Somak Biswas – PhD student in the History Department (University of Warwick).
Founding member and former convenor of Queer History Warwick.
Almost as if in anticipation of the national UCU strike this week, our last event this term had taken up two chapters of Gayatri Gopinath’s seminal text Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures for reading. Members of the Global History Centre and Queer History group came together to discuss the dense intersections that underlie the making of labour flows and immigrant cultural identity from countries of the global South. Both fields of global history and queer studies are important stakeholders in understanding the fragile nature of immigration narratives and its representative politics thereof. Several historians have noted in recent years the need to analyse how Asian labour migrations have shaped global capitalism and Gopinath’s book is a formidable contribution in expanding and queering the field.
In her introduction, Gopinath critiques the tendency to take the South Asian male immigrant to western Europe and north America as the default historical subject. As she puts it: the diasporic male subject is made visible through a consistent erasure of the female subject. Using a queer feminist lens – which she enticingly calls ‘scavenger methodology’ – Gopinath foregrounds the queer non-white female subject at the centre of her rehabilitative efforts. In what ways are different national sites connected to transnational economic and cultural processes in the global sweatshop? The outmarket of Asian immigrant labour in London’s East End boroughs is the real underground that grinds spices for Western masala markets – as much as the home-turned-factory in the cheap labour world of South Asia which clothes the world. Events such as the Grenfell Tower fire are not extraordinary but very much part of the tragic depredations wrought by global capital on immigrant labour bodies. Gopinath forcefully reminds us of the gendered nature of such processes. The home becomes factory and the factory becomes home, the woman’s body claimed, fragmented and transformed between these multiple appropriations.
‘Bhangra’, the immensely popular folk dance form that has travelled with Punjabi migrants to the U.K and U.S, is now a thriving industry in South Asian diasporic cultures. Its working class bearings and narratives of patrilineal displacement notwithstanding, the cultural form has become another major site to produce racialised immigrant masculinity. Like hip-hop, it has now become another cultural form appropriated by the upbeat urban middle class music scene in different parts of the West. That these appropriations can also foster some kind of global radical speak is not disavowed. Misreadings can be productive, as a generation of postmodern literary scholars have suggested. Radical peasant movements in different parts of India can be successfully yoked to utopian imaginings of an anti-racist society in the U.K, as groups such as the Black Star did during the decades of the ‘political Blackness’ movement.
Yet, like so many other diasporic representations and reproductions of an idealised ‘homeland’ narrative for immigrant communities, it is often the male body that figures as the site and signifier of displacements and investments. As Gopinath notes, the ‘giddha’, a popular folk dance form that closely resembles the ‘bhangra’ but generally led by women, has suffered serious neglect due to the overwhelming focus on the male migrant narrative around ‘bhangra’. The queer female subject, through such repeated displacements, is rendered almost invisible, if not impossible. It is these erasures that historians of both global and queer studies need to be aware of. The consistent neglect of the missing (queer) female subject and subjectivity in prominent strands of contemporary scholarship on immigration, race and diaspora can tend to reify these erasures, given that so much of this archive is sheer cultural memory or performance. Drawing deeply from the work of cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, the book is a formidable and complex exposition of how processes of capitalist production and labour expropriation works seamlessly to reinforce multiple erasures around gender, race, class and sexuality.