'Coolie Woman' and trans-creation

Coolie Woman

Gaiutra Bahadur came to visit the University of Hawai‘i while I was there as a graduate student. She gave a presentation on her book which emerged as a kind of light to guide my own writing. In Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Bahadur begins her process of investigating Caribbean history with the oral histories of her family. In pursuit of information about her great grandmother, Sujaria, Bahadur wonders about the particularities that women faced during the period of Indian Indenture.

She begins her book with the assertion that,

Colonialism and migration are inextricably joined in my family history. Colonialism caused us to migrate, first to British Guiana, then from an independent Guyana still struggling to emerge from its colonial past. (Bahadur 7)

And from here, carrying tales and legends — fragments of family memory and history she asks about the life that her ancestor had and what exactly it was about indenture that she inherited either through epigenetic memory or through a sense of un/belonging.

Was it possible that the magician’s box of emigration had set me free as well as cut me in half? Had leaving Guyana liberated me, because I am a woman? And was it possible that leaving India had done the same for my great-grandmother a century earlier? (15)

Bahadur reads agency into the actions of the women who journeyed, however she shows that it was not uncomplicated. She takes into consideration the whole scope — the perils of being a woman of color on a British ship, on British plantations, and with brown men who suffered injustice all the same but were still true sons of a patriarchy. Her driving questions for this text are personal, ancestral, cultural, and academic. She asks:

What, then, was the truth? Into which category of recruit did my great grandmother fall? Who was she? Displaced peasant, runaway wife, kidnap victim, Vaishanvaite pilgrim or widow? [...] Were Coolie women caught in the clutches of unscrupulous recruiters who tricked them? Were they, quite to the contrary, choosing to flee? (39)

What results is a book that is researched thoroughly through archives kept by the British, Guyana, as well as the family that she writes about. She started with shards of narrative and read the holes in the texts, filled them with speculation and wonder. What is so moving about this text is that Bahadur, a woman, writes imaginatively — yet from research — about lives that women lived.  

Trans-Creation/Trans-Composition as Genre

This process she calls trans-creation I also see as trans-composition, or the act of translating the oral and the fragmented, and filling the holes with possibility. For me, this kind of writing has a queer potential. In her text, Bahadur shows a couple of kinds of queernesses that Indian indentured laborers carried with them, and the prices that they paid for being forced to fit into British norms.

Bahadur uses women’s stories, accounts, and official documents of their lives to tell a story that is not often told: that of the Coolie Woman. She makes the unseen seen through her practice of reading, which opens up so many possibilities for writers and poets.

She mentions the journey of a hijra woman named Rukmini and asks the question of whether she escaped discovery from colonial hands. She also makes available the ship records of the 1898 journey of the SS Mersey, during which two men caught having sex were punished by the ship surgeon blistering one of the men’s penises.

How do I, as a poet, harness this method, exemplified by Bahadur’s text, in my own practice?

Using the fractured ship records available to me, Bahadur’s book, folk songs and stories, and scraps of my Aji’s language, I attempt Bahadur’s methodology that achieves a trans-creation trans-composition. This process and genre that result take fragments and piece together a narrative that depicts trauma and colonial rupture.

Add in the pieces of my Aji’s language that I was able to learn before she passed away in 2010, my own penchant for queer truth tellings, as well as the spirits that haunt me, and I derive a poetic sense. In this queer Coolie methodology, I am able to fill in the holes of my own archive with dazzling color.

I am able to imagine the story of Nabibaksh and Muhungu — the two men who were caught on deck having sex. I color the British accounts with affect, an affect that is my cultural inheritance. This upends and queers notions of cisgender heteropatriarchal capital “T” truth in the production of history as the room of queer possibility and affect are unquantifiable by its standards. In fact, it’s a different genre of writing altogether. I don’t need the Truth, of who I imagine is my queer kin, as prescribed by British hands. I am able to dream up their silenced lives from my own stores of memories and hauntings. This is one lesson in the normative, in homophobia taught to us by colonization.

Trans-creation and trans-composition is a practice of freedom, is an art of decolonization.

Writing Prompts

  1. 1. Using the fragments of text from the British ship records that document the 1898 voyage of the SS Mersey found here.

Fill in the holes of the text that presents a full account of this situation from a brown (and queer — though that might be slightly anachronistic and is only a convenient word) perspective.

  1. 2. Drawing from Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Bahadur writes,

In the depot, did my great-grandmother talk to Rukmini […] Was that secret discovered in Calcutta, or did it have to wait […] to be uncovered by Guiana’s medical inspector? (47).

Envision the conversation that might have transpired between Rukmini and Sujaria. Write their dialogue in Guyanese Creole if you can speak it, or in Bhojpuri, or in Hindi. Let your imagination be a wild bird about to cross the ocean.


Works Cited

Bahadur, Gaitura. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.