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ALL Essays The Virginia Quarterly Review

“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.

Categories
ALL Book Reviews The Observer (London)

When London Was Capital of America

The Observer – The decade before America’s declaration of independence in 1776 saw more Americans visiting England than ever before. This engaging social history, written with a novelist’s eye for character and plot, tells their tale – one author Julie Flavell calls “a missing chapter in the social and cultural history of Americans abroad.” Read my review in The Observer.

 

Categories
Book Reviews The New York Times Book Review

All Souls Rising

It was an art critic who coined the term “magic realism,” to describe a new wave of painting in 1920s Ger­many. The work departed from the moody Expressionism of the day, emphasizing material reality even as it unlocked an elusive otherworldliness in the arrangement of everyday objects. Sometimes, though, the fantastic rubbed elbows with the real: in one painting, a fat general nonchalantly shares a table with headless men in tuxedos.

In literature as in art, the genre has been dominated by men. So critics devised the label “magical feminism” just for Isabel Allende’s multigenerational family chronicles featuring strong-willed women, usually entangled in steamy love affairs against a backdrop of war and political upheaval. These elements are all present in her new novel, “Island Beneath the Sea,” but its approach is traditional. Where, you wonder, are the headless men — or, in Allende’s case, headless women? Where is the magical realism?

Continue reading in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Read an excerpt from the book here.

Categories
ALL Book Reviews The National

A Master of the Art

Among the many things about democracy that annoyed the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1830s tour of America was the shape-shifting quality of language under its influence. He complained, in his classic treatise Democracy in America, that the restless spirit of citizens under this political system led to the constant creation of new words and new meanings at every turn. There was a chaos and a swagger to these linguistic innovations that the nobleman, happier with the changeless hierarchies of the ancien regime, could not bear. “Thus rope dancers,” he wrote, “are turned into acrobats and funambulists.”

Peter Carey – whose new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, fictionalizes Tocqueville’s American field trip – is an accomplished and unapologetic funambulist when it comes to prose. His sentences walk tightropes, and the thrill to be had from them can be described as verbal vertigo. Consider how Ned Kelly, the hero of his True History of the Kelly Gang, sums up his displaced forefathers: “our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history.” Carey proves Tocqueville’s point about language in America; his writing is rambunctious and innovative. Continue to read my review in The Abu Dhabi Review, the arts and ideaa section of The National.

 

Categories
ALL Essays Migration The National

Plantation Road

Read how Scots gave their names to misbegotten places while on youthful adventures abroad: my dispatch from Scotland for Abu Dhabi’s The National.

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