Performing Coolitude at the Queens Museum
On March 29, 2014, four Coolitude artists assembled a performance that engaged with the present state of Coolitude as a concept. The four performers displayed, screened, and read their works for a crowd of about sixty people at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing. Known locally as the heart of Little Guyana and Trinidad, Queens is a blooming metropolis of language and cultures. Sponsored by the Indo-Caribbean organizations Jahajee Sisters, the Rajukamri Cultural Center, Urban+Out, and the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, this event highlighted notable works that interrogate the history of British indenture and its postcolonial fallout in North America. Chaired by Lisa Outar, this was the brainchild of Andil Gosine and Gaiutra Bahadur.
“From George Village in the south of Trinidad, Gosine migrated to Canada with his parents as a child, and now resides between the pull of Toronto and New York. Like his life, his work is in motion, between spaces of desire, given meaning through the histories in which he walks his way in the world — as an Indo-Caribbean diasporic man” (Nalini Mohabir).
Gosine’s performance consisted of his performance piece “Our Holy Waters.” He walked onto the stage and carefully aligned mason jars with words etched facing the audience. On the other end of the stage a black man mirrored his actions. The words on each jar read:
with the words in parentheses changing to match various places where Indo-Caribbeans live and to where they have migrated. Included in this number were rivers, oceans, seas such as the Hudson, the Caribbean Sea, the Ganges. With this act Gosine questioned notions of origin and primacy. Which water was the most important water?
Reminiscent as an act of puja, or worship, Gosine filled each carefully lined jar with water from a brass lota. In the background there was a recording that repeated, “The Ganges are not our holy waters,” as if to remind the audience that sacred cosmology in diaspora undergoes a semiotic shift. After filling each vessel, Gosine put flowers in each jar as though a vase — a symbol for life flourishing in the water of the Kala Pani, an irony given the strictures of Hindu shastras which interdict travel across the sea.
Born in Canje, Bahadur immigrated to New Jersey when she was a child. Studying literature at Yale and journalism at Columbia University she is the author of the cross-genre book Coolie Woman. Published in 2013 Bahadur’s text chronicles the narratives of women’s lives on the Guyanese sugar plantations. The practice that is the most familiar, or perhaps that shared a genealogical tie with this methodology can be thought of in a process of “reading the subaltern” where individual stories are unearthed through their absences.
In Coolie Woman, part creative nonfiction, part reportage, Bahadur excavates the narrative of her own ancestor, Sujaria — a Brahmin woman indentured and brought to Guyana. This approach at once allows for Sujaria’s agency in that it illustrates how indentureship allowed her to escape heteropatriarchal oppression in India but also illustrates a colonial dependency on British structures of colonialism as an ultimately enforcing a different, Christianized heteropatriarchal concerns.
During the event, Gaiutra read out two chapters of her book that showed the audience what women experienced at the hands of colonization and forced migration. Between each chapter, Bahadur played for the audience a slideshow which consisted of images of indentured women in what she calls “Postcards from Empire”: photographs taken of Oriental beauties to seduce British planters to try their hands and hoes in the Trinidadian colony. She also included pictures of her own family members and ancestors. In the background played a song that I recorded, singing and playing guitar, that I had learned from my Aji who learned it from hers.
As the third presenter, I indicated to the audience that I was born in London, England, and migrated to Florida with my parents after a brief stint in New York City. I am a poet and translator of Bhojpuri and Caribbean Hindi folk music. My work centers Coolitude in that it refuses to ignore the histories of colonization and the personal effects in my intimate queer relationships.
The first poems that I performed were a mix of what I term “chutney poems” based on a form that deliberately matches a sonnet and queers it by thwarting convention. The form is based on Sundar Popo’s song “Kaise Bani” and includes a Caribbean Hindi chorus, and “verses” written in English and Guyanese Creole. I use explicit details, found language poems of indentured laborer’s firsthand accounts, and music to account for the present day life of queers in Queens, New York, where I lived from 2005–2013.
The second half of my performance was my reading my poem “Rivers” that I had written in New York and translated in Bhojpuri and Guyanese Creole while on a fellowship studying Hindi language and literature by the American Institute of Indian Studies. During this time, I was able to have my poem screen printed on an orhni, or dupatta — a scarf worn by women, as a kind of antibook chapbook. This poem was written in five sections, each one named for a river that my ancestors or I have lived by. These are: the Ganga, Corentyne, Thames, Econlockhatchee, and the Hudson.
When I read each section of the poem, I tied the orhni in different ways to highlight my queerness, transgender possibilities, and social distance from the cultures on whose land the rivers that I wrote about flow — both the poetic of the piece and the materiality of the “text(tile)” being fluid, a metaphor for flux and migration.
Trinidadian-American, Harnarine screened his short film Doubles with Slight Pepper for the audience. The film takes place in rural Trinidad where the protagonist works as a “doubles” seller. Doubles are a type of snack/street food made from two pieces of Trinidadian-style barah with channa curry in the middle. He is estranged from his father who then returns to his abandoned family he left to seek better wages in the United States. He comes back to Trinidad only when he discovers that he is dying and needs an organ transplant from his son, who may or may not share a genetic inheritance to possibly match his organ to his father’s.
Harnarine states in the press release,
Doubles With Slight Pepper is not an autobiographical story, but it was conceived during the recent experience of my Father’s terminal illness. In the latter days of his life, he became a person that was completely different from the man that I knew. It was like meeting a stranger for the first time. I began to wonder what it would have been like to have never known a Father until his final days. Is there an intrinsic affinity between a Father and Son that cannot be destroyed? What could test this fundamentally human relationship? These questions inspired me as I investigated the dynamic between Father and Son. I also wanted to challenge the clichés of the standard immigrant story, by having a character that has failed in his new country and returned home. The film is set on the Caribbean island of Trinidad — my familial home. Even though the country boasts a distinctive food, language, and music, it is my hope that the emotions of the film resonate with a universal audience. Above all, the movie is a tribute to my Father, who passed away before he could see it. (Harnarine 2011)
After each of our performances, readings, and screening there was a question and answer session that lasted about twenty minutes, moderated by the scholar Lisa Outar. We fielded questions about caste identity, colonization, and methods and artistic approaches. What came out of this new alliance of sorts was direct engagement with Carter and Torabully’s Coolitude with a differing orientation — one that considered the subaltern history. Through our work, collectively, we were able to consider women’s migration, agency, and subjugation; queer approaches and inclusions in a typically Creole-framed heteropatriarchal narrative, consideration of socioeconomic depression and neoliberal trade’s effect on the Trinidadian family, bifurcation: national and ethnic, as well as recognizing a shifting space upon which we consider ourselves.
Crossmedia Coolitude poetics
Gaiutra Bahadur’s accounting is both personal and historical — waging a political war with her unrelenting questioning of the fixed categories of “dominant” and “subjugated.” By showing her own ancestral connection to agency — reading her great great grandmother’s leaving India as a personal choice, she allows space for the answers of questions of autonomy and for pre “East Indian” appellations to be negotiated altogether differently. The frame then becomes greater as she considers each of the women who ever left India in the Coolie trade. She posits that the answers to the question of agency could be multifaceted and complex, an economy of personal negotiations. She also speaks of the colonial legacy of violence that is still mapped on the postcolonial woman’s body. She speaks secrets. She tells those stories we’ve until now kept in the dark. This courage to come forth, to tell her own journey, is Coolitude.
Ian Harnarine’s dealing with the personal story of the loss of a father, however un-autobiographical, wages a similar and personal stake. The film begins with a critique of the caste system as the Dhani, the protagonist, begins with “I am 104th generation Brahmin. That’s a lie. I come from a long line of poor and stupid coolies.” Harnarine gets to the consideration of caste and Indian identity in Trinidad and exposes it as a myth, supplanted instead by a new origin myth — that of labor, that of the Coolie. Here he asks the same question as Bahadur as it relates to caste: is it possible to be of high caste in the Caribbean? The answer emerges through exposing the myth of cultural purity — there was no “Indian” before the creation of one through cultural transplanting and subjugation suffered under the British system of indenture. He is able to illustrate the countless families torn apart by the myth of American meritocracy. This story takes place in Trinidad but deals with the material reality of the United States — people being forced to leave their homes in hopes of higher-paying jobs and secure wages. Coolitude means constant negotiation of national identity.
This notion of multiple belongings echoes throughout the work of Andil Gosine. In his performance Gosine’s jars were all filled with water from the Queens Museum of Art — a testament to where the mythological and material meet. In Hindu cosmology, puja is performed at the sea, called Ganga ghat, with the belief that since the Ganga flows into the river, every ocean contains holy Ganga water. The repetition of “The Ganges are not our holy waters,” forces the audience to reckon with their current physical location and the palimpsest of histories marked on their bodies. The inclusion of a black performance artist was no coincidence. Gosine, through his inclusion of an “ethnic Other,” directly challenges racialized notions of ethnic and cultural purity, thereby allowing space for the performance of multiple identifications. This move was political and a move towards inclusivity, the actual inclusion of the physical spaces he exists in and the recognizing of illusions of ethnic difference. Coolitude means everyone can offer flowers for puja.
My own intervention and voice here allowed more room for queer narrative. Since the community of writers and artists is burgeoning, there are artistic conversations that occur between all of us involved in this performance. My performance told of my own family’s migration, dealing with racism, homophobia, and displacement using the river as a metaphor — much like Gosine’s metaphor — the river being something in constant motion toward the ocean. In my poem there is a constant movement toward inclusion in a greater dialogue while acknowledging my own personal history. My tying the dupatta, or orhni, allowed space for queer performance of history as well as the possibility of gender nonconformity. Bahadur documents this subaltern history of migrating queers in her book Coolie Woman — though this word when applied in the past of 1898 is anachronistic. Coolitude is queer possibility articulated through the vocabulary of indenture.
Works cited and further reading
Bahadur, Gaitura. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014. Print.
Bahadur, Gaiutra. Website.
Gosine, Andil. Personal website.
Doubles with Slight Pepper. Dir. Ian Harnarine. Perf. Errol Sitahal, Sanjiv Boodhu, Susan Abraham-Hannays, Ken Boodhu, Karen Saban, and Selvon Ramlal. 2011. Film.
Mohabir, Nalini. “Trinidad/Canada | Our Holy Waters and Mine: The Art of Andil Gosine” Of Note Magazine: where art meets activism. Spring 2014. Web. 3 April 2015.
Mohabir, Rajiv. “Coolitude Poems.” 2014. pw: rajiv
Coolitude: Poetics of the Indian Labor Diaspora