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  • Racial Enfleshment and Transpacific Modalities of Relation
  • Michelle O'Brien

introduction: the komagata maru and recovering racial affiliations across the transpacific

2014 marked the 100-year anniversary of the voyage of the Komagata Maru, which is memorialized today as a significant example of anti-South Asian violence in Canada. 376 British subjects—Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus—attempted to journey to Canada at a time when the nation's race-based exclusion laws, and the 1908 Continuous Journey provision in particular, allowed immigration officers to refuse the entry of Indians who did not come directly from India to Canada on a continuous journey (Johnston 17).1 Once the Komagata Maru reached Burrard Inlet off the coast of British Columbia, it was forbidden to dock, and its passengers were forcibly detained aboard the ship for two months under barely-livable conditions (Mawani, "Spectres" 370). The Komagata Maru's journey not only exemplifies this era of anti-Asian xenophobia and racial exclusion in Canada—it also marks an instance where the nation's desire for a "white country" was directly confronted (9, Mongia 207). The ship's charter, Gurdit Singh, intended to enable immigration between India and Canada by challenging the Continuous Journey provision, and in doing so, defied the "racial inclusions and exclusions through which British subjecthood and mobility was determined" (Mawani, "Sovereignties" 108, 109).

In the same year as the centennial acknowledgement of the Komagata Maru's voyage, Phinder Dulai published his poetry collection, dreams/arteries (2014). The collection's opening prose poem examines the dehumanizing effects of colonial power which mediated the experiences of the British Indian passengers aboard the Komagata Maru as they travelled from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, to Moji, to Yokohama, to Vancouver, before they were denied entry into Canada and forced to return to Calcutta (Johnston 62, Mawani, "Sovereignties" 107). But dreams/arteries also connects the 1914 journey of the Komagata Maru to other histories of migration and modern forms of racial violence, including anti-colonial uprisings in Singapore, Canada's arrest and interrogation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees aboard the MV Ocean Lady, and the 2012 fatal shootings in a Wisconsin gurdwara by a white supremacist. By placing these events in conversation with one another, [End Page 115] teries suggests they belong to a broader yet undertheorized history of transpacific migration that connects these instances of historical racial exclusion to modern forms of race-based violence.

Through a reading of these points of relationality, this article examines affiliations between South Asian peoples across the Pacific. Janet Hoskins and Viet Thanh Nguyen propose that transpacific spaces may be "inseparable from fantasies of economic expansion and domination," but transpacific literary critiques can engage with "alternate narratives" that "illuminate the traffic in peoples, cultures, capital" across this zone without reproducing nationalistic mode(s) of thought (iii, 3). This paper engages with the transpacific as both a methodological approach and an emerging area of study that can "alter memory and invoke minority survival in the deadly space between competing national, imperial interests" by exposing the minoritized narratives produced in this oceanic zone of contact (Huang 5). Like Hoskins and Nguyen, I define transpacific approaches broadly—namely, as an analysis of the circulation of bodies, power relations, and ideas throughout the (trans) Pacific—and propose that Dulai's work initiates a type of transpacific conversation. That is, rather than focus on the connections between instances of racial violence through a nation-bound framing alone, Dulai's poetry examines how the racial body is a site where assemblages of relation between individuals across the Pacific inhere and can be recovered.

Racial enfleshment plays a vital role in Dulai's yoking together of acts of violence that continue to figure racial bodies as inferior human types. In his analysis of race—and blackness in particular—in relation to the limits of the human, Alexander Weheliye describes racial flesh as a "vestibular gash in the armor of Man, simultaneously a tool of dehumanization and a relational vestibule to alternate ways of being that do not possess the luxury of eliding phenomenology with biology" (44). In Weheliye's reading, the flesh not only "anchors" raciality/racism in the body; it also presents a different...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 115-134
Launched on MUSE
2018-11-19
Open Access
No
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