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On being and becoming American

October 19, 2009

To be American: Immigrant writers and stereotypes
By Denise Scammon
In Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, the titular protagonist complicates any fixed notion the reader may have of a Third World woman as Jasmine moves from one location to another, selfishly changing her identity multiple times along the way in attempts to shed assigned subjectivities attached to being a Third World woman. Deepika Bahri (1998) notes in her essay, “Narratives of Nation and Self,” that Mukherjee has portrayed Jasmine as determined to elude classification as a Third World woman typically stereotyped as “passive and victimized” and as a migrant Other (p. 138). When telling Jasmine’s story, Mukherjee uses a chaotic shifting between Jasmine’s identities, perhaps as a literary device that solidifies for the reader the upheavals and chaos in Jasmine’s life.


The escape routes taken by Jasmine as she sheds her Third World identity allow her to shift from her birth identity, as Jyoti, to an immigrant in America, last portrayed as Jane/Jasmine on the move to yet another new identity in the novel’s last few pages. Born female in the small village of Hasnapur, and without a dowry, Jyoti is doomed to a fate from which she cannot expect to deviate if she stays in the village. Jyoti escapes her fate in the village with her marriage, at the age of 14, to Prakash and a move to an Indian city. Prakash is described as liberated, yet still a conservative man who teaches Jyoti  independence and self-reliance and who changes her name to Jasmine. Bahri notes that it is through Prakash that Jasmine learns “the pleasure of having multiple identities – of always becoming,” which leads to her craving for movement and a resistance to crystallizing, to a permanent identity (1998, p. 146).


Following the murder of Prakash, Jasmine returns to her village in body only. She is determined to not become Jyoti again. She searches for an escape route that will bring her to America, if only to commit Sati – suicide – a cultural expectation placed on young women who are widowed at a young age. Already, Mukherjee has brought to fruition two life-changing events that were foretold to Jyoti at the age of seven – that Jyoti would be a widow and live in exile (1989, p. 5). Jyoti liked becoming Jasmine; going back to her life as Jyoti was very difficult for her. In this instance, Mukherjee reinforces the stereotype of the Third World woman when she writes that Jasmine’s widow status meant loss of personal freedom due to her expected cultural conformance. J silently suffers an inner turmoil as she shifts her outward identity to that of an Indian widow.


Back in Hasnapur, Mukherjee contrasts the future in America that Jasmine had planned with Prakash, to the cultural expectations of Jyoti as a widow. According to Indian culture, there could be no other husband for a widow and it would be acceptable for a widow to commit Sati. If she didn’t commit Sati, a young widow, according to Indian culture, was to spend her days with other widows, which typically meant older women who had lost husbands to old age. J thought of a life like that as a living hell. Mukherjee represents J as a Third World woman who desires to be a person with the ability to make personal choices and to have personal freedoms. J is desirous of leaving her native country and culture for a new identity in America, not necessarily to become American. Immigrants like J – looking for new identities – find America attractive because it is a land of diversity and opportunities, less culturally constrictive than their native lands.


Mukherjee keeps Jasmine on the move throughout the novel, always looking for a new identity while trying to remain invisible to immigration services due to her illegal status. Determined to dump her cultural fate as an Indian widow, J enlists the help of her brothers to acquire forged visa documents that make her “feel renewed, the recipient of an organ transplant” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 101). J is aware that like her, people from other countries have taken flight from their native lands and are traveling incognito. She uses her body and charm for food and other essentials to survive the flight. Her fellow travelers are described as “outcasts and deportees, strange pilgrims” belonging to a “shadow world” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 100-101). J’s hellish flight from Hasnapur continues with her first sighting of America described as an Eden surrounded by garbage. During her first night on American soil while being raped by Half-Face, J falls back on her native culture and prays to the figure of Ganpati to give her “the strength to survive, long enough to kill myself” (p. 116). Though J is moving toward a new American life, she is bringing her Indian culture with her when she “becomes Kali, goddess of destruction” from which she draws the strength to kill the rapist (Bahri, 1998, p. 147). Here, Mukherjee demonstrates that chaotic upheavals in J’s life interfere with a forward-moving, linear path toward a new identity in America.


In murdering Half-Face, Jasmine is overtaken with a sense of power from which she draws the strength to become a survivor, and the seeds of a new identity are planted. Mukherjee blends the two cultures – Indian and American – at this point of the story. Praying to Ganpati is evidence of J reverting to knowledge from her native Indian culture. J could have walked away after the rape when Half-Face was sleeping, but she didn’t because of an internal decision to find the strength to survive the rape in order to carry out her mission. Bahri notes that “the reader of a postcolonial novel has preset ideas of culture and how people act because of their culture … immigrants, especially ones bucking the trend throw that idea off course” (1998, p. 138). After the murder of Half-Face and her resolve to create a new life in America, J makes an effort to appear American in dress and action. In Florida, J’s new savior, Lillian Gordon, explains that the shoes Jasmine wears reveal her culture, “Undocumented aliens wear boxy shoes with ambitious heels” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 132). Americans wear t-shirts and running shoes. Lillian helps J with her next identity by naming her Jazzy and sending her to Flushing, New York.


Mukherjee has J on the move, but not necessarily forward. Indian culture is portrayed as a suffocating element that J, once again, needs to escape from on her way to becoming her next incarnation. In New York, Jazzy finds herself in a caregiver position at the home of immigrant Dev Vadhera in an apartment building in which live many Indian families, a small society of neighbors that creates a cultural ghetto. In this atmosphere, J begins to lose touch with the American culture she thinks she wants membership in. She feels the expectations of the Indian culture among her neighbors as a suffocation, closing off any possible escape route to her dream of an American life. Jazzy does not want to revert back to the conditions of her life as Jyoti from Hasnapur. Bahri points out that Mukherjee falls back on the popular belief that “Americans are superior” and “the novel makes us look at how an immigrant survives in America rather than how America saves immigrants” (1998, p. 142). One of the problems that J faces in America is being an illegal immigrant. Through all her incarnations, through all her “becomings,” J is an illegal – she is not “becoming” an illegal, she is an illegal. Already having been on the move several times in search of new identities, the fact that she is an illegal immigrant keeps her on the move.  When she comes across the reality of Dev’s job, that of selling Indian women’s hair and not that of a professor or scientist, J selfishly uses that information in a form of blackmail. According to her plan, if Dev gets her a green card, J will move out of Dev’s apartment and not reveal his secret to his friends and family. She desperately wants to leave the life in Flushing, New York before the cultural ghetto smothers her, and move on to a new life.


Moving from Flushing to New York City, J is once again in a caregiver’s position, this time as a nanny to the daughter of Taylor and Wylie. The couple offers a safe haven for J to test a new identity, this time named Jase by Taylor. Jase would love to do a lot of things in America – attend school, have a driver’s license, get paid legally – that require she have legal immigrant status. But, legal immigrant status is not high on J’s list of things she wants to accomplish as an American. Is her constant movement from one location to another the result of trying to hide her illegal status? Or is her constant movement really a symptom of an inborn desire to constantly reinvent herself? That could by why, when her life becomes too settled in any location, J looks for an escape route. Mukherjee has told Jasmine’s story in an interrupted manner parallel to J’s many moves and identity changes.
If the reader is looking for more evidence that J is adverse to a fixed identity, what she does when Taylor asks her to stay on as Duff’s nanny is yet another example of her using an escape route to flee a potentially permanent or long-term situation. Before she moves out of the apartment, and the marriage, Wylie makes J realize that J is in love with Taylor. This occurs before he professes his love for J. Once the separation between Taylor and Wylie takes place, the reader might wonder if, this time, the situation might be different than other instances of impending identity permanence and that J will settle down. But, instead, Mukherjee gives J a catalyst to continue moving in search of identity – J sees Sukhwinder, her husband’s murderer, in the park. This sighting reinvigorates her fear of having her illegal status detected by  Immigration and Naturalist Services and being deported back to Hasnapur. J is aware that in America nothing lasts and that politically she is always the Other. J avoids the fate of most Others by being constantly on the move, which Bahri likens to birds that migrate to survive (Bahri, 1998, p. 149). Because of her fear of Sukhwinder, J abandons a potentially fulfilling life with Taylor and flees to Iowa.


Once again, Mukherjee uses movement as J’s solution to true identity detection. As long as J keeps moving, her true identity will be protected and she can continue to reinvent her public persona. It is in Iowa that Mukherjee continues the contrast between J’s Indian culture and the American culture into which J is assimilating. Bahri (1998) argues that assimilation in America is a “two-way street.”  While J is becoming an American, America is taking on the attributes of J’s Indian culture (p. 144). Mukherjee uses food as an example of how cultures may adopt each other’s way. Every time J shares an Indian dish with her American friends, the food becomes part of America’s melting pot. This melting pot is comparable to a campfire soup pot in which the host asks all attendees to bring a can of soup. All soups are emptied into one pot and stirred over the heat. The number of different soups emptied into the one pot depends on the number of visitors to the campfire. The result is a soup of many flavors, much like immigrants in America. The United States attracts a great number of immigrants each year and each one adds to the flavor of American culture. Who can say what the face of America looks like? As Bahri notes, Mukherjee makes the reader think about what it means to be American (1998, p. 141).


J settles into her life in Iowa, catching the eye of Bud the banker and becoming his common-law wife. He renames her Jane. Bud’s ex-wife calls her a tornado, a destructive force that destroys lives in her way. Mukherjee reminds the reader that J isn’t plain Jane, she’s Calamity Jane, and that Jane is just another identity, another role, another part to play (Bahri, 1998, p. 150). The role J takes on in Iowa is as Bud’s wife, but she won’t marry him to make it legal. She is his wife, but she isn’t. She is mother to their adopted Vietnamese son, but she isn’t. She is in a state of in-between-ness, still avoiding detection from INS.
What Mukherjee offers the reader of Jasmine appears to be, on the surface, a realistic novel about a Third World woman on the move as an illegal immigrant in America, trying to avoid detection from INS. However, J is so much more than that description. She is a chameleon, adapting to survive, drawing on her native Indian culture while assimilating American culture. Yet, J’s assimilation of American culture appears to be in external things: names, food, mannerisms. The one part of American culture that J seems to truly embrace is freedom of choice. As an immigrant writer, Mukherjee has a responsibility in regards to stereotyping Third World women because a reader may not be able to differentiate between realism in a novel and literary devices. Knowing the historical background of a novel, as well as the author’s biography, may be helpful to the reader in making that determination. In conclusion, Mukherjee depicts Jasmine as a Third World woman who undergoes inner turmoil when restricted by cultural expectations and who thrives through chaotic upheavals in her search for identity.

Bahri, D. (1998). “Always Becoming: Narratives of Nation and Self in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.”
Women, America, and Movement: Narratives of Relocation. Ed. Roberson, S.L. Columbia:     U of Missouri P. 137-54.
Mukherjee, B. (1989). Jasmine. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.


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