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Sing Ancestor, Sing Whale.

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Title:Sing Ancestor, Sing Whale.
Authors:Mohabir, Paul R. R.
Contributors:English (department)
Keywords:Rajiv Mohabir
Humpback whale
Date Issued:May 2017
Publisher:University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Abstract:My dissertation “Sing Ancestor, Sing Whale” works at the intersections of queer theory, postcolonial identity, and ecopoetics. I position my brown, migratory speaker in the American landscape: a transnational human/animal subject. The humpback whale swims through this poetry collection as a zoomorphic creature, sometimes speaking as whale and sometimes as human. The human history that the speaker inherits is one of the Indo-Caribbean queer that is migrant through many national spaces with histories of colonization. Through the course of the poems, the human/whale speaker travels from India to Guyana to London to New York to Honolulu and navigates various states of colonization and colonial inheritances of the geopolitical regions.

I question political, psychic, and biological implications of the articulations and tensions between the human and the natural world. My poetics harness form and musicality of the line and formal experimentation to fit an open water seascape. By utilizing various lexicons, formal constraints, and languages I show the psychic baggage a postcolonial queer carries through spaces that are both—and also neither—natural and human constructions. The poetic reef of my work is large in scale and represents a queer archive as I bring it into being from a vast ocean of texts: from historical accountings of Indian indenture from 1838-1917, anti-sodomy laws from Britain, India, and Guyana, humpback whale guides, and reports that chart the evolution of humpback whale song during a season.

In the framework of North American poetry I, as a poet of Caribbean descent, am interested in diasporic crossings as they relate to Khal Torabully’s concept of coolitude. A feature of coolitude is the “coolie” is a new subject that emerges as an economic category referring to indentured Indian labor diaspora. This volume of work is also influenced by several different theories that it has conversations with. It speaks to Animal Studies around the queer body and Mel Y. Chen’s notion of the hierarchy of animacy and as such has further implications for ecocriticism. The thought that beings fall into a hierarchy of a state of being animated resonates with the Fanonian postcolonial criticism in which the colonized individual is seen as lesser—more animal than the colonizer. Using the symbol of the human/whale speaker also speaks to the relationships between the colonized migrant body and “un-thingifying” the subject through the space given to poetry.

I draw from the axiom to “make it new” and interject the voice of a queer, brown subject where the speaker sings in the contemporary post-confessional lyric poetry mode. Guided by poets who work in this oeuvre, like Agha Shahid Ali and Kimiko Hahn who migrate Asian forms into American forms, I invent a formal poem based on the structure of humpback whale song relying on marine biologists who study whale song like Roger Payne and Eduardo Mercado. In order to add layers to this species of poem, to this archive of sound, I also use ship records from the 1898 voyage of the SS Mersey to “trans-create” poems imagining the holes in the text that concern queer indentured individuals. By using appropriated language of these official documents and whale song the layers of history and ecology bleed into each other.

To conclude, a way that I’ve found to presently write about complexity and complicity in colonization of others is through my trans-species experimentations and consideration of the humpback whale: it’s both native and migratory, meaning it is not a foreigner to the Hawaiian sea-scape but it is not “from” here. The North Pacific humpbacks journey from the coast of Alaska to Hawai‘i every year, carrying with them ancestral songs that they develop and change throughout their seasons in migration—ripe for migratory Indo-Guyanese metaphor.
Description:Ph.D. Thesis. University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 2017.
Rights:All UHM dissertations and theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from this source for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without written permission from the copyright owner.
Appears in Collections: Ph.D. - English

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