SOAS University of London

Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

Book Launch: Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur

Gaiutra Bahadur

Date: 1 November 2013Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 1 November 2013Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 116

Type of Event: Book Launch

Note: Internal event not open to external attendees.

In 1903, a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”—the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, this woman, like so many of the indentured, disappeared into history. 

Now, in Coolie Woman, her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on complex lives.

Many of these women were widows, runaways, or outcasts. Many fled mistreatment, even mortal danger, to migrate alone in epic sea voyages–traumatic “middle passages”–only to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and, most notably, sexual exploitation. As Bahadur explains, however, it is precisely their sexuality that makes coolie women stand out as figures in history. In a borderland between freedom and slavery–and because these women were so greatly outnumbered by men–sex made them victims at the same time that it gave them sway. And it was a source, at times, of tremendous conflict, from machete murders to entire uprisings.

Examining this and many other facets of these courageous women’s lives, Coolie Woman is a meditation on survival, a gripping story of a double diaspora–from India to the West Indies in one century, Guyana to the United States in the next–that is at once a search for one’s roots and an exploration of gender and power, peril and opportunity.

Pankaj Mishra calls Coolie Woman a “pathbreaking book (that) shows, with understated literary power, the bitter paradoxical nature of colonial modernity.” Junot Diaz says it is “an astonishing document … both a historical rescue mission and a profound meditation on family and womanhood.” And Teju Cole praises it as “a narrative both scholarly and soulful.”

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