UNHOMELY STIRRINGS: REPRESENTATIONS OF INDENTURESHIP IN INDO-CARIBBEAN LITERATURE FROM 1960 TO THE PRESENT
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This dissertation investigates the ways in which East Indian Caribbean (Indo-Caribbean) writers negotiate history, identity, and belonging. Nineteenth-century government officials and plantation owners described Indian indentureship (1838-1917) in the British West Indies as a contractual system of employment implemented after abolition and as a civilizing mechanism aimed at reforming heathen laborers. Challenging these accounts, historians have shown that the system was a new mode of exploitation. Colonial administrators used coercive tactics to control workers and implemented strategic laws to confine Indians to the plantation. These policies constructed Indians as foreigners and interlopers in colonial society, perceptions that have significantly impacted the formation of Indo-Caribbean subjectivities and Indo-Caribbean claims to postcolonial citizenship in the region. Reading both canonical and lesser known texts, my project argues that Indo-Caribbean writers frequently engage with indentureship as a means to come to terms with this history of oppression and as a way to contest their elision in Anglophone Caribbean culture more widely.
Drawing on postcolonial theory, I examine works published from 1960 to the present by authors from Guyana and Trinidad, countries where Indians constitute a significant portion of the population. My analysis begins in the 1960s because it was at this time that literary and political debates began to focus on decolonization and on defining a culture distinct from Britain. Given that Indian indentures were unable to record their own experiences, their perspectives are largely omitted from the Caribbean historiography. Moreover, as Indians moved off the plantation and gained socio-economic mobility, they often viewed indenture as a shameful part of their heritage that was best forgotten. By examining V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, Peter Kempadoo's Guyana Boy, Harold Ladoo's No Pain Like This Body, Ramabai Espinet's The Swinging Bridge, the novels of Shani Mootoo, and the poetry of Rajkumari Singh, Rooplall Monar, and Mahadai Das, "Unhomely Stirrings" traces the processes by which indenture has been subjected to willful acts of forgetting within Indo-Caribbean communities and in larger national histories. These texts engage the ways in which the legacy of indentureship continues to shape the contemporary lives and identities of Indo-Caribbean people at home and in the diaspora.