Sameer Pandya is a fiction writer and interdisciplinary literary and cultural studies scholar interested in questions of cultural dislocation and racial identity among South Asian Americans. Pandya serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he teaches creative writing in addition to South Asian and Asian American literature. He is the recipient of the PEN/Civitella Fellowship and his commentary and cultural criticism have appeared in various publications including The Atlantic, Salon, and ESPN. Pandya’s first novel Members Only follows Indian American anthropology professor Raj Bhatt who attempts to negotiate his place in America while battling accusations of racism both by members of his all-White tennis club and by students at his university. Members Only was published in July.
Neil Sehgal: Members Only begins with your protagonist, Raj, casually uttering a racial epithet at a Black man. Today in 2020, should this kind of behavior be grounds for expulsion from a tennis club, the loss of a job, or being ‘cancelled’, or is more nuance needed?
Sameer Pandya: Cancel culture is a phrase that is used a lot on all sides of the political spectrum. What I wanted to do, and this is what the novel form allows you to do, is to take a conversation piece and explore the nuances of it, the ways in which there are no simple answers on either end of the spectrum. The phrase cancel culture does not arrive in the book at all. What I tried to do was explore this desire to expunge. In the TC [Tennis Club] there is this wound festering beneath and it is asking to be tended to. Part of what Raj is saying to the committee is, “I made a really horrible mistake. I own up to the horrible mistake I have made. I recognize that you are using this mistake to request that I leave this membership committee and perhaps leave this club as well.” But the request that Raj is making is that in doing all of that, you’re not willing to truly examine the issues that are at play here. You’re not willing to examine the responsibility that I have taken in this. You’re not willing to examine the history of a club like this, or the ways in which it exists in the fictional city around it. I was trying to work through, in the book, how we might really look at the layers of what is occurring beneath.
NS: Why is it that you don’t use the phrase “cancel culture”? Is there a phrase that better describes what’s going on in America today?
SP: It’s not that I am not using the phrase “cancel culture” because I didn’t want to use a more contemporary term. For me, the phrase is not so important. It’s what the phrase is trying to do. The request of the book is to consider the question of “What are we talking about when we talk about cancellation?” Or more precisely, “What are we not talking about when we talk about cancellation?” Instead of it being an issue around the right phrase, it’s an issue around what the desire to cancel is as a reflection of our collective lives. What is it that we are not saying? What is it that we need to collectively think about in terms of how power, the lack of power, and privilege operate? For me, the book is an opening of these conversations and to ask if the phrase can truly describe what is going on in our collective lives.
NS: In a one-week timespan, Raj gets “cancelled” across the political spectrum. In one instance, he faces vocal pushback from a group of conservative students after a relatively mundane lecture on Edward Said’s Orientalism. How much of this satire? Do you think that in today’s America, a professor could get in trouble for discussing Orientalism?
SP: Part of the satirical bent of the book was to say that Orientalism is not a hugely radical notion. It may have been a radical notion when Said published the book in the seventies, but we have now gone through multiple generations of students having read it. Raj even says, “Look, I’ve been giving this bread and butter lecture on Said for years.” So in picking Said, there was a desire to show how non-controversial the lecture itself was. Now can this happen to faculty? It doesn’t take long to look around to see the ways in which the relationship between student and faculty is not static. There have been examples in the news across the country where this kind of pushback is occurring. The question is what is the context of that pushback?
NS: In the book, one of your characters Josh, who’s an expert on cyber witch-hunts, tells Raj that students being too liberal on campus isn’t really an issue. The real problem is the Conservative students, caught up in whatever they’re hearing from their angry parents and all this hateful noise online, who are staging witch-hunts across the country. How closely does Josh’s view on university cancel culture mirror your own?
SP: Is this more of a Liberal issue or more of a Conservative issue? Part of what Raj is trying to work through is that it is a collective issue. In this particular moment, Raj is being canceled by right-leaning students for his lecture on Orientalism. Part of the reason I included this novelistically was to juxtapose it to the ways in which he is being cancelled by left-leaning TC members. Part of what the novel was trying to get through is that Raj exists in this middle space between these two aspects. And it’s that middleness that I was most interested in. In these conversations around cancellation, Raj is in the middle. But it is also in some ways how he has seen himself for his entire life. In the beginning of the novel he says he has always seen himself as this figure that brought the different sides together. The irony of the book is that after having spent a lifetime in the middle, it’s his very middleness that puts him in the situation that he finds himself in.
NS: Why center the book on a tennis club and not a golf club or a nonspecific country club?
SP: A couple of things. I love the sport. It’s terrific, it’s athletic, and I’m intrigued by its history purely in terms of the men and women who have played. John McPhee’s book Levels of the Game about Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe influenced me quite a bit. McPhee uses one match in one sport to think about America, race, and society in all sorts of different ways and I was inspired by this notion.
Now, why a tennis club as opposed to a golf club? The stark notions of membership and who is included and not included become almost heavy handed when it comes to the subject of golf. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it. These are the contexts I’ve thought about Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods, how minority golfers have engaged in a sport with a very complicated racial history. But with tennis and the TC, I was interested in creating and fictionalizing a club that is a very California kind of place. I’m not modeling the TC on Wimbledon Lawn and Tennis Club, but it has a certain brand about what it means to step on the grounds or how the players are supposed to dress. I found the idea of the TC really intriguing in that it’s a really liberal and open place in a particular way. It’s precisely in that liberal open space that I wanted to set this book. What happens when race becomes a central issue in this space, what happens within that context, and how does it operate?
NS: One of the questions the book asks is who has the right to call out racism? A similar question is who can actually be racist? Where do you stand on the idea that minorities can’t be racist?
SP: If you think about racism as the relationship between a certain racial thinking and a power to back up that thinking, then my sense is that nobody has a full monopoly on being racist. This is a part of a central conversation that South Asian Americans are beginning to think about: How does the notion of anti-Blackness operate in these communities? This idea that minorities cannot be racist, that they cannot articulate racist thoughts is something I don’t agree with. Now that doesn’t mean that there are not different gradations of how racism operates, the ways in which it can be utilized, or the ways in which it enacts certain forms of power. But I do think that the idea that only certain groups can engage in racism is not born out.
NS: The novel explores where the Brown space is between Black and White. It doesn’t as directly deal with the Brown space within the larger Asian American space. Where does the Brown space fit in this context?
SP: On one hand, we can think about Brown space in a larger American context of Blackness and Whiteness, and then there is the question of how South Asians fit into the larger notion of Asian American. I think South Asians occupy an interesting position there. If you look at 19th century immigration practices and trends you do begin to see this arrival not in huge numbers, but clearly in numbers, of various groups from East Asia and South Asia. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Indians are all arriving in different ways, but at similar moments. On one level, there is a very clear kind of similarity of those experiences, but there are also moments in which there are divergences. In one of my classes, I teach a set of two court cases that come upon the Supreme Court in 1922 and 1923. The first is Ozawa vs US and then in the following year it’s Thind vs US. And in both cases, Ozawa and Thind are making similar arguments and are seeking American citizenship. So, there are convergences.
You can also see that there are convergence and divergences within the field of Asian American studies itself. There are different kinds of relationships to America and notions of model minority and assimilation if you’re from Southeast Asia versus if you’re from East Asia. In a way, the notion of Asian American has been extremely useful; it has been useful as a literary idea, as a political idea, and as a social idea. But even as Asian American scholars are using this larger umbrella term, they are deeply aware of and sensitive to the radically different histories that occur.
NS: You teach under the banner of “Asian American” in your department, Asian American Studies. Do you think the term has outlived its usefulness? Is it marginalizing those on the peripheries?
SP: The field has been so dynamic precisely because it recognizes that these differences exist. It is like all kinds of dynamic fields in that it is aware of its own blind spots, its own critiques, its own history, and the ways in which it has worked through particular narratives. I teach a class on South Asians in America and I am constantly rethinking the class in terms of the way I have utilized certain narratives of South Asian arrival in this country and ways in which I have not looked at certain narratives. And, the beauty of the field is that scholars are producing books at a remarkable pace. On the contrary, I believe that the field is aware of itself and is constantly engaged in these larger questions of the narratives it has utilized and the ways in which those narratives need to be rethought.
NS: In April, Andrew Yang wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in response to rising anti-Asian racism driven by the pandemic. Yang suggested combatting racism by showing everyone how American Asian Americans can be by increasing donations to aid organizations and wearing red, white, and blue in public. Is this the way to combat anti-Asian racism?
SP: Let me turn the conversation to the novel. Part of what I was trying to explore with Raj is the ways in which he passes until he doesn’t and why it is that he thought he passed for so long. That’s what Raj is here for. He exists precisely for two reasons. One, to think about the ways in which race operates in this particular context. And second, this notion that if you just do all the right things, if you wear all the right clothes, and if you are engaged in a certain kind of social practice, that what will be promised at the end of that conversation, conversion, and assimilation is this kind of arrival at a place where everyone is treated equally. And Raj has known this at a certain level his entire life, but only in his middle age does he completely come to terms with the fact that this is not the case. As much as he desires, it is not the case. This notion that if you play by all these particular rules, then full cultural, political, and social citizenship is around the corner is something that the literary tradition and the historical record has suggested is not in fact the case.
NS: You probably didn’t imagine that your book would come out in the midst of this national reckoning on race. How happy are you with the conversations that have been occurring?
SP: Happy is perhaps not the word I would use. I’m glad that they’re happening. I think that they are overdue. What I feel that I am able to do, in a very small way, is to contribute to that larger conversation. It’s a conversation about race in general, but also a conversation about the ways in which race in American history operates. It’s staying power is based on its ability to operate within different groups. What I feel is less happiness and perhaps a greater appreciation that we are able to have this conversation in the way that we are having it. And in the way that people have been able to accentuate the voices of people who have been having it already. It’s not as if no one was talking about it, and suddenly now we are all talking about it. I think what is happening is certain voices have become out importantly and necessarily amplified.
NS: What does it say to you that the American book-buying public’s single biggest response to the Black Lives Matter movement was to buy a book about Whiteness written by a White person? I’m referring to White Fragility, which outsold books by non-White authors like How to Be an Antiracist.
SP: I think the fact that both of these books were selling as well as they were and that people were interested in them is the greater headline here. Of course, we have to remember that thousands and thousands of people on the streets was a central part of what happened in the summer of 2020. At the same time, I hope that people bought, engaged, and sat with it. It’s good that people are willing to sit with truths that they perhaps find uncomfortable and are engaged in different ways that they would have before. We are in a particular historic moment. I teach books that in the lifetime of the author a thousand copies of the book were sold.
NS: Two prime spots at the political conventions in August went to two Indian American women, Nikki Haley and Kamala Harris. Both invoked their South Asian immigrant identity in their speeches with Nikki Haley even stating that she was a “Brown girl in a Black-and-White world.” What do these two moments represent to you?
SP: They are two very different kinds of experiences and narratives. The New York Times had a terrific article on Kamala Harris’ parents meeting at the International House in the center of campus. And I found the particular historical convergence of these two figures from different aspects of the postcolony, Jamaica in Joe Harris’s case and India in her mother’s case, really intriguing. And the ways in which Harris has negotiated those two aspects, Indianness and Blackness, has been an interesting part of the journey she has made.
Nikki Haley has a very different set of ideas about these things and a very different set of notions of what Brownness means. Hopefully I’ve made very clear that the ways in which I am engaging with the notion of Brownness in Members Only is a very different understanding of Brownness than what Nikki Haley was presenting at the RNC [Republican National Convention]. She has a kind of progress narrative—that you are in a certain way, and then you arrive into a place. With Raj, the recognition that he has with this book is that this kind of direct journey, from the margin to the center, is not actually possible. Raj, in some ways, goes from margin to center, and then goes from the center back to the margins. So as an observer, I was struck by the radical differences between the two and how these differences reflect the gulfs within South Asian American understandings of itself.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.