UW News

July 22, 2010

Donation leads to database, exhibit and book — all honoring the contribution of immigrants from South Asia

UW News

Call it a gift that just keeps giving, from a caring librarian. What began as a modest donation to UW Libraries to document the post-war immigration of South Asians to the Pacific Northwest has grown to be a digital database, part of a museum exhibit at Ellis Island and even a book to be published by University of Washington Press.

It’s an example of how “one small thing can lead you to so much more,” said Deepa Banerjee, the UW’s South Asian Studies librarian. “That’s what comes out of this story.”

It started when Irene Joshi, who worked for 30 years as the UW’s first South Asian Studies librarian, retiring in 2000, donated $7,000 to UW Libraries to begin documenting the immigration of individuals from South Asia to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. This was in 2003, and Joshi was concerned that historically important life stories were being lost as the first generation of post-World War II South Asian immigrants started to reach the end of their lives.

The gift allowed the UW to contract with the Museum of History and Industry to begin what’s now called the first phase of the South Asian Oral History Project — interviewing seven people from the Northwest’s South Asian community who came here from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1940s and 1950s (the latter two nations having become independent from India in 1947).

Amy Bhatt, a doctoral student in Women Studies, transcribed the first set of interviews and has remained with the project, creating the protocol for its expansion. “It was really supposed to be more of a memorialization of early immigrants. Irene Joshi decided it would be an important record to continue to keep,” she said. The initial project was to get stories of immigrants from the post-War era and leave it at that.

But when Banerjee came to the UW in 2006 she was looking for a special project and made plans with Bhatt to expand the oral history project. They began its second phase, which comprised 10 more interviews, these with immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s. That work was made possible by various grants, including one from 4Culture, King County’s cultural services agency, as well as area Indian American associations. They also formed an advisory committee that included community members, librarians, UW academics and Nalini Iyer, an associate professor at Seattle University. The project’s third phase gathered similar interviews with those who had come to the States in the 1980s and 1990s.

UW Libraries’ senior computer specialist Anne Graham created a digital database from the interviews of all three phases, with audio, video where possible, transcripts as well as photos and biographical information about each of the speakers. Banerjee said though there are no official plans yet, she hopes that the interviews get merged with similar work from other regions to become “a database of national importance.” Angela Rosette-Tavares, UW Libraries’ digital projects designer, created the website.

Banerjee said it was “a huge surprise” when the team was contacted by representatives of The History Channel, which was working with a firm called EMI Design on a new exhibit for the Ellis Island National Immigration History Museum in New York. “The interviews have been used in an audio installation called The Peopling of America Center,” she said, which “will play short, spoken comments from migrants about their journeys to America, including the stories of South Asian immigrants.” The excerpts will be read by a voice-over actor, in both Hindi and in English. This audio will stream continuously out of speakers embedded in the wall. The exhibit is scheduled to open in July of 2011 and stay open for 10 years.

The material that makes up the South Asian Oral History Project is so rich it has also led to the creation of a book by Bhatt, working with Iyer, titled Roots and Reflections: South Asians Map the Pacific Northwest. Bhatt said the impetus for the book came in part by discussions of their community advisory board, and that she and Iyer decided the interviews were only “the first step” in a larger project.

“One of the things we started to notice as we began to track the evolution of the interviews is that the first phase was really tied to the UW, but with the growth of Boeing and Microsoft they became embedded in larger communities. So our interest was not just in documenting how people came to land in the Pacific Northwest but also how their presence has reshaped and reformulated ideas” about the region and its main industries.

“We pull together fictional and popular cultural representations of the South Asian community — we look at literature, films and media coverage, and the growth of the community in the United States,” she said.

In the book description submitted to UW Press, the authors state, “The book is more than a community history — it is also a guide for future scholars and contains an extended bibliography of resources on the South Asian Diaspora” compiled by Banerjee. “Thus, Roots and Reflections shows how South Asian immigrants have found a place in the Pacific Northwest that moves beyond fictional, film or cultural accounts and is grounded in real stories and experiences.” The manuscript is complete and is being readied by UW Press for likely publication in 2012.

Banerjee said the oral history project and resulting work will have great appeal, especially to second-generation members of the South Asian community, “who are trying to figure out the history of their parents’ immigration to the United States, and particularly this region, and how it developed into a Diaspora.”

All the attention comes at a good time for South Asian Studies, Banerjee said. “Politically, South Asia is gaining prominence, especially India, and so much is happening, and there are a lot of students enrolling in South Asian courses, so the program is expanding here at the Jackson School. So this project, with its effort to preserve history, is really contributing a lot.”

To learn more about the South Asian Oral History Project and hear interviews, visit online here. To learn more about EMI Design’s work at the Ellis Island National Immigration History Museum, visit online here.