Poulomi SahaMar 11, 2022
An Empire of Touch
Women's Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal
Columbia University Press 2019
Can subalterns speak? Now an iconic question from a prominent postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Spivak, the question interrogates the in-built assumption about the locatable agency in an individual. Postcolonial studies have grappled with the question of legibility and limitations of archives. In her pathbreaking work, An Empire of Touch: Women's Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal (Columbia UP, 2019), Poulomi Saha disrupts the binaries of nation/individual and agency/silence by arguing that women’s labor is a political one that articulate their relational aspirations through the tactile. In this contemporary moment with neoliberalism’s co-optation of ethnonationalism and an increasing disciplinary turn towards ethnicity as culture, Saha emphasizes the urgency of postcolonialism to prioritize political project in literary critiques and understand the connections between global capital and intimate, material life of women’s labor.
The book is divided into three parts: “Reading the Body Politic,” “The Fetish of Nationalism,” and “International Basket Case.” In the first section, Saha provides a theoretical framework through her reading of Pritilata Waddedar’s body to disrupt the individualistic idea of agency and signify gendered refusal. In the second part, Saha brings Tagore’s understanding of fetish to rethink non-sovereignty as not a loss but rather an enthrallment that allowed women to express their attachment to desh (home). In the third part, Saha problematizes the power of a name by analyzing the production of discourses around birangona (war heroines) and connect the devaluation of clothes to the larger history of development where women’s labor simultaneously turned into an object of empowerment and erasure. Saha’s rich and insightful book will be an important read for scholars who are interested in development, history of labor, and feminist theories.
Poulomi Saha is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book, An Empire of Touch, was awarded the 2020 Harry Levin Prize for Outstanding First Book from the American Comparative Literature Association.
Da In Ann Choi is a PhD student at UCLA in the Gender Studies department. Her research interests include care labor and migration, reproductive justice, social movement, citizenship theory, and critical empire studies. She can be reached at email@example.com.