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Beauty and the Limits of National Belonging in Bharati Mukherjee's

Jasmine
Vanita Reddy
Contemporary Literature, Volume 54, Number 2, Summer 2013, pp.
337-368 (Article)
Published by University of Wisconsin Press
DOI: 10.1353/cli.2013.0018
For additional information about this article
Access provided by UFRGS-Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (27 Oct 2013 19:52 GMT)
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Contemporary Literature 54, 2 0010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/13/0002-0337
2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
V A N I T A R E D D Y
Beauty and the Limits of National Belonging
in Bharati Mukherjees Jasmine
Does beauty come under the jurisdiction of the nation-state?
Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents:
American Literature across Deep Time
H
alfway through Jasmine (1989), Bharati Mukherjees
seminal immigrant novel about becoming Ameri-
can, the eponymous, illegal immigrant heroine
stumbles upon an underground transnational
beauty economythe importing and sorting of rural Indian vil-
lage womens hair. Jasmine watches as her guardian, Professorji,
measures and sorts the switches of hair in a restaurant basement
in a South Asian immigrant ghetto in Flushing, New York:
The hair came in great bundles from the middlemen in villages as small
as Hasnapur [Jasmines home village] all over India. . . . Every weekday
Professorji sat from eight oclock till six on a kitchen ladder-stool in a
room he rented in the basement of the Khyber Bar BQ measuring and
labeling the length and thickness of each separate hair.
Junk hair he sold to wigmakers. Fine hair to instrument makers. Even-
tually, scientic instruments and the U.S. Defense Department. It was no
exaggeration to say that the security of the free world, in some small way,
depended on the hair of Indian village women.
(15152)
I would like to thank John Marx, Mark Jerng, Neha Vora, and Anantha Sudhakar for
their helpful responses to this article. I am indebted especially to Victor Mendoza for his
careful and thoughtful engagements with multiple drafts, and for his steadfast support
in seeing this article come to fruition.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Indian womens hair is exportable as an ingredient for either
feminine beauty products (wigs) or the technologies of U.S.
national security. Synecdoches of Indian village womens bodies,
the bundles of hair gure as racialized and gendered fetishes in
the transnational trafcking of bodies and goods between India
and the U.S. The hair circulates between a dominant U.S. econ-
omy and an Indian economy about to enter into market neolib-
eralism during the nal years of the cold war.
1
Professorji
observes that this transnational economy vitally depends upon
Indian village womens allegedly more naturally beautiful hair.
He tells Jasmine that Indian womens hairfree of shampoos,
gels, dyes, and permanents (153)contains a virginity and
innocence (153) that American womens hair lacks.
2
Professorji
then invites Jasmine, once an Indian village woman, to sell her
hair to him. Doing so would allow Jasmine to purchase a forged
green card so that she could seek employment and feel safe in
the highly policed immigrant space of Flushing (148).
The promise of feeling safe, however, contains an ironic twist.
On the one hand, the prospect of selling her beautiful hair offers
Jasmine a way of securing economic and legal (resident alien)
status within the U.S. during the anti-immigrant fervor of the
1980s.
3
On the other hand, Jasmines observations about the
Defense department point to her recognition that the beautiful
hair of Indian women also helps to secure U.S. national borders
against the illegal immigrants whose labor, body, and body parts
are required for such fortication. Thus while Jasmines beautiful
hair might afford her a provisional feeling of freedomand mobil-
ity within the nation, it might also serve, quite literally, as the
raw material for the imperial nation-states biopolitical surveil-
1. In 1991, India faced an external debt crisis resulting fromthe economic liberalization
policies of the late 1970s and 1980s, because of which Indias foreign borrowing increased
while domestic output faltered. Subsequent structural adjustments led to the end of an
era of trade protectionism and ushered in an era of foreign investment and global capital.
2. Jeff Stilsons documentary lm Good Hair (2009) examines Indian womens hair as
part of a transnational beauty economy.
3. Jasmine was published in the immediate wake of large-scale immigration reform
laws such as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that levied nes against
employers for hiring illegal immigrants and supposedly redressed the open door Asian
immigration policy of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
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339
lance. The valorization of Indian female beauty in this scene con-
stellates a set of tensions around migration, mobility, citizenship,
and belonging for Jasmine. These tensions and contradictions
exceed the critical framework of liberal multicultural inclusion
within which Jasmine, as a representative text of late-twentieth-
century South Asian immigrant experience, is often positioned.
4
This essay argues that Jasmine repeatedly encounters the
material limits of Indian and U.S. national belonging through a
set of encounters with her beauty. Even in the absence of a nar-
rative explicitness around her beauty, Jasmines national status
depends upon her gendering, racialization, and sexualization
such that these categorizing processes cannot be disaggregated
from her categorization as beautiful. Through various attach-
ments to forms of national inclusion and exclusion, racialized
beauty in Jasmine complicates a dominant post-Enlightenment
view of beauty. In this view, beauty is regarded solely as a
redemptive force which, for those deemed lucky enough to pos-
sess it, facilitates social advancement through its alignment with
liberal democratic ideals such as empowerment and freedom.
Such liberal ideals trafc in a fetishistic logic of beauty, since the
conferral or possession of beauty historically has dependedupon
the erasure and denial of the realities of race and nationality,
among other axes of social difference.
5
Jasmines apprehension
of (her) racialized feminine beauty within the transnational econ-
omy of Indian hair illuminates a much more complicated logic
of beauty. Beauty does not somehow allow Jasmine to transcend
4. In numerous interviews and essays, Mukherjee has described Jasmine as a novel
about the post1965 U.S. immigrant experience. Several critics have issued vociferous
critiques of this universalizing claim, positioning it within a nationalist model of assim-
ilation. The body of criticism leveled against Mukherjee and the novel in this vein is too
vast to capture fully here. For representative examples, see Koshy, Geography; Li; Low;
and Roy.
5. Anne Anlin Cheng has observed that racialized beauty is irrevocably linkedto Euro-
pean Enlightenment discourses in which there is a historic complicity between the phil-
osophical discourse of aesthetic judgment and a metaphysics of racial difference
(Wounded Beauty 192) such that racial difference (that is, nonwhiteness) always
exceeds the formulations of aesthetic judgment. See Nguyen for a critique of howrecent
global feminist projects recycle these Enlightenment discourses by linking the possession
of beauty with liberal ideals of freedom and progress.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
the material conditions of her position as a rural, migrant, and
illegal South Asian subject in order to claim belonging within the
nation. Rather, beauty revealseven as it might threaten to
obscurethese material histories.
In repeatedly threatening to materialize her racial and national
difference and thus her excessive foreignness/nonwhiteness, Jas-
mines beauty produces a crisis of national belonging. In the
underground economy of Indian womens hair, Jasmines beauty
marks her precarious status within the nation as an ethnic immi-
grant subject. Her beauty contains within it the promise of
national inclusion through its exchange value. But it also marks
Jasmines potential exclusion from the nation as a racialized
immigrant subject. Jasmines racialized beauty constructs her as
at once a model minority or ideal ethnic within the U.S. nation
a racialized embodiment of its liberal democratic ideals of
achieving freedom and progress by acquiring legal and eco-
nomic statusand as a racial problem that the xenophobic U.S.
state must manage. In the face of the impossibility of formal
citizenship, Jasmine here recognizes racialized beautys tenuous
promise of cultural citizenship.
6
Jasmines beauty forces her to confront the possibilities and
limits of legal and cultural citizenship as modalities of national
belonging. Jasmine charts its heroines migrations across India
and the U.S. and the multiple identitiesJyoti, Jasmine, Jazzy,
Jassy, and Janethat she acquires within each of these migra-
tions, from young adulthood to her mid-twenties. Jasmine rst
migrates from her native village of Hasnapur to the city of Jul-
lundhar, India, where, after escalating communal violence claims
her husbands life, she secures illegal documents, hops a plane,
and is smuggled aboard a cargo ship and across the south Florida
border. From there, she migrates to Flushing, to Manhattan, and
nally to rural Iowa. From her childhood days in Hasnapur,
when Jasmine is named as the most beautiful of nine daughters,
6. Unlike political citizenship (the right to vote based on legal residence in a nation)
and economic citizenship (the right to work), cultural citizenship designates everyday
understandings of belonging and exclusion. For more detailed denitions of cultural
citizenship, see Maira, Missing; and Miller.
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to her movie-star looks in Jullundhar, to her jazzy femininity
in Florida and New York, Jasmines beauty marks her as some-
how exceptional or special. In one sense, her exceptional beauty
within both India and the U.S. attests to the transnational for-
mation of the model-minority stereotype, in which the U.S. state
heralds Asian immigrant subjects as ethnic minority exemplars
of its liberal ideals of freedom and progress via the Asian val-
ues of hard work and capitalist achievement. Post1965 dis-
courses regarding immigration to the U.S. construct Asian immi-
grants as more easily absorbed into the logic of liberal
multicultural inclusion and, concomitantly, as furthering the era-
sure of historical racial inequalities in the nation and promoting
it as a racial democracy.
7
Yet in another sense, Jasmines excep-
tional beauty also repeatedly fractures the coherence of model-
minority discourses and the liberal fantasies of national inclusion
that support them by marking her confrontation with the social
inequities that constitute her rurality, racialized labor, and ille-
gality.
In reading these socially devalued positions through the
framework of beauty, this essay forwards a feminist-materialist
approach to racialized beauty in Mukherjees paradigmatic
South Asian immigrant narrative of national belonging. Such an
approach complicates the transnational feminist scholarship that
has viewed Jasmines social mobility and agency as deracinated
from their historical and material conditions of possibility and,
consequently, as uncritically endorsing a narrative of liberal
inclusion within the U.S. nation. Postcolonial and critical-race
feminists such as Inderpal Grewal, Susan Koshy, and Rajini Sri-
kanth, among others, have read Jasmines migrations and the
new names that she acquires along the way as mapping her jour-
ney from foreign subject to one who exuberantly celebrates
becoming American. They have then criticized the novel (and
Mukherjee) for ignoring the histories of both progressive femi-
7. On the historical construction of Asian Americans as model minorities, see Bascara
and Hattori. On the construction of South Asian Americans as a more recent articulation
of the model-minority stereotype, see Koshy, Morphing Race; and Prashad.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
nist politics in India and racial inequalities in the U.S.
8
Moreover,
Jasmines ability to assimilate in the face of gender and racial
inequalities, according to a few of these critics, is rooted in her
exotic beauty and thus trafcs in new and recycled orientalisms.
9
Through a sustained focus upon Jasmines racialized beauty,
this essay nuances and unsettles these feminist critiques of the
novel and exerts pressure upon Jasmines status as an exemplary
ction of the South Asian immigrant experience. It details the
various ways in which Jasmine negotiates her national and racial
position through her beauty and how that beauty and the self-
management that it promises incite a set of subjective crises
around liberal modes of belonging.
10
Jasmines beauty allows her
to manage her place as a national subject rst within India and
then within the U.S. An examination of Jasmines beauty in India
allows for an immanent critique of Indias emergence as a glob-
ally modern postcolonial nation and demonstrates Jasmines
rather uncertain role within it as a newly metropolitan female
subject. Upon her (illegal) migration to the U.S., prompted by
communalist violence in the Punjab region of postcolonial India,
Jasmines beauty brings into focus a new set of crises around her
national belonging. Jasmine uses her beauty to manage her ille-
gality and her legibility as an embodiment of racialized immi-
grant labor within the U.S. While her consumerist beauty ini-
tially allows her to mitigate her status as a domestic worker in
New York City, her confrontation with the body of a South Asian
terrorist threatens to expose her self-management as an ideal eth-
nic. When Jasmine ees to rural Baden, Iowa, the site of the
novels retrospective narration, her elusive racialization there as
strange and her desire to be a plain subject situate her outside a
value economy of beauty. These various forms of racial and
national self-management throw into crisis those narratives of
8. For these Asian American feminist readings of Jasmine, see Grewal, especially pp.
3579; Koshy, Geography and Sex Acts; and Srikanth.
9. For feminist criticism on the novel that addresses Jasmines beauty, see Koshy, Sex
Acts; Mittapalli; and Monti.
10. Central to my thinking here is Chengs provocation that beauty for the woman of
color incites a subjective crisis in its promise to obscure the pain of racial difference, even
as it solicits that difference as part of its perceptual logic (Wounded Beauty).
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assimilation, liberal multiculturalism, and model-minority
exceptionalism that transnational feminist critiques identify as
the novels principal investments.
11
Jasmine ultimately points to
a release from the labor of beauty as a form of national and racial
self-management through an alternative form of cultural citizen-
ship, though it remains provisional and unrealized within the
novels political imagination. I call this form of cultural citizen-
ship racialized plainness. Racialized plainness is a mode of
belonging that obtains outside the value economies of either
racial valorization or racial denigration by rendering material
histories of racial difference ordinary, rather than exceptional,
within the nation.
Beautys Borders: Rurality and Metro-Modernity
If Jasmines potential insertion of her Indian beauty into the
transnational economy of hair locates her precarious position
within the U.S. nation, then it does so by implicitly outing her
identity as a former Indian village woman within this economy.
In India, Jasmines beauty allows her to manage her rurality in
an effort to conform to the Indian nations vision of itself as glob-
ally modern. Yet Jasmines metro-modern beauty illuminates
the unevenness of the Indian states modernizing project, as well
as her ambivalence about her place within that project. This pro-
ject included both the forced management of and the withdrawal
of state services to rural populations, so that the rural was vio-
lently subject to and yet also gured as somehow outside of the
vicissitudes of state-sponsored modernization.
In the Punjabi Indian locales of Hasnapur and Jullundhar, Jas-
mines beauty discloses an illicit trade economy that is emerging
above ground as part of state modernization. Earlier in the novel,
Jasmine, as fourteen-year-old Jyoti, travels fromher feudal (77)
village of Hasnapur to a movie house in the modern city of
11. Of course, Mukherjees statement that her ction is not about alienation but
about assimilation (Interview 37) certainly provides a basis for feminist charges of
such investments. This essays discussion of the novel suggests that Mukherjees assertion
might in fact work to deprivilege a reading of assimilation that is in dialectical relation
to, rather than outside of, alienation.
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Jullundhar to meet her future husband, Prakash, an English-
speaking, Punjabi engineer whom Jasmine calls a modern man,
a city man (76). Before leaving Hasnapur, Jyoti consciously
dresses for effect (70), to secure her place in the bourgeois mar-
riage market. In doing so, she is keenly aware of her disgure-
ment, acquired from rebelling against domestic seclusion by
playing outdoors. At the beginning of the novel, young Jyoti falls
and cuts her head on [a] twig sticking out of [a] bundle of re-
wood (3), much to the horror of her older sisters who, with the
unmarred beauty of butter-smooth arms (4), tell her, Now
your face is scarred for life! How will the family ever nd you a
husband? (5). Jyoti, scabrous-armed from leaves and thorns
(3), attempts to cover over her marred beauty by dressing
movie-starrish (72):
Effect must be calculated. I braided my hair three different ways. From
my mothers rusted-out trunk, I extracted one of her few Lahore saris, a
pale peach silk embroidered all over with gold leaves. I added Pitajis [her
fathers] dark glasses. . . . At the last minute, I stuck a jasmine wreath in
my hair.
(70)
Jasmines attempts at self-beautication and calculated effect are
part of what Bakirathi Mani has described as Jasmines desire to
modernize herself so that she can be an appropriate feminine
complement to Prakashs self-projection as the modern middle-
class man (28). Jasmines modern makeover ostensibly erases
signs of rurality in her comportment and countenance. Yet it also
indexes a blurring of the Indian nation-states distinctions
between the rural and the urban, as Jasmine can measure her
gendered performance of modernity only through an object that
ambiguously marks the border between the two. As she dresses
for effect in Hasnapur before her journey to Jullundhar, Jas-
mine checks her appearance in a rearview rectangle that
Arvind-prar [her brother] had twisted off a UN jeep hed found
rusting in the demilitarized zone near the border. . . . At the
bottom of the mirror were some English words I didnt exactly
understand . . . : objects in mirror are closer than they
appear (71). Within her reected gaze remains a surface irony.
Jasmine apprehends her beautied self as an object, one that
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through her successful performance of bourgeois femininity gets
her closer to Jullundhar, Prakash, and modernity. At the same
time, the object closer than it appears must also be Jasmines
palimpsestic facial scarring, betraying the intended effect of
metro-modernity.
12
Moreover, her metro-modern beauty is
reected back to her through the severed part of an object that
marks the uneven topography of Indias modernizing project
a rusted UN jeep from the demilitarized zone of the Punjab. The
jeep serves as a reminder of antistate movements in the Punjab
during the early 1980s, in which the Khalsa Lions sought a sep-
aratist Sikh state (Khalistan), and of state violence under then
prime minister Indira Gandhis large-scale suppression of civil
disobedience and social unrest among socialist classes in the
mid-1970s. Known as the Emergency, the campaign suspended
civil liberties while attempting to modernize the nation by imple-
menting population control through, among other measures,
forced sterilization in rural and working-class communities. The
UN jeep mirrors potential refraction of Jasmines palimpsestic
wounds therefore metaphorizes Indias modernizing project
under the Emergency as a cosmetic one that attempted to rid the
country of its unseemly rural, subaltern others. As Jasmine later
reects, I put on the dark sunglasses to look movie-starrish (72;
emphasis added). Like the Indian nation-states modernizing
campaigns, Jasmines modern, metropolitan look remains a
primarily perfunctory cosmetology.
The vestigial presence of the UN jeep near Hasnapur also
locates modern Jullundhar well within the boundaries of feu-
dal Hasnapur (77). Bordering the village of Hasnapur, the
demilitarized zone (DMZ) is also arguably a future export-pro-
cessing zone, or EPZ. Jasmine earlier observes that [i]n villages
close enough to the border, smuggling was not an unacceptable
profession (49). National borders, as sites of state and antistate
12. While her sisters view the scar as disguring, Jasmine views it as a form of self-
empowerment, calling it her third eye (5, 21, 60, 132). While it is beyond the scope of
this article to delve into the trope of the scar, I would note that it allows Jasmine to see
herself beyond the fetish economies of racialized beauty within which she is regularly
inserted and exposes her own tacit acknowledgment of beautys failed promise of liberal
self-making.
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violence, double as sites for the illicit trading of electronics that
must be serviced as part of the states modernizing project. In
the novel, these same goods are often made over into technolo-
gies of religious and communal violence, such as bombs and
small explosives. Prakashs job as an engineer in modern Jul-
lundhar crucially depends upon electronic goods smuggled
through village border towns such as Hasnapur and annexed to
the nation-states emerging vision of itself as globally modern.
Jasmines implicit ability to see her facial scars in the UN jeeps
mirror also alludes to the modern reach of the nation-state as a
violent one: the disguring vicissitudes of state-sponsored mod-
ernization are closer than they appear. Indeed, as Jasmine
drives with Prakash into the countryside on their leisure Sun-
days, she observes the violent contradictions of a nation poised
on the edge of fully opening its borders to foreign investment:
Beggars with broken bodies shoved alms bowls at suited men
in automobiles. Shacks sprouted like toadstools around high-rise
ofce buildings. Camels loped past satellite dishes (80).
The DMZ/EPZ is a border zone along which a history of eco-
nomic disparity and military and communal violence is only
fetishistically covered over by its purported modernization. Sig-
nicantly, Jasmine feels pressed to enter into the modernizing
project as a new kind of city woman (77) by concealing disg-
urations resulting from her tomboyish play. Such self-beauti-
cation delimits her role in this allegedly more modern Indian
space as it approaches the technological frontier: she becomes
Prakashs aesthetic accoutrement. Jasmine notices that Prakash
treats her much like the electronic equipment that he repairs. The
VCRs, radios, and televisions are illicit high-status goods that
are often conspicuously displayed from tenement windows as
the symbolic wealth of an emerging bourgeois elite:
He liked to show me off. . . .
. . . He said, You are small and sweet and heady, my Jasmine. . . .
Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities.
(77)
While Jasmines performance of bourgeois femininity secures her
place within the modernizing regime, her feeling of shuttling
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between rural and urban identications betrays an uncertainty
about this very performance. Jasmines metro-modern beauty
registers her ambivalence about her national position within
Indias entry into the global modern and the communalist vio-
lencea Sikh terrorist bombing in the Punjabthat erupts as a
sign of this uneven modernization. This violence claims Prak-
ashs life, only reinforcing her ambivalence and prompting her
(illegal) migration to the U.S.
13
Beautys Labors: Legality, Care Work, and the Management of
Fear
Many postcolonial and diasporic feminist framings of Jasmine
have suggested that Jasmine leaves India in order to secure a
place within the white American mainstream through a process
of liberal feminist self-reinvention. Yet a focus on Jasmines
racialized beauty in the U.S. illuminates, more precisely, her
investments in racial self-management. Such self-management is
a response to the social constraints of a multicultural nation in
which racial differences are both celebrated and policed, and
where arguably the very categories of race and ethnicity remain
tied to the commodication of undervalued labor. Under these
constraints, Jasmines beauty operates within the vicissitudes of
what Rey Chow has described as coercive mimeticism, a pro-
cess by which those who are marginal to mainstream Western
culture are . . . expected to objectify themselves in accordance
with the already seen, to appear, to themselves and to the dom-
13. When mapped back onto the scene of Professorji sorting Indian womens beautiful
hair, Jasmines self-management in India uncovers the operations of a transnational fetish
economy of Indian feminine beauty which unsettles the spatial and temporal binaries
(local/global, traditional/modern, rural/urban) that have often been the target of post-
colonial feminist critique of the novel. The transnational trajectories of beauty in Jasmine
instead speak to the social contradictions of an emerging world order that Arjun Appa-
durai has described as modernity at large, a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order
that cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models (32).
Jasmines performance of metropolitan beauty in India locates in an uneven global
modernity the economic, political, and national chains of causality that link Hasnapur
to Flushing and Jullundhar to Hasnapur.
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inant culture, as ethnics (107).
14
If Jasmines beauty in some mea-
sure allows her to objectify herself as an ideal ethnic, it is a
performance that grants Jasmine a sense of legitimacy and secu-
rity under the imperatives of capitalist liberalism (Chow 110).
Although feminist critics have rightly been critical of Jasmines
liberal self-making, her opting out of racialized and gendered
self-management would be a difcult and costly prospect for a
rural, illegal, and working-class subject.
Once she is in the U.S., Jasmines exotic beauty distinguishes
her from the racialization of other immigrant subjects and com-
munities of color in the novel, including Professorji and the
Flushing community of Indian immigrants as well as the Carib-
bean day mummies in Manhattan (177) and the Guatemalan
Kanjobal Indian migrant eld and domestic laborers with whom
Jasmine at various points works and socializes. These other sub-
jects are racialized through their participation in undervalued
forms of migrant and working-class labor that ostensibly impede
or prohibit their assimilation into the dominant national culture.
Situated within the contexts of these populations, assimilation in
Jasmine is held out as a social reward for the immigrant womans
exceptional beauty.
Still, even as Jasmines beauty invariably conditions and
secures her will-to-assimilation, it also, paradoxically, impels
complex and even violent confrontations with her status as an
illegal immigrant and, concomitantly, with her embodiment as
racialized immigrant labor. First in her training to be a domes-
tic and a picker (134) under the supervision of a white Quaker
woman, and then in her job as an au pair for a wealthy white
Manhattan couple, Jasmine negotiates her illegality and work-
ing-class labor through her beauty. Such negotiations, rather than
allowing her to lay claim to the U.S. as a legal, upwardly mobile
subject, ultimately mark her as unassimilable to the nation.
14. Here I follow Chows theorization of how the very category of ethnicity is consti-
tuted by commodied labor. Chow argues that while ethnicity need not be viewed as
exclusively labor-oriented (33), in actual practice in the contemporary world, whereby
ethnicity often designates foreignness (which is, in turn, understood as social inferiority),
the linkages between certain types of labor and ethnicity are ineluctable.
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Upon Jasmines arrival in the U.S, she is raped by Half-Face,
a cargo-ship captain who smuggles refugees and mercenaries
and guest workers (100) without immigration papers into Flor-
ida. Jasmine had hoped to open an electronics store in the U.S.
with Prakash. The rape violently marks her body, both as sexual
violence and in leading to subsequent self-mutilation: as an act
of self-purication, she slices her tongue just before murdering
Half-Face and eeing. Before raping her, Half-Face perceives that
Jasmine is afraid of his threat to rub the scars all over [her]
pretty little face (113). Half-Faces perception of her fear of facial
deformation suggests that, for Jasmine, a loss of physical beauty
might be a more severe form of racial injury than sexual violence
or her lack of power as an undocumented migrant to appeal to
the state as a victim of such violence. Half-Face seems to recog-
nize that physical ugliness would prohibit Jasmine from using
her beauty to mitigate the racial denigration that she faces as an
undocumented migrant. Even as her beauty cannot protect her
from susceptibility to racialized and gendered violence (includ-
ing being raped by Half-Face), Half-Faces perception of Jas-
mines fear of ugliness anticipates the way that Jasmines beauty
does allow her to manage her undocumented status later in the
novel, when Professorji invites her to sell her hair in exchange
for a green card.
While the Half-Face episode points to the social value of Jas-
mines beauty, that racialized beauty later becomes a sign of the
exploitation of her labor as a migrant subject. Shortly after Jas-
mine is raped, Lillian Gordon, a philanthropic Quaker, takes her
in, trains her to be hired out as a domestic and a picker, and
remakes the destitute Jasmine into Jazzy. Ordering Jasmine to
take off her bloodstained salwar-kameez, Lillian has her change
into Peter Pan collars, maxi skirts, T-shirts with washed-out pic-
tures, sweaters, cords, and loafers and instructs her on how to
[w]alk American (132). When Jasmine successfully does so,
Lillian pays her two dollars and congratulates her, saying, You
pass, Jazzy (133). While Lillian never explicitly articulates jazz-
iness to the production of beauty, her decision to make Jasmine
over into Jazzy is implicitly based upon her apprehension of
Jasmine as a beautiful subject. Jazziness is a form of racialized
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
femininity that further marks Jasmines exceptionality from
other racialized immigrants whose brownness makes them sus-
ceptible to state surveillance. Lillian tells Jazzy that she
pass[es] as American in contrast to the other dark people
like [Jasmine] that [the INS] pick up (133; emphasis added).
Given the history of U.S. racialization into which discourses of
passing are normally inserted and debatedmore specically,
stories of light-skinned or mixed-race African Americanswhat
does it mean for Jasmine to pass as American, in contrast to those
dark bodies that are like, rather than unlike, hers?
15
How or to
what extent does her passing beauty afford her an approxi-
mation to Americanness in the face of her immigrant brownness?
In making Jasmine over into Jazzy, Lillian solicits the aesthetic
of racial mixing, or melange. As literary critic Anne Anlin Cheng
has argued, melange allows a woman of color to pass as beautiful
within predominantly white spaces or under the constraints of
white ideals of feminine beauty by denouncing yet revealing
[racialized] difference (Wounded Beauty 207). The racial
indeterminacy of the biracial body is particularly useful in con-
sidering how Jasmines jazziness is a way of bypassing state sur-
veillance, since South Asians such as Jasmine have occupied a
racially ambiguous position within a longer history of U.S. racial
formations. Eluding denitive racial categorization as black,
white, or Asian over the course of the twentieth century, South
Asians have been understood to possess a kind of racial inde-
terminacy.
16
Melange promises to dispel the threat of recogniza-
ble and undesirable brownness, such as that of undocumented
migrant laborers like the Kanjobal Indians whom Lillian also
trains to be pickers and domestics. As Lillian reminds Jasmine:
if you walk and talk American, theyll think you were born here.
Most Americans cant imagine anything else (13435; emphasis
15. Koshy has argued somewhat differently that Jasmine is a novel of postmodern
passing (Sex Acts 157), where passing does not involve taking on another, more cul-
turally powerful identity in order to avoid social or legal censure but rather consenting
to dominant scripts of exotic otherness (133).
16. For historical constructions of South Asians racial indeterminacy, see Kibria. For
a detailed analysis of the intermediary position of South Asian Americans in U.S. racial
formations, see Koshy, Morphing Race.
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351
added). Lillian understands that Jasmines jazziness must pro-
duce its own juridical referent: through beauty, brown bodies
read as jazzy and therefore naturally legal bodies. In the perfor-
mance that makes Jasmine look like a natural-born citizen, her
makeover allows her to circumvent the labor of naturalization
by rendering her, essentially, too beautiful to be an immigrant.
17
After Jasmine performs her jazziness at a shopping mall, Lillian
condently asserts, you dont strike me as a picker or a domes-
tic (134). Despite possessing a measure of natural beauty that,
presumably, inspires Lillian to make her over, Jasmine admits to
having worked hard on the walk and deportment (133). Here,
the labor of racialized beautyof becoming Jazzyimpedes Lil-
lians ability to see Jasmine as an embodiment of racialized labor.
18
The wearing of jazziness forces Jasmines realization that the
racialization of good national subjects entirely depends upon
the racialization of bad national subjects. Jasmine later
nuances this tension between the simply foreign and the dan-
gerous by concluding that [e]ducated people are interested in
differences; they assume that Im different from them but
exempted from being one of them, the knife-wielding undoc-
umenteds hiding in basements webbing furniture (33). More-
over, Jasmine recognizes that her jazziness is conditioned by her
position as Lillians employee and longs for forms of relationality
that are not bound to being jazzy. As Jasmine lives and works
with the Kanjobal Indian women, she is temporarily included in
their locked and companionable world and, in feeling nos-
talgic for it as Jazzy (134), violates Lillians eschewal of nostal-
gia as an act of self-deformation (Do not let it deform you
17. Lillians logic that beauty might somehow produce the effect of legality, while
seemingly ludicrous, uncannily anticipates the racist logic of recent anti-immigrant leg-
islation in Arizona, a state in which looking like an illegal immigrant was deemed a
legitimate form of state surveillance.
18. Jazzy also conjures a genealogy that for Lillian seems intimately bound up in an
aesthetic of deformation. As a quintessentially African American art form, jazz is built
around the dialectic between conventional lines of sound and riffs onor deformations
ofthose lines. Lillian seems to assume that melange, like jazz, is an imperfect suturing
of black and white aesthetics, an acceptable deformation of whiteness and white per-
formativity. As Jazzy, Jasmines passing beauty aspires to something like blackness, since
blackness is rarely questioned as natural born Americanness.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
[131]). Jazziness prohibits her entry into that companionable
world, disclosing the uneven and arbitrary racialization of
migrant subjects in the U.S. Passing as beautiful and American
here forecloses oneven as it produces the desire forthe pos-
sibility of occupying a social terrain outside of the fetish econ-
omy of racialized feminine beauty.
Lillian carves out a value economy for Jasmines beauty in
which brownness allows her to pass as American and to secure
a job in Manhattan as an au pair for Wylie and Taylor Hayes. Yet
Jasmines jazziness forever threatens to dissolve in this space of
white, upper-middle-class wealth: as an au pair, she is an atten-
uated form of precisely that gendered, racialized labor above
which Lillian Gordon attempts to elevate her and that the Kan-
jobal women are trained to performa domestic. As postco-
lonial critic Bruce Robbins has argued, unlike the domestic ser-
vant, the au pair is a kind of live-in guest whose labor value is
not strictly subject to a wage economy. Yet within the interna-
tional division of labor in which (predominantly) women travel
from former colony to metropole as part of a global care industry,
the class distinction that might otherwise exist between the au
pair and domestic servant is rendered indeterminate. In this new
world order, in which gender and racial identities cannot be
reduced to class terms, the Third World au pair might be an
educated, relatively privileged gure or, on the contrary, a
domestic servant forced to do the dirtiest, most isolating, and
most poorly remunerated job (Robbins 1089). Jasmine anx-
iously negotiates precisely this class indeterminacy of the trans-
national au pair in racialized and gendered terms, that is,
through Lillians pedagogy of passing as beautiful.
When they hire her, the Hayeses cite the feminization of global
domestic work and its production of demeaning racial stereo-
types, telling Jasmine: Youre probably tired of Americans
assuming that if youre from India or China or the Caribbean
you must be good with children. . . . Ancient American custom,
dark-skinned mammies. Dont be attered by it (16869). The
Hayeses display their multiculturalist sensitivity to ethno-
national difference through self-deprecating white liberal guilt
for hiring Jasmine as a domestic worker. At the same time, their
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353
nal reference to dark-skinned mammies collapses the geo-
graphic boundaries of a feminized domestic labor force, inserting
Jasmines Indianness into a history of black slave labor. It
remains unclear, though doubtful, if the Hayeses here mean to
reference the system of colonial Indian indentured labor that
came to replace the practice of slavery in the Americas. Yet their
potential joining of Jasmines Indianness to blackness here
is notable, not only given the previous discussions of her jazz-
iness, but also given that Jasmine communes with two other
Caribbean day mummies in the building, one of whom likens
her job to [s]lavery and is motivated to unionize, while the
other complains that she doesnt look like the common person
that her job cleaning up dirt, especially white folks dirt has
made her (179).
Jasmine repeatedly invokes her own class status as a profes-
sional in order to exempt herself from colonial and neocolonial
histories of racialized labor: Wylie . . . called me her caregiver.
. . . I was a professional, like a schoolteacher or a nurse. . . . I was
professional (175; emphasis added). And as if to convince herself
of the purchasing power that her status as a professional secures,
Jasmine begins to consume indiscriminately: First came a Jap-
anese knife set. Then a radio-controlled Lamborghini. A cassette
car stereo for the car I meant to buy someday. A triple-beveled,
herringbone, 14-carat-gold neck chain. . . . I was turning over my
entire paycheck for things I couldnt use and didnt know how
to stop (186). As a performance of jazziness did before, con-
sumption now guarantees her perceived elevation above work-
ing-class immigrant labor; even her new name, Jassy, conferred
by Taylor, is only a variation of Jazzy. Jassy replaces commodi-
cation with compulsive consumption in an almost neurotic
effort to dissociate from that history of racialized labor that she
has been trained to perform and that she is so keen to disavow.
She invokes the logic of coercive mimeticism in naming her
desire for equal participation in the very system of capitalist
accumulation that both relies upon and actively produces the
racialization of her labor. Jasmine confesses: I fell in love with
. . . graceful self-absorption. I wanted to become the person they
[Taylor and Wylie] thought they saw: humorous, intelligent,
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
rened, affectionate. Not illegal, not murderer, not widowed,
raped, destitute, fearful (171). Jasmines naming of her desire
as self-absorption implicitly critiques the bourgeois consum-
erism of her employers, while enabling her to consume compul-
sively. Jassy here confronts racialized migrant labor as that which
both facilitates and thwarts her efforts to pass as beautiful. As a
result of her new purchasing power, Jasmine is able to make
herself over into Jazzy/Jassyfor example, by buying spangled
heels and silk chartreuse pants (176). But such acts of self-mak-
ing are possible only through her participation in feminized
global domestic service.
Jasmines consumerist beauty initially allows her to mitigate
her racial inferiority as a domestic servant by indexing her ability
to reap the rewards of capitalist accumulation. Yet her encounter
with the gure of the Sikh terrorist during her employment as
an au pair forces a productive undoing of this model-minority
status. The encounter impels Jasmine to confront her racially
denigrated position as an illegal alien and, in doing so, to con-
front her legibility as a terrifying body. The encounter between
these guresterrorist and illegal alienreveals the co-consti-
tution of a geopolitics of terror and a biopolitics of beauty. Push-
ing Duffs stroller through Central Park, Jasmine is terried by
her (perhaps imagined) sighting of Sukkhi, a Sikh terrorist ght-
ing for the sovereign nation of Khalistan who was Prakashs
murderer in India. While Mukherjees stereotypical depiction of
Sikh masculinities here and elsewhere is undeniably problem-
atic, what is more interesting is how the deployment of this ste-
reotype throws into crisis Jasmines self-management as a
model-minority subject. On the one hand, Jasmines idealization-
through-beauty codes her as clearly distinguishable from the
implicitly male terrorist or enemy within both the Indian and
U.S. nations.
19
The carefully maintained distinction between
good and bad South Asian subjectsone that, importantly,
functions along gendered linesoverlaps with those forms of
gendered exceptionalism that distinguish Jasmine from other
19. For scholarship on the post9/11 nonnational Muslim or Sikh terrorist, see Gopi-
nath; Grewal; Maira, Good and Bad Muslim Citizens; Puar; and Rana.
R E D D Y

355
racialized immigrant laborers such as the Kanjobal migrant
workers and the Caribbean day mummies. On the other hand,
Jasmines sighting of Sukkhi simultaneously reveals how these
seemingly incommensurable migrant bodies actually shore up
the others abjection within the nation.
How do the bodies of the beautiful Jasmine and the terrifying
Sukkhi inform each other as such? When Jasmine thinks she
spots Sukkhi in New York City working as a dark-skinned hot-
dog vendor (188), Taylor encourages her to report him to the
authorities. Yet rather than doing so and risk functioning as a
native informant, she responds by confessing her widowhood,
fake documents, destitution, rape, and murder to Taylor, adding,
Im illegal here, [Sukkhi] knows that. I cant come out and chal-
lenge him. Im very exposed (189). The perceived appearance
of Sukkhi threatens to expose Jasmines production of jazzy
beauty as a form of racial self-managementupwardly mobile,
professional, and not illegal. This moment might simply
appear to reinforce class and religious stratications between
upwardly mobile, professional-managerial, model-minority
South Asians and those downwardly mobile, working-class,
nonmodel South Asians who exceed and thus threaten the coher-
ence of this ideological formation. Yet it actually evinces a model
of afliation that privileges contingency and indeterminacy
through what queer and critical-race studies scholar Jasbir Puar
has described as contagion (172). While conceding that con-
tagion usually relates to unwanted and aficted bodies, Puar
argues for a model of contagion in which all bodies . . . [are]
mired in contagions: bodies infecting other bodies with sensa-
tion, vibration, irregularity, chaos, lines of ight that betray the
expectation to loyalty, linearity, the demarcation of whos in and
whos not. Contagions . . . conduct the effects of touch, smell,
taste, hearing, and sight . . . into shivers, sweat, blushes, heat,
and pain, among many other sensations. Contagion, in other
words, allows for the transmission of affect, expressed by
somatic, precognitive responses (shivers, sweat, blushes), which
in turn gives way to afliation. Upon recognizing/phantasmat-
ically projecting the hot-dog vendor as Sukkhi, Jasmine begins
shivering; [she] wanted to talk, but [her] throat had sealed.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
[She] couldnt get [her] breath (188). Jasmines shivers and dys-
phasia are precognitive responses to the dark skin of the hot-
dog vendor, whose body exceeds proper regulation by the state
while symptomatizing the infection and transmission of that
excess. For it is while performing racialized labor as a day
mummy that Jasmine perceives/misrecognizes the vendor as
Sukkhi/the terrorist. Later in the scene, she muses aloud to her-
self, Im alone all day, Im out in the park I remembered
Wylies Stuart [an economics professor at New York University
who studies third-world poverty] having observed me for
months, and suddenly I felt lthy, having been observed,
tracked, by Sukhwinder (189). Jasmines non sequitur concate-
nation of Stuarts and Sukkhis surveillance of her immigrant
labor as inducing a feeling of lth attempts to manage lin-
guistically the feeling of pervasive state surveillance of her racial
excess. As brown bodies unregulated by the state, Jasmine and
Sukkhi bring each other to mutual crisis through the aggregation
of working-class, immigrant, illegal, and terrorist bodies in the
urban metropolis.
20
Jasmines affective response registers not so
much her fear of Sukkhi as of the stickiness of fear (Puar 185),
the fear that her brown body, like Sukkhis brown body, might
generate. Jasmines beauty no longer secures her model-minority
exceptionalism: as a racialized subject affectively charged with
fear, she is marked as nonexceptional withinindeed, as afli-
ated withthose racialized metropolitan populations from
which she has been, with much effort, distinguished. To escape
the stigma of a criminalized South Asian racial identity, she
leaves New York.
Beyond Beauty: Racialized Strangeness and Plainness
Beauty allows Jasmine to manage, however unsuccessfully, her
racialization as an illegal and working class South Asian immi-
grant subject within various U.S. metropolitan spaces, even as
any viable form of belonging remains elusive as part of this self-
20. Jasmine in fact describes New York, the city in which she became an American
(165), as an archipelago of ghettos seething with aliens like [herself] (140).
R E D D Y

357
management. In the rural American heartland where she arrives
after eeing New York, Jasmine is inserted into a racial economy
of strangeness and plainness that operates beyond a fetishistic
beauty economy. Here, Jasmines elusive racialization as
strange involves a different kind of racial fetishization and
self-denial, while her desire to be racially plain aspires to
redress beautys failed promise of cultural citizenship.
In Baden, Iowa, unlike in the metropolitan sites of Flushing
and Manhattan, Jasmines racial difference lacks historical par-
ticularity and ethnic referential density. Jasmine describes Baden
as a basic German community, such that the descendants of
European settlers are racially distinct and negatively stereotyped
as [t]he inscrutable Swedes and [t]he sneaky Dutch (11).
Whereas in urban centers like New York immigrants from West-
ern Europe maintain only symbolic ethnicities, in rural Iowa,
European identities function as ethnic categories, with particular
histories of and stereotypes about immigrant labor still attached
to them.
21
When Jasmine arrives in Baden, its small farms are
giving way to big agribusiness and recreational tourism, and
globalizing economic production has ushered in a new Asian
labor force to service this economy. Bud Ripplemeyer, an Iowa
farmer and Jasmines future husband, has made several trips to
China as part of a farming bank delegation that speculates on
the Chinese soybean market. He is forced to join the delegation
as large developers buy up land and buy out local farmers,
threatening them with bankruptcy. After visiting China, Bud
decides to adopt Du, a teenage Vietnamese refugee from Hong
Kong whose penchant for recombinant electronics (156)
secures him a place in this emerging economy. Even before Buds
trips to China, however, Asia is a spectral presence in Baden,
lurking in the Ripplemeyers past participation in U.S. wars of
imperialist aggression in Korea and Vietnam, which implicitly
shape the fty years of selshness (14) that Bud feels after
returning from China, compelling him to adopt Du. Despite an
emerging awareness of Asianness, however, farms are spread
21. For a lucid discussion of the racialization of European immigrants as taking on
symbolic ethnicities after World War II, see Waters.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
out too widely for signicant shifts in racial-spatial composition
to be observed, as Bakirathi Mani has noted (38), so that the
denizens of Baden maintain a sanctioned ignorance about racial
difference that perpetuates dominant scripts of whiteness.
Whereas a fetishization of non-European racial difference
might very well lead to the kind of benevolent and not-so-benev-
olent racism that Jasmine experiences in Flushing and Manhat-
tan, in Baden, Jasmines racialization occurs within a collective
will not to know the specic contours of Jasmines racial differ-
ence: [T]he farmers are afraid to suggest Im different. Theyve
seen the aerograms I receive, the strange lettering I can decipher.
. . . In a pinch, theyll admit that I might look a little different,
that Im a dark-haired girl in a naturally blond county. I have
a darkish complexion (33). Later, Jasmine notes that Bud him-
self courts me because I am alien. I am darkness, mystery,
inscrutability (200). When she is seen with Du, though, Jasmine
is folded into an emerging social fabric of Asianness. While
accompanying Bud to adopt Du, for example, she notices that
[t]he agency was charmed by the notion of Buds Asian wife,
without inquiring too deeply (14). Jasmines various forms of
interpellation as Asian-by-association, alien, and strange
index a racial difference that is, quite simply, unrecognizable
within Badens racial economies. Jasmines darkish complex-
ion doesnt t into recognizable scripts of whiteness or Asian-
ness, despite her brief references to claiming racial afliation
with Badens new Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants.
Yet the set of material conditions germane to Baden at this
historical momenta faltering rural economy, the racial hege-
mony of whiteness, and an emerging racialization of Asians
allows for a provisional and contingent form of belonging that I
call stranger sociality.
22
Jasmine becomes a racially strange
22. I am here indebted to queer postcolonial theorist Sara Ahmeds use of the term
stranger to allow for a more nuanced version of the privileged gure of the Other
in postcolonial discourses. Ahmed argues that the gure of the stranger is producedfrom
within histories of cross-cultural, transnational encounter that are not properly colonial,
a contention that is certainly germane to U.S. racial formations. The stranger is a gure
who is consolidated through processes of globalization, migration, and multiculturalism
that (re)produce the alterity of certain bodies through different modes of proximity, or
encounter.
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359
body in her different encounters with the Baden farming com-
munity. Situated within the towns racial economies, these inter-
actions repeatedly produce this communitys unwillingness to
further query her and perhaps even its inability to recognize her
racial difference. While Jasmine listens contently to Mother Rip-
plemeyers stories of the Depression, connecting them to the
water famines she faced as a young girl in Hasnapur, Jasmine
muses: I thought we could trade some world-class poverty sto-
ries, but mine make her uncomfortable. Not that shes hostile.
Its like looking at the name in my passport and seeing Jyo
at the beginning and deciding that her mouth is not destined to
make those sounds (16). Similarly, Jasmine notes that despite
their sexual relationship, Bud has never asked me about India;
it scares him (12). Here Jasmines Indianness pushes against the
referential limits for the expression of nonwhite racial difference
in Baden, even as Bud and Mother Ripplemeyer express an
awareness of those limits. Ethnic referentiality would require
Bud and Mother Ripplemeyer to deciderather than to avoid
having to decidewhether Jasmines Indianness should be
understood as a form of threatening or nonthreatening non-
whiteness.
Though the towns reluctance to name Jasmines racial or eth-
nic difference in a globalizing local economy registers their pos-
sessive investment in whiteness, to borrow George Lipsitzs
phrasing, Jasmines interactions with the Ripplemeyers also
reveal an intimacy based on her racial ambiguity. She notices that
while the house she lives in looks small and ugly from the dirt
road, . . . every time I crunch into the driveway and park my old
Rabbit between the rusting, abandoned machinery and the
empty silo . . . [I think] that all of us Ripplemeyers . . . belong
(13; emphasis added). As a counterpoint to a global city such as
New York, where her ethnic identity must be properly named
and nameable, Jasmines sense of belonging in Baden is tied to
her racialized strangeness. While working as an au pair for the
Hayes family in Manhattan, for example, Jasmine observes that
Taylors friends in New York used to look at me and say, Youre
Iranian, right? If I said no, then, Pakistani, Afghan, or Punjabi?
They were strikingly accurate about most things, and always out
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
to improve themselves (33). Jasmine mocks the ways in which
the policing of her racial identity is motivated by white liberal
critiques of racism that express sensitivity to ethnic difference.
Though critical of Badens burgeoning racism toward new Asian
immigrants, Jasmine opts for the experience of nonspecic racial
difference to such elitism. Jasmines sense of belonging in Baden
is conditioned by a stranger-ness that is a fetishized effect of her
racial ambiguity. This kind of sociality emerges from the contin-
ued, collectively willed ignorance around her racial identity
beyond that of ambiguous nonwhite.
Stranger sociality is, ultimately, an untenable mode of belong-
ing for Jasmine. Racialized strangeness certainly allows her to
bypass the labor of racial self-management within the various
fetish economies of beauty that have thus far governed her
migrations. Yet it demands of Jasmine another kind of self-man-
agement, since she must disavow or withhold the revelation of
any kind of racial specicity. Whereas racializedbeauty produces
a set of crises around Jasmines national and racial position as
rural, illegal, and/or migrant laborer in Hasnapur, Flushing, and
New York City, racialized strangeness produces Jasmines racial
self-denial as part of her crisis of belonging in Baden. Akey scene
in the novel, in which Jasmine and Bud have sex, forces Jasmine
to confront this crisis. Bud exclaims, Oh god. . . . I have never
seen anyone so beautiful (36), and Jasmine later reects that this
declaration leaves her feeling torn open like the hot dry soil,
parched (38). Given Buds earlier stated fear of India and Jas-
mines Indianness, she experiences a form of double conscious-
nessa way of being seen and not seenaround Buds inter-
pellation of her as beautiful. She recognizes that in calling her
beautiful, Bud xenophobically both sees her racial difference
and yet disavows the material histories that constitute that dif-
ference. Buds response to Jasmines beauty is here metonymic
of how Jasmines sense of belonging in Baden requires precisely
this kind of racial designation and obfuscation. Evoking images
of rape, Jasmines references to feeling torn open and
parched here index the way that her beauty incites a crisis of
racial self-denial.
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361
Jasmines racial ambiguity in Baden leaves her vulnerable to
being assimilated into whiteness, resulting in her subsequent
appeals to plainness as an alternative form of cultural citizen-
ship. Seemingly fearful of granting Jasmine any kind of ethnic
referential density, Bud interpellates Jasmine within a U.S.-based
iconography of white feminine and feminist glamour. Jasmine
admits: Bud calls me Jane. Me Bud, you Jane. . . . Calamity Jane.
Jane as in Jane Russell, not Jane as in Plain Jane. . . . My genuine
foreignness frightens him. But she goes on to claim that Plain
Jane is all I want to be (26). Jasmines desire for plainness rejects
these glamorized, white American iconsthe orientalizing Jane
who rescues Tarzan; the nineteenth-century American-Indian-
killing, feminist vigilante; and the 1950s Hollywood starlet.
Rather, her desire for plainness here conjures Charlotte Brontes
nineteenth-century English heroine Jane Eyre.
Jasmines appeal to plainness in her allusion to Brontes
Plain Jane unsettles certain alliances and commensurabilities
between female beauty and liberal democratic ideals of citizen-
ship, particularly as they have been constructed within the genre
of the Western female bildungsroman. Indeed, Jasmines multi-
ple migrations and name changes have led several critics to read
Jasmine as a late-twentieth-century, ethnic American rewriting of
Brontes classic novel of this genre.
23
Before her arrival in Baden,
Jasmine twice references Brontes 1847 story, once when she is
forced to abandon the novel during her English education in
postcolonial India because she nds the prose too difcult (41),
and once in comparing herself to Jane Eyre and in comparing
Bud to Janes eventual husband, Rochester (236). Critical com-
parisons between Jasmine and Jane Eyre have focused extensively
upon Mukherjees recasting of the third-world woman in
Brontes novel as a female agent in her own right, rather than as
supplemental to the consolidation of the white, imperialist
female subject. What awaits further elaboration within this com-
parison is how both Jane and Jasmine negotiate their status as
23. For readings of Jasmine as an ethnic Bildung, see, for example, Aneja, Carter-San-
born, Chu, Kanhai, and Warhol-Down.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
citizens through a reckoning with physical beauty. As paradig-
matic of the nineteenth-century British novel of social uplift, Jane
Eyre is conventionally read as indexing the rise of the physically
plain or unbeautiful subject, Plain Jane, as one deserving of
rights as a citizen. Literary critic Douglas Mao has offered a cor-
rective to this reading by showing that Jane Eyre is really a story
about the rise of the beautiful subject who must shed the qualities
of her plainnessbastardy, drunkenness, ight, poverty
(205)before she can be restored to her rights as a citizen. In
contrast, Mukherjees Jasmine demonstrates that for certain
racialized subjects, the possession of beauty cannot guarantee in
equal measure the transcendence of socially denigrated qualities
in order to achieve the status of citizen-subject. While the mid-
nineteenth-century British novel posits an aspiration toward the
beautiful as a state of ideal citizenship for the white, native-born
female subject Jane, such aspirations are much more fraught in
a late-twentieth-century transnational American context for the
racialized, illegal immigrant female subject of Jasmine.
Given the fraught relation between beauty and citizenship in
Jasmine, Jasmines expression of her desire to be plain Jane
recasts plainness as not so much a socially devalued subjective
state to transcend, as in Brontes novel, but as an aspirational
mode of belonging that refuses to cooperate with beautys mul-
tiple incitements to either racial valorization or racial denigra-
tion. Jasmines observation that her genuine foreignness pre-
cludes Buds calling her Plain Jane suggests that her
foreignness is incommensurable with the physical attribute of
plainness. What remains unthinkable within Buds, and by
extension Badens, racial logic, then, is the possibility of Jas-
mines racialized plainness, dened through an unremarkable,
racialized corporeal presence. Though Jasmine expresses her
desire for plainness in Baden, this desire can be understood as
resonating beyond Badens borders, and within and across the
borders of the nation. Badens globalizing local economy, its con-
comitant shifting racial composition as a result of Asian immi-
gration to the region, and its location as the site of Jasmines
retrospective narration allowfor the scale-jumping force of Jas-
mines appeal to plainness as one that subtends all of her migra-
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363
tions.
24
In the face of both denigrated (rural, terrorist, illegal,
resident alien) and valorized (modern, jazzy, upwardly mobile,
model minority) forms of South Asian immigrant difference that
Jasmine confronts across her migrations, racialized plainness
exceeds the logic of liberal multicultural inclusion.
25
In appealing to plainness as a racialized (foreign) subject,
Jasmine reveals more broadly that the very dialectic of beauty/
plainness, such as that which structures liberal democratic ideals
of citizenship in Brontes novel, is informed by an ineluctable
racial logic.
26
Jasmine must constantly negotiate this racial logic
across her various identities as a rural, postcolonial, illegal immi-
grant, and working-class subject. Thus while Mukherjees Plain
Jane certainly cites Brontes concerns with beauty and belong-
ing, Jasmine is not simply an ethnicized version of the canonical
female bildung in which either the beautiful or the plain subject
is restored to her rights as a citizen. Racialized beauty guarantees
for Jasmine at best only a passing form of citizenship, while
racialized plainness remains an unrealized form of cultural citi-
zenship. Jasmine admits at the beginning of the novels retro-
spective narration that, In Baden, I am Jane. Almost (26;
emphasis added). Almost-Jane raises both the promise and the
deferral of racialized plainness as an ideal form of cultural citi-
zenship.
Racialized plainness ultimately exceeds the political imagination
of Mukherjees ctional narrative. Yet it nonetheless speaks to
Mukherjees broader critiques of liberal multiculturalism in non-
24. The geographer Neil Smith denes scale jumping, in which local claims move
to the national or global level, as one aspect of new cultural geographies emerging from
late global capitalism.
25. As Peter McLaren argues, liberal multiculturalism is guided by a logic in which
the norms which govern the substance of citizenship are identied most strongly with
Anglo-American, cultural-political communities (51).
26. In foregrounding this racial logic, Jasmine invites us to consider further the way in
which the West Indian Bertha Mason, Rochesters secret wife and the mad woman in the
attic in Jane Eyre, might be understood as the racialized female body that shores up the
dialectic of plainness and beauty in Brontes text. Such a reading could illuminate a
critically underexplored racial logic of beauty/plainness in Brontes text.
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C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
ction essays and public speeches published during the debates
over large-scale anti-immigration legislation at the end of the
twentieth century. In these speeches and essays, Mukherjee cri-
tiques liberal multiculturalism for failing to redress state-sanc-
tioned xenophobia because its logic of liberal inclusion is based
upon a collective aspiration to symbolic whiteness that carries
with it [t]he sinister, or at least misguided, implication . . . that
American culture has not been affected by the American Indian,
African-American, Latin-American, and Asian-American seg-
ments of its population (Beyond Multiculturalism 32). After
thus citing the centrality of racialized populations to U.S.
national culture, Mukherjee vows that her literary agenda
does not end until I show that I (and the hundreds of thousands
of recent immigrants like me) are, minute-by-minute, transform-
ing America (34). When situated within critiques of center-and-
periphery models of national culture and within a politicized
discourse of national-cultural transformation, racialized plain-
ness articulates racialized immigrant difference as germane to,
and thereby unexceptional within, the national citizenry. In this
respect, racialized plainness shares some features with what cul-
tural critic Paul Gilroy, in a different national context, has
described as an ordinary, demotic multiculturalism (99).
Unlike liberal multiculturalism, which celebrates cultural differ-
ence as part of belonging in diversity in the face of state-sanc-
tioned xenophobia and violence, demotic multiculturalismrefers
to concrete oppositional work: political, aesthetic, cultural,
scholarly (99) that reduces the exaggerated dimensions of
racial difference to a liberating ordinariness (119).
27
By inciting
multiple confrontations with Jasmines rurality, illegality, and
27. Gilroy is here referring to the state of postimperial British race politics, particularly
following the events of 9/11. While Gilroy imagines a British multiculture (8) that goes
beyond the consumerist model of liberal multiculturalism by issuing demands for hos-
pitality, conviviality, tolerance, justice, and mutual care (99), I follow Sunaina Mairas
caution that one cannot idealize this multiculture, which is still inuenced by market-
driven and state-produced ideas of diversity (Missing 175). There are undoubtedly
important differences between the British and U.S. national contexts, which may in fact
lead to this cautionary note in Mairas reading of Gilroy. Jasmines migrations repeatedly
invoke and thwart the liberal notions of freedom and choice that underwrite these state-
mandated notions of diversity.
R E D D Y

365
migrant labor, Jasmines racialized beauty brings to the surface
those material histories that structure what might otherwise exist
as celebratory forms of cultural difference, as well as those forms
of state-sanctioned xenophobia that impede legal and cultural
citizenship. While Jasmines reference to plainness does not
reector stops short of imaginingthe concrete oppositional
work of Gilroys demotic multiculturalism, her desire to be
Plain Jane does by default rearticulate plainness as a yearning
for liberating ordinariness around those material histories.
As an alternative form of cultural citizenship that aspires
toward unexceptional ways of inhabiting South Asian immi-
grant difference, racialized plainness in Jasmine uncannily antic-
ipates the ongoing spectacularization and demonization of cer-
tain South Asian immigrant bodies since 9/11 and the U.S.led
global war on terror in 2003. Several transnational feminist
scholars have observed that a renewed Indophilia within U.S.
national cultureexemplied by a fascination with Bollywood
aesthetics and idioms and Indo-chic fashionabilityhas
occurred alongside the increased surveillance, criminalization,
and disappearance of South Asian, Muslim, and Arab male bod-
ies.
28
Within a moment in which these immigrant bodies are sub-
ject simultaneously to racial valorization and racial denigration,
Jasmines declaration that Plain Jane is all [she] want[s] to be
contains within it a question that resonates forcefully for racial-
ized subjects under empire: Who is allowed the luxury of plain-
ness, where plainness is a staunchly racialized form of citizen-
ship? Mukherjees paradigmatic late-twentieth-century South
Asian immigrant novel raises this question within a slightly ear-
lier moment of anti-immigrant hysteria, one that is certainly con-
tinuous with our current imperial moment of state-sponsored
xenophobia and immigrant-baiting. As a mode of national and
racial self-management, racialized beauty in Jasmine complicates
beautys normative attachments to liberal modes of inclusion
assimilation, liberal multiculturalism, and model-minority
exceptionalismthat it promises through that self-management.
28. For complementary examples of the convergence of Indophilia with antiSouth
Asian racism, see Gopinath; and Maira, Indo-chic.
366

C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Through its shifting identications with racial valorization and
racial denigration, racialized beauty repeatedly marks the limits
of national belonging for the South Asian immigrant subject of
Jasmine. As a provisional response to those limits, plainness
pushes against exceptionalizing modes of apprehending and
inhabiting racial difference. It raises the possibility of rendering
material histories of racial difference mundane and ordinary
within the national citizenry. In demanding a release from the
labor of national and racial self-management, racialized plain-
ness might also demand a release from the very terms of liberal
belonging under which beauty most often labors.
Texas A&M University
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