Coolitude hauntings

Sewdas Mohabir

Jane Wong, author of Overpour (Action Books, 2016), puts Asian American poetry into conversation with the sociological text by Avery Gordon. In her video “Going Toward the Ghost” she asks, how do these specters arise? She defines the poetics of haunting as “where our history dwells in the strange liminal space of the past, present, and future combined.” She asks why she, the child of immigrants, feels the pains of her past so intensely when she herself did not undergo the horrors of her ancestors or parents.

Compelled to be a witness to the multiple ghosts of migration, she says, “it’s not a matter of the past coming back to haunt you but is a productive and intentional act to go toward the ghost and to rewrite forgotten histories.” 

I am interested in tracing what haunts us as Indian labor diapora subjects, descendants of British indenture. I am also interested in building upon and forming a new methodological approach to speaking of identity in second diaspora that mimics the ways that communication occurs within our spaces as a template that refuses collapsing this discourse into one that is South Asian, one that erases our history of displacement and relocations.

Vijay Mishra approaches this in his book The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, where he routes hauntings through mourning and “impossible mourning.” Mourning/impossible mourning is the condition wherein mourning never arrives due to its definition being rooted in absence. For Mishra this means “the traumatic moment may be seen as crystallizing that loss, as a sign around which memory gives itself to the past … referred to as “temporality of memory.” The (ideal) loss persists because there is no substitution for it in the “new object of love” (in the nation state in the case of the diaspora)” which produces a feeling of melancholia. Travel and translation come from the journey across the sea (Mishra 8). Trauma “creates a breach in a protective covering of such severity that it cannot be coped with by usual mechanisms by which we deal with pain or loss,” and this loss and pain, for Mishra, refers to the loss of a homeland/India and the grief of plantation life (12). This trauma “always arrives late …occurring after the event as a deferred experience” and is a repetition of this event, disrupting temporal flow (109). As far as diasporic imaginaries, trauma, and girmit ideology are concerned, Mishra writes, “as the inscription of the impossible, trauma intervenes into the positivist narrative of history as it presents history itself as compulsive repetition” (118), which reflects the reason for girmit ideology’s and diasporic poetics’ repetition of the traumas of passage and plantation.

I am interested in the holes in the text; those places of omission and forgetting where people like me are erased for grander narratives of national inclusion in whichever space we find ourselves in. I attempt to “trans-create” these holes. To quote Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman,

it’s a work of the imagination made from shards and scraps of dialect, religious epic and history yoked together, allowing languages to sidle up side by side, allowing multiple identities to exist … [to] excavating and refashioning the fractured past into newness and wholeness, in an act deeper than translation. (Bahadur qtd. Mohabir)

In order to excavate and trans-create, I take into consideration Avery Gordon’s notions of “haunting” as being:

Haunting is a very particular way of know what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality that we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. (Gordon 8)

Jasbir Puar claims that these spaces of memory are measured in nonmetric time, which means that they may still haunt from the sun setting on the British Empire: shadows that they once cast over us to obscure our bodies from the public now are illuminated by full moonlight. She says that this approach is “a methodological approach that keeps an eye out for shadows, ephemera, energies, ethereal forces, textures, spirit, sensations” (Puar xx–xxi).

I look at the sites of trauma and document, lament, revisit, mine, and trans-create from them to create a sound where there was silence. Here, in this new Coolitude — which is the same evolving Coolitude, I depart from older heteropatriarchal notions of nation and belonging and queer national space. Previously works by women and queers have been ignored, receiving lesser consideration than the work of heterosexual men who are more easily legible to the various national Caribbean and American state projects. In fact, throughout this rationale, I have already shown the limitations of national projects of homogenization — of, to borrow from Mahmood Mamdani, “defining and ruling.” In this Coolitude for North America there is space for women, for the queer — in fact, they are wholly necessary.

The major questions that I will seek to uncover and explore revolve around the legibility of the artistic and historical work of the “Coolie” poets. How is it that we can resist erasure; the stifling of our history of indenture, and how can we allow for the “haunting” of this transoceanic journey to illuminate new pathways and ship routes to understanding our positionalities in diaspora? The methodology resonates with the plantation, the sharp-toothed bite of the sugarcane leaf, the sweet relief of its juice. I posit that this methodology is one of “talking story,” where other Coolitude academics and artist reciprocate and exchange work to build a sense of community and kinship in our small community.

Using this as a jumping-off point in combination with the affective turn in queer studies and finally the Avery Gordon text, I read the poetics of haunting into Coolitude poetics as a necessary and inalienable aspect of the ghosts that hide in Indian labor diasporic poets’ lines.


Works cited and further reading

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Hauntings and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Mishra, Vijay. The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Wong, Jane. “Going Toward the Ghost.” Video.