When my family moved to Atlanta, we moved to the suburbs – a landscape defined by the distinct architectural feature of a strip mall. We shopped in a Publix shopping center next to a Chinese spot, USPS, and Domino’s, quite like the Publix shopping center three miles down the road. My family’s Pakistani community was spread around metro Atlanta’s sprawling perimeter, and the strip malls that our parents’ friends owned were made in the style of any strip mall in any country. We were, at our core, settlers on stolen land disinterested in what was native, continuing the legacy of the white people who landed before us, regardless of why we arrived.

I wonder if I or my Southern community are capable of writing about an American setting that is not homogenous. South to South: Writing South Asia in the American South, edited by Khem K. Aryal, says that we are. The eight short stories and eight essays in this anthology offer one of the first holistic considerations of what it means for South Asians to add our literary patch to the unmistakable quilt of American history from this singular region – to tie our lineage not only to the land of our ancestors, but to the abundant soil of Southern literature as well.

South to South anthology

For essayist Shikha Malaviya, the South gave her a purpose through the blues. As she writes in “What I Found There,” “The blues seems the American equivalent of Hindustani Thumri.” Where blues music represents a clear voice for Black musicians in the lineage of work songs and field hollers, thumri, a genre developed primarily by courtesans in north India, was once one of the few genres in which women could be open about their bodies – their hunger, sexuality, and longing. For a young, just-married Malaviya finding her place in Tampa, it’s the music of Black liberation in the South that makes her feel at home.

In “Gettysburg,” Kirtan Nautiyal considers what it means for South Asians to situate themselves in Southern history and Southern nostalgia. Nautiyal writes about how his childhood passion for Civil War reenactments led to an adult obsession with seeing brown people in every facet of American history. He discusses the Ghadar movement and how Aaron Burr’s Bengali wife and children fought in the Civil War, leading Freedmen against the Confederacy. He writes about how this wasn’t enough for him: he wanted “us in every corner of America’s history, all the good and the bad, hidden somewhere in the background like we always were.” Nautiyal’s desire is resonant for every first-generation South Asian searching for examples of how to be as American as they are South Asian. How that desire leaves us in a country where we’re often among the last to arrive. The desire to see ourselves in both good and bad speaks broadly to the yearning for a place here. Any kind of place, on any side of history.

As a matter of fact, in the stories that critically depict the actual reality of immigration, characters could not care less whether they are in the South, the Northeast, the Midwest, or the West. They come not to the American South but to America, a concept more than a country. Laxman of Aryal’s “Laxman Sir in America,” regrets leaving Nepal, where he was respected and knew how things worked. Nafisa in Aruni Kashyap’s “Nafisa Ali’s Life, Love, and Friendships, Before and After the Travel Ban” quickly ceases to miss home and craves more distance from the cultural expectations that face her there. The South and its histories are not critical to the stories of these fictional immigrants. The South is a backdrop to their failed expectations, their sense of displacement, their not-belonging.

I finished this book having read sixteen thoughtful, well-crafted stories, but with an unfulfilled hunger for a book that reckons even more deeply with the patchwork of idiosyncrasies held by South Asian culture in the South. I’m thinking of the young South Asian girls in Texas who wore bump-its and bubblegum pink lip gloss to their Eid dawats growing up. Of the way a Hindu community in North Carolina took over the ice skating circuit in their small town after an older kid got into Harvard because of his single minded pursuit of a triple axel. Of the thousands of first-gen South Asians who join Southern fraternities and sororities, who speak with Southern accents, who make gumbo with a perfect roux or hate gumbo and can’t wait to leave the South for the elite northeastern college of their choice. The stories and essays in this book begin to engage with the specificity of South Asian Americanness, but I wished I had seen more of the Southerness.

I wish I had seen a story that really considered our role in the bloodshed that colors Southern history, past and present – what we’re protected from, where we are vulnerable. If not a story that engaged the trauma, perhaps one that considered our role in the distinct Southern joys that exist in spite of that history. The book left me waiting for a story that meaningfully engaged with our part in the racial politic of the region or an essay that confronted what it means to be queer in a region that is both deeply Christian and sensationally fruity. What is a South Asian Southern Gothic? How are we traversing the swamps?

In the closing essay of South to South, Soniah Kamal writes about South Asian writers as part of a New New South that depicts the region without pandering to stereotypes of either Southerness or South Asian-ness. While I couldn’t agree more sincerely with that desire, how do we acknowledge, all of us who have been shaped by this truly incomparable region of the U.S., that the South is a particular setting, one that shapes its inhabitants, fictional or not, in indelible ways? For me, this is one of the shortcomings of the anthology: we are relatively new to this country, yes, but there is no pretending that South Asians in the South exist outside of Southern culture, politics, and history.

I’m waiting for many people to build on the fertile soil Aryal has laid. I hope this anthology is simply the first of its kind. I hope that we will make spaces for more Southern South Asian writers to continue building a canon that declares, for the people in the back, “The South got something to say.”

Purchase South to South on Bookshop.

Books you buy through our links may earn us a commission.