Aria, who was a Freeman Asian Scholar, majored in History and received University Honors, among other awards.
WESCONNECT: Could you tell us more about Dalip Singh Saund: His Life, His Legacy, your role in it, and its position in Asian-American dialogue?
ARIA DANAPARAMITA: Dalip Singh Saund: His Life, His Legacy is a short bio-documentary on the first Asian elected as a US Congressman. He came as a student from Punjab in 1920 and, despite social and institutionalized discrimination, represented California District 29. The film is part of a series, the Asian Pacific American Members of Congress History Project, which we produced in association with the US Capitol Historical Society and the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
I was a senior researcher in the project, tasked with archival research. It’s embarrassingly nerdy that I got excited about this, but I spent most of my time at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, scouring through Congressional Records, various legislations, while researching the broader historical contexts around immigration and civil rights in Saund’s era. We had a very small team so I also helped manage visual assets and edit the script.
The documentary is the first to tell Saund’s story on screen. It seems obvious that he’s an important figure, being the first Asian American Congressman, yet so few people know his name. But his story is truly amazing. He came to study agriculture, graduated with a Mathematics PhD from UC Berkeley, but, unable to find a teaching job, relegated himself to farming. He then became a community leader and was among those who pushed for the Luce-Celler Act which was a groundbreaking legislation that first allowed Asians (Indians and Filipinos) to naturalize as US citizens. As a Congressman, he fought for water rights, public lands rights, gender equality, all the while never straying from his roots and his Sikh faith. The issues that Saund faced, the barriers that he overcame, these are issues that still resonate today. Anti-immigration sentiments, racial prejudice, and gender inequality are still prevalent. We hope the film serves as an educational tool and an inspiration that keeps Saund’s legacy alive.
WC: In the course of your research for Dalip Singh Saund… did you come across any surprising information?
ARIA: A lot, actually. One: when Saund was running for office, they relied on billboards. On all of them, it said “D.S. Saund.” He was never Dalip Singh Saund. Throughout his life, stories of “passing” like this one were fascinating to me.
Two: due to the Immigration Act of 1917, Saund and other Asians were ineligible to naturalize as US citizens or otherwise obtain immigration status, until the passing of the Luce-Celler Act. Interestingly, if an American woman wanted to marry such a person, she would have had to give up her US citizenship as well—this was the case with Saund’s wife.
Then there’s an interesting piece of Congressional history: Saund was a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. He was among the Members of Congress who introduced the ERA during his terms. The ERA has been introduced in every Congressional session since 1923 until it withered away in 1982.
WC: This was your first project after graduation – how did you get involved in this film? How do you see this fitting in the future narrative of your career?
ARIA: I was a History major at Wesleyan. I met the writer and director, E. Samantha Cheng, at a documentary festival in Washington, D.C. Film has always been an interest of mine: I worked at the Wesleyan Film Series all of my four years at Wesleyan. It was also a historical documentary. I came to love archival research while writing my thesis at Wesleyan and I was excited to get back to the archives. The subject matter is also very resonant to me: I, like Saund, was an international student facing my own H1B work visa issues. And, of course, immigration history and race politics were important subjects for me at Wesleyan. Since the film wrapped up, I’ve been working on another project that documents mixed-race experiences in Washington DC. And, when I return to Asia, I hope to continue working on documentary projects—be it film, photography, or writing—that explore issues of immigration, race, and identity.
WC: You recently wrote an Op-Ed in The Jakarta Globe on the psychology, politics and the very nomenclature of “postcolonialism” in Indonesia. Could you summarize your take on the present-day relics of colonialism for us? How did post- or neocolonialism affect your academic interests and your intellectual growth?
I first encountered postcolonialism in an FYI COL course with Professor Typhaine Leservot. I continued to read and grapple with it in other courses—history, literature, archaeology—and it figured heavily into my thesis. I have been thinking a lot about it again in the context of contemporary Indonesia and the recent presidential election. I would certainly argue that relics of colonialism remain: Indonesia’s agriculture, natural resource industries, and the systems that maintain them were established during the Dutch colonial era, now transposed onto the global, capitalist structure. The actors have changed: the exploiters are no longer European colonists; they’re native and foreign businessmen, investors, and policy makers. But this exploitative structure remains, causing many Indonesians to still live as though in fear of a colonizing specter, while accepting their place as the low-skill laborer, the producer of raw materials, the not-quite-oppressed but disempowered nonetheless.
In a way, studying postcolonial theory was my own way of dissecting my identity and history. This is also why I disagree with much of the postcolonial theory canon that portrays a binary, however fluid, of the oppressor and the silent oppressed. I’d like to think that tacit acceptance of one’s role in the (post)colonial scheme doesn’t mean one is silent or silenced, but its own mode of struggle to self-actualize. I’d like to further study postcolonial theory in graduate school and apply it to contemporary issues.
WC: Any memories of Wesleyan that stand out?
Many and, naturally, they’re contradictory. Only a year out, I still look at how amazing Wesleyan was for me: my friends, my professors, West African drumming courses, Joss Whedon’s ’87 commencement speech, getting Lemony Snicket’s (Daniel Handler ’92) autograph. But, as any member of the class of 2013 would probably attest, our later years were fraught with issues surrounding need blind admissions, the rights of our custodians, the racial problems that incited the diversity fora.
I’ve come to take Wesleyan as a place where criticism can flourish, even if such criticism went unaddressed by the administration. The task is how to keep that passion alive as we all carve our professional and academic paths onward.