For the New York Times Book Review, I wrote a piece about Valeria Luiselli’s novel in the shape of an archive and consider how it differs from other work (narrative nonfiction or testimonial poetry) that immerses us in the internal and external deserts that unaccompanied child migrants cross: “Which of us who has loved a child wouldn’t be moved by the evocative details of innocence snagged on the jagged fences of adult circumstance?”
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.”
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.”
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.
The Cooked Seed traces Anchee Min’s evolution from a woman with shattered self-esteem to one with brass enough to have a child when she wanted, although her Chinese-immigrant partner didn’t, and then to divorce him and find love with an American, a Vietnam veteran. Like him, Min suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her prose bears the marks. Her book reads like the testimony of a woman who, in coping with haunting memories she’d rather suppress, swings between remembering too much and too little. Therefore, she simply tells it as it happened, in the order it happened, all of it. See my full review of the book in Ms. Magazine’s Spring issue.