad school novel for his debut, and now teaches at a university—is a journalist and cultural commentator by vocation. Kumar, meanwhile, is an English professor and Sen a university press editor. But the deeper reason may be historical. While Andrei goes to Moscow in 2008 with the financial crisis looming, Immigrant, Montana and Not Quite Not White each relate slightly historical narratives that look back to the early 1990s, when the “crisis in the humanities” implied not just danger but also a high cultural relevance. This was also when postcolonial theory provided a robust model for remaking the Western academy and its core epistemologies from the inside.
The crux of this genre is the irony that expertise in the larger histories of displacement tends to only deepen the search for affiliation.
While Sen’s memoir reads more ambivalently here, Immigrant, Montana can feel almost elegiac on this point. Early on in the novel Kailash attends a campus protest against the first Gulf War, at which his advisor Ehsaan Ali deftly weaves together a lesson about war, petroleum, and imperialism by quoting the desperate letters of Indian sepoys defending oil-rich Basra for the British in World War I (the same letters Kailash later reads himself). The moment is electric in its odd way, as are the countless others in which Ehsaan, a public intellectual and sage raconteur, spellbinds his students with stories of revolutionary politics over cocktails in his Morningside Heights apartment. All our true academes, it seems, are the ones we’ve lost.
But then, of course, the protest movement against the first Gulf War was hardly a resounding success, and by 2008 right-wing campaigns were defunding public education to a degree far surpassing the earlier rounds of the culture wars—a deficit administrators have made up for by withholding financial aid from greater numbers of international undergrads and master’s students. So, far more than nostalgia is at work here. Indeed, one of the things Gessen reminds us is that, as the American university privatizes, it reroutes the paths of students around the globe. Just what common cause these intellectual migrants may find with other, more precarious émigrés is a question the global grad student novel responds to with rigorous self-scrutiny and, perhaps, a willingness to err on the side of solidarity. Yet with widespread casualization hollowing out the academic job market and a racist, nativist administration restricting travel and tightening student visas, work and movement are already becoming more hazardous for young international scholars. As things get worse, the genre’s great question of common cause may, in a final twist, become no question at all.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 185. Said is quoting the phrase of the 12th-century monk Hugo of St. Victor. ↩
- US Department of Labor, “25-1191 Graduate Teaching Assistants” and “NAICS 212100 – Coal Mining,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 30, 2018. ↩
- Dick Startz, “Sealing the Border Could Block One of America’s Crucial Exports: Education,” Brookings Institution, January 31, 2017. ↩
- See NAFSA, “NAFSA International Student Economic Value Tool” and Hironao Okahana and Enyu Zhou, “International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2017,” Council of Graduate Schools, January 2018. ↩