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.

Homeland Revisited

The New York Times Book Review – In the middle of his accomplished book, “India Calling,” Anand Giridharadas tells of meeting a Maoist revolutionary in Hyderabad. The city, nicknamed Cyberabad, serves as a base for both the globalized Indian economy and an armed insurgency at war against the country’s inequalities, rooted and new. India’s Maoist — or Naxalite — movement began as a rural struggle against exploitative landlords in a caste-conscious, socialist nation but has now arrayed itself against the forces of global capitalism reshaping India. When Giridharadas pushes the Naxalite — What does one fight have to do with the other? — the man answers with a striking notion: globalization is reducing people to their specific economic task, stripping them of their humanity, just as caste had done. And software engineers in gated communities have become the new Brahmins. Giridharadas follows the curve of this argument, allowing it to seduce us. Then, he reveals that this rebel, although waging revolution by night, reports by day for a newspaper he himself describes as a shill for the multinational transformation of India. “I have to earn my lunch,” the man explains. “I’m not a whole-timer for revolution.”

The scene accentuates Giridharadas’s appeal as a writer. “India Calling” has what Hanif Kureishi once described as “the sex of a syllogism.” Full-figured ideas animate every turn. So, simultaneously, does Giridharadas’s eye for contradiction. The combination both pleases us and makes us wary — distrustful of shapely ideas, including the author’s own.

Continue reading my piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times.

 

Years of Red Dust

The Washington Post – It just so happened that Qiu Xiaolong was in St. Louis when the Chinese government massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A T.S. Eliot translator, Qiu had won a grant to conduct research at Washington University, founded by Eliot’s grandfather. Because of that chance timing, his life diverted dramatically. Publicly sympathetic to the protesters, Qiu never made it back to China, except as a visitor. Instead, he became a U.S. citizen and a novelist in English, the author of a popular mystery series about a Shanghai police detective named Inspector Chen.

Outcomes like his own, the accidental kind, befall many of the characters in “Years of Red Dust,” Qiu’s witty, evocative book of interrelated short stories just published in English. Read my review of the book for The Washington Post.