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A Literary Date With the Past

Jun/02/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi

It’s been over a hundred years since the early migrations of South Asians in the 1900s. They may have arrived a little later in the American story, but very much shaped its blossoming into the the present century. Today, American business and infrastructure owes a lot to its entrepreneurs, tech geniuses and scientists, many of whom are stereotypically South Asian. As South Asian visibility increases in the zeitgeist, it’s perhaps high time we heard the stories of its past.

Bengali Harem
(image credits: University of Texas, Austin)

Bengali Harlem by Vivek Bald (2013)

Scholar, author and filmmaker Vivek Bald tells a story inspired by the story of actor and comedian Aladin Ullah’s family, the book maps the lost history of early migrants from Bengal who settled in America in the late 19th century. It chronicles their journey as seamen and silk traders who eventually blend with the culture of black neighborhoods of Detroit, Harlem and Baltimore. Bald and Ullal later turned it into a documentary, “In Search of Bengal Harlem,” which premiered at CAAMfest in San Francisco earlier in May.

An American Son

An American Son: The story of George Aratani, founder of Mikasa and Kenwood by Naomi Hirahara (2001)

In World War II, agriculture heir George Aratani was forced to leave a thriving family business behind in California when he was incarcerated with over 100,000 Japanese Americans. He went on to travel to Japan, then ravaged by the war. In that atmosphere he founded the Mikasa china brand and went on to start the Kenwood electronics company. The book tells the success story of George Aratani’s businesses in Japan, which not only contributed to the Japanese economy, but also helped several Japanese American organizations through philanthropy.

The Latehomecomer

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang (2005)

The book chronicles the story of the Laotian Hmong people who escaped from war-torn Laos via Thailand refugee camps to Minnesota. Through the story of her family, Kao Kalia Yang delves deep into their little-known history. Yang was born in a Thai refugee camp and moved with her family when she was just seven. She is an award-winning writer and now a professor at the English department of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Coolie Woman

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur (2013)

Shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell prize, this book looks at the forgotten history of the “coolie” women – a colonial British term for indentured labor in sugar plantations in the U.S. in the 1900s. Coolie women were were migrants from India to Guyana. The author excavates her grandmother’s past to reveal the exploitation and hardships faced by the “double diaspora” that also consists of the history of migrations of two centuries (first from India to West Indies and second from Guyana to the U.S.)

If you’re interested in reading about more acclaimed works by AAPI authors, check out our story from the May issue of SEEMA Magazine, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and her Last Queen