By Carrie Loewenthal Massey
Author and professor Jigna Desai works to transform people’s thinking about power dynamics in the South Asian diaspora.
Early in her childhood, author Jigna Desai wanted to be an astrophysicist. In her college days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the late 1980’s, she delighted in her studies of astronomy, but she concurrently realized her love for cinema. In the next few years, films about the Indian diaspora shaped her intellectual pursuits most profoundly.
Desai grew up with popular Hindi cinema. It is difficult to escape Indian cinema growing up in India or the diaspora. “But, the content of the films in the 1970’s was different. It was always about India, not the diaspora. My college years coincided with the emergence of Hanif Kureishi’s films and, then, other filmmakers’ works from 1985 to 1995, or so. It was this great emergence of feminist and queer diasporic films in an anglophone part of the diaspora that reflected life in the diaspora,” says Desai, a professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.
Desai took interest in the questions these films posed. “These were not just questions of cultural belonging—are you Indian enough?—but also, how are you facing issues of race, gender, sexuality and nation? What does it mean to be Indian and also British or American or Canadian? It’s not just an either/or,” she explains.
Desai’s first book, “Beyond Bollywood,” published in 2003, explores these issues through an in-depth analysis of diasporic and transnational cinema. The book came at a time when little scholarly work existed about the South Asian diaspora as a whole. It had not been theorized the way the African diaspora had been, she says. “I looked at what it means to think about these three places [Britain, America and Canada] in the diaspora together, the racialization of South Asians in these places, their history of migration, and so on, and to think about diaspora as a mode of critique. I couldn’t get published at first. I had to market the ideas through the more popular lens of Bollywood to get it out there.”
Desai says her research always seeks to address questions of power and difference. How these are understood in the diaspora ranges from class to religion, racial, gender and sexual differences. For example, how do queers fit in or not fit in? Now, she also focuses on differences due to disability, including neural and cognitive ones, coupled with issues of race, migration and postcoloniality.
“What happens to people who aren’t neurotypical? How can we dismantle stigmatization? What happens when ways of thinking about embodied difference become medicalized and globalized, and how does that interact with previous ways of knowing?” asks Desai. “We need to accept and value neural diversity, and see that there’s value in it, whether it’s through autism, dyslexia, ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder], or something else. We are all told that there is a right way to be and to exist. We are all held responsible for improving ourselves and our brains.” She goes on to explain that for some people, the interventions are done because they are seen as not normal and, therefore, not acceptable. “The question is, why do we expect normalization and when can we be accepted for who we are? How do race, nation and globalization impact our ideas of normal and abnormal brains?”
All of Desai’s work derives from her foundation in feminist and queer studies, as it’s all about questions of power and new ways of thinking and understanding, she emphasizes. She collaborates with a wide range of graduate students at the University of Minnesota, several of whom come from India to work on issues of transnational gender and sexuality, as well as postcolonial queer experience. Recently, Desai has heard from students also interested in studying about disability in postcolonial India, an area, she feels, is quite important. “I’m excited to see where that goes,” she says.
So, what about those childhood dreams of space and astrophysics? Desai still loves astronomy and tries to teach as much of it as she can to her children.
“I think my work inspires people to tell their stories and create their own knowledge. That’s really why I changed fields and why I didn’t stay an astronomer,” she says. “I liked gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and astronomy gave me wonderful questions to think through. But, I love how I now get to transform other people’s knowledge production by helping to shape their thoughts on power dynamics in society. We need the humanities to change the world.”
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.
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