Conjure women, coolie women, and impossible stories

Dr. Dharitri Bhattacharjee. Photo courtesy of

By Briana Wheeler

Staff Writer

After a brief introduction by Sewanee’s own Dr. Dharitri Bhattacharjee, award-winning Guyanese-American writer Gaiutra Bahadur stepped up to the podium in Gailor Auditorium and delivered a lecture about her 2013 novel Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture.

The novel serves simultaneously as a biography of her great-grandmother Sujaria’s life as an indentured servant and a general discourse on the indentured labor system in the Caribbean. The depictions serve as honest, unfiltered representations of the conditions women suffered during their travels to the Caribbean islands and the environments they were exposed to on plantations.

Bahadur began by establishing necessary background information, such as describing Charles Chesnutt’s collection of short stories The Conjure Woman. She explained that the conjure woman originated within the African American tradition, and her archetype was controversial because “she is wrapped in the dark arts.” In Chesnutt’s story, the conjure woman removes another woman’s voice with magic, but does not possess the power to restore it.

The story describes a voice that has been irretrievably stolen, a point which Bahadur used to connect the conjure woman archetype to her novel about Indian coolie women. Both prominent figures from plantation past, their power stems from language.

“Conjure is using language and art to summon lost ancestors whose voices have been stolen in the past. It’s a recombinant magic, ” Bahadur said.

The voices of thousands of indentured women might as well have been stolen by sorcery; they exist on the very fringes of the archives. Bahadur explained that there were no direct testimonies or memoirs written by women because they were illiterate and incapable of recording their experiences.

“The words, when we have them, were mediated and distorted by the guilty” and other men who benefitted from the fabrication of records, according to Bahadur. Only two memoirs exist from Indian indentured servants, both written by men.

Because of the utter lack of sources, historians face immense difficulty while exploring a major question about indentured servitude: was it comparable to slavery, or did it provide some type of freedom? Bahadur claimed, “it’s a difficult question to answer without considering the place of women in history; a question that cannot be answered without acknowledging a problem.”

Bahadur identified this problem as “the ghostly trail” left by coolie women in the archives. “They appear as commodities and corpses, only brought to our attention when something goes wrong,” she went on to say. The erasure of their voices from the archives constitutes the secondary violence of the slave trade that haunts current generations and will continue to haunt future generations.

In order to capture the entire story, Bahadur had to call on two different aspects of the self: the reporter and the child immigrant. “A reporter’s way of seeing the world is very similar to a child immigrant’s way of seeing the world. They both ask questions,” she said.

As a reporter, her questions were grounded in skepticism, but as a child immigrant they were concerned with identity. Bahadur affirmed that both components were necessary to write the novel.

Bahadur described her story as one just as much against the archives as about them. She dramatized the gaps within the archives to demonstrate how much is missing. She wrote with the belief that “another way to tell an impossible story is to tell about the impossibility itself.”

In addition to the sparse information in the archives, Bahadur compiled various aspects of the coolie women’s culture. She researched folk traditions and cycled through surviving photographs, poetry, and songs in an attempt to establish their narrative. The archives alone “could not reveal the texture of their thoughts or feelings,” she explained.

Paying particular attention to the photographs, she described them as “no pathway to their thoughts, but access to their faces” because “their bodies were all we had to read them.” She showed the audience a slideshow of photos while a traditional song filtered through the speakers to show that the archives can be a fiction, a mere rhetorical context.

Bahadur ended by discussing the personal difficulty she faced as the author of such an expansive tale. She had to discover “a way that the act of narration will not retraumatize the dead.” Because of the indentured system’s scope, she decided to focus mainly on the story of her great-grandmother.

For Bahadur, the possibility that Sujaria may not have wanted her story told became very real and a fear she had to overcome. She became slightly emotional and posed the rhetorical question, “What does their silence in the total sum of history tell us?”

Without answering, she explained that “silence can be a plan, rigorously executed, the blueprint of a life.” But in order to return thousands of women’s stolen voices, Bahadur had to compromise their silence and piece together the fragments of the lives they left scattered throughout their culture. She concluded by claiming that literary magic is “not only how we tell impossible stories, but why we tell them.”