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ALL Book Reviews Essays Migration The Nation

At Macondo Pharmacy

For The Nation, I write about Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s experiment with magical realism in The Undocumented Americans. She goes beyond conventional reportage to mirror the surreal ways in which the undocumented experience their lives. Her work exposes the unsustainable fiction built into the economic and political systems that invite the labor of the undocumented into the country but fail to protect them once here. The pandemic has only sharpened this structural fabulism.

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ALL Essays Migration

A House Filled with Women

To commemorate the late poet Meena Alexander’s life and legacy, Feminist Press has reissued her brilliant and gutting memoir Fault LinesThis new edition includes an afterword by me, “A House Filled with Women,” paying tribute to Meena. Here’s the Asian American Writers Workshop on the afterword and the reissue.

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ALL Essays Migration The Virginia Quarterly Review

Wine Dark Sea

An essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review: “For both artist and migrant, ships are symbols of the universal. A slave, an indentured servant, a tourist, a seaman, a refugee obviously each inhabit a ship distinctly, but aboard, each is ultimately at the mercy of the sea. I share Locke’s instinct for seeking comrades in the hull’s curve.”

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ALL Essays Migration

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.”

 

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ALL Book Reviews Migration The New York Times Book Review

Writers Retreat

Imagine an 18th-century London town house, once a fashionable address but recently home to successive huddled masses: Jewish refugees, Irish then Bangladeshi then Somali immigrants. Now fill that house with 30 foreign writers who have fled oppression and violence, all asylum seekers specially chosen for favored treatment. Call them “fellows.” Hang identity cards, with their mug shots petrified in plastic, around their necks. Appoint a chairman whose paranoia and megalomania recall, in madcap picayune, the dictators who tortured and imprisoned many of them. Outfit the house with security cameras that scan the corridors, the surveillance tapes complemented by the human watchfulness of ever-­solicitous volunteers. What you have is the premise for “The House of Journalists,” the former BBC reporter Tim Finch’s clever debut novel.

In an outburst toward the novel’s end, when one fellow disappears along with all traces that he existed, the power-­obsessed chairman name-drops Orwell, an unsubtle clue to Finch’s ambitions as a political satirist and his interest in language as a political tool. But aspects of his novel bear more resemblance to the “Big Brother” of global reality television than to “1984.”

Continue reading my review in The New York Times Book Review.