Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (University of Chicago Press, 2013) – In 1903, my great-grandmother sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”— the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, she disappeared, like so many of the indentured, into history. In this narrative history, I traverse three continents and trawl through countless colonial archives, seeking to excavate not only my great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other “coolie” women.
The book was a finalist for the Orwell Prize, the British award for artful political writing, and won the 2013 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Award for Prose and the 2014 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book on the region. The book was also a nonfiction finalist for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2014 and was a finalist for Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies writing prize in 2015. The Library Journal recommended the book as “a spellbinding account of a story that needed to be told,” and The Women’s Review of Books, as “a moving, foundational book.” In England, The Guardian called it “a genealogical page-turner interwoven with a compelling, radical history of empire.” South Africa’s Sunday Times read it as “an ode” achieved through “exceptional detective work.” And the blog Mumbai Boss named it the best nonfiction book published in 2013 in India, where The Business Standard’s critic concluded that it “will permanently change our view of the past.” In 2020, the book was included in a Chronicle of Higher Education round-up of the best scholarly books of the decade.
Family Ties (Scholastic, 2012) – A paired profile of President Barack Obama and the author Amy Tan for Scholastic, the children’s book publisher. Family Ties focuses on the relationship of each figure with a difficult parent, their respective journeys to that parent’s native country and their attempts to resolve their identity crises through writing. The book was part of the publisher’s “On the Record” nonfiction series for middle-school students, written primarily by journalists.
Fault Lines (Feminist Press, 2020) – “A House Filled With Women,” my afterword to a new commemorative edition of late poet Meena Alexander’s memoir Fault Lines, commemorates her legacy and her literary influence.
I Even Regret Night (Kaya Press, 2019) – “Rescued from the Footnotes of History,” my afterword to Rajiv Mohabir’s English translation of “Holi Songs of Demerara,” tells the story of the songbook and its author Lal Bihari Sharma. I recovered the songbook, the only known text by an indentured person in the English-speaking Caribbean, while working on Coolie Woman.
Craft and Conscience (Beacon Press, 2022) – Writers are witnesses and scribes to society’s conscience but writing about social issues in the twenty-first century requires a new, sharper toolkit. In Craft and Conscience, Kavita Das guides writers to take on nuanced perspectives and embrace intentionality through a social justice lens. The book includes essays from a fascinating mix of authors, including James Baldwin, Alexander Chee, Kaitlyn Greenidge, George Orwell, Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, Gaiutra Bahadur, Jaquira Díaz, and Imani Perry. This book both demystifies the process of engaging social issues on the page, and underscores the intentionality and sensitivity that must go into the work.
Go Home! (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2018) – Asian diasporic writers imagine “home” in the twenty-first century through an array of fiction, memoir, and poetry. Both urgent and meditative, Go Home! moves beyond the model-minority myth and showcases the singular intimacies of individuals figuring out what it means to belong. The anthology includes my short story “The Stained Veil.” Go Home! is published in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Nonstop Metropolis (University of California Press, 2016) – Contributor to a literary anthology mapping New York City, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. My essay, “Of Islands and Other Mothers,” 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. The book also includes pieces by Marshall Berman, Garnette Cadogan, Teju Cole, Francisco Goldman, Valeria Luiselli, Margo Jefferson, Suketu Mehta, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and others.
We Mark Your Memory (SAS Publications, University of London, 2018) – To mark the centenary of the abolition of indenture in the British Empire (2017-2020), a ground-breaking anthology brings together new writing by descendants of indentured labourers from across the Commonwealth. Through the mediums of poetry, short stories and essays, this book explores – for the very first time – the controversial legacy and heritage of indenture. We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture, includes new work from both established and upcoming writers. It includes my essay “Tales of the Sea,” first published in The Griffith Review.
Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2007) – “Ogling the Statue of Liberty,” my contribution to this literary anthology about New Jersey, is about growing up immigrant in Jersey City in the 1980s. The collection was edited by novelist Irina Reyn.