Edifices of Empire

For Dissent Magazine, I wrote about an essay about racial capitalism, drawing on Peter Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean and Stuart Hall’s memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands: “For Hall, his family, his class, his island—the color line was drawn inside them. It was a psychological legacy of the power held by slave owners. Racial thinking’s repercussions in the real world were only too concrete. […] The power of slave owners also had a significant material legacy—they were financially compensated for the loss of the enslaved human beings they had treated as units of production, who were suddenly abstracted into capital. As Hall explains, slave owners funneled the payments they received at emancipation into businesses—shipping, railways, merchant banking—that fueled Britain’s industrial transformation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hall juxtaposes this eclipsed history of racial capitalism with an exploration of the prejudices that misshaped so many lives in colonial plantation societies in the Caribbean to underscore the economic roots of all that internalized prejudice and self-loathing. Jamaican planters profited from both slavery and abolition; in self-vindication, they worked to instill “a continuing faith in the ‘truth’ of race” in the late-nineteenth century. On the ground, this manifested as an abiding “mental slavery” (to use Bob Marley’s famous words). The struggle for liberation from it was the task of Hall’s generation and continues urgently to be that of our own.”

Footnotes Know Me

For The Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote about a collaborative effort to rescue a rare literary text: “… footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean.”

Tales of the Sea

In this lyric essay for The Griffith Review, the Australian literary magazine, I connect tourist seas to refugee seas, Brexit to the post-World War II migration of West Indians to Great Britain, and indenture to slavery. The piece is about friendship and family, and it’s about race in the Caribbean.

“FOR LAUREN AND I, the ways we are joined are feats against the geopolitical. Ours is a league of letters, without member states, defying mapping. Our bonds are aesthetic – and aquatic. We both draw from a fluid imaginary based in bodies of water, in death and birth on water.”

Instruments of Memory

The New York Times Book Review

By Vaddey Ratner
324 pp. Touchstone. $26.

Vaddey Ratner calls each of the three parts of her tenaciously melodic second novel a movement. And indeed this story of an orphaned Cambodian refugee’s return to her homeland does have a symphony’s elevating effect on emotion. Ratner stirs feeling — sorrow, sympathy, pleasure — through language so ethereal in the face of dislocation and loss that its beauty can only be described as stubborn.

Continue reading in the NYTBR.

Of Islands and Other Mothers

“From one woman acting on behalf of a daughter to the next, had maternal fierceness somehow forged a chain to connect us across the divisive waters of race and religion and history? Was this then, at last, our Caribbean archipelago?”

My reported essay about Caribbean New York, “Of Islands and Other Mothers,” appears in the literary atlas Nonstop Metropolis (University of California Press, 2016), edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. My piece tells the stories of Caribbean immigrant women across Queens and Brooklyn. It takes readers to temples and churches, introducing them to seers and the heterodox, and reframes Derek Walcott to ask how gender allows us to bridge islands of difference created by race, religion and histories of bondage in the West Indies and its diaspora in New York. Other contributors include Marshall Berman, Garnette Cadogan, Teju Cole, Francisco Goldman, Valeria Luiselli, Margo Jefferson, Suketu Mehta, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.