Himanee Gupta-Carlson is an associate professor at SUNY Empire State College. She recently answered some questions about her new book, Muncie, India(na): Middletown and Asian America.
Q. Muncie, Indiana is well-known for being the site of the famous Middletown Studies, conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd during the 1920s and 1930s. How did the Middletown Studies portray the city of Muncie and, on a broader scale, American culture?
Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd co-authored two studies: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929), and Middletown in Transition: A Study of Cultural Conflicts (1929). Both studies represented Middletown – their pseudonym for Muncie – as predominantly white, conservative, and fundamentalist Christian. The first study, which is the most famous, identified class divisions between the middle class and working class as the primary features dividing the city, removed African Americans from consideration, and downplayed the significance of immigration in shaping “American culture”. The second study did acknowledge racial difference as a primary divider of the city but did not explore the issue further. What emerged from the studies and the popular acclaim was a portrayal of Muncie and American culture as white, not-foreign born, and Christian.
Q. Muncie, India(na): Middletown and Asian America highlights both your own personal experiences growing up in Muncie, as well as other Asian-American residents’ experiences. You have an obvious connection to the city, but what inspired you to write a book about your hometown?
I was interested in writing about South Asian American experiences, particularly in the context of diaspora links to Hindu fundamentalist politics in India, and initially had planned to do my research in a larger metropolitan area. As I studied other works on the South Asian American experience, however, I increasingly felt that my experiences of being a child and teenager growing up Indian in a small Midwestern community were not being represented in the literature. I decided that I wanted to tell that story, and as I started to probe the Middletown archive deeper, I realized that the story of being South Asian American in Muncie offered a strong example of how whiteness and Christian dominance had defined Americans of many colors, backgrounds, and differences and had rendered the non-white, non-Christian body as invisible. Making the invisible visible through telling my story as well as the stories of the South Asian Americans I grew up with in Muncie became the inspiration for the book.
Q. You noted that, “From an early age, I recognized that being the child of Indian immigrants made me non-typical of Muncie.” How did this recognition of yourself as an “other” influence your identity formation?
This recognition made me a “no-fit” person essentially. That role has traveled with me through my entire life, causing me to feel as if I am always the outsider, regardless of setting. However, writing and sharing Muncie, India(na) with a reading public has caused
me to begin to speculate that a common thread that many share is that of being a “no-fit.” I do not want to downplay the influence that racial and religious oppression have in rendering certain individuals invisible as Americans; as invisible within discourses on American-ness; those influences are insidious and can be lethal. Instead, I would suggest that one’s recognition of their own outsider-ness creates a position from which societal injustices can be more effectively addressed.
Q. The Middletown Studies are a prime example of the way that social sciences have all too often excluded people of color, immigrants and other marginalized populations from their studies. Why is it important to continue to bring visibility to these groups and their stories?
America has never been solely a white, Christian nation with European genealogical roots. Rather, it has from the outset been a messy conglomeration of peoples, languages, races, ethnicities, gendered identities, religions, and more. Bringing visibility to the stories and experiences of the excluded exposes the falsity of belief that this is “one nation” under “one (singular) god”. It allows us to visualize an Indiana in which an India and an Indian, so to speak, are also present.
Q. How did your experience as a journalist influence your research and your writing methods?
Being a journalist shaped the ethnographic approach that I took with the book. I did not follow a pre-designed structure in organizing interviews or interview questions. Rather, I created dialogic open-ended queries that invited the interviewees to tell their stories and to converse with me in ways that they saw fit. They chose pseudonyms. They chose what to share and what to withhold, and were invited to ask me questions, as well. Much of the writing was shaped around the stories that emerged from these exchanges. I had done extensive research on the South Asian diaspora, critical race theory, and feminist methodology before going out to interview Muncie South Asians. However, the decision to do secondary research into the Middletown archive came later. It was a result of being in Muncie first for several months with my family and other interviewees and then for what became several years of reflecting on what I had learned about the place of these individuals as well as my own place in this town so famous for being typical. That stimulated a curiosity to learn more about the roots of Muncie’s typicality. The critique of the Middletown studies that the book offers is built around the interviewee’s stories as is the personal reflection that emerged through my journey to get to know Muncie and America better.
Q. What insights can readers take away from your book about the contemporary Asian-American experience?
I’d like readers to tell me what insights they are gaining from my book, rather than presuming I know how they are receiving it. I will say that in the readings I’ve given to date in Muncie, Seattle, San Francisco, and in many cities throughout New York, what has
emerged is a deeply engaged conversation about how the question of being American affects all of us. Readers have raised questions about present-day immigration policies, racial violence, the impact of deindustrialization in mobilizing support for Donald Trump, and commonalities and divergences in many immigrant and ethnic community histories. I do hope that for all of us the book can become a thinking tool for envisioning America as a space that is not necessarily united but always in conversation with the polyphonic chorus that calls for a cacophony of different voices to sound.