Guest Post by Savita Maharaj, PhD Student ’27

Embedded Narratives

I have always been invested in the archives because of all the embedded narratives and pieces of history they have the potential to reveal/expose/uncover. Yet, I am also cognizant of the continued harm, erasure, and violence the archive perpetuates. I seek to do what literary scholar Saidiya Hartman writes, 

“I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive. I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives in the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration. It is a Story predicated upon impossibility—listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse”

Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14.

Intersections and Identity

Growing up as a first generation Indo-Trinidadian American, my life was engulfed in narratives of the pasts – stories that allowed me to piece together parts of my identity, ancestry, self making meaning of my life and the past live(s) of generations before me – inevitably brought me here. As a first year PhD student I find myself drawn to studying archives, colonization, decolonization, Caribbean, marginalized narratives, resistance, and rebellion embedded within texts. 

This is one of the reasons I am drawn to the Apartheid Heritage(s) Project because it seeks to reckon with the narratives of the past in addition to engaging with the “intersections between architecture, social justice, and human rights on the Internet, and critically engages with issues of race and the built environment in cities across the Global South.” This project in itself attempts to create an environment where we can study “Soweto’s past, present, and future redevelopment as a means of remembrance, reconciliation, and empowerment.”


Part of my role within this project is working in conjunction with Cassie Tanks, who’s currently digitizing archival artifacts from the apartheid era like postcards, clothing, pins, trucks, apartheid oriented protest pins/such. I am then looking at the digitized artifacts and creating metadata for them. Metadata is collected data containing the date, title, language, creator, and publisher. Most of this information is gathered by examining the document itself and then doing a bit of research to situate the object. I find myself being continuously shocked by the range of objects and the ways in which they engage with the history we are investing and toiling with. 

A screenshot of the metadata and cataloging spreadsheet.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to see the full process in action. We were able to watch the process of Cassie, our very own archivist, take photos of the objects in a light box and try it out ourselves! I must say this process is incredibly cool as well as meticulous. I think I fulfilled my goal of being a novice photographer for the way. I found it interesting how closely we have to pay attention to the object itself – ensuring that we took photos of every angle. Then Cassie has corresponded each object to a particular number that then relates to the online metadata(ing) I have been doing. My mind was blown. Through this exercise, I saw the work come full circle and recognized the ways in which we connect digital cataloging with metadata.

Reading History Through Objects

 In engaging with metadata, I am parsing through aspects of history and trying to finagle how to materialize the history we read about through objects – which is both fascinating and mildly terrifying because of the weight they carry. I am always deeply conscious of the ways in which their narratives aren’t told and how we as a collective have to do these people justice as we work through the archives. In my own research, I also find myself invested in the stories the archives fail to tell because the perspective we get is often fraught with violence. The archive can be a site of embedded narratives if we interrogate them and challenge the view being given. My own work engages with the Caribbean as well as Boston both in the pre-twentieth century and contemporary moment – here I seek to challenge the harm the archive and English discipline often perpetuates through projects like Aparthied Heritage(s) which deeply engages with cultural practices of remembrance, reconciliation, and empowerment.