Contemporary African diasporic literature often displays “the allure of the archive” when writers encode archival documents into their narratives, revising the remnants found in an archive, and foregrounding the elements of archival research and data in their texts. Against the well-theorized connection between the archive and the nation-state, diaspora novels require a transnational reading practice that encompasses multiple national archives. This critical practice opens the archive and exposes the nation-state's exclusionary investments in it. Diaspora literature thus unmoors the archive from its stubborn attachment to national narratives.
Bound by the forms of the governments who sponsor their enunciation, archival documents are frequently legal depositions, statements of arrest, indenture, capture, and execution. What can these documents tell us about the subjectivity of those laboring in fields or battened under hatches making a middle passage toward indentureship? This essay focuses on one aspect of novelistic citation of a transnational archive, using Jamaican author Patricia Powell's 1998 novel, The Pagoda, as an example. I suggest that the novel's foregrounding of archival documents (letters, maps, ships' logs, newspaper clippings, etc.), loosens Powell's characters from the social identities to which they were bound. I offer a reading between novel and archive, focusing on a letter being written by Powell's protagonist, Lowe, and the letter's interaction with a history sometimes called “the coolie trade.” The critical reading practice that I argue diasporic literature demands leads us from the literature back toward recognition of the archive itself as transnational.