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Finding community by ‘Reading Together, Reading Apart’

Tamara Bhalla, an associate professor of American Studies and affiliate faculty in the Asian Studies program at UMBC, recently released her book “Reading Together, Reading Apart.”

What inspired you to write “Reading Together, Reading Apart”?

Reading Together grew out of an ethnography that I conducted as a graduate student in the English department at the University of Michigan. I have always been interested in how different groups of readers, particularly readers of color and women, use literature in their everyday lives. Over time, I focused my study on how a group of South Asian Americans use reading and readership to form a sense of community identity and belonging in the United States. South Asians are a highly-literary diasporic community and a community that I belong to, so it felt like a natural fit in many ways to study the reading practices of this group.

Were there any aspects of your research that were particularly powerful that you knew you had to include in your writing?

My research interests, and general pop cultural interests are always going to be focused on reception. I think that so-called “low-brow” texts – meaning cultural texts that are maligned or thought to be culturally vapid – can often be consumed in some really interesting and complicated ways. In the 1980s Janice Radway, for example, wrote a very influential study on how female readers have an ambivalent relationship to romance novels, even as they consider themselves fans of the genre.
I believe it is really important for us to think through the messy ways that audiences/readers/listeners consume material, because historically books, shows and films have been denigrated or ignored when they centralize the experiences of women and people of color. It’s really important to me then, to think about how these texts are used by the audiences that they purportedly represent, rather than how or whether they are subject to the mainstream, male or white gaze.

What are you hoping South Asian students – or anyone – are able to get from reading your book?

The work that I do in my teaching and research culminates in my insistence that the experiences and histories of Asian people in the United States, which have long been muted and dismissed, should be acknowledged as central to this nation’s development.
My hope in all of my work is to serve the 20 percent Asian student population on our campus by providing an Asian American studies curriculum which we now have with our new Asian American studies courses and minor in the American Studies department, serving as a faculty mentor to these students, and by grounding my commitment to undergraduate education in my own scholarship and research.

In what ways do you hope your book can influence campus life and encourage new literary communities to form?

I never really thought of my book as a way to advocate for the formation of new literary communities – but I love that you suggested it! I was just speaking to the newly elected president of the Vietnamese Student Association and suggested to her they read Viet Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” at one of their events next year – so I guess I am encouraging book clubs even when I don’t know it! In all seriousness, I think at its best, literature can bring people together in both real and imagined communities. Even when not everyone likes the same book, which I have seen many times in my classes, you have an investment in your perspective and in sharing it with other students.

What advice do you have for undergrads who are experiencing identity struggles, especially in terms of them finding a community they can relate to?

My three best ideas are: 1. Take a class not just to fill a requirement but to learn about your own cultures – try an interdisciplinary field, like American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies or Africana Studies, in which you are going to encounter the professors who are really committed to thinking through issues of identity and histories of struggle for women and people of color. 2. Reach out and be proactive – follow the Asian American studies at UMBC or UMBC Department of American Studies Facebook pages, visit the Women’s center, follow the Mosaic center’s myumbc group, join a student group. There is a lot of excellent programming happening on our campus! 3. Travel! Get out of here and see the world when you can. It doesn’t have to be expensive – take a road trip. But sometimes the best way to figure out who your community really is or can be to get some distance on it.