[An earlier version of this post appeared on my personal blog.]
I remember when I first noticed this blog called Sepia Mutiny back in August 2004. Manish had linked to a blog post I had written on Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake on August 9; it was one of the site’s earliest posts.
The link was notable to me for two reasons. First, I was amused that Manish would write, “I normally wouldn’t point at a piece referencing Gayatri Spivak and other jargon-filled lit academics…” Ouch, is he talking about me? (Happily, eight years later we have Himanshu Suri and Das Racist, rapping about Arundhati Roy [rhymed with, of all things, "batty boy"!], “Gaya Spivak,” and the Slovenian philosopher Zizek. Jargon is in again, if these dudes have anything to say about it.)
Second, I was a little shocked at exactly how many people seemed to be clicking through. From the beginning, Sepia Mutiny was strikingly popular, so much so that for at least a few years it was routinely rated the most popular blog in India itself. Its success was certainly due to the mix of writers, which was a very talented and energetic pool (Manish alone was routinely putting up 5 or more posts a day). But I think the site was also clearly filling a need online for discussion of Desi themed subjects, whether political (see Abhi’s early post about Dalip Singh Saund and the Democratic party), or more entertainment oriented (Kal Penn and Harold and Kumar were mentioned in the first week as well).
Even when it wasn’t always smooth-sailing within the circle of bloggers, and even when things were difficult for me in my real life outside of the blog, what always drew me to this site was its ‘sandbox’ quality — the idea that this mix of topics and themes ought to be linked. So when Abhi writes that it may be the blog has fulfilled its purpose in part I don’t agree: many of the difficult issues regarding identity, community, and culture South Asians were dealing with in 2004 remain unresolved. But I do agree that in a way the sandbox qualilty of this kind of group blog has for me at least come to seem a little less essential and exciting than it was at the beginning.
Yes, the South Asian American community is much more established than it once was. There’s Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, there’s Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, and there’s quite a number of first-rate writers (go Sugi!), filmmakers, and people in business, academia, and journalism. South Asian America is a big enough, and mainstream enough, world that it does seem a little forced to presume it all goes together anymore. (Though again, I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying we’re done thinking about or working on issues of identity. We’re not; I see that every day with my five year old son, as he tries to sort out his place in his school, and in American society more broadly. It looks to me like he’s going to have to go through a lot of the same stuff I went through growing up, all over again.)
At its height, from 2004 to about 2009 or so, Sepia Mutiny was the most active South Asian diaspora-oriented forum on the web. Posts on topics like M.I.A., Aishwariya Rai (aka TMBWITW), Bobby Jindal, and interracial dating would routinely draw 200, 300, sometimes even 1000 comments. And while we sometimes struggled to keep the comment threads troll-free and productive, we as bloggers could always count on interesting new voices to show up and make it feel worthwhile. Blogging on Sepia Mutiny was addictive for me (and I think not just me) during those years in large part because it was impossible not to be excited to encounter so many different perspectives and ideas.
South Asian vs. Indian. Sepia Mutiny was always somewhat divided over its function and focus. On the one hand, the directive from Abhi and the other founders was quite clear: the point was to create a space for a South Asian American perspective. The “South Asian” part was important and essential (and we had many fights, mainly with skeptical readers, about whether it wasn’t after all just an “Indian American” blog). Also important was the “American” part of the equation; Sepia Mutiny was never intended to be an “Indian subcontinent” forum.
Diaspora vs. Subcontinent. This policy of not focusing on South Asia itself was, however, always a challenge for me, since I have a deep personal and professional interest in what is happening in the subcontinent itself in terms of politics, culture, the media, and of course literature. And this past decade has been a really interesting one on all those fronts, from the debates over communalism and secularism (and we had many good arguments about those issues in the comments), to the rapid changes in the style of commercial Hindi cinema, to the debates about economic trends like outsourcing (i.e., Vinod on Obama in 2008) and globalization. Despite the blog’s stated policy of focusing exclusively on the diaspora, many of my colleagues at Sepia Mutiny joined me in posting frequently on these types of issues, leading to some very rich discussions. As I see it, the U.S. focus was a policy honored more in the breach than in the observance, and that’s a good thing.
First vs. Second/Third Generations. Another source of tension, not within the circle of Sepia Mutiny bloggers, but rather between bloggers and readers, was around generational issues. All of the original founders of the blog, I believe, were second generation Indian Americans (later Bangladeshi American, Pakistani American, and Sri Lankan American contributors would also join). However, many, if not most of the readership during the years I was involved seemed to consist of first generation immigrants (and many 1.5 generation folks — people who immigrated between age 5 and 15). This reflects the demographics of the South Asian American population — there are more first generation South Asian immigrants than second or third generation South Asian Americans in the United States. However, the fact that these readers were all interested in hearing about and talking about the same stuff underlines the commonalities between different generations of immigrants; our accents might not all be the same, but perhaps it’s not a great stretch to say that we do have some things in common.
Recent immigrants from South Asia might be interested in reading my post from 2005 about Katrina Kaif, but they might also be interested in hearing about Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, or Padma Lakshmi. I think both bloggers and readers evolved quite a bit on this kind of issue over the years. In the beginning, first and second generation commenters used to make fun of each other as (“FOBs” or “ABCDs”, respectively), but somewhere along the line a more respectful and intelligent kind of conversation started to occur. The first generation scorn for ABCDs speaking Hindi badly started to lose its edge, while the second-generation’s dislike of the “awkward immigrant” stigma also evolved. In short, I think we all grew up, and started to appreciate and understand one another better.
My dream would have been a half diasporic, half “home” oriented blog; it was very nearly there for a little while. Luckily, there are fantastic new, highly professionalized blogs hosted by the New York Times (India Ink) and the Wall Street Journal, and they provide much of what used to be my Sepia Mutiny fix. I read them every day. And I get just a little smidgeon of what was once the excitement of the Sepia Mutiny comments on venues like Twitter (not so much, these days, from Facebook).
Finally, I should say that while the new social networking venues are helping to carry on the kinds of conversations that went on at Sepia Mutiny, they are a little lacking on some respects. For one thing, both Facebook and Twitter require super-compressed conversations. While it’s true we may have been a bit too long-winded in some blog posts over the years, I think there really is value in spelling out an idea or a perspective at some length, and then giving readers as much space as they want or need to discuss it with you. I don’t think I have ever changed my mind based on a discussion I had with someone on Twitter. But I did, often, in response to discussions on Sepia Mutiny.
I am not sure what the solution is. There’s no question that social networking is here to stay, but maybe as that ecosystem continues to evolve we can again find a space for long-form (but still immediate, and unfiltered) discussions of the issues that are on our minds.
And… I’m out.