Jessica Namakkal, Visiting Assistant Professor

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Duke’s International Comparative Studies program is delighted to welcome Dr. Jessica Namakkal to Duke this August. Namakkal is a transnational historian whose work examines colonial and post-colonial migrations, decolonization, globalization, and questions of race, gender, nation, and citizenship. Namakkal received her PhD in History from the University of Minnesota in 2013. She is revising her thesis into a book manuscript titled “Transgressing the Boundaries of the Nation: Decolonization, Migration, and Identity between France and India, 1900 – 1972.”

Dr. Jessica Namakkal may be reached directly at

What made you decide to do a PhD in history?

I have always been interested in history, even as a young person. I have always been interested in reading about and exploring the past, trying to understand how and why people have lived differently and thought of the world in different ways, and investigating what causes changes in the way we live. In junior high and high school, I really enjoyed participating in History Day, an event/competition that gave me the opportunity to help create documentary videos. Still, I have many interests that I have explored throughout my life.  For example, I had three different majors as an undergraduate: Film, then Visual Anthropology, and finally, History. I still enjoy collaborating with and engaging in other disciplines: visual/film studies and ethnography remain fundamental to my work. However, I found History allowed me more freedom to engage with a wide variety of materials than other disciplines. Historians seek out and study just about anything they can find that relates to the time period/subject they are working on: photos, letters, memos, advertisements, novels, home-made films, works of art, government documents, financial records, comic books – really, any material can build onto the story. I think of myself as a storyteller who is very interested in other people’s stories – reading and writing history gives me the chance to engage deeply with other people’s understandings of the past and to explore how memories and self-understandings relate to the contemporary world.

What classes will you teach in the ICS Program?

This Fall I will be teaching ICS 489S, the Capstone Seminar. In the Spring of 2014, I will be teaching the Gateway course, ICS 195: Comparative Approaches to Global Issues. In addition, I will be teaching History 128: Global India through the History Department, which I highly encourage ICS students to take. Many of the core themes of the ICS major, such as the interests of modern nation-states, global migrations, imperialism and colonialism, 3rd World Feminism, and environmental issues will be covered in this course.

What are your current research interests and how will they be incorporated in your teaching?

My current project is an extension of my dissertation, which looks at theories of decolonization and how the transition from the “colonial” to the “post-colonial” produced multiple spaces for people to re-imagine what the nation-state and non-nation-based community formation might look like in a world without empire. My work is focused on the French colonies in India, during and following the colonial period (the French colonies in India existed, in some form, from the late 17th century until 1962), as well as migrations between France and India following decolonization. I am also working on the problem of uneven migrations, exploring why some people have more access to travel and migration than others. This project, which looks at the construction of the tourist economy and the simultaneous strengthening of state borders and migrant quotas, seeks to identify the structures and ideologies that keep some groups of people from accessing global flows of migration and capital, while the same network is completely open to others. I am very interested in both writing and teaching about intersections of race, caste, gender, class, and family with constructions of the nation-state, a set of themes that are foundational to ICS. Students in my courses can expect to have many discussions about empire, colonialism, decolonization, migration, tourism, human rights, and development work, as well as theories of post-colonial and decolonial thought.  

What are your favorite cities in the world and why?

Paris and Bombay (Mumbai) are my favorite cities that I have had the good fortune to spend time in while conducting research. Paris is such a beautiful city – the buildings, the parks, the bookshops, and the sheer quantity of high-quality breads and fruits available on the street make it an amazing city to live in. Bombay (Mumbai) shares some of these qualities with Paris, although you need to replace breads for bhelpuri and chai stands. Bombay (Mumbai) and Paris are both cities with very long histories, many of which have been preserved on the streets and in the buildings:  there are so many different neighborhoods, and the demographics of these neighborhoods tell fascinating stories about migrations and historical change, different from anything you can learn from a book. For example, Bombay has the biggest slums in Asia – a result of disappearing agricultural opportunities in greater India – which has led to every region having a presence in the city and the slums. Similarly, Paris has the highest Muslim population in France, a result of the colonial relationship between France and, primarily, North Africa. The issues that face these various populations, in the Bombay slums and the banlieues(suburbs) of Paris, have inspired many important social movements and activist networks unique to these areas;  these places have also engaged in global conversations about what “global” actually means. Both cities are amazing centers of art and politics that play out in very different ways. It has been a great pleasure to spend time with people in both of these mega-cities and just experience daily life and how different sectors of society view the world.

Tell us something unique about yourself.

I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, but neither one of my parents is from Minnesota. My mother is from a small farming town in Nebraska, although she grew up primarily in Omaha. She was a Catholic nun for almost a decade, and came to Minnesota as a Vista Corps member after she left the convent. In St. Paul, she met my father, who had come from Secunderabad, India, to pursue a Master’s Degree at the University of Minnesota.  Growing up in a dual-religion household led to a lot of interesting discussions and experiences, but the one that sticks with both my sister and me is that on many Sundays we were given the choice of attending church with my mom, or the zoo with my dad: he argued that Hindus believe that all things contain god, and thus spending time with the animals counted as a spiritual experience. It probably comes as no surprise that the zoo usually won.

Read Dr. Jessica Namakkal's recently released article, Study Abroad as Neo-Colonial Tourism, in CounterPunch.