In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.

The United States of India: Anticolonial Literature and Transnational Refraction, Manan Desai (Temple University Press, April 2020)
The United States of India: Anticolonial Literature and Transnational Refraction, Manan Desai (Temple University Press, April 2020)

The United States of India shows how Indian and American writers in the United States played a key role in the development of anticolonial thought in the years during and immediately following the First World War. For Indians Lajpat Rai and Dhan Gopal Mukerji, and Americans Agnes Smedley, WEB Du Bois, and Katherine Mayo, the social and historical landscape of America and India acted as a reflective surface. Manan Desai considers how their interactions provided a “transnational refraction”—a political optic and discursive strategy that offered ways to imagine how American history could shed light on an anticolonial Indian future.

“Dissatisfaction with the womanly rôle,” the psychologist Alfred Adler wrote in Understanding Human Nature (1927), “is … more evident among [women] who escape from life because of some so-called ‘higher reasons’. Nuns, or others who assume some occupation for which celibacy is an essential, are a case in point.” Adler, of course, was not judging such women negatively, as he felt that women should not have to be controlled by the patriarchal nature of 20th-century society and that they should be able to develop their own roles. 

The first two decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of urbanism in sociology and philosophy: Georg Simmel wrote about the metropolis and mental life, and Walter Benjamin penned portraits of Western cities like Paris and discussed the work of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe in the context of the flâneur,  the dandy who roamed the streets to observe the city and the people.

Agnès Bun’s collection of vignettes echoes Theodor Adorno’s famous comment that “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” All debates surrounding the quote aside, how does one manage to express anything at all when faced with the extremes of human suffering? I guess one way would be poetic language, because it oozes out of the pages of this short but powerful book.