The Society for the Anthropology of Work, with the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing, is pleased to award the 2020 Diana Forsythe Prize to Mythri Jegathesan for her book Tea and Solidarity: Tamil Women and Work in Postwar Sri Lanka. This book, published by the University of Washington Press in 2019, will change how you think about structural violence, reproductive futurity, decolonial methodologies, and desire.
Jegathesan’s book is set in the Tamil Hill Country of Sri Lanka, where the tea industry seeks to accumulate profit at the expense of cheap labor. While nostalgic tea-industry advertisements continue to romanticize colonial-era Ceylon, Jegathesan introduces us to workers who aspire to become something other than “coolies.” Insights about potentials for transformation, with futures unknown, will travel far beyond the particularities of these workers in transition. Optimism, happiness, and possibilities are carefully described against a backdrop of structural violence, racism, and patriarchy. This is a story of human innovation by structurally marginalized laborers who actualize their desires within imperial, industrial, and national terrains of life and work. Hegemonic forces are shaping the contours of desire in Sri Lanka, as powerful political projects aim to control the social relations, experiences, and futures of workers. Jegathesan deftly shows how the data regimes that count and categorize plantation life often miss the forms of accounting most salient for plantation workers themselves, which track births and deaths, accumulate debt for wedding ceremonies, and mobilize political agitation around rights to residence. Hill Country Tamils find alternative futures of national and transnational solidarity through what Jegathesan calls a poiēsis of desire.
Writing within the long legacy of feminist science and technology studies exemplified by past winners of the Forsythe Prize, Jegathesan shows how tea plantation owners seek to control their workers “from the womb to the tomb.” Here, the forced sterilization of women takes place in situations “not necessarily without consent.” Women are “choosing” to be sterilized in Tamil Hill Country as tea plantation midwives and officials convince workers that they have no other choice given their situation of poverty and immobility. Within this space of discursive and actual violence, Tea and Solidarity is a moving account of the value of women’s work, not as mere accumulation by dispossession but as testament to the durability of life itself.
For those who love Ceylon tea, this book is a must-read. It is an important resource for anyone concerned with the politics of work, science, and technology. Jegathesan shows that it is possible to expose past records of violence and ongoing injustices, while pushing for more equitable ways of living and being.
The jury would also like to recognize Alondra Nelson with an Honorable Mention for her book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, a thoughtful exposé of antiracist projects linked to cutting-edge genetic technologies. This book, published by Beacon Press in 2016, is a subtle tale of science and justice that remains timely, urgent, and profoundly important.
An astute reader of genetic evidence, Nelson concludes that “DNA is Janus-faced.” She shows that genetic evidence can produce convictions, but also exonerations. While genetic science has a racist legacy, now DNA technologies are being deployed in new antiracist social and political projects. DNA tests have been artfully deployed by Black geneticists, activists, genealogists, and lawyers in reparations struggles. Large insurance companies and banks that directly profited from slavery were targeted by plaintiffs who used genetic genealogy testing to establish links to ancestors who had been “kidnapped, tortured and shipped in chains to the United States.” This is a story of tactical ingenuity by savvy intellectuals who made innovative appropriations of technology and novel legal arguments. While their legal arguments were largely unsuccessful in court, Nelson illustrates how these cases can inform a “radical politics after the genome.”
Social justice involves work of transformation and imagination, according to Nelson. Lived experiences of racist discrimination are being transformed by new approaches to human biology. Science alone will not drive social change, Nelson insists. She chronicles past successes and failures to illustrate future possibilities. The Social Life of DNA is a playbook for coming generations who might engage in their own imaginative appropriations of biotechnology.