Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (University of Chicago Press, 2013) – In 1903, a young woman 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, this woman, like so many of the indentured, disappeared into history. Now, in Coolie Woman, her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on their complex lives.
The book was a finalist for the Orwell Prize, the British award for artful political writing, and won the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book on the region. There are three foreign editions, from C. Hurst & Co. in the UK, Hachette in India and Jacana in South Africa.
Critics and readers have embraced Coolie Woman as both a document and a work of the imagination – in the words of Junot Diaz, “both a historical rescue mission and a profound meditation on family and womanhood.” Teju Cole described it as “a narrative both scholarly and soulful,” and Pankaj Mishra praised it as “pathbreaking.” The Library Journal recommended it 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.”
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.
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.
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.