Last month I helped bring together an academic round table of Mutineers, contributors to the community, blog, and phenomenon that was Sepia Mutiny (sepiamutiny.com, 2004-2012). We gathered at 8:30 a.m. in a satellite building of the 47th Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, WI, buzzed out on coffee and nerd adrenaline. Our hard-to-find location seemed to literalize the peripheral nature of diaspora research at the event, but it could not dampen our excitement. During the session, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Amardeep Singh, and I discussed Sepia Mutiny’s political and social legacies, its relationship to popular South Asian American representations presently, and the South Asian American project more broadly. You can check out live tweets and other goodies related to the round table here: http://wke.lt/w/s/oABaD.
What was most shocking that morning, as it is every time I speak to anyone about Sepia Mutiny, or dive into the archives, is how lively Sepia Mutiny was and how alive it remains. I came to the blog late, reading it mostly after it shuttered its doors in 2012. But its posts and vibrant comments sections are as relevant today as they were in 2004. During its run it featured over 60 Mutineers, at its height over 15,000 readers a day. For a two-year stretch, it published about 100 or more posts per month. Over 600 of its posts garnered more than a hundred, often substantive and dialogic comments. One post, “Whoa– is dating White not right?” elicited over 1300 comments.
“…the community it brought together is so very much alive, and the questions it asked more relevant than ever.”
Even though I read it after Sepia Mutiny shut its doors, I would find myself smothering a laugh at a witty turn of phrase in an Anna John post, or bobbing my head to music recommendations from Taz Ahmed. I’d be biting my nails reading through a hundred-comment thread, anxious to see what was said next and if a Mutineer would step in, and shaking my head at committed trolls like SpoorLam and Pardesi Gori. Or I’d end up going down a deep link-hole, jumping from one astonishing nugget to the next, a world of interconnected ideas opening up before my eyes.
At the conference, I was nervous, starstruck even, running a panel with Mutineers. Younger than them, white, and with my new Ph.D. fresh in hand, I felt like a kid who had been allowed to sit at the adults’ table. But everything quickly fell into place, the conversation got rolling, and we were off. Because there is so much to talk about when it comes to Sepia Mutiny, because the community it brought together is so very much alive, and the questions it asked more relevant than ever.
The urgency, the immediacy of Sepia Mutiny, I see it time and again when speaking to research participants, whether they’re academics or curators, journalists or activists. Their eyes light up, their head tilts just so, and they can’t help but smile. What made it so alive, so thrilling, so relevant?
“So much work and care and love and cleverness were poured into Sepia Mutiny, to bring to life a site…supportive enough to build a new way of being South Asian American.”
So much work and care and love and cleverness were poured into Sepia Mutiny, to bring to life a site raucous and multifaceted and supportive enough to build a new way of being South Asian American. The four most prolific bloggers — Abhi Tripathi, Manish Vij, Anna John, and Amardeep Singh — wrote more than 3000 of the sites 5300+ posts. And the posting was only a portion of what went into imagining, building, and maintaining the site.
Web development, endless comment moderation to ensure high quality conversations, and fundraising are some of the more obvious kinds of work. But there was also caring for each other when a post went viral in a bad way or when Mutineers were doxxed, carefully recruiting and nurturing a diverse crew of bloggers, and the efforts expended to keep the archive available indefinitely. A profound thoughtfulness and commitment to its readers made Sepia Mutiny a formidable institution, an enduring authority, and a crucial infrastructure for building a politically progressive South Asian American community.
Studying this amazing site and community is a deeply rewarding experience. It feels all the more important in light of our current situation in the U.S. It is marked by a strong sense of cultural anxiety, which bad faith actors mobilize to produce ahistorical understandings of race and other identities, and construct new forms of exclusion and oppression. What Sepia Mutiny showed us, I believe, is that it is possible to build a vibrant community of coalition and solidarity. One that fights division and oppression within — such as caste violence and Islamophobia — and enhances alliances to other communities of color. One that gets people to register and go vote, and inspires its members to dream new visions of community and belonging.
“One person alone is not a mutiny. Sepia Mutiny showed people they weren’t alone…”
Importantly, it showed that that kind of revelatory experience, its authority, comes from having many authors, many Mutineers. One person alone is not a mutiny. Sepia Mutiny showed people they weren’t alone, and that together they could make something wild, and wonderful, and new. I hope this post, in which we #RemembertheMutiny, can be a humble reminder of the same.
It’s funny trying to write about Sepia Mutiny in the contemporary moment — my memories of the site are fairly impressionistic by this point, given that I was always a bit of a skim-reader, and too uncertain of myself to jump into the comments and try contributing wholesale to the site. When I started reading Sepia Mutiny with any regularity, I think I was just about to go to university, and I continued reading it throughout my undergrad years. It felt a bit strange, to see bits and pieces of experience I could relate to (and other bits and pieces that were entirely new and wonderful), all gathered in one place.
My experience of “being South Asian-American” was a somewhat bifurcated thing, given that I did end up spending a chunk of my childhood (from when I was 6 until I was 13) in India itself, having lived in the Midwest until then. It’s the part of childhood people tend to write about as being formative — at least, in a Judy Blume novel-esque kind of way. And so it’s the part of childhood I actually remember with any great detail: being a stranger in a place where everyone, for the most part, looked like me, where I could pass until I opened my mouth, and then the disguise was shot.
When I think of myself as South Asian-American it’s quite a literal thing — I was a U.S. American (with the requisite passport and stamps), living in South Asia, and when I returned to the United States I felt doubly aloof. Everyone has their “one other kid in school who was South Asian” story, if they’re lucky — the few other kids in my public school who were South Asian had immigrated to the U.S. quite recently from India with their families. We sounded very different. We were very different. It was never clear to me why anyone should lump us together.
Some jokes I got, some television shows I didn’t quite catch. Nothing lined up one way or the other — I drawled passable Telugu in a nasally Midwestern accent, to the offense of my teachers’ ears in India, and I remember automatically standing up to answer the teacher (much to their surprise) my first week in homeroom, newly returned to the U.S.A.
“Sepia Mutiny, when I stumbled upon it…felt less like a revelation and more like a reclamation.”
Sepia Mutiny, when I stumbled upon it (probably through StumbleUpon, if anyone remembers that), felt less like a revelation and more like a reclamation. That all these bits of memory, these experiences of being out of your skin and (a bit) out of your mind were recognized and thought about and worried over by other people — people who you wouldn’t know in real life, but who could read your anxieties all the same. I wouldn’t say that Sepia Mutiny shaped my identity — but it did show me that there was a world outside myself where these confusions that haunted me mattered, and that was quite a liberating feeling.
I read Amardeep’s posts the most, probably because I’m a bookish sort (here am I at the Sisyphean task of getting my Ph.D., after all) and it was the first time that I’d really encountered long-form writing *about* books. Public school in the U.S. (or private school in India) doesn’t do much in the way of literary criticism, and just discovering that yes, you really could write about all those bits of books and snippets of novels taking up space in your head was kind of magical.
“I’ll always be grateful for the labor and struggle that put Sepia Mutiny out to the world.”
With distance, I can see the value Sepia Mutiny had to others as a community of like-minded souls, but to me, it functioned a bit more like a mirror; it was always an individual thing, as if each writer was speaking to me alone. Here, the website offered me — here are thinkers and dreamers, fighters and writers, all trying to come to terms with the question of who they are, and how that will and should matter. Here’s where you can figure out the shape of yourself. And for providing that space — for me to think out to myself about the possibility of what I could be — I’ll always be grateful for the labor and struggle that put Sepia Mutiny out to the world.
Lia Wolock is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her work examines transnational media cultures and race in the US. Find her on Twitter @liapold
Padma Chirumamilla is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information. Find her on Twitter @heysoke.
Want to dive (back) in? Here’s a list of Sepia Mutiny’s most commented posts, compiled by Lia.
A N N A Whoa– is dating White not right?
A N N A Who is SKINNY? [Updated]
A N N A Bobby Makes History
A N N A Why Does Caste Matter to US?
Ennis Singh Mutinywale Can’t buy me love?
A N N A Hyderabadis in Blackface?
A N N A You are Christians and Fools.
A N N A Turban + Beard = No <3?
siddhartha Oh, All Right. But You Asked For It
Taz Sepia Destiny
A N N A My PUMA is flummoxed by Palin.
Ennis Singh Mutinywale First Miss Great Britain of Indian origin
A N N A And all she got was a bun.
A N N A On Being Down With Dating Brown