Asha Nadkarni


“‘A Queerness of No Return’?: Competing Diasporic Imaginaries in Shani Mootoo’s He Drown She in the Sea

In her 2008 essay, “On Becoming an Indian Starboy,” Indo-Caribbean Canadian author Shani Mootoo imagines diaspora as constitutively queer, arguing that “once an Indian from India stepped foot on one of those boats in the nineteenth century, bound for the islands of the British Empire, in leaving behind language, family ties, community, the village, tradition in general, very specific religious rites, he or she was transitioning into a queerness of no return” (83). Aligning this queerness with the severance of family, religion, and tradition, Mootoo defines it as an irreparable break with origins. And yet precisely because there is “no return,” diaspora enables queer and feminist reinventions of origin, which in turn lead to the creation of new modes of kinship and affiliation. Indeed, Mootoo argues that the initial rupture of diaspora leads to “continuously changing and challenging queerness,” saying “It is the how and the why of the stories that are written” (83-4).

I am interested in using Motoo’s notion of a “continuously changing and challenging queerness” to explore how her 2005 novel, He Drown She in the Sea, charts the relationship between Black and South Asian diasporas. I suggest that she queers romances of national origin in order to highlight how diaspora creates affective intimacies that in turn produce South-South connections. To be clear, here I am using the concept of queer not just in relationship to sexuality and same-sex desire but instead (to borrow Gayatri Gopinath’s definition) “to refer to a range of dissident and non-heteronormative practices and desires” (11). More precisely in the terms that Mootoo outlines in her essay – queerness refers to the disruption of normative genealogies of various kinds, the creation of new modes of kinship and affiliation, and it also stresses the act of invention diaspora entails: “the how and why of the stories that are told.” Thus I am interested in how a novel that is at first glance a heterosexual romance about lovers from different social stations (and is in that sense quite conventional), has something to tell us about queer diaspora, suggesting that the novel does this precisely through playing with the idea of romance in both generic and thematic senses. Furthermore, I argue that Mootoo figures South-South solidarities as key to potential liberation, even if that liberation remains a romantic, utopian, horizon (and here I am very interested in Jane’s work on the horizon as “[making] possible a new way of conceptualizing the unfolding of the future as a function of space and time.”)

Unlike Mootoo’s 1993 debut collection of short stories, Out on Main Street, and her first novel, the 1996 Cereus Blooms at Night, in which issues of sexual and cultural identity are explored both thematically and formally, He Drown She is a primarily realist text structured as a fairly conventional heterosexual romance. It traces the love story of Harry St. George and Rose Bihar, both of South Asian descent but from vastly different class backgrounds, from childhood on the imaginary island of Guanagaspar (an island clearly modeled after Trinidad), to their reunion forty years later in Canada, where Harry has immigrated. He Drown She shares with Cereus a preoccupation with the ways that the lines of community are played out on the bodies of women and the violence and constraints imposed by gender, sexuality, and class, as implied by the gendered threat of the title. The phrase “he drown she in the sea” refers to what we are made to believe is Rose’s fate at the end of the novel. Rose, trapped in an unhappy marriage with Shem Bihar, the Attorney General of Guanagaspar, is presumed to have drowned at the end of the novel. The reader learns, however, that Rose, knowing that Shem will never allow her to humiliate him by leaving him for Harry, has faked her own death. The official version is that she has drowned due to a strong riptide, while the rumor is that Shem has drowned her – he is the “he” in the book’s title. The novel ends with Rose and Harry running away to Honduras to start a new life, though whether or not they actually make it there is left somewhat ambiguous by the end of the novel.

He Drown She plays with romances of national origins as imagined in the diaspora. As Yogita Goyal argues in her 2010 Romance, Diaspora and Black Atlantic Literature, “diaspora is commonly . . . linked to the genre of the romance, implying a non-linear, messianic, temporality.” At the same time, she demonstrates how romance and realism are mutually constitutive and in tension, as “Black Atlantic literature expresses both the teleological, modernizing impulse of nationalist realism and the recursive logic of diasporic romance”(9). Given this, I am curious to examine how Black and South Asian diasporic origins are differently figured within the novel, suggesting that queering the past becomes a way to imagine a new future, and ultimately arguing that the novel (against narratives that would want to locate liberated queer subjectivity in the global north) posits a South-South diasporic trajectory as the truly liberatory path.

The novel advances its reading of Black diaspora through Harry’s adopted grandfather, Uncle Mako. Harry and his mother, Dolly, are anomalous among Indo-Caribbean Guanagasparians in that they live among the Afro-Caribbean fishing community. This is because Harry’s late father, Seudath (who died in a fishing accident before Harry was born) was abandoned by his parents as a child and was raised by Uncle Mako and Tante Eugenie, two members of the Afro-Caribbean fishing community. Uncle Mako is notable for his steadfast belief in a romanticized vision of the African homeland. On the one hand this romanticized vision of Africa, as a singular “country,” existing out of time and space, a mythical place that “might or might not be” where he thinks it is, is a fantasy: a story that even Uncle Mako “could not make sense of.” As scholars of the Black diaspora have long argued, this romantic imagining of Africa relegates it to the past and denies it agency and historicity in the present. This critique is embedded in the novel through Uncle Mako’s wife, Tante Eugenie, who responds to Uncle Mako: “Them people ‘there,’ you making up stories about them in your head; you think they even have time for we?”

But although Mootoo critiques this romantic rendering of Africa, she also shows the political utility of such fantasies. The movement for national independence in Guanagaspar is described in the novel as being inspired through a pan-African anti-colonialism that rejects white colonialists and the wealthy strata of the Indo-Caribbean population alike, and that is founded in African cultural nationalism. Thus even though Uncle Mako’s dream of Africa is understood to be just that – a dream – it is one that nonetheless translates into a political reality. And so we see in this moment how the romantic view of African origins and possibility of return actually gets folded into the teleological impulse of nationalism. But just as importantly in terms of the novel, Uncle Mako’s dream fuels another, more personal, dream. After Rose fakes her own death, she and Harry embark for new lives in Honduras in the pirogue Uncle Mako has constructed for his trip back to Africa. He no longer needs it—and part of precisely why he doesn’t need it is because of Guanagasparian independence. Nonetheless this vehicle, built out of his romantic vision of Africa, enables a further diaspora for the novel’s protagonists.

In contrast to this romantic and mythical invocation of African origins, South Asian diaspora is evoked entirely in realist terms as a great leveler of the otherwise (economically) stratified Indo-Caribbean Guangasparian community. Speaking of the differences that mark the Harry and Rose’s families (Dolly does laundry for Rose’s family), Dolly nonetheless insists on their singular origin: “’They cross them terrible waters . . . in the same stinking boats. All of we lie down side by side, catch head lice, cough, and cold, chew betel leaf together, and spit blood.. . . And no matter how some rise, how some fall, or how some stay put, all of we. . . and by that I mean people who have their eyes in the back of their heads always facing abroad, as if abroad even noticing us here on this island, and people who can’t take their eyes off from the one spot where they feet planted—all, one and all, stem from the same tide. And it had a time every one of us was a servant” (201). Using a language of bodily contagion – “head lice, cough and cold” – to emphasize the lack of boundaries (bodily and otherwise) between the individuals crossing the Atlantic as indentured laborers, Dolly nevertheless moves to a language of differentiation (some rise, some fall, some stay put) defined both by status and by an attitude to the place of national origins: “abroad.” Importantly, in Dolly’s formulation the origin point is not South Asia, but is instead the Atlantic crossing: “all, one and all, stem from the same tide.”

Returning to the idea of romance, on some level He Drowns She is a love story: but as a love story it refuses to suture together difference in service of either the Caribbean or Canadian multicultural nations. Instead the heterosexual union in this novel does something different – it is a site not only for escaping the gendered violence of the state as enacted within the family (and thus Shem’s status as the Attorney General seems a very deliberate detail) but it is also a place for making new South-South affinities. We see this not only with Dolly, Seudath, and Harry’s somewhat liminal position between the Indo- and Afro-Caribbean populations, but we also see it in Dolly’s evocation of the ship. I cannot help but read that passage and think about the all of the ships who brought unfree people – indentured servants and chattel slaves to the island. And I want to be very careful here because these are different histories. But they are linked in certain ways, and a reading of the contagion that Dolly describes actually allows us to think about how the intimacies of diaspora (in the ways that Lisa Lowe talks about in The Intimacies of Four Continents), and to think about how these intimacies potentially breed different modes of affective connection and possible affiliation. And so while in some ways Dolly’s is a decidedly not romantic view, unlike Uncle Mako’s nostalgic fantasy that depends on a utopian horizon and gives way to a politically viable future, it does a different kind of work in terms of charting affinities. Affinities that, importantly, remain both ideologically and generically in the mode of the romance.

In the longer version of this paper I explore this idea in relation to the two non-realist sequences that bookend the novel, both of which are graphically distinct from the rest of the text by being entirely in italics. In doing so, I’m interested in investigating how the South-South move from Guanagaspar to Honduras remains in the realm of the fantastical and romantic. At the end of the novel the reader does not really know if Harry and Rose have made it to Honduras, or if the final sequence is a dream. But rather than read this as failure, I’d argue that the novel is holding out South-South connections as another utopian horizon.

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

At the moment I am interested in thinking through questions around labor, subjectivity, and literary production. My current book project, From Opium to Outsourcing: Global Circuits of South Asian Labor, considers labor flows to and from the South Asian subcontinent from the nineteenth century to the present to investigate the relationship between labor and South Asian diasporic subject formation over multiple temporalities and geographies.

This project is going to require engagement not only with the South Asian subcontinent, but also with southeast Africa, the Caribbean, the UK, and the United States. While the majority of the literature in this study is from the 20th and 21st centuries, roughly half of it emanates from South Asian diasporic writers who are descendants of the 19th century diasporas of South Asian indentured laborers.

Provisional sketch of essay: 

I think a kind of “case study” essay could be fun, perhaps circling around questions of diaspora, gender, sexuality, history, labor and culture (or some combination therein!) Right now I’m working on notions of queer diaspora in the work of Indo-Caribbean Canadian author Shani Mootoo, asking (among other things) how she differently figures Indian and African diasporas to the Caribbean.