MLA 2018

Afro-Asian Imaginaries and New/Old Imperialisms

A Special Session, included in this year's presidential theme, #States of Insecurity.

Neelofer Qadir (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Sean M. Kennedy (City University of New York, Graduate Center)
Benjamin Hiramatsu Ireland (Texas Christian University)
Guangzhi Huang (State University of New York Buffalo)

This session features work by emerging scholars in the developing field of Afro-Asian studies that is focused on the long durée of imperialism. Instead of taking the still-dominant West-periphery approach to imperialism, however, we use a south-south analytic as our primary context, highlighting empire’s operations in both the past and present in different global regions of Asia and Africa. The four papers build upon extant scholarship in areas such as oceanic studies and Indian Ocean Studies (“Theories and Methodologies: Oceanic Studies,” PMLA [2010]); global black studies (Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race [2007]; Hofmeyr, “The Black Atlantic Meets the Indian Ocean: Forging New Paradigms of Transnationalism for the Global South—Literary and Cultural Perspectives” [2007]); “minor transnationalism” (Shih and Lionnet 2005); the global 19th century and its legacies (Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents [2015]); and “literature in the world” (PMLA 2016). Moreover, by engaging these areas, the papers—and session overall—contribute to African diaspora studies, Asian diaspora studies, and critical race and ethnic studies.

More specifically, the papers trace and analyze continuing exchanges—of commodities, languages, and people—between and among communities in Asia and Africa, offering new insights about both imperialism as a form, practice, and political economy and the renovated dynamics of contemporary global power built upon earlier imperial models. Indeed, by linking “old” imperialisms, such as that of the British and French, with “new” imperialisms like that of Nigeria, India, and China, the session allows for a multi-polar engagement with the concept of “empire” across space and time. Similarly, by using a range of fields and methods—comparative literary studies, cultural and media studies, materialist critique—the papers altogether offer a compelling interdisciplinary treatment of empire that points to new ways of doing literary studies and humanistic scholarship at large.

The first two papers focus on exchanges between South Asia, Africa, and African diasporas. In “The Wake and the Hold: Racial Capitalism and the Indian Ocean” Neelofer Qadir takes up the south-south frame by engaging Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy through Zachary Reid, an African-diasporic ship carpenter turned opium tycoon, and Deeti, a high caste Indian woman turned indentured laborer. Drawing on Christina Sharpe’s practice of “wake work,” Qadir analyzes the relationship between Reid and Deeti, two characters who never converse directly yet share an unbreakable bond through the Ibis, which intertwines their destinies. As figures who are largely absent in the official archives, but present in Ghosh’s dynamic rendering of the 19th century opium trade, Reid and Deeti allow us to re-imagine the history and trajectory of global capitalism from the vantage of African and Asian actors in the Indian Ocean World as opposed to prevailing perspectives of European colonists and imperialists. By shifting the frame and focusing on the imaginative renderings of lesser known narratives, Qadir puts into conversation the rich emergent field of Indian Ocean Studies and the more established field of Atlantic Studies to craft connected histories of racial capitalism.

Sean M. Kennedy then looks at the contemporary valences of these connected histories in “Postcolonial Pain Control and the ‘Transparent I’: Narcotrafficking and Narcopolis,” in which he analyzes the psychic and social relations between and among Nigerians and Indians in Jeet Thayil’s 2012 novel, set in the “underworld” of Mumbai. Using Ferreira da Silva’s “analytics of raciality,” Kennedy hones in on the relationships of the transgender hijra character and the Nigerian narcotics runner (alternately called an “African donkey,” a “Negro,” and a “Nigerian,” though never by his name) to both the gangsters of the novel and the “transparent I” of the narrator/author: masculine Indian men who must consciously close themselves off from blackness and queerness to maintain their self-intelligibility even while unconsciously engaging in cross-racial homosocial play. By moving away from the hemispheric-Americas context of cartels and drug wars, as well as the history of the Asian opium trade, Kennedy provides a lens on how the illicit drugs market is shaping two of the world’s largest economies, politically as well as psychically, in the face of uneven global development.

The next pair of papers shift to relations between China and Africa, which move beyond the dominant global narrative of Chinese investment in Africa. In “Mixed Race Poetics of the Francophone Indian Ocean: Afrasian Animal-Maroons,” Benjamin Hiramatsu Ireland examines a rare, uncirculated French-language poetic collection, My Chinese Nation (1995), written by author and activist Daniel Honore, of Sino-African heritage. Ireland argues that Honore curiously animalizes the Afrasian maroons whom he describes using dehumanizing metaphors that one would find in postcolonial literatures of the French Caribbean. The Afrasian maroon metaphorically “becoming-animal” constitutes a fusion of African and Asian colonial histories with the French Empire, making the maroon figure an assemblage of transhistorical and transcultural signifiers fused with affects of colonial traumas. Through such affective projections, the poetic subject achieves forms of ontological stability and security that counteracts his sentiments of non-belonging to both African and Asian cultures.

Guangzhi Huang concludes the session with “‘200,000 Blacks in Guangzhou’: News Media, Race, and State Construction of Modern Urbanity,” in which he analyzes contemporary media representations of Africans in Guangzhou, home to the largest African community in China today. Huang investigates how state agencies create a false impressions of and about mass migration from Africa to China by using strategically selected images and statistics and linking illicit migration status to spikes in crimes of drug use, trafficking, and sexual violence. While such tropes exist globally, Huang argues that in Guangzhou, they are a component of the municipal government’s urban-development and state-building strategies. Noting that the African community is described in a language similar to that which is used to describe domestic rural migrants inhabiting the same urban neighborhoods, Huang shows how the government constructs a racial other that is at once familiar and unmistakably non-Chinese.

In sum, the papers in this session will bolster the emerging south-south inquiry in evidence in previous MLA conventions and that will surely grow at MLA 2018 and subsequent conventions. We look forward to being a part of this developing conversation.