Book Review: Uncle Swami

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A South Asian friend of mine once told me that 9/11 broke her heart; that after 9/11, she felt life for her as a South Asian woman would never be the same. How life changed for her is part of a richer story of what 9/11 meant for South Asians that is at the heart (or at least serves as the hook) of Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, by Vijay Prashad.

Uncle Swami took me just four or five hours to read, a real plus for a slow reader with a short attention span. It opens with a letter to Uncle Swami (Uncle Sam) written ten years after 9/11/2001, a date he refers to as “the day our probation ended,” and proceeds to present a compulsively readable capsule account of the history of South Asian America since 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act lifted racist bans and quotas on Asian, African, and Latin American immigration into the U.S. That reform resulted in a wave (really many waves propelled by a variety of linked geopolitical forces) of immigration from Asia that transformed Asian America.

I like nothing better than an easy, fast, accessible read packed with information. Uncle Swami is such a book. Ever wonder why roadside motels in the South often seem to be owned by South Asians? Wonder why so many South Asians are medical professionals and engineers? Accessible, stereotype-busting explanations are included in Uncle Swami along with an account of  how 9/11 changed what it means to be South Asians in America.

In relatively few pages, the author helps us to understand how the South Asian American minority was politically constructed  – kind of a summary South Asian America 101 – reminding us of the important role of medicaid and medicare and special visas in the establishment of the community. Prashad’s analysis provides us with the tools to discern the political nature of the formation of racial minority groups in the U.S., from which we can extrapolate the role foreign wars and American shortages of highly skilled workers are playing in the continuing project of creating an Asian America racial minority here. And it explains how politics, and post-9/11 politics in particular, has continued to shape the lives of South Asian immigrants, the flip side of which is how, for the rest of us, 9/11 changed our understanding of national security, adding a dangerous and wrong-headed cultural and racial dimension to our sense of where we fit into a world that is increasingly hostile to Americans.

I recommend it. It’s short, easy to read, altogether a relatively small investment of time for, what was for me anyway, a big pay off.

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