Cornell University Press

Sovereignty and “One Acre of Ground”

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Every November, a literary hum fills the air as novel writers across the world commit to writing 50,000 words in a challenge called National Novel Writing Month. Love, history, adventure, sorrow, magic, life itself, happen in the space created by this hum. Each writer curates memory, experience, and fantasy to determine who enters this space, who exits it, and how people and things live in it. Destinies are carved that corroborate and refute lived realities in just and unjust ways.

To write, to create, is to assert a sovereignty. The Caribbean writer George Lamming calls this sovereign terrain “one acre of ground.” “It is inexhaustible,” he says, “and the one thing that one could not bear to lose and go on breathing would be that acre—that is to be held on to.” So enormous is the importance of this sovereign acre that its loss is tantamount to losing oneself, one’s life-breath.

To write, to create, is to assert a sovereignty.

The Cowichan / Syilx First Nations artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s 1991 painting, “Scorched Earth, Clear-cut Logging on Native Sovereign Land. Shaman Coming to Fix” depicts a shaman witnessing the exhaustion of a ravaged earth in the backdrop of sorrowful landscape elements. Against the appropriation of Native lands and resources by White peoples, Yuxweluptun says, “Painting is a form of political activism, a way to exercise my inherent right, my right to authority, my freedom…I can speak out in my paintings even without the recognition of self-government.”

Yuxweluptun says, “Painting is a form of political activism, a way to exercise my inherent right, my right to authority, my freedom.”

Yuxweluptun’s bold remarks articulate the paradox that I engage in my book The Audacious Raconteur: Sovereignty and Storytelling in Colonial India: an oppressor may be able to survey and seize a community’s land and bodies, inflict change and injure, but is never able to possess its culture; it remains unassailable.  The everydayness of everyday life is built out of an ethos of kinship and memory that the oppressor can perhaps become aware of, but is unable to usurp.

One of the most powerful scenes for me in the film Amistad is when Cinque tells John Quincy Adams that they would not be alone in the court, and Adams agrees saying “We have right at our side. We have righteousness at our side.” But Cinque responds:

I meant my ancestors.

I will call into the past,

far back to the beginning of time,

and beg them to come and help me

at the judgment.

I will reach back

and draw them into me.

And they must come,

for at this moment, I am the whole

reason they have existed at all.

Nobody but Cinque can call on his past to be present. This is Lamming’s unassailable “acre of ground,” the epistemic and resilient sovereignty that Yuxweluptun alludes to.

Nobody but Cinque can call on his past to be present.

In this vein, The Audacious Raconteur tells the stories of four Indian narrators—an ayah, a lawyer, an archaeologist, and a librarian—who were subjects of the British colonial government. But far from being subjugated, these narrators demonstrated audaciously that they held sway over domains of language, culture, and the arts of emotion and memory.

Through spirited orality, intrepid wit, maverick photography, literary ventriloquism, and bilingualism, they take down the mastheads of colonialism—colonial modernity, history, science, and native knowledge. The dismantling of oppressive structures, at the end of the day, is possible because of audacious raconteurs, ethical and artistic figures necessary in human experience.

Featured image from Akshayini Leela-Prasad. 

Leela Prasad is Professor of Ethics and Religious Studies at Duke University. She is the award-winning author of Poetics of Conduct: Oral Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town (Columbia University Press, 2007). Prasad is co-director of the film Aftertones: Moved by Gandhi. She is now working on a book titled Being Human at the Margin, which is based on her teaching in the federal prison system. You can read more about her work at https://scholars.duke.edu/person/leela

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