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Unsettling the Nation from the Land: A Conversation with Manu Karuka

The author of Empire’s Tracks talks anti-imperialist immigrant movements, the alternate history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the rumor of U.S. sovereignty.

Manu Karuka and I first met in 2002. That year, I made the decision to pursue a PhD, in my late 30s, after working for twelve years as a documentary filmmaker. Manu and I were both in a seminar on the history of capitalism taught by the scholar Walter Johnson. In the corner of the room, week after week, sat Manu, quietly taking it all in. Every now and again, he spoke up, and when he did, he transformed the conversation. He took our collective understanding of an idea or a text to a different place, where he seemed to be thinking two steps beyond everyone else.

Within a year, there were four of us going through NYU’s American Studies program who were children of South Asian immigrants and who were coming to grips with a moment of crisis for our communities. The backlash against the events of September 11, 2001 was being played out in countless racist and xenophobic attacks upon Muslims and South Asians; FBI and INS raids, detentions, deportations; surveillance of community-based organizations and places of worship. Two wars brought U.S. military forces, tanks, bombs and drones to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. We all understood that none of these phenomena were new, but they had reached a new level of intensity and urgency.

Together, Sujani Reddy, Miabi Chatterji, Manu and I grappled with that moment. We did so in the context of graduate school, but guided by our long-term engagements and commitments outside that realm, which ranged from prison abolition and immigrant rights activism to different forms of politically grounded creative and cultural work.

One result was the book that the four of us co-edited, The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power. Three more books have followed, including Sujani Reddy’s brilliant Nursing and Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the United States, and now, Manu’s Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad.

Manu’s essay in The Sun Never Sets drew a provocative and necessary line between the 19th century incarceration of indigenous “enemy combatants” at Fort Marion, Florida to the 21st century incarceration of Muslim and South Asian “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That essay, written roughly ten years ago, marked a turn that Manu had already made as a result of his own desire to understand the relationship of South Asian and other immigrants to the pasts and present of U.S. Empire. Empire’s Tracks is the culmination of the years of research, writing, and theorizing that came after.

Manu’s book asks something important of us as Asian Americans: it asks us to shift the horizons of our freedom dreams from an Identity Politics that is played out within the frame of the nation, to a Solidarity Politics that plays out globally but, crucially, starts from the ground upon which we now stand. Last month, a few days before the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony that marked the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, I had the pleasure of speaking with Manu about Empire’s Tracks. The following is part one of two of our conversation.

—Vivek Bald

Vivek Bald

When you and I first met, we connected around a shared commitment to South Asian American Studies. At the time you were also developing a close mentorship with Gary Okihiro, one of the founding figures of Asian American Studies. Over the years, you started to focus more and more on Indigenous histories—not in place of your interests in Asian American Studies, but almost as an imperative, in pursuit of those interests. What led you on this particular intellectual—and ultimately political—trajectory?

Manu Karuka

It’s a mark of great pride to count myself as a student of Gary Okihiro. He shaped my understanding of what it means to be an intellectual. One of Gary’s recent books is Third World Studies. The focus on the “Third World” is on my mind this year, 50 years since radical, working-class students of color went on strike as part of the Third World Liberation Front. In Third World Studies, Gary’s asking a question which Vijay Prashad, Robin Kelley, and others have also taken up: How did the intellectual and political visions of Third World liberation get institutionalized in the form of Ethnic Studies?

The moment of founding for Asian American Studies came during the movement against the war in Vietnam and the U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia, a high point of liberation struggles in North America: the Black Freedom Movement, Chicano liberation struggles, the American Indian Movement, and a whole new wave of militant Indigenous struggle. These were all national liberation struggles in a way. These were North American counterparts to decolonization struggles occurring in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America.

What brings me to this work are those same core principles of anti-imperialist internationalism, anti-imperialist solidarity, and national liberation.


One of the things that makes Empire’s Tracks so powerful is the way that it engages in a form of ideological decolonization. I’ve been thinking more and more—and especially reading your book—about the multiple valences of the term “settled” and about how an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist project in North America is also centrally a project of unsettling “knowledge,” unsettling ideas about this nation, this place. Your book questions what we, as immigrants and children of immigrants, have been taught are “settled” matters. For example, anyone who goes to public school in this country, or who comes to this country as an immigrant, sees the map of the United States stretching from one side of the continent to the other. We don’t see that as a construction, as a violent superimposition. We are taught to see the landmass and the nation of the United States as one and the same. In your book, you’re joining a cohort of Indigenous activists and scholars, in a sense peeling the nation off the landmass, so that we can assess it without an assumption of inevitability. You are forcing us to unsettle the U.S. nation from the land. Could you talk about that project that you have joined, along with other activists and scholars? Where does your work fit in?


I became a student of Indigenous Studies and Indigenous politics to try and answer the question: “What does a genuine anti-imperialism look like in North America?” Indigenous Studies is a huge body of scholarship, and Indigenous anti-colonial struggle goes back centuries. There’s a lot of work, especially for us non-native people, to commit ourselves to learning, with humility, to revise and relearn and rethink.

When we see the history of North America and the geography of North America in relation to the colonized world or the Global South, we get back to the insights and visions of the Third World Liberation Front. Implicit in their demands was a profound disruption of our sense of, What is this place in which we’re living? In November 1968, the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front went on strike at San Francisco State University. One year later, in November 1969, a group of Native people and their comrades commenced a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz. It’s necessary to defamiliarize the geography and history of the United States.

In Empire’s Tracks, I examine core themes and moments in the nationalist mythology of the United States: the Transcontinental Railroad; the Golden Spike ceremony; “benighted” native communities who are pushed out of the way by the railroad; exploited Chinese workers who became American by virtue of their suffering on the land. These are things that I wanted to disrupt—not just for their obvious contradictions, but also to reveal continuities with global histories of imperialism and anti-colonial struggle.

The United States as a governing power is not equivalent to the land that it claims as its borders. And we can see this not only in Indigenous histories, but in other histories as well. Fugitive slave laws set territorial boundaries in place to enforce the property claims on Black people’s lives. Chinese Exclusion is another place where we see this process of territorialization. This is also true of racial border politics today—not just the wall, but border controls, let’s say in meat-packing plants deep in the so-called “heartland.” Imperialism is a useful lens to understand what’s happening here.


The book also extends the work and concerns of the Subaltern Studies Group. You consider rumors and speculation that helped white settlers pursue control over Indigenous lands. Can you describe how rumor figures into your analysis? Rumor is used in one way in the colonial context, in the work of Subaltern Studies scholars, but you’re considering rumor in a different way in the context of settler colonialism and North America.


Subaltern Studies scholars used rumors to access the consciousness of colonized, subjugated, subaltern populations… subaltern consciousness, let’s say. Rumor is not grounded in empirical fact, but the variations of the rumor, the spread of the rumor, can tell us something. They give us access to the collective consciousness of the colonized, and suggest how anti-colonial resistance congealed in certain times and places.

Early in this project, people kept asking, “What kind of evidence are you finding of interactions between Chinese people and Native people?” This wasn’t actually a question driving the work. But what was interesting to me is that all the evidence I could find of these interactions were recorded in the archives as rumors—at least in the colonial archives. Rumors that Paiute people told Chinese people certain stories, and then because of that, Chinese people didn’t want to work for the railroad anymore. Rumors that Chinese people were selling ammunition to Paiute people, or opium or medicine.

Rumors, in the context of other colonial historiographies, give us a view into the perspectives of the subaltern. But these rumors did not necessarily tell us about Paiute or Chinese people. Instead, the rumors tell us a lot about settlers, colonial officials, corporate officials—about their consciousness, and the ways that their identities congealed in certain moments and places. Behind these rumors is anxiety. There’s anxiety about Chinese people and Indigenous people finding some basis of relating with each other that had nothing to do with white people. It’s part of a larger anxiety, about a long history of Indigenous peoples engaging in the international arena. I think that anxiety is deep and unresolved within American identity.

There’s a huge body of scholarly literature on the transcontinental railroad, taking up whole library shelves. When you read through this literature, you see patterns. Certain stories get repeated, especially about Chinese workers and about different Native communities, without much variation in the analysis. Rumors work through repetition and variation. It’s interesting, too, that some of this scholarship will cite as fact a document that’s originally clearly recorded as a rumor. Historians will cite a document about a specific number of Native people of a community living in a place at a particular time. When you go and look at the census record, there are question marks next to the numbers. When we read these histories in the scholarship, we don’t see the question marks. It’s repeated to us as a simple fact.

One of the larger claims behind my analysis is the idea that the sovereignty of the United States is itself a rumor. It functions through repetition, and it doesn’t have a basis in empirical fact. Where, for example, does Supreme Court jurisprudence explain what makes the United States sovereign? I haven’t found it yet.


We often speak about the United States being founded on certain kinds of myths. The “bootstraps” myth, where anyone can come to this country and make something of themselves through hard work, etc. The idea of “liberty and justice for all.” Myth implies a kind of a story that exists unchanged over time and that we subscribe to, generation after generation. Whereas rumor is focused on that process of retelling and retelling and retelling, until something that had no basis in fact becomes accepted as not just factual, but natural.


Absolutely. For me, there’s a political dimension to it. Imagine that map of North America which many of us habitually think of as “the United States,” and then reflect that what exists in the present is not permanent. There could be other ways of organizing our lives, other ways of living in relationship to this land.


This gets to one of several terms that you develop in the book: “modes of relationship.” By using this term, you are simultaneously engaging with the language and conceptual framings of Marxist political economy, and building upon this critical language when it falls short. What does “modes of relationship” mean to you?


“Modes of relationship” comes from reading and engaging with the broad and vital field of Indigenous feminism, and more specifically the work of Ella Deloria, Sarah Winnemucca, and Winona LaDuke. They emphasize the production and reproduction of relationships, and the quality of relationships. These feminist thinkers theorize collective relationships in and with a particular place, with a sense of reciprocal obligation and responsibility with the place itself.

At the same time, I’ve been studying and teaching about “social reproduction,” which has its own genealogy in socialist feminism. It’s about the power relations and the work that are necessary for the reproduction of labor—for the reproduction of workers—which is necessary for the reproduction of capital. These are materialist traditions of feminism that seek to identify structural contradictions in the workings of capitalism, and to push those contradictions towards liberation. My hope is to demonstrate that thinking across these critical traditions is useful, important, and productive. I hope to bridge intellectual and political traditions, and solidifying the linkages that already exist.


I see that concept, also, as extending our understanding of what is transformed through colonial violence, through imperialism. There is the transformation of the natural environment towards commodity production—the land, the trees—the development of industries, the mechanization of farming. But the imposition of the U.S. nation state and capitalism also transforms something else, which “modes of relationship” allows us to see.


The railroad resulted in a fundamental ecological transformation of the central and northern plains. There was massive species die-off and extinction in this area, which was, before colonialism, the most biodiverse region of North America. That process of extinction is ongoing. This is maybe most visible in the destruction of the huge buffalo herds on the plains. What we now see on the plains—the “amber waves of grain” of song—the miles upon miles of mono-crop, commodity agriculture—is a result of this process.

Railroads were built in North America and elsewhere in the colonial world for two primary reasons. One was to facilitate the military subjection of a certain area, and the other was resource extraction. On the plains, railroads were built for the purposes of military occupation, but also built to move pork, beef, wheat, and corn. All of these commodities were produced as a result of the ecological transformation of the place. So maybe we can start there to think about modes of relationship and ask: What are the relationships that imperialism produces and reproduces?

There are relationships between people and the land, but also the relationships between humans and other species. Winona LaDuke writes about this: the biodiversity of the Great Plains of North America is the result of a millennia-long process of co-evolution in this place, including humans and Buffalo and grass species. It’s very specific kinds of relationship. And if we look historically what’s stunning is [that] through the vehicle of colonialism, how rapidly this thousands-year long process is not only arrested and stopped, but even turned back.

Railroads are often understood as instruments of connection, as infrastructures that connect places. Actually, what we see in North America and elsewhere in the colonized world is that railroads ripped apart connections. Railroads produced isolation. They produced partition. They left behind an impoverished ground of relationship. We can say that capitalism produces relationships governed by scarcity. And we can say that capitalism produces relationships of famine and mass death. Capitalism produces death on a hitherto unimaginable scale.


There’s a specific quote that I wanted to ask you about, because it’s closely related to my own work. It comes out of that moment that we wrote about in the introduction to The Sun Never Sets—a moment we shared in the years following 9/11, in New York City. On the one hand, large numbers of working-class and Muslim South Asian immigrants were being rounded up, detained, deported. Mosques were being put under surveillance, entire communities were being disrupted—immigrant communities like the Pakistani community in Brooklyn. At the same time, a certain kind of South Asian-ness was being celebrated within popular culture, with the coming, for example, of the Broadway show Bombay Dreams in 2004.

A lot of us saw a similar contradiction in 2016, when the Democratic National Committee invited Khizr Kahn and Ghazala Khan to address the convention. Khizr Khan spoke about his son, who had been killed in the line of duty in Iraq. So, this was a moment where you saw in one campaign the demonization of Muslims and South Asians—brown people in general—and the untethered white supremacy of the Trump campaign, and also the celebration of a particular South Asian and Muslim American-ness, manifested in the sacrifice of this family’s son in service of American imperial pursuits abroad. It felt like a familiar trap, a dichotomy of good immigrant vs. bad immigrant, terrorist vs. model minority.

The model minority path is the one path towards acceptability that has been offered to Asian immigrants in the post 1965 era. And those of us who critique the model minority myth are often still engaged in a struggle for national inclusion. Maybe national inclusion on our terms, on terms that recognize the complexity of South Asian or Asian American lives, the diversity of political opinions. I think that your your book really crystallizes what is at stake when our goal as immigrants, or as people tied to histories of immigration, when our goal is national inclusion. This nation in which we want to be included was built upon immense violence and dispossession. And this brings me back to a variation, essentially, of your original question: If it is not guided by a quest for national inclusion, what does an anti-imperialist immigrant presence in this place look like?


That’s a really powerful and beautiful question. It’s one that I have wrestled with for years. Two of the major texts that I work with in the book are Lenin’s Imperialism and DuBois’s essay “The African Roots of War.” In both these pieces, these titans of anti-imperialist thought explained what led to the outbreak of the First World War. For both, the answer is imperialism.

The historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz looked into U.S. history and calculated that there have been only a handful of years in which the United States has not been at war. The historical norm for the United States is to be at war. So to join the nation is to join a mode of relationship that’s predicated on war.

There’s a so-called war on terror right now, and it’s a contemporary face of imperialist war. I believe that for immigrants, for poor and working people, for oppressed peoples, here in North America, it’s our task to turn this imperialist war into a multi-front anti-colonial movement. But we don’t need to start from scratch. The movements exist. Our task is to develop methods of organization, forms of coordination between existing communities of struggle. We have earlier moments to look back on, to see when these kinds of anti-colonial fronts emerged with some success in shaping trajectories for collective futures.


I want to end by going back to the War on Terror. While you’ve been working on this project, there’s the War on Terror on one hand, and the increased visibility of Indigenous activism and struggles on the other—most visibly around Standing Rock but of course in sites all over the country. And there’s Black Lives Matter, the struggles around immigration, the activism of undocumented youth. How was the present political moment filtering into your readings of history, and your understanding of what history might tell us about the present and the future?


All of this was very much on my mind. Everything you’ve mentioned is indicative of a deep crisis in imperialism. It’s an ecological crisis. It’s an economic crisis, which has been resolved in a way that has only intensified suffering for most people in the world. It’s a political crisis. It’s an ideological crisis, where the terms, the stories, the rumors… they don’t seem convincing in the same way that they might have a generation ago.

I worry that in this moment of crisis, movements and communities turn inwards. This is something I was worried about in the South Asian community in the midst of, on the one hand, the disappearances, and on the other hand, the hyper-visibility of certain South Asians after 9/11. The impulse behind Empire’s Tracks is to seek out points of connection, to re-enliven solidarity. It’s not about inventing anything new. The mode of relationship driving this work is solidarity. Solidarity that is envisioned and practiced precisely through distinctions, particularity, and specificity. Solidarity is at the heart of the work, and the questions I’m continuing to ask now.