Span Blog

A Cross-Cultural Academic Matrix
By Arpita Chattaraj Mukhopadhyay
| Category: U.S. India Relations

SUSI alumna Arpita Chattaraj Mukhopadhyay talks about her exchange trip to the United States.



I was privileged to be selected as a principal participant in the 2015 Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) exchange program on contemporary American literature, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and hosted by the University of Louisville in Kentucky. There were 17 participants from different parts of the world, which offered a unique experience of interaction with people of diverse cultural, historical and political backgrounds.


The exchange program was organized to provide the participants with an opportunity to deepen understanding of U.S. society and culture from the perspective of contemporary American literature. The examination of and debates about major writers, schools and movements were intended to facilitate the understanding of the tradition and the possibilities of the multiethnic, multicultural and postmodern literary forms.


Our discussions on postmodernism in art, architecture and literature were effectively interwoven with a firsthand experience of the phenomenon. For instance, in Louisville, we were taken on a city tour, which included landmark sites like Hotel Seelbach, which is connected to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” as well as the Humana building, which is an early specimen of postmodern architecture.


Apart from seminar sessions and individual research pursuits, the exchange program also included thematically clustered study tours to San Francisco and Los Angeles in California and Ohio. In the third week, we proceeded on our first study tour to San Francisco. We were given a conducted tour of the city, the important landmarks and monuments charting the route taken by the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” with a blending of the fiction and the real, vivified the experience. We also visited the popular City Lights bookstore, home of the Beat Movement in literature and arts.


The study tours were interspersed with intense academic exchanges. Our stay in San Francisco included a visit to the University of California, Berkeley, where we had seminars on postwar literature and writers like Ben Lerner, Jhumpa Lahiri and  Maxine Hong Kingston. A visit to the famous Chinatown in San Francisco gave us a better understanding of the multiethnic and multicultural dimension of contemporary American literature. The experience of participating in the Fourth of July celebration at Fisherman’s Wharf, a popular tourist attraction—the fireworks, excitement and enthusiasm of celebrants—remains memorable. The theme which framed the San Francisco tour can be identified as the relocation of space and time in contemporary American literature.


We started for Los Angeles from San Francisco on July 5 in a chartered bus via the Pacific Coast Highway. It was an unsurpassable experience of traveling with the ocean on one side, with its myriad of shifts of color and topography. We stopped at Hearst Castle, an amazing testament to opulence as well as an anticipation of postmodern pastiche. In the city, we attended a series of seminars on Hispanic literature and culture. We also had the opportunity to interact with the award-winning author Percival Everett about his work.


Another interesting academic exchange was with the editors of Los Angeles Review of Books, Tom Lutz and Evan Kindley, who discussed several innovations in new media literature, contemporary book reviewing and American nonfiction. The trip to Los Angeles also included a visit to Hollywood in its full glory! Exploring The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, made famous by postmodern theorists Edward Soja and Frederic Jameson in their discussions on postmodern restructured spatiality, was a unique experience. The trip to Los Angeles offered insights into the issues of literary future, multiethnicity and environment vis-à-vis contemporary American literature.


On returning to Louisville, we went for a day trip to National Underground Railway Freedom Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was in connection with our reading of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” with reference to questions of race and history.


Our last study tour to Washington, D.C., was both academic and official. We “walked our feet off in Washington, D.C.” It was a whirlwind of visiting memorials and museums, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. The sight of the Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress was awe-inspiring. My most cherished memory of Washington, D.C., is the experience of seeing the various masterpieces in the original at the National Gallery of Art. The visit concluded with an interaction with a representative of the U.S. State Department, who awarded us certificates of participation.


The exchange program ended with a farewell dinner at the University of Louisville club, which became an emotional event for the participants as well as the hosts. Apart from certificates from our host institution, we were especially honored to receive the title of “Kentucky Colonel” conferred by the then governor of the state of Kentucky, Steve Beshear. The exchange program provided me an opportunity to enrich myself from the academic exchanges with my peers in the United States, work on my individual research project and to establish long-lasting connections with my colleagues across diverse nationalities.


Arpita Chattaraj Mukhopadhyay is an associate professor in the Department of English & Culture Studies at The University of Burdwan in West Bengal.