Bodies travel. Bodies travel geographies. Bodies perform geographies. Geopolitical migrations are the subject of much writing, performing, and debate in contemporary scholarship. In this piece, I trace the migration of an affect that sits in the liminal space between the body and the stories it tells. The smile. I ask: How does a smile migrate? What does habitat and geography have to do with this mundane expression brought onto the body as an “ordinary affect?” How does the gendered female body learn to (un)smile across complex histories, colonial legacies, and fractured geographies?

  Bodies are maps
    that travel.
Bodies are cartographers
    that trace.
 Bodies are containers
    that hold
history and geography.

This is a train of thought or performance or something ordinary that looks and feels like something.1 It is a collection of pieced-together memories that lay bare the contours of an everyday, mundane, and ordinary affect—the smile. The smile—signifier, expression—is a container, a vessel—that holds and can perform the affect of migrations.

I trace here, intermittently and interruptedly, the migration of a smile, the sense and feel of which sits in the liminal space between the body and the stories it tells. I do so by accessing performative writing, a form and genre that, in the words of Della Pollock, “evokes worlds that are other-wise intangible, unlocatable: worlds of memory, pleasure, sensation, imagination, affect, and in-sight.”2 In enacting this form, I do not begin at any beginning. I find that although I cannot start by tracing the genealogy of a smile, I show a genealogy in fragments. This kind of fragmentation echoes the nervousness inherent in performative writing, which “anxiously crosses various stories, theories, texts, intertexts and spheres of practice, unable to settle into a clear, linear course, neither willing nor able to stop moving, restless, transient and transitive, traversing spatial and temporal borders.”3 So, I begin where my body remembers, and I go where it takes me. I ask: Can ordinary affects tell the story of migrations? Can ordinary affects and the expressions they generate migrate? Do affects reinvent themselves? Do affects carry traces of history? Does an ordinary affect have a genealogy? Does something as ordinary as the affect that occasions a smile hinge on history and geography?

Bodies Map: Pictures, Clues

Donna and I are in her office in that small Midwestern town in 2001. I have lived in the United States for four years. She is an occupational therapist who works with writers. When I called the front office they asked me why I wanted to see her, and I simply said, “I write.” Donna is that rare practitioner, both a therapist and a writer. So, in a way, we find each other.

In one of our early sessions she asks that I bring pictures of myself as a little girl. So, I do. I bring two. I am probably six years old in one and ten in the other. Donna looks at them quizzically. Then she asks for more from when I was a teenager and then when I was in my twenties. “You are not smiling in any of these childhood pictures,” she states. I look at them again and nod, confused. “But here in my office,” Donna continues, “you are always smiling, even when we talk about sad things. When did you start smiling so much?” she asks. When did I start smiling so much? I am a bit unnerved by the question. I always thought of myself as someone who is stern, who does not smile so much, who maintains a distance from people. I am from the Indian subcontinent after all—I carry the weight of many indignities.

And then I am a bit peeved. Why are we even talking about my smile? How is it connected to my writing? I am here because I need to talk through why all my writing becomes an excavation of the past. As a writer, is this to be my fate? To repeatedly recreate the past in different forms and from different angles, in this present?

But here we are, talking about my smile. In hindsight, I can concede that Donna was simply enacting the question I was asking—why do I excavate the past?—by showing me how and why I do it. But there and then, as a budding writer, I fixated on the triviality of her question. And now as I re-enact this moment from fifteen years ago, I wonder: Why do I recall this session about the smile? Is it so I can gather it here, to see what my body remembers? Is it because fifteen years later, this ordinary moment needs to emerge, in this reminiscence? Is this what Donna envisioned happening?


The ordinary, notes Kathleen Stewart, is a “shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledge.”4 It “registers intensities—regularly, intermittently, urgently, or as a slight shudder.”5 Affect, as Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg explain:

is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter… affect need not be especially forceful…. affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the miniscule and molecular events of the unnoticed. The ordinary and its extra-…. At once intimate and impersonal, affect accumulates across relatedness and interruptions in relatedness…. Affect marks a body's belonging to a world of encounters or; a world's belonging to a body of encounters.6 

Affect's power lies in a “body's capacity to affect and to be affected.”7 More specifically, if affect's power lies in this capacity, then, Seigworth and Gregg ask: “How does a body, marked in its duration by these varied encounters with mixed forces, come to shift its affections (its being-affected) into action (capacity to affect)?”8 And I, in turn, ask: How do our bodily encounters (re)shape the affects that we then embody and perform? As bodies move in the world, how do they navigate ordinary affects and the gestures they produce? Or is it something preconscious, something that just happens, that the body just “does?” Is smiling an ordinary act and expression brought forth by the body being and becoming “affected?” Ordinary affects, Stewart describes:

are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation, but they're also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic.9 

I want to suggest that the smile is an expression engendered by ordinary affects that encompass our bodies in a world. In her influential work, Always More Than One, Erin Manning writes, “Body is event, known as such only in the collusions of process shifting…. ‘body’ is an ecology of processes… always in co-constellation with the environmentality of which it is part.”10 Manning further emphasizes that

[a]ffect never locates itself once and for all on an individual body… grouping into tendential relation not individual feelings but preindividual feeling-tendencies…. Affect does not hold onto being; it activates the threshold that disperses it, always anew…. Affect is always and only force.11 

These nuances lead me, in this context, to propose an entwined, iterative relationship among the body, affect, and the smile—affected bodies generate smiles and in turn smiles generate affected bodies—the conveyor and conveyed seem inseparable.


Immigrant, migrant, itinerant, expatriate, and refugee narratives are rife with stories of movements, displacements, and dislocations. The recent Syrian refugee crisis has re-revealed, with a ferocity, the horrors of forced migration. The story of the displaced person circulates. It is spun one way, then another. The story is thick with the stench of loss, nostalgia, separation, longing, and mourning. Eventually, the story reaches us after it has become the stuff of fiction, performances, media reports, and other social texts. Amidst these circulations, we tend to forget–dismiss–disregard that displaced persons are affective bodies that are on the move.

In our enthusiasm over celebrating the resettlement of those displaced, we overlook habitus, what Pierre Bourdieu defined as the “social inscribed in the body of the biological individual,”12 which is crucial to understanding the ways our bodies (re)produce affect in the world. Addressing Bourdieu's ideas, Tim Creswell writes:

bodily movement is an enactment of social position, which acts to reproduce social difference. It is in the body that the social framework—our class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality—becomes activated through practice which tends towards the reproduction of the social framework…. The fundamental structures of groups are rooted in the primary experiences of the body.13 

But how to tell the story of this/my/an activated body without reducing and containing it to a material object? I want to propose that telling the stories of smiles and the affects that produce them is akin to understanding the body as a historical subject and object, simultaneously shaped by and implicated in creating history. So, the stories I present here access the critical practice that Henri Lefevbre described as “a theory of moments”14 and what Raymond Williams referred to as “structures of feeling”15 that can be likened to affective moments that are both powerful and powerless and “do not arise in order to be deciphered or decoded or delineated but, rather, must be nurtured … into lived practices of the everyday as perpetually finer-grained postures of collective inhabitation.”16 In other words, I am telling the affective story that shapes and implicates my (un)smiling body.

Bodies Travel: Genealogies, Legacies

The body is witness. My grandmother, Biji, witnessed the fragmentation of her country by the British. My mother, Amma, thinks that Biji left her smiles behind somewhere in the rooms of her home in the old country, in Quetta, Pakistan. The months and years spent trying to belong in a new city (Delhi, India) as a refugee took their toll, Amma says. But Amma is also sure that Biji probably lost her smile somewhere around the time when her younger brother died before he turned five, because no one in the family ever fully recovered from his death. Some years after her brother died, Biji's mother passed away. She was, I am told, raised by her father and her extended relatives. Biji's father, my maternal great-grandfather, was the only person from the old country whose name would evoke a smile in her. She loved him deeply.

But there is something before the Partition. How can there not be? The first forty years of Biji's life were lived as a British subject. Although Indian, her family members were treated as privileged natives owing to my great-grandfather's status. He was a learned man, the first graduate in his district, a man upon whom the British had bestowed the title of Rai Sahib, or “Sir.” He is referred to only by this title and we know he was tall, imposing, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned. And when my grandmother speaks of this, I ask, “So you think his demeanor and physical attributes were the reason the British were kindly toward him?” She mulls this over, and says, “Who knows, maybe. They were kind if you did what they wanted,” she says resignedly.

What does colonial occupation do to the affect(s) that travel through the colonial body and its descendants? Biji never spoke of the British. Once or twice in passing, she said, “Yes, my mother used to entertain them and after she died, I was the woman in the house and I was the hostess.” “Did you talk to them?” I ask. She says, “No, our English was not good enough, my father mostly interacted with them.” “Why don't you tell me more about them?” I often ask her impatiently. “They were our rulers, not our friends, beta (my child).”

One year in my childhood home, I start rummaging through old photo albums, from 1907 onwards. It's easy to spot my unsmiling Biji. There's the unsmiling Rai Sahib. Even when I go down a generation, photos of my father mirror these expressions. I look for photos of my father's sister, my Bua (aunt). I am supposed to be her carbon copy; they say I have her smile and her laugh. It seems fitting to want to trace this familiarity. But all the photos show her in a solemn pose, sometimes there is a half-smile, but I never see her laughing or giggling or smiling broadly. I find remnants of this solemnity in photographs of my cousins, my uncles, my aunts. I return to those pictures I shared with Donna, and the similarity presents itself.

A sort of affective genealogy falls into place. “Affect,” says Sara Ahmed, “is what sticks, or what preserves the connections between ideas, values, and objects.”17 In my family, we carry, we perform, we contain what Philip Lopate terms “the adhesive cement of affect.”18 The (un)smile—my family's affective cement. In a way, this (un)smile can also be likened to postmemory, what Marianne Hirsch refers to as:

a powerful and very particular kind of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation…. Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated.19 

Bodies Contain: Affect's Accruals


We are in the crowded market of Lajpat Nagar in South Delhi. I am not yet a teenager. I must have smiled at someone, I think it's a young man who owns a store, and I immediately hear a hiss from Amma, “Don't smile at people you don't know.” “But he smiled at me,” I complain, “what do you want me to do?” “There's no need to smile back at every Tom, Dick, and Harry; you only smile at people you know. Who knows what people want,” she admonishes.

The smile tutorials are constant. There are lessons about how to and how much to smile at “the help.” “Don't smile so much at the cleaning lady; don't smile back so brightly at the driver; no need to smile at the postman; be pleasant, but not effusive in thanking a salesperson.” I listen, I learn, I absorb. My body listens, learns, absorbs. Habits of (un)smiling settle inside me.

Some years later, we are at a wedding and some older man I do not know is smiling at me. I don't smile back. Amma finds me and scolds, “Why were you rude to Uncle Raj?” “I don't know him,” I reply, “and you told me not to smile at people I don't know.” “We are related,” Amma explains, “you met him when you were ten, but of course you don't remember.” Of course, I don't remember him, but now I only remember him as the uncle who complained about me to Amma. I wonder if my brother smiled at him. I know that as a woman I am affectively disciplined much more than he is, but I also know that he carries the weight of (un)smiling just as I do. It is evident in our greetings to each other when we meet after months, even years. There is no effusive laughing, smiling, or even tears, just a kind of contained happiness-sadness. As if we've never earned the ancestral right to smile freely, profusely, completely. As if we are affected by the displacement that we never experienced, but inherited, and are now bound to by postmemory.

We are at a cousin's wedding and the bride seems happy—she is smiling, laughing, and dancing. I hear my aunts talking in hushed tones, criticizing the bride, saying she is not demure at all, she is smiling as if she is happy to leave her parents and go live with that man, her husband. I am confused; shouldn't she be happy? Later, I learn it's an arranged marriage; in these cases, the bride must not seem so thrilled, she must be solemn. When I get married in 2005, it's not an arranged marriage. I feel as if that gives me license to smile more, yet I am cautious. When I see the wedding pictures I am satisfied to see that in the pictures from the main ceremony, my face is demure, more shy, more befitting a bride. My body remembers.

Memories are steeped in affect. In fact, can there be memories without affect? So then, does smiling become habitual–remembered–affective guesswork? Is it an affective performance of gender, of history, of class, and of other intersections? Is this affective expression a kind of game? Is affect a haunting? Is affect the sum of its accruals?


They tell me here in the United States that girls are taught to smile at a young age. When I first arrive in 1997, a young twenty-three-year-old accompanied by a somewhat severe and contemplative disposition, I notice it but pay little heed. But I remember in Michigan, Indiana, and even here in Ohio, people cajole me to smile, “You're so pretty, you should smile more.” And I wonder, both then and now, and want to remark (but I don't): “Shall I smile to look prettier for you? Shall I smile to make you smile? Shall I smile because not smiling is not an option?” I want to ask these questions, but I know I have been smiling more and more. Is this desire to smile a desire to reinvent myself? Is it linked with wanting to unshackle myself from familial affective legacies? If I smile more, can I undo—even forget—this past? This is America, after all. The New World has always been the space of metamorphosis where history is about a potential future, not a past. And besides, the smile seems to become me. I keep trying to make it an affective habit that my body remembers.

Two years go by in America. I am twenty-five and have acquired my first American boyfriend—well he's American of Indian origin. Let's call him Rahul. In the early days, I meet his friends—other medical residents—who tell him that they prefer me to his last girlfriend because I smile more. When Rahul tells me this, I find myself beaming, smiling even more than necessary, although I have no idea how much smiling is needed or necessary. “Do I smile a lot?” I ask him. “Yeah, you do, that's why I like it, women who don't smile are too high maintenance, you never know what you might have done wrong, you never know what pleases them.” A year goes by, things go sour—not in any dramatic or traumatic way, but the way that relationships that aren't supposed to go anywhere do. He repeatedly tells me that I used to be so much more cheerful. “I can't be happy and smiling for you all the time,” I tell him. He, who was born here, the son of Indian immigrants who made their American dream. Life for him is the proverbial oyster. I am, on the other hand, a child of a Partition refugee, who has deliberately chosen to put herself on the path to more displacements. We come from different worlds. In a few months, it's over.

Graduate school in America continues. It's my last year in my doctoral program—2003. One day a close friend tells me that the students from the first-year doctoral cohort are afraid of me. Bewildered, I ask, “Why?” He explains, “Because you look serious and fierce and they rarely see you smile and you always have a book with you; I told them not to be silly and that you are just a serious person.” I remind myself to smile more. Ten years later, in 2013, a first-year female graduate student is walking down the street on campus and tells me, “You're so fierce, I am afraid to take a graduate class with you, I can't take a seminar with you.” Such encounters, with-through-of my body reinforce Bernadette Marie Calafell's assertion that bodies of “women of color in the academy are marked as monstrous Others.”20 Calafell reminds us that “feminists of color have long demonstrated that women of color are dehumanized through discourses of Otherness tied to hegemonic definitions of femininity that extend not only to beauty standards but also to patterns of ‘acceptable behavior.’”21 As I write this, I am reminded of a meeting with a white feminist who complained, even wept, that my loud voice—what I have always considered-embraced-used as a proud, clear voice—caused her discomfort. So much so that she asked for other (white) bodies to be in the room. White bodies collect, accrue to protect a comrade, build a wall. Meanwhile, my body—my 5-foot and 100-pound body—continues to be (re)marked by this pesky fierce–loud Otherness. But still, I remind myself to smile more.

In 2016, the eighteen-nineteen-twenty-year-old female American students in my undergraduate class on culture are holding court about gendered smiling. One of them calls it the tax women have to pay for walking down the street. I am fascinated by, even proud of, the manner in which they seem to have reflected upon the affective pressures that impress upon them, their bodies. Another student pulls up memes that show “Resting Bitch Face,” declaring that she wants to cultivate this expression. Yet another shares a story about being pressured to smile at a fundraising event for her sorority.

I tell them about my efforts to make smiling a habit. They are mortified that I would ask my body to do something foreign to itself, that I would impress an unwelcome affective pressure upon my body. “You are who you are, Dr. Chawla,” they exclaim magnanimously. “But,” I tell them, “my body is here now, does the landscape not reshape it, shall I not mold some of its contours to this new cartography? Isn't this what culture is all about?” A discussion about Midwest and Minnesota Nice begins. Camps are formed. The East Coasters defend the gruffness and brusqueness of their region's manner. The Midwesterners argue for the restraint, politeness, and calmness that their space generates. But the young women in the class return again and again to the pressures on their female bodies to conform in spite of the landscape. There is no level playing field, they exclaim, whether East or Midwest, women are liked only if they smile. One of them even tells me that she wishes she had grown up like me, trained “not” to smile. The young men in the class remain nonplussed, even confused. We come from different worlds, we tell them.

And as I gather these moments and dwell upon them, I can only conclude that gendered affects colonize equally, yet distinctly, across bodies and borders. The accrual takes different forms. We smile, or don't, to survive. Here, survival rests upon an ability to be pleasant to and with the world. There, or at least in the “there” of my family, survival is about a moderate rationing of this affective pressure to acknowledge (or never forget) the histories of displacement, of oppression. And for those bodies that leave or are forced to leave, for those who reside in between borders, affective registers become lifelines, showing us that

affect is integral to a body's perpetual becoming (always becoming otherwise, however subtly, than what it already is), pulled beyond its seeming surface-boundedness by way of its relation to, indeed its composition through, the forces of encounter. With affect, a body is as much outside itself as in itself—webbed in its relations—until ultimately such firm distinctions cease to matter.22 

An Example: The Smile and the Wave

In 2005, I move into my first house in America. My husband has a small smile and wave for everyone who walks or drives by our house. I ask him if we've met these people. “No,” he says, “it's what you do—the smile and the wave.” It takes years for me to get it right. It doesn't come naturally to me. I falter. My hand is awkward. My smile is forced. I do it because I feel the need to do it. To fit in, to become linked, somehow, with the landscape. This aesthetic space—the undivided yards, the closeness of the homes, the intimate nature of the college town—demands my subjective encounter with it. The atmosphere invokes it, and as Ben Anderson writes:

atmospheres require completion by the subjects that “apprehend” them. They belong to the perceiving subject. One the other hand atmospheres “emanate” from the ensemble of elements that make up the aesthetic object. They belong to the aesthetic object. Atmospheres are … always in the process of emerging and transforming. They are always being taken up and reworked in lived experience—becoming part of the feelings and emotions that may themselves become elements within other atmospheres.23 

Just as I switch accents, I wear and discard, create and recreate, affective registers. Mostly, I get them right. But “fierce” sticks to me like an unhappy object. I consider it my body telling the world that a smile is never just a smile, that a smile is neither cheap nor free. A smile is the fractured legacy of a body's movements and interactions through (un)familiar worlds.

1,000 Slaves and a Smile

In 2016, Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor who led 1,000 slaves to their freedom, is to be honored by placing her likeness on a twenty-dollar bill. The image being circulated is solemn, thoughtful, and dare I say, “fierce.” There is a movement to replace it with one of her smiling. Some fitting social media responses ensue:

  • 103 years after her death woman still being told to smile

  • Men, telling women to “smile” since 1900

  • “You should smile more”: Harriet Tubman edition

  • Happier while she is risking her life helping slaves escape? If she only knew about photo ops!

  • I can't believe Harriet Tubman didn't think to smile in readiness for replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 a hundred years after her death

We discuss the Tubman (un)smile in my class. We ponder the absurdity of the situation. We are asking a woman who led 1,000 slaves to freedom, to smile. A student asks, “What do we do?” What is there to do? How can I answer that? Maybe these thoughts and my recording them here is one answer.

The Portrait of an (Un)smile

Biji died in December 1998 at the age of 91. Since then, her portrait has held a corner on my study table. She is probably eighty-eight years old in the photograph. There is a half-smile on her face. Perhaps not. Maybe what is there is an attempt by her to arrange her facial muscles into the vestiges of a smile. A kind of melancholia emanates from the portrait. It is a controversial photograph. I know the family looked through dozens of photos of her before we settled on this one as one we would use for her prayer service and eventually in our homes. I've now carried the frame from Michigan, to Indiana, to Ohio—a Midwestern landscape known for citizens who have pleasant demeanors and are free with their smiles. It's a landscape that remains both familiar and strange to me, even after twenty years. This landscape would be quite unrecognizable to Biji, who was opposed to and upset about my moving here, to this country. She feared letting a “daughter” of the house go across the world alone. But I think she also feared that the displacement would create another layer of (un)belonging and deposit another kind of melancholic affect on my body. She was right.

Her (un)smiling portrait sits where I write. It anchors me to my family's affective past. The (un)smile with which my grandmother looks at me is one of recognition. I place it there not just so I can recognize it, but so my grandmother can recognize me. The portrait as an affective object shows me that Biji and I share “a familial visual field in which we see even as we are seen.”24 The (un)smile—my relationship to the trauma of upheaval felt by Biji. As an affective anchor, it is a profound link that allows me to associate with a past I will never experience. I think it's what Donna wanted me to see and know. She knew.


Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Della Pollock, “Performing Writing,” in The Ends of Performance, ed. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 80.
Ibid., 90–91.
Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 1.
Ibid., 10.
Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 2 original emphases.
Ibid., original emphasis.
Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 2.
Erin Manning, Always More than One: Individuation's Dance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 18–19 emphasis added.
Ibid., 28–29.
Pierre Bourdieu, qtd. in Tim Creswell, “Bourdieu's Geographies: In Memoriam,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20, no. 4 (2002): 381. See also Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).
Creswell, “Bourdieu's Geographies,” 380.
Henri Lefevbre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1992).
Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 21.
Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 30.
Phillip Lopate, “The Story of My Father,” in Portrait of My Body (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 181.
Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 22.
Bernadette Marie Calafell, “Monstrous Femininity: Construction of Women of Color in the Academy,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 36, no. 2 (2012): 118.
Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 3 original emphasis.
Ben Anderson, “Affective Atmospheres,” Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2009): 79.
Hirsch, Family Frames, 54.