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The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba (Asian American History & Culture) Paperback – February 28, 2009
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“The individual testimonies…are stunning in their particularity and personality. Some use Chinese historic and poetic allusions in sophisticated ways, some are quite simple, and all are anguishing….[T]he author is to be commended.”—Library Journal
“[L]ittle critical attention has been paid to one of the most important testimonials in Latin American history: The Cuba Commission Report. Lisa Yun’s timely and well-written book is undoubtedly the most complete study to date on this jewel for the study of race relations, labor migration, and the international division of labor. Her outstanding analysis of the testimonial is complemented with other testimonies related to the so-called coolie trade in Cuba. In this sense, the book rescues from oblivion the abuses committed against southern Chinese indentured laborers… The Coolie Speaks is of interest not only for Chinese diaspora studies but also for Latin American, Caribbean, and Pan-African studies and literary criticism. This book is bound to become a seminal work for the study of the Chinese presence in the Americas.”
—The Colonial Latin American Historical Review
"The book begins with an impressive contextualization of the movement of coolie labor across the Pacific, by far the most detailed analysis at hand. The core of Yun’s book, however, is an examination of the coolie testimonies themselves.... This is a major addition to our understanding of the subjectivity of subaltern peoples and of the power relations in which subaltern texts are embedded. It should be obligatory reading for historians working in many fields—Latin American and Caribbean history, most obviously, but also the politics of testimonial production in general."
—The American Historical Review
"[Yun] has opened up a horrific oyster shell embedded in the reefs of the slave trade.... Yet the power and striking originality of The Coolie Speaks lies less in its message than in its harsh but elegant dialectic of recovery and storytelling.... The Coolie Speaks is a breakthrough of scholarship. It provides a new map not just of the Atlantic slave trade, Chinese diaspora, and modern capitalism, but of scholarly means to articulate the words, places, and stories that tumble outward from the violent and fractured history of modernity. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Coolie Speaks seems to find a root language to remember and memorialize human suffering and agency, while teaching us again as scholars and citizens of the world to listen carefully to the cries, whispers, and exhortations of the past."
Introducing radical counter-visions of race and slavery, and probing the legal and philosophical questions raised by indenture, The Coolie Speaks offers the first critical reading of a massive testimony case from Cuba in 1874. From this case, Yun traces the emergence of a "coolie narrative" that forms a counterpart to the "slave narrative." The written and oral testimonies of nearly 3,000 Chinese laborers in Cuba, who toiled alongside African slaves, offer a rare glimpse into the nature of bondage and the tortuous transition to freedom. Trapped in one of the last standing systems of slavery in the Americas, the Chinese described their hopes and struggles, and their unrelenting quest for freedom.
Yun argues that the testimonies from this case suggest radical critiques of the "contract" institution, the basis for free modern society. The example of Cuba, she suggests, constitutes the early experiment and forerunner of new contract slavery, in which the contract itself, taken to its extreme, was wielded as a most potent form of enslavement and complicity. Yun further considers the communal biography of a next-generation Afro-Chinese Cuban author and raises timely theoretical questions regarding race, diaspora, transnationalism, and globalization.