The Woman from America
Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow
2016-2017 Academic Year
Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (University of Chicago Press, 2013), a narrative history of indenture which was shortlisted in 2014 for the Orwell Prize, the British award for political writing that is artful, and that year won the won the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book about the Caribbean published in the previous three years.
Bahadur’s reporting and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ms. Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Dissent Magazine, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She was a daily newspaper staff writer for a decade, covering politics, immigration and the war in Iraq for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Austin American-Statesman. For her work as a journalist, she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 2007-2008.
Bahadur has received creative writing fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the feminist arts organization the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay “Of Islands and Other Mothers” appears in the 2016 anthology Nonstop Metropolis (University of California Press, eds. Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro), a literary atlas to New York City. She is also the author of a nonfiction book for middle-school children, Family Ties (Scholastic, 2012). Her short story "The Stained Veil," first published by the Commonwealth Writers Foundation at its online literary magazine addastories.org, is forthcoming in the anthology Go Home! (New York: Feminist Press, 2018).
Bahadur holds a B.A. with distinction in English Literature from Yale University and an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University. She was born in Guyana and raised in New Jersey.
The Woman from America
I plan to research a biography of the late Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the Chicago-born Marxist who was president of Guyana in her seventies. She was the first American woman to lead a nation. Time named her one of history’s 16 most rebellious women. In her life, two of the twentieth century’s most arresting struggles — against colonialism and against Communism — were writ small. Her story provides an opportunity to write about these principal postwar narratives involving superpowers in an original way: from an overlooked place on the world’s margins, a country that, despite its peripheral status, ended up mattering a great deal to great powers.
It’s the story both of an exceptional American and American exceptionalism gone awry. During the Cold War, the United States intervened in Guianese politics on the eve of independence to maneuver Janet and her husband Cheddi from office and to place their rival Forbes Burnham in power. In so doing, they indelibly divided a fragile decolonizing society along racial lines. My book will unfold chronologically, following the arc of Janet Jagan’s life, but it will also evolve as an essay exploring competing ideas of America: as guardian of democracy around the world, as immigrant beacon and as irredeemably, structurally racist. During Burnham’s regime, Guyana became a haven for African-Americans, including fugitive Black nationalists granted political asylum. It was a field for clashing notions of Pan-Africanism, with polestars of the movement such as Walter Rodney and Eusi Kwayana working beside the Jagans to end Burnham’s dictatorship.
2016-2017: Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow