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Ghosts of the Plantation

Viewed as an energy-commodity, sugar can be seen to mediate the effect of energy on narrative time – what might be termed narrative energetics (Macdonald 2013) – in plantation fiction. As a commodity, sugar is a calorific fuel yet it also ‘naturalizes necessity’, in Niblett’s terms, ‘shaping bodies, tastes, habits, and even emotional geographies (sugar “highs” and “lows”)’ (Niblett 2015, 268). The historical process of cultivating the taste for sugar, as is shown in Sidney Mintz’s seminal study, Sweetness and Power (1985), altered the tempo of modern life by establishing disciplinary productivity in the cane fields and determining the hours of factory time in industrial Europe, forcing working-class women to substitute farmed foods for the short-term bursts of energy provided by the sugary cup of tea. By converting energy from enslaved bodies in the fields and women’s bodies in the kitchens into surges of cheap energy for factory workers, sugar produced a short-term ‘rush’ followed by an energy depleting ‘crash’ not only at the individual level through glucose spikes in the blood but also at the collective level, through the exhaustion of the millions of bodies needed to produce it. Its effect on ecological rhythms has been viewed as similarly exhausting. As the environmental theorist and historian Jason Moore notes in his study of the sugar islands of the Atlantic world, the colonising, ‘thirsty’ force of sugarcane has historically worked to ‘devour’ the forests, ‘exhaust’ the soils and ‘kill’ other crops and species, generating effects that have ultimately ‘undermined the sugar regime’s capacity to reproduce itself’ (2009, 376). Imagined in this way, sugar appears as a ‘vampire crop’ that multiplies death instead of life, turning lifecycles into death-spirals of rapid accumulation and exhaustion.

One useful way of considering the destabilising effects of sugar on narrative energetics is through the notion of ‘social metabolism’ elaborated by Marx. In Capital, Marx suggests that the process by which energy is taken from the soil to produce food and metabolised by humans as calories, before being returned to the earth through traditional practices such as depositing night-soils at the outskirts of medieval towns, is no longer possible in modern capitalist society. As the modern city drains more energy than it returns, a ‘metabolic rift’ separates it from those rural hinterlands from which energy is siphoned off, rendering society an unsustainable organism. In Marx’s terms: capitalism ‘disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility’ (1982, 637–8). The exhaustion of soil fertility leads to an expansionist drive in search of more nutrients – notably through the European colonisation of ‘guano islands’ for fertiliser – which in turn fuels a global plantation complex whose expansion rests on the extraction of cheap energy from enslaved people, indentured workers and women, as well as from non-human animals, soils, rivers and oceans. While energy transfer is a normal part of life insofar as organisms consume other organisms, an imbalance occurs when people are transported thousands of miles to sustain monocrop regimes characterised by widescale depletion. Importantly, the metabolic rift entails not just a growing spatial distance between metropole and colony but also a temporal shift caused by the accelerated use of finite sources of fertility by metropolitan societies. As Marx’s analysis indicates, the mode of production instantiated in the plantation system outstrips the regenerative capacities of nature even as it continues to demand acceleration for profit. As centuries of accumulated guano deposits from bats are reduced to the minutes taken to drink a sugary cup of tea, capital’s accelerative tendencies launch an assault on time itself, which speeds towards annihilation like a car accelerating into a wall. Yet the effects of this crisis – observed in disasters such as floods when these occur several years or even decades after deforestation has taken place – are externalised as ‘natural’ disasters although they in fact are social ones. Importantly, this is not simply because humans have externalised nature, but because the spatial and temporal effects of the metabolic rift render their social origins invisible – the result being that they take on supernatural qualities, resembling monstrous returns and instances of nature’s ‘revenge’.

This disruption to the metabolic interaction between humans and their environments is evident in plantation fiction from Fiji, and the stories collected in Subramani’s The Fantasy Eaters, with their techniques of narrative circularity and uncanny returns, offer illuminating examples. As the collection’s title implies, the stories are concerned with the fantasies, myths and spiritual consolations embraced by indentured workers and their descendants, particularly as these clash with everyday experiences in Fiji, a place described as narak (hell) by the Indians who arrive there. While memories and desires shape how Fiji is perceived in the minds of migrants brought to the islands, Subramani shows how these desires – particularly for growth, prosperity, fertility and renewal – clash with the plantation’s depletive socio-ecological effects. Sugarcane is frequently connected to the spirits, ghosts and demons of Hindu and Fijian mythology in the stories. ‘Tell Me Where the Train Goes’, for example, depicts the ‘nightmarish world’ of the plantation as one threatened by both spirits and sardars, its residents fearing each other (the protagonist suffers flashbacks of mutilated corpses among the cane leaves) and cannibalistic ‘earth-bound spirits’ such as ‘Tevoro’ (kana tevoro), a Fijian night demon that eats bodies (11). The sugarcane resembles ‘Karkotaka, one of the main serpents of the underworld’: just as the Hindu demon Karkotaka is known for deforming and immobilising his victims, so too is the sugarcane imagined as a force that stunts and disfigures the bodies of its cultivators, curving their spines, crushing their limbs in mill machinery and leaving their faces and hands ‘gnarled and weather-beaten’ (13–14). In the story ‘Sautu’ (a word that ironically means ‘prosperous’ or ‘well-being’ in Fijian), the cane growers are described as ‘cracked and creased like the earth outside’, while the protagonist’s mental exhaustion is mirrored by the parched, dehydrated land, just as the arson that destroys his house is reflected in the burning cane-fields outside (3). Surrounded by imported mynah birds, the excrement of imported dogs and rats, the ‘monotonous hum’ of sugar-hungry mosquitoes and the disasters of fire and drought, Subramani’s nightmarish portrait of indenture in Fiji is bound up with the sugar plantation’s exhausting and violent effects in socio-ecological terms.

If ‘Sautu’ maps the protagonist’s depression onto the exhausted plantation setting, ‘Tell Me Where the Train Goes’ contrasts the extreme and violent dynamism of the sugar train – whose arrival and departure bookend the narrative – with the abandonment experienced by producers of the energy-commodity. The train’s engines are imbued in the story with gothic agency: groaning and hissing like a wild animal, the train produces ‘much collision and clanging of chains and metal’, throwing out sparks like an ‘angry monster’ (11;18). The protagonist tries to outrun the train but is electrocuted, leading the narrator to conclude that he was ‘shipwrecked in the barracks’ (18). If the ending shows how freedom requires the economic and political opportunities of citizenship and ownership denied to Indian migrants (without which escape would amount to social and economic abandonment), the cyclical structure of the story reinforces this sense of entrapment. The title question, which enquires fruitlessly into the destination of the train, evokes the limited perspective of the producer, who sees only the cane arriving and departing. The destination of the sugar train escapes the protagonist, who would often ‘wonder where the train went’ (14), serving as the emblem of a consumer modernity whose arrival is deferred due to its colonial, export-oriented function in Fiji. In this way, both the narrative circularity and open question of the title convey a sense of sucro-modernity’s paralysing division between the producers and the consumers of energy, building the metabolic rift into the very structure of the narrative.

The narrative energetics of sugar also underlie the story ‘Gamalian’s Woman’, which begins with the protagonist’s apparent death and resurrection. The opening states ambiguously that ‘Mrs. Gamalian died in her dream’ (55), before showing how she awoke at her funeral service and stunned those in attendance by sitting up in her coffin. Mrs Gamalian goes on to capitalise on this apparent death by telling fantastic stories of the afterlife, for which she receives gifts and money that she buries underground. Her stories are interspersed with the memories, desires and disappointments of her past life: the waves lapping at the river to the underworld, for example, mirror those of the seas that she crossed as a girmitiya (indentured worker) and into which she fell during her quarantine off the coast of Fiji, while her image of heaven recalls the fantasies of paradise generated by recruiters in India: ‘Dreams which originated in the arkathis’ lies blossomed in her seasick mind’ (58). As Mrs Gamalian’s memory fades, her listeners begin to question her reliability, and she is left with nothing but the ‘dregs of her dreams’ and images ‘faded like leaves in a compost’ (60). One day she digs up her money and, emptying the fragments onto a sugar bag, finds that the notes have crumbled to dust. She cooks and eats the ashes, yet, like a planted crop that has failed to grow, they offer no sustenance and she dies shortly afterwards, with the last line of the story directly echoing the first: ‘One morning the old woman died in her shack, leaving Bamboo a bawling, bewildered orphan’ (61). Her adopted son, Bamboo – a name that evokes the dried stems of cane – is an infant at both the beginning and end of the narrative, offering a second example of something that has failed to grow. As a symbol of the future generation, he finds that his care-giver’s sugar-coated stories, when consumed as ‘bits of paper’, serve merely to mask unpleasant realities. In one sense, this hints at Subramani’s own refusal to make the history of indenture palatable, speaking to the ‘critical irrealist’ method by which he combines fantastic stories with material deprivation, spiritual nourishment with malnutrition.

Read in the context of the plantation, the story’s images of things failing to grow contribute to a more specific theme of infertility, evoking the subject of social-reproductive crisis. Feminist proponents of social reproduction theory have noted how the costs of social reproduction are often carried by unwaged labourers including women, and that female labour is frequently appropriated as part of nature’s ‘free gifts’, mirroring the exploitation of nutrients and energy from forests, oceans or soils. Silvia Federici (2012) for example refuses to separate social reproduction from ‘productive’ waged labour, suggesting that the latter is structurally dependent on the free appropriation of devalued labour from women and non-white workers. Critics have highlighted the ‘housewifization’ of labour in the world’s bedrooms, kitchens and gardens as a process crucial to the production of energy-commodities in the post-war period, as it served to reproduce, feed, clothe and care for the workforce (Deckard 2018). Mintz’s (1985) analysis of female domestic labour and slavery in the sugar industry reveals the long historical trajectory of this process. Yet, despite this crucial role of unwaged labour, Nancy Fraser identifies a social-reproductive ‘crisis tendency’ within capitalist societies, according to which the ‘orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies’ (2016, 100). In the sugar plantations of Fiji, as historians have shown, indentured women awoke in the early hours of the morning to cook roti before completing up to ten hours of labour in the fields and returning to cook once again, while the requirement ‘to work in the fields for at least the first seven months of their pregnancy’ (Gill 1970, 38) led to high rates of miscarriage, infant mortality and suicide. Because of this exhausting work regime, accounts describing indentured women in Fiji have often drawn on gothic language: Sanadhya, for example, notes that ‘When women return from work, there is a corpse-like shading to their faces’ (1991a, 61), and he cites the Australian missionary Hannah Dudley’s observation that ‘life on the plantations alters [women’s] demeanour and even their very faces . . . The look on those women’s faces haunts me’ (cited 71). In Subramani’s story, a tension emerges between Mrs Gamalian’s dreams of regeneration and eternal life, as well as her hopes for fertility and marriage in Fiji (which are encouraged by recruiters who tell her she is ‘certain to marry a merchant prince on the islands’ [58]), and her memories of gendered exploitation at the hands of brutal foremen and overseers, the extortions of abusive, thieving and gambling husbands, and the chronic worry that cyclones and floods might damage the cane harvest and prevent her from feeding her family. If these memories reveal how the plantation functions through gendered violence and the devaluing of domestic, caregiving and reproductive work, the corpse-like body of Mrs Gamalian, which undergoes a ghostly resurrection, performatively enacts the deathly ‘crisis tendencies’ at work in a system predicated on the unrestrained extraction of women’s energy.

The various uncanny images of male authority in ‘Gamalian’s Woman’ also highlight the disciplinary patriarchal mechanisms of the plantation system. The title, ‘Gamalian’s Woman’, marks the protagonist as the property of her late husband, whose face bears an uncanny resemblance to the gatekeeper she claims to have seen in heaven, while his list of names recalls the contracts signed previously with other husbands, as well as the recruiters that locked girmitiyas into a system of impossible quotas and further contract extensions. As Sudesh Mishra notes, the word girmit – defined as an ‘agreement’ but embodying the identity of indentured workers in Fiji – evokes a time of ‘nonagreement’, for ‘[t]here was little correlation between the virtual world of the contract and its material enactment as work in colonial plantations’ (2005, 16). Girmit operated through projected visions of a future that would never materialise, reconfiguring the lives of those who signed it according to ghostly speculations on their future productivity. In ‘Gamalian’s Woman’, the extreme futurity of girmit is combined with that of the marriage contract, which lures and binds women to domestic labour, and this double bind is captured at the formal level through the technique of narrative prolepsis. Just as the spectral futurity of marriage and indenture prescribe the life of the girmitiya according to gender, class and race, so the narrative encloses its protagonist by anticipating her death in the opening lines.

Importantly, ‘Gamalian’s Woman’ ends with a final death, which suggests a real limit and ultimate exhaustion. Despite Mrs Gamalian’s hopes for prosperity and marriage, and her later fantasies of eternal life and regenerated youth, readers are confronted with the finality of her death, and this finality is reinforced by the frozen temporality of the narrative itself: the broken clock, the refusal of her child to age, the ghostly resurrections of the past that haunt her narrative. The effects of this contrast a projected time of growth with that of crisis, staging a conflict that is central to the sugar plantation’s own combination of speculative expropriation and ecological depletion, futurity and annihilation. The narrative telos of the death-spiral is pre-empted through the disruption to ecological time caused by the burning of the cane-fields: the narrative begins by telling us that ‘the cane harvesting came to an end. The night sky was lit up with the burning fields for the last time’ (55).

Unlike the seasonal rhythms of the pastoral harvest, this practice confirms a destructive tendency within plantation agriculture to maximise short-term productivity, offering a brief resurgence of soil fertility at the expense of the land’s future. Situated in the context of a system predicated on exhausting the conditions necessary to its own reproduction, Subramani’s story of life after death can be seen to confront narratives of regeneration with experiences of exhaustion. Read along ecocritical lines, the nightmarish unsettling of narrative chronology, here and across The Fantasy Eaters, connects the lived experience of those in the plantations to the depletive, non-regenerating ecologies of sugar.

Caitlin Vandertop (2020) Ghosts of the plantation: sugar, narrative energetics and gothic ecologies in Fiji, Green Letters, 24:2, 155-168.