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Manan Desai

Manan Desai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. He is currently completing his book The United States of India, about South Asian and American intellectual exchange during the 1910s and 20s. His writing has been published in Comparative Literature and the Journal of Popular Culture.

Bamboo and Brass: The Sexual Politics of Exotica’s Asia”
From the soft-porn covers of Les Baxter LPs to the stories of women fawning over performances of Korla Pandit, mid-century Exotica was heavily marketed through heterosexual fantasy. Yet, given that the genre emerged in the post-war/cold war milieu of the 1950s, Exotica also shored up a different kind of American fantasy – a political imaginary that represented the decolonizing East through racist images that seemed straight out of the pulp fiction of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The women photographed on “exotica” LPs, after all, weren’t standard pin-up models but were often enacting a kind of racial – and often Asian or Polynesian -- drag. In this paper, I examine how Asian American performers like the Nisei music director Tak Shindo, Japanese-Hawaiian singer Ethel Azama, and Korla Pandit (who “passed” as Indian) navigated this terrain. Given the genre’s reliance on heavily racialized and gendered representations and the period’s strict anti-miscegenation laws, how did these artists reinforce or challenge these images? What did their visual and musical representations of the East tell us about the status of Asian Americans in the post-war period? And, in what ways were the heterosexual fantasies of Exotica’s women intertwined with American cold war fantasies of Asia?