#DesiBooks10QA: Jessica Namakkal on how colonial projects like French India persist beyond decolonization

About the author:

Jessica (Jecca) Namakkal is Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies, History, and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. She is a member of the South Asian American Digital Archive’s Academic Council, the Radical History Review Editorial Collective, and an editor at the online forum, The Abusable Past.

About the book:

Unsettling Utopia presents a new account of the history of twentieth-century French India to show how colonial projects persisted beyond formal decolonization. After India achieved independence from the British in 1947, there remained five scattered territories governed by the French imperial state. It was not until 1962 that France fully relinquished control. Once decolonization took hold across the subcontinent, Western-led ashrams and utopian communities remained in and around the former French territory of Pondicherry—most notably the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Auroville experimental township, which continue to thrive and draw tourists today.

Through the experiences of the French territories, Jessica Namakkal recasts the relationships among colonization, settlement, postcolonial sovereignty, utopianism, and liberation, considering questions of borders, exile, violence, and citizenship from the margins. She demonstrates how state-sponsored decolonization—the bureaucratic process of transferring governance from an imperial state to a postcolonial state—rarely aligned with local desires. Namakkal examines the colonial histories of the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville, arguing that their continued success shows how decolonization paradoxically opened new spaces of settlement, perpetuating imperial power. Challenging conventional markers of the boundaries of the colonial era as well as nationalist narratives, Unsettling Utopia sheds new light on the legacies of colonialism and offers bold thinking on what decolonization might yet mean.

Unsettling Utopia presents a new account of the history of twentieth-century French India to show how colonial projects persisted beyond formal decolonization.” ~Jessica Namakkal for #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

The desi writer who has influenced me the most is Amitav Ghosh, especially with the Ibis Trilogy and In An Antique Land. His ability to do rigorous scholarship while also telling stories made me want to be a scholar who also writes for wide audiences. The ways, also, that he manages to both center South Asian history and tell global histories—of colonialism and all its consequences—without the use of heavy metaphor about the region opened my eyes to new ways of approaching history (even though he is a trained anthropologist.)

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

The Pondichérian novelist, Ari Gautier, has been writing novels and short stories about life in colonial and postcolonial Pondicherry for some years now. His novel (recently translated into English), The Thinnai, gets at what life was like for people to live in the French Indian colonies especially during this strange period of “decolonization” that I examine in my book—the years between India’s independence in 1947 and 1962, when France completely relinquished control of the French Indian territories. Ari manages to get at the lived experience of being under French colonial rule in an area on the margins of empire in a way that archival documents do not allow.

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

My dad grew up in India (born and raised in Secunderabad, though my family is Tamil) and my mom was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, in the US. They met in Minnesota in the 1970s and both my sister and I were born and grew up there. I share this to say that I would love to read more fiction and histories of mixed families in this time period. There have been quite a few books by desi authors recently that reflect on being a desi parent to a mixed child that I have enjoyed (especially Mira Jacob’s Good Talk), but I often think of growing up in a white-dominated space and not really knowing any other desi families besides my own. I think this period is under-explored.

“[Amitav Ghosh’s] ability to do rigorous scholarship while also telling stories made me want to be a scholar who also writes for wide audiences.” ~Jessica Namakkal #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

Divya Victor’s new book Curb (Nightboat Press) is currently sitting open on my desk. It’s the kind of book you want to read slowly and a little bit at a time to really sit with the words and form.

5. The desi book that you believe is most under-appreciated and why.

The historian Maia Ramnath has a short AK Press titled Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle. This is probably not on the radar of many desi readers. For anyone interested in histories of anti-colonialism in South Asia, this book is a must-read because it presents figures and narratives, from the Ghadar party to anarchists, who were not fighting for the creation of a new state.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Never quote anything unless you can’t say it better yourself!

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

While writing this book, I had a lot of major life events occur, including the death of my mother in 2016 and the birth of my daughter in 2018. And then, of course, the pandemic! But I kept plugging away at the book, motivated primarily by reading and talking with other writers whose work I greatly admire. Durba Mitra, (whose book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, is another must-read), has been a huge source of encouragement in the last phase of this project, partly by modeling what engaged feminist scholarship and activism looks like. I hope I can help motivate other people and pay it forward.

“Never quote anything unless you can’t say it better yourself!” #WritingTip from Jessica Namakkal. #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

I’m a historian and my book is out with Columbia University Press, an academic press. So, honestly, any engagement outside the academy is a huge win in my mind. I wanted to write a history that would both address major questions in the historical study of empire, colonialism, and postcolonialism, but also wanted to reach a wide audience. I hope I’ve managed to appeal to a wide audience.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

My writing community is mostly comprised on academic colleagues, and I have had a good support system of writing groups (essential!) and opportunities to present work and receive feedback. I wrote an essay for SAADA a few years ago (‘Peanut Butter Dosas: Becoming Desi in the Midwest‘) and received such wonderful, encouraging feedback that I started to see I could read audiences beyond academia, which was an important turning point.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

The main takeaway from the book is that colonialism continues to be a very powerful and dangerous form of ordering the world, and it continues to exist all around us. In order to be anti-colonial in the contemporary world, we need to ask questions of all centers of power and be careful to not romanticize forms of liberation that may not be so freeing for everyone. As the Black American civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, said, “nobody’s free until everybody is free.”

“[Colonialism] continues to exist all around us. In order to be anti-colonial in the contemporary world, we need to ask questions of all centers of power…” Jessica Namakkal for #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

Jessica Namakkal’s Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India is out now.

Find her at: https://jessicanamakkal.com/.

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