I Am Your Mirror

Chinese-born artist O Zhang traveled across the United States, photographing thousands of blank and neglected billboards, a trek that echoes Dorothea Lange’s own documentary expedition during the Great Depression. Zhang has taken an object that has long been a canvas—with pop art icons such as Andy Warhol designing billboards for the Sunset Strip—and made it the subject instead. In capturing the formal elegance of the bare billboard, Zhang has, in some sense, flipped the script. It’s not the printed images and text on them that matter, but the structures themselves. Read more about her work and about billboards as an American cultural signifer in my essay for The Margins, a magazine of the Asian American Writers Workshop. 

“Should My People Need Me”

My profile of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi runs on the cover of Ms. Magazine’s Winter 2012 issue. The woman who has long personified the fight for democracy and human rights in Burma has finally decided to engage with one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is running for a seat in a parliament created by the military junta that put her under house arrest for almost two decades, after stealing an election from her. Read about the challenges facing her as she attempts a shift from moral icon to politician. As she told Congressman Bill Richardson in 1994, “I look upon myself as a politician, and that isn’t a dirty word, is it, Congressman?”

Tale of a Puerto Rican Plantation Mistress

The New York Times Book Review, July 17, 2011 – Conquistadora‘s strength is its Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers are so perplexing, they kept me riveted. Ana isn’t much of a mother, but she takes in a humpbacked baby girl abandoned on her doorstep the same day she trades her own son away in order to keep running the plantation. She’s a liberal mistress, expressing interest in the African songs her maid sings and allowing the slaves’ midwife to deliver her son. (“We all look and function pretty much the same down there,” she declares.) Yet she achieves freedom by exploiting those who, starkly, lack it. Noting that none of her slaves have challenged her, Ana reflects: “But of course, they could. . . . She would, if she were one of them.”

Is Ana believable? Esmeralda Santiago, the author who created her, herself has asked that question. “I worried that I was creating a character who would have been impossible in that time and that place,” she said in an interview on her publisher’s Web site. In fact, a small percentage of women did own or control plantations in the Caribbean. Whether the obstacles they faced in a world dominated by white men sensitized them to the oppression of slaves is another question entirely. White women in the 19th-century Caribbean were largely silent on the subject of slavery. Most who spoke publicly, defended it. With her tough portrait of a female planter, Santiago speculates, charitably but unromantically, about those who didn’t speak.

Continue reading my review of the novel here.

“Coolie Women Are in Demand Here”

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011 – Our journey took us past endless fields of flowering yellow along the northern banks of the Ganges. When we pulled into towns, we asked for directions, from children balancing loads three times their size on their heads, from crouching women tending baskets of cauliflower and eggplant by the roadside, from men in the stores that stared open-faced onto the street, framing a tailor at his sewing machine or a man pumping air into bicycle tires. We sought the guidance of random people on the route, turning to them as to a massive human compass. And they obliged. They pointed us along bumpy roads bracketed by tiny pastel altars made to worship the sun, until one man finally indicated a rocky path. “That way,” he said.

We had traveled five hours over shell-shocked roads and narrow dirt lanes to arrive here, at the threshold of a place I wasn’t even sure still existed. It did a century ago. That’s what a document that I had discovered two years earlier, in Guyana’s national archives, indicated. It was the emigration pass issued to my great-grandmother on July 29, 1903, the day she sailed from Calcutta to the Caribbean.

Catalogued on this brittle artifact, yellow and crumbling with age, was everything about Immigrant #96153 that the imperial bureaucracy had considered worth recording: “Name: Sheojari. Age: 27. Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches. Caste: Brahman.” Here was colonial officialdom’s cold summary of an indentured laborer’s life. Yet, it included strokes of unsettling intimacy. The emigration pass told me that my great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark. Someone had scribbled “Pregnant 4 mos” in pencil at the document’s edge. On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.

Continue reading in the Spring 2011 issue of VQR. The excerpt was reprinted in India in the Sept. 2011 issue of The Caravan. You can read the excerpt in full here, at the Caravan’s Web site.