Postcards from Empire

The spring issue of Dissent Magazine, devoted to migration, carries my essay “Postcards from Empire.” The piece dissects Victorian-era photographs of Indian women used on postcards to sell images of the Caribbean as a tourist paradise:

“Several of the ‘coolie belles,’ for instance, appear to be wearing the same flowered orhni or veil draped over their heads and across their waists. Western photographs of geishas in late nineteenth-century Yokohama possess similar telltale signs of staging: a recurring kimono, suggestively falling off one shoulder, sometimes revealing a breast. The reappearing item of clothing hints at manipulation by photographers who were perhaps creating images not for their subjects, but for others: tourists or seekers of soft porn.”

It contrasts the postcard images to family portraits of Indian women in the Caribbean:

“Instead of opulently dressed ‘coolie’ women posing by themselves, these portraits show women wearing modest clothes with sparse jewelry. Their adornments are the grandchildren on their laps, their husbands and sons, their mothers and sisters by their sides. … With these family portraits, women weren’t simply sexualized objects but individuals with relationships, revealed through the cradling of a toddler, a hand touching a shoulder, or a bridal bouquet grasped.”

And it ends with an ode to the poet Mahadai Das, a beauty queen and a paramilitary volunteer who studied philosophy at Columbia and the University of Chicago before tragedy struck and sent her back home to Guyana in the 1980s:

“Her poetry serves as an alternative imaginarium, a rival source like the family portraits, illuminating a hidden chapter of colonial history from the perspective of those who suffered its wounds.”