On Monday, several University units kicked off a five-day symposium that will touch on concepts including tourism, commercialism and gender identities — all through the history of sugar in the Caribbean.
Gaiutra Bahadur, an author and journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Foreign Policy Magazine and The Nation, delivered a keynote address Monday on the experiences of indentured Indian women who immigrated to the Caribbean.
The idea for the symposium originated with Anita Gonzalez, a University professor who heads the Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies minor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. She had been working with her colleagues on a performance project designed to consider how involuntary labor by people of color could provide a mechanism for understanding the Caribbean more broadly. The project would eventually form the basis for an interdisciplinary symposium titled, “Conjuring the Caribbean: How Sweet it is.”
Bahadur’s novel, “Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture,” focuses on the lost histories of enslaved women, like her great-grandmother. The women described in the book were often uprooted from their families, or were runaways who fled from India to Guiana only to face more mistreatment. A “Coolie” is a name that was traditionally given to indentured laborers by the British.
Throughout their journeys and in Guiana, Bahadur said these indentured women were subjected to sexual assault and domestic violence. Many were simply killed. Bahadur said she wrote the book not only to create a tangible record for her great-grandmother, but to discover more about herself.
“Does ‘Coolie Woman’ provide a home in the world for my great-grandmother and the women like her?” Bahadur asked. “Does it provide more for me and women like me? I’d like to think that the answer to both questions is yes. Telling the stories of indentured women gives them a place in history, a symbolic home and it also gives their descendants a home and a sense of self, of identity.”
Much of Bahadur’s keynote focused on the archives she worked with while researching the book. The archives, however, did not provide a full record, and Bahadur found she needed to find ways to work around the gaps. Because the majority of the primary sources from this time were written by translators or by the very people who oppressed the indentured women, she said they cannot fully convey the women’s thoughts and feelings.
In an attempt to fill these gaps, Bahadur listened to period folk music, as well as viewed pictures of and listened to audio interviews with some of the women. Bahadur noted that even some of the accounts the women gave were not fully representative because the trauma they endured made it very difficult for them to talk frankly about their experiences. Instead of letting the sometimes false or contradictory archives hinder the research, Bahadur said she actively used the archives to further her novel’s plot.
In the novel, Bahadur said the gaps in the limited archival material provided as much of a subject as the actual histories.
“(The book) is a history written with the archive, but also against the archive,” she said. “It uses questions, sometimes cheeky questions, to expose the archive for the fiction it sometimes is. The archive becomes the subject itself.”
Of the roughly 50 people who attended the event, many were graduate students who were either artist scholars or were studying topics related to the keynote and symposium.
Manan Desai, an assistant professor in American Culture and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, had actually featured some of Bahadur’s work in the class he teaches: South Asian Diaspora in North America. He said that he was pleased with the event as it highlighted a history not many people in the United States know about.
“I thought it was really great,” Desai said. “I think she not only talked about this kind of important history that I think a lot of people, specifically in the United States and even the South Asian Diaspora in the United States don’t know about; I think she also talked about the difficulty of recuperating histories when you’re dealing with archives that silence many of these voices. I thought that was really beautifully and powerfully described.”
Gonzalez thought that Bahadur’s keynote provided a solid basis for the rest of the symposium.
“This was definitely a great kickoff event because each of the presentations frame things in the context of conjuring and sugar, which are two of the metaphors that we want to explore as we start to talk about the process of how the Caribbean resonates today and with the historical past,” Gonzalez said.