“Sari, Not Sorry”: Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

The author acknowledges that the pun-intended title originates with Tanya Rawal’s “Saree, Not Sorry.”

Cultural appropriation was in the headlines (again) late this January when Coldplay and Beyoncé released a divisive music video, “Hymn for the Weekend”. The video was set in stereotypical, exotic India complete with peacocks, temples, yogis, Hindu gods, poverty, saris, glittering nose rings, and more. Oh, and of course people throwing around colored powder because if you believe the stereotypes, Holi (the iconic spring festival of colors) is a daily occurrence in India.

What exactly is cultural appropriation? Scholar and philosopher James Young defines it as a phenomenon in which “Members of one culture (I will call them outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (call them insiders)”, in his book Cultural Appropriation in the Arts. Importantly, this typically involves a dominant cultural group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups—i.e. when an American pop star wears a bindi and is deemed “fashionable” or “worldly” but experiences less or none of the historical discrimination or systemic oppression associated with being part of a minority group or having origins in much of the Global South. Frequently, there is a thin and fragile line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Personally, as a Jewish woman who is a South Asian Studies specialist, who also studies Middle Eastern and West African dance, I have regularly had to confront this issue. I have had to ask myself whether it is appropriate to use face paint in an African dance performance, or if I can get away with wearing a beloved salwar kameez (traditional South Asian outfit consisting of pants and a tunic) to work. While I struggle to make respectful decisions, I imagine that sometimes I get it wrong, which is why it has been so important to educate myself on the topic and be receptive to the experiences of and feedback from people with different cultural backgrounds.

Me wearing a salwar kameez to attend an Indian cultural function on campus.

The author dressed in a salwar kameez en route to attend an Indian cultural function on the Illinois campus.

Regarding the Coldplay video, there has been plenty of intelligent writing already published on the internet! The Times of India had several articles on the topic; National Public Radio talked about itThe Guardian wrote about it; and even the BBC had a say. One of the most thought-provoking takes I have read is author Kavitha Rajagopalan’s opinion article in The Observer. Rajagopalan takes the cultural appropriation critique a step further by asserting that the more insidious problem of this video is that it presents India as an exclusively Hindu country. In fact, India has an extremely ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse population that is omitted from the music video’s narrative. However, not everyone was upset by the video. Among many others, a column in The Hindu newspaper gave an alternative viewpoint saying that it “shows healthy appreciation for Indian culture, peppered with the idea of India as seen in the Western world”

Just Google “Coldplay” and you’ll see that “Coldplay cultural appropriation” is one of the top suggestions.

A screenshot of a Google search for “Coldplay” with a suggested search of “coldplay cultural appropriation” as the top suggestions.

Coldplay and Beyoncé are not alone in drawing ire from the Indian community And importantly, cultural appropriation is not just a South Asian problem. These artists are merely the newest members of a popular culture club that regularly references minority and traditionally “othered” groups to boost sales, boasting members such as Gwen Stefani, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Paul Simon, and Katy Perry. A complete list might exhaust you.

Image grabbed from Twitter at: http://tinyurl.com/katyperrycatw

An image of Katy Perry dressed as an ancient Egyptian queen, a geisha, and co-opting a popular African-American hairstyle. Image borrowed from Twitter at: http://tinyurl.com/katyperrycatw

Clearly cultural appropriation is a complex and sensitive issue. Here are some library and campus resources that will help you to frame your perspectives on the topic:

  1. The Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR): As stated on the OIIR website, this is a great campus resource that “seeks to improve campus climate by providing transformative learning experiences to the Illinois community that result in an appreciation for diversity and cross-cultural engagement”. This office holds workshops and lectures on the topic of cultural appropriation. Follow the OIIR calendar here.
  2. Orientalism: Discussions of cultural appropriation often refer back to this classic 1978 text written by literary theorist Edward Said. This is not an easy text to read, but it is a must read for understanding colonialism, cultural studies, and many of the humanities’ disciplines.
  3. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts: “A philosopher undertakes a systematic investigation of the moral and aesthetic issues to which cultural appropriation gives rise. .. Questions considered include: “Can cultural appropriation result in the production of aesthetically successful works of art?” and “Is cultural appropriation in the arts morally objectionable?” (Our library catalog).
  4. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation: This book anthology “undertakes a comprehensive and systematic investigation of the moral and aesthetic questions that arise from the practice of cultural appropriation. It explores cultural appropriation in a wide variety of contexts, among them the arts and archaeology, museums, and religion” (Our library catalog).
  5. Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law: This e-book “offers the first comprehensive analysis of cultural authorship and appropriation within American law. From indigenous art to Linux, Susan Scafidi takes the reader on a tour of the no-man’s-land between law and culture, pausing to ask what prompts us to offer legal protection to works of literature, but not folklore? What does it mean for a creation to belong to a community, especially a diffuse or fractured one? Can we strike a balance between affiliative ownership and a creative commons? And is our national culture the product of Yankee ingenuity or cultural kleptomania? Providing new insights to communal authorship, cultural appropriation, intellectual property law, and the formation of American culture, this innovative and accessible guide greatly enriches future legal understanding of cultural production” (Our library catalog).
  6. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization: “In this bold look at the cultural effects of a shrinking world, leading cultural theorist Arjun Appadurai provides fresh ways of looking at popular consumption patterns, debates about multiculturalism, and ethnic violence in a broad global perspective” (Our library catalog).
  7. Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture: This work “Considers the misappropriation of African American popular culture through various genres, largely Hip Hop, to argue that while such cultural creations have the potential to be healing agents, they are still exploited -often with the complicity of African Americans- for commercial purposes and to maintain white ruling class hegemony” (Our library catalog).
  8. Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures: “For more than a hundred years, outsiders enamored of the perceived strengths of American Indian cultures have appropriated and distorted elements of them for their own purposes—more often than not ignoring the impact of the process on the Indians themselves. This book contains eight original contributions that consider the selling of American Indian culture and how it affects the Native community. It goes beyond studies of “white shamanism” to focus on commercial ventures, challenging readers to reconsider how Indian cultures have been commercialized in the twentieth century” (Our library catalog).

Here is a bonus non-library resource! If you’re trying to decide whether a fashion choice is cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation, check out this eminently readable and illustrated style guide to help you make a respectful decision. For more posts like these, be sure to follow the International & Area Studies Library’s Facebook page where we publish new posts for Glocal Notes every week of the semester.

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Buying Trips from Urbana to Bangladesh

Ever wonder how the shelves and stacks get populated with just the materials you need for your research? Here’s a look into a buying trip recently made by our very own South Asian Studies Librarian, Mara Thacker. She was one of the fist to participate in the University Library’s pilot program designed to allow librarians to travel overseas, seek relationships with vendors, and purchase materials to develop our collections here in Urbana-Champaign. This Q & A session reveals how we curate our library materials to better serve you. A special thanks goes out to the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies whose dedication to our library and regular support also made this project possible.

What is a buying trip?

Buying trips are exactly what they sound like—a trip, often overseas, for the purpose of purchasing books, films, and other materials for the library. Not all buying trips result in an immediate purchase but instead lay groundwork for a future acquisition or for a partnership to digitize materials so our community can access them.

Are all library workers able to go on buying trees?

Any library worker whose job responsibilities include collection development (in plainer language—buying books and other library resources) is eligible to go on a trip. These trips usually are targeting unique international materials which does exclude people who only buy materials from the U.S. At this point, mostly International and Area Studies Library faculty have taken advantage of the Library’s pilot program to fund buying trips, but the task force that is managing the pilot funding program is actively inviting other subject specialists with an interest in purchasing international materials to apply.

Where did this trip take you? How do you select what sites you want to visit?

In my most recent buying trip, I went to Delhi, Kolkata (Calcutta), and Bengaluru in India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh. I selected these sites based on a few factors. Delhi and Kolkata both had large book fairs that I planned to attend, but in addition to that, Delhi had two major vendors that I wanted to meet with, and Kolkata is the largest center for Bengali language publishing. Since Bengali language materials were one of collecting priorities, I also chose to go to Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was important to me to visit a South Asian country other than India because my subject specialization covers seven countries in total and I have been on five trips to India but not a single trip to one of the others. I later found out that I was the first U.S.-based librarian to visit Bangladesh for a buying trip in a long time so I’m really glad I chose to go there. Finally, I chose to visit Bengaluru because I had been in contact with a comic collector there who I wanted to meet with.

The crowd at the very popular Ekushey Boi Mela book fair in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

This photo gives you an idea of the crowd at the very popular Ekushey Boi Mela book fair in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Are all buying trips international?

For the purposes of the pilot funding program, yes.

Can’t you just buy materials online?

While it’s true that many materials are available online, not everything is easy to find online. Some international vendors are better than others in terms of having complete, easy-to-search websites. To illustrate my point, take the case of the comic collector in Bengaluru. I had been chatting with him over email off and on for more than a year but he was either unable or unwilling to give me a complete picture of all of his materials and how much he would charge for them. When I met with him, it turned out he had a lot more than I had been led to believe—much more than I could ever hope to buy in one trip! In the course of our conversation, he revealed that he had been reluctant to sell to me before because he didn’t know how credible our institution was or whether or not we would take proper care of the comics. Comics are his passion and he did not want the materials damaged, resold or thrown into some dusty corner. I explained to him my vision for the University of Illinois to have the most comprehensive comic collection in North America including rare titles that would be preserved in our Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. In the end, not only did I buy a pile of out-of-print Indrajal comics from him, he has now agreed to be a vendor and to sell to us directly. That said, I imagine I will want to visit him again in the future because he has piles and piles of comics, many of which are not cataloged. I’d like a few more days to sort through them and find some gems.

Book seller at Howrah Junction train station in Kolkata

Bookseller at Howrah Junction train station in Kolkata. These small stalls at transportation hubs in India are some of the only places where you can find vernacular language pulp fiction novels.

What’s your budget for buying library materials? Do you go with a list in mind? Are there items that are “high priority” (censored items, rare items, limited publications, etc.)?

These trips are generally meant to target materials that are difficult to acquire through normal collection channels, though the difficulty could range from “Oh, I didn’t know this existed” to “Only one copy exists in the entire world”. The challenge is that if materials are really rare and do not already have a record in the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), they are going to require original cataloging and if they are fragile, they will require special processing. This can be expensive and time consuming and absolutely requires advance planning with technical services and cataloging.

Prior to leaving on the trip, I emailed the UIUC faculty working in and on South Asian Studies to solicit both specific requests as well as general topical requests. I compiled these along with my own ideas into a list of collecting priorities and I printed out copies to take during the trip. I also emailed the list in advance to a few of the larger vendors who I had prescheduled meetings with. One special area I was targeting was comics for the South Asian comic collection. The comic collection really serves to distinguish our South Asian collection from other such collections and is an important contribution to the national collection. Right now, vendor coverage of South Asian comics is somewhat spotty so it takes a bit more work to build up these resources.

World Comics India booth at the book fair in New Delhi

Mara Thacker at the World Comics India booth at the book fair in New Delhi. The orange bag behind my chair is full of purchases to send back to the library!

Typically, the budget to purchase materials on a buying trip is the same as a subject specialist’s regular collections budget. However, on this last trip, the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES) had written into a grant proposal some funding to acquire language learning materials for South Asian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Bengali. Altogether I budgeted around $6000 for materials purchases and shipping, half of which was from the CSAMES grant and the other half of which came from my regular collections budget.

How do you get the items safely back to the States?

I usually allocate roughly 30% of my budget for shipping the items back. International shipping can be complicated, so, on my last buying trip, I had one major vendor, D.K. Agencies, as well as the Library of Congress offices in Dhaka and Delhi office help. I carried back a few items in my luggage, but for the most part I try to avoid that so I can travel light as I’m moving between several cities in a short amount of time.

Are there any obstacles or difficulties the layperson might not know about in regard to buying trips?

Of course there are predictable challenges like paying for things in an economy where credit cards aren’t always accepted, spotty wifi connections, and the fear of a major digestive incident. Then there are less predictable things like political demonstrations, transportation strikes, and run-ins with street animals. True story: On my first ever buying trip, I got bitten by a street dog and had to get a rabies treatment in an Indian hospital!

One challenge that may be surprising to our readers is that finding a balance between work and pleasure while on these trips is a challenge. At home, we usually work 40 hours a week and have time off on the weekends, but when on a buying trip, one is constantly aware that the university is paying a good deal of expenses to support the trip and there is a self-imposed pressure to always be on duty.

Fortunately, being in India is a treat and the locale made the work activities extra fun. Attending a literature festival or book fair is probably something I would choose to do in my spare time anyway because I’m a bibliophile. But, I did do a few personal things for myself while there. For example, in Bengaluru, my friend Kunal took me on a vintage motorcycle ride to see the largest air show in Asia and I spent a few hours one evening trying to track down a restaurant called Gulati’s that I was told had some of the best butter chicken in India! Outside of those adventures, I worked over 40 hours a week because after a full day of visiting shops, publishers, and vendors, I would continue checking catalogs, respond to emails, take documentation of the day’s activities and purchases, and plan the next day’s schedule.

Vintrage Royal Enfield motorcycle.

Headed out to the air show with Kunal on a vintage Royal Enfield motorcycle!

Where do you want to go next?

I was really set on returning to Bangladesh but as the security situation there grows steadily worse, including three murders of secular bloggers in less than a year, I’m not sure if it will be possible in the immediate future. I’d like to visit Sri Lanka because I’ve never been and I’d like to get some Sri Lankan comics for the collection and make contacts there. I’d also like to go to South India which is one of my favorite places on earth and also happens to have some major popular culture production . Including these places would make for a compelling buying trip application because they would expand my network into other South Asian countries, and therefore expand my reach in the services I can provide to students looking to do research in South Asia. The comic collection is also an important collection both in terms of contributing to the national collection and also just in terms of distinguishing our local collection, so targeting places to get unique acquisitions for that collection is helpful.

How can U of I community members find out more about library workers’ buying trips?

Though buying trips are just a small fraction of the international work done by UIUC librarians, they are included in this map we have been developing that shows where all our librarians have traveled for work. My recent buying trip to South Asia is included as well as my colleagues’ buying trips to Togo, China, and Cuba. The public can also find out more about these trips by following the International and Area Studies (IAS) Library’s Facebook page and Glocal Notes blog. There will also be a library exhibit next fall about these trips to be announced on our social media accounts. If you want to read more about my last trip, see the forthcoming column in the journal International Information & Library Review. We’ll be sure to share link once it is live.

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Comic Renderings: From Argentina to Zimbabwe

A poster advertising a film adaptation of Marguerite Abouet's Aya series. Photo Credit: LaCinemateca Sevilla

A poster advertising a film adaptation of Marguerite Abouet’s Aya series. Photo Credit: LaCinemateca Sevilla

You’ve probably heard of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City. And you may know of Clark Kent’s high-flying alter ego in Metropolis. Then there’s Charles Xavier and his School for Gifted Youngsters. Three for three? Okay.

How about Aya from the Ivory Coast?

The Persepolis Series of Iran?

Or Kampung Boy in Malaysia?

Kampung Boy by Lat tells of a child growing up as a Muslim in a fishing village in Malaysia. Photo Credit: First Second Books

Kampung Boy by Lat tells of a child growing up as a Muslim in a fishing village in Malaysia. Photo Credit: First Second Books

These are the types of items the International and Area Studies (IAS) Library would like to make you aware of. The last three works share narratives that are personal, dramatic and engaging and that are all presented in graphic novel or comic form. While Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics might be the best print publication to instruct you on what vocabulary to use when it comes to this artistic medium, IAS can give you a strong introduction to international comic renderings this September.

Starting today, “Explore International Comics,” a month-long exhibit to be held in the North-South Corridor on the first floor of the Main Library, opens to the public. Many of your librarians and their graduate student workers have collaborated, gathering works to populate the six glass cases on the ground floor with works that reflect comics as an international and cross-cultural phenomenon and production. Together the comics chosen address a variety of interdisciplinary and academic themes including gender studies, language learning, religion & mythology, politics, and ethnicity & identity.

International detective Tintin and his dog, Milou, are off on a new adventure. This work, by Hergé, was originally published in French and started its road to fame in 1929. Photo Credit: normandy14

International detective Tintin and his dog, Milou, are off on a new adventure. This work, by Hergé, was originally published in French and started its road to fame in 1929. Photo Credit: normandy14

The inclusion of the Belgian classic work Tintin by cartoonist Hergé was an instinctive choice given its nearly 100 years of history. Its narratives follow the brave adventures of a young, border-hopping detective and his dog, Milou. More modern titles, however, are not to be overlooked. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from 2006, an autobiographical work whose musical adaptation just won a Tony Award on Broadway and whose text addresses themes of LGBT identity will be featured, too, among many others.

Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home. Bechdel’s publications consistently engage LGBT issues and have garnered her a MacArthur Genius Grant. Photo Credit: carmen_seaby

Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home. Bechdel’s publications consistently engage LGBT issues and have garnered her a MacArthur Genius Grant. Photo Credit: carmen_seaby

The piece pictured directly below features an endearing, anthropomorphized antihero, Condorito (Chile), who is part condor and part man. Another, Daytripper (Brazil), imaginatively contemplates mortality and what gives our lives meaning. Pyonyang: A Journey through North Korea (Canada) undermines a standing government and Pedro and Me (U.S. and Cuba) addresses stigma related to HIV/AIDS. The topics, clearly, are as diverse as the ones we encounter in our lives.

Condorito is a hybrid between a condor and man. His stories represent a comic tradition from Chile and have been popular throughout Latin America since 1949. Photo Credit: Gustavo Vargas

Condorito is a hybrid between a condor and man. His stories represent a comic tradition from Chile and have been popular throughout Latin America since 1949. Photo Credit: Gustavo Vargas

To help contextualize the richness of these works in terms of both content and form, on September 30th, our IAS Library (Main Library Room 321) will host the first Chai Wai event of the season, “Around the World in 2D: Comics, Graphic Novels and Cartoons” from 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. You can join the Facebook event here. South Asian Librarian Mara Thacker, who has been a major force in organizing both the exhibit and its accompanying event, hopes that library users will access works like these for leisure reading, teaching, and/or research. She also shares that the library is happy to give guest lectures on the comics or to introduce its works to individual classes.

The Asian American Cultural Center has more than 1,000 items for your use cataloged on Library things including graphic novels and other books, DVDs and music cds.

The Asian American Cultural Center has more than 1,000 items for your use cataloged on Library Thing including graphic novels and other books, DVDs and music cds.

While the Undergraduate Library (UGL) has multiple stacks and shelves dedicated strictly to comics and graphic novels, library users should know that there are many places on campus to access titles like these. Among them are the Literatures and Languages Library (LLL), the Main Stacks, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), the Social Science, Health and Education Library (SSHEL), all within the Main Library. The Center for Children’s Books (CCB) which receives multiple new titles every year is found on campus in the basement of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) near Daniel and Sixth Streets. The Asian American Cultural Center (AACC), which has a shelf dedicated to comics, is located on Nevada Street and its holdings are cataloged on Library Thing.

Do check the hours for these libraries before arriving, as their schedules differ. Also, take note that while the CCB has numerous items, the works housed there do not circulate but can be used for reference in-house. Lastly, if there is a title that you are interested in having the library purchase, you can use the patron-driven purchase form and make a request for a specific work. We look forward to seeing you at the exhibit and at our Chai Wai event. In the meanwhile, we wish you happy comic hunting! Be sure to like our page on Facebook for more news, stories and updates like these.

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“500 & 5” at the Spurlock Museum

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Autorickshaws. Curry. Hijra. Tamil. Bindis. And rupees. Guess that country.

If you guessed India, you were right. This is the country that “500 & 5” highlighted at the International and Area Studies (IAS) Library’s screening on Sunday, December 14th at the Spurlock Museum, organized by South Asian Studies Librarian Mara Thacker. Wanting to take advantage of one of the film creator’s presence in Urbana-Champaign, 40 people gathered to view the Tamil-language piece, which was followed by a question and answer session with Kousalya Jeganathan.

“500 & 5” tells the tale of a 500 rupee note of Indian currency that travels through the hands of five different people in South India. While only valued at about $8 US, the bill’s impact is immeasurable in deciding the fates of many, including those of a gangster, a chauffeur and a woman suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. Filmed in modern-day India, the piece evokes a variety of themes like organized crime, divorce and the illicit use of narcotics. The theme connecting the various stories is the overwhelming influence of money in a variety of social situations. While the rupees solve no problems in the film, they certainly increase the tensions in relationships based on authority and subservience.

The film has had some difficulty finding distribution, Jeganathan mentioned in the talkback afterwards. Some of the tropes reject the conventions of the traditional feature film. For example, the film is split into five shorts as opposed to films with one major story line. Women are featured as prominent characters and are not merely the object of amorous pursuits as is a pattern in many parts of the world, including the East and the West. And, more than anything else, the film is explicitly anti-consumerist and anti-capitalistic, frequently criticizing the power that money represents. Distributors have therefore been reluctant to risk supporting a film they are unsure will succeed at the box office.

The audience’s response to the film was inquisitive and its questions revealed some unique details about the film making process. In order to dedicate themselves fully to the task, Jenganthan and other “500 & 5” creators quit their jobs, truly manifesting the idea that provoking thought was a higher priority than monetary gain. Certain scenes were filmed in Jeganathan’s home. Many of the actors came from a theater background, and the role of the hijra character opened new discussions of a third gender that is widely accepted in Indian culture. Jeganathan shared that envisioning a moneyless culture was new and challenging for many audiences, but was perhaps still a worthy exercise, even if momentary and fleeting.

Calmly accepting the fate of the film, Jeganathan stated that “whenever the universe wants it, it will come out.” “500 & 5” is recommended to audiences interested in the cinematic representation of South Asia. It offers a visually rich tapestry of several socioeconomic classes of Indian society, from the very poor and illiterate to the exaggeratedly rich figures of the entertainment industry. For more information on the film, visit accessiblehorizonfilms.com and be on the lookout for more events from the International and Area Studies Library by liking our Facebook page.

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