Observations on the anniversary of the Partition of India

This week in North Philly Notes, Kavita Daiya, author of the forthcoming Graphic Migrationswrites about global media representations of migration on the 73rd anniversary of the Partition of India.

What do the Google commercial “Reunion,” the Bollywood film Raazi (Agree), Shauna Singh Baldwin’s award-winning novel What The Body Remembers  and the oral history project 1947 Partition Archive all have in common? They all do transnational memory work and remember the mass migrations of the 1947 Partition of India.

This past weekend marked the 73rd anniversary of the decolonization and division of India, and the end of British colonialism. It also marked the creation of two independent nations: Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947, and India became a new secular democratic nation on August 15, 1947. The partitioning of India in 1947 generated the world’s largest mass migration in under nine months: between 12 and 16 million people migrated across the newly etched borders.

Graphic MigrationsIn my forthcoming book Graphic Migrations, I describe the legacies of this pivotal moment in British and South Asian history, with a focus on migrant and refugee experiences. As such, this book uncovers the effects of this Partition on both India and the South Asian diaspora in North America. I am especially interested in how different media represent the precarity of migrants’ and refugees’ lives, as well as their descendants. I map how this precarity is memorialized across media, in ways that create empathy and solidarity for the shared humanity of migrants and citizens.

For example, I analyze South Asian American fiction by writers including Shauna Singh Baldwin and Bapsi Sidhwa as well as Hindi art films like Shyam Benegal’s Mammo; Bollywood cinema, as well as the new genre I call “border-crossing” advertising. In addition, I discuss graphic narratives from Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, the Digital Humanities oral history project 1947 Partition Archive as well as photography by Margaret Bourke-White and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. This book’s archive is thus eclectic and cross-media, capturing how the Partition migrations are inscribed or erased in public culture in India and its diaspora.

Graphic Migrations is poised at the intersection of Asian American Studies and Postcolonial Studies. It draws upon and extends new directions in Asian American Studies, especially Critical Refugee Studies.  These new directions take a transnational lens to understand how twentieth century conflicts and displacement in Asia have shaped Asian American history. My book’s feminist orientation means that gender is a central part of the story I tell. Talal Asad’s influential theory of the secular in Formations of the Secular is also central here, given that the Partition focalized religious difference. Central to this book’s story is the inspiration of the noted political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s brilliant analysis of statelessness, which, as she argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was the defining feature and product of the twentieth century.

My book considers several issues that emerge out of the 1947 Partition and its transnational impact. It explores the complexities of statelessness in India as well as South Asia, and asks: Why has this momentous displacement not been widely memorialized, until recently? How did refugees’ stories, labor, and losses shape ideas about religion, secularism, and belonging in public culture? How were female refugees’ experiences different, and with what consequences? What alternative modes of imagining community and planetary cohabitation, including ‘the secular,’ do stories about statelessness offer us today?

Graphic Migrations is timely and relevant now. More people than even before are migrating or displaced because of war, conflict, poverty, environmental devastation, and other reasons. By one estimate, there are 10 million stateless people, and there are 272 million migrants in the world today. This raises urgent issues about human rights and social justice for nations around the world, who must work together to end statelessness.

My book is a profound reminder of the contemporary stakes of studying the experiences and impact of decolonization and nation-formation in 1947 South Asia, in a transnational feminist mode.

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

Making visible the afterlives of U.S. colonial and occupation tutelage in the Philippines and Japan

This week in North Philly Notes, Malini Johar Schueller, author of Campaigns of Knowledge, writes about benevolent assimilations.

While most liberal Americans condemn U.S. military strikes and occupations as manifestations of superpower domination by force, they view church groups and educational missions as signs of American goodwill and benevolence toward the world. After all, most Americans see Asian, African, and Middle Eastern nations as civilizationally “behind” the U.S. Dedicated teachers and philanthropists, backed by the United States’ government to set up schools, universities, and libraries in occupied areas are thus signs of a kinder, gentler, democratic America that the world emulates. However, it is precisely because benevolent assimilation—as famously articulated by President McKinley was a strategy of U.S. colonialism—that we should be suspicious of such charitable undertakings overseas. This is especially true in cases where the United States wishes to take over hearts and minds. Take for instance George Bush, who shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 devoted his weekly radio address to informing a skeptical nation that the American occupation was designed to build a stable and secure Iraq through the rebuilding of schools via the personal intervention of American soldiers.

Campaigns_of_Knowledge_SMCampaigns of Knowledge tracks this pattern of America as savior, following its politics of violence with the benign recovery of education in two seemingly different locations—colonial Philippines and occupied Japan—in order to demonstrate the similarity of purpose: pacification through schooling. Amidst the throes of the Philippine-American war, American soldiers opened the first school in Corregidor, initiating a comprehensive system of education. Following Japanese surrender, the U.S.-led occupation commenced its educational reform in that country. The object in both cases was to inculcate values of individualism, self-reliance, capitalism, modernity, and a nationalism amenable to American influence. While both Filipinos and Japanese were often seen by educators as “Oriental,” they were contrasting subjects of racial management: Filipinos were undercivilized and had to be educated and civilized; the Japanese were overcivilized and had to be re-educated and decivilized.

Contrapuntally viewing colonial archives such as Senate hearings, educational reports, textbooks, English primers and political cartoons, alongside the cultural productions of colonized subjects including film and literature, Campaigns of Knowledge demonstrates how natives variously appropriated, reinterpreted, rerouted and resisted the lessons of colonial rule. Children’s primers such as Filipino educator Camilo Osias’s The Philippine Reader not only teach English but also articulate a nationalism that both questions and accommodates American rule. The specter of colonial and occupation schooling continues to haunt the imaginations of Filipinos, Filipino Americans, Japanese and Japanese-Americans and the book analyzes the varied nature of these hauntings in autobiographies, novels, films, short stories, and oral histories. Contributing to a transnational intersection of Asian American studies with Asian studies, Campaigns of Knowledge examines figures canonized in the U.S. such as Carlos Bulosan and Bienvenido Santos alongside those canonized in the Philippines and Japan such as Edith Tiempo and Masahiro Shinoda. More broadly, the book demonstrates the centrality of schooling to the project of American empire and the importance of racial difference to this project.

 

 

 

Writing Latinx Environmentalisms

This week in North Philly Notes, Sarah D. Wald, David Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, co-editors of Latinx Environmentalisms, tell “A Story of Inspiration and Acompañamiento.”

Latinx Environmentalisms is a collection of original essays and original interviews that explores the challenges and possibilities of bringing the environmental humanities and Latinx* studies together. The collection seeks to account for the variety of ways in which Latinx cultures are often (although certainly not always) environmental, but hardly ever identify as environmentalist. In this book, we argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other forms of creative productions redefine and broaden what counts as environmentalism, even as they sometimes reject the term entirely. Part of how Latinx artists redefine these terms is by pointing out the racism inherent in some of the assumptions of environmentalism. We argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other creative works hold the potential to make visible key aspects of the exploitation of the Earth, and in particular the ways in which colonization and capitalism exacerbate it. Latinx creative works often offer deep and significant insights about environmental issues, environmental ethics, and the intertwining of environmental ills with the social ills of racism, capitalism, and colonialism.

Latinx Environmentalisms_smAlthough the book seeks to build new bridges in environmental humanities and Latinx studies scholarship, it is just as much a story of building collegial and friendship bridges between the editors and contributors. In this post,we share how the book is also a story of collaboration, of how academic life looks and feels behind the pages of our scholarly products. We might even say that we offer this collection as a product of “acompañamiento.” Anthropologist Mariela Nuñez-Janes describes the concept as a process of creating networks of support and solidarity in a way that extends notions of kinship.

The story of this collaboration begins at a couple of different conferences in 2013: both the First Biennial Latina/o Literary Theory and Criticism conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) held at the University of Kansas. The four of us had known and admired each other for some time. We met to discuss the idea of producing an edited volume together. Although each of us knew about pockets of environmental humanities work that considered Latinx literature and culture, and a very tiny group of Latinx studies scholars who thought about the environment, we kept talking about how much there was to say about literary authors such as Helena Maria Viramontes, Ana Castillo, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua, visual artists such as Ester Hernandez, and filmmakers such as Alex Rivera. Our initial conversations got us to realize that there was a huge and largely untapped archive of material that had unique things to say about the environment.

We also realized that there was a growing body of scholarship in Latinx studies that was already doing some of this work. Scholars such as Kamala Platt and María Herrera-Sobek had pioneered thinking about environmental themes in Chicana/o/x literature. Social scientists Laura Pulido and Devon Peña were also early leaders in thinking about Chicana/o/x environmentalisms, as was Robert Melchior Figueroa in the discipline of philosophy. We looked to some of our contributors, such as Randy Ontiveros, Gabriela Nuñez, and Jennifer García Peacock who identified their work as environmental, and others such as Paula Moya and Richard T. Rodríguez, who didn’t identify as doing environmental work, but who were clearly engaging with important ecocritical concepts.

Our question then became: how do we put these people into conversation with one another in order to highlight the innovative environmental thinking they identified in their works? 

Our collaboration was aided by some key developments in our individual scholarship. Priscilla wrapped up her book project, Writing the Goodlife (Arizona UP, 2016), which made an important intervention in how Chicanx/Mexican American cultural production is treated in the environmental field. Rather than focusing on texts where mainstream environmental ideas appear in Mexican American writing, Writing the Goodlife asks us to redefine “environmental” to see long-standing traditions, identities, cultural sensibilities, and forms of resistance as environmental, and to interrogate the exclusion of these expressions in the mainstream environmental canon.

Sarah D. Wald’s book, The Nature of California (Washington, 2016), was also just coming out. In it, she examined the ways writings of Japanese American, Filipino, and Mexican American farmers and farmworkers contested their exclusion from national identity through depictions of nature and land. Like Priscilla, she was redefining where and how we look for environmental ideas and what environmentalism may entail.

David, too, was realizing that much of his interest in urban literary expression and Latinx identity had environmental resonance, but only if we redefined what that meant– not only “wilderness” but also a sense of space, negotiations of ecological costs and benefits, etc.. David became particularly interested in how some communities bring a keen sense of “environment” to how they inhabit places, particularly in laying claim to cultural ownership over urban neighborhoods like New York’s Spanish Harlem.

And Sarah Jaquette Ray’s research in The Ecological Other (Arizona UP, 2013) on how environmental discourse can define immigrants as threats to American national security vis-a-vis its borderland ecosystems also situated her work as pushing this intersection.

All told, the four of us found each other through this research on Latinx environmentalisms, which kept landing us in the same places, such as the John Jay Latinx Literary Theory and Criticism Conference, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Executive Council meetings (on which Priscilla and Sarah W. both served as Diversity Officers, Sarah R. served as Vice President, and Sarah R. and Priscilla as executive council members), the American Studies Association conferences, the Latino Studies Association conferences, and David and Sarah W’s home institution, the University of Oregon, having conversations about where the field might go, and laying the groundwork for working together.

We are so grateful to these conferences and professional organizations for providing the infrastructure for us to have these early exploratory conversations.

In other settings– especially in our classrooms, communities, and committees– we sensed a great interest in this intersection of Latinx and environmental concerns, but knew there was a dearth of scholarship on it. We were particularly struck by the enthusiasm our students shared with us. For example, in David’s courses on Latinx Sci-Fi and Environmental Thinking and Sarah W’s Environmental Humanities 203 courses at the University of Oregon, students were wildly enthusiastic about analyzing canonical authors like Leopold and Thoreau through lenses of race and ethnicity, as well as reading authors that had not been in the environmental canon through environmental lenses, such as Viramontes and Castillo. Both of the Sarahs and Priscilla led a 2015 ASLE workshop on Latinx Environmental Pedagogies, which reinforced our sense that students were pushing these boundaries.

We landed on the notion of “recovery” as a correction to the “diversity” approach of second-wave environmental literary criticism–which just adds more seats to the environmental table without challenging the very structure of the table –and had lots of ideas about how our project might take up these questions. Early in the process we recognized that some of the most sophisticated analysis of Latinx environmentalisms occurred within the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry of Latinx writers, especially among those writers who identified as Chicana feminists. This led us to talk directly to many of the Latinx authors whose work was foundational to our own inspiration.  Even more gratifying was the reception we got from scholars whose work was already pushing these fields in exciting directions. Quite simply they started to come out of the woodwork as we were beginning these conversations. That’s how the project started. Many of the insights in our Introduction to the book came from the various conversations that we had at conferences in our field and on panels with our contributors.

What is not obvious is how a project like this builds over time–in our case, five years of working together– and the details of collaboration. We learned how to step up and step back based on our strengths and weaknesses, and filled in for each other when our personal lives became distracting; we learned how scholarship never happens without tragedy, celebration, frustration, generosity, heartbreak, and mundane intrusions (like sick pets and home maintenance issues) on the intellectual process.

We met several times as a group to just sit in silence and write together. We became more acquainted with Google Docs and Dropbox than we ever thought possible. We spent what amounts to about 50 hours together on four-way Skype conference calls, watching each other’s lives carry on in the background– children growing up, family members moving in and out, seasons and health issues coming and going, the material realities of life moving through different places and stages.

The boundaries between our academic, friendship, and personal lives became increasingly blurred, and each editor would probably say that the book is a reflection of both collegial synergy and personal friendship. The work of pulling something like this together is both dramatic and unglamorous, intellectual and material, urgent and slow. To us, the process has been as illuminating as the product.

It is a true honor to share this book with audiences that are interested in not only these topics, but also the story of what academic life is about, what it means to produce scholarship in collaboration with others, and the thrills and concerns of pushing the boundaries of our disciplines.

Less than mapping these intersections, our hope is that the book opens a door for more thinking and more imagining of what could be. We want to lift voices, but also to scrutinize the liberating, and also oppressive, cultural work of environmental discourse. We continue to think about these issues, but also want to push it further to ask, for example, what implications do these conversations have for the other work we do at our institutions, such as our work with students and our efforts to create structures of inclusion and equity? 

We hope that others will not only carry this project in ever more diverse directions, but also be moved to embark on a similar kind of collaboration, where intellectual and personal worlds merge, and both are profoundly changed in the process.


*A note on terminology: We define Latinx studies as the comparative study of race, identity, and culture in U.S. communities with roots in Latin America (for example, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, or Central American communities). We use the term Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino in solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities. We also use the “x” to mark the indigenous peoples and knowledges that we will never know due to the conquest of the Americas. We also note that in using the term Latinx, we are deliberately operating from a comparative, interethnic perspective. What this means is that the essays and interviews we include focus on multiple Latin American-origin communities in the U.S. (Mexican American and Dominican American, for example), and that we compare and contrast the environmental ideas that emerge from these disparate communities. 

 

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