Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film 0815321295, 9780815321293, 9781315050249

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Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film
 0815321295, 9780815321293, 9781315050249

Table of contents :
Half Title
Series Page
Series Editor’s Foreword
Introduction: Feminist Interventions and Locational Politics
The Intervening Configuration: Gender and Feminist Practice
National Identities, Tradition, and Feminism: The Novels of Ama Ata Aidoo Read in the Context of the Works of Kwame Nkrumah
Nationalism and Feminism in the Writings of Santa Devi and Sita Devi
Mother-Country and Fatherland: Re-Membering the Nation in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days
Race, Gender, and the Caribbean Narrative of Revolution
The Transformation of Nation and Womanhood: Revisionist Mythmaking in the Poetry of Nicaragua's Gioconda Belli
The Censored Argentine Text: Griselda Gambaro's Ganarse la Muerte and Reina Roffe's Monte de Venus
Transgressions: Female Desire and Postcolonial Identity in Contemporary Indian Women’s Cinema
The Intervening Discourse: Problematizing Transnational Feminist Dialogues
Feminist Critiques of Nationalism and Communalism from Bangladesh and India: A Transnational Reading
Of Tortillas and Texts: Postcolonial Dialogues in the Latin American Testimonial
Writing the Difference: Feminists’ Invention of the “Arab Woman”
Third World Women's Cinema: If the Subaltern Speaks, Will We Listen?
From Third World Politics to First World Practices: Contemporary Latina Writers in the United States
List of Contributors

Citation preview

In t e r v e n t i o n s


G e n d e r , C ul t ur e , a n d C h a n d r a

Ta l p a d e

M o h a n t y ,

In t e r v e n t i o n s

Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film edited by Bishnupriya Ghosh and Brinda Bose

G l o bal

Po l it ic s

Seri es E d i t o r

In t e r v e n t i o n s Fe m in is t Dia l o g u es o n Th i r d W orld W o m e n ’s L i t e r a t u r e a n d F il m

E dit



Bis h n u pr iy a Br in d a

Bo se

Gh o s h

First published 1997 by Garland Publishing, Inc. Published 2019 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

Copyright © 1997 by Bishnupriya Ghosh and Brinda Bose All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Interventions : feminist dialogues on Third World women's literature and film I edited by Bishnupriya Ghosh and Brinda Bose. p. cm. - (Gender, culture, and global politics ; v. 1) (Garland reference library of the humanities ; v. 1943) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-8153-2129-5 (alk. paper) 1. Feminist literary criticism. 2. Feminism and literature. 3. Women and literature. 4. Women in literature. 5. Women in motion pictures. 6. Feminism and motion pictures. 7. Developing countries-Literatures. 8. Women-Developing countries-Social conditions. 9. FeminismDeveloping countries. I. Ghosh, Bishnupriya. II. Bose, Brinda. III. Series. IV. Series: Garland reference library of the humanities ; v. 1943. PN98.W64I58 1997 809' .89287-dc20 96-26295 CIP Cover illustration of Madhubani folk painting from the private collection of Brinda Bose. ISBN 13: 978-0-8153-2129-3 (hbk)



Series Editor’s Foreword






Introduction: Feminist Interventions and Locational Politics

Bishnupriya Ghosh and Brinda Bose


The Intervening Configuration: Gender and Feminist Practice National Identities, Tradition, and Feminism: The Novels of Ama Ata Aidoo Read in the Context of the Works of Kwame Nkrumah

Elizabeth Willey


Nationalism and Feminism in the Writings of Santa Devi and Sita Devi

Nupur Chaudhuri


Mother-Country and Fatherland: Re-Membering the Nation in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

Susan Koshy


Race, Gender, and the Caribbean Narrative of Revolution

Belinda Edmondson


The Transformation of Nation and Womanhood: Revisionist Mythmaking in the Poetry of Nicaragua's Gioconda Belli

Pilar Moyano


The Censored Argentine Text: Griselda Gambaro's Ganarse la Muerte and Reina Roffe's Monte de Venus

Melissa Lockhart


Transgressions: Female Desire and Postcolonial Identity in Contemporary Indian Women’s Cinema

Brinda Bose


The Intervening Discourse: Problematizing Transnational Feminist Dialogues Feminist Critiques of Nationalism and Communalism from Bangladesh and India: A Transnational Reading

Bishnupriya Ghosh


Of Tortillas and Texts: Postcolonial Dialogues in the Latin American Testimonial

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez


Writing the Difference: Feminists’ Invention of the “Arab Woman”

Amal Amireh


Third World Women's Cinema: If the Subaltern Speaks, Will We Listen?

Gwendolyn A udrey Foster


From Third World Politics to First World Practices: Contemporary Latina Writers in the United States

Maribel Ortiz-Marquez


List of Contributors





Series Editor’s Foreword

The United Nation’s Fourth International Conference on Women in Beijing prompts me to think about what feminists have achieved after more than four decades of organizing around issues of social and economic justice for women. I realize that civil rights are not the same as economic justice. While issues such as health, nutrition, reproductive rights, violence, misogyny, and women’s poverty and labor struggles have achieved widespread global recognition, women still constitute the world’s poor and the majority o f the world’s refugees. The Structural Adjustment Policies of the IMF and the World Bank continue to have a devasting impact on Third World women. Militarization, environmental degradation, heterosexist state practices, religious fundamentalisms, and the exploitation of poor women’s labor by multinationals, all pose profound challenges for feminists as we look toward the twenty-first century. While feminists organizing education and scholarship across the globe have been variously successful, we inherit a number of challenges our mothers and grandmothers faced. And then there are new challenges as we attempt to make sense of a world indelibly marked by the failure of postcolonial capitalist and communist nation-states to provide for the social, economic, spiritual and psychic needs of the majority of the the world’s population. At the end of the twentieth century, globalization has come to represent the interests of the free market not freedom from historical, cultural, and economic domination, or self-determination for all the world’s peoples. These are some of the challenges this Garland series addresses. The Gender, Culture and Global Politics series takes as its fundamental premise 1) the need for feminist engagement with global as well as local/situational ideological, economic, and political processes, and 2) the urgency of transnational,

cross-cultural, feminist dialogue in building an ethical, egalitarian, democratic culture capable of withstanding and transforming the commodified, exploitative politics and practices of global capital. The series foregrounds the necessity of comparative feminist analysis and scholarship, and seeks to forge direct links between analysis, (self)reflection and organizing. Individual texts will provide systematic and challenging interventions into the (still) largely Eurocentric and Western women’s studies knowledge base, while simultaneously highlighting the work that can and needs to be done to envision and enact cross-cultural, multiracial feminist solidarity. The first volume in this series, Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film, addresses some of these questions head-on. Bishnupriya Ghosh and Brinda Bose have crafted a collection which exemplifies the spirit of feminist intervention into national and international practices and discourses of domination and of dialogue between and among Third World women’s representational practices of resistance. Intervention is theorized variously by the contributors to this volume, from Belinda Edmondson’s reading against the grain of Caribbean revolutionary literature and historiography to reinscribe the memory and presence of black Caribbean women in these representational practices, to Melissa Lockhart’s analysis of two Argentinian women’s (Griselda Gambaro and Reina Roffe) texts which articulate women’s eroticism as an act of resistance to the sexual politics of the (1976-1983) military dictatorship. Ghosh and Bose’s anthology orchestrates complex dialogues between women’s representational practices from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, South Asia, U.S.A., and the Middle East. The anthology also participates in “everrenewing dialogues on transnational feminist practices,” by addressing a set of questions the editors frame as central to their project: “How does gender signify for women in diverse contexts? In what ways do women use their gender positions as the bases for interventions into other hegemonic relations? With an eye to locational politics— who speaks for whom and from where?— how can we adequately characterize such gendered interventions?...when does an intervention qualify as a feminist practice or as a part of a specific feminist movement?” (Ghosh and Bose, “Introduction,” xvi). These are important, urgent questions for comparative feminist praxis, and they are taken up intelligently and incisively by the editors and contributors to this volume. Analyzing complex interchanges between questions of nation/location and transnational cultural practices in specifying sexual politics, Interventions suggests the need to incorporate a critical reading of global phenomena in our most local, situational thinking about ideology and culture. The volume also


propels us to examine definitions of “global,” “transnational,” and “First/Third World,” in specifying feminist practice. I am left with the question of whether “global” can be defined or mapped outside the script of transnational capitalism. What would this mean for theorizing comparative feminist praxis? Interventions challenges the reader to read, think, and reflect creatively about Third World women’s literature and film as a crucial aspect of analyzing larger national and international social formations, movements and discourses. Chandra Talpade Mohanty Ithaca, NY



This collection may be said to have been conceived—though not in any tangible form—in 1990, when we caught up with each other again at a feminist conference in Chicago. Besides time well spent in effusive nostalgia about school and college days in Calcutta, our late-night coffee, wine, and jazz bar sessions also featured serious discussions about ideologies—social, cultural, political— as we perceived them in the United States, and as our own had matured and transformed themselves through the years. Having already spent some years in different milieus, our experiences were varied, but, not unexpectedly, we re-discovered common concerns; of these, our commitment to feminist causes— in particular, emergent Third World feminist practices—was paramount. We did not plan any book at that meeting, but the political fervor that shrouded our intellectual exchanges certainly pointed to such a possibility had we recognized it then. It is no small irony that soon after, a collection appeared that particularly stimulated our growing interest in the field of Third World feminism, Third World Women and the Politics o f Feminism edited by Chandra Mohanty et al. (1991); and we feel privileged beyond measure that our first effort in a similar direction will be published as a part of Garland’s series, Gender, Culture and Global Politics, that is edited by Mohanty. In the five years between our early discussions o f feminist ideologies as they intervened into our lives and politics and the preparation of this manuscript, we have watched in wonder and excitement the expansion of gender and culture studies across the academe all over the world, and we hope that this anthology will find a place among the many worthy texts that are crowding the bookshelves and fast creating a genre of their own. Third World feminisms (itself a troubled term) are constantly involved in mutative processes and are indeed impossible to define in either macro- or microcosmic representations. We have, therefore, chosen to highlight a range of feminist interventions into particular Third World political, social, cultural, and

intellectual constructs, and to present them in the form of transnational feminist dialogues that will, we hope, facilitate more dialogue about other interventions that we regretfully could not cover in this volume. Above all, we would like Interventions to stimulate thought, discussion, and productive argument—perhaps so much so that successive volumes of such stimulating dialogue stand imminent, just as feminisms continue to make rigorous interventions into ideologies across nations and cultures in the Third World at the turn of the century.

The Editors



The editors would like to thank: The contributors to this volume—Elizabeth Willey, Nupur Chaudhuri, Belinda Edmondson, Susan Koshy, Pilar Moyano, Melissa Lockhart, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Amal Amireh, and Maribel Ortiz-Marquez; Claudia Hirsch, Women Studies Editor at Garland Publishing, for her patience and guidance; Chandra Mohanty, Series Editor for Gender, Culture and Global Politics, for her encouragement and valuable criticism; our families, teachers and professors in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We could not have done it without you. Brinda Bose would like to thank the teachers and friends at the English Department of Boston University, particularly Dr. Emily Dalgamo, Amal, John and Sally, for their solidarity in the feminist cause and numerous sustaining ideas, discourses and discussions. My efforts toward this anthology would be severely hampered without the crucial hours of baby-sitting put in by Shampa in Gainesville, Florida, and I am grateful for the energetic and happy companionship she provided my son while I attended to the computer. To the two males in the house, Kinsuk Mitra and Romik Bose Mitra, I offer this in love and hope, that feminist dialogues may spread and multiply across genders through the likes of them, in our generation and the next. I must also thank Kinsuk for his unfailing computer wizardry that, at odd moments, rescued parts of this manuscript from the unfathomable depths of disks; and Romik, who does not know yet how he made this possible by being such an easy and affable baby. Bishnupriya Ghosh extends her thanks to her colleagues, friends, and students at Utah State University, Logan, for their generous support and advice. Special thanks to Jeffrey Smitten for facilitating a flexible schedule and for all the

encouragement which junior faculty always need; and to Anne Shifrer, Helen Cannon, Amal Kawar, Fuencisla Zomeno, Christine Hult, Kate Begnal, Christopher Okelberry and Angela Rasmussen. The completion of this project owes a great deal to a faculty grant from the College of HASS at Utah State University; thanks to Dean Brian Pitcher and Joyce Kincaid for this. Last but not the least, thanks to all the friends in Los Angeles for their mental and material support over a period of two years; to Srimati Basu and Belinda Edmondson for help with the introduction; to Mrittika Datta and Jennifer Burwell for their very different kinds of love and inspiration; and to Bhaskar Sarkar, for a sympathetic ear and a keen editorial eye, but even more for his high expectations and the singular faith that they would be met.



In sewing terms, “interfacing” means a piece of material between two pieces of fabric to provide support and stability to collar, cuff, yoke. Between the masks we’ve internalized, one on top of another, are our interfaces. The masks are already steeped with self-hatred and other internalized oppressions. However, it is the place—the interface—between the masks that provides the space from which we can thrust out and crack the masks. (from Gloria Anzaldua’s Haciendo caras, una entrada)1 This anthology participates in the ever-renewing dialogues on transnational feminist practices. Following Chandra Talapade Mohanty’s (1991) call to arms, this project was bom of an effort to create horizontal transnational alliances and a space from where feminists can assess, analyze, and respond to women’s experiences and struggles in different locations across the globe.2 We also join in the venture, so well posed by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (1994) in their recent collection, which challenges the hegemonic attention to conversations between well-established (star) scholars working in feminist theory and cultural studies within the United States academy; thus in 1992, as junior faculty and feminists, we hoped to create a forum in which emerging scholars could voice their concerns.3 Encouraged by an enthusiastic and diverse response, three years later, we present: Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film. As if to exemplify the transnational nature of this collection, Brinda Bose moved back to India to teach, in the summer of 1995. Interventions was conceived in the United States, but it was delivered by international faxes, phonecalls, electronic mail, express mail, and, sometimes, simply letters.

This collection evolved from a set of questions that we felt were particularly crucial for representations of women’s experiences and struggles. How does gender signify for women in diverse contexts? In what ways do women use their gender positions as the bases for interventions into other hegemonic relations? With an eye to locational politics—who speaks for whom and from where— how can we adequately characterize such gendered interventions? In other words, when does a gendered intervention qualify as a feminist practice or as part of a specific feminist movement? The cultural theorists, feminists, and historians whose work comprises this anthology variously respond to some of these questions. Before we outline their contributions, we pause to explicate some of the key concepts and issues that have shaped collection.

THIRD WORLD/FIRST WORLD: A QUESTION OF CATEGORY In a recent IBM advertisement—“Solutions for a Small Planet”— a group of Buddhist monks capture their thoughts on the technological superhighway. In several other advertisements, people from similar “remote” locations are modernized with a little help from friendly multinationals: nuns in the Vatican invest in laptop computers; the Inuit discover Baskin-Robbins; AT&T becomes the electronic mover and shaker of familial ties all over the world. These pop globalizations are symptomatic of the larger geopolitical processes today, economic and cultural hangovers of the colonial era that enter new representational forms. Many forms of feminism in what is figured as the “First World” or the “West” also suffer from similar imperial impulses, or they simply fail to account for either the geopolitical structural advantages that allow them to operate in specific ways and/or the diverse global conditions that women find in their daily lives. In the current scenario, where transnational cultural exchanges have laced different feminisms together, transnational feminists have challenged the structural privileges of feminist discourses and practices of the First World.4 We are well aware of the problems inherent to producing the binary First World/Third World formulation that in no way completely captures feminisms’ multiple sites of power and resistance and that tends to reproduce the Third World as a monolithic categoiy.5 Ella Shohat (1992) correctly argues that the division of our planet into a three-world topology tends to “flatten heterogeneities” of power and resistance. The editors of Public Culture emphasize the fact that such simple divides do not adequately recognize transnational and multinational alliances and conflicts; other critics point to the First World/Third World demarcation as a politically defunct outcome of Eurocentric world systems theories, one which



replicates center-periphery delineations and fails to acknowledge the existence of Third World conditions within First World parameters.6 Theorists who argue for a politics of location have often used another formulation—global/local—which seems to resist nation-oriented geopolitical imbalances and engenders a focus on multiple sites of hegemonic relations.7 Even these categories have met with some opposition: Grewal and Kaplan (1994) insist that the global/local map does not represent either multiple globalises or the scattered nexuses of power overlapping in different localities (11). They choose the term “transnational” to problematize the binariness of the demarcations discussed above. Taking these arguments seriously, we employ the terms “Third World” and “First World” as heuristics for the epistemological hegemonies this anthology seeks to deconstruct. With Chandra Mohanty’s essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in mind, we signify this dichotomy to be an historical epistemological effect rather than an essential classification: the series of “textual strategies” employed within the feminist discourses of what is geopolitically configured as the West “produce” the “Third World” as an ideological effect.8 (We use the term Third World in implied quotation marks throughout this essay.) The figuration of these terms, then, matters less than who uses them, in what contexts, and for what purposes. Our collection is organized to interrogate this figuration by presenting two sets of essays that articulate against each other. The first group deconstructs the othering of the Third World by restoring historical and locational specificity to the heterogenous experiences and struggles of Third World women. The center-periphery demarcations between the First and the Third Worlds become muddied in accounts that link the designated Third World to niches within the First World. The second set of essays asks questions o f this reconstructive process: whose feminist practices are being represented by whom and in what context? How do sites of production, distribution and reception shape, and even distort, perceptions of Third World women and their gendered interventions? These essays problematize talking about Third World feminisms in transnational circuit by situating such inquiries in our current geopolitical contexts.

SITUATING TRANSNATIONAL FEMINIST DISCOURSES: WHOSE FEMINISM? Since feminism today is contested territory, it becomes necessary to chart the historical and geopolitical terrain within which our project is situated. Historicizing transnational feminist dialogues like the ones presented in this collection becomes essential if we are to prevent the kind of “political matricide”



that Louise Bemikow so passionately criticized in one of the plenary sessions of the Sixteenth Annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference (held at the University of Oklahoma, June 1995).9 Bernikow recounted the repeated amnesia that surfaces between waves of feminism; of course, in the very process of treating amnesia as a distancing mechanism operating between feminists, she was fairly dismissive of third-wave feminism’s attention to heterogenous hegemonies and the emphasis on gender as a performative category. Some younger women left the session during Bemikow’s speech, reminding us once more of the battles within feminism which have sometimes bred anger and bitterness. Going global only means more battles, and transnational feminist dialogues have had their fair share. While such dialogues result from a recognition of heterogenous hegemonies, we heed Bernikow’s warning about amnesiac discourses. We therefore situate our work within the history of First World feminist movements, since these First World academic circuits are our initial anticipated audience. But our focus, here, on a certain history of feminisms is not the only measure of the kinds of dialogue we attempt to continue. Many of us who write in this collection have had, or currently have, strong links with feminist movements and practices outside of these First World circuits. These practices and movements have shaped and enabled our participation in these circuits. Indeed, in recent years, multilocational academics and feminists have contributed to increased knowledges about transnational feminist practices; increased awareness, in turn, has begun to influence feminist practices in the First World. The call to specificity that many feminists, women of color, immigrants, or transnational academics have made is one of the effects of second-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism, which assumed gender was a cultural given organizing all other hegemonic relations, attacked “white,” “bourgeois” feminism from many fronts.10 Identity politics became a viable feminist practice, and the task of restoring specificity to each person’s unique experience still continues. With the recognition of multiple nexuses of power operating on a single individual, the relational nature of the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy was extensively theorized: as Kobena Mercer, bell hooks, Hazel Carby, Gayatri Spivak, and others have effectively shown how a position of oppression can shift into a position of power.11 Relational aspects of the hegemonic significations and practices—such as whiteness and masculinity— that produce women of color as Others, have also received closer scrutiny: one instance of this is Ruth Frankenberg’s (1993) compelling study of the “structural advantage” of whiteness.12

W ill


The push to theorize multiplicity owes as much to changes in feminist foci as it does to postmodernism. With the general collapse of epistemological objectivity after postmodernism, when all grand narratives seemed oppressive, there was a change in feminist perceptions of power as it circulates through gender. Feminists turned their attention to the micropractices of power, the heterogeneity and locality of experiences, and the multiplicity of resistances.13 Grewal and Kaplan’s (1994) anthology is an example of the kind of work generated by such a turn: they emphasize a perception of multiple and overlapping sites of power and resistance—“scattered hegemonies”— for an adequate comprehension of transnational postmodern cultural practices. Our interest in gendered interventions stems from this postmodern sense of multiple sites and also from our attention to multiple levels of resistance. The term feminism, even when used in the plural (feminisms), connotes an organized movement with specific agendas and a history; “feminist practices” works better for including acts of resistance that are not a part of a consistent political movement. But even the term feminist practices implies a temporal pattern, repetitions that enable theorists to characterize certain acts as one kind of practice. “Gendered interventions,” on the other hand, may be used as a term that best captures collective movements, patterns of smaller resistances, as well as individual and singular acts of resistance. Some of the contributors write about women who perceive themselves as parts of a movement: for instance, Elizabeth W illey’s represents Ama Ata Aidoo as a novelist and feminist in Ghana. Bishnupriya Ghosh, on the other hand, depicts Taslima Nasreen’s intervention into Bangladeshi communal and nationalist politics as a feminist practice even though Nasreen, by her own admission, does not always fall in with the women’s movements in Bangladesh.14 Gendered interventions encompass individual and collective political acts engaged in on behalf of women (feminist in that sense), political acts that women are compelled to undertake because of their marginal gendered positions, and political acts by men and women that interrogate gender in its fullest sense— feminine and masculine. In the 1970s and ‘80s, one of the consequences of theorizing multiple sites of power was the criticism now leveled at the feminist observer who cataloged the grievances of other female subjects. Since no one person could grasp the multifarious operations of power, each female subject was best qualified to articulate her own felt oppressions. With the 1970s slogan— the personal is the political—the female subject seemed to merge with the feminist activist. A direct relation was perceived between subjectivity (questions of consciousness, identity, self-fashioning) and objective reality (the social/structural totalities in which one is placed). To think of the self was a political act for it entailed actively engaging



the transpersonal totalities that structure experience and subjectivity. It was argued that one could only theorize from experience. Oppression could be best represented by the oppressed: there was “a link between where one stands in society and what one perceives” (Frankenberg, 8). These arguments culminated in what is now best characterized as a feminist politics of location. The dialogues on transnational feminist practices taking place in First World sites of production (if not reception) are a historical outcome of these phases in Western feminism. Postcolonial theorists, theorists of race, class, and ethnicity, and, more recently, queer theorists have opened up a space within feminist theory for dialogues and alliances across the national, political, and cultural boundaries. Ideas of global feminism have been abandoned for their imperialistic intent to homogenize all power struggles into one hegemonic sisterhood, and transnational dialogues have taken the place of any unified venture.15 It must be noted, here, that although there is a perceptible developmental trajectory that links the call to specificity and the emergence of a feminist politics of location, recent feminist postcolonial theorists have attacked the [western] feminist overemphasis on personal narratives of oppression. For instance, Sara Suleri (1992) criticizes the conceptually parochial postcolonial feminists in the United States for their privileging of realist personal narratives to represent the disparate conditions of postcoloniality; Suleri argues that the complexity of the postcolonial experience has been thinned to achieve coherence for a North American audience.16 The suspicion directed at unified categories extends to the use of gender as a common category of analysis.17 In this anthology we do not use gender as an analytic category, but as a banner (one signification among many) under which women enact resistances. We are invested in representing the ways in which Third World women signify gender, how they reformulate the category, and how they use it as a platform for political interventions. Rather than a homogenizing label, we hope to show the shifting sites/contexts in which this category takes shape for different women. We focus on women from the Third World as historical subjects because we target certain hegemonic feminist discourses that stereotype Third World women as passive victims rather than conscious agents. An equally compelling project would be to deconstruct the Western perceptions of Third World men— as they relate to Third World women—as male chauvinists and oppressors par excellence; not only are there heterogenous ways in which gender signifies for the men of the Third World, but men, too, intervene into the dominant discourses of masculinity. Ghosh presents an example of male intervention into dominant discourses of gender in her brief account of Anand Patwardhan’s feminist documentary on Indian masculinity. But because this



collection is styled as an intervention into feminist representations of feminisms, women agents are the locus of this enquiry.

EXPERIENCE, IDENTITY, AND FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS: WHAT DOES “GENDER” SIGNIFY? The question that precedes a look into willed gendered interventions is: how does gender signify for different people in different contexts? Moreover, how are these gender significations produced and regulated in specific locations at specific historical junctures? Since the restoration of heterogeneity is the goal of this collection, we start with the most extreme form of specificity: the uniqueness of every individual experience. In defining experience we reference deLauretis (1984), as she best theorizes the link between gender as it signifies uniquely for every person and the use of that signification/designation for political action (intervention). DeLauretis provides a cue: I use the term [experience] not in the individualistic, idiosyncratic sense of something belonging to one and exclusively her own even though others might have “similar” experiences; but rather in the general sense o f a process by which, for all social beings, subjectivity is constructed. Through that process one places oneself or is placed in social reality, and so perceives and comprehends as subjective (referring to, even originating in, oneself) those relations—material, economic, and interpersonal— which are in fact social and, in a larger perspective, historical. The process is continuous, its achievement unending or daily renewed. For each person, therefore, subjectivity is an ongoing construction, not a fixed point of departure or arrival from which one then interacts with the world. On the contrary, it is an effect of that interaction— which I call experience; and thus it is produced not by external ideas, values or material causes, but one’s personal, subjective, engagement in practices, discourses and institutions that lend significance (value, meaning, and affect) to the events of the world. (159) Two premises extrapolated from this formulation are useful here. First, the passage emphasizes the uniqueness of every individual’s experience. Each person is faced with a distinctive set of practices, discourses, and institutions that create very different horizons of meaning/signification, since these horizons vary in different geopolitical locations and historical contexts. Even when the larger historical and geopolitical contexts coincide, it would be difficult to imagine two



subjects facing the same set of significations. Small differences in institutions (e.g., one’s school), practices (e.g., one’s care of the body) or discourses (e.g., one’s family history) are bound to exist. And even if all these differences were to be elided, each individual would engage differently with those structural realities and so fashion a unique subjectivity. Second, a logical implication derived from deLauretis’ formulation is the issue of agency and identity. Gender definitions can be theorized as one set of existing and possible significations with which the subject engages. We shall use the term configuration to connote a collection of significations (such as gender or race); the term “configuration” implies an act of shaping a personal collection of significations from all the meanings available to each subject.18 One’s subjectivity, then, is constructed by the configurations culled from the significations assigned to each subject and those meanings that the subject chooses to negotiate. This definition opens up a space for passive determinations of subjectivity and the possibility of active choice/negotiation. Subjectivity can thus always become a politicized identity.19 The notion of politicized identity bridges the gap between individual and collective acts of resistance. Women, as real historical subjects, negotiate woman-as-sign on a daily basis (deLauretis, 1984).The individual subject who reinterprets her gender significations configures a new identity for herself: for example, stepping back from the term working woman in order to deconstruct the stereotype and reformulate the notion. This step back places the subject in a negative dialectic in which historical and existing relationships between different significations (of working woman, in the above example) are highlighted. DeLauretis’ sense of a perceived distance between different significations— for example, between dominant and oppositional/emergent terms that define aspects of the subject—is precisely what Anzaldua poetically expresses as the “interface” or the “place between the masks” (1990, xv). DeLauretis implies this dialectical engagement when she asserts: the subject “knows the social conditions that en-genders her” and begins to rewrite the self “in relation to shifting political and interpersonal contexts” (9). This politicized identity is a “strategy for survival,” which enables the subject to be a “user and maker” of culture and strive toward “self-definition and empowerment” (10). Such an engagement with one’s gender significations constitutes one important form of gendered intervention. How do feminisms and feminist practices figure in this schema of identity construction? Exposing the gap between woman as sign and historical women, between the symbolic and the real, demystifies gender ideology; feminists work collectively to engender such demystifications and to launch the possibility of other configurations. In this sense, feminist practices reorder the horizon of



significations. This is not to suggest that feminist practices enable women as real historical subjects to step outside of ideology or to simply exchange one (patriarchal) set of terms for another (feminist) one; they seek to create the spaces for women to engage in a negative dialectics of identity.

THE INTERVENING CONFIGURATION: GENDER AS IT REDEFINES OTHER CONFIGURATIONS We have tried to outline the link between gender significations and gendered interventions. The focus of this anthology is, of course, the gendered interventions of women from the Third World. The term intervention is not simply the conceptual motor for the collection but also provides a structural device. Picking up from our earlier discussion of gender as one among the many configurations available to the subject, here we elaborate on our two uses of the term intervention. Intervention can be thought of in the strong sense: an active negotiation of oppressive configurations and the practices, discourses, and institutions that generate them. But it can also be used in a weak sense of intersection or the redefinition of one configuration by another. That is, in the process of experiencing, gender configurations may act upon other configurations such as race, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, national identity, etc; gender intervenes in that it refigures these other configurations. For instance, Barrett and McIntosh (1985) examine the differences within the United Kingdom’s official category of Asian women. They argue that to correctly understand and record the participation of these Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian women in the workforce, one must look to the ways in which their religious configurations impact their perceptions of ideal womanhood: for the followers of Islam, to not work outside of the home is given greater credence than for Hindu and Christian women. Clearly, redefinitions of one configuration by another have an effect on the everyday lives of women: in the above example, the practice of working outside the home is regulated by the different interactions of gender and religious configurations. One may even go as far as to suggest that there is a feedback effect between these configurations and the practices, discourses, institutions that produce them. When feminists intervene, in the strong sense of the term, into the horizon of possible meanings, their negotiations change existing oppressive practices, discourses, and institutions.20 The two senses of intervention therefore articulate together. Amos and Parmar (1984) provide us with an interesting example of such articulation. They argue that the advent of Take Back the Night marches through London’s inner city should be read as white feminist interventions from which black women were



excluded; the marches are aimed at black men, who are pathologized as sexually threatening in the British imagination, and they fall in with the traditions of protecting white womanhood. Their analysis show the relationality of configurations, relationships that refine our reading of feminist interventions. The essays included in this volume aim at theorizing intervention in different ways. For instance, Belinda Edmondson presents an analysis of the intersections o f revolutionary action, gender, and racial identity in contemporary Caribbean postcolonial political formations. She situates her work as a part of the critical practices of reading about black Caribbean women and reinstating their histories; she thus sees her contribution as an intervention into the cultural and critical discourses that produce the invisibility of black women in the Caribbean. Maribel Ortiz-Marquez effects a double critique of feminist theory and theories of ethnicity: she challenges feminist theory’s inadequate attention to historically specific forms of gender identity, even as she criticizes theorists of ethnicity for treating gender as an analytic category separate from “ethnic” configurations. While Edmondson and Ortiz-Marquez position their textual readings as interventions into current critical practices, other essayists undertake a more descriptive project—the charting of feminist interventions, in particular, historical and geopolitical contexts. Melissa Lockhart uses intervention in its sense of political struggle in her discussion of women’s challenges to Argentina’s military dictatorship (between 1976 and 1983) with its exaggerated manifestations of patriarchal ideology. She shows how two women’s texts, Griselda Gambaro’s Ganarse la Muerte and Reina Roffe’s Monte de Venus—both of which were banned in this Procesco period— challenge patriarchal sexual control o f female desire by voicing women’s eroticism as an act of resistance. Susan Koshy examines the Sara Suleri’s novel, Meatless Days, in which the transnational^ located protagonist reimagines her relationship to postcolonial Pakistan. Koshy argues that Suleri, whose father was a well-known Pakistani nationalist, resists her father’s masculinist rhetorics of nation— and his relegation of Suleri to a peripheral immigrant zone—by remembering/renarrating her mother’s story o f cultural migrancy, its secret logics and indeterminate significations of national identity. When one is subjected to multiple oppressions, the choice between different configurations and the decision to intervene become more pitched: in the Amos and Parmar example, black women could act either under the configuration of “women” or as “people of color.” Women, then, engage in feminist acts only on certain occasions. This act of choosing one subject position among the multiple sites available to a subject has been elaborated in theories o f positionality by feminists such as Denise Riley (1988): Riley insists that we are not always



conscious of gender in our daily lives, but that we choose to “march” under the “banner” of gender at particular points in time, bell hooks argues for a multinodal identity in which marginal positions can be used as spaces of critique, revision and reinvention.21 The idea of configuring an identity, a contextual subject position, emphasizes the process of intervention as a dynamic one since all configurations are, in the last instance, historical. Here we return to the question o f specificity: that is, both the historicization of gender configurations and interventions and the geopolitical location of these acts. But how to effectively historicize? What kinds of lenses do we use to narrativize historical contexts and geopolitical locations?

THE HISTORICAL AXIS: MACROPOLITICAL FORMATIONS AND FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS A perusal of the relationships between gendered interventions, and the possibility of effecting comparisons, is a crucial aim within transnational feminist dialogues. Therefore, we further narrowed our selection of gendered intervention by selecting a set of macropolitical formations pertinent to the analyses of Third World contexts. We focus on particular macropolitical formations (examined at specific historical conjunctures) that hegemonically determine, and sometimes overdetermine, configurations such as race, class, gender, and sexual preference. By macropolitical we mean “state-related” (“state-sanctioned”) formations which are nevertheless not equivalent to the practices of the nation-state. Nationalist struggles, for example, aspire to capturing state power but often overlap the boundaries of state-bound dominant or oppositional practices. Partha Chatterjee*s (1990 ) excellent analysis of nation formation, outside of colonial hegemonic practices in nineteenth century India, provides a good example o f this: Chatterjee examines the nationalist imagination in a domain where the nation already thought itself as free.22 Other such macropolitical formations include fundamentalist groups that target state power—as in many Islamic countries—but do not constitute state practices.23 Thus, rather than use the term “state formations,” we prefer “macropolitical formations.” As feminists we have a stake in analyzing macropolitical formations that consciously attempt to regulate women’s lives in different historical contexts.24 To explain through example: the historical moment of the Sandinista revolution created a certain hegemonic revolutionary formation that defined the dominant discourses, practices, and institutions of the Nicaraguan milieu; these, in turn, produced specific configurations of gender, race, class, and so forth. This is not to say that all possible configurations are subsumed under this dominant



rubric. Gramsci’s reading of hegemony, and hegemony as it has been theorized in current postcolonial theory, teaches us that oppositional discourses and practices (and sometimes, even institutions) are also a part of this historical moment. Feminism often poses itself as an oppositional discourse and practice. In this volume, Pilar Moyano, presents such a reading of Nicaraguan feminist literary discourse during and after the Sandinista revolution. She analyzes the feminist explosion that came into being with the Sandinista revolution as a struggle that allowed women to plunge into the male realms of war, revolution, and nationhood; such a feminist practice both participated in and refigured revolutionary agendas. Part of the women’s revolution was a cultural re-envisioning of Nicaraguan women: Moyano locates the poetry of Gioconda Belli, one of Nicaragua’s best-known poets, as an act of resistance in its rewriting o f gendered meanings produced by such male poets of the South American tradition as Pablo Neruda and Rubén Darío. Locating configurations under contextual macropolitical formations restores the specific circumstances that constitute women’s experiences and struggles. The study of such macropolitical formations is not new. Some of these studies look at general formations that exist over centuries: for example, Ortner and Whitehead’s (1981) seminal reading of kinship structures in the construction o f “sexual meanings.” Others are insights into historical formations: for example, Yuval-Davis and Anthias (1989) examine the ways in which the nation-state and civil society structure “woman” and “nation” as sites of meaning; Stolen and Vaa (1991) focus on contemporary market structures and economic change.25 We chose essays that focused on those macropolitical formations that have recurred in, or are most pertinent to, postcolonial and Third World geopolitical contexts: nationalist struggles are a major focus, since nationalism has often been used as a weapon against colonialism; communist/socialist revolutions are another focus, as such revolutions in the Third World have usually been against the neocolonial/colonial elite. Religious ideologies and practices too— particularly in Islamic states—have a decolonizing anti-imperial agenda and often seek to demarcate the Third World from the First World; military dictatorships and rightist authoritarian regimes as extreme reenactments of colonial/neocolonial systems, provide a fourth locus of enquiry. These macropolitical formations are transnational in that they reference and target political formations that transcend the boundaries of particular nation-states: for instance, we think of forms of anticolonial nationalism (such as the Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose’s alliance with the Nazis and against the British colonial government) or Islamic fundamentalist organizations banding together in particular anti-West articulations (as in the Rushdie case).26 The contributors variously analyze these



macropolitical formations, each elaborating on her distinctive theoretical frameworks and methodologies. As transnational feminists they open up a heterogenous space for charting such global macropolitical formations and alliances. This is not to suggest that revolutions, nationalist movements, religious doctrines or authoritarian regimes can fully account for the multiple sites of power in which women find themselves, nor do we mean to simplify the equation to binary oppressor/oppressed formulations. These macropolitical formations are merely regulatory structures that dominate the practices, discourses, and institutions of a culture at a given historical conjuncture; thus they also produce sites of resistance and opposition within that horizon of possible meanings. Several of our contributors look at the ways in which the practices, discourses, and institutions (officially and unofficially) regulated by these macropolitical formations are negotiated by feminists. Willey, for instance, analyzes Ama Ata Aidoo’s feminist renegotiation of Kwame Nkrumah’s project of nation building. Through her works, Aidoo, who perceives herself as a part of Ghana’s feminist movement, shows that gender affiliations muddy any clear allegiances to national schemas. Nupur Chaudhuri undertakes a similar project in her examination of the writings of two early twentieth-century Indian feminists— Sita Devi and Santa Devi. Chaudhuri starts on the other side: she analyzes the ways in which Hindu nationalism and its liberal reformist (male) rhetorics redefined the feminist concerns of these two women writers. One may argue that we still privilege nation-state boundaries in our selection of essays. We do this primarily because all the macropolitical formations discussed use the executive power and organization of the nation-state. Of course, there are exceptions: for instance, Bose’s analysis of immigrant interventions privileges national imagined communities above the nation-state; Ortiz-Mârquez deals exclusively with the immigrant genre [Third World niches in the First World], by choosing texts that look at gender in the context of immigration from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba; other essays that deal with the transnational nature of gendered interventions also challenge the limitations of nation-state borders. One other governing principle behind our choice of essays: a geographic representation of the Third World. By this term we mean Latin America, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean (alternately, referred to as the “underdeveloped” south in major global demarcations). Following Mohanty’s definition about patterns of migration and immigration leading to the creation of Third Worlds inside the boundaries of the First World, we include representations of immigrant Third World communities living in the



First World. While most of the essays address specific gender experiences and struggles under different macropolitical formations, the second group intervenes to problematize speaking across First World/Third World divides.

TH E INTERVENING DISCOURSE: FEM INIST PRACTICES AND TRANSNATIONAL CIRCUITS Mohanty (1991) set an agenda for feminism from the ground of postcolonial theory when she asserted: Any discussion of the intellectual and political construction of “Third World feminisms” must address itself to two simultaneous projects: the internal critique of hegemonic “Western” feminisms, and the formulation of autonomous, geographically, historically, and culturally grounded feminist concerns and strategies. The first project is one of deconstructing and dismantling; the second, one of building and constructing. While these projects appear to be contradictory, the one working negatively and the other positively, unless these two tasks are addressed simultaneously, “Third World” feminisms run the risk of marginalization and ghettoization from both mainstream (right and left) and Western feminist discourses. (51) This volume was inspired by her desire to destroy the ghettoization of Third World feminisms. It is committed to reconfiguring the existing horizon of possible meanings for transnational feminist theory and practice.27 Two critical junctures provide starting points for entering such a transnational dynamic: (1) The realization that feminisms are effects of global practices, discourses, and institutions, and so they are implicated in the geopolitical power imbalances. When Western feminist models are privileged, feminists from the Third World must critique this structural advantage; (2) this critique will ideally reorder the feminist horizon of possible meanings, since feminism’s commitment to egalitarianism requires structural privileges to be reexamined and power imbalances constantly renegotiated. How have these critiques been effected? Certainly, they cannot be captured in a few lines. Suffice to say, there has been an ongoing dialogue between Third and First World feminists for the last ten to twelve years. Western perceptions of Third World women that construct them as backward, ignorant, oppressed, and often illiterate have been challenged on many counts. For instance, a polemic repudiation of Western feminists comes from Amos and Parmar (1984): “Feminist



theories which examine our cultural practices as ‘feudal residues’ or label us ‘traditional,’ also portray us as politically immature women who need to be versed and schooled in the ethos of Western feminism. They need to be continually challenged, exposed for their racism and denied any legitimacy as authentic feminists” (7). Amos and Parmar provide examples of the stereotypes produced by the West, such as the “passive Asian woman” needing to be liberated from her role in the family or the “strong-dominant Afro-Caribbean woman” exploited by sexism, despite her “strength” (9). Textual strategies deployed in literature have been criticized by postcolonial feminist cultural theorists: Spivak (1985) examines the self-consolidating identity of Western feminist discourse (as in Jane Eyre) that produces the “native woman”; Trinh (1989) depicts the fragmented speech of as “woman, native, other”; Donaldson (1992) analyzes the “Miranda Complex” and the “invisible” Caribbean woman in the Prospero-Caliban nexus of discourses.28 Essays in this volume— for example, the essays by Edmondson, Koshy, Ortiz-Marquez, and Hernandez—add to the question of aesthetics and textual strategies. Western feminists have often discounted the struggles of Third World women when these struggles have not met Western normative standards. In this volume, Amal Amireh gives a focused analysis of the Western feminist production o f the “Arab woman,” by criticizing the work of four feminists—Evelyne Accad, Wedad Zenie-Ziegler, Nayra Atiya and Margot Badran. Badran, for instance, collects “harem stories” to satisfy the Western hunger for infiltrating the inner, cloistered space in another world; such a gesture, Amireh argues, “tells us more about the domination and exploitation of women by other women,” than anything about the “Arab women reportedly at their center.” The spill-over of the Western dismissal of Third World women’s struggle—particularly in cases where women from the Third World privilege problems of race, poverty, unemployment over issues of sexual liberation— has sometimes led to a suspicion and a distrust of the word “feminism” on the part of Third World feminists (Davis, 1987). For instance, in many parts of the Third World, the term “womanism” is often substituted for “feminism.” In view of these fractured relationships between Third and First World feminists, this collection of essays attempts to continue transnational dialogues among feminists about feminist practices. All of the essays in the second set are preoccupied with the problematics of representing Third World texts for the consumption in the First World. Some of these—the Amireh essay being a case in point—critique feminist strategies. Others attack genres: Jennifer Hernandez analyzes the genre of the “testimonial,” theorizing the implicit distance between the subaltern “testifier” and the scribe (the First World feminist writer imbricated in the world of the academy,



production and distribution). Both testifiers, Rigoberta Menchu (of Guatemala) and the Bolivian mestiza, Domitila Barrios de Chunagara, “collaborate” with upper-class scribes. Hernandez argues that the scribes deauthorize the testifier while bringing her into being; the “seduction of the genre” creates the illusion of the scribe as transparent mediator, while in reality the scribe regulates the testimonial through grammatical revisions, chronological schematization, and even reinterpretations of silences and secrets. Another contributor, Gwendolyn Foster, extends a sympathetic look at the problems facing the filmmaker who “speaks for” and represents Third World women; she analyzes the sites for speaking used by filmmakers such as Trinh T. Minh-ha, Laleen Jayamanne, Ana Carolina, and Ann Hui as well as their acts of resistance within Western interview formats. Ghosh outlines the political climates for specific feminist cultural productions from Bangladesh and India and then problematizes the way in which these political climates are read in the West. Focusing on the case of Taslima Nasreen, she draws our attention to the implications of, and Third World rebuttals to, the Western journalistic portrayal of Nasreen as a victim. The essays in this section deploy a range of critical methods, the heterogeneity of theoretical apparatuses creating space enough for the “mobile and tensive relationships” of feminism.29 Remembering deLauretis’ caution that feminism is constant process, we hope that this second section acts as a strong intervention into hegemonic feminist discourses that produce simplified myths about Third World women and patronizing analyses of their feminist practices. PERM EABLE SPACES: ANTHOLOGIZING GENDERED INTERVENTIONS Feminist endeavors are often cultural engagements that are grounded in the real praxis. Cultural products, such as novels and films, become significant modes of “remembering and recording experience and struggles” (Mohanty 1991, 33); they become socially symbolic acts that renegotiate meanings. The representational struggles of women filmmakers and writers are the focus of this collection. Using intervention in both the senses explicated above, most of the contributors to this volume present analyses of the ways in which these writers and filmmakers negotiate macropolitical formations through their texts: for instance, Koshy reads Sara Suleri’s novel about her mother, Meatless Days, as an intervention into Pakistani masculinist national imaginings; Willey uses Ama Ata Aidoo’s novels, Our Sister Killjoy and Changes, as the texts that embody Aidoo’s feminist intervention into Nkrumah’s nationalist rhetorics. Like Aidoo, most of the writers and filmmakers under discussion here fashion themselves as feminists. And like



Suleri, many of them are—as are the essayists who write about them—cultural migrants and transnational home seekers/makers. Any focus on cultural production begs the question of representation in its two senses: political (who speaks for whom) and aesthetic (what images, strategies, genres, etc. are used). Cultural production, after all, is marked by class, race and ethnic positions. Many of the writers and filmmakers discussed use their “voice” as representative of a female collectivity on whose behalf they wage their feminist wars; others are less self-reflexive about their positions as speaking subjects. Still others embark on accounts of personal experiences, albeit disguised in stories, forge new aesthetic strategies and/or engage in acts of self-representation. The slippage between personal “voice” or “authenticity” of experience and “voicing” the experience of “others” by becoming the representative collective subject makes the issue of “who can speak for whom“ a crucial one for this anthology. Thus we included the second set of essays which address the practices, such as the gathering of this volume of essays, of reading/listening to/speaking about the Third World. This volume then constructs representations of Third World women and their gendered interventions and then deconstructs some of the premises that enable such representations. In this organizational schema, we acknowledge the dangerous nature of such a collection in its act of consolidating, classifying, or speaking for women who live in the Third World—the problematic relation of bearing witness for the consumption in primarily academic and cultural markets, but we also believe that these records are extremely necessary and significant particularly when we pay attention to the way in which they are recorded, disseminated, and discussed.30 As Mohanty asserts: “Thus, the existence o f Third World women’s narratives in itself is not evidence of decentering hegemonic histories and subjectivities. It is the way in which they are read, understood, and located institutionally which is of paramount importance” (34). The anthology is organized into two broad sections. The first is “the intervening configuration”: gender as it redefines other configurations of identity and creates the conditions for feminist struggles. This part includes the essays by Willey, Chaudhuri, Koshy, Edmondson, Lockhart, Bose, and Moyano discussed above. The contributors cover four macropolitical formations—nationalism, revolution, Islamic political formations, and authoritarianism—in the historical contexts of South Asia (India and Pakistan), Latin America (Nicaragua and Argentina), the Caribbean, Africa (Ghana), and the immigrant communities in the United States and the United Kingdom. The essayists use the notion of intervention in both its senses, striving to construct a historically specific representation of the Third World. The second section is “the intervening



discourse”: critiques of the First and Third World feminist analyses of Third World women and their texts. The essays by Hernandez, Foster, Amireh, Ghosh, and Ortiz-Marquez comprise this section and cover South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh), Latin America (Bolivia, Guatemala, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic), the Middle East and North Africa (Egypt and Sudan), and Third World niches in the United States. These writers create a distance from the representations of the Third World women articulated in the first section. What have emerged as dominant (in number) are essays on South Asia and Latin America, a comparison not too easily available in current anthologies; South Asian experiences are more often compared to experiences in East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. And of course, the anthology, like many of its kind, suffers from the fact that the contributors often have restricted access to the texts they can analyze because of limited distribution of cultural texts, quick and popular exoticizations of available texts, lack of access to historical material, and other problems of that measure. Even so, there is some consistency in our choice of macropolitical formations pertinent to Third World geopolitical contexts, and an attempted geographic representation. But even more binding are the theoretical links, arguments, and articulations between the essays. For instance, Willey, Lockhart and Ghosh, argue that gender creates a marginal place from which the subject enacts a feminist intervention; they theorize feminist practice as an oppositional one. Moyano, on the other hand, reads Nicaraguan women’s revolutionary struggles as generated and sustained by the Sandinista revolution as the hegemonic macropolitical formation. Read against each other, each theoretical framework reworks the other. At another level, comparisons can be made between similar macropolitical formations in different geopolitical contexts if one were to read, for example, Edmondson’s analysis of the “possible” Caribbean revolution against Moyano’s representation of the historical Sandinista revolution, or if one were to read Nupur Chaudhuri’s examination of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indian nationalism against the m id- and late twentieth-century Indian and Bangladeshi nationalism in Ghosh and Koshy’s study and the postcolonial African nationalism depicted in Willey’s work. At a third level, one could read similar configurations against each other: for example, sexual orientation as it is discussed by Edmondson, Bose, and Lockhart; religious configurations as represented by Amireh and Ghosh; race as it is analyzed by Willey and Edmondson; the cultural migrant as theorized by Koshy and Ortiz-Marquez. The Amireh-Ghosh and Koshy-Ortiz-M arquez comparisons imply that one’s reading practice could proceed in a nonlinear fashion across the two demarcated sections. For instance:



Bose’s analysis of Third World filmmakers can be read in context of Foster’s critique of the ways in which we “listen” to these filmmakers. In other words, we suggest that readers create their own reading practices that avoid linear readings; several different reading strategies can create an unstable terrain where it is impossible to reproduce “Third World women” and “Third World feminism” as monolithic categories. This is highly permeable terrain. In this shifting ground readers can negotiate their own meanings and fashion their own positions within transnational feminist discourse. By accessing some of these dialectics of transnational feminist practice, we have attempted here to further the possibilities for dialogues between feminists situated in very different locations and contexts across the globe.




1. Gloria Anzaldua, ed., M a k in g F ace, M a k in g Soul: C re a tiv e a n d C ritic a l P e rs p e c tiv e s (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation Books, 1990) xv.

b y W omen o f C o lo r

2. Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Talapade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, eds., Third W orld W omen a n d th e P o litic s o f F em inism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991), 51-80. 3. See, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s “Introduction: Transnational Feminist Practices and Questions of Postmodemity,” in Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., S ca ttere d H egem onies: P ostm odern ity a n d Transnational F em inist P ractices (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994) 1-33. 4. Several recent anthologies have carved out a space for projects such as this one. See especially, Mohanty et al., ed. (1991); Laura Donaldson’s D e c o lo n izin g F em in ism s: R ace, G en der & E m p ire -B u ild in g (Chapel Hill: Uof North Carolina P, 1992); Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds. (1994). 5. The reduction of the Third World to a monolithic category, referred to here in context of “imperial” feminisms, is a problemaddressed by postcolonial theorists in general: see especially Aijaz Ahmad’s criticism of Jameson’s reduction-through-allegory (Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in an Era of Multinational Capitalism,” S o c ia l Text 15, Fall 1985) inAijaz Ahmad, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the National Allegory,” S o c ia l Text 17 (Fall 1987): 3-25. 6. For a critique of the concepts “postcolonial” and the “Third World,” see Ella Shohat, “Notes on the Post-Colonial,” S o cia l Text 31/32 (1992); the “Editors’ Comments,” P u b lic C u ltu re 1.1 (Fall 1988); Aijun Appadurai argues for the idea of “transnational cultural flows” in“Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” P ublic C ulture 2.2 (Spring 1990); Janet Wolff’s criticism of world system demarcations as represented in Immanuel Wallerstein’s work, “The Global and the Specific: Reconciling Conflicting Theories ofCulture,” Anthony D. King, ed., Culture, G lobalization, a n d the W orld-S ystem (London: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1991), 161-73. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, in their introduction to U nthinking E u rocen trism : M u lticu ltu ra lism a n d th e M e d ia (New York: Routledge, 1994), make an excellent point: they problematize a Eurocentric cultural/geographic/historical view of the world—the vestigial epistemological remains after the formal endofcolonialisms—not to “Europe-bash,” as they put it, but to r e la tiv iz e Europe and engender a p o ly c e n tr ic perspective. We embark on a similar project in this anthology by perceiving it as both a restorative and a corrective project. 7. Theorists of locational politics specificallycritique the hegemony of national boundaries in delineating sites of power: Stuart Hall, “The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,” King, ed.(1991); Michelle Wallace, “The Politics of Cinema/ Theory/ XXXIV


Literature/ Ethnicity/ Sexuality/Me,” F ram ew ork 36 (1988): 42-55; Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” Blood, Bread, a n d P o etry: S elected P ro se 1 9 7 9 -1 9 8 5 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), 210-32; Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani, “Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ‘Postcoloniality,’ and the Politics of Location,” C ultural S tu dies 1 (Spring 1993): 292-310; Elspeth Probyn, “Travels inthe Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local,” Linda Nicholson andNancy Fraser, eds., Fem inism /Postm odernism (NewYork: Routledge, 1990); Caren Kaplan, “The Politics of Location as Transnational Feminist Practice,” Grewal and Kaplan, eds. (1994), 137-152. 8. Following deLauretis’ idea of praxis, in “Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms and Concepts,” Teresa deLauretis, ed., F em in ist Studies, C ritic a l S tu dies (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986), that the last referent is the real world and not an abyss of non-meaning, we stress the fact that beyond the realm of significations, there are political, economic, social, and cultural imbalances of power between different parts of the world. But these very real geopolitics are figured into an epistemological category—the “Third World”—with all the implications of a less “developed” realmof poverty, lack of proper government, and a “poorer” quality of life, in comparison to normative Western standards. Because actual geopolitical areas are narrativized in this manner and because they become an imaginative terrain for the West to consolidate its political identity, we emphasize the idea of an ideological effect. For further discussion of the use of the term “Third World” to reference a real “overexploited” geopolitical entity (countries, regions, continents), see Cheryl Johnson Odim’s “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism,” in Mohanty et al., eds. (1991) 314-27. 9. Louise Bemikow, “Political Matricide: Feminism’s Second Wave, Third Wave, and the Amnesia Problem.” Lecture delivered at the plenary session, “Generations,” The Sixteenth Annual National Women’s Studies Conference, Oklahoma, June 22,1995. 10. It is simply not possible to list all the challenges to white feminismfromthe ‘70s to the ‘90s, and we point to some representative attacks that have greatly influenced our own thinking: Moraga and Anzaldua (1981) on grounds of race, immigration, and economic underprivilege; Hazel Carby (1982) on black women’s status; Adrienne Rich (1980) on issues of lesbian sexuality; also scholars such as bell hooks, Gayatri Spivak, Ella Shohat, Esther Yau, Aihwa Ong and Rey Chow. Particularly engaging are essays such as Norma Alcarcon’s “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This B rid g e C a lle d M y B ack and Anglo-American Feminism,” Anzaldua, ed., M aking Face, M a kin g S o u l ; bell hooks’ A in 7 I W om an (Boston: South End Press, 1981); The Cohambee River Collective, “Black Feminist Statement, April 1977,” Z. Eisenstein, ed., C a p ita list P a tria rc h y a n d th e C a se f o r S o c ia list F em inism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979); Aida Hurtado’s “Relating to Privilege: Seduction and Rejection inthe Subordination of White Women and Women of Color,” S ign s 14, no. 4: 833-55; Madhu Kishwar and R. Vanita, eds., In S e a rc h o f A n sw ers: Indian W om en's V oices fro m Manushi (London: Zed Press, 1984); Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” F em in ist R e v ie w 17 (Autumn 1984), 3-19; Katie King’s “Producing Sex, Theory and Culture: Gay/Straight ReMappings inContemporary Feminism,” M. Hirsch and E. Fox-Keller, eds., C on flicts in INTRODUCTION


F em inism

(NewYork: Methuen, 1990).

11. For an analysis on the relationality of power sites, see Kobena Mercer, “Welcome to the Jungle: Identity and Diversity in Postmodern Politics,” Jonathan Rutherford, ed., Identity, Com m unity, Culture, D ifferen ce (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990). 12. Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, R a ce M atters: The S o cia l C on stru ction o f W hiteness (Minneapolis: Uof Minnesota P, 1993); see also, Elizabeth Spelman, In esse n tia l W oman: P ro b le m s o f E xclusion in F em in ist T heory (Boston: Beacon P, 1989). 13. See, for instance, Denise Riley historicizes the use of gender in everyday life, in “Am (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988); Sue Fisher and Kathy Davis explicate micropractices of power, in “Power and the Female Subject,” Fisher and Davis, eds., N e g o tia tin g a t the M a rg in s: th e G e n d e r e d D isc o u rse s o f P o w e r a n d R e sista n ce (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993); Nancy Fraser on the “politics of everyday life” in U nruly P ra c tic e s: P ow er, D isc o u rse a n d G e n d e r in C o n tem p o ra ry S o c ia l T heory (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989); Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson, “Social Criticismwithout Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism,” Nicholson, ed., F em in ism /P ostm odern ism \ Jane Flax, “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory,” Nicholson, ed., F em inism /P ostm odernism \ Susan Rubin Suleiman, Subversive Intent: Gender, P o litics, a n d th e A v a n t-G a r d e (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990). 1 That N am e? ”: F em inism a n d th e C a te g o ry o f ‘W o m a n ” in H isto ry

14. See: “Women are Slaves,” A m rita B a za a r P a trik a , June 22, 1994, and excerpts from aninterviewwithNasreen, inJu gan tor , May 22,1994. Both theA m rita B azaar P atrika and Ju gan tor are Calcutta-based dailies that featured articles on and interviews with Taslima Nasreen when she visited Calcutta in May 1994. 15. A crucial critique of the notion of global feminisms appears in Chandra Mohanty’s “Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience,” C o p y rig h t 1 (Fall 1987): 30-44; for other seminal critiques see Gayatri Spivak’s essays inIn O th er W orlds: E ssa ys in C ultural P o litic s (NewYork: Methuen, 1987). Some other essays of interest are Amos and Parmar (1984); Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias, “Contextualizing feminism: Gender, Ethnic and Class divisions,” F em in ist R e v ie w 15 (November 1983: 62-75; Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh, “Ethnocentrism and Socialist-Feminist Theory,” F em in ist R e v ie w 20 (June 1985): 23-47; Laura Donaldson (1992); Marina Lazreg’s “Feminismand Difference,” Fem inist S tudies 14.1 (1988); Rey Chow, “ ‘It’s You, and Not Me’: Domination and ‘Othering* in Theorizing the Third World,” reprinted Linda S. Kauffman, ed., A m erican Fem inist Thought at C entury ’s E nd: A R e a d e r (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993). 16. See Sara Suleri’s “Woman Skin-Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition,” 18 (Summer 1992): 756-69.

C r itic a l In q u iry

xxx VI


17. Grewal and Kaplan (1994) pursue this argument (18). See also, Kamala Viswewaran’s critique of ethnographic feminist practices in “Defining Feminist Ethnography,” In s c rip tio n s 3.4 (1988): 27-44; and Daphne Patai’s “U.S. Academic and Third-World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?,” Weisser and Fleisher, eds., F em in ist N igh tm ares: W om en a t O d d s : F em inism a n d th e P ro b le m s o f S iste rh o o d (New York: New York UP, 1994) 21-43. Joan Scott, on the other hand, demonstrates the usefulness of using gender as a category for analysis by historicizing different feminist takes on the concept, in “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” A m erica n H isto r ic a l R e v ie w 91.5 (1986): 1053-75. In a recent essay, Linda Nicholson draws our attention to gender as a recurring construct which nevertheless has culture-specific “genealogies”—histories that formulate “gender” differently from Western configurations, in “Interpreting Gender,” S ign s 20.1 (1994): 79-105. 18. We use the term “configuration” to emphasize the realmof signification; Mohanty (1991), for instance, uses the term“formation.” Both configuration and formation have the advantage of connoting a dynamic process that involves constant refigurations and transformations. But configuration implies an effect in the symbolic, while formation includes the practices, discourses, and institutions that produce meaning; thus we posit a particular configuration (e.g., “race” as ideological effect) to be a subset of the larger category “formation” (racial formation which includes macro and micro political/social/cultural structures). We also choose not to use the terms “determination” and “affiliation” since the first suggests passivity, and the second, complete agency. Configuration is closer to deLauretis’ theorization of the active/passive subject. 19. For a summary of howwomen’s movements have built on the concepts of experience and identity, see Elizabeth Wilson, H id d en A g e n d a s: Theory, P o litics, a n d E xpe rien ce in th e W o m e n ’s M o v em en t (London: Tavistock, 1986). 20. For us, women’s struggles for material goods, legislation, education, and health care and their struggles over cultural representation, racist/sexist/homophobic discourses and so forth, exist on a continuum; this reading refuses the classic sociological divide between a realmof discourse and a realmof structural formations. 21. bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as Space of Radical Openness,” F ram ew ork 36 (1989). 22. Partha Chatteijee’s “The Nationalist Resolution of the Woman Question,” Kumkum Sangari and SureshVaid, eds., R ecastin g Women: E ssays in C olon ial Indian H isto ry (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990). 23. An excellent account of the kinds of transnational alliances and relationships between what we have termed as macropolitical formations occurs in Grewal and Kaplan, “Introduction,” 23-5.



24. Here we refer to the fact that macropolitical formations such as nationalismoften use women as sites ofcultural production and forms of control over women’s lives emerge from such uses; all the macropolitical formations analyzed in this volume explicitly target women in one way or another. 25. Some notable examples: Sherry Ortner and Harriet Whitehead’s S exu al M ean in gs: The C u ltu ra l C on stru ction o f G en d er a n d S ex u a lity (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981); Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias, W o m e n -N a tio n -S ta te (NewYork: St. Martin’s P, 1989); Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism a n d N ationalism in the Third W orld (London: Zed Books, 1986); Bhabha, J. et al., eds., W orlds A p a rt: W omen u n d er Im m igration a n d N a tio n a lity L a w (London: Pluto P, 1985); Kristen Stolen and Mariken Vaa, G en d er a n d C h an ge in D e ve lo p in g C o u n tries (Oxford: Norwegian UP, 1991). Other context-specific studies are too numerous to catalog here. 26. While we focus here particularly on Islamic fundamentalisms, there is much work done on the spread of Christian fundamentalisms, as they impact women’s lives, in Latin America and elsewhere. Anotable example is Sara Diamond’s S p iritu a l W arfare (Boston: South End P, 1989). 27. Transnational dialogues, usually considered as part of transnational practices, have a slightly different reverberation inour introduction: by dialogues we are referring to the set of reflexive conversations about transnational feminist practices that have been undertaken in this anthology. 28. An immense amount of theoretical ground has been covered by postcolonial cultural feminist theorists, and so it would be virtually impossible to even point to notable examples. Gayatri Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Henry Louis Gates, ed., "Race, " W riting a n d D ifferen ce (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985), is worthy of mention for its inaugural character; Trinh T. Min-ha’s effort to create a subaltern textuality is an equally seminal effort, in Woman, N ative, O ther: W riting P o stc o lo n ia lity an d F em inism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989). For a critique of Spivak and Trinh, see Suleri (1992). The use of “minor” literary-critical categories—such as “ethnic literature”—is problematizedby Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, K afka: T o w a rd a M in o r L ite ra tu re , trans. and introduced by Dana Polan (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986). 29. Donaldson (1992), 2. 30. For an interesting take on transnational scholarship, see Lata Mani, “Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception,” In scrip tio n s 5 (1989).



In t

e r v e nt io ns


National Identities, Tradition, and Feminism The Novels of Ama Ata Aidoo Read in the Context of the Works of Kwame Nkrumah Elizabeth Willey

If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.1Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey Feminist and postcolonial theory are increasingly invoked in the same breath, forming critical alliances that are new and noteworthy. In reading literature coming from what are commonly referred to as “Third World” or postcolonial parts of the globe, feminism can be extremely insightful in illuminating the often complex and shifting terms that shape the search for identity and community. Feminism furthers postcolonial theory by revealing how much colonial and postcolonial theorizing of nationalism and national identity rests on gendered rhetoric which assumes women as the moral barometers of a nation rather than as active participants in the nation.

NATIONALISM, TRADITION, GENDER While many writers have explored the created, constructed, or imagined nature of national identities after colonialism, very little has been said about the possibility that women and men experience the colonial condition differently. Many historians agree that colonialism exacerbated the gender oppression that existed in some precolonial African societies. For example, girls were sent to school less often, and, consequently, men were more quickly incorporated into cash economies and elite structures. Yet these differences in the experiences of colonialism represented by gender were not often reflected in the struggle for

independence. With the coming of independence, the predominately male African nationalist leaders often reasserted their rights to rule themselves in terminology that focused on recapturing their manhood. Lloyd Brown (1981) points to Ama Ata Aidoo’s story “For Whom Things Did Not Change” as an example of this type of thinking about the nationalist struggle. This story, claims Brown, “dramatizes how sexual roles were disrupted by colonialism” (115). Brown traces how one of the characters, an African doctor who is the employer of the main character, Zirigu, reflects on the gendered implications of colonial and neocolonial relationships: ...this disruption has persisted after colonialism. As the doctor observes, Zirigu would not cook in the context of traditional culture, since that is a woman’s job, but outside that culture, it was proper for him to cook for whites. As the doctor muses to himself, a black man is a man when his wife cooks for him, and he willingly occupies a woman’s role when he cooks for whites. What then, the doctor wonders ironically, is a black man who cooks for other black men like himself? (115) In this description of Aidoo’s story, what is clearly at stake for Brown is masculinity.2 Chimalum Nwankwo offers a similar reading of this story in “The Feminist Impulse and Social Realism in Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy." Nwankwo points to “For Whom Things Did Not Change” as central to understanding Aidoo’s formulation of social problems in the neocolonial context. Nwankwo cites the “searing irony” of this passage as an example of the fact that: “Africans accept inferior social status as a result of colonialism. That acceptance is a dangerous social habit like female passivity which lingers despite independence” (153). As with Brown’s reading of this story, the quality of national independence is linked to the strength of the male gender role, with the feminine being evidence of weakness or incomplete decolonization. If colonialism is read as an emasculating enterprise, then independence becomes the search for masculinity, and the loss of tradition points to a feared loss of clearly defined gender identities. This description of the coming into being of national consciousness leaves little room for women to assume active roles in the new nation. In discussing how women are inserted into that nationalist struggle that is often coded as a reassertion of manhood, I do not mean to suggest that the struggle for independence was the same everywhere. As Chandra Mohanty warns us, this kind of gesture is equivalent to a “suppression— often violent— of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question” and leads to a “discursive colonization” (333). In this paper, I will attempt to take Mohanty’s warning to heart and explore the dynamics of women’s roles in the



nationalist enterprise with reference to one specific context—that of the role of women in Ghana during the struggle for independence and the establishment of a postcolonial nation-state. In doing so, I will look at general theories of the role of gender and the language of nationalism, then seek to show how the role of women was described in pre- and postindependence Ghana, and finally, I will discuss how one Ghanaian woman author, Ama Ata Aidoo, offers us her own critique of the role prescribed for women in the nationalist rhetoric that provides one context for the reception of her work. In an essay titled ‘Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions: At the Crossroads of Feminism and Postcolonialism,” Sally McWilliams argues for the usefulness of linking the postcolonial and feminist theoretical projects in order to describe new subject positions: “Women as historical subjects are complex interactions of not only sexual, but also racial, ethnic, class, cultural, and religious differences” (103). McWilliams goes on to say that considering these things together allows an author (or reader) “to open a space for the emergence of postcolonial subjects” (104). McWilliams’ statements suggest that Anthony Appiah’s theory that the “post” in postcolonial is essentially a “space-clearing gesture” needs to be expanded: adding feminism to the picture opens up a new kind of space that has remained covered over by much postcolonial theory itself.3 How necessary is it to claim a space specifically for women in the postcolonial setting? In looking at the history of women in the nationalist struggle in Ghana, we begin to see how certain gendered assumptions about the construction of a national identity relegate the role of women essentially (and I use the word advisedly) to secondary positions. In an article titled “The African Woman Today,” Ama Ata Aidoo argues that three basic factors influence the position of women in African society: “...indigenous social patterns; the conquest of the continent by Europe; and the apparent lack of vision or courage in the leadership of the postcolonial period” (1992, 321). She goes on to explain that by leadership she understands not only political leaders but “the entire spectrum of the intellectual, professional, and commercial elites” (321). In other places, Aidoo has given some suggestions as to how she sees this lack of vision manifesting itself. During an interview with Rosemary Marangoly George and Helen Scott that took place in 1991 at Brown University, Aidoo explained that the stories in the collection No Sweetness Here focus on the minutia of culture as an indicator of wider political tendencies. Aidoo says: These stories are part of the many discourses of culture in the postcolonial context, that are about what has been lost in the process of colonization and what is being lost in the process of “Westernization.” Clothes for example, are part of the minutia of culturization; they can symbolize



cultural loss and gain. Such things are pointedly illustrated in terms of women: women are the ones who wear the traditional clothes, the saris in India, the slits in Ghana. Women are expected to be African or Indian or Pakistani by the way we dress. Men talk about it whilst wearing their western suits. At a conference, elite men will stand up in three piece suits and talk about the need to be culturally authentic. We women have to wear the clothes, keep our hair. (302) What Aidoo points to in this passage, in stressing that women are supposed to be African, is the tendency for the discourse of cultural authenticity in the name of self-definition to make women the site of cultural reproduction rather than the site of cultural production. The quote from Kwegyir Aggrey that equates educating a woman with educating a nation is one example of how, in the name of promoting the role of women, nationalists in many countries, not the least of which was Ghana, tended to see women as the keepers and guarantors of cultural identity and not agents in the discourse that produced identity.4

HISTORY, TRADITION, AND NATIONAL IDENTITIES IN POSTCOLONIAL AFRICA The concern for tradition as an indicator of identity points to one of the main problematics of establishing national identities in the nation-state form imported from and imposed by Europe: how to write the narrative of the nation in the face of a historical record that has been wiped out or distorted by colonial powers. Throughout the colonial era, Africa was “asked” to forget itself. It and its people were denied a history or a culture. It was presented to itself as a tabula rasa, waiting to be written upon by the white man. This is one of the first stereotypes that nationalists responded to by stressing the antiquity and glory of Africa’s past civilizations. These ancient traditions were cited as a source of pride for the new nation. And yet, among western theorists, some form of forgetting of historical differences is widely accepted as a crucial part of forming a nation. Most theorists of nationalism make nods to the quote from Ernest Renan that Benedict Anderson finds so important for creating what Anderson calls “the imagined community5: “Yet the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things” (Renan, 11). However, the act of forgetting proves to be a paradox when applying commonly accepted theories of nationalism in Africa, where intellectuals and writers are constantly trying to reclaim aspects of their long-denied history in the name of self-determination. If forgetting some things is indeed necessary to foster the national community, in the African context, what to forget becomes a very problematic and ideologically 6


loaded question. The problem in trying to write a national culture into being in the colonial or postcolonial states more often involves remembering than forgetting because indigenous histories have been denied, distorted, or even destroyed. African politics then, in the search for nationalities, becomes more often a search for historical identities wherein forgetting is seen as a rejection or betrayal of the African past. NATIONALISM IN GHANA: THE THEORIES OF KWAME NKRUMAH Kwame Nkrumah and his flagship party, The Convention Peoples Party (CPP), dominated the discourse of the debates about national identity in Ghana. From its advent in 1948 until Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966, Nkrumah and the CPP were the leaders of what Aidoo referred to earlier as the “entire spectrum of the intellectual, professional and commercial elite in positions to make vital decisions on behalf of the entire community” (1992, 321). Aidoo, often, expresses her concern with the way that the African Personality is defined by “the elite” and put forward to the people of the nation-state. Like most theorists of nationalism in Africa, Nkrumah’s formulations of national identity begin with a desire to reclaim a history that has been denigrated through rehabilitating what he defines as a truly “African Personality” (the phrase which came to characterize his theories of identity).6 For Nkrumah, the reestablishment of the African Personality depends primarily on a réévaluation of history that places the European and even earlier Arab invasions of Africa in the context of an African view of history. Perhaps the most important legacy of the African heritage for Nkrumah was his belief that before contact with Europe, Africa was a single community. While Nkrumah does not push this claim nearly as far as other Ghanaian authors, it form an important basis for his conception of a future Africa when Pan-Africanism, an avatar of the best African traditions, should unite the continent into one political unity.7 Perhaps the most coherent rendering of Nkrumah’s ideas about the role of history in forming the new national community came in his address to the Parliament of 1956, when he petitioned formally for independence. In his “motion of destiny,” as he was to call it, Nkrumah outlined at length the reasons why he felt that the new country should be named Ghana, leaving behind the colonial name of the Gold Coast. In his autobiography, Nkrumah recounts in full this speech: In the early days of the Christian era, long before England had assumed any importance, long even before her people had united into a nation, our ancestors had attained a great empire.... It is said that lawyers and scholars were much respected in this empire and that the inhabitants of Ghana wore garments of wool, cotton, silk and velvet. There was trade in copper, gold,



and textile fabrics, and jewels and weapons of gold and silver were carried. Thus we may take pride in the name of Ghana, not out of romanticism, but as an inspiration for the future. It is right and proper that we should know about our past. For us as the future moves from the present so the present has emerged from the past. [...] What our ancestors achieved in the context of their contemporary society gives us confidence that we can create, out of that past, a glorious future, not in terms of war and military pomp, but in terms of social progress and peace. Mr. Speaker, in calling up our past, it is meet, on a historic occasion such as this, to pay tribute to those ancestors of ours who laid our national traditions... (197-8) Nkrumah goes on to stress that the history of Ghana is one of resistance and organization, based on the knowledge of “the necessity of unity and government” coming from “our traditions and experience” (198). Nkrumah, here, clearly lays out his philosophy that the past, in so far as it suggests the necessity of unity, the communal tradition, and the desire for peace, should be the guide for the new nation. However, Nkrumah’s strictly utilitarian or pragmatic view of how to make use of history and tradition leads him to make claims that may surprise a reader versed in the history of Africa. In this quote, Nkrumah claims the traditions of the empire 0/ Ghana as the traditions of the ancestors’ of the present day Ghana. The eleventh- and twelfth-century empire of Ghana covered parts of what are now Mali and Mauritania, not the west coast state now known as Ghana.8 In accordance with his understanding of Pan-Africanism, Nkrumah claims the cultural heritage of different parts of the continent in order to support the claims of his own country to a grand historical record. Tradition is used in this case precisely for its value as tradition, not necessarily because of its relation to a current, local context. As the Prime Minister and later President of Ghana, Nkrumah repeatedly emphasized the need to develop the traditions and culture of Africa that would best manifest the African Personality. In 1958, Nkrumah convened and addressed the first Conference of Independent African States, saying: There is a searching after Africa’s regeneration—politically, socially, and economically—within the milieu of a social system suited to the traditions, history, environment and communal pattern of African society. Notwithstanding the inroads made by western influences, this still remains to a large degree unchanged. In the vast rural areas of Africa, the people still hold land in common and work on it in cooperation. These are the 8


main features still predominating in African society and we cannot do better than to bend them to the requirements of a more modem socialistic pattern of society. (Hands O ff Africa, Vol. II, 162-3) This quote provides evidence of Nkrumah’s belief in not only the possibility but the necessity of integrating parts of African and parts of western society in order to develop a Ghana that was both true to its African Personality and a full participant in the modem economic system. Nkrumah’s formulation of the African Personality tends to rely on an unproblematic reconstruction of tradition that, as discussed above, can be detrimental to the expression of multiple experiences within any given culture, such as that of women. In African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, Paulin Hountondji argues that Nkrumah’s formulations of African identity, as found mainly in Nkrumah’s monograph Consciencism, depend on a willingness to overlook conflicts within cultures. In arguing that a traditional “African communalism” is the logical basis from which to build the new socialist African society, Nkrumah tends to describe cultures as having one overriding cultural philosophy.9 Hountondji points out that, in theorizing forms of social organization for both Africa’s past and Africa’s present, Nkrumah engages in a wide-scale homogenization of Africa’s experiences. Nkrumah claims that communalism characterized all African civilizations and, as such, is the perfect basis for a present-day continental African civilization that is both possible and necessary for the total independence of the continent from neocolonialism. Nkrumah describes the possibility of unified social ideologies when he writes: “Indeed it can be said that in every society there is to be found an ideology. In every society, there is at least one militant segment which is the dominant segment of that society. In communalistic societies, this segment corresponds with the whole” (1964, 57). In an effort to recapture that communalistic social ideology of Africa that was disrupted by colonialism, ideology will have to deal with the impact of that disruption. Nkrumah writes: African society has one segment which comprises the traditional way of life; it has a second segment which is filled by the presence of the Islamic tradition in Africa; it has a final segment which represents the infiltration of the Christian tradition and culture of Western Europe into Africa, using colonialism and neocolonialism as its primary vehicles. These different segments are characterized by competing ideologies. But since society implies a certain dynamic unity, there needs to emerge an ideology which, catering to the needs of all will take the place of competing ideologies, and so reflect the dynamic unity of society and be the guide to the society’s continual progress. (1964, 68) NATIONAL IDENTITIES


In this passage, Nkrumah asserts that traditional Africa, Islam, and Western Europe are all characterized by a unified ideology, and that their confluence and competition in a colonial or neocolonial Africa must give rise to a newly unified ideology of society. This unified stand is what he calls consciencism. He writes, “...consciencism is the map in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African Personality” (79). In his descriptions of these three societies as being characterized by one hegemonic ideology, Nkrumah creates what Hountondji calls a false pluralism—a picture of society that seeks to use other cultures while denying the pluralism within the indigenous culture itself or the culture of which it seeks to make use. What Hountondji points to that is relevant for the purposes of my argument is that this description of either the past or the possible African Personality relies on a sense that one ideology describes the experiences of every member of a society. There is no room left for the differing expressions of men’s and women’s experiences of any part of Africa’s “three segments”—tradition, Islam, or the influence of western Europe.

NATIONALISM IN GHANA: THE ROLE OF WOMEN The question remains of how women as historical agents in Ghana responded to these formulations of the African Personality as a basis for the Ghanaian nation. How much impact have the theories of African Personality and the policies of the CPP had on Ghanaian women? In an article titled “Women and Their Organizations During the Convention Peoples’ Party Period,” Takyiwah Manuh offers a comprehensive picture of the role of women in Ghana from 1948 to 1966. In this article, Manuh asserts that because colonialism exacerbated the relatively slight inequality of traditional gender roles, women had much more to gain from the nationalist movement then men: “...Victorian values which defined men as heads of households meant, for example, that while Ghanaian women were hardworking and engaged in the cultivation of food and cash crops, they received little recognition or remuneration, and were ignored in the provision of extension services” (104). This is not to say that Ghanaian women were horribly downtrodden or dependent before colonialism. Indeed, Aidoo argues that Ghanaian women have never fit the stereotypes of the quietly subservient African woman: “To a certain extent, African women are some sort of riddle. This is because, whether formally educated or not, ‘traditional’ or ‘modem’ they do not fit into the accepted notion of them as mute beasts of burden. And they are definitely not as free and equal as African men (especially some formally educated ones) would have us believe” (1992,322). In her introduction to Armah’s The Beautyful Ones 10


Are Not Yet Bom, Aidoo makes more specific claims about Ghanaian women, saying that they have always prized their independence. She writes, “in [Ghanaian] society, women themselves believe that only two types of their species suffer: the sterile, and the foolish. And by foolish they refer to the type o f woman who depends solely on her husband for subsistence.” 10 While the tradition of the financial independence of women has mitigated the worst of patriarchal rule, women were not privileged by Ghanaian society in many areas; where they were oppressed, colonialism exacerbated the inequalities by promoting men while neglecting women. Thus, says Manuh, women engaged wholeheartedly in the nationalist movement. Most histories of Nkrumah or Ghana make reference to the importance of women in the rise of nationalism in Ghana, but most refer specifically only to the “market women.” Basil Davidson, for example, in his well known history of Nkrumah, Black Star: A View o f the Life and Times o f Kwame Nkrumah, makes few direct references to the relationship between Nkrumah’s party and the women of Ghana. In one of the few places where he directly addresses the roles of women, Davidson writes: “The market women of Accra, among Nkrumah’s most powerful supporters in the capital, were not just a picturesque set of portly handsome ladies peddling wares in the street. They were key links in a chain of distribution handling goods to the value of thousands of pounds every month” (124). He goes on to claim that the market women’s main interest in the CPP was the promise of better markets with independence: “the interests of business were the driving interests in their nationalism” (124). Davidson portrays an uneasy alliance between an ideologically motivated CPP and a monetarily motivated group of business women. In his speeches, Nkrumah is hardly more specific about the role o f women in Ghana; instead, he refers to the tasks of nation building as the burden of all Ghanaians, men and women. While Nkrumah’s inclusiveness should be noted, not all of his rhetoric or actions support the idea of equality for women in the national struggle. Nkrumah’s words and actions as the leader of the CPP point to a certain uneasiness when trying to conceptualize women’s roles specifically outside of the universalized needs of Ghana or when faced with independently organized women. In a speech delivered to the national Congress on February 1, 1966, Nkrumah outlined the continuing development projects his government was engaged in. He says: The welfare of women continues to engage our special attention. Quite apart from several Mass Education Women’s Groups operating in our towns and villages we have established many Girls Vocational Training Centres throughout the country with the aim of catering for the training



and welfare of the future mothers of Ghana. Further, a crash programme designed especially for the women of the Northern and Upper Regions has been launched and we have already achieved commendable results with the women in these two Regions. (1973, 383) While Nkrumah does not specify here what these special “crash programmes” consist of, Manuh states that Nkrumah’s particular concern with women in Northern Ghana was the state of their dress. Manuh refers to the fact that Nkrumah was uncomfortable with the fact that many women in the Northern Territories went about in a state of semi-nudity. Despite mitigating circumstances, the CPP felt a need to “attempt to resolve” the situation: “While this state of affairs reflected environmental and cultural factors, it was seen as a manifestation of a state of underdevelopment. Nkrumah was concerned about it and instituted measures to deal with it including the provision of secondhand clothing for the purpose” (Manuh, 112). Nkrumah’s concerns over women’s dress reflecting poorly on the image of the nation give credence to Aidoo’s complaints that women are expected, through a display of the minutia of culture, to act as an index of cultural development or authenticity. In 1960, Nkrumah addressed the Inauguration of the National Council of Ghana Women in a speech that linked the development of African Womanhood to the African Personality.11 While assuring women that they should consider themselves the equals of men, Nkrumah went on to characterize women as “still the mothers of the nation, the beauty that graced the homes, and the gentleness that soothed the men’s tempers.”12The role in developing the African Personality described here is essentially a domestic one, certainly one that is secondary to men. In his autobiography, Nkrumah credits the women of the party for doing the most work in “bringing about the solidarity and the cohesion of the party” (89). He later affirms that, “[a] strong and reliable womanhood is a firm and worthy foundation for the building of any nation” (Manuh , 122). Nkrumah and the CPP described the female party members as the foundations, mothers, or forces of cohesion, rarely as planners, thinkers, or leaders. Ascribing to women the role of icon, beacon, or barometer of manhood, morality, and authenticity simultaneously silences women and elevates them out of the realm of the practical. In both Our Sister Killjoy and Changes, Aidoo engages and critiques this view of the role of women in developing a postcolonial Ghanaian identity.

AMA ATA AIDOO’S NOVELS AND THE HISTORIES AND THEORIES OF NATIONAL IDENTITY IN GHANA In his groundbreaking study of Ama Ata Aidoo, Vincent Odamtten (1994) provides a polylectical reading of Aidoo’s work. He defines polylectical criticism 12


as a mode of reading that “acknowledges the interdependencies, even as it recognizes the overdeterminate autonomies o f writer, text and social whole” (5). Aidoo’s explicit involvement in and commentary on the state of Ghana bears out the necessity for this type of criticism and an understanding of the background of, among other things, the history of nationalism and independence in Ghana. Her main characters, Sissie and Esi, claim the right to critique their male counterparts even while the men seek to circumscribe the roles that these women can play in a rapidly changing Ghana. Aidoo’s novels, Our Sister Killjoy (1977) and Changes (1991), show her continuing engagement in the question of how best to address the problems of establishing a national identity in Ghana. Throughout this process, Aidoo’s novels are in a constant dialogue with the legacy of Nkrumah, even as her stance towards Nkrumah becomes increasingly critical. Part of her critique is implicit in the fact that Aidoo raises overtly feminist concerns in a tradition that recognizes few feminine, let alone feminist, voices. While Aidoo makes the problems of women in a changing Ghana the focus of all her narratives, she is quick to point out that these women always exist as part of a society and their problems are the problems of the entire country.13 For the narrators of Aidoo’s two novels, the problem seems to be how to find a comfortable space for women in the postcolonial state of Ghana.

Our Sister Killjoy and the Uses of Tradition Our Sister Killjoy, first published in 1966, is a complex narrative that explores the interrelations between women, men, nation, and colonialism through the thoughts, actions, and words of the main character, Sissie. Sissie is a young, well-educated, Ghanaian woman who is sent by her government on an international youth work program to Germany, from where she heads to London to see a boyfriend and other Ghanaians living and working in the colonial center. Sissie spends most of the narrative struggling with the question of how to define a “life relevantly lived.” For Sissie, relevance involves a person’s obligations to self, country, and Africa in general. In defining these terms for herself and for the other immigrants around her, Sissie stresses the importance of an awareness of how history affects the formation of identity in all cases, but especially for the postcolonial African. In her efforts to construct a relevant African and Ghanaian identity, Sissie encounters many of the same problems as the leaders of the nationalist struggle in Ghana, and while her theories of identity and nationality often sound very much like those propounded by Nkrumah and the CPP, Sissie questions some of their conclusions. On a very explicit level, Sissie is worried about her identity through the act of naming. In much the same way that Nkrumah felt it appropriate to reject the colonial name of the Gold Coast and replace it with a name from the African NATIONAL IDENTITIES


tradition, Sissie names herself according to another African tradition. The first leg of her journey, narrated in the first two sections of the novel, takes place in a youth work-exchange program in Germany. While there, Sissie befriends a German housewife who asks her about her name. Sissie tells Marija: “My name is Sissie. But they used to call me Mary too. In school.” “Mary . . . M ary.. . Mary. Did you say in school zay call you Mary ?” “Yes.” “Like me?” “Yes.” “Vai?” “I come from a Christian family. It is the name they gave me when they baptized me. It is also good for school and work and being a lady.”[...] “Zo vas is zis name ‘Sissie’ ?” “Oh, it’s just a beautiful way they call sister by people who like you very much. Especially if there are not many girl babies in the of the very few ways where an original concept from our old ways has been given expression successfully in English.”(28) Sissie explains her name in terms of the African tradition it rose from, which is associated with the concepts of an extended family and a communal society. She is also quick to point out that this is one of the few concepts from “the old ways” that has been successfully incorporated into the English language or the modem world. Sissie is clearly declaring allegiance to a tradition that provides her with a valuable source of identity, though she almost regrets that it had to be translated into English. The practice of calling someone “sister,” then, becomes a sign of the presence of certain original ways of life in Sissie’s world that have survived despite the advent of colonialism. While Sissie celebrates tradition with her name, she is suspicious of other attempts to define her according to tradition. In trying to work out her relationship with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Sissie wonders about her habit of criticizing him and his friends for wanting to remain in London in light of the accusation that she is acting unfeminine. She writes in a letter: Maybe I regret that I could not shut up and meekly look up to you even when I knew that I disagreed with you. But you see no one had taught me such meekness. [...] Sometimes when they are hotly debating the virtues of the African female, I ask myself: “But who am I? Where did I come from?” My precious, as I told you some time ago, when I was chatting to you about 14


my background, the village is over two hundred and fifty miles from the coast. Both my mother and father had not been at school at all. So no one could accuse them of having got acculturated. They definitely had not been overseas and therefore were not westernised. And since none of them ever lived anywhere near a modern town, they could not possibly be urbanised. Given all of that, if they didn’t know how I should have been brought up as an African woman, then who does? No my darling: it seems as if so much of the softness and meekness that you and all the brothers are expecting of me and all the sisters is that which is really western. Some kind of hashed-up Victorian notions....

(117) There are many things going on in this long passage, not the least of which is Sissie’s concern over what it means to be a true African woman. In this sense, Aidoo’s character is thinking very much along the lines traced by Nkrumah when he discusses the formation of an African Personality. Sissie, like Nkrumah, seeks to find a source of identity that is original to Africa—one that is not “acculturated,” “westernised,” or “urbanised.” Her emphasis on the village life and its distance from anything having to do with Europe allows Sissie to represent herself as the voice of Africa that reinterprets the ideas inherited from the West and to question their applicability to Africa. In her letter, she acknowledges that her thinking may seem nostalgic but defends her ideas by saying: “Why should I be afraid of being sentimental? In any case the question is not just the past or the present, but which forces out of both the past and the present represent for us the most dynamic forces for the future” (116). In this way, Aidoo’s character acts out Nkrumah’s theory of consciencism: reevaluating the intrusions of Islam and the West in Africa, in terms of an African view of history with the ultimate goal of establishing the African Personality. Sissie clearly views the stereotype o f meek African women as just that— a stereotype created by a colonial culture and fostered by African men to reassure themselves or assuage their uneasiness about their own gender identities: Because as she watched the other woman standing there, now biting her lips, now gripping the handle of the baby’s pram and looking so generally disorganised, she, Sissie, wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh. Clearly, she was enjoying herself to see that woman hurt. It was nothing she had desired. Nor did it seem that she could control it, this inhuman sweet sensation to see another human being squirming. It hit her like a stone, the knowledge that there is pleasure in hurting. A strong, three-dimensional



pleasure, an exclusive masculine delight that is exhilarating beyond all measure. (76) In this friendship with Marija, Sissie explores the consequences of patriarchal subjugation of women in the exercise of power but also links this exercise of power to colonialism and the state. When she wonders about the “Lord and Sovereign” in the castle and how he may have abused the people under his rule, her description takes the form of a rape scenario in which the violence of power is taken out on the bodies of women but aimed at men. This reference should immediately bring to mind part of Aidoo’s Ghanaian context: the presence of several slave castles along the shores of Ghana. The slave castles of Ghana are infamous for their size and the numbers of slaves the Europeans gathered into dank, underground caverns to be shipped to the “new world.” Thus, the fact that the castles are a reminder to Sissie of horrific power over indigenous populations should come as no surprise. However, here, Aidoo links the rhetoric of nationalism in Ghana that posits colonization as an emasculation of the people with the exercise of power over women.14 The underpinnings of the colonial enterprise are uncomfortably linked with the very same nationalist rhetoric that seeks to overthrow it. While Sissie is concerned about the relations between the sexes, she is also concerned with the relations between the expatriate Ghanaians and their home country. Her anxiety about “acculturation” does not lead Sissie to reject everything that she or her fellow countrymen have learned through their educations either in Ghana or abroad. In fact, Sissie expresses the necessity of these “been-tos” to bring back those parts of Western culture that the Ghanaians abroad may have absorbed and put them to the service of Ghana. She discounts their arguments that they are teaching the West the value of the African. She implores the students in London to come home saying, “...instead of forever gathering together and virtuously spouting such beautiful radical analysis of the situation at home, we should simply hurry home” (121). She goes on to argue that these students should be proving themselves and their knowledge to the Ghanaian people: “So please come home, My Brother. Come to our people. They are the only ones who need to know how much we are worth. The rewards would not be very much. Once in a year some man of means will come to give you thanks, with a sheep. Or a goat” ( 130). In her call to import only the best from the West while rejecting other parts (such as the images of women), Sissie’s beliefs point to one of the dangers of Nkrumah’s thinking about the formation of a modem Ghana: the tendency to believe that knowledge can be garnered in discrete, value-neutral pieces. In Consciencism, Nkrumah does not question that a willful and conscientious 16


réévaluation of history can subsume the legacies of Islam and the West and subordinate them to a distinctly “African” view of history. The reactions of the students to Sissie’s pleas illustrate that this knowledge is not value neutral and how difficult it may be to incorporate the useful parts of western culture while leaving behind their undesirable aspects. The students in London whom Sissie berates all raise objections to returning to Ghana to practice medicine, claiming that if they return, they would not be able to practice at all. One doctor replies to Sissie: “What is there? Apart from stupid and corrupt civilian regimes and even more stupid and corrupt military regimes. And then there are one’s medical colleagues.... Now they seem to be so mediocre that the only pleasure they seem to get out life is frustrating younger people” (127). This man’s concept of practicing medicine becomes equivalent to his pursuit of “pure research” which, he says, “would swallow the annual budget of the Ministry of Health” (127). His concern with becoming the “absolute latest word on the human abdomen” seems ill-adapted to the realities of Ghana, where large portions of the population lack even basic health care. Ghana would be able to make no more of this doctor with his overly specialized skills than he would be able to make use of any goat offered in payment. Sissie’s efforts to change the worldview that these students have absorbed along with their education are ultimately fruitless. This failure is a bitter one for Sissie. She sees in these students a blindness to their obligations and the uses of history that is typical of the ruling classes of Ghana. While this text does indeed trace some of its own messages in the terms put forward by the leaders of the nationalist struggle in Ghana, the narrative voice does not have an uncomplicated relationship with the legacy of Ghana or Nkrumah. While Sissie shares many goals with Nkrumah’s nationalist program, she expresses a distrust of the rhetoric it uses. For example, when describing Sissie’s departure from Ghana, the narrative voice explains that Sissie would have to take a plane from Accra to Lagos and then switch airlines for the flight to Europe because, at the time, the Ghanaian government would not allow flights which had passed through South Africa to land in the Accra airport. This inconvenience based on the principle of helping the oppressed of South Africa is described as, “one more Nkrumah hallucination. The man was great” (10). When Sissie describes Ghana to Marija, she uses again the images of sight or vision and its failures, by saying: Ghana? Just a Tiny piece of beautiful territory in/ Africa—had Greatness thrust upon her Once.



But she had eyes that saw not— That was a long time ago... Now she picks up tiny bits of Undigested food from the Offal of the industrial world... O Ghana. (53) Ghana’s past greatness that Sissie alludes to here could be said to be due in large part to the fact Ghana was the first colony in Africa to win its independence. But even this source of fame is questioned by the narrative, when it refers to Ghana’s independence as the event that opened “a dance of masquerades called Independence for Africa” (95). The students’ inability to see the needs of the people, or the inability to see a viable path for the future, while being lost in hallucinations attributed to the leaders of Ghana all bear witness to Aidoo’s much-later claim that the leadership of the postcolonial leadership of Africa has suffered from an “apparent lack of vision” (1992, 321). Our Sister Killjoy, then, can be said to share some of the same underlying assumptions about the nature and possibility of developing an Africa Personality found in Nkrumah’s writings. Like Nkrumah, Sissie argues for the necessity of incorporating and subjugating parts of Western culture to serve the need of the African Personality. The African Personality is furthermore described as the only possible basis for a strong Ghana. However, Aidoo’s narrative does not have a simple relationship to the legacy of nationalism in Ghana. Sissie shows her suspicion of the rhetoric of masculinity that accompanies nationalist programs by reminding the reader that power in many contexts has been coded as masculine control over women and that this dynamic has not been challenged by nationalist thinking in Ghana. This point comes through most strongly when she links the images of the slave castles along Ghana’s coast with the feudal castle looming over the German countryside. That literally casts a shadow over her relationship with Marija. Sissie extends this thinking to her responses to her fellow Ghanaians who are all too willing to apply a misguided and self-serving version of tradition to their interpersonal relationships. Sissie questions this use of “tradition” by linking the exercise of patriarchal authority to the exercise of colonial authority.

Changes: T raditional Roles and Women in Postcolonial G hana Although Sissie and her narrative accept Nkrumah’s belief in the possibility of choosing from competing cultural systems only that which will aid Ghana, the narrator of Aidoo’s second novel, Changes, is much more critical of the possibility of cultural comparison shopping. Changes is the story of Esi Sekyi, a statistician 18


for the government who lives in Ghana with her husband and child. Like Sissie, Esi is looking for a “life relevantly lived” and encounters resistance mainly from the men in her environment. Esi spends most of her time trying to fit in and feel comfortable. She is patronized by her male colleagues at work, abused by her husband, misunderstood by her friends and family, made to feel guilty about her benign neglect of her daughter, and finally abandoned by her second husband. In most of these relationships, Esi confronts head-on societal expectations about the roles of women and transgresses them, often with unfortunate results for herself. And yet, to Esi, these losses are mitigated by the new-found opportunities provided by her career. Esi thus continues Sissie’s search for a significant role for women in a Ghana that seems all too willing to oppress women in the name of an outmoded or self-serving tradition defined by men. Through Esi, Aidoo examines how the processes of development more often than not impact women through a sort of double exclusion: their efforts to participate fully in the changing economic and social structures meet with resistance and paternalism, while these efforts also exclude them from full access to the realm of “tradition” defined by male leaders and older generations. The novel begins with Esi fighting with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Oko, who resents the time that Esi spends on her career rather than with him. The reader quickly learns how much Esi values her career and even how much she enjoys working. When faced with her husband’s accusation, Esi refuses to yield her freedom in terms of personal desires and the independence afforded her by her work. Oko is shown trying to work out his feelings about his wife during the fight that provokes their final separation. Oko thinks to himself: Esi definitely put her career above any duties she owed as a wife. She was a great cook who complained endlessly every time she had to enter the kitchen. [...] The bungalow came with her job as a data analyst with the government’s statistical bureau ... Good god, what on earth did that mean? He knew she was very much respected by her colleagues and other people who knew the work she did. So she should not really be trying so hard to impress: leaving the house virtually at dawn; returning home at dusk; often bringing work home? Then there were all those conferences. Geneva, Addis, Dakar one half of the year; Rome Lusaka, Lagos the other half. Is Esi too an African woman? She not only is, but there are plenty of them around these days...these days...these days. (8) Like Sissie, Esi’s position relative to men prompts questions about what it means to be an African woman; for both Esi and Oko the answer is clear, though they NATIONAL IDENTITIES


come up with very different answers. Oko demands that Esi scale back on her work, claiming that his friends are laughing at him because “[t]hey think I’m not acting like a man” (8). Esi, on the other hand, argues that it is not her responsibility to keep his friends happy. She refuses to authenticate Oko’s manhood by acting the role of the “traditional” wife. While what Oko has in mind as a traditional wife has more do to with colonial distortions of gender roles than Akan social systems, he is reaffirmed in his vision of gender roles by many of the people around him, most especially his family. After his divorce, Oko’s mother delivers to him “a breathing parcel in the form of a very beautiful and very young girl” (71). Oko cannot believe his luck, and, though the young woman compares in some ways unfavorably to Esi, he finds it easier to live with his new bride. Esi, on the other hand, has no such “traditional” second chance. In her efforts to negotiate the conflicts between her career and the expectations of the people around her, Esi withdraws to her mother’s house to get advice from her mother and grandmother. These two women are the voice of tradition for Esi: they tell stories; they use proverbs; they are the keepers of an ancestral wisdom that Esi thinks will help her solve her problems. However, the fact that neither Esi’s mother nor her grandmother had ever been to school impedes their communication with Esi. Esi’s education, she realizes, has removed her from her mother’s world in more ways than one. Esi describes her confusion as she listens to her mother and grandmother talking together in the next room: From the inner room Esi heard them and pain filled her chest. She could never be as close to her mother as her mother was to her grandmother. Never, never, never. And she knew why. Why had they sent her to school? What had they hoped to gain from it? What had they hoped she would gain from it? Who had designed the educational system that had produced her sort? What had that person or those people hoped to gain from it? For surely taking a ten-year-old child away from her mother and away from her first language—which is surely one of life’s most powerful working tools—for what would turn out to be forever, then transferring her into a boarding school for two years, to a higher boarding school for seven years, to an even higher boarding school for three or four years...with no hope of ever meaningfully re-entering her mother’s world...all this was too high a price to pay for the dangerous confusion she was now in and the country now was in. (114) Esi yearns to be close to her mother and grandmother but she knows that she will never be able to duplicate the relationship that they share. Esi’s listening in on the conversation from the next room is highly symbolic: she can still hear and



understand her mother, but she cannot or will not stand in her place. Where Sissie believed that she could take what she liked from her education and apply it without cultural baggage, never thinking that this education may have made her into something other than what her mother raised her to be, Esi acknowledges that she has been fundamentally changed by her education. While the distance from her mother is painful, Esi also undeniably benefits from the education she has received. After wondering whether this was all too high a price to pay, Esi decides to forge ahead. If she cannot replicate the bond between her mother and grandmother, she decides to at least “relax and flourish in their peace” (114). In this passage, Aidoo also links the personal confusion of a woman like Esi who cannot find a satisfactory role in society with the national character of Ghana. Read metaphorically, this passage suggests that traditional knowledge has at most an uneasy alliance with the Western knowledge disseminated by the schools. Social patterns of a basic nature such as education and marriage are shown through Esi’s situation to be complicated by the intersection of Western epistemologies and traditions, African epistemologies and traditions, and their meeting place in the Ghana that trains Esi to be a professional statistician and government worker while her husband expects her to be a “traditional wife.” The demands of “development” and “tradition” that are posited as both necessary for the character of the new nation pull Esi in two different directions. While Esi’s attitude towards education is more complex then Sissie’s, Changes displays a similarly complex understanding of the changing roles of marriage in a rapidly developing Ghana. These two issues, education and marriage, are often the flashpoints of the debate surrounding the roles of women and tradition. Aidoo makes a concerted effort in this novel to remove the debate about marital systems from the Manichean plane of polygamy versus monogamy, traditional versus modern. Instead, the reader finds a context in which the traditional African form of marriage is shown to be equally problematic as the traditional Western form of marriage. Neither of these forms of marriage works for Esi; both seem to be maladjusted to the realities of Esi’s life as a career woman who wants a family as well as a job. In order to address the growing complexities of women’s roles in a rapidly changing Ghana, Aidoo addresses the historical role of polygamy as well as the current need for the change in the attitude towards women’s roles on the part of all men, whether they be monogamous or polygamous. The answer for Esi lies not in claiming one form of marriage as more authentic than another but in reformulating an entire society’s attitude towards women and marriage in general. The debate between Esi and her mother gives a register as to the differences between “traditional” forms of marriage and the type of marriage that Esi envisions for herself. Esi’s mother and grandmother cannot understand why Esi NATIONAL IDENTITIES


wants to divorce Oko. To her mother, Oko is a fine man and Esi is “mad” to ask for a divorce, primarily because she thinks Esi will not find a more reasonable husband. When Esi tells her mother and grandmother of her impending divorce, their reaction is one of disbelief: “How could she tell them that she did not want Oko? Where was she going to get a man like him again?... As Esi got back into her car to drive back to Accra, almost as a farewell, her mother had called her a fool” (38-9). Her grandmother similarly accuses her of speaking nonsense and being unreasonable. Esi, on the other hand, has very clear reasons for wanting a divorce from Oko. Her first marriage ends, in her eyes, because her husband demands too much of her time and does not respect her career. Their last fight ends with Oko’s forcing himself on Esi. Profoundly disturbed, Esi cleans herself up, goes to her office, locks the door, and contemplates the events of the morning: She could not remember when last she had felt so clearly unwilling to face the world ...and then with a kind of shock, she realized that in spite of the second bath she had taken before leaving home, she was still not feeling fresh or clean. Clean? It all came to her then. That what she had gone through with Oko had been marital rape. Marital rape. Suddenly, she could see herself or some other woman sociologist presenting a paper on: “The Prevalence of Marital Rape in the Urban African Environment” to a packed audience of academics. [...] At the end of it, there is the predictable hostile outrage. Yes, we told you, didn’t we? What is burying us now are all these imported feminist ideas... And, dear lady colleague, how would you describe marital rape in African language Akan? Igbo? Yoruba? Wolof? Kikuyu? [...] Marital rape? No. The society could not possibly have an indigenous word or phrase for it. Sex is something a husband claims from his wife as his right. Any time. And at his convenience. (12) The narrative voice clearly condemns the actions of Oko and the prevailing attitude that would let him believe that his assault of Esi was surely a sign of his desire to “give the relationship a second chance” (12). Esi here may be risking acculturation by interpreting her world through the lens of a borrowed paradigm, but in this case, Aidoo sees that paradigm as an empowering one for Esi. Esi, in her more cynical moments, recognizes that if nothing else, the assault would provide a reason for the divorce in a court of law. After divorcing her husband, Esi agrees to become the second wife in a polygamous marriage with Ali Kondey, a man who already has one wife, named Fusena. Esi thinks that this arrangement will allow her both the satisfaction of human companionship and the time she needs to concentrate on her work. Esi convinces herself that being a second wife is an ideal form of marriage, believing that this will remove the conflict between 22


time spent on her husband and time spent on her job. After a year of this second marriage Esi comes to a realization about herself: “It was at this time that she confirmed what she had suspected about herself all along: she not only enjoyed the job that she was doing but she actually enjoyed working. She enjoyed working with figures....” (138). Esi gets a sense of fulfillment from her career, a pleasure that she was not willing to give up to save her first marriage. She revels in the luxury of bringing work home or taking off at a moment’s notice to attend conferences. While Esi and Ali get along quite well before the marriage and for a year after it, Esi again becomes dissatisfied with this new arrangement because, ironically, this husband does not fill enough of her time. Ali’s visits become less and less frequent and the bundles of presents that he sends from his voyages come to stand for his presence. Esi realizes that this is not what she wanted from a marriage either. And yet, Esi is at a loss as to how address her problems. Aidoo outlines many reasons why the traditional course for settling disputes in a polygamous marriage will not work in this modern context, where the two wives will not meet and the two families barely know each other. Traditional solutions from the past cannot be relied on because the context is now different, and, with this change in context, comes a different form of polygamous marriage. When discussing the possibility of becoming a second wife with her best friend, Opokuya, Esi is amazed to discover that the man, according to custom, must ask the permission of his first wife to marry again. When Esi finally breaks the news of her impending marriage to Opokuya, her friend has obvious reservations: “Look here Esi, for example, can you see yourself and A li’s wife getting together? Being friends?” [...] The idea seemed so unlikely that Esi couldn’t believe she was hearing right. Be friends with Ali’s wife? “I don’t even know what she looks like” she blurted out. “You see” said Opokuya, with something like a minor triumph, “first rule already broken.” “Really?” Esi asked with genuine curiosity. “Of course, Esi. In the village, or rather in a traditional situation, it was not possible for a man to consider taking a second wife without the first wife’s consent.” (97) Opokuya goes on to think to herself that Esi was being dangerously naive, and she is later proven correct in this. Esi and Fusena never cross paths, causing constant tension for all three members of this marriage. Esi finds herself longing for the more traditional schedule of wifely turns when Ali’s visits to her home become more infrequent, and yet, because this marriage was not contracted according to NATIONAL IDENTITIES


the established customs, she feels she has no redress in demanding more of his time. Esi does not know where to turn for solutions to her continuing confusion. Esi experiences a “dangerous confusion” as a price that she must pay for a career that she enjoys and a vocabulary that allows her to escape the tyranny of her first marriage. In acknowledging both the benefits and the losses, Esi, unlike Sissie and Nkrumah, recognizes the dangers in trying to selectively assimilate parts of different cultures whose shared history is not only characterized by antagonism but also indelibly marked by unequal relations of power. Her efforts to negotiate the role of a single career woman in Africa, a category of women that, she remarks, has never been socially recognized, is marked by both her sense of loss and gain. She has lost a connection to her mother but has gained a better sense of herself. Esi can find no models for either her marriage or her career, but most especially she has no model of how they can work together. After talking with her mother, Esi resigns herself to working through this confusion: “As a young Ghanaian woman government statistician divorcee, a mother of one child, getting ready to be a second wife and the rest, she was aware of these and other equally serious personal and not so personal questions. But she was also humble enough to admit that the answers to them could not come from her an individual. Hopefully a whole people would soon have answers for them” (115). Aidoo returns both to her own central tenet that the problems of women in a society are part of the problems of the society as a whole and to Nkrumah’s idea that the answer to ideological disruption in African societies lies in the community not the individual. In showing how Esi experiences the dangerous confusion engendered by the hybrid context of a postcolonial nation, Aidoo gives us one woman’s experience of an Africa that must of necessity find an answer to the problems of new nationhood as a community that includes and empowers women. CONCLUSION Aidoo’s original subtitle to Changes was “ ‘A New Tail to an Old Tale.’ ”15 Esi’s process of creating a fulfilling life for herself in the face of conflicts between generations, traditions, and genders continues Sissie’s search for a “life relevantly lived.” Esi cannot be said to resolve the “dangerous confusion” she finds herself in, but she does reach a level of comfort with this confusion. t l making Esi’s confusion the same as the country’s, Aidoo suggests that Ghana may also be able to emerge from this confusion without necessarily resolving it. The new ending, however, is only available through an exploration of women’s stories. From Esi’s run-ins with restrictive gender stereotypes to her ignorance of empowering traditions, the reader can see both the need for a critical awareness of the past and a need for openness to change. In what can be read as a response to prevailing



modes of narrating the Ghanaian nation, Aidoo argues that in order to tell the stories of the nation, women’s stories need to be included. Aidoo’s novels reveal a process of thinking through the legacy of Nkrumah that continues to engage Aidoo and her narrators. Where the rhetoric and actions of the early nationalist leaders in Ghana created a system that did not include women as active agents in the definition of a new Ghanaian identity, Aidoo has made room for her own contributions through her writings. The heroines of these two novels both struggle to add significantly to their societies, all the while taking issue with the idea that tradition is good in and of itself and that women’s primary role in the nation is that of mother. Both Sissie and Esi have much to say to the men in their social contexts about the ways in which they seek to circumscribe what women can contribute to the development of a postcolonial, or at least postindependent, Ghana.




1. As quoted inAllan (1993), 191. Aggrey was a noted Ghanaian nationalist and educator who died inGhana in 1927, after serving as the vice-principal ofAchimoto college for three years. 2. While the concernfor masculine identities anda confusionover gender roles is evident in Aidoo’s story, I believe that Brown does a disservice to Aidoo’s story whenhe concentrates onZirigu’s story as representative ofthe postcolonial conditionwithout adding a discussion ofZirigu’s wife. 3. See Appiah’s (1991) “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Postmodernism?” 4. Ketu Katrak (1989) makes a similar observation in her discussion of Gandhi’s “mobilization of women” inthe Indian nationalist struggle, saying that the attributes that Gandhi valorized inwomen, including their increased capacity for suffering, paradoxically reinscribed their subordinate status evenas it allowedthemtoparticipate inthe public sphere (167). 5. Anderson, Introduction and Chapter One. 6. This argument is contained primarily in Nkrumah’s monograph C on scien cism . The possible contradiction, here, between African andGhanaian identities is often pointed to as one of the roots of Nkrumah’s failure to keep in touch with the concerns of common Ghanaians, andthus one ofthe factors leadingto his overthrowin 1966. Many biographers of Nkrumah cite the now-infamous saying that Nkrumah was a good African but an indifferent Ghanaian. Nkrumah, with his ardent belief inthe reality of, and necessity for Pan-Africanism, repeatedly deniedthat there was any conflict or contradiction inthese two identities. 7. One ofthe most notable proponents ofthis idea isAyi Kwei Armah. Two ofArmah’s later novels, 2 0 0 0 S e a so n s and The H e a le rs, rest on the premise that Africa was once a united whole, andtheir plots are motivated bythe respective protagonists’ felt needto returnAfrica to that state. 8. See Nehemia Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” inH isto ry o f W est Africa, J. F. A. Ajayi, and Michael Crowder, eds. (Columbia UP, 1972): 120-157.



9. Hountondji (1983) is careful topoint out that betweenthe original publication in 1964 and its second edition in 1970, Nkrumah made some significant alterations in the theoretical paradigms ofConsciencism . Hountondji writes: “As awhole, Nkrumah’s bookis founded on twocloselylinkedideological assumptions; onetheauthornoticedandcorrectedin thesecond edition, while to the other he remained blind. The first was the denial of class struggle in Africa. History was to make short work ofthis. The second was the idea that there were no ideological conflicts inprecolonial Africaontheonehand, and, onthe other, that this illusion should be valorized by makingtheoretical unanimity into a value to be struggled for. Let us call this the unanimist illusion” (154). 10. As quoted inOdamtten (1994), 9. 11. It shouldbenotedthat this speechmarkedthe incorporationofahitherto independent but affiliated organizationwiththe CPP into an integral branch of the CPP and thus brought it directly under itscontrol. Thewomen’sorganizationwas renamedbyNkrumah andthe CPP; separate membership was to be replaced by party membership. 12. As quoted in Manuh (1993), 113. Unfortunately I could not find a complete copy of this speech. 13. This isNwankwo’s mainpoint inthe article “The Feminist Impulse and Social Realism.” While Aidoo is always concerned to put the struggle of women into the larger context of a national or continental struggle in Africa, I amslightly uncomfortable with Nwankwo’s argument that implies that feminism left unchecked would prove to be divisive or obstructionist for the national movement. As Aidoo says, “it is not possible to advocate independence forour continent without alsobelievingthatAfricanwomenmust have the best that the environment can offer” (Aidoo 1991, 323). 14. Odamtten suggests this linkage inhis workwhenhe discusses the relationship between Sissie andher ‘Precious Something’: “Even her Precious Somethingwill not listen, since he does not see inhis treatment ofSissie areplicationofthe sexist dichotomies andpaternalism that obviated any meaningful relationship between Sissie and Marija and that figuratively characterize the relationshipbetweenthe oppressor and the oppressedunder colonialismand neo-colonialism” (131). What I amarguing is that the figuration that Odamtten describes works for the male gender role, but that the feminine is doubly oppressed under an anti-colonial struggle that repeats paternalisminternally. This is the point of the encounter between Sissie andMarija: it gives Sissie the opportunity to “feel like a man” andreject that paradigm. 15. Aidoo discusses this in her interviewwith George and Scott (1994) 304.



REFERENCES Aidoo, Ama Ata. Changes: A Love Story. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1991. --------- . No Sweetness Here. Harlow, England: Longman, 1970. --------- . Our Sister Killjoy, or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint. Essex: Longman Group, 1977. --------- “The African Woman Today.” Dissent 39 (Summer 1992): 319-325 Allan, Tuzyline Jita. “Afterword.” Changes: A Love Story. 71-196. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread o f Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 336—357. Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Healers. London: Heinemann, 1978. --------- . Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973. Bhabha, Homi K. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Homi Bhabha, ed. London: Routledge, 1990. 291-322. Brown, Lloyd. Women Writer in Black Africa . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981. Davidson, Basil. Black Star: A View o f the Life and Times o f Kwame Nkrumah. NewYork: Praeger Publishers, 1973. George, Rosemary Marangoly, and Helen Scott. “ 4A New Tail to an Old Tale’: An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.” Novel (Spring 1993): 297-308.



Hountondji, Paulin J. African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Henri Evans with Jonathan Ree, trans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Katrak, Ketu H. “Decolonizing Culture: Toward a Theory for Postcolonial Women’s Texts.” Modem Fiction Studies. 35:1 (1989): 157-179. Lautre, Maxine (Mcgregor). “Ama Ata Aidoo.” African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews. Cosmo Pieterse and Denis Duerden, eds. New York: Africana Publishers, 1972. 18-27. Levtzion, Nehemia. “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500.” History of West Africa. J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972. 120-157. Liebenow, Gus. African Politics: Crises and Challenges. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986. McWilliams, Sally. “Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions: At the Crossroads of Feminism and Post-colonialism.” World Literature Written in English (1991): 103-112. Manuh, Takyiwah. “Women and Their Organizations During the Convention Peoples’ Party Period.” The Life and Work ofKwame Nkrumah: Papers o f a

Symposium Organized by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Lagos. Kwame Arhin, ed. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1993. 101-127. Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Howard Greenfeld trans. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 12-13:2 (Spring/Fall 1984): 333-358. Mudimbe, Valetin Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order o f Knowledge. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988. Nkrumah, Kwame. The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1957. --------- . Consciencism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964.



--------- . Hands Off Africa!!! Some Famous Speeches by Dr. The Right Honorable Kwame Nkrumah (First President o f the Republic o f Ghana). Kwabena Owusu-Akyem, ed. Accra: Ministry of Local Government, 1960. --------- . Revolutionary Path. New York: International Publishers, 1973. --------- . Selected Speeches o f Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, First President o f the Republic o f Ghana. 2 vols. Collected by Samuel Obeng. Accra, Ghana: Afram Publications Ltd., 1961. Nwankwo, Chimalum. “The Feminist Impulse and Social Realism in Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy.” Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Carol Boyce Davies and Anne Adam Graves, eds. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986. 151-159. Odamtten, Vincent O. The Art o f Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading Against Neocolonialism. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” Martin Thom, trans. Bhabha (1990) 8-22. Wilentz, Gay. “The Politics of Exile: Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 15.1 (Winter 1991): 159-173.




Nationalism and Feminism In the Writings of Santa Devi and Sita Devi Nupur Chaudhuri

Recent scholarship on postcolonialism has created an interest in womanhood and feminism as defined by the Third World women. Here, I am using Third World in terms of the “underdeveloped”/ over exploited geopolitical entities, i.e., countries, regions and even continents, as Cheryl Johnson-Odim has used in her article, “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism.”1 However, the very meaning of the term feminism is continuously contested both in the Euro-American First World and as well as in the Third World (Mohanty et al., 4). From the mid-nineteenth century till the mid-twentieth century feminism and gender ideologies in the Third World, especially in India, were influenced by colonialism and nationalism.2 Partha Chatterjee (1990) has cogently argued that the colonial situation and the ideological response of nationalism to it influenced the construction of “home” and “world” in Bengal. He emphasized that to middle-class Bengalis the [outside] world was where the European power had challenged the non-European peoples and, by virtue of its superior material culture, had subjugated them. But it had failed to colonize the inner, essential, identity of the East which lay in its distinctive, and superior, spiritual culture. That is where the East was undominated, sovereign, master of its own fate. (239) At about the mid-eighteenth century the influence of British administration caused the emergence of a new group of middle class, called bhadralok, in Bengal. This group eventually created a new patriarchy. By the late nineteenth century, these middle-class men educated in Western formats expected women to take the responsibility of safeguarding and sustaining the spiritual aspects of the national

culture which was centered at home. But at the same time these women were expected to help their male relatives cope with the outside world. Hence the men wanted women to receive Western education so that together they, if needed, could cope with the public sphere dominated by the British. This construction of womanhood can be seen in contemporary nineteenth-century literature.3 The same notion continued on at least till the mid-twentieth century, as can be traced in many Bengali literary works. This paper focuses on some of the major writings of Santa Devi and Sita Devi, two well-known early twentieth-century Indian women authors of Bengal. The objective of this essay is to show how their perception of womanhood, blended with the concept of middle-class nationalism, defended their feminism and sets its agenda for themselves and for other bhadramahila (educated wives and daughters of the bhadralok).4 The writings of Santa Devi and Sita Devi relate to women’s lives and experiences in the domestic sphere and the construction of feminism. Santa Devi and Sita Devi were daughters of Ramananda Chatterji, editor of both Prabasi, a journal for Bengalis living outside of Bengal, and the Modern Review, an English periodical published in Calcutta. The two sisters were educated at Bethune School and College in Calcutta and received their B.A. degrees with distinction at Calcutta University. In 1918, Santa Devi and Sita Devi collectively took a pen name of Sanjucta Devi and wrote a novel, Udyanlata (The Garden Creeper), which was serialized in Prabasi. This was immensely popular among the younger generation of Bengali students as previously very little had been written about the younger generation.5 In 1919, Sita Devi’s Cage o f Gold appeared as another serial in Prabasi. In 1920, the two sisters jointly published the Tales o f Bengal written in English. In the early 1960s, Sita Devi published Sahara Uparay (Above All). Their writings generally focused on the traditional Bengali domestic world. I will draw out the ways the authors projected, in these writings, the many ills of the traditional Bengali society and challenged the stereotypical images of women in society. The authors not only tried to create a mindset among their readers to rebel against social ills, but also introduced the concept of modernity. All the writings discussed in this paper focus on women’s education and marriage and married women’s status in their family/society. Some of these themes, especially the oppression of women by the dowry system which has even culminated in murder, are still important agendas for Indian feminists today. To fully comprehend the significance of their writings as part of feminist literary works, one needs to situate them in their proper historical context. Their father Ramananda Chatteiji, the son of a brahmin, came under the influence of a brahmo mathematics teacher when he was in high school.6 In 1866, he married a girl of twelve. After receiving his B.A. degree in English literature in 1888, he 32


was offered a post as assistant professor of English at the City College where he received his B.A. Ramananda also became assistant editor of the brahmo newspaper Indian Messenger. Because of his position as an editor of a newspaper he became acquainted with the progressive leaders who were deeply involved in the Congress movement. Being influenced by these leaders, he took a leading role as a brahmo reformer. In 1892, the Age of Consent controversy intensified the debate between the members of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and the orthodox Hindus. Ramananda, a member of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, was on the forefront of this controversy. As an editor of Indian Messenger, Ramananda Chatterji interpreted the facts to champion the government bill. In 1895, he left Calcutta for Allahabad to become principal of Kayastha College. There, in April 1901, he started Prabasi. In 1906, Ramananda Chatterji resigned his principalship in Allahabad and returned to Calcutta, where he took up residence at the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj mission quarters. In January 1907, he began to publish a new English journal, The Modern Review. Ramanada Chatterji found stifling the nationalism created by Hindu orthodoxy: “We shall never have a liberal national and international mentality unless we can shake off the authority of priests, dogmatists and theologians. We can never achieve dynamic national growth in India,” he continued, by adhering to “sectarian orthodoxy,” but only through a “liberal national education” for all (Kopf, 153). Ramananda Chatterji also rejected caste system and untouchability which he thought was weakening the Hindu social order and had to be uprooted (Kopf, 153). Because of his anti-British nationalistic views, Ramananda’s home, which housed his journals, was often searched by the police {Purba Smritiy 66). His house was a meeting point for Bengali intellectuals. A strong wave of education for women began during the 1890s as many leaders of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, including Ramananda Chatterji, began an intensive campaign. They believed that education would make women versatile individuals, enabling them to discharge their obligations as wives and mothers, better than their traditional grandmothers and also better than the women from the lower classes (Chatterjee, 246). These women would modernize the family structure by being able to work outside the home if necessary and would be able to maintain the groups’ self-identity (Karlekar, 157). In 1891, the Brahmo Girls School was considered by the government as the “best boarding girls’ high school in the Bengal Presidency,” and the sadharan brahmos, exceedingly proud of their record in providing higher education for women, founded by Bethune College.7 This then was the home environment of Santa Devi and Sita Devi. Influenced by their father’s nationalistic ideas, they tried to inculcate the same feelings of nationalism among the middle- and upper middle-class women. Like Malavika Karlekar, I have used the term “middle class” to include mainly white-collar NATIONALISM AND FEMINISM


salaried persons as well as some sections of landed gentry (5). The two sisters chose literature as their metier to spread their ideas. In their novels and short stories, they rejected or challenged most of the traditional beliefs and systems of Bengali society which they felt are not conducive to educate women to cope either with the public sphere or with the private sphere successfully. In their writings they tried to assure their readers that it is acceptable to stand up against the traditions which stifled women’s self-growth and ambition. Santa Devi and Sita Devi wrote about the domestic world with which their women readers were familiar. In their writings the main characters were women, with the supporting roles filled by men. To understand the domestic world and its inhabitants created by these two authors, one needs to outline the conditions of the early twentieth century, which were not much different from that of the previous century. The dowry system remained in existence. However, with the progression of time, the daughters were forced to be married off by the time they reached the age of fifteen or sixteen, instead of ten. The authors charted upper and middle-class Bengali women’s lives from birth to old age. Capturing the perception that it was a curse for a woman to give birth to a female child, one of Santa Devi’s short stories “Ugly Bride,” portrayed a female character who felt vindicated by her motherhood as she stated: “After giving birth to five daughters, I prayed and prayed and the Gods favored me [with a son].” One of her listeners responded, “You must have been bom under an evil star, or why should you meet with so much misfortune and bring forth daughters by the dozen” (13). In their Garden Creeper, newly bom Mukti’s grandmother commented: “Nearly all the world has been inside it [lying-in room]. And after all this fuss, your wife brings forth a girl!” Mukti’s father replied: “Does it matter? I can not see any sense of your antiquated prejudices. Is a girl less valuable than a boy? Is she less important in the scheme of creation? I don’t see any difference.”8 Many Bengali families, especially the higher caste Hindus, considered the birth of a girl child as an unfortunate event. Birth of a male child usually enhanced the wife’s standing in family and social circles.9 Being influenced by the Westernized, middle-class concept of education, and also well-educated for their time period, both sisters promoted the benefits of women’s education in their writings. The principal young women characters in their writings long for education. All of them go to day school, boarding school or get educated through private tutors. Sumana, and her female cousins in Sahara Uparay, went to day school; Mukti, in Cage o f Gold, went to boarding school, and Urmila had a private tutor.10 Under the influence of the British domination of India, the curricula for both sexes were designed to make somewhat anglicized.11 Although in Sahara Uparay and in Garden Creeper the authors did



not describe the curriculum in detail, in Cage o f Gold, Sita Devi embraced some degree of Anglicized education as she wrote: A middle-aged English lady, Miss Parker, used to come and teach her [Urmila] in various subjects for two or three hours a day. She [Urmila] used to spend her days somehow in reading, playing the piano, or copies of English pictures. (14-15) The female characters of Santa Devi and Sita Devi were well exposed to both British and Bengali literature: for instance, Urmila had read both Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s Durgesh Nandini. Mukti, Sumana, and Urmila were interested in formal education, but they also faced resistance in such a pursuit from their grandmother, mother, older females among the relatives and friends; at the same time, the three women received encouragement from their fathers or male guardians who insisted that these young women should have education. Education set these women apart from the previous generations. Education introduces forces of modernity, but in each of these cases patriarchy is the carrier of modernity. The older women had the fear that schooling would postpone marriage for the young women, making them too old to be married off. Mukti’s grandmother told Mukti’s father: The girl has passed eight already. Now you want to educate her, leaving the all important questions shelved. Then when she has become an old maid and completely Anglicised, you will think about her marriage. But no good orthodox Brahmin boy would touch such a girl. {Garden Creeper, 25) Some men from traditional backgrounds also did not want women to be educated lest educated women would refuse an arranged marriage. The fear of the breakdown of this custom was aired by an elderly gentleman in his remark to Urmila’s guardian: You have kept Urmila unmarried so long and have had her educated, she will certainly have developed independent views. Consider now, if she marries anyone else for any reason, you will have deprived her of anything. {Cage o f Gold, 23) The authors remind their readers that in twentieth-century Bengal the patriarchy maintained the traditionalism, but at the same time promoted modernity.12 In Sahara Uparay Sumana’s older sister complained that while their father wanted NATIONALISM AND FEMINISM


them [the daughters] to go to college, their mother wanted them to get married as soon as possible (9). Sixteen-year-old Sumana was about to finish her high-school degree and she was very anxious to go to college. But since her mother wanted to get her married off, her parents started to arrange for her marriage. Sumana was upset with her father because her father always emphasized that sons and daughters should have equal education. But in reality, he did not object to his wife’s desire to get Sumana married off. Sumana resented the suppression of her own desires by her elders. She wanted to protest, but her cousin reminded her of the reprimand by her mother (Sahara Uparay 3, 11). These tensions between Mukti’s father and grandmother, and between Sumana and her parents, illustrate a conflict between traditionalism and modernism. Encouragement for women’s education by the nationalists did not suggest that women should compete against men or neglect their domestic duties and responsibilities. All young women in Santa Devi and Sita Devi’s work were proficient in household management. Many Bengali girls, irrespective of their castes and economic backgrounds, went through the process of arranged marriage. As in any agricultural society, upper-class Bengali marriages were often considered a business negotiations between two families, and not a union between two partners. The traditional dowry system, requiring the bride’s parents to pay dowry to groom’s parents, placed such a heavy economic burden on the bride’s family that the parents began to see a daughter as an economic hardship and not a coveted economic support. In their writings, Santa Devi and Sita Devi often showed their disapproval of the dowry system. In Sahara Uparay, during Sumana’s marriage negotiation, the groom’s family came to see Sumana several times and demanded jewelry and cash from Sumana’s parents. Sumana became very irritated with the groom’s family and angry with the society in general. She felt that society, instead of recognizing the value of contributions the women are able to make, unjustly chose to place judgment on the appearance of the bride and the amount of the money the bride’s family could spend. In The Cage of Gold, Mukti’s guardian left a will indicating that after his death Mukti would inherit a considerable amount of wealth provided she married the man that he had selected for her. Mukti’s guardian thus controlled her life even after his death. In “Ugly Bride,” the mother of Kalo— the bride in the story—had been gradually dispossessed of all ornaments in the process of marrying off her four elder daughters. Both men and women from the groom’s family take part in deciding how much money and jewelry a bride’s family would have to pay. Kalo’s mother-in-law was a participant in these negotiations. When Kalo arrived at her husband’s family home, her mother-in-law told her:



Tell your sweet mama [a widow] when you go back home, that a black skin does not sell so easily. When she can send with you gold enough to balance your glory, she can send you back to this house again, but not before. I can get a better bride. (30) Threats of insults or injury to a new bride from a greedy in-law have been very common and, hence, a young married girl from a poor family could anticipate many abuses from her future-in-laws: Kalo heard all this abuse with her head bowed at an obedient angle. That a woman is bom to suffer was taught to her from her birth. So she did not find anything strange in this new misfortune.... Thus began Kalo’s new life of happiness. (30-31) In this story, Santa Devi also highlighted the fact that women themselves often oppress other women; this becomes clearly evident in demands under dowry contract. In ‘T he Broken Lily,” Sita Devi carried on the same theme of oppression generated by the dowry system, and illustrated how a poor family unable to meet demands of a dowry contract was forced to marry off their daughter to a middle-aged, paralyzed, wealthy landlord.13 The minor wife in her husband’s home was often regarded as a piece of property. She would be abused or humiliated by members of her husband’s family for not bringing sufficient dowry. A young bride could be further mistreated for her domestic inefficiency.14 By painting the dowry system as an oppressive one to the bride’s family and the bride, the authors tried to create a mindset among their readers, especially female readers, where women themselves would refuse to become a part of this prenuptial transaction. The Amendment of the Age of Consent Act of 1892 prescribed a minimum age of twelve for the marriage of a Bengali girl (Chakraborti, 4). Ramananda Chatterji, father of Santa Devi and Sita Devi, wanted the age of consent raised to sixteen. The two daughters also maintained that marriage should not occur until a woman was sixteen or more. Urmila, in The Cage of Gold, was about eighteen or nineteen. Sumana, in Sahara Uparay, was sixteen, but her mother presented her to the groom’s family as being barely fifteen—a lie which upset Sumana very much. In Garden Creeper, Mukti’s grandmother, Mokshada, was betrothed at the age of four and that was before the Age of Consent Act was passed. Mukti’s mother died at Mukti’s birth. When Mukti was eight years old, Mokshada tried to arrange Mukti’s father’s marriage with a fourteen-year-old girl. However, Mukti’s father, Shiveswar refused to remarry. When Mukti reached the age of seventeen her father NATIONALISM AND FEMINISM


did not show any interest in arranging her marriage, a passivity that infuriated Mokshada. Her frustration and anger was intensified by the social pressure brought on her by her relatives and neighbors who relentlessly confronted her with questions about Mukti’s marriage. While Mukti’s father, Shiveswar, was out of town, Mokshada, with the help of her cousin, brought Mukti to her ancestral home and pressured her to marry. Mukti, unwilling to yield to the pressure, escaped from the house early on the morning of the wedding day. The entire question of Mukti’s marriage is a portrayal of the conflict between the forces of traditionalism and modernism. The question of romantic love hardly existed in a system of arranged marriage. But in their stories both Sita Devi and Santa Devi introduced romantic love between a female and a male. In Sahara Uparay, about six months after their marriage Sumana’s husband apparently became a victim of a train accident, but his body could not be traced. Following this tragedy, Sumana stayed with her parents and continued her studies. In the process of preparing for the matriculation examination, she had a young private tutor named Bejoy who tutored her for a few months. Shortly after examination, Bejoy found a job in Bombay and left Calcutta. But Bejoy and Sumana kept in touch with each other, and gradually they fell in love. Seven years after the train tragedy—when it became very clear that Sumana’s husband could not be alive—Sumana and Bejoy got married. Sumana’s mother did not attend the wedding and never accepted this marriage, but her father did. In Garden Creeper, Mukti told Dhiren, a friend, that she was in love with Jyoti, an orphan boy whom Mukti’s father raised and educated along with Mukti. In The Cage o f Gold, after her guardian’s death, Urmila, an orphan, came to Calcutta to stay in the home of a family friend. There she met Samarendra, head of the household and a college professor. Because of her interest in reading and getting educated, Urmila and Samarendra became close friends. But this friendship stood in the way of a previously arranged marriage agreement that was drawn up by Urmila*s guardian who left a considerable amount of wealth for Urmila, provided she married Lalit whom her guardian selected. When Lalit’s mother found out about the will, she took Urmila to her own home. But Urmila was in love with Samarendra; this compelled Urmila to escape from Lalit’s home and meet Samarendra in his home, causing her to forfeit her inheritance. Undoubtedly, Santa Devi and Sita Devi’s writings reinforced the cultural assumption that marriage is a milestone in the lives of women. However, they also implied that romantic love can bring immense satisfaction and women can take an active role in selecting their husbands. Considering the time period of their writings,they introduced a rather unconventional or modem theme. The authors were helping to create a mindset for their readers, freeing them from the conventions of 38


traditional marriage. In Sahara Uparay, through the relationship between Sumana and Bejoy, Sita Devi presents the insight that when a marriage is based on mutual love, equity is realized in the relationship between husband and wife. In the nineteenth-century traditional middle- and upper-middle-class Bengali society, often women were neither educated nor financially independent. M iddle- and upper-middle-class women had very limited opportunities to achieve financial autonomy by their own efforts. Marriage was the only option they had to support themselves; it determined a woman’s status in married life, which always placed her at a relatively inferior position in domestic affairs. Their lack of economic independence has contributed to the low esteem of their positions compared to that of men.15 This attitude continued almost till the mid-twentieth century. This low esteem of women’s position in society and domestic affairs often became a theme of Santa Devi and Sita Devi’s novels and short stories. In Garden Creeper, the authors narrated scenes of familial affairs where men paid little attention to women’s opinion. One of Mukti’s male relative states: Nobody cares about a girl’s opinion.... As for the girl, give her plenty of jewelry and a big trousseau, and she will consent [to marry] soon enough. (252) In Sahara Uparay, Sumana told her cousin that women occupy the lowest status in the family. Even her mother, who seemed extremely domineering to the children, gathered little courage to do many things without the permission of her husband. Her cousin responded that women were not economically independent and one has to obey the provider (8). Women have been seen at times to be socialized into not speaking against the male family members, as we see in Garden Creeper. Even though Mokshada, Mukti’s grandmother, was not dependent on her cousin, she acceded to the wishes of this man. Because this man “was well-known as an autocrat. The women of the house feared and treated him like a god. So, though Mokshada was in no way dependent on him, she never dared to oppose Shyamkishore or to protest against anything he said” (252). Santa Devi and Sita Devi repeatedly emphasized the inferior status of women in the hierarchical relationship between men and women in Bengali society. In their writings, they have repeatedly projected themes that women oppressed other women. Many older women opposed education for younger women and also became promoters of the dowry system. The domestic world these two authors created for their readers contained Bengali women who were both oppressed and oppressors, the latter by colluding with the traditional Bengali society, dominated



by men, to oppress other men. Their portrayals of women are similar to that of Judith M. Bennett, a medievalist scholar, who wrote: Women have not been merely passive victims of patriarchy; they have also colluded in, undermined, and survived patriarchy.... Women have a large part to play in this historical study of patriarchy, not merely as victims, but also as agents. Women’s support has always been crucial to the endurance of patriarchy.16 In short, Sita Devi and Santa Devi criticicized the dowry system, arranged marriages, women’s collusion with patriarchy, and women’s inferior positioning in the hierarchical relationships between men and women. The writers promoted women’s education and advocated that women should take an active role in choosing their husbands. Since the novels of Santa Devi and Sita Devi are romantic stories with happy endings, they may create an impression among present-day readers that these works are trivial. However, when these novels and short stories are read as a corpus, two themes became evident. First, these two sisters followed the ideology of nationalism established by an educated, Westernized, middle class. Second, Santa Devi and Sita Devi followed their own feminist agenda to change the society. But what, specifically, was their feminist agenda? Santa Devi and Sita Devi repeatedly stressed the hierarchical relationship between Bengali men and women. They pointed out that the marginalization of women is socially constructed and described their women characters as biological and social groups. By highlighting sex-based hierarchy and capturing the position of low status which women occupied in the society, Santa Devi and Sita Devi painted the picture of social injustice towards women. In this respect, their writings contain feminist elements.17 Both Santa Devi and Sita Devi favored opposition or rebellion to the traditional social values: for instance, they depict Urmila returning to Samarendra, or Mukti running away from her ancestral home to avoid her marriage. The authors tried to convey to the readers their conviction that resistance to the social customs is not only acceptable, but sometimes even desirable, in the fight against the social conventions that victimize women. Expressions of their beliefs, as depicted in their writings, are comparable to Nancy Cott’s definition of feminism. In The Grounding o f Feminism, Nancy Cott defined feminism as an opposition to sex hierarchy, a belief that women’s condition is socially constructed and not determined by God or nature, and that women constitute both a biological sex and a social grouping.18 It was Santa Devi’s and Sita Devi”s feminist agenda to make explicit pleas for reforming the institution of marriage and educating women. However, being influenced by Westem/colonial 40


ideals, the education system they promoted was a mixture of both Western and traditional Hindu society. Their feminist approach defined them as social feminists affirming the value of women’s experiences.




1. Cheryl Johnson-Odim, “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism,” Chandra Talapade Mohanty, Ann Russo, andLourdes Torres, eds. T hird W orld W om en a n d the P o litic s o f F em inism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991), 315. 2. Antoinette Burton, “Rules of Thumb: British History and ‘ imperial culture’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain,” W o m en ’s H isto ry R e v ie w 3.4 (1994):490-491; Partha Chatteijee, 8. The G arden C reep er [U dayan lata\ was translated into English by Sita Devi, andwas put out by theP ra b a si press, Calcutta, 1925. All citations refer to this version of the “Nationalistic Resolution of the Women’s Question,” R e ca stin g W om en: E ssa ys in Indian C olon ial H isto ry , KumkumSangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds. (NewJersey: Rutgers UP 1990), 244-250. 3. Chatteijee, 244-250 4. The members of this English, educated newmiddle class were the sons of zamindars or landlords, East India Company agents, traders, various professionals, and government servants. They served as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. They were dependent on British patronage for its wealth and status. Calcutta was their center of activities. Their female family members or b h a d ro m a h ila played an important role in consolidating the social identityof thebhadralok. As ananalytical category, b h a d ra lo k was free of caste affiliations, but most of its members came fromthe upper castes. For more information see, Meredith Borthwick’s The C h an gin g R o le o f W omen in B engal, 1 8 4 9 - 1 9 0 5 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984); Sumanta Baneijee’s “Marginalization of Women’s popular culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Sangari and Vaid (1990), 127-129; Malavika Karlekar’s V oices fr o m W ithin: E a rly P e rso n a l N a rra tiv e s o f B e n g a li W om en (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1991). 5. Santa Nag [Devi], P u rb a Sm riti (O ld M e m o ria ls ), Calcutta: Papyrus, 1983, 86. 6. In 1828 Rammohun Roy founded the B rahm o S a b h a , a universalist theistic society. In 1843 Debendranath Tagore institutionalized Rammohun’s ideology of Hindu reform. In 1857, Keshub Chandra Sen, the charismatic theistic reformer joined the B rah m o Sam aj. In 1870, the liberal faction withinBrahm o Sam aj organized the Sam adarshi party to counter Sen’s growing conservatism. In 1878, the marriage of Sen’s eldest daughter to the Cooch Behar maharaja, in violation of the B rahm o Marriage Act of 1872 (brah m o marriages conformed neither to Hindu nor to Muslimrites), created a major schisminb rah m o history. The S a m a d a rsh i party restructured itself as the S ad h a ra n B rah m o Sam aj. For more information on B rahm o S am aj see, David Kopfs The B rahm o S am aj a n d the S h aping o f the M o d e m Indian M in d (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1979). 7. For more onRamananda Chatteijee and the Sa d h a ra n especially pages 126-7, 142-4, 149-155.



B rahm o S am aj , see Kopf (1979),

8. The G arden C reep er [ U dayanlata ] was translatedinto Englishby Sita Devi, and was put out by the P ra b a si press, Calcutta, 1925. All further citations refer to this version of the text. 9. Although in her C on d itio n o f B engali Women A ro u n d the S econ d H a lf o f the 19th C entury (Calcutta, 1963) Usha Chakrobarti described that this situation existed during the nineteenth century, I found that these feelings towards the female child remained in existence during the early part of the twentieth century. 10. The C a g e o f G o ld was originallypublished inserialized forminthe P ra b a si , 1919; I use the English translation of the story, by A. E. Brown (Calcutta: R. C. Chatteijee, 1923), for this essay. For S ah ara U p a ra y , I used the Bengali version (Calcutta: Select Press, 1369 [Bengali calendar]); T ales o f B en g a l was also published by the P ra b a si press, Calcutta, in 1920. 11. For more oneducation see, Gauri Viswanathan’s M asks o f Conquest: L iterary S tudy an d (NewYork: Columbia UP, 1989).

B ritish R ule in India

12. Sangari and Vaid (1990), 17. 13. See, for instance, T ales o f B engal, 120-159. 14. Again, Usha Chakrobarti’s description of the bride’s situation for the nineteenth century can be ascribed to the early twentieth century. 15. For attitudes towards Bengali women see, Meredith Borthwick, Malavika Karlekar, and Usha Chakrobarti. 16. Judith M. Bennett, “Feminismand History,” G e n d e r a n d H isto ry 1 (1989): 262-263. 17. Ruth Sherry, S tu dyin g

W o m en ’s W riting

(London: Edward Arnold, 1988), 15

18. Nancy Cott, The G roun din g o f M o d e m F em inism (NewHaven, CT.: Yale UP, 1987), 4; also quoted in Barbara Caine’s V ictorian F em in ists (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992),





Mother-Country and Fatherland Re-Membering the Nation in Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days Susan Koshy

To Papa’s mode of fearsome inquiry we married Mamma’s expression of secret thought, making us—if nothing else—faithful in physiognomy. For we were glad enough to sing epithalamiums for the way that history wed silence, almost freshly, every day.1 It seemed to me that the only place in the world to speak from was at a point whereby contradiction, antagonism, the hybridities of cultural influence, the boundaries of nations, were not sublated into some utopian sense of liberation or return. The place to speak from was through those incommensurable contradictions within which people survive, are politically active, and change.2 Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days offers a feminized re-narration of the national allegory that has been so central to several postcolonial novels (A Grain o f Wheat, Midnight s Children, In the Castle o f My Skin)? According to the daughter’s story in Meatless Days, the singleness and linearity of the nationalist discourse spoken by her father is disrupted by the “secret logic” of her mother’s discourse which articulates the indeterminacy of cultural migrancy. The experience of displacement connects the mother’s story to the daughter’s and provides a metaphor for exploring the repressions and exclusions in the official history of the nation. By reclaiming her mother’s discourse, Suleri’s stories incorporate a poetics of silence that allows her to interrogate and dismantle the concept of agency, and

the segregation of public and private on which a masculinist national narrative is founded. A collection of autobiographical tales of hybrid genre—memoir, essay, meditation and novel— Meatless Days recalls Suleri’s family life in the turbulence of pre- and post-independence Pakistan, the eventual dispersal of her siblings to Kuwait and England and her own subsequent migration to the United States. But the recurring concern in the various tales is the effort to articulate the ways in which loss becomes productive, an effort that focuses on Suleri’s response to the sudden and tragic deaths of the two women in the family closest to her------ her mother, Mair Jones, and her sister, Ifat— and Suleri’s own departure from Pakistan. Suleri’s meditations on death and the work of memory launch her into an exploration of temporality, subjectivity and language that searchingly engages the complexities, contradictions and antagonisms shaping her experience of a specific postcolonial condition. Mair Jones, Suleri’s Welsh mother, moved to Pakistan shortly after the country gained independence from British rule and soon after marrying a prominent Pakistani journalist; Sara Suleri, a Pakistani citizen, reverses her mother’s journey: Suleri travels to the Unites States for a graduate degree and remains in the West to teach. As she attempts to tell her mother’s tale, Suleri writes: “I am curious to locate what she knew of the niceties that living in someone else’s history must entail, of how she managed to dismantle that other history she was supposed to represent” (1989, 164). In re-narrating the political history of Pakistan through the stories of women and the trope of migrancy, Suleri’s text shares a common theme with Salman Rushdie’s Shame. In Rushdie’s novel, “woman” embodies the cultural code ofshame in nationalist and religious ideologies; and “woman” shares with the diasporic subject (the narrator) an outsideness to the historical production of the nation.4 The masculine and the feminine are represented in Shame as two codes pitted in absolute antagonism: honor rules in the masculine world of politics, and shame in the feminine world of domesticity. Rushdie draws attention to this opposition through his narrator’s comments: “I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my 'male’ plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverse and 'female’ side.”5 In Suleri’s text, however, “woman” and the diasporic subject do not mark a radical opposition to nationness as in Rushdie, but operate as supplements that produce alternative discourses of community and affiliation. The supplement, as Homi 46


Bhabha explains, “by being ‘after’ the original, or in ‘addition to’ it, gives it the advantage of introducing a sense of ‘secondariness’ or belatedness into the structure of the original.... The power of supplementarity is ... in the renegotiation of those times, terms, and traditions through which we turn our uncertain, passing contemporaneity into the signs of history.”6 The strategy of supplementarity enables a renegotiation rather than a reversal of the hierarchy implicit in the terms “masculine” and “feminine.” Meatless Days opens the discourse of the nation to the idiom of cultural migrancy. As Suleri points out in her finely suggestive study of colonial and postcolonial discourse, The Rhetoric o f English India: ‘T o deploy migrancy as an interpretive figure is not at all to repress the crucial situatedness of cultures.... The situation of postcolonialism... informs each inception of colonial encounter, in which the migrant moment of dislocation is far more formative, far more emplotting, than the subsequent acquisition of either postcolonial nation or colonial territory.”7 Moreover, within the modem history of the subcontinent, wrenching migrations accompanied the birthing of nations at two moments of Partition, with the formation of Pakistan in 1947 and that of Bangladesh in 1971. Suleri describes Pakistan as “a country totally predicated on migrancy,” one where not only the muhajirs (immigrants) but “surely each of us underwent some great continental drift on the occasion of that partition when India was unhinged.”8 Meatless Days stages the re-membering of the mother’s story as a subversion of the nation’s figuration as Fatherland. This transgression is allegorized in Suleri’s uncannily moving account of a dream she had shortly after her mother’s death. She dreamt her father drove up to her in a refrigerated truck carrying her mother’s body and told her to transfer the body into a coffin. Suleri recounts: What I found were hunks of meat wrapped in cellophane, and each of them felt like Mama in some odd way. It was my task to carry those flanks across the street and fit them into the coffin on the other side of the road, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.... Then, when my father’s back was turned, I found myself engaged in rapid theft...I stole away a portion of that body...which I quickly hid, inside my mouth, under my tongue. Then I and the dream dissolved into an extremity of tenderness...I had eaten, that was all, and woken to a world of meatless days. (1989, 44) Re-membering her mother is figured as a fulfillment of daughterly duty, but also as a covert transgression of paternal jurisdiction over the maternal body. Memory enables the retroactive theft of prohibited meanings symbolized by the mother’s



body; memory also allows the incorporation of the maternal body into the daughter’s narrative.9 The recovery of the mother is also a response to her father’s decision to find his solace in forgetfulness after her sudden death. On her return visits to Pakistan, Suleri notices her father’s attempts to erase Mair’s memory from his life: “With professional efficiency, as though orchestrating governmental change, Pip cleared the family stage of his mind and ushered a new one in.... There is nothing of my mother left in his house now, of course, and our visits seem to cause him increasing unease, reminding him of some other thing that he once knew, a memory international” (1989, 129). Suleri answers his forgetting with her own remembering. Meatless Days reclaims the memory of her family and celebrates the inter-national identifications enacted through the lives of her mother and siblings. Suleri’s text attempts to understand and represent the knowledge that enabled her mother to reconceive herself, within a year of her marriage, as Surraya Suleri and a Pakistani citizen; her “absenf’ness is Sara Suleri’s metaphor for the transformation. Mair Jones’s married life was spent completely removed from London and Wales, the “circuit of familiarity” to which she was habituated; in Pakistan, she moved “as a guest in her own name, living in a resistant culture that would not tell her its rules” (1989, 163). She absented herself from the world she knew, and was always, as a foreigner, partly absent in the world she had chosen. The wisdom she gleans from her rare tangentiality to the world she inhabits, she passes on to her daughter. After her visit to Wales at the time of her own mother’s death, the following exchange takes place between Mair and Sara: “It was not that I wanted to feel more familiar,” she [Mair] later told me, “or that I was more used to feeling unfamiliar in Lahore. I f s just that familiarity isn’t important, really,” she murmured absently, “it really doesn’t matter at all” (1989, 12). Set against the resolute insistence on familiarity that characterizes her father, her mother’s disavowal of familiarity suggests an alternative and creative location that can encompass the contradictions of migration and displacement. Suleri’s story tries to fathom her mother’s position since it resembles her own so closely, living as she does, in an alien country. The inability to belong is rewritten as learned dispossession: She learned to live apart, then— apart even from herself—growing into that curiously powerful disinterest in owning, in belonging.... She let commitment and belonging become my father’s domain, learning instead the way of walking with tact on other people’s land. (1989, 164)



Suleri describes her mother’s arrival and stay in Pakistan as a strenuous negotiation of the ambivalences that define her position. Most importantly, her subject position is not shown as fixed but as dialectically constructed through the pressures and constraints of hesitations, suspicions, and silences. Something of collective puzzlement still remains, though, in the position she eventually comes to occupy in the collective imagination: “She became to that community a creature of unique and unclassifiable discourse,” a saintly person (1989, 165-6). In her essay “Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse,” Caren Kaplan (1987) explores the process of deterritorialization as the move by which the exclusions and repressions on which the security of our homes are built are deconstructed so as to enable re-territorialization, or, the remaking of those homes to accommodate marginality and difference.10 Kaplan explains that both moves are crucial to a feminist discourse that “helps to enact a politics of identity that is flexible enough to encompass the ironies and contradictions of the modern world system” (1987, 197). Suleri’s mother’s disavowal of belonging enacts both processes through her voluntary repudiation of race and empire in her marriage, and her subsequent relocation in Pakistan. Suleri emphasizes that reterritorialization—the remaking o f a new identity and home— are arduous processes of learning, fraught with resistance and strain, for her mother. The absentness and disinterest that become so habitual to her reflect a political as well as emotional posture. Her position in Pakistan exists in a continuous tension between the marginal and the central, but is never exclusively identified with either. Her acceptance of Pakistani citizenship is not a romantic or utopian self-marginalization, since it requires a relentless attentiveness to the forms of power she carries with her: “Abnegating power is a powerful thing to do, as my mother must have learned to admit” (1989, 163). Because of the history she brings with her and the burdensome freight of racial difference, her decision to become Pakistani cannot be achieved literally. Caren Kaplan describes the First World feminist project of dismantling privilege (becoming “minor”11) in the following way: “A critique of where I come from, my home location, takes me away from the familiar. Yet, there is no space of total deterritorialization. I must look carefully at what I carry with me that could help me with the process... Becoming minor is not a process of emulation” (1987, 194). Kaplan’s analysis introduces a nuanced caution about the strenuousness of dismantling prior histories, the importance and the difficulty of vigilance. Becoming Pakistani is, for Mair, a process of concentrated awareness to the unspoken rules of the world around her, as well as a recognition of its deep suspicion and consternation at her presence. Suleri’s description conveys the



tentativeness of her mother’s location within her new home: “her attentiveness to Pakistan was an even greater strain: her intimacy with place and way grew habitual with the years but never changed her habit of seeming to announce, ’It is good of you to let me live—in my own way—among you’ ” (1989,165). The structure of this utterance enacts the terms of the inclusion it seeks. The parenthetical phrase that marks her location, “in my own way,” is set apart from the body of the sentence, the acceptance of community; but its separation is also paradoxically its connection, hyphenated from and into the sentence as a whole. Her mother’s words speak of the mutual accommodation that permits the inclusion of difference, as well as the possibility of maintaining a distinct identity: the ceaseless dialectic between connection and separation by which we find and make the social space we inhabit. Suleri recollects and writes her mother’s reticence, abstractedness and silence searching for clues on how to live and how to write. Silence and understatement as modes of intervention recur throughout Meatless Days, questioning the conventional emphasis on words as the index of political effectivity. Many feminist accounts of the recovery and representation of women’s lives or the “emergence” of feminist consciousness and identity have identified agency and selfhood with claiming or “having” a voice.12 While such analyses have been crucial to understanding the silencing of women historically, an exclusive emphasis on voice depends upon a simplistic opposition between speech and silence, over-values the performance of utterance, and ignores the ways in which speech and silence are multifarious and culturally variable. As Roger Keesing points out, “Neither ’muteness’ nor articulate accounts of self and society represent a direct reflection of ’women’s status’ or the role of women in a society...‘muteness* must always be historically and contextually situated, and bracketed with doubt.”13By recording the ways in which “history wed silence” in the changing worlds she has inhabited, Suleri is able to reveal the resources and capacities of her mother’s ways of knowing and interacting that, judged by a standard of assertion and public activity, would only reveal a lack. Thus she avoids the familiar double bind of writers who, in representing women, construe the lack of overt self-assertion as a lack of self, thereby re-inscribing the familiar stereotype of passivity. Agency, in Suleri’s text, is not solely located in the effort of exercising control over events, although there are several examples of overt rebellion and assertion in the book; but the emphasis is on agency articulated through the idiom of accommodation not mastery.14 By displacing the political from the domain of masculine activity, represented by her father’s life, to the experiences and perspectives of the family women, Suleri is able to redefine the notion of agency.



Her father’s political output took the form of reams of journalistic prose, but her mother’s productivity was located elsewhere; in her children, her teaching, her habit of abstraction. On one occasion, her mother took charge of the Times of Karachi when her father had been jailed for sedition. To voice her protest, she ordered the newspaper to be printed blank bearing only its title. Thus, in one of her rare public actions, Mair transformed the medium of her husband’s writing by speaking in silence and “turned censorship into sedition” (1989, 118). Sara suggests to Tillat that “Mamma was more political.... She did not have to put it into print” making explicit the reconstruction of political activity on which the text is built (1989, 168). Meatless Days recollects and celebrates “the company of women,” but Suleri is careful to resist the easy appropriation of her tales within the universalizing concepts of sisterhood or womanhood (1989,1). While she certainly writes about women, and women who are sisters, she resists a totalizing narrative of sisterhood or womanhood. The conundrum she throws before her readers is her assertion that what she misses about Pakistan is “the absence of women” (1989, 19). She explains that her reference is “to a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary” (1989, 1). The subject positions that preoccupy the women she will write about are formed by family ties; they were “too busy” to think about being women, being engaged instead in “conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant.”15 Suleri approaches the difficulty of representing the Pakistani women in her stories as a discursive problem. Within her text, written for an audience unfamiliar with the cultural specificity of the world she recollects, but familiar with feminist reconstructions of gender, “woman” is inscribed as an aporia. Suleri concludes the first talefchapter] “Excellent Things in Women,” with a riddling explanation that deconstructs the certainties available for the reader in the word “woman.” Suleri recalls being asked by one of her female students why she has not given equal space to women writers in her Third World literature syllabus. Driven to illogicality, she writes: “Against all my own odds I know what I must say. Because, I’ll answer slowly, there are no women in the Third World” (1989, 20). Suleri is acutely aware of the dangers of writing about the women she knew in a vocabulary that overwrites their subject positions, just as she knows that her refusal to do so can alienate her potential readers. She negotiates the problem, not by denying the possibility of representation but by insisting upon the unraveling that attends any reading of “women.“ In her incisive analysis in “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “ Women” in History, Denise Riley explains that ‘being a woman’ is an uncertain



condition, since “woman” is historically and discursively constructed in relation to other categories; women are differently positioned within the collectivity; and the collectivity itself is an erratic and shifting one over time.16 She contends that to say that there “aren't any ’women/ ” is not to indicate “that our identity is to be dissipated into airy indeterminacy, extinction; instead it is to be referred to the more substantial realms of discursive historical formation” (1988, 5). Suleri’s statement, that there are no women in the Third World, diverges from Riley’s similar-sounding statement because it introduces the category of geography, while Riley relies on history; furthermore, despite her argument that there are variations within the category of women, Riley certainly assumes its availability as a constant, whereas Suleri suggests it may be so totally subsumed in other categories as not to be available at all in certain circumstances. Suleri’s statement extends in crucial ways Riley’s argument about the problems with universalizing the construct of “women.” Nevertheless, there are clearly problems with Suleri’s position here that she seems acutely aware of, but unable to address within this most radically deconstructive announcement. One is left wondering how the generalization moves from her experience in Pakistan to a wider referentiality for the Third World; how in a society where gender segregation is strong and the law produces a relentless narrative of “woman,” the idea of a collectivity of women is unavailable. Suleri revisits this issue to present a different, and I would argue, much more tenable articulation of the problem in her essay “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.”17 Taking issue this time with other postcolonial feminists, she criticizes the recourse to personal narratives of radical subjectivity as the basis of an oppositional discourse in bell hooks’ and Trinh T. M inh-ha’s writing because of its risky engagement with realist categories of experience which carry a “Eurocentric and patriarchal pattern of adjudicating between disparate cultural and ethnic realities” (Suleri 1992,763). Suleri cites the coerciveness and violence of the language of realism in its articulation of female subjectivity when examined from the perspective of the Hudood Ordinances, which were legislated in Pakistan under a program of Islamization instituted by the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia-ul-H aq. Here Suleri stipulates that “while such infamous laws raise many historical and legal questions, they remain the body through which the feminist movement in Pakistan—the Women’s Action Forum—must organize itself’ (1992,766). Suleri clearly states here that the laws inscribe a particular narrative of woman that should form the ground for resistance to these laws. There is no ambivalence here, as earlier, about the existence of “an available vocabulary of woman.” The example of Pakistani women’s position under the Hudood Ordinances, like



Suleri’s earlier statement that “there are no women in the Third World” are effective in exposing the assumptions of her student and United States postcolonial feminists as “conceptually parochial,” in that they scale down the postcolonial condition “in order to encompass it within North American academic terms” (1992,765). However, Suleri’s earlier counter-stance to such parochialism is itself inadequate to acknowledge the “existence” of women within religious, juridical and cultural discourses in Pakistan and the Third World. To what extent the seeming non-availability of a vocabulary of woman is a product of the class position and privilege of her family circumstances remains unconsidered in Meatless Days. Such questions might have fruitfully opened her own fraught complicities in enunciating a deconstructive statement such as “there are no women in the Third World.”18 The idiom of her mother’s discourse functions as a dialogical supplement to the discourse of nationalism spoken in her father’s voice in the story[chapter] entitled “Papa and Pakistan.” This story is narrated through complex metaphorical parallels between her father’s birth and growth and the genesis and evolution of Pakistan. She writes with amused affection of the coincidence of their naming: They must have hit upon their names in about the same era, that decade of the 1930s when Ziauddin Ahmed— a Rajput Salahria, employee of the imperial government in India—decided to become Z. A. Suleri the writer, and some Indian Muslims in England decided it was high time to talk about Islamic independence and invented that new coinage, Pakistan. (1989, 110) In both cases, the assumption of a name announces a new-found purpose and identity. Suleri emphasizes the fictiveness of nationhood in this passage, its status as political in(ter)vention. This inventiveness is further dramatized in her father’s decision shortly afterwards to adopt Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, as his father.19 Jinnah was referred to by the reverential title of Quaid in her family. Suleri recalls that “in our home that title conveyed an added twist, becoming in Pip’s impassioned discourse nothing other than the Father” (1989, 111). The authority of nationalist discourse is vested in the figure of the father and this authority assumes mythic proportions in Sara’s childhood imagination: Pakistan as Fatherland. The story “Papa and Pakistan” follows the chronology of events carefully, emphasizing the linearity through which the nationalist narrative is plotted, its obsession with progenitors and origins, and its emphasis on landmark events like the Lahore Resolution and the Partition. Even as her father’s narration of the



founding of Pakistan observes a fidelity to chronological development, her own writing focuses on the derangements of temporality that attend death, displacement, and mourning. Suleri’s text marks a critical departure from the realist medium of her father’s writing, the newspaper, the authoritative medium of nation making.20 Meatless Days moves back and forth between events, weaving them together by metaphor and emotional association, and returning to episodes from different perspectives so that the shaping of the past is stressed. The last tale, “Saving Daylight” is an intricate meditation on her many transactions with time— in art, writing, and memory—a self-reflexive narrative that enacts as it discusses, how its own time marks an end. The divergences between her father’s narrative and her own reveal Suleri’s inability to accommodate her experiences within the framework of his discourse. What first appear as gentle interpolations gather force and substance until their differences erupt over the implications of the Bangladesh war: “I am not talking about the two-nation theory,” I wept to my father, “I am talking about blood!” He would not reply, and so we went our separate ways, he mourning for the mutilation of a theory, and I—more literal— for a limb, or a child, or a voice. (1989, 122) Her disillusionment with Pakistan and her growing distance from her father’s ideals coincide. Sara’s decision to leave Pakistan for America is read by her father as a relegation of all that he has stood for. Suleri uses the metaphor of nationhood to emphasize the political differences on which their separation is grounded and to convey the particular chagrin her decision causes him. When she tells him she is leaving, “he looked at me as though I were telling him that I was not a nation any more, that I was a minority” (1989, 123). Since his life’s work, the struggle for Pakistan, was founded on the repudiation of minority status for Muslims within a unified India, Sara’s voluntary assumption of marginality within someone else’s history is galling to him. Suleri interpolates the epic idiom of nationalist struggle with the domestic idiom of marriages, births, and deaths, thus questioning the official definition of history and its segregation of the public and the private. While her father’s books and articles commemorate the struggle for Pakistan through its visible public markers—ceremonies, conferences, and rallies organized by men— Suleri’s book incorporates the unobserved efforts of the women—the long waiting, caring for children, and the unremitting attentiveness to family needs. Recalling her father’s prodigious journalistic output, she is also reminded of her mother’s quieter toil in supporting that production:



I was bone-tired after ten years of reading articles in galley proofs and needed to put continents between newsprint and my mind: my mother lived through thirty years of the daily production of that print, the daily necessity of sympathy. (1989, 158) If the energies of men are directed at nation making, the energies of women are directed towards home making, but the outward segregation of these activities belies the political nature of women’s labor.21 In Meatless Days, home making acquires complex political significance since it represents the effort to engage history, creating accommodation in the face of loss and change; to that end, it becomes a task of infinite resource, courage and imagination.22 When Ifat’s husband, Javed, returns from the Bangladesh War after two years as a prisoner of war in India, Sara describes the immensity of Ifat’s effort: One day, standing in the dining room, Javed suddenly began to describe what he had felt during his first killing. I stopped still, and my head swam at the thought of what came next, overwhelming me with images of what he must have seen. My terror asked me, how will Ifat do it, make Javed’s mind a human home again and take those stories from his head? That was the most arduous labor of Ifat’s life, as she began with great reserve to bring her husband home again. (1989, 144) Home making takes place at various levels throughout the text. The founding of Pakistan was an attempt to create a home for large numbers of Indian Muslims whose leadership felt that they would be ill accommodated within the framework of a secular, undivided India after the departure of the British. The devastation that attends the nationalist projects of home making are contrasted to the efforts undertaken by the women—making, salvaging, or rebuilding homes in the wake of displacement, loss, and change. In Meatless Days, the loss of home shapes the lives and understandings of all the family women in different ways. Dadi is compelled by the turn of political events and her son’s loyalties to move to Pakistan on the eve of Independence, where she awaits his return from England. The historic displacement leaves her with a grim view of the enthusiastic rhetoric of independence: “She had long since dispensed with any loyalties larger than the pitiless give-and-take of people who are forced to live together in the same place, and she resented independence for the distances it made” (1989, 2). Sara’s mother crosses continents to make a new home in the country of her adoption: her disinterestedness and tact are the legacies o f her dislocation. Sara’s need to distance herself from daughterly duties and



Pakistan takes her to America; marriage transports Tillat to Kuwait. Finally, Ifat’s decision to elope casts her out of her father’s home and, in the aftermath of a strained reconciliation, she discovers that she has lost her place in his home. Sara witnesses Ifat’s homecomings in helpless commiseration: “My father would never properly forgive her, and my mother’s quaintly decorous way sought to extend privacy to Ifat now that she thought her daughter belonged to a different life. So in the end, there was no place left where Ifat could return: in each room she was new” (1989, 143). Ifat responds to the estrangement with her parents by telling Sara that men live in homes but that women must learn to live in their bodies; and so she does, making her body a metaphorical home with every pregnancy. Meatless Days is replete with stories of the ways in which women negotiate from this position of vulnerability, creating in the interstices of patriarchal culture, spaces of solidarity or challenges that relentlessly open out the spaces to which women are assigned. By insistently inhabiting the subject positions of women within postcolonial history, Suleri evokes a keen awareness of the heterogeneities of these subject positions as well as their precariousness. A re-writing of home making as resistance enables the articulation of these struggles as political activity. By linking political history and subjectivity, Suleri throws into crisis what Jacqueline Rose has described as the misconceived dichotomy between the reality of external events and the unreality of internal events.23 According to Rose, this dichotomy overlooks an understanding of resistance in psychic terms and favors instead a notion of agency derived from “a politics of sexuality based on assertion and will” (quoted in deLauretis 1990, 125). Suleri’s writing, on the other hand, articulates a historical consciousness that inscribes dream and fantasy as sites of resistance to normative identifications thereby emphasizing the specific ability of the unconscious, as Teresa de Lauretis explains, “to exceed the mechanisms of social determination” (1990, 125). The notion of the unconscious as excess, continues de Lauretis, “can lead to the realization of another crucial aspect of agency and its potential for feminist politics.” Suleri re-narrates national allegory as cultural biography, opening—through her discourse and the narrations of multiple migrations—the spaces of the proper name Pakistan, invoking colonial India, partitioned India, Bangladesh, subcontinental Islam, diasporic Pakistan/India (dispersed over Kuwait, England, America), thereby signifying genealogies and affiliations that re-envision the boundaries that inscribe the modern nation. Within the discourse of nationalism boundaries define identity; they assert sovereignty. But Suleri’s stories suggest the possibility of alternative identities formed from the experience of diaspora, the movement across borders, the living in other histories. This location outside and



in between nations forms the perspective for the narrator in Meatless Days, and it is also recreated in various ways in the lives of several characters. For Suleri, emotional ties to friends and family traverse national boundaries, inscribing a new cartography of affiliation that challenges nation as the primary form of community. The site for re-narrating the nation through wter-national identifications is her mother’s story to which Suleri returns insistently for new ways of conceiving location and connection. In Suleri’s Meatless Days, to re-member the nation, in a subcontinent where history is haunted by the possibility of further partitions, is to tell stories about the ways in which loss becomes productive. Narrativity becomes a figure for the losses it commemorates.




1. Sara Suleri, M e a tle ss D a y s (Chicago: Uof Chicago P, 1989) 157-8. 2. Homi Bhabha, “Location, Intervention, Incommensurability: AConversation with Homi Bhabha" E m e rg e n c e s 1 (1989): 67. 3. Fredric Jameson defines national allegory as a formof “situational consciousness” that typifies all Third World texts, inwhich “the storyof the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public Third World culture and society” (69). While I would disagree with Jameson’s unilateral categorization of a ll Third World texts under this rubric, his perceptionof the imbrication of the public and private in postcolonial texts is valuable, as also the concept of “national allegory” in a discussion of some postcolonial novels. See Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” S o c ia l T ext 15 (Fall 1986); also Aijaz Ahmad’s closely argued response in“Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,’ ” S o c ia l T ext 17 (Fall 1987): 3-25. 4. For a discussion of the problems of linking the marginalization of the diasporic narrator and the women characters see Inderpal Grewal, “Salman Rushdie: Marginality, Women, and S h a m e ” G en d ers 3 (1988): 24-42. 5. Salman Rushdie, Sham e (London: Oxford UP, 1983), 173. 6. Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modem nation,” N a tio n a n d N a rra tio n , Bhabha, ed. (London: Routledge, 1990) 305-6. For a definition of the supplement see also Jacques Derrida, O f G ra m m a to lo g y , Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 1976) 145. 7. Sara Suleri, The R h eto ric o f E nglish India (Chicago: Uof Chicago P, 1992) 5. 8. Sara Suleri, “Karachi, 1990,” R a rita n 11 (Spring 1992): 52. 9. As Suleri (1989) tells us, meatless days were instituted by governmental decree shortly after Independence in Pakistan to conserve the national supply of livestock. Accordingly, the sale of meat was prohibitedon days officiallydesignated as meatless days, Tuesday and Wednesday. By the “little swerve fromseverity to celebration“ that characterized so many events inPakistan, she recounts, the government order prompted the trebling of meat sales on Monday (31). Thus, meat consumption proceeded unimpeded on meatless days despite official decree: “instead of creating an atmosphere of abstention in the city, the institution of meatless days rapidlycame to signify the imperative behind the acquisition of all things fleshly” (31-2). Suleri’s consumption of her mother’s body, like the national feasting on forbiddenmeat, allegorizes the subject’s capacity to circumvent institutional prohibitions.



10. Caren Kaplan, “Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse,” C u ltu ra l C ritiq ue 6 (Spring 1987): 187-98. Kaplan derives the term “deterritorialization” from Deleuze and Guattari’s A n ti-O e d ip u s although she insists on making the distinction between those who choose deterritorialization and those on whom it is forced by historical circumstances. See also Biddy Martin andChandra Talpade Mohanty, “Feminist Politics: What’s Home Got to Do with It?” F em in ist S tu d ie s/ C r itic a l S tu d ie s , Teresa de Lauretis, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) 191-212. 11. Kaplan is again using a termderived fromDeleuze andGuattari. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “What is a Minor Literature?” Kafka: T ow ards a M inor L itera tu re , Richard Brinkley, trans. (Minneapolis: Uof Minnesota P, 1986) 16-27. 12. Inpostcolonial and minority theorizing, the problemof representation has often focused onthe necessity of lettingthe oppressedsp e a k for themselves. “Isn’t the whole point to have a v o ic e V Marina Lazreg asks at the endof her essay “Feminismand Difference: The Perils ofWriting as aWoman onWomen inAlgeria,” Conflicts in Feminism, Marianne Hirsch and EvelynFox Keller, eds. (NewYork: Routledge, 1990) 342. Lazregemphasizesthe importance ofvoice as the basis ofdialogue necessary to resist the colonizing moves by which academic First World feminismrepresents other women, specifically Algerianwomen. See also Benita Parry’scriticismofcolonial discoursetheorists ascomplicit insilencingthevoice ofthenative in“Problems inCurrent Theories ofColonial Discourse,” O xford L iterary R eview 9.1 (1987): 27-58. While this approach points to a crucial aspect of establishing a political identity, the exclusive emphasis on voice overlooks the ways inwhich silence operates as resistance. 13. Roger M. Keesing, “Kwaio Women Speak: The Micropolitics of Autobiography in a Solomon Island Society,” A m erican A n th ro p o lo g ist 87 (1985): 27. For a critique of the equation of speech and agency, see also Zakia Pathak and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, “Shahbano,” Signs 14 (Spring 1989): 558-582. Ina brilliant analysis of the furor generated by an Indian Supreme Court ruling awarding a divorced Muslimwoman maintenance from her husband, Pathak and Sunder Rajan argue that access to the subjectivity of the gendered subaltern is not possible through speech because “in the charged political and religious situation inwhich the media sought and were given the interviews, her freedomto apply regulative and representative speech acts was further and drastically curtailed” (570). 14. Accommodation is to be distinguished frompassivity, because while it assumes that human power to shape or alter events is limited, it affirms the human capacity for transformation and creativity within circumscribed limits. Suleri’s emphasis on accommodation is grounded inthe historical specificities of migration and war as well the psychic dislocations resulting fromthe suddendeaths ofher mother andsister. It is crucial to recognize the specificities of the narrative of accommodation as a discourse of survival in order to resist its inscription as Oriental passivity or fatalism. 15. The discursive representation of historically or culturally remote subjectivities confronts this problem of the rhetoric of recovery, since such revisionary projects work within the framework of apolitical project that may employ a vocabulary that was unavailable to the subjectsbeingrepresented. Spivakhighlightsthisdisjunctionintherevisionaryhistoriography MOTHER-COUNTRY AND FATHERLAND


ofthe Subaltern Studies Group. One of the assumptions behind the work of the Subaltern Studies Groupis, Spivakexplains, “that thesubaltern’s own idiomdidnot allowhimtoknow his own struggle so that he could articulate himselfas its subject.” See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “ALiteraryRepresentationoftheSubaltern: AWoman’sText fromtheThirdWorld,” In O th er W orlds: E ssa ys in C ultural P o litics (NewYork: Routledge, 1987) 253. Speaking of thecomplicatednegotiationsinvolvedinthehistorian’sworkofrecovery, GyanPrakashnotes: “The project ofretrieval begins at the point ofthe subaltern’s erasure; its very possibility is also a signof its impossibility, andrepresents the intervention of the historian-critic whose discourse must be interrogated persistently andwhose appropriation of the other should be guarded against vigilantly.” Gyan Prakash, “Postcolonial Criticism and Indian Historiography,” S o cia l Text 31/32 (1992): 12. Spivak, Prakash, and Suleri are engaging the same problem of representation although Spivak and Prakash are discussing textual representation, while Suleri also raises the problemof reading practices. 16. Denise Riley,

“Am 1 th a t N a m e ? ” F em inism a n d the C a te g o r y o f “ W om en ” in

C o n tem p o ra ry H isto ry

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988) 2.

17. Sara Suleri, “Woman Skin Deep: Feminismand the Postcolonial Condition,” C r itic a l 18 (Summer 1992): 756-69.

In qu iry

18. Two essays on Suleri express unease over this formulation, although Grewal’s offers a more considered and probing analysis. Inderpal Grewal, “Autobiographic Subjects and DiasporicLocations:M eatless D a ys andB orderlan ds ,”S ca ttere d H egem onies: P ostm odern ity a n d T ransnational F em inist P ra c tic e s, Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds. 231-54 ; Sangeeta Ray, “Memory, Identity, Patriarchy: Projecting a Past in the Memoirs of Sara Suleri and Michael Ondaatje,” M o d ern F ictio n S tu d ies 39 (Winter 1993): 37-58. 19. Theanti-colonial struggleintheIndiansubcontinentgatheredmomentumafterWorldWar I, but under the leadershipofM. A. Jinnahamovement for a separate Muslimhomelandwas also initiated. Suleri’s father, Z. A. Suleri, was an ardent advocate of Pakistani nationhood. Following British withdrawal from the subcontinent in 1947, the former colony was partitioned intotwo separate nations, IndiaandPakistan. Pakistansplit once again in 1971 to formthenewnationofBangladeshinthe aftermathofa separatist struggle andawar between the two sections ofthe country, inwhich India intervened on the side of Bangladesh. Both partitionswereaccompaniedbyhorrifyingbrutalities inwhichthousands diedandmanymore were rendered homeless. 20. See Benedict Anderson, Im a g in ed C om m u n ities (London: Verso, 1983). 21. For anexcellent discussionofthepublic/privatedichotomy intheWesternliberal tradition andfeminist challengestothistradition, seeFeminism a n d E quality, Anne Phillips, ed. (New York: NewYorkUP, 1987), especially the essays byZillahEisenstein, JeanBethke Elshtain, and Carole Pateman.



22. Intheir introduction to the second volume of Women W riting in India which focuses on the twentieth century, the editors Susie Tharu andK. Lalitha contextualize the anthology by describingthe writings as texts “that displaywhat is at stake inthe embattledpractices ofself and agency, and in the m akin g o f a h a b ita b le w o rld , at the margins of patriarchies reconstitutedbytheemergingbourgeoisies ofempire andnation”(italics mine). Theyemploy the metaphor ofhabitation as central to the representationofthe struggles involved inthese writings. Women W riting in India: 6 0 0 B.C. to the P resent, vol.2, SusieTharuandK. Lalitha, eds. (NewYork: Feminist P, 1993) 39. 23. Quoted in Teresa de Lauretis, “Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory and Historical Consciousness,” F em in ist S tu d ies 16 (Spring 1990): 125.




Race, Gender, and the Caribbean Narrative of Revolution Belinda Edmondson

Traditionally, Caribbean discourse has had a central engagement with revolutionary discourse, a concern with narrativizing and deconstructing historical revolutionary events or movements in the Caribbean. From classic West Indian1 novels such as V. S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas, Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can't Dance, and Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest to critical discourse such as C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, Lamming’s The Pleasures o f Exile, and Selwyn Cudjoe’s Resistance and Caribbean Literature, Caribbean discourse has consistently blurred the distinction between the historical and the fictional revolutionary moment.2 In a sense, the melding of real revolutionary events and fiction was inevitable, indeed necessary. Much of the revolutionary history of the Caribbean was “invisible” in traditional histories of the region in the pre-independence years, even of successful revolutions in the region such as the Haitian revolution, which was documented as part of Caribbean history for the first time in C. L. R James’ Jacobins in the 1930s. The history of all the failed revolts, the attempts at resistance or rebellions, became part of what Derek Walcott calls the “amnesia” that is the “true history of the New World.”3 These silences of history linger in half-remembered oral histories, myths, and legends that abound in the Caribbean. Thus fiction takes over where history leaves off: fiction and fact become part of the same project of reclamation—the recovery of the near-revolutions of Caribbean history. As Jamaican sociologist and writer Ema Brodber observes of West Indian society: “[The literate] tended to see bookleaming not simply as a tool for making a livelihood but as the ultimate truth... The unlettered lower class, depending on the oral tradition for its information, was kept in touch with its past of Africa and

slavery and with its African identity.”4 The conflation of story and history in the West Indian context is therefore particularly important as a way of empowering the entire spectrum of people and providing a democratic means of shaping Caribbean historical discourse. This desire to historicize the Caribbean is arguably part of a desire to r e w r i t e the ending of the Caribbean historical script. The failures of slave revolutions and other revolts in a larger framework of colonization and systemic subjugation become a narrative problem of creation, according to V. S. Naipaul: The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies. (T h e M id d le P a s s a g e , 29) I will argue that this association of violence with the impossibility of narration corresponds to a discursive desire to “mark” history with conquest (which, in NaipauPs terms, constitutes “achievement,” since “real” history is the story of battles and wars fought and won) and thereby write the Caribbean into “reality.” Since violent conquest is, in its turn, associated with the rites of manhood, the reclamation of history has come to signify the “reclamation”— or the constitution, to be more precise—of Caribbean masculinity in much of Caribbean discourse. It is under these circumstances that Cudjoe can title one of his chapters in R e s i s t a n c e , “Back Into Manhood and Resistance,” since acts of resistance themselves are associated with the masculinized characteristics of violent agency. Lamming, Cesaire and others5 have erected Caliban as the supreme symbol of Caribbeanness, of Caribbean desire for material, social, and linguistic autonomy from Europe; this is not due simply to the fact that the particulars of Caliban’s status— captive, racial “other,” islander—corresponds to that of slaves in the New World, but to his desire to conquer Prospero, not least through the rape of his daughter Miranda and the subsequent “peopling]” of the isle with “Calibans.” In T h e P le a s u r e s o f E x ile , Lamming asserts that Caliban does not wish to rape Miranda for “the mere experiment of mounting a piece of white pussy,” but rather it is the “meaning and presence of a brown skin grandchild” that would be Prospero’s undoing: “the result of some fusion [between Caliban and Miranda] both physical and other than physical. . . which, within himself, Prospero needs and dreads!” (102) If we consider the sexual politics of the above statements, it is clear that the white female body becomes the v is ib le site of contestation between Caliban, the symbol of black Caribbean masculinity, and Prospero, the symbol of white imperial masculinity. It is on this ta b u la r a s a that Caliban can (re)write history, and indeed Lamming devotes a chapter in T h e P le a s u r e s o f E x ile to a reading of 64


Touissant L’Ouverture, the black leader of the Haitian revolution, as an historical Caliban with Napoleon’s Creole empress Josephine in the role of Miranda (“Caliban Orders History,” 118). What is particularly notable about this reading is the absence of the body of the black woman, both in Shakespeare’s play and in Lamming’s recreation of it in his allegorical novel, Water with Berries. In that the black woman’s body would seem to be the logical choice as the central symbol of the female body as political weapon— having suffered the historical victimage of institutionalized rape at the hands of white male slave owners—it is interesting that the most potent representations of rape and/or violation of a female body as a political act in male-authored West Indian fiction is effected through the use of a white female character.6 The body of the white woman, then, could be said to represent the site of possible future interactions between the colonizer/Prospero and the colonized/Caliban, a site where both must renegotiate the terms of dominance and subordination; a site where both can meet as men— a variation of the Enlightenment ideal of the Public Sphere, except that the terms of equality rest on the ability to violate the female body. In this particular logic of gender domination, the rape of the black woman does not count in that she is not a Woman, nor is she human.7 Unlike the white female body, the black woman’s body is often figured as the maternal body, like Sycorax, Caliban’s absent mother in The Tempest, who, if we carry the metaphor of colonialism to its logical conclusion, represents the past might of "mother" Africa. In these masculine narratives of Caribbean history, the silence of the raped (white) female body is not the same as the silence of the black maternal body, since rape is figured here as one kind of displaced desire for something through violence, whereas the black female body represents unrecoverable, nostalgic history. The white Creole female body becomes a metonymy operating in two spheres: it displaces the history of black female rape even as it registers black male desire for contemporary power, signified here as a political conflict with masculinized European imperialism.8 If revolutionary action has been marked as a contest of competing masculinities in Caribbean metanarrative, and the site of struggle is correspondingly marked as [white and] female and/or feminized, then how is the invisibilized [black] female body to be activated and thereby rendered visible in historical/fictive discourse? In these binary terms, can white and black female bodies occupy the same discursive spaces? These are the questions taken up in Michelle C liffs No Telephone to Heaven, a sequel to her semi-autobiographical, semi-historical fiction Abeng. C liffs novel is particularly important because it is perhaps the only female-authored West Indian narrative, with the possible exception of Merle Collins’ Angel, that explicitly thematizes revolutionary RACE, GENDER, AND REVOLUTION 65

political action through a female protagonist. C liffs concern with integrating the violent history of the Caribbean with issues of sexuality, race, and gender make this novel at once in the tradition of male-authored revolution narrative, as well as a radical departure from—and critique of—it. Consequently, for the remainder of this essay I shall explore the relation between the revolutionary action and racial/gender identity in No Telephone to Heaven with a view to addressing how C liffs treatment reconfigures the masculinist revolution narrative in Caribbean discourses. The novel clearly links the possibility of future radical political and social change in Jamaica and the Caribbean at large to issues of sexuality and race in two ways: 1) the failed revolutionary event at the novel’s conclusion is in no way related to any factual events in Jamaica, unlike many other political incidents that take place which parallel real events in Jamaican history; and 2) the protagonist’s ambivalent racial and gender status are connected to her desire to change the social order. The protagonist of Abeng and No Telephone is Clare Savage, a light-skinned, white-looking Jamaican woman, the daughter of an unhappy couple, Boy and Kitty Savage. Boy Savage, also a light-skinned black, is the direct descendant of Judge Savage, a white slaveowner who burned his slaves. Boy wishes to preserve this “illustrious,” historically approved heritage by identifying himself and his family with its European ancestors and all things European. Boy’s desire for whiteness is part of a national desire to claim the “winning side” of history, a history which plays itself out in the country every day, as Clare notes: But we are of the past here. So much of the past that we punish people by flogging them with cat-o’-nine tails. We expect people to live on commeal and dried fish, which was the diet of the slaves. We name hotels Plantation Inn and Sans Souci.... A peculiar past. For we have taken the master’s past as our own. That is the danger. (No Telephone, 127) By contrast, Kitty Savage, who cannot pass for white, is from “the bush” (African-identified rural Jamaica) and is the silent opponent of Boy’s desire for whiteness. When the couple emigrate to the United States, Kitty works in the aptly named “White’s Sanitary Laundry,” a place peopled by black women who do the actual work even as the finished laundry is accompanied by a signed note from an imaginary “Mrs. White” giving laundering advice. The laundry’s white owner subscribes to a philosophy of wifehood, motherhood and general womanhood that makes crisp laundry an intrinsic part of being a woman, here marked indelibly as white even as the labor that produces the white laundry is invisible black female labor (No Telephone, 73). Kitty, who must pen the imaginary notes, one day writes: “Hello. Mrs. White is dead. My name is Mrs. Black. I killed her.” Her 66


subsequent firing is the wedge that ultimately separates her and Boy, who is trying to “pass” as white in the United States. There is deliberate irony in the fact that Kitty's act of resistance is contained within the context of white America, and that she never “speaks” in Jamaica, since she dies in the United States and her body is returned for burial in Jamaica. Kitty’s silent resistance symbolizes the silenced discourse of blackness in the region, and blackness here becomes marked as ultimately female. Her dead black body becomes a silent and yet unburied legacy, part of Walcott’s “amnesia” that must be remembered. The subsequent two-page chapter titled “Magnanimous Warrior!” ties the historical figures of female warrior/Maroons (the runaway slaves who fought and beat the British), to the powerful mythic female spirits and “obeah” women (who can “shed [their] skin like a snake and travel into the darkness a fireball” [163]), and finally to “real” black, poor women: What has become of this warrior?... She has been burned up in an almshouse fire in Kingston. She has starved to death. She wanders the roads of the country with swollen feet... Her children have left her. Her powers are known no longer. They are called by other names. She is not respected... She cleans the yard of a woman younger than she... They tell her she is senile. They have taken away her bag of magic... We have forgotten her... Can you remember how to love her? (164) Some years later, Clare, who has been travelling in the United States and London studying art history, returns to Jamaica. There she meets a black transvestite, Harry/Harriet, who introduces her to a revolutionary group with international links. The leader of the group, a black woman, questions her desire to come back to Jamaica and fight for social change. Clare replies that she has returned to Jamaica “to mother (192),” that “[m]y mother told me to help my people” (196). The black revolutionary in turn asks her to “think of [Maurice] Bishop. [Walter] Rodney. [Frantz] Fanon. Lumumba. Malcolm. First. Luthuli. Garvey. Mxembe. Marley. Moloise” (196). In this way Cliff establishes a direct link between a pan-Africanist male tradition of revolution—the list contains radical African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean political leaders, thinkers, and artists—and the recovery of the black female body, both discursively and materially, since Clare, through radical political action, hopes simultaneously to bury and make visible her black mother. Through revolutionary action, she also hopes to bury and make visible the black, silenced maternal space of Jamaica. That Clare, who operates as physiognomically and socially “white” in the Caribbean—and indeed in Europe, where she is assumed to be white—must find


a way to recover the black female body so that she may be reconciled to her conflicting heritage, is a contradiction that the narrative attempts to resolve. In T h e W r e tc h e d o f th e E a r th , Frantz Fanon declares that violence is an inevitable part of the decolonizing process, and much of West Indian writing acknowledges this potential for violent social upheaval. However, much of the West Indian fascination with revolution centers on the f a i l u r e of revolutionary action. Lamming’s revolutionaries are exiled in London in W a te r w ith B e r r i e s , while in Naipaul’s G u e r illa s , the revolution fails because of the internal incoherence of the guerrillas. The black nationalist protagonist Jimmy Ahmed seeks only to be a “real” hero, like the one he is writing about in his novel, whose “reality” is sustained in the fact that he is much admired— and feared— in England, the site of white male power.9 Ahmed’s novel also contains a gang rape of a white woman by black men, who afterwards offer her water, which she accepts gratefully. For Naipaul, the violation of the white female body is a necessary staple for the ascendance of black nationalism. This is not to suggest that Naipaul’s distinctly hostile— if not racist—view of Black Power is in any ideological way connected to Lamming’s or other writers’ views on the subject; however, despite the ideological chasm between Naipaul and the nationalists, the arrangement of bodies and their meanings are remarkably similar. Naipaul’s novel is particularly important to our discussion of N o T e le p h o n e to H e a v e n because of its reading of Black Power movements in the Caribbean as a contest between black and white men mediated through the exploitation of willing white women. It is this model of race and power relations which is the site of an intertextual engagement in C liffs narrative. In G u e r r illa s Ahmed’s rape and murder—the last effected through a semi-retarded, “mad” ghetto boy— of an Englishwoman is constructed as the ultimate act of black violence run amok. It is violence that is the result of an existential crisis of identity, an identity which can only conceive itself on the other side of “reality”: the revolution is revealed to be an empty, contemporary cliche that masks this “truth.” The depiction of revolution as symbol, as sign without connection to referent, echoes Naipaul’s emphasis on the guerilla’s writing fantasy scenarios of revolt—the implication is that his rage, like his writing, is only given expression by romantic European liberal ideas, and consequently his violence, like his writing can only be a caricature, an echo, or inversions of a European referent. In a scene that parallels Naipaul’s, the gardener Christopher in N o T e le p h o n e t o H e a v e n murders his wealthy brown employers and their black maid because they refused to give him land to bury his grandmother, who had died some thirteen years before. Christopher too is “mad” in one sense, but his “madness” becomes coherent in the historical context of the narrative, where the injustices of the past and present converge into a single act of “random” violence. 68


Like Christopher, Clare’s mother had died some time before. And, like Christopher’s mother, Clare’s mother is black, a significant element in the chronology of West Indian narrative where, as we have noted, the bodies which represent the site of dialogue have been those of white females. That these maternal bodies have been dead but not buried remind us of the invisibility of black women in the narration of West Indian revolutionary discourse, as embodied by Caliban’s mother, the absent Sycorax, who represents Caliban’s past heritage of might and agency. Therefore, the attempt to “bury” the grand/mother becomes a metaphor for reconciling the “unburied”—that is, unrepresented, ghostly, “magical”—history of the people with the possibilities contained in the land, a fusion which requires violent rupture with present reality. When Clare joins the revolutionary group and engages in a physical attack on an American movie set, this act of violence replicates Christopher’s act, not solely for its intent to “bury” the black mother but also for the seeming randomness of its target, a Hollywood movie on the Jamaican Maroons. One of the actresses in the film is a black woman who is to play the role of Nanny, the legendary maroon leader who was reputed to catch the British bullets in between her buttocks. This actress is called in whenever someone was needed to play a Black heroine, any Black heroine, whether Sojourner Truth or Bessie Smith, this woman wore a pair of leather breeches and a silk shirt—designer’s notion of the clothes that Nanny wore. Dear Nanny, the Coromantee warrior, leader of the Windward Maroons, whom one book described as an old woman naked except for a necklace made from the teeth of whitemen.... Facing the elegant actress was a strapping man, former heavyweight or running back, dressed as Cudjoe, tiny humpbacked soul. (206) The grotesque sexualization of Nanny to conform to romantic heterosexual Western ideas about black womanhood is completed, significantly, by the fictive Nanny’s partnering with a similarly sexualized “Cudjoe,” who represents the historical figure of the small, deformed maroon leader. The film’s Cudjoe also conforms to Western heterosexual ideas about what desirable— and desiring— violent black masculinity should look like. This [hetero]sexualization of black revolutionary action is paradigmatic of the sexualized figures in the Caribbean history of conquest, subjugation and rape; a tableau which it merely continues in a modem, postcolonial framework. Cliff attempts to dismantle this paradigm by inserting radical sexualities into her narratives. In Abeng, the historical figure of Nanny is represented in the fictional character of Mma Alii, a black maroon leaderlobeah woman who is also RACE, GENDER, AND REVOLUTION 69

lesbian, though the text makes a point of letting the reader know that she “was a true sister to the men—the Black men: her brothers” (35). In No Telephone, Mma Alli’s literary heir is the character of Harry/Harriet, whose androgynous status, combined with his role as guerrilla, is meant to confuse the distinctions between male and female roles in a society where gender overdetermines one’s relation to the state and to the kinds of action—or inaction—in which one may or may not participate. When a European tourist notices Harry/Harriet’s eyeshadow, he explains that he is a Crown prince of Benin, and that his name is “Prince Badnigga”: I see you have noticed my eyelids...these are the colors of our national flag...At the first sign of manhood each young warrior in our country must do the same...going back to the days when we devoured our enemies...I mean, we needed the means to distinguish, didn’t we? (125) Harry/Harriet’s performance satirizes both European fears about black male savagery as well as a brand of black nationalism which equates black liberation with a dominant heterosexual masculinity that wishes to divorce itself from the “taint” of the feminine, associated as it is with failure and rape. He therefore marks the African national flag with that most trivial of “feminine” pursuits, make-up, implying that the masculinist nationalist project is itself “in drag.” We later learn that Harry/Harriet is the child of a housekeeper and her employer who is taken into the household of the employer “on sufferance,” and that his first sexual experience is a rape that he has suffered at the hands of a white military officer who threatens him if he dares to speak of it (129). As a young black boy whose status is already contingent on silence—his mother, the maid, was fired so that his father could preserve the myth of his son’s “legitimate” origins—this further silencing of sexual violence imbricates black masculinity in the national silence that is discursively as well as materially feminized and racialized. Therefore, Harry/Harriet must learn to “speak” of this history—both his own as a raped black man and his mother’s as a raped black woman [I submit that sex under these conditions of power inequity constitutes a form of rape]—in ways that will allow for both voices and yet not repeat the historical pattern of sexual and racial violence. As Harry/Harriet tells Clare, “the time will come for us to choose...[we cannot] live split. Not in this world” (131). But their options are different, though related. Harry/Harriet must choose between gender roles and the political consequences of being a black man or woman in Jamaica; Clare must choose whether she is to be politically black or white, which are, for her, also gendered roles. 70


By having Clare read Jane Eyre, Cliff shows Clare’s direct relation to Antoinette Cosway (called Bertha by her husband), the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre who is the subject of Jean Rhys’ famed novel Wide Sargasso Sea: The fiction tricked her. Drawn her in so that she became Jane.... No, she could not be Jane...No, my girl, try Bertha....Yes, Bertha was closer the mark. Captive. Ragout. Mixture. Confused. Jamaican. Caliban. Carib. Cannibal. Cimarron. All Bertha. All Clare. (116) This passage is particularly important for the link it provides between Caliban and Bertha, the two gendered and racialized symbols of Caribbean independence and invisibility. Both inhere within the identity of Clare, who has been characterized as an epistemological paradox in the narrative. That the misnomer of Bertha—this is the name that Rochester forces onto Antoinette—is the name designated as “closer the mark” reminds us of the misnomer of “West Indies,” and the struggle between the imposition of hegemonic history and uncoded reality which it embodies. The name represents a locus of struggle over identity, and we are guided to read Clare’s name in this way. As the inheritor of her father’s cultural and racial whiteness—her father has designated Clare to be the “white” child, to whom he shall impart the “gift” of European history and knowledge—Clare is the “masculine” daughter. Yet whiteness, as a masculinized epistemology, and femaleness, which is aligned with blackness and historylessness, cannot be assimilated to each other. Clare’s name points to this fundamental schism: “Clare” represents, obviously the “light” of European ancestry, and yet from Abeng we learn that Clare is named after a black woman who saves her mother’s life—the sign of good, therefore, is black. “Savage” is an illustrious Jamaican name, and yet, as the name implies, it carries with it a barbaric history. Thus even within the paradox of the name are concealed paradoxes. The “Savage” reminds us of Caliban, and yet this is not to whom the name refers—Caliban/Black/Man and Bertha/White/Woman are reversed within Clare. The above passage also engenders within the reader a full realization that the site of dialogue is not simply with an ambivalent white Creole tradition but also with the European literary canon itself, which freezes the colonized subject in an eternal relation of subject/object. The Jean Rhys scholar Mary Lou Emery (1990) points out that “feminist and Third World perspectives rarely combine in readings of Rhys’s work. When they do, the resulting analysis usually depends upon a structural analogy between colonial hierarchies and sexual oppression that still positions the protagonist as a victim who lacks agency and offers little or no resistance” (xii). I would extend this observation to most analyses of white Creole women.10 In many ways Cliff is


Rhys’ literary heir. Therefore it is important to know the critical context of C liffs narrative and how it seeks to rearrange the white Creole female body so that it can act without acting u p o n the black female body, since in the Caribbean historical script the silent body becomes metonymy for quiescent land, ripe for exploitation. These, then, are the critical and historical frameworks that Cliff has inherited, and ones which she must reconcile in order to rewrite a West Indian narrative to fit her peculiar position as both “white” and yet “Third World,” “blackv and yet “First World,” feminist and yet postcolonialist. To achieve this she rewrites the white Creole history of privilege and collaboration to integrate it with the unwritten black and Amerindian histories of suffering and resistance; her texts attempt to dismantle notions of “official” history and the relation of that history to myth, myth to “real life,” and “real life” to fiction, by conflating Jamaican legends and myths with ancient and contemporary histories, autobiographical anecdotes and among all of these, intertwining Clare Savage’s personal journey. In T he P o litic s a n d P o e tic s o f T r a n s g r e s s io n , Stallybrass and White emphasize that to properly understand discourse one cannot separate it from its social space: “It is only when such related concepts as critical judgement, taste, authorship and writing are reconnected to their ‘planes of emergence’ as Foucault has called them, the social points at which such ideas surface, that they can be fully understood” (83). In returning Bertha Mason back to the West Indies where her “real” name is revealed, Rhys acknowledges that geopolitical location is the crucial referent to “reading” Bertha, and by extension to making sense of West Indian discourse. Similarly, in N o T e le p h o n e to H e a v e n Clare Savage returns to Jamaica after moving first to the United States and then to London. C liffs novel reveals Clare Savage at different stages in her life, and yet the point is not to embody Clare as a character separate from her “plane of emergence” but rather to read that location through the conflicting and multiple identities that are Clare Savage: she is, as such, not a “character” in the traditional sense at all. Clare’s final destination is not England and a descent into madness, but Jamaica and conscious, p o l i t i c a l , public resistance, though she, like Bertha, dies in the act of resisting. Whereas Antoinette Cosway dreams of a location that is “somewhere else” to remove her from the Manichean world in which there is no psychic or social space for someone such as herself, Cliff seeks to a c tu a liz e that location of “elsewhere” for Clare by creating within her novels a geopolitical space of memory arising from Clare’s slaveowner, slave, and Arawak ancestry. In this way she deconstructs the traditional historical chronological narrative, with its understanding that the “conclusion” allows us to elucidate the meaning of the history. In the Caribbean, whose “conclusion” was one of slavery, colonization and consequent “Third World” status, the historical narrative has functioned to contain or erase other 72


histories by reading the region solely in terms of how it served to construct the historical realities of Europe or America. In Resistance Literature, Barbara Harlowe notes that narratives of resistance must not only undo hegemonic recorded history, but they must also invent new forms of encoding resistance by inventing spaces of resistance (189). West Indian authors similarly emphasize the spatial aspect of narrative for West Indian literature; in Tradition, the Writer, Society, Wilson Harris suggests that the “authentic” West Indian novel uses the historical memory of the land, with its unknown past and infinite possibilities, to deconstruct the colonizer/colonized opposition, and thus upends the subject/object relation of European discourse to West Indian literature. Others, notably Alejandro Carpentier, have advocated magical realism as a way of recovering the “true” history of the region (Cudjoe 56). But as Selwyn Cudjoe observes, what they understand to be the “magical” properties of West Indian history—conquistadors, obeah, an extinct Amerindian culture—are in fact based on a critical understanding of reality, and that as such West Indian narrative should not be read as circular but rather as a spiral, not a repetition but rather an extension: what he terms a “critical realism” (56). This is a useful concept for explicating Cliffs narrative in that Cliff explicitly seeks to rewrite and yet not to repeat history. In the following passage we hear the “official” history of Jamaica, resurrecting Naipaul’s vision of West Indian history— “[w]e pretended to be real...we mimic men of the New World” who are irretrievably “sunk in the taint of fantasy,”11 but infusing it with different meaning: These are the facts as I believe them. But as you no doubt are well aware, there are no facts in Jamaica. Not one single fact. Nothing to join us to the real. Facts move around you. Magic moves through you. This we have been taught. This fact that there are no facts. Wait. I can call up one fact. “The adamantine refusal of the slave-women to reproduce”— a historian report that. What of Gamesome, Lusty Ann, Counsellor’s Cuba, Strumpet called Skulker—not racehorses, mi dear, women: barren. Four furious cool-dark sistren. Is nuh fact dat? Fact yes, but magic mek it so. (No Telephone, 92) By blending the voice of the “official” history, which denies that there is a history, with the oral transmission of historical resistance encoded in the “magical” narrative of myth, the passage reveals historical representation in discourse to be the site of conflict. This political fusion of fact and fiction (“magic”) becomes a female project: black slave women as magic-makers, producers of the “fictions” of Jamaica, recreate the “facts” of Jamaica history; the fact is shown to be fictional (the distorted interpretation of black women’s “refusal to reproduce”); and the


fiction is shown to be fact (the women’s “refusal” is the result of obeah, part of a particularly female tradition of resistance to slavery). The conclusion of No Telephone, in which the international, multiracial, socially, and sexually diverse band of guerrillas attack the film set and are in turn attacked by the militaiy, is an ironic replication of the failed revolutionary actions of the male-authored narratives. Unlike its predecessors, however, No Telephone highlights its engagement not with material revolution and the whys and wherefores of its failure, but rather with the discursive formulations of revolution. Clare’s last memory is of sounds: patois, English, bird noises. The reduction of revolutionary action to basic components of language suggests that before the material revolution can be actualized, there must be a revolution of words, of the values and determinants of language, symbols, names. Earlier in the story Harry/Harriet signals to us that the real enemy is the narrative construction of history and violence, which has imprisoned all of the historical players in fixed racial, political, and sexual roles. Entering an expensive restaurant with a swashbuckling pirate colonial theme, s/he says: Of course, if they were really imaginative...they would hang some whips and chains on the walls, dress the waiters in loincloths, have the barmaid bare her breasts, and call the whole sorry mess the Middle Passage...these places bring out the worst in me...especially since I know I am more welcome here than I would be in a rumshop at Matilda’s Comer.... Our homeland is turned to stage set too much. (121) With Harry/Harriet’s observation that his relative acceptance by the island’s elite is due not to tolerance but class mores comes the realization that Caribbean historical identities—racial and sexual—have become so shaped by the stereotyped distortions of hegemonic discourse that the distortions threaten to become that identity: the Caribbean has become the “stage set,” the performance of itself. Among elite Jamaican society, the radical sexual identity of Harry/Harriet is rendered harmless because he is perceived as only one more performance among many performances, one that cannot change the material conditions of power and powerlessness. The privileged site of performance, consequently, is also the place wherein is produced the language and the categories which will inflict “real,” material consequences On those who are forced to identify themselves through those performances. As such, for Cliff, revolutionary engagement can only begin at this point of origin, where the discursive and the material world of domination meet and take shape.




1.1deliberately use the term“West Indian” to designate “Caribbean” in specific instances, despite its critical andhistorical problems, because the name is still used in the French and English-speaking Caribbean, whose inhabitants are perceived as “West Indian,” as opposed to the Spanish-speaking islands whose inhabitants are not. I submit that the different usage has created a distinction which has now become “real.” Therefore, since my focus is on English-speaking Caribbean discourse, I use “West Indian” interchangeably with “Caribbean.” 2. While Cesaire’s play and Lamming’s critical essays in The P le a su re s o f E xile are based on the characters of Shakespeare’s The T em pest , Naipaul’s novel is explicitly connected to the actual events inTrinidad, during the Black Power revolts of the early 1970s, which he chronicles inhis non-fiction essay, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings inTrinidad” (in The R etu rn o f E va P ero n w ith the K illin g s in T rin id a d ). Similarly, Lovelace’s more fictive rendering of a failedblackghetto revolt in D ra g o n can be tied to a concern with the historical meaning of the failed Black Power revolts of the 1970s. 3. Walcott, “The Quarrel with History,” in Is

M a ssa D a y D e a d ? B lack M o o d s in the

C arib b ea n .

4. Erna Brodber, “Black Consciousness and Popular Music in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s.” 5. See Lamming, The P le a su re s o f E x ile , Cesaire, A T em p est , and Roberto Fernandez Retamar, “Caliban: Notes Towards a Discussion of Culture in Our America.” 6. See V. S. Naipaul’s G u errilla s , where the black revolutionary Jimmy Ahmed rapes and allows the murder of Jane, the liberal white Englishwoman, inorder toeffect a reconciliation with his disillusioned follower, a mentally disturbed black ghetto boy. Naipaul bases his interpretation of Jane’s rape and murder on the real-life Gail Benson that he chronicles in “Michael X andthe Black Power Killings inTrinidad.” InAfrican-American fiction, Ralph Ellison’s depictionof the white female bodyas the site of conflict inthe Battle Royale scene inInvisible M an , as well as Bigger Thomas’ desire for the womanhe murders inN a tiv e Son are some other examples. 7. For a fascinating discussion of the origins of Western epistemologies of black female monstrosity, see Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” 8. Inher excellent analysis of the connection between sexuality and history in Caribbean narrative (in Andrade’s “The Nigger of the Narcissist: History, Sexuality and Intertextuality in Maryse Conde’s H erem akhon on ”), Susan Andrade similarly points to male writers’ “unproblematized, ‘natural’ relation between women and colonialism, between RACE, GENDER, AND REVOLUTION 75

history/geography and sexuality” (218), which she then connects to the black (Caribbean) male perception of the black woman as sexual/racial betrayer contained in Fanon’s discussion of interracial sex in B la ck Skin, W hite M asks. While I do not disagree with the latter argument, I would distinguish that particular strain of black female representation in Caribbean intellectual discourse from the fictional representation of black femaleness in Caribbean narrative, which, as I have said, is remarkable mostly for its absence in terms of historical interracial rape, or indeed of any kind of interracial sex between white men and black women. 9. AActiverenderingof thehistorical figure Michael X, whose rise as a Black Power leader and subsequent imprisonment for the murder of his white mistress Gail Benson is chronicled in Naipaufs essay “Michael X and the Black Power Killings inTrinidad.” 10. See Edmondson, “Race, Privilege, andthe Politics of (Re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff.” Note: a significant portion of my analysis of N o T eleph one to H ea v e n , here, is drawn fromideas first formulated in that essay. 11. V. S. Naipaul, The M im ic M en.



REFERENCES Andrade, Susan. “The Nigger of the Narcissist: History, Sexuality and Intertextuality in Maryse Conde’s Heremakhonon.” Callaloo 16.1 (1993): 213-26. Brodber, Ema. “Black Consciousness and Popular Music in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s.” Caribbean Quarterly 31.2 ( June 1985): 53-86. Cliff, Michelle. Abeng. New York: The Crossing Press, 1984. --------- . No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Vintage International Books, 1989. Collins, Merle. Angel. Seattle, Washington: Seal Press, 1988. Cudjoe, Selwyn. Resistance and Caribbean Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980. Emery, Mary Lou. Jean Rhys at “World’s End”: Novels o f Colonial and Sexual Exile. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963. Harlowe, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987. Harris, Wilson. Tradition, the Writer, and Society. London: New Beacon Publications, 1967. Lamming, George. Water with Berries. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974. --------- . The Pleasures o f Exile. London & New York: Allison & Busby, 1960. Reprinted, 1984. Lovelace, Earl. Dragon Can’t Dance. Essex: Longman Press, 1979. Naipaul, V. S. Guerrillas. New York: Vintage International Books, 1990.


-. T h e -------- .

M id d le P a s s a g e .

New York: Random House, 1962.

T h e R e tu r n o f E v a P e r o n w ith th e K i llin g s in T r in id a d .

New York:

Random House, 1974. Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” 1987): 60-82. Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. T he P o li t i c s Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

D i a c r i ti c s

4.17 (Summer

a n d P o e t ic s o f T r a n s g r e s s io n .

Walcott, Derek. “The Quarrel with History.” I s M a s s a D a y D e a d ? B la c k M o o d s in th e C a r ib b e a n . Orde Coombs, ed. Kingston, Jamaica: Carifesta Forum, 1976.




The Transformation o f Nation and Womanhood Revisionist Mythmaking in the Poetry of Nicaragua’s Gioconda Belli Pilar Moyano

The political and social events which have taken place in Central and South America in the last two decades have called upon Latin American women to come out from isolation and into the public arena. To confront the pressing problems which surround them, these women have channeled their efforts into diverse, often innovative forms of activism, from mother’s movements to guerrilla warfare. The example of Nicaragua in this respect is most significant: as Maxine Molyneaux (1985) pointed out, women’s participation in the Sandinista struggle was probably greater than in any other recent revolution with the exception of Vietnam (225). Initially, women participated in the war against Somoza mainly in support operations, but by 1979 they made up approximately 30% of the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) combat forces.1 As Linda Reif (1986) explains, they also “secured positions of leadership in combat operations commanding ‘everything from small units to full battalions.’ At the battle for the city of Leon, four of the seven Sandinista commanders were women” (159). These women belonged to different social classes: peasant, working class, professional, and bourgeois. A significant number of them were also writers whose work continues to be an integral part of their political militancy. The Sandinista National Liberation Front was defeated in the elections of 1990, after holding power for more than a decade. Writers and critics of Nicaraguan culture and letters agree that the country is undergoing, once again, a period of profound transformation. As Douglas Salamanca has indicated, “ order to find out what will come of all this, we will have to wait for the waters to

settle” (858). He adds, however, that the perspectives are positive, as they point towards a new critical revision of old postulates, regardless of the ideology sustaining them. At the same time, as it has been illustrated in a recent issue of Revista Iberoamericana dedicated to Nicaraguan literature, critics coincide also in their efforts to construct an archive or to produce a retrospective on the evolution of Nicaraguan literature. With respect to women’s poetic production, in particular that of the last decade, Daisy Zamora2 has observed the following: Our work has not been concluded, but we, the women of Nicaragua, have glimpsed our humanity, have glimpsed our future through our very own hazardous and surprising ways. All women must search for their own ways. Maybe, very probably, this work is very close to their revolutions, to the one Revolution, that of this America of ours. Perhaps poetry could allow access to it. At least, Revolution will bring us to poetry of action, of creation, to the invention of ourselves as women, to the recuperation of our face, of our true identity. (958)3 The crucial role that women have played in the recent history of their country is again emphasized by Zamora in the introduction to her recently published anthology of Nicaraguan women’s poetry. She indicates that the women of Nicaragua “...have not performed an incidental function [of history]...but rather, have managed to become a fundamental subject [of history].... This female presence, in the various stages of the revolutionary struggle, has no precedents in the American continent, principally with respect to the gains made at the present time” (15). The considerable amount of research that exists on the contribution of Nicaraguan women to the Sandinista revolution supports Zamora’s assertion. As Patricia Chuchryk (1991) points out, Nicaraguan women’s progress has been particularly notable in the area of legislative reform. The new laws abolished gender discrimination in the workplace and within the family, and the new constitution established an ideological and structural framework from which women could continue pressing for more changes. And although, as Chuchryk also admits, great disparity exists between the theory of equality (the law) and its actual practice, it must be reiterated that, under extremely difficult circumstances, the Sandinista revolution provided gains for women unknown in other socialist countries. Chuchryk concludes: What would be required in the future would be a strong, autonomous feminist movement and the development for a political strategy based on a feminist critique of women’s oppression. In ten and one-half short years, Nicaraguan women had written a new chapter in their collective


history—a chapter that represented a ‘leap of a thousand years.’ This history cannot be rewritten. (159) The Nicaraguan woman’s entiy into the political and social spheres of her country is simultaneous with her intervention in literature. As she incorporates herself into the public life of Nicaragua, she frequently finds her voice through poetry. Zamora reminds us that it was in the decades of the sixties and seventies that the women “...erupted in Nicaraguan literature with new and definite work; they gave literature a voice which had been missing, the female voice. Up to that point the names of Nicaraguan poets had been those of males only: from Rubén Darío to Fernando Silva, from Alfonso Cortés to Ernesto Cardenal, from Salomón de la Selva to José Coronel Urtecho, from Azarías H. Pallasi to Ernesto Mejia Sánchez, from Pablo Antonio Cuadra to Sergio Ramirez...” (18). The writing process, in turn, had a liberating function for many Nicaraguan women. Zamora explains that one of the ways in which bourgeois women began to gain access to the awareness of their problematic situation, of their human condition, as well as their feminine nature, was through poetry, and “...poetry carried them from revelation to rebellion and from rebellion to revolution.... Poetry became, then, for some women a means of access to revolutionary participation and, at the same time, a literary product, verbally revolutionary” (18-21). The process that takes Nicaraguan women from revelation to revolution manifests itself in a poetry of a markedly testimonial character. This poetry unmasks the experiences of daily oppression suffered by Nicaraguan women under the Somoza dictatorship and narrates, from the experience itself, how these women opt not to be its passive victims. Numerous books of women’s poetry appear in this important period in Nicaraguan history and literature.4 The excellence of many of these works has been acknowledged by literary critics and through the awarding of important prizes. Claribel Alegría and Gioconda Belli, for example, both share the Casa de las Américas Prize for poetry for I Survive and Firing Line, respectively. In her book Nicaragua, revolución y feminismo (1977-1989), Clara Murguialday also calls attention to the transcendent nature of the changes which occurred in that country. She adds that the feminist “explosion” which took place in the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas was responsible for the creation of a language that named and made public women’s experience and women’s problems.5 This recreation of language is evident in the work of Nicaraguan female poets in general, but most specifically in the poetry of the activist Gioconda Belli6 who is also one of Central America’s best known poets.7 Her poetry has become representative of what Zamora alludes to: the process of the Nicaraguan woman’s recuperation of her own image. TRANSFORMATION OF NATION AND WOMANHOOD


In Belli’s work, different elements merge together. On the one hand she offers the testimony of her own vital experiences and of her contribution to the Sandinista cause, alongside that of many other Nicaraguan women. Simultaneously, she transforms in her poetry the images by which women have been represented most frequently and revises some of the most durable myths in Latin American culture. The following discussion looks at Belli’s poetry in terms of Nicaraguan women’s intervention in the hitherto-male-defined spheres of war, revolution and nationhood, as well as revisionist mythmaking and subsequent powerful transformations of the concepts of nation and womanhood. This is significant because, as Alicia Ostriker (1985) proposes, revisionist mythmaking in women’s poetry can offer us a valuable means of redefining ourselves, and consequently our culture: Whenever a poet employs a figure or short story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible. (320) After some general observations of how women have been symbolized by ideologies of nation, this essay will analyze Gioconda Belli’s poetry while placing her in dialogue with some of the dominant male voices of Latin America, such as Rubén Darío, Pablo Neruda, and Ernesto Cardenal. Specifically, it will study Belli’s revision of what has been characterized as one of the oldest and most persistent myths of self-definition in Spanish America, that of the sexual appropriation of the indigenous woman by the European conqueror.8 As Mary Louise Pratt (1990) has noted, this tradition coincides with the habit of bourgeois republicanism everywhere of using female icons as national symbols: “For every Unknown Soldier there is a Statue of Liberty, a Britannia, a Marseillaise, a national virgin—in the Americas, the indigenous figures of La Malinche, Pocahontas, the violated Indian woman. In patriotic speeches, in sculpture, in poetry, novels, and plays, female icons are used to symbolize the nation— symbolizing, often enough, that which is at stake between warring groups of men” (53). In Belli’s poetry there is a simultaneous raising up by woman and nation, and both their revolutions and subsequent liberations cannot be made possible without the former’s active and forceful participation: women, as men, are willing and capable to take arms and kill in their struggle for a more just social order. The image of woman has changed to one that is fearless, strong, with the will and the skills to fight, resist and defeat domination. The Sandinista woman, 82


as her male counterpart, is also willing to sacrifice all for the good of the community. This new vision of womanhood corresponds with the political and social realities of revolutionary Nicaragua. As Linda Reif has noted, while other revolutionary movements kept women close to the home, the Sandinistas turned the traditional perception of woman as a protector of the family into the fundamental motive for her participation in the struggle. In Belli’s poetry this is manifested in the transformation of traditional perceptions of womanhood into revolutionary female images and myths that continue, nevertheless, to be guided by reproductive and nurturing powers. In a fairly recent article, Mary Louise Pratt reminds us that, while women have not been well represented in the official histories of any age, the bourgeois republican era has been particularly limited and repressive in imagining and reproducing women as historical, political, and cultural subjects (48). Pratt uses the term “imagining” as it is used by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread o f Nationalism, where he characterizes the style in which the modern nation is perceived or imagined as limited, sovereign and fraternal.9 As Pratt also indicates, these three distinctive characteristics of nations are embodied in the figure of the male soldier, thus displaying the androcentrism of modem national imaginings. Although Anderson does not take up the issue of gender directly, his terms make it clear that female inhabitants of nations were neither imagined nor invited to imagine themselves as part of the “horizontal brotherhood” (50). What bourgeois republicanism offered women by way of official existence, according to Pratt, was the role of producing citizens, with the limitations inherent to this role: As mother of the nation they are precariously other to the nation. They are imagined as dependent rather than sovereign. They are practically forbidden to be limited or finite, being obsessively defined by their reproductive capacity.... Women remain especially anomalous with respect to the one right that for Anderson sums up the power of the imagined community: the right to die for one’s country. (51) Pratt concludes that while women have been excluded from the privilege of dying for their country, what may be more important is that as a group, they have never sought it. She adds that specifically in Latin America, women’s political and social involvement always has been internationalist, and even antinationalist, an activism of a pacifist nature, a clear disassociation from the fraternal, soldierly imaginings of nationhood discussed by Anderson (52). A look, however, at the many studies on the subject of women’s participation in the Sandinista Revolution, would deviate from what Pratt seems to consider the TRANSFORMATION OF NATION AND WOMANHOOD


norm. It would appear as if Sandinista women were indeed invited to “imagine” themselves as part of the “horizontal brotherhood,” with the right to fight and die for their country. For the most part, this is also a “privilege” that the Sandinista women seem to have sought as a group. In the discussion which follows, we will examine the degree to which these factors are present in the work of the militant poet Gioconda Belli, and how the image of woman is, therefore, affected and transformed. Such transformation results in the revision of the myth of female rape as representative of a nation humiliated and exploited by the forces of dictatorship and oppression. Although this trope, as indicated by Pratt, is not unique to Latin America, it will be examined here within the specificity of Spanish-speaking America’s cultural and literary tradition. In fact, it should be emphasized that the overall objective of this reading of Belli’s poetry is to examine it within the very concrete historical and social context of the Sandinista revolution. In doing so I hope to follow the recommendation of many Latin American writers who, for sometime now, have asked critics to adopt historical and geographical specificity in their analysis of women’s writings. This, they contend, will avoid the essentialism of so much feminist literary criticism.10 In Spanish America the traditional icon of the violated Indian woman appears, with some important variations, in the work of many of its most prominent male poets. The Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, in his poem ‘T o Colombus,” laments the degeneration into which “Your poor America” has fallen. From a “warm blooded, beautiful indian virgin,” she has become a “hysteric/of convulsive nerves and pale countenance” (328). This image of the abuse endured by the lands and the peoples of the Americas will be duplicated in a similar fashion in Pablo Neruda’s Canto General: “And so it was devoured, disabled, subdued, scratched, plundered, /Young America, your life” (46). In this poem, Neruda will also return to the same myth to represent the violence the conquistadores inflicted on a nation which has been incarnated as a woman: Cuba, my love, they tied you up to the stake, they cut up your face, they pulled apart your legs of pale gold, they broke through your pomegranate sex they pierced you with knives they divided you, they burnt you. (46) A common theme expressed in Latin American literature, as in the poems quoted above, is the image of the nation as an abused woman, lying helpless, unable to defend herself. A rare modification of this theme is found in the epic songs of the Sandinista male guerrilla fighters. A popular one, known by the telling title, “The 84


Kidnapping,”11 describes Nicaragua as a young woman being carried away on horseback by the guerrillero. Nicaragua is a “dark-hair[ed] woman,” with hair flowing in the wind, “happy and lustful,” “holding on” to the guerrillero’s back. Although her appearance, free and content, might be interpreted in a positive light, it is clear that the image contains the same element of male supremacy, forcing the feminine into submission, witnessed in the previous poems. As with other Latin American poets, Gioconda Belli will also utilize the myth o f nation-as-raped-woman to represent the situation of her nation at war. Initially, her poem even reminds us of Neruda’s description of Cuba: Nicaragua my love my raped child getting up straightening her skirt walking behind the murderer following him down the mountain up the mountain Nicaragua my love my Black girl Miskita Suma Rama Nicaragua my child she dances she knows how to read she talks to the people she tells them her story she gets on planes to tell her story screaming getting angry furious all the noise she makes seems incredible so does the way she resists and she fights breaks free flees everything moves here a dancing woman’s hips singing out a lust for life against the mummies and their rage of frustrated hysteria envy of the girl who sways as she walks winks sells tamales sells nail polish joins the militia goes to the park invents love. (183)12 The image of the abused woman/abused nation has experienced an important transformation in this poem, “Nicaragua Water Fire.” Although she too has been “raped,” this time she will not lie in pain and impotence. Rather, she has arisen and gone after her aggressor. For the purpose of this task, she is capable of TRANSFORMATION OF NATION AND WOMANHOOD


defending herself. The tone of the speaking subject in the poem is admiring when describing this “young woman” who has a “voice” of her own, who doesn’t hesitate to go and tell her story to everyone; who is also capable o f being furious, of screaming; and who, when in danger of being raped again, resists, frees herself, and runs away. The “hysterical” America described by Rubén Darío appears again in this poem. That “mummie,” as she is now called, is envious of the modern young woman’s “lust for life,” her ability to flirt and make love as well as to make war. The call for an uprising, for the vindication of a humiliated people, which has become a reality in Belli’s poem, had been made frequently in the work of many other Latin American poets. Pablo Neruda, for example, also urged his people to rebel in many of his poems. However, he did so with the Spanish masculine singular, pueblo, as opposed to the feminine forms, which symbolized the abused and defenseless nation: My people, people of mine, raise up your destiny! Break out from the jail, open up the walls which imprison you! (202) In a similar manner, and after the Sandinista triumph, Ernesto Cardenal individualized the image of his triumphant people in the figure of the peasant Pancho Nicaragua, who is encouraged to proceed in the reconstruction of himself: Arise Pancho Nicaragua, pick up your machate there is much weeding to be done. (182) This call for an uprising is also a commonplace in Belli’s poetry. It is found, for example, in ’’Salute to the Eclipse at War Time” where the “walls” of Neruda’s poem (cited above) will also be destroyed, but this time by a woman: Arise, young woman, and your walls will fall down silently raising up clouds of dust of remembrances. (144) As with her fellow countryman, Ernesto Cardenal, Belli has also individualized in this poem the collective experience of their people. However, it is not the male peasant who is called into action, but, again, a young woman. In another poem, “Song to a New Era,” that call becomes a personal affirmation:



I raise up I,

Sandinista woman, a renegade of my class, far from my dresses of tulle and spangles, turned over to the ideology of those without bread and without land. (92) Thus, in opposition to the myth of violated nation/violated woman, and in contrast with Neruda’s and Cardenal’s poems where the impulse to action is generally masculinized, the revolutionary movement is personified by woman in Belli’s poems. In “Song to a New Era,” Belli also emphasizes the participation of women from the privileged class in the creation of a new and more egalitarian order. It might be that this new consciousness of equality that allows Belli to “imagine” man, as well as woman, as symbol of the nation, is one more revision of the myth under discussion. Even though the answer to the poem “What are you Nicaragua?” is: “What are you/but a woman’s breasts made out of soil/smooth, pointed, threatening...What are you/but pain and dust and screaming in the afternoon,/-screams of women, as in childbirth?”; in another poem, “Ah Nicaragua,” the landscape becomes masculine: “I like your enormous chest, green and bristled,” and “I like the way in which you have possessed me ... I am in love with you, madly in love.” The poem ends with a passionate “I am with you, my Nicaragua/my man/ with a woman’s name.”13 The passionate feeling for nation, characteristic of epic poetry and expressed in “Ah Nicaragua,” seems to be, as Benedict Anderson points out, that which binds the male members of a community and which will bring them together to fight and die in its defense. This aspect is evident, for example in Cardenal’s poem “Zero Hour,” when describing Sandino’s army. We are told that this army was “more a community than an army/and they were more united by love than by military discipline... We are all the same./Here we are all brothers” (49). It is also the same feeling towards the “imagined community” that in Belli’s poem will allow the mother to become a soldier, taking along with the man, the role of protector and defender of the nation. The Mother has changed her clothes, her skirts are now pants her shoes army boots,


her purse a knapsack, she no longer sings lullabies, she sings songs of protest. She no longer loves only her children, nor she gives herself only to her children. Sucking at her breasts are thousands of hungry mouths. She has given birth to herself thinking of the fruit of her flesh —far away and alone— calling her in the night without answer while she answers other cries. (34) The woman combatant of Belli’s poems will not abandon, however, her official function as producer of citizen soldiers who will continue the struggle: We will beget children, for each man or woman they kill, we will give birth to hundreds of children who will follow in their footsteps. (47) What is different, however, as the next poem indicates, is that the citizen-soldier is also a woman. In “Seguiremos naciendo” (which can be translated as either “We will go on being bom,” or “We will give birth to ourselves”), the speaking subject will glorify women’s capacity to give birth not to male soldiers but to other women, equally capable of fighting and defending the success of the revolution. The language that describes social and political awareness, as well as solidarity between women, is connected to the experience of motherhood. The title itself means both physical reproduction, as well as a commitment to bring revolutionary awareness to their daughters: I touch myself and touch you as you firmly take your oath, as you swear to be brave to be like Brenda Rocha fighting and smiling 88


I don’t know where my blood ends and yours begins. The plaza is like a gigantic womb giving birth and my flesh splits open again to give birth to you now that you have germinated —poppy girl Come and give me your hand, your young hand, militant. Now that Revolution and blood unite us we shall confront together this future of war and victory and when you love a man and life too springs forth from your life we shall be bom again, many times, prolonging red our flag, daughter, woman, comrade, Maryam. (187) In Belli’s poetry, the Sandinista woman has extended the role of the mother in a revolutionary fashion: she, as the male soldier, is willing to sacrifice all for the good of the community. This image, then, differs from that which is provided by Anderson’s bourgeois republicanism where woman could not be imagined as limited or finite, with the right to fight and die defending the nation. It is true, however, that what motivates her to pursue this “privilege” is attached precisely to her reproductive role. Woman’s so-called instinctive pull and capacity to create life, to give, to nurture, continues to be emphasized. In fact, it is perceived as the origin of her strength and energy. It is motherhood that provides her with protective feelings, capable of reaching not just her own children, but all those of a society in crisis. This perception of motherhood is part of a long debate within French and American feminist discourse. Although the limits of this essay do not allow for a full discussion of the debate, it might be worthwhile to digress and briefly look at both sides of the issue. At one end of the spectrum, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Marge Piercy and others find in motherhood the source of TRANSFORMATION OF NATION AND WOMANHOOD


women’s alienation. On the opposite end, however, a number of other feminists will argue that the question is how to recover motherhood for feminism.14 One way to reach this objective, as Adrienne Rich proposed in her book, O f Woman Bom , would be to separate the experience of motherhood from the institution of motherhood, as patriarchal thought had limited feminine biology to its most narrow specifications (31). The transformation of motherhood in the Sandinista revolution, as interpreted in Belli’s poetry, could be interpreted as the widening of those narrow specifications observed by Rich. These new dimensions could be attributed to the uniqueness of the Sandinista revolution with respect to the incorporation of women in its ranks. As Linda Reif has observed, women were expected to protect their children, but these children increasingly became the targets of repression for real or imaginary opposition to the dictatorship. Under these conditions, the FSLN, the radical clergy, and the Association of Women Confronting the National Problem (AMPRONAC) responded to the problems faced by women by supporting their mobilization (158-60). In Nicaragua, then, the most revolutionary manifestations of motherhood coexist with the most traditional notions of women’s reproductive obligations. This is evident in Belli’s poetry, where while accepting the role of mother as protector of the family, the Nicaraguan woman takes advantage of the social and political climate in her country to alter this role. As a consequence, she becomes a social phenomenon, hitherto ignored, that incorporates herself into society to create a new history. One way to explain the complexity of her situation would be to view it from the perspective used by the Latin American critic, Josefina Ludmer (1985), in her study of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: The trick (another typical tactic of the weak) consists of changing, from the assigned and accepted place, not only the meaning of that place but the meaning of what is reestablished there. As if a mother or a housewife would say: I accept my place but I do politics and science while being a mother or housewife. It is always possible to take a space where one can practice what is forbidden in other spaces; it is always possible to annex other fields and reestablish other territorialities. And this practice of transfer and transformation reorganizes a given social and Cultural structure: the combination of obeisance and confrontation could establish another mode of reason, another science and another subject of discourse. (53) In conclusion, one could say, in Gioconda Belli’s poetry there is a consciousness of the inextricable nature of the Sandinista woman’s situation. It is important to note that although her poetry shares the confidence and enthusiasm in the future of the 90


revolution present in that of male poets of Nicaragua,15 in Belli one can find an element of reserve and cautiousness not as evident in her fellow countrymen. In “New Construction of the Present,” written after the revolutionary triumph, the poetic voice can be that of the nation, the Nicaraguan woman, or both, as we are warned that the process of liberation remains to be completed: I see myself in the mirror a diffused figure, an uncertain, washed out woman. I am on the edge of the construction of myself, anxious of foundations, structures, solid walls to protect the baggage of dreams I carry around on my back, I require certainties and tranquil paths The contours of the face must be drawn firmly, The dawn must be made to give birth, to draw promises out from the deep. (98) The feeling expressed by this poetic voice at a moment of change, 1979, when new possibilities in life and in literature seemed to have been opening up for women, is analogous to that expressed by Zamora in her recent article on Nicaraguan female poets when, once again, the country is undergoing profound political and cultural transformations. Both writers, Belli and Zamora, concur in that the work of women, then as now, remains to be completed. Both also see the need for women to forge their own identity in this process: woman must “construct her own self,” asserts Belli; she must “invent herself,” adds Zamora. In the poems analyzed above, it has been observed that Belli contributes to the initiation of such a process by inventing and altering myths relating to woman and nation; by transforming the female image from passive to active; by correcting, in summary, the powerful gender stereotypes that exist in our culture.




1. For a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see especially Linda ReiFs “Women in Latin American Guerrilla Movements: AComparative Perspective,” C o m p a ra tive P o litic s 18.2 (1986): 147-69. The significant participation of women in the Sandinista revolution has been studied by a number of other experts in the political and social sciences, such as Norma Chinchilla, Elizabeth Maier, Maxine Molyneux, and Clara Murguialday. It is surprising, however, considering the fascination withthe subject of women and revolution, that the artistic expression of the women who were active participants in the struggle in Nicaragua has not yet received the attention it deserves fromliterary critics. 2. Daisy Zamora, poet, psychologist, and painter, was a combatant in the Sandinista Front for National Liberation anddirector of programming for the clandestine Radio Sandino. In 1977, she received the Mariano Fiallos National Prize for Poetry from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. She served as Vice-Minister of Culture and as Executive Director of the Institute for Economic and Social Research for the revolutionary government of her country. She has contributed numerous articles tojournals and cultural supplements in Nicaragua and other countries. 3. All quotes fromZamora are my translations. 4. These are a few titles among the many that could be cited: Michele Najlis’ E l vien to Vidalus Meneses’ El A ire que m e llam a , and DaisyZamora’s En lim pio se e sc rib e

arm ado, la vid a .

5. Murguialday explains the importance of women’s revolution within the Sandinista revolution: “After the debates of 1986 it was impossible to go back as before. The previouslyunmentioned problems of womenwere coming out of obscurity and into the front page of newspapers, parliamentary sessions, to the reinvidicative platforms of AMNLAE, to the official meetings of the Sandinista directorate, to the streets, markets, buses, and bedrooms. Fromthenon there was not a single comer of daily life or public space that was saved fromthis ‘feminist explosion’ ” (8). 6. As Daisy Zamora has also pointed out, the political commitment of Belli’s poetry rests in the function she adjudicates to the poet herself as transformer of her society (954). The poem“The obligations of the poet,” affirms this as follows: “May you never feel/privileged intellectual book head sawof conversations/withered thoughtful mourner/... /Nowthe depths of theearth/ emanate electricity to carry your song/ thepoems are scattered on sweaty faces/ in avid hands holding notebooks and pencils” (80). 7. Gioconda Belli, militant in her country’s revolution, published her first book, S o b re la in 1974 and received the Mariano Fiallos Prize in Poetry from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. Until 1986, when she decided to dedicate herself completely to writing, she held several official positions in the national directorate of the

g ra m a ,



SandinistaFront forNational Liberation. Besides Línea deJuego (Casadelas Americas Prize, 1978), Belli has published Truenos y a rc o iris (1982), A m o r in su rrecto (1985), and D e la costilla d e E va (1987). Her first novel, L a m u jer h a b ita d a , was published inNicaragua and Germany in1988; the German edition received the prize for best literary work of the year awarded by the Union of German Editors. 8. For a detailed study of this myth, see Mary Louise Pratt’s (1990) article. 9. Anderson (1983) characterizes the manner inwhichthe modemnation is conceived inthe following terms: “The nation is imagined as lim ite d because even the largest of them., .has finite, if elastic boundaries beyond which lie other nations ... It is imagined as so v ereig n because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroyingthe legitimacyofthe divinely-ordained, hierarchical, dynastic realm...Finally it is imaginedascom m unity , because, regardlessoftheactual inequalityandexploitationthatmay prevail ineach, the nation is always conceived as a deephorizontal com radeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die to such limited imaginings” (16). 10. Aseries ofcritical writings regardingthese issues canbe foundinLa sartén p o r e l m an go , edited by Patricia Elena González and Eliana Ortega. 11. This poemis part of a collection of epic songs gathered and translated into English by Dina Livingston (1989). 12. This translation is fromSteven F. White’s English language edition of Belli’s poetry, F rom E v e ’s R ib.

13. The translation of “What are you Nicaragua?” is by Steven F. White. 14. See, for example, Mary O’Brien. 15. Onthis point, see Reginald Gibbons (1987), who points out, for example, that incontrast withthepoetrywrittenbyErnestoCardenal beforetheRevolution, thatwhichcomes afterhas the tendency to let itselfbe carried away by anadherence to a political positionwhich forces idealization.



REFERENCES Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread o f Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. trans and ed. H. M. Parshley, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Belli, Gioconda. From Eve ’s Rib. trans. and ed. Steven F. White. Wiilimantic, CT: Curbston Press, 1989. --------- . Poesía reunida. Mexico City, Mexico: Editorial Diana, 1989. Cardenal, Ernesto. Antología. Managua, Nicaragua: Nueva Nicaragua-Monumbo, 1983. --------- . La hora ceroy otros poemas. Barcelona, Spain: El Bardo, 1971. Chinchilla, Norma. “Mobilizing Women: Revolution in the Revolution.” Latin American Perspectives 4.4 (1977): 83-103. Chuchryk, Patricia M. “Women in the Revolution.” Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua. Thomas W. Walker, ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991. 143-165. Darío, Rubén. “A Colón.” Mester de rebeldía de la poesía hispanoamericana. Ramiro Lagos, ed. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Dos Mundos, 1973. Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic o f Sex. New York: Bantam, 1979. Gibbons, Reginald. “Political Poetry and the Example of Ernesto Cardenal.” Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 648-71. Livingstone, Dina, ed. Canto Epico/The Nicaraguan Epic. London: Katabasis, 1989. Ludmer, Josefina. “Tretas del débil.” La sartén por el mango. Puerto Rico:Huracan, 1985. 47-54. Maier, Elizabeth. Nicaragua, la mujer y la revolución. Mexico City, Mexico: Cultura Popular, 1980.



Molyneaux, Maxine. “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State and Revolution in Nicaragua. ” Feminist Studies 11.2 (1985): 225-54. Murguialday, Clara. Nicaragua, revolución y feminismo (1977-1989). Madrid: Editorial Revolución, 1990. Neruda, Pablo. Canto general. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Losada, 1955. O ’Brien Mary. The Politics o f Reproduction. Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. Ostriker, Alicia. “The Thieves of Language. Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.” The New Feminist Criticism, Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Elaine Showater, ed. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 317-38. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge o f Time. New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1976. Pratt, Mary Louise. “Women, Literature and National Brotherhood.” Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 48-73. Reif, Linda. “Women in Latin American Guerrilla Movements: A Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Politics 18.2(1986): 147-69. Rich, Adrienne. O f Woman Born. New York: Norton, 1979. Salamanca, Douglas. “Literatura, sandinismo y compromiso.” Revista Iberoamericana 157 (1991): 843-59. Zamora, Daisy. “La mujer nicaragüense en la poesía.” Revista Iberoamericana 157 (1991): 933-58. --------- . La mujer nicaragüense en la poesía (Antología). Managua, Nicaragua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1992.




The Censored Argentine Text Griselda Gámbaro’s G a n a rse la M u erte and Reina Roffé’s M o n te d e V enus Melissa Lockhart

The woman writer in Latin America has taken on the role of witness; she has assumed the burden of the political barbarities of the society and has taken up her position as a deliberate act of defiance against the silence imposed by oppressive governments. The political activism in the literature of Latin American women, like the political actions of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and similar groups, has become an activity of incalculable force. The image that is so widespread of the woman writer as someone who escapes real life and dwells in a world of fantasy has been replaced by the woman who aims her pen like a rifle and lets fly words of lead and steel. Marjorie Agosin Feminism can be a problematic topic in Latin America. While the term “feminism” is one rejected by many Latin American women because it has been seen as yet another term imposed by the First World, what I call feminist sensibility— or a concern with women’s oppression—forms a very important part of Latin American history and women’s writing. Many consider Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (16517-1695) to be the first feminist in the Americas because she defended the rights of women and marked the injustice of a system that worked against her. This paper traces the specific feminist literary response of two women, Reina Roffe (b. 1951) and Griselda Gambaro (b. 1932), to authoritarianism in Argentina and analyzes the sociopolitical and cultural contexts in which the texts were produced, received, and eventually censored. I am working under the premise that authoritarianism is an exaggerated manifestation of patriarchal ideology that

requires absolute control, as much sexual as economic. Authoritarianism prohibits debate and imposes its own models of discursive organization upon a series of givens whose truth is presented as self-evident and undebatable. The theoretical underpinnings of the study revolve around some pivotal concerns in contemporary feminist literary criticism, including the structure of power and discourse and the deconstruction of gender and sexuality as seen as social constructs. Women’s sexuality has traditionally been related to male desire and the transgression of sexual taboos may be considered one of the most important dimensions addressed in contemporary women’s writing in Latin America. Women’s eroticism, historically denied, regulated, and repressed, is a necessary component in self-discovery and emotional bonding among women (Lorde, 1978). The two authors studied in this essay transmit a scathing critique of the social system by addressing the issue of feminine sexuality in divergent ways. Griselda Gambaro in Ganarse la Muerte does so by magnifying male control of female sexuality to such an exaggerated extreme that it ends up transmitting a condemnation, something which did not escape the attention of the censors. Reina Roffe, in Monte de Venus, presents a radical portrait of feminine sexuality and lesbian lust that extends beyond the parameters of male desire; she was also punished for her transgression in the form of censorship. This study evaluates how both authors were able to transmit their critique of the social system not only in local terms with references to their country but also in universal terms with reference to women’s condition, using their writing as the “rifle” that Chilean writer Marjorie Agosin described above. Latin American feminist practice has had many forms, especially in recent years. For instance, there has been a tremendous rise in the number of articles being written by women critics about women-authored texts as well as anthologies of Latin American women’s writing, which proves the tremendous impact that the women’s movement has had internationally. Theoretical feminism is also becoming much more accepted by Latin American academics. There are now journals in many countries such as Mexico and Argentina dedicated to women’s literary production and special sessions concerning them at literary conferences. However, the fact remains that it is primarily women talking about women writers or the depiction of women in male-authored texts, and it is yet to become a popular topic among the majority of male academics (Kaminsky 1993; Castillo 1992). While the popular slogan of Anglo U. S. feminists in the seventies was “the personal is political,” in Latin America this idea is much more developed. In the Hispanic world feminism is connected to other struggles for equality, which vary from country to country, and even within regions. This is seen in the ways in which Latin American women have been able to use their traditional roles as 98


sources of power, something which as a general rule is not highly regarded by many mainstream Anglo U.S. feminists who tend to look upon women who remain in the traditional spheres as somehow inferior to the woman who goes out into the workplace and fights to achieve professional equality with men. In Latin America, as opposed to North America or Europe, being a mother is a way of legitimizing women’s activism. In Chile, this activism, justified by matemalism, was seen in many of the demonstrations of the “Mujeres por la vida” with their slogan “Democracy in the country and in the home”; it also was in evidence with the groups of women allied with General Pinochet who demonstrated against the Allende regime between the years 1970 and 1973 (Chuchryk, 160). Women’s groups in Ecuador formed a campaign against violence inflicted on women, and in Brazil there are now police stations used only for women who are the victims of domestic violence. All of the above attest to the rise in the political activism of women in Latin America, even when it is not officially called “feminism” (Kaminsky, 20). One of the most moving and internationally well known images of this brand of feminine feminism is that of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the mothers and grandmothers who continue to march every Thursday in Buenos Aires and demand information about the disappearances of their loved ones during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, known as the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganization). It was during this time that Argentina experienced one of the darkest periods of its history. Civil liberties were severely circumscribed, an estimated thirty thousand people “disappeared” and others went into exile, either externally by physically leaving the country or internally, driven by fear not to express any opinions that could even remotely be described as “subversive” by the authoritarian regime. In the period of the so-called Proceso, women and men were unable to articulate any sort of authentic vision of their lives without risking censorship or worse (detainment, torture, and/or death). Women suffered not only as victims (although they were also at times victimizers) of the sociopolitical dynamic that engulfed their countries, but also due to their secondary status as the Other. Griselda Gambaro and Reina Roffé were chosen for this study for having produced novels concerned with women’s experience, texts published in 1976 and almost immediately censored by the military authorities due to what was perceived to be a subversion of the hegemonic paradigms of power in both form and content. The authorities were correct. Both narratives represented a fundamental challenge to patriarchy and a deconstruction of gender representation, and both authors were subsequently silenced and eventually forced to go into exile. Roffé’s text Monte de Venus (1976), chronicles the attempts of two women, a political activist and a love-sick lesbian, to better themselves by going to night



school and obtaining a high school diploma. Monte de Venus is also a radical critique of Argentine society and underscores the need to foment social change. Monte de Venus was censored due to what was perceived as its illegitimate culture that included, among other things, representations of women’s political activism and sexual lust. The novel was written immediately prior to the onset of the dictatorship in 1976, and yet it offers a foreshadowing of the events to come, with the school serving as a microcosm of Argentina. The text is also a radical critique of Argentine society and underscores the need to bring about social change. Thus it was deemed contrary to public morality and banned. When asked about the censorship of the novel, the author has said: “Creo que la prohibieron porque era una

cosa molesta. También había una crítica al sistema educativo y la situación de la mujer” (quoted, in Domínguez, 6) [I think they prohibited it because it was bothersome. Also because there was a critique of the educational system and the situation of women]. What Roffé does not mention is the theme of homosexuality, which may have accounted in large part for its banning by the censors. This non-adherence to the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality for the good of the Fatherland was only one of Roffé’s transgressions. The second had to do with the representation of a system that worked against individuals who attempt to initiate social change. Griselda Gambaro, while primarily known as one of her country’s foremost dramatists, wrote the novel Ganarse la Muerte in 1976. Ganarse la Muerte, while at first glance appears to be a prototype and extension of violent patriarchal society, offers a veritable “call to arms” that challenges not only the authoritarian regime in place in Argentina in 1976 but women’s subordination to men under patriarchy—all carefully encoded in the narrative structure. It is surprising how few studies have been devoted to Gambaro’s narrative works. Ganarse la Muerte was banned by the military authorities in 1976, immediately following its publication, because it was felt to project a vision of the family that ran counter to the values espoused by the state (Foster, 103). During the Proceso, censorship was a rather imprecise practice. I refer to a study by Andrés Avellaneda who characterizes some of its attributes in his article “The Process of Censorship and Censorship of the Proceso: Argentina 1976-1983”: Two great units join and underline the meanings of censorship. One of those units defines the nature of the cultural system and its effects on some areas clearly distinguished from the whole: morality, religion and national security. Culture is defined according to three interrelated characteristics: a) that it has a noble mission and should not be altered; b) it should always be subordinate to morality; c) it can be used improperly. Underlining this last characteristic, the definition incorporates two opposing categories:


that of a true or legitimate culture and that of a false or illegitimate culture. (25) It is in this differentiation between a “legitimate” culture and an “illegitimate” culture that the issue of censorship becomes nebulous. Due to this lack of a homogeneous concept, censorship manifested itself in a variety of shades, depending always on the code of “morality” currently in use by the ruling members of the hierarchy, as well as the particular predilections of a given censor. This lack of a “central command” meant that the rules were always changing, the uncertainty of which made it all the more threatening for the public. In Gambaro’s novel, I suggest that one of the messages transmitted by the author was one that undermined the foundation of patriarchy, which depends upon the notion of fixed gender identities. The theme is conveyed through the use of what Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric o f Fiction, has termed the implicit author. The presence of the implicit author is noted when the narration of a particular story does not coincide with the events related. Thus the reader is led to decode the text by reading “between the lines.” It is through the implicit author that we find a deconstruction of and challenge to gender constructs which manifests itself by means of the treatment of the characters within the text. In Ganarse la Muerte, the family unit and an orphanage serve as microcosms of institutionalized repression. Each functions as a hierarchy in which control and violence are exerted over subordinates. Both institutions are headed by males and other men maintain varying degrees of power and control over all underlings. Obtaining and maintaining power by virtue of control over the other is considered one of the founding principles of social institutions. To be part of the hierarchal order of power requires, among other things, the acceptance of “reality” as it is conceived and sustained by superiors. Not accepting the version of truth that is held by the operant powers is very risky and may lead to imprisonment or even death. Demonstrating a reverence to the values of the institution, on the other hand, may allow one to rise among the ranks, that is, of course, assuming that other factors do not impede one, such as one’s gender. This ideology of patriarchy is manifested in most of the institutions of the state such as the Church, the military, the educational system and government, and possibly most importantly, the family— all of which serve to maintain an asphyxiating control over members of society. In Ganarse la Muerte, the sordid tone that has become so characteristic of Gambaro’s theatrical work repeats itself in this story of an orphan girl, Cledy, who suffers multiple indignities. She arrives at a orphanage after her parents die in a car accident. She is fifteen years old, and during her stay she is subjected to numerous sexual assaults, both heterosexual and homosexual. There is no one who helps the child, no one champions her cause; she is completely alone. Cledy has



the misfortune of being an attractive girl, a quality for which she is permitted to stay in the orphanage as long as she allows herself to be used as a sexual object for any who will pay the price. The owners of the orphanage find the Perigorde family who are willing to take the child to marry their son, Horacio. All, with the exception of Cledy, agree to let a public relations firm film the wedding night, which takes place amid the glare o f the lights and the voyeurism of the media. There exists a brief moment of happiness when two children are born, but then Horacio loses his job and the couple is forced to move in with his parents. In the home of the Perigorde family, Cledy becomes the victim of incest and sadism. She becomes a slave, and the intention becomes clear that she is to be used as a “wife” to Sr. Perigorde while her husband becomes the lover of his mother. Cledy’s in-laws repeatedly abuse her, all the while making her feel responsible for the torture she endures. Cledy is the perfect victim. Devoid of identity, she has nowhere to escape and is forced to endure each hardship. She never protests nor complains. Cledy as “protagonist” exists in a vacuum. There is never a psychological delineation of her drawn for the reader. Instead, the narrator becomes yet another authoritarian voice inscribed in the power structure, justifying her victimization while detailing the torture against her and at times voicing his/her own palpable contempt and condescension towards her. An example:

Toda angustia que devora al ser que la soporta es estéril. Si después de la Muerte de sus padres, los primeros, Cledy no hubiera sido conducida al Patronato, si su belleza adolescente no le hubiera proporcionado las atenciones de todo el mundo, desde la Sra. Davis y el Sr. Thompson hasta su compañera de cuarto, si en seguida, del estado núbil o casi núbil, no hubiera pasado por recién casada feliz, y la maternidad, y etc., todas las compensaciones, la angustia, no la hubiera devorado. Pero claro, si mi tía fuera alargada, verde y con cuatro ruedas, sería ómnibus. (176) [All anguish that devours one who allows it to do so is useless. If after the death of her parents, the first ones, Cledy hadn’t been brought to the orphanage, if her adolescent beauty hadn’t caught the eye of everyone, from Mrs. Davis and Mr. Thompson to her roommate, if, afterwards, she hadn’t been of a marriageable age, she wouldn’t have gone on to be a happy newlywed, and then to maternity, etc. all of the compensations, all of the anguish, would not have devoured her. But then, if my aunt were long, green and had four wheels, she’d be a bus.] (All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.)



The narrator is an accomplice to the violence, and words are used as a sort of funhouse mirror to distort and reduce the importance of the events described. The implied author, as Booth calls it, allows the reader to encounter the challenge which Gambaro is making to those who sustain an unjust social order. Thus, the reader begins to catch on to the code being used; if the narrator does not become infuriated with a given situation, the reader should feel indignation. If the narrator tells us that there is no need to act against the oppression, the reader understands that there is an imperative to act. In this disjunction between word and action, Gambaro inscribes to the reader her preoccupation with the need to act against injustice not only within the country, but also with respect to the position of women in general. Ganarse la Muerte becomes an undermining of the patriarchal order by challenging the notion of fixed gender identities based in biology. “Femininity” serves throughout the novel as the catalyst for much of the violence against the protagonist, as well as serving as the veil of sanctity under which some of her female torturers defend themselves. Gender constructs are not only equivocal, as is the case in the descriptions of Sra. Davis the orphanage director, and Sra. Perigorde, Cledy’s mother-in-law, but may also be dangerous. Sra. Davis and Sra. Perigorde (two of what radical feminist Mary Daly would call “token torturers”) consistently play at the role of the “good” woman, a characterization that the unreliable narrator echoes at every opportunity; but the rhetoric of the words does not change their barbaric actions and the clash between the two becomes grotesque. An example is the exaggeratedly “feminine” description of the sadistic Sra. Davis when she is looking for a way to explain to Cledy that she wants to use her as a prostitute.

La Sra. Davis bajó los ojos púdicamente. No podía decirlo en alta voz. Era una mujer, todavía sus labios no se habían manchado con nada. (32) [Mrs. Davis lowered her eyes modestly. She couldn’t say it aloud. She was, after all, a lady, and her lips had never been tainted by anything.] This exaggeration of feminine qualities is also apparent in the detestable Sra. Perigorde, who had “años de práctica constante de su propia bondad, sin un poco de egoísmo para defenderse” (98) [years of constant practice of her kindness, without even the slightest bit of ego with which to defend herself]. The two women commit atrocious acts and yet play at being models of femininity. The narrator agrees, describing them as generous and motherly as well as any other stereotype that would fit the feminine myth, and yet their actions reveal a sadistic, opportunistic bent.



In the novel the identity of the woman is restricted to either virgin or whore: because the narrator is an accomplice to the marginalization of the protagonist she is only described in the text as occupying one of these positions. An identity that extends beyond those parameters is inconceivable. Michel Foucault as well as Gayatri Spivak have both written about the inability on the part of the powerful who create their “truths” to recognize that any could exist outside of that realm. The narrator is incapable of describing Cledy in any other way, not allowing for the possibility that a more authentic voice could emerge. First we see Cledy in the role of the virgin. Sra. Davis, before handing over Cledy to the old maid who is going to devirginize her, dresses her in a long white gown, symbolizing her purity and chastity (44). The next day, when Cledy is to be sold to the Perigorde family, again she is dressed in white, this time in a brand new white dress that Sra. Davis buys for her. So the child-virgin-object goes to the home of the Perigorde family where she becomes woman-whore-object. She is repeatedly called as much by Sr. Perigorde, the grand patriarch who chains her to a leg of the dining-room table when she refuses to have sex with him willingly. He is afraid, he tells his wife, that she will intend to have sexual relations with her husband, thus turning him into a cuckold. No place exists for identity. Cledy is the incarnation of all of the masculine myths explicitly assigned to women, and acts in the manner designated for her sex and yet never receives any benefit from doing so. On the contrary, her acceptance of the gender construct only leads her to greater exploitation. There is no secret reward for “good” women; she is constantly seen as detestable and immoral. In the course of presenting her in this manner, the author is provoking the reader to consider the ambivalence that the gender “condition” relegates to women. Through the characterization, or anti-characterization of the protagonist, Gambaro attacks all that is normally associated with the feminine pole to show how this can be (and often is) used as a pretext for violence against women. Cledy’s body is repeatedly violated and mutilated. One possible explanation for this is that according to the polarities of masculine and feminine, women are seen as representatives of nature for their capacity to give birth. The patriarchal imperative to conquer nature is played out through rape, the sexual “conquest” (French, 92-4). Therefore, the body of Cledy becomes a symbol of women under patriarchy, objectified, raped, and tortured. When Sr. Perigorde is unable to take control over the body of Cledy through intercourse due to his impotence, he does it by chaining her to the table. In allegorical terms, the brutalized body of Cledy may be seen to represent Argentina. In the Argentina of 1976, the reality of the military was imposed with the same force as the belt of Sr. Perigorde against anyone who challenged or attempted to challenge the order. As Foucault has demonstrated in Naissance de la 104


prison, the body is the place in which social practices related to the organization of power are enacted on a grand scale (54). In Ganarse la Muerte it serves precisely this function. Argentina suffers at the hands of its authoritarian leaders, Cledy suffers at the hands of Sr. Perigorde, the textual incarnation of authoritarianism. The fragmentation and mutilation of her body are similar to the fragmentation and mutilation of the bodies and psyche of the populous. And yet, Cledy is not merely representative of her country, but rather representative of many women in diverse cultures from around the world: women who are objectified, raped, and quite literally mutilated. Foucault has said that there is subjectivity in any demarcation of “truth” that will always conform to the power relations within a given society (Adams and Searle, 137). The powerful will control “truth” and all other discourses are silenced. Furthermore, the goals of the dominant class will always be justified by this “objective” authority. The punishment for not conforming to the reality of the authorities is censorship, the spectrum of its implementation ranging from prohibition of a particular writer or literary work to death to any who offer a competing version. This was most clearly demonstrated during the Proceso by the military’s attempts to squelch the protests that took place every Thursday by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. The women were laughed at initially, and referred to as crazy ladies, some of them were detained and it is assumed, killed, for offering a version of Argentine sociopolitical reality that did not correspond with that presented by the government. Ironically, it is precisely by way of a magnified version of the silence Foucault describes that Gambaro is able to give voice to her dispossessed protagonist. In her novel Gambaro is attempting to awaken the consciousness of this condition and confusion that are imposed upon women from the model of the feminine, in order to reveal how these very same qualities may be used to justify violence against women. For Cledy the poles of the patriarchy offer no options, truly she must ganarse la muerte. Death becomes her salvation from a sadistic world of violence. This dismal portrayal of women’s experience is also presented by Gambaro’s compatriot Reina Roffé. Reina Roffé belongs to the generation of writers who came of age during the neofascist Process of National Reorganization. In 1969, at the age of seventeen, Roffé wrote her first novel, Llamado al P u f which met with immediate critical acclaim and won the Pondal Rios prize in Buenos Aires in 1975 for the best novel by a young writer. Llamado al Puf chronicles many of the events in the author’s life. She has termed it an “análisis casero de mi infancia” (a homegrown analysis of my infancy). After the success of Llamado al P uf literary circles in Buenos Aires anxiously awaited Roffé’s next novel, which came at an inauspicious time— 1976. Monte de Venus was published at the inception of the new military



government and was immediately censored. The experience was devastating for Roffé. She wrote little fiction in the years that followed, conserving her attachment to the literary field by working as a journalist, editor, and book reviewer for such newspapers as Clarín (Clarion), Convicción (Conviction), and La Opinion (Opinion). The theme of homosexuality which emerges in Monte de Venus may have accounted in part for the ban imposed on it by the censors. Again, if we think in terms of the authoritarian state as being an exaggerated form of patriarchy, then the threat that the novel presented to the government is understandable. Roffé was not keeping in check her “internal surveillance” in order to regulate the sexuality of her fictional characters. The term “internal surveillance” comes from Foucault’s concept of the “technology of sex.” The technology of sex is the set of techniques that were brought into being towards the end of the eighteenth century by the bourgeoisie in order to ensure class survival and continued hegemony. Foucault cites four areas in which there was an elaboration of discourse: the sexualization of children, the sexualization of the female body, the control of procreation and the psychiatrization of anomalous sexual behavior as perversion (de Lauretis, 13). These discourses were implemented throughout the various institutions, but became especially focused on the family as a microcosm of the state apparatus. Sex became “not only a secular concern but a concern of the state as well; to be more exact, sex became a matter that required the social body as a whole, and virtually all of its individuals to place themselves under surveillance” (Foucault 1980, 116). Roffé’s characters do not do so. The novel is about a group of women who decide to return and finish high school, each attempting to better her life through the system. There are two stories that emerge. The first, narrated in third person, is that of Bard, one of the returning students who finds her voice through political activism; the second is that of Julia Grande, a lesbian who finds her voice through recounting her life story into a tape recorder for Victoria Sáenz Ballesteros, one of the instructors who takes a personal interest in Julia’s life as the possible subject of a novel. All of the characters in one way or another are subalterns in a world that does not recognize that they have a voice or control over their lives. Their attempts to exert some sort of control over their destinies are greeted with failure and humiliation, presenting a pathetic if not grotesque image to the reader. The hegemonic cultural prohibitions, much like they functioned in Ganarse la Muerte, deny the women any opportunity to define an identity that does not fall within prescribed parameters in a society in which they are exploited and oppressed. She deconstructs the mechanisms and myths of patriarchy that serve to subject the individual to phallocentric tyranny and exposes the few options that exist for self-



fulfillment within this system. Roffe presents the reader with an inflammatory text, feminist and radical because it signals that change within the system is impossible. One of the most important contributions of Marxist feminism to the ongoing feminist dialogue is that it has enlightened us to the fact that it is impossible to discuss gender oppression as though it exists unrelated to discrimination by class, race, and sexual orientation. The identification with subalterns, whether it be for race, class, sex, age, or sexual preference, brings with it the necessity of fomenting social change. Additionally, when one speaks of subaltemity, there is always the need to mark the particular shades with which the term is being used. In some ways we all are and are not subalterns. We are forced to participate in a system that marginalizes us and yet requires that we marginalize the other, in which we consume and become objects of consumption (Molinaro, 2). Living/writing in the margins presents difficulties, though it may, at the same time, be considered liberating. Roffe* s text deals precisely with those overlapping oppressions that serve to radically limit the possibilities of authentic self-expression, and marks how those who suffer from multiple dimensions of subaltemity tend to suffer a parallel increase in disgrace within society. In many ways the sanction of censorship should not come as any surprise given that the book deals with the position of working-class, lesbian, activist women. By presenting a text sympathetic to the working class and to women’s sexual liberation while expressing an open and sharp condemnation of the patriarchal and authoritarian system, Roffe was truly engaging in radical activism. The repeated humiliations and betrayals of the two central figures in the novel, Julia Grande and Baru are grotesque. Barn works as a maid during the day and struggles to educate herself in the evenings in an educational system that subjects her to numerous indignities. The first injustice that Barn feels she has been subjected to is having been bom a woman. The day that she decides to get an education—which is to say, to enter into the active, masculine realm—she carries out another significant act: she shaves her pubic hair. Throughout the text, Baru is fighting the internal misogyny that she feels:

Nunca se observaba desnuda. Sentia una especie de pudor consigo misma. Frecuentemente rechazaba su propio cuerpo. Trato de memorizar: “Que triste es ser mujer/Nada hay en el mundo tan poco estimado. ” (261) [She never looked at herself naked. She felt a sort of shame with herself. Frequently she rejected her own body. She tried to memorize “How sad it is to be a woman/ There is nothing else so little valued.”] Baru attempts to find a sense of self-worth through education, trying to better herself in order to get out of the degrading situation of domestic worker: she



manages to do so in spite of the circumstances. The high school is likened to an insane asylum where the professors serve as prison wardens. The adults in the night class are condemned to learn in an absurd situation, as if in a miniature nursery school.

El decorado y los muebles contrastaban con las infantiles escenas de Walt Disney que parecían burlarse de la existencia de esas mujeres que hacía mucho tiempo habían dejado atrás su niñez. Lo peor eran las mesas y las sillas, miniaturas casi al ras del piso con pegote y dulce de leche en los ángulos más insólitos, jugándoles una mala pasada al desarrollo de sus cuerpos, que apenas si encajaban en los asientos que bien podían reventar con tantopeso.{21) [The decor and the furniture contrasted with the Walt Disney scenes that seemed to laugh at the existence of those women who so long ago had left their childhood behind. The worst were the tables and chairs, miniatures almost at the level of the floor with glue and candy stuck in the most peculiar spots, making it very difficult for the women’s bodies that just barely were able to fit in the seats that at any moment were capable of breaking under so much weight.] The environment serves to debase even more the resolution of the women who already felt uncomfortable about returning to high school long after their adolescence. The environment presents a challenge to the student, or at least to those who truly want to learn, like Barú. The final challenge for the women who sought to become “educated” was to tolerate the faculty, most of whom were insufferable egomaniacs. The most famous professor is the one who wrote the official history of the country.

Sin embargo, nadie había advertido que sus libros eran una parodia de la historia, narcotizantes que escamoteaban la realidad política y que sólo habían servido para disfrazar los hechos relevantes de la Argentina. Por eso los políticos promocionaban sus libros en las escuelas y Núñez se había enriquecido gracias a la hipocresía de los gobiernos de turno. ( 81- 2) [Nonetheless, no one had warned them that their textbooks were a parody of history, tranquilizers that disregarded political reality and only served to disguise the relevant facts related to Argentina. For this reason the politicians promoted their books in the schools and Núñez had become rich thanks to the hypocrisy of whatever government was in power.]



How exactly does spending time in such an environment contribute to one’s intellectual development? It is precisely in this ambiance that Bam learns her first lessons in political conscientiousness, one that will lead her to feminism. In spite of the obstacles, Bam persists in her mania to learn and study. Responding to the active political environment which swept through the country as it anxiously awaited the return of Perón, Bam becomes the activist in the microcosm of the country that is the school. The first act of rebellion that she orchestrates is for the right to wear trousers. She is triumphant when the authorities agree, the act serving as a demonstration of the power of solidarity and, more importantly, of women working together. The euphoria of the women is parallel to the euphoria of the country as it awaited a return to democracy, in the great hope of changing the system peacefully from within. For Bam, this wave of freedom is connected to her acceptance of herself as a woman. She dreams of a female Christ who will come to save her, she thinks about a river “que se iba ensanchando hasta convertirse en un mar dorado con nombre de mujer” (241) [that would widen until becoming a vast golden sea named after a woman]. She decides to attempt once again a dramatic change in the high school, this time fighting for the right to vote for a new principal and vice principal. If the Argentine people can do it, why can’t the solidarity of the night school women? This time, to achieve their goals, the students stage a sit-in in the building. As a result, a new principal is brought in who allows the women to smoke and to discuss issues with him. Nonetheless, after a few months, the old principal returns with her vice-principal sidekick. It is in these betrayals of Bam that the reader is given the first indications of the inflammatory nature of Rofle’s text. In the conjugation of the elements, the room, the faculty, the pathetic triumphs that are experienced by the students thanks to the generosity of their oppressors and which is just as easily taken away, all demonstrate the uselessness inherent in attempting to instigate social change. The women are forced to live by rules which they did not create and which in no way serve them. The hardest lesson for Bam to learn is that her “power” was just an illusion. The forces of authority do not give away their power, they are only generous when it comes to rhetoric. Julia Grande is probably the most tragic figure in Rofle’s novel. Julia becomes a prostitute after being raped by a man she had thought was her friend. She must convert herself into an object— in spite of the nausea that it produces in her— in order to survive. As in Gambaro’s novel, woman as an extension of nature must allow herself to be conquered. For Julia Grande, there could not exist a more tragic truth.



¿Cuántos diferentes papeles uno debe representar en la vida? ¿Cuánta parodia triste y burlesca debemos soportar? (189) [How many different roles must one have in life? How much sad and mocking parody must we tolerate?] Due to the economic reality of her class and her sex, she is forced to be subjected to humiliation at the hands of a man. Roffé points out that there is no salvation within a system which reduces a woman to a mere consumer commodity. The experience of prostitution brings Julia Grande to the point of suicide, and the supreme degradation of being nothing more than an agujerito (little hole), to use the word of her rapist, causes her to rethink her life and attempt to better herself and her prospects for the future by pursuing an education. Julia soon falls in love with her teacher, Victoria Sáenz Ballesteros. When the latter approaches Julia about recording the events of her life for the possible subject of a novel, Julia feels valued for the first time. However, in the course of telling her story, Julia admits that she killed a man once by accident. .Ballesteros blackmails her with the information in order to take away Julia’s child. One of the most interesting elements in the Monte de Venus which undoubtedly was scandalous to the censors is the description of Julia’s voracious sexual appetite and her adhesion to the “butch” stereotype of lesbian behavior. The issue of appropriate behavior for lesbian feminists remains hotly contested. The idealistic and sanitized view posited by many mainstream feminists is that somehow lesbian sexual relations are more noble than gay male sex because they prioritize romantic relationships over the casual sex thought to be primarily the domain of men. This view of women and sex ironically rests on the very same Victorian ideology that so many mainstream feminists have derided in the past, one which presents women as asexual and pure. It also fosters the regulation of sexual conduct, setting itself up as yet another authoritarian discourse that denies the possibility that there be such a thing as lesbian lust (de Lauretis). The fact that Roffé’s graphic portrayal of lesbian passion follows along the butch/femme model has caused it to be somewhat derided by critics such as Elena Martinez, who writes: In the presentation of the lesbian character in this novel, the reader finds all the cultural clichés and myths created around lesbians and their social behavior: such as the strong attachment of the lesbian with the father, who is the main source of affection and nurturance, and the rejecting mother. The view the author presents of lesbianism follows the Freudian perspective of identification with the father and a desire to be male and to be seen as a man, which makes the lesbian character dress like a boy and 10 MEUSSA LOCKHART

perform activities that society and culture have long associated with males. Julia feels her true identity to be masculine while her feminine identity is viewed by her as something fake that she assumes while betraying herself. [...] Monte de Venus does not present a lesbian perspective and is rather a mosaic of stereotypical constructions that reiterate prejudices of society. Martinez does not allow for the possibility that some women may, in fact, adhere to the stereotype and that this is a legitimate lesbian “perspective.” Some women may, like Roffe’s Julia Grande, enjoy sex outside of the context of a romantic relationship, have casual sex, or enjoy pornography. The key to understanding this particular model of sexual activity, according to Pat Califia, is fantasy. The participants are engaging in behavior which enhances their sexual pleasure and the activity may be connected to drama or ritual (168). Should lesbians that do adhere to the heterosexual paradigm for the purposes of their own heightened sexual pleasure be, in the words of Califia, “tarred and feathered and ridden out of the lesbian ghetto on a rail” (11)? The butch/femme model may be an authentic language of lesbian desire instead of what many mainstream feminists, authors, and academics consider an anachronism to be rejected by all enlightened, modern feminists including Latin American feminist literary critics. Califia has argued for the rights of women to express any dimension of their sexuality, and has nothing but scorn and derision for those authors during the 1980s who, “in bids for literary legitimacy, chose to remain closeted and write about things other than their own lives. Even novelists, journalists, and academics who were ostensibly out of the closet could only bear to write about lesbian reality in sanitized, strained, and compartmentalized ways” (15). Roffe’s treatment of lesbian sexuality in 1970s Argentina is anything but strained and compartmentalized. Julia Grande is the “butch” dyke. She is in many ways a parody of a man, where each lover for her is another notch on the belt. Adopting a masculine stance for Julia is an attempt to enter into the realm of phallocentric power. Furthermore, this transvestism calls attention to the constructed nature of gender. Julia breaks with the erotic and social role assigned to her, proving in the process that the model is flawed, incapable of fixing any identity, be it heterosexual or homosexual. Roffe, in presenting Julia Grande, is also breaking with the erotic and social role assigned to her, as a “respectable” writer. David W. Foster, in Alternate Voices in Latin American Literature, characterizes the construction of Julia Grande: the point-by-point details of her experiences are highlighted through a careful rhetorical strategy: she is the aggressive “masculine” partner. Her THE CENSORED ARGENTINE TEXT


affairs are unconscious parodies of the tango-like love stories in which the prevailing perspective is that of the flinty-eyed and firm-jawed dominant macho... (76) Julia Grande’s story, like that of Barú, revolves around the marginalization and mutilation of the subaltern, the potential fragmented by virtue o f a system that does not recognize, does not listen or want or have the capacity to hear the subaltern speak. In the exploration of the limits of discourse and the marginalization of identity, it would help to trace the very real consequences of the book’s publication in Argentina in 1976. We refer to Roffé:

Durante el tiempo que el libro estuvo en las librerías, los críticos sacaron algunas notas; los reporteros me entrevistaron; el editor invertía, dentro de la precariedad económica del momento, algún dinero en publicidad. Pero inmediatamente después de la prohibición, o mejor dicho, un poco antes—cuando se corrió el rumor que Monte de Venus era ,fprovocativa ” y, por tanto, destinada a caer bajo la picota de la censura—el periodismo me silenció; el editor no sólo hizo desaparecer del depósito los ejemplares que quedaban, sino que al libro y a mí nos eliminó del catálogo; los libreros apuraron las devoluciones, y hasta los amigos escogieron no mencionar la novela. (“ Omnipresencia,” 915) [During the time that the book was in the bookstores, the critics wrote some reviews; the reporters interviewed me; the editor invested, during the economic precariousness of the moment, some money in publicity. But immediately following its prohibition, better said, a little before—when the rumor had started that Monte de Venus was “provocative” and, therefore, destined to be censored—journalism silenced me; the editor not only managed to get rid of the supply of books remaining, but also managed to eliminate both the book and me from all catalogs; the bookstore owners hurried to return it, and even friends choose not to mention it.] In 1976, a few months after its publication, a court order proscribed the book in Buenos Aires for reasons of “immorality.” Later it was banned in the entire country. Roffé had the courage to speak openly about the educational system, the sexual and political frustrations of women in a society that marginalizes, exploits and oppresses them. She was able to mark the struggle to have a voice, the subsequent euphoria that accompanied the belief that one could participate openly in debate, and the frustration of realizing the impossibility of the project. 112


Roffe stopped writing for many years. For her, writing was much like politics was for her fictional character Baru, and what chronicling her life had meant for her other character, Julia Grande. It was a way to “salir de la oscuridad,” (to come out of the darkness) to find a voice. With the prohibition of the novel, Roffe seemingly turned into a character worthy of her own novel and felt the same sensation of having been violated, and denigrated. Given this context, the final lament of Julia Grande becomes all the more poignant:

Me estafaron. Es la unica palabra apropiada que se me ocurre para comenzar y ser yo, aunque parezca mentira, quien termine la historia. He dado miles de vueltas antes de prender este aparato y sentarme, ahora sola, aqui, en un cuarto de mi casa, a decir, simplemente, que estoy desesperada.... Se que hoy estoy sola y me da miedo, mucho miedo. “Todos fuimos estafados, ” me dijo Baru; pero eso a nadie consuela. Mi dolor solo es mi dolor. (267-70) [They tricked me. It’s the only appropriate word that occurs to me in order for it to be me, although it would seem to be a lie, who ends this story. I’ve paced thousands of times before being able to turn on the tape player and to sit down, now alone, here, in a room of my house, to say, simply, that I am in despair . . . I know that today I am alone and it makes me afraid, very afraid. “We were all tricked” Baru told me; but this doesn’t serve to make anyone feel better. My pain is my pain alone.] As Sandra Gilbert has eloquently explained: “the patriarchal notion that the writer ‘fathers’ his text just as God fathered the world is and has been all-pervasive.... In patriarchal Western culture, therefore, the text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis” (486-8). Roffe’s and Gambaro’s texts were unacceptable given the exaggeratedly patriarchal environment of authoritarian Argentina in 1976 due to the fact that they entered into the masculine sphere in order to give birth to their creative projects. The texts were immediately censored, they were punished for the supreme transgression of revealing the fictive nature of masculinist “truths” relating to women. Given the historical moment, their failure is lamentable but logical. Both Monte de Venus and Ganarse la Muerte present eloquent condemnations of patriarchy. They deconstruct in different ways the mechanisms and myths of the dominant system which offers so few alternatives for self-realization. The message transmitted by both authors is that indeed there is no space in which one’s identity may be developed. There is no space for the woman who does not conform. Although Monte de Venus was silenced, it is not a text devoid of hope. This is THE CENSORED ARGENTINE TEXT


evident in the last statement of Julia Grande: “Pero antes que nada que quede claro que soy una persona con mas bronca que tristeza. Mi bronca es lo unico noble que tengo” (267) [I would like before anything else to make it perfectly clear that I am a person filled more with anger than sadness. My anger is the only noble thing I have left]. It is precisely this anger, instead of resignation, that marks a concrete step towards liberation.


REFERENCES Adams, Hazard, and Leroy Searle, eds. Critical Theory Since 1965. Tallahassee: The Florida University Press, 1986. Agosin, Marjorie. “Chilean Women, Politics and Society 1971-1984.” Scraps of Life: Chilean Arpilleras. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1987. 19-40. Avellaneda, Andrés. ‘T he Process of Censorship and the Censorship of the Proceso: Argentina 1976-1983.” The Redemocratization of Argentine Culture, 1983 and Beyond. David William Foster, ed. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, Center for Latin American Studies, 1989. 23-47. Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric o f Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Diana Fuss, ed.. New York: Routledge, 1991. 13-31. --------- . “Variations on Sex and Gender.” Feminism as Critique. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 128-42. Califia, Pat. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1994. Castillo, Debra. Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Chuchryk, Patricia M. “Feminist Anti-Authoritarian Politics: The Role of Women’s Organizations in the Chilean Transition to Democracy.” The

Women’s Movement in Latin America: Feminism and the Transition to Democracy. Jane E. Jaquette, ed. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. 149-84. Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology. The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies o f Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.



Domínguez, Nora. “Entrevista con Reina Roffé.” Primer Plano. Suplemento cultural de Página 12 (June 26,1994): 5-6. Foster, David William. Alternate Voices in Contemporary Latin American Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. --------- . “Los parámetros de la narrativa argentina durante el ‘Proceso de Reorganización Nacional’.” Daniel Balderston, David William Foster, Francine Masiello et al., eds. Ficción y política: La narrativa argentina durante el proceso militar. Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Press (Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature), 1987. 96-108. Foucault, Michel. The History o f Sexuality. An Introduction. Volume I. Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. --------- . Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard, 1975. French, Marilyn. Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985. Gámbaro, Griselda. Ganarse la Muerte. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1976. Gilbert, Sandra M. “Literary Paternity.” Critical Theory Since 1965. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, eds. 485-96. Kaminsky, Amy. Reading the Body Politic: Feminist Criticism and Latin American Women Writers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Lorde, Audre. The Uses o f the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Trumansburg, NY: Out and Out Books, 1978. Mackinnon, Catherine A. “Desire and Power: A Feminist Perspective.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 105-16. Martinez, Elena. Breaking Ground: Lesbian Voices from Latin America. New York: Garland (forthcoming).



Molinaro, Nina L. “Consuming Feminism: Marxist Literary Criticism and the City Girl.” Paper presented at the Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture Symposium, Arizona State University. Tempe, March 25-6, 1991. Roffé, Reina. Llamado al Puf. Buenos Aires: Pleamar, 1972. --------- . Monte de Venus. Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1976. --------- . “Omnipresencia de la censura en la escritura argentina.” Revista Iberoamericana 51.131-133 (1985): 909-15. Selden, Raman. A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Spivak, Gayatri C. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation o f Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. 271-313.





Female Desire and Postcolonial Identity in Contemporary Indian Women’s Cinema Brinda Bose

The expressions and negotiations of female (sexual) desire in the work of contemporary Indian women filmmakers are representative of an evolving postcolonial identity, defined by the displacement and transgression of boundaries in the sociocultural and historic traditions of India. As Chandra Mohanty has argued, Woman is not a universal term transcending histories and cultures; nor is Third World Woman a stable category.1As members of a particular postcolonial society, therefore, Indian women must negotiate a specific set of codes, behaviors and languages in the process of carving a viable sexual identity for themselves. Contemporary Indian women filmmakers—I will consider the work of Gurinder Chadha, MiraNair, Pratibha Parmar, and Apama Sen— while making films that are diverse in theme and treatment, all come to grapple with aspects of female sexuality. In their representations, they are (self-)consciously cognizant of the boundaries they are pushing and transgressing in attempting not only to address the subject of female sexual desire but also to address the spectator as female (in de Lauretis’ terms), thereby establishing a dialogue of sorts that perhaps points toward the evolution of a new postcolonial sexual identity for Indian women.2 As is probably true of cinema around the world, Indian cinema has suffered from the identification of Woman as sexual object/object of (male) desire, in its ultimate one dimensional form. Additionally, cultural taboos have worked overtime to reiterate the absence of any kind of female desire that might have counteracted the male sexual gaze; the absence of any significant woman filmmaker, till very recent times, has perhaps contributed to the general perpetuation of the myths surrounding female sexuality, though of course there have been a few male directors who have variously attempted to critically explore, and sometimes to explode, those myths. Newer and younger filmmakers, however,

have begun to reconsider—and question—the taboos surrounding female sexuality; the small but growing crop of Indian women making films over the last two decades or less have approached the question of women’s desire head-on from a variety of perspectives, producing a kaleidoscopic, and almost bewildering, collage of alternative views and gazes. The gendered politicization o f Indian cinema can certainly be seen as a new wave in relation to— and in tandem with—the Third World feminist movement, and though both are to be distinguished from feminism in the Western film and the feminist movement in the West, it may still be defined in the general terms set out by the Western critic as long as we recognize the different parameters of the specifics. Claire Johnston’s conceptualization of women’s cinema as counter-cinema built upon political strategy is a particularly apt reading of the confrontational elements that lurk in almost all women’s cinema (especially of the Third World, in fact) that deals with aspects of female sexuality: “In order to counter our objectification in the cinema, our collective fantasies must be released: women’s cinema must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film.”3 It is in the release of “our collective fantasies” that the role of the female audience is crucial. As Teresa de Lauretis notes, “The idea that a film may address the spectator as female, rather than portray women positively or negatively, seems veiy important to me in the critical endeavor to characterize women’s cinema as a cinema for, not only by, women” (1994, 148). The convictions, apparently shared by (mostly, male) filmmakers, that the object of the male gaze—usually, the woman—need have no desires of her own to be satisfied through the camera lens, and that the direction of the male gaze is in sync with the direction of the collective gaze of the audience, are overturned in a female/female exchange that works through the newer concept of female desire and legitimizes it by recognition. Since the number of women’s films from the Third World is limited, and feminist film criticism of them much more so, it is useful to locate any attempted reading of Indian women’s cinema within—and then beyond— the contexts of Western feminist film criticism. Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” isolated the woman as object of desire: “Traditionally, the woman displayed has iunctioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.”4 In both cases, of course, the gaze is assumed to be masculine. While feminist film theory has evolved considerably in the two decades following Mulvey’s article, a general tendency to place mainstream cinema within a monolithic patriarchal order has remained, and sexual desire has been read as the singular property of the male (as actor and spectator). More recently, however, 120


feminist film criticism has attempted to read into the “female voice which has been repressed by patriarchy, but which has nevertheless remained intact for thousands of years at some unconscious level” as Kaja Silverman has seen it in the context of mainstream cinema.5 Now, we have begun to look both at the so-called “minority” (not racial) female voice within mainstream cinema for repressed stories, as well as at the authorial female voice that directs the action—both male and female—on screen. In other words, we are looking beyond the impact of the masculinist gaze for latent revelations about female desire. Ann Kaplan, in Women and Film, has traced the origin of the gaze to the mother-child relationship, in which the pleasure of a “mutual gazing” takes the place of the dominant gaze that reduces the recipient to a submissive object. Patriarchy, Kaplan contends, has worked to destroy this mutuality, fearing an eventual matriarchal preeminence. Therefore, “female sexuality has been overtaken by the male gaze, and, in addition, the domination-submission modes may be an inherent component of eroticism for both sexes in western capitalist culture. Because of patriarchy’s intricate involvement in heterosexuality, its discourse has been able to control female sexuality, including lesbian relations.”6 Jackie Byars refutes the contention that a woman’s (sexual) desire also inherently includes a craving to be dominated, and proposes that we have not perceived a different kind of “gazing” simply because the existent theories have not encouraged such options. The woman film director, however, has attempted to tell this different story for a different audience; as Byars insists, because research has concentrated on stories gathered from male subjects, “the structures, purposes, styles, strategies, and functions of women’s story-telling have—until recently—been inadequately understood...feminist film and television theory may be expanded to account for the presence of different ‘voices’ in the struggles over gender definition....”7 Byars also challenges Laura Mulvey’s reading that the female viewer derives pleasure from the masculinist film by identifying with the “active point of view,” contending that within this theory, “there is no way to explain the resisting, different ‘voice’ that functions at both the narrative and the enunciative levels, and there is no way to explain the pleasure of the female spectator without reference to a masculine ‘norm’ ” (Byars 1988, 111). Assuming that we are now conscious of the potent power of the female voice/gaze, any reading of Third World films must still identify many other differences from Western women’s cinema. As Amy Lawrence points out, “The primary danger of the concept of a ‘Third World Woman’ is traditional Western humanism’s tendency to project its own fears and desires onto an Other. But Mohanty recognizes more subtle risks inherent in the very desire for unity represented by the self-identification ‘Third World.’ In privileging sameness over difference, material differences between cultures can be suppressed.”8 As such, not TRANSGRESSIONS


only is it true that the parameters within which Third World women— and women filmmakers—must construct a self-identity are vastly different from those which define Western women, it is also equally important that Indian women must negotiate a sociocultural framework that is geographically as well as historically defined. This is not to say that within these parameters is confined a monolithic patriarchal order that cannot be destabilized. As a postcolonial society that has recorded centuries of historical change, the Indian sociological construct has evolved to an amazing extent. Lawrence says, “Feminism itself is an intervention in the Western humanist tradition” (1994, 411); a feminism that attempts to legitimize female (sexual) desire is nothing less than a violent intervention in the far more conservative sociocultural traditions of India. O f course, reading Third World women’s films purely as feminist ethnographies harbors a danger of its own, as Poonam Arora has discussed: “On the one hand, it is important to remember that filmic texts from non-Western cultures are implicated in the regimes of spectatorship that cinema has universally instituted, and that feminist film theory has so extensively analyzed. On the other hand, the discipline of ethnography itself has come under serious scrutiny because of, among other things, poststructural anxiety about the difficulty of ‘language and/as representation.’ ”9 However, as Arora suggests, films made by Indian women about Indian culture at least invert the traditional paradigms of the male ethnographer speaking from within a framework of authoritative patriarchy; besides, it is assumed that they are able to shape an identity for the Indian woman that does not rely on the Western feminists’ construction of the Third World woman as a passive “truth-teller,” a conferred role that Chandra Mohanty warns us of, but can form a community that “is forged on the basis of memories and countemarratives, not on an ahistorical universalism.”10 The mark of a postcolonial society being its nonhomogeneity, the films that I will consider here—though all made by Indian women and all exploring various aspects of Indian women’s sexuality—are distinguished by their range in theme and treatment. In cognizance of Mohanty’s warning, none of them can be held as the bearer of a singular “Truth” about the status of female sexual desire on the Indian subcontinent or even amongst Indian immigrant societies elsewhere in the world. What they do point us toward, however, is a recognition of a constantly evolving female sexual identity that is in an active process of working out its marked characteristics as well as the differences amongst its various aspects. One may not expect from a reading of these films a conclusion about a single well-defined Indian female sexual identity, but rather a legitimization of sexual identities that may cohesively constitute a true impression of the multiplicity of an often-repressed facet of female life in this community.



Aparna Sen’s Parama chronicles the story of an upper-middle-class housewife in Calcutta whose personal angst concerns a number of economic and gender oppressions but is expressed through her sexual rebellion, which shatters her family life. Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala deals with race and gender questions raised in an immigrant Indian community in small-town America. Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach explores the diverse lives and problems of immigrant Indian women in Britain, capsuled in a day’s outing to the beach. Pratibha Parmar’s Khush is a daring documentary on Indian lesbians and gays both at home and abroad. Clearly, the range of themes that Indian women filmmakers have begun to handle (seen even in this handful of pickings) is indicative of the diversity of contemporary Indian women’s lives, and in particular, their hitherto-hidden sexualities. Parita Trivedi, in a socio-historical account, has attacked some common misconceptions about the image of the (South) Asian woman: Conjure up a picture of an Asian woman. Have the words “passive, submissive,” been a part of your portrayal? Have you imagined a woman beaten down and subjugated by the arranged marriage system—a woman ruled by the wishes of her family—a woman not able to assert her own ambitions and desires—let alone fight against poverty, degradation, repression? If so, this portrayal of an Asian woman is a figment of your imaginings. Racist imaginings which have taken strands from oppressive Hindu practices, imperialist ventures, capitalist projections, and welded these into an inhumane whole shackles us down. Your task is to un-learn and re-leam. Our task is to create new imaginings.11 It is not, of course, that the “passive, submissive” South Asian (or, in this context, Indian) woman does not exist: there certainly are, even today, many women subjugated by the arranged marriage system, by general patriarchal constraints on their freedom and identity, by family expectations and standards, by the entire socioeconomic-sociocultural framework within which they have to exist. However, there are others who have broken through these barriers and established alternative patterns of accepted female behavior, and yet others who, unable to survive the variety of repressions, have begun, at least, to “create new imaginings.” Trivedi is right: it is indeed time to incorporate these “others” into one’s mental picture of South Asian women. Starting closest to home is Sen’s Parama. The film chronicles the effects of the male gaze on a traditional “Indian housewife” as she reprises her accepted roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and aunt and then catapults into the dangerous quicksands of recognizing her own individuality and sexuality. TRANSGRESSIONS


In fact, there are two kinds of male gazes trained on Parama: one belonging to the greater patriarchal Hindu family system, borne by the male members of the household including her husband, and the other belonging to a so-called liberal male outsider, who lures Parama into discovering her new selves. The film’s storyline traces the clash of the two gazes as they lock on a woman who becomes their pawn. Parama is a beautiful Indian woman who is apparently reasonably content in her given roles in her extended family setup. There have been no surprises in her life: she has accepted her responsibilities in the household and enjoyed the few privileges that she has received for carrying out her roles to perfection. Her m other-in-law has certified that she is a good care-giver; her husband and children love her; members of her extended family give her affection and respect. She has no power over either her life or the lives of any of the others though she devotes all her energies toward their well-being; however, she has no expectation of it, being quite unconscious of any regrets or unfulfilled desires except for the most fleeting thoughts on lost time and talents. Into this serenity flashes a young Indian male family friend, a photographer from New York who has been commissioned by LIFE magazine to do a feature on the Indian housewife, and who promptly picks Parama for his subject, to her consternation and her family’s amusement. In the course of numerous photographic sessions, this new male companion opens up new vistas of experience for the tradition-bound Parama, initially by encouraging her to reexplore her artistic inclinations and find delight in the freedom of the outside world, and finally by awakening her latent sexual desires so that she rushes into an extramarital affair with him. He promises her a new life in America and then disappears with the explosive proof of her sexual indiscretions securely on film, predictably never to return; the photographs, published in LIFE, do make a dramatic reentry into her home and leave her standing alone amongst the debris of her family life as it crashes about her. Poonam Arora reads Sen’s Parama as a critique of the ethnographic project: the film foregrounds the fact that ethnography is never a mere “writing up” of cultural accounts and demonstrates, instead, that the ethnographic intervention tends to disturb and restructure some very delicate and tenuous systems of meaning in the culture under analysis. In this instance, the gaze of the indigenous investigator not only tends to fetishize its subject but also precipitates a psychic and familial crisis in the particular social context. Thus, the photographer’s isolation of Parama in closeups preempts as well as leads to her lonely, defenseless, and confused position in the film’s narrative. (Arora 1994, 298) 124 BRINDA BOSE

While I accept that mounting a critique of the ethnographic project may have been one of Sen’s intentions in this film, I do believe that Sen is clearly critiquing much else, and it does not seem viable that the point of the film is to establish that the brash young photographer’s misconstrual of the role of the Indian housewife is what destroys a delicately balanced social structure of the family. Certainly, it is the photographer who is the catalyst to the destruction of Parama’s stable existence as she had always known it, and it is also true that he sometimes deliberately misrepresents her roles and functions in order to make his photo-feature comprehensible to a Western audience. However, there are other important considerations at play here, linked to gender, and not ethnographic, questions. Arora says: “The mise-en-cadre of the photographer’s close-ups of Parama, showing her playing the sitar or adorning herself, not only differentiate her from other women but wrench her apart from her family and her community, both of which are crucial and defining contexts for the Indian woman. If anything, the traditional Indian woman should have been positioned in large family portraits rather than in intimate close-ups” (Arora 1994, 298). This is perhaps a notable mistake of the ethnographic project, but seen once-removed as the cinematic project of an Indian woman director, I believe that it becomes necessary to view the film as a critique of the perception that the traditional Indian housewife exists solely for her familial and communal responsibilities without any possibility of possessing an independent identity. In fact, the particular irony of Sen’s project is that Parama’s apparent liberator, the photographer, is another of her exploiters, the bearer of another—albeit different—male gaze. This is what constitutes Parama’s downfall: that she allows herself to become the pawn between two distinct patriarchal practices of female domination, and not the fact that she is lured to explore other facets of her life besides her housewifely duties. If her connections with her family and community are the crucial and defining contexts of an Indian woman’s life (as Arora stresses), Sen’s film raises important questions about whether these contexts are enough to define her entire existence to the exclusion of her independent identity. Alongside, Sen raises the specter of sexual exploitation in the name of liberation. Parama’s gender oppression is marked in this film by the concealment of her musical abilities and her sexual desires in the larger role that she plays as the traditional Indian woman in an extended Hindu family. That the revelation of her abilities and desires is tantamount to disaster should not lead us to conclude that the Indian woman is never supposed to explore her abilities and sexual desires, because in Parama’s case it is clear that her male liberator has an exploitative agenda of his own. Not only is he misrepresenting the traditional Indian housewife by putting her nude pictures in an international magazine (and I would say that



this is a far greater misrepresentation than the close-ups of her playing the sitar or adorning herself, as Arora contends), he is deliberately exposing her vulnerability to a wider circle of the voyeuristic male gaze than that which she has suffered within her own community, in sexual and other contexts. There can be little doubt that though the outcome of Parama’s sexual encounter with the male outsider shatters her life, Sen is posing provocative questions regarding the roles she had been assigned to play in the family: Were they fulfilling? Were they a realization of her full potential as a person in her own right? While performing them to perfection, was she aware that she may possess other desires? The answers are obviously in the negative; in the denouement of the film, therefore, the essential tragedy lies not in the disaster Parama brings to her family through her extramarital exploits, but in the fact that in trying to break out of the constraining mold and find her other selves and desires, she is exploited by another face of gender domination. Clearly, the alternative to such a disaster as Parama faces at the end is not a mindless acceptance of her earlier roles just because they were safe; Sen is just as surely constructing a critique of a woman’s oppression within a seemingly benign family setup as she is focusing on the exploitation of her repressed sexual desires by a dashing male figure who fuels her lonely fantasies by his attention and empty promises. As Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar have delineated, “socialist feminist theory has sought to harness what is perceived as two strands of women’s oppression—class oppression and patriarchal oppression—the one being viewed as the economic basis of relationships, the other, the social or ideological... The family, rightly, has been the object of much debate in the women’s movement and has been cited as one of the principle sites of women’s oppression— women’s role in reproducing the labor force, their supposed dependence on men and the construction of a female identity through notions of domesticity and motherhood have all been challenged.”12 Parama’s case is moot: she has no income of her own; she is dependent upon the men in her family; her identity is defined by her domestic roles. Though Arora contends that the “nucleus of power” in the household resides in the figure of Parama’s mother-in-law (Arora 1994, 299), it must not be forgotten that whatever power that the senior woman enjoys is restricted to the circle of women in the house, and that they are all finally answerable to the men. Parama’s mistake, therefore, lies not in wresting power for herself but in giving it away through favors to another male, who uses her compromising photographs to proclaim his conquest like an imperial traveler; this expression of weakness needs to be separated from her commendable self-empowering move to recognize, and satisfy, her personal unfulfilled desires. The particular experience of the Indian woman at home, traditionally circumscribed by the socioeconomic construct that she inhabits, is somewhat 126


transformed as she becomes geographically distanced from the mother country. Though the constraints on her lifestyle are still many, they are differently complexioned. Even while it has generally not been possible for Indian communities abroad to completely discard or reformulate certain traditional conservative notions of conduct suitable for the respectable Indian woman, other issues—the most major of them being racism—have impacted variously upon their lives. As Amos and Parmar have noted, “Our very position as Black women in a racist society has meant that we have been forced to organize around issues relating to our very survival. The struggle for independence and self determination and against imperialism has meant that for Black and Third World women in Britain and internationally, sexuality as an issue has often taken a secondary role and at times not been considered at all” (Amos and Parmar 1984, 44). Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach is concerned with the identity politics of South Asian women in contemporary Britain. As Pratibha Parmar has described: In these post-modernist times the question of identity has taken on colossal weight particularly for those of us who are post-colonial migrants inhabiting histories of diaspora. Being cast into the role of the Other, marginalized, discriminated against, and too often invisible, not only within everyday discourses of affirmation but also within the “grand narratives” of European thought, black women [in this context, women of color] in particular have fought to assert privately and publicly our sense of self: a self that is rooted in particular histories, cultures and languages. Black feminism has provided a space and a framework for the articulation of our diverse identities as black women from different ethnicities, classes and sexualities, even though at times that space had to be fought for and negotiated.13 The women of Chadha’s film must fight and negotiate for themselves not just a space for their race/ethnicity, but viable and sustainable identities even amongst their own community, whose heterogeneity has increased enormously on foreign soil. Bhaji on the Beach provides a glimpse of a day in the life of a group of immigrant Indian women in Birmingham, whose disparate existences are thrown together during a trip to the beach organized by the Saheli Women’s Centre (a battered women’s shelter that is itself a result of the impact of Western feminism on the South Asian community in Britain). The members of this group are representative of the amazing range and variety in the lives of contemporary Asian women abroad, as Chadha attempts (briefly) to touch upon the problems of TRANSGRESSIONS


arranged marriages, interracial alliances, racism, sexism, and female oppression in a setup which also incorporates various liberalizing tendencies and influences. The story is, to some extent, focused on the plight of Ginder, a young mother who has taken shelter at the Centre along with her six-year-old son after being physically abused by her husband, Ranjit. What was planned as an innocuous beach trip to Blackpool turns nightmarish as the group discovers Ranjit to be in pursuit of them, apparently with the evil intention of abducting his son; meanwhile, each of the other members of the group also need to deal with various personal problems related to their place and identity in the immigrant community that they inhabit. The central dilemma that Chadha identifies in the film is that each person in the cast carries her own emotional baggage—an unwanted pregnancy, menopausal angst, physical abuse—but then has to deal with it through a “cultural barrier”; the cultural barriers most often translate into gender/sexual taboos that have been imported from the homeland.14 While the film foregrounds the anguish of these South Asian women as they attempt to work through their various predicaments—ranging from crises like unplanned pregnancies and physical abuse to less major troubles such as burgeoning teenage sexuality— no solution appears to be in sight, either to reconcile the group to their tradition-bound heritage or to free them into lives more stereotypically “Western’Vliberal. The only significant outcome of the day lies in the group’s ability to foil Ranjit’s intention of terrorizing Ginder and their son; however, as they leave Blackpool that night they are still worried and confused about themselves, their roles and identities in their immigrant existence, having taken perhaps a mere halfstep along the immensely long road to a viable selfhood. Unlike members of the transitional immigrant generation who are caught between two cultures/value systems, young South Asians who have never lived in their home countries are obviously more determined to reject any traditional structures imposed upon them, and to assert their individualism in any confrontation that might challenge their personal freedoms. Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, the interracial (Indian-African-American) love story that has received critical and popular acclaim, attempts to straddle two cultures and two generations. Presently residing in America, the various groups clash in numerous ways, thereby exposing the fragility of an intermingling necessitated by immigrant life. The crises come to a head when Mina, the only daughter of an Indian couple who have lost their bearings late in life but still cling desperately and proudly to their cultural/intellectual traditions, falls in love with Demetrius, a young African American who runs his own cleaning business. Nair, despite the rich potential of her subject matter, does not explore the intricacies of interaction between families and communities, preferring to limit herself to cameos. The attraction between the 128


young representatives of the two cultures (both of whom are “American” to all intents and purposes) is presented in sexual terms, which is particularly interesting because the very notion of female sexuality is taboo in the tradition-conscious Indian society that Mina comes from. Issues of race and gender collide when Mina brings “shame” to her family and community by not only choosing an African American, but by getting caught in a sexually compromising situation with him. According to bell hooks and Anuradha Dingwaney, “The point of bonding between [them] is really their dissatisfaction with their culture and identity. Both in terms of ethnicity and class, they are portrayed as bored with the expectations of family and community and eager to assert a particularly American version of ‘individuality.’ ”15 Apparently, sexual desire is a conduit for the assertion of power, as Mina’s (traditionally powerless) female gaze is empowered by her daring sexual (mis)adventures with her black lover, and her desire for him pushes her to abandon her community for an uncertain future with him. There are, of course, certain obvious fallacies in Nair’s portrayal of love (romantic/sexual) as a possible solution for the complex problems of immigrant intercommunity life. In narrowing the focus of the lovers’ unhappiness to their respective homes, and in translating their dormant desire for freedom into a longing for unmediated sexual fulfillment, Nair ignores the bigger problems that they need to confront. As hooks and Dingwaney have noted, “To them home and not institutionalized systems of domination like class elitism, racism, sexism, is presented as the social context that represses, confines, and prevents autonomous growth. After suggesting that ‘exile’ is painful, maddening even, Nair undermines this point by celebrating the leave-taking that becomes a self-chosen homelessness... Hence it negates the notion that there is ever any need to work for the transformation of society, nation, home and family” (1993, 43). While Mina’s assertion of individuality (in the form of expressed sexual desire) apparently contributes to her bid for gender and racial equality, her limited understanding of, and interest in, the larger political and social issues around her restricts her power to the sexual arena, and by this, stereotypes her gender. As a young woman driven by sexual desire/romantic love, she is eager to abandon her family to follow her man; while as a descendant of a traditionally restrictive society she certainly does emancipate herself by gazing, desiring, and asserting her sexuality, her inability to transform her aggression/rebellion into the pursuit of a more mature vision of individual freedom finally undermines the affective power of Nair’s message. Where the expression of sexual desire (through the voice/gaze) has long been considered a male prerogative, and its takeover by the female seen as eminently radical, there can be little doubt that similar questions in the context of homosexuality are still largely identified as taboo in societies both Western and



eastern. According to Cherry Smyth: “Studies of both the gaze and the object have often been determined by heterosexuality and whiteness, assuming that both the gaze and the object are fixed in gender, sexuality and race... What becomes of the female object and the male gaze when we examine lesbian pom? Is the voyeur assumed to be white?[...]Can it extend definitions of male and female beyond the active/passive, voyeur/exhibitionist stereotypes?[...JLesbian sexuality has been repressed, rendered invisible and impotent by society.”16Clearly, the complexities of race and gender are multiplied within the constructs of the (homo)sexual gaze, and Third World lesbians and gays have been forced to isolate themselves in an “other” group which is self-contained even within the general “otherness” of their race and place. Lesbian/gay cinema (as well as its critical appraisal) is still something of an anomaly within the mainstream, though as Chris Straayer argues, “Feminist film theory based on sexual difference has much to gain from considering lesbian desire and sexuality. Women’s desire for women deconstructs male/female sexual dichotomies, sex/gender conflation, and the universality of the oedipal narrative. Acknowledgement of the female-initiated active sexuality and sexualized activity of lesbians has the potential to reopen a space in which straight women as well as lesbians can exercise self-determined pleasure.” 17 Self-determination being the key to sexual power, the lesbian heroine of film is a radical construction that in its very conception overturns the established male-female binariness of human sexual relations, and inserts in its place a violently “different” alternative. Pratibha Parmar’s Khush was an early attempt to document the existence of a voluble group of Indian lesbians and gays all over the world, for whom life is constituted of secrecy, and “outing,” in general, is not a viable option. Combining artistic representations of homosexual love with snippets of interviews/conversations recorded with South Asian lesbians and gays at home and in immigrant communities in Britain, Canada, and the United States, Parmar manages to convey some sense of the fears and hopes that shape their secret identities. While those living outside their conservative homecountries are more secure in their choice of sexual orientation (even if their “coming out” has shocked/angered their families and communities), homosexuals belonging to the Indian middle-class, for example, are particularly frustrated by the constraints of a society that allows them no freedom to claim a space for their alternative lifestyle. A pattern emerges, as the film’s documentation places between these two a group of “Westernized” Indians residing in the metropolitan cities of Bombay and Delhi, who network amongst themselves and with their counterparts abroad and are therefore able to fend off the overwhelming isolation of the non-Westernized lesbians/gays at home.



In the intervening years since Khush was made, however, perceptions about homosexuality in India (and, presumably, in other South Asian countries) have constantly been changing, with both knowledge and acceptance on the increase. Even if Third World mainstream cinema is still far from the radicalism of a lesbian heroine, the very notion that homosexual desire is becoming a legitimate alternative to heterosexuality is certainly a giant leap for wo/mankind, especially seen in the contexts of race and culture. As Parmar has warned, “I am wary of talking about an overarching queer aesthetic, as my sensibility comes as much from my culture and race as from my queemess. In queer discourses generally there is a worrying tendency to create an essentialist, so called authentic, queer gaze. My personal style is determined by diverse aesthetic influences...”18 In India, the diverse influences range from Westernized schooling to a conservative/restrictive family life, and for many lesbians/gays at home any kind o f “outing” is a major achievement. In this context, the fact that a recent controversy about a nationally telecast television program (April/May 1995) was centered on remarks made by gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi, is indeed a social development that would have been preposterous even a decade ago. Importantly, however, lesbians still have a more difficult reception than gays, and as a result are significantly less assertive of their choices/rights in general, which finally completes the circle in which the female gaze remains suspect in the contexts of (homo/hetero)sexual desire. Representations of female desire/sexuality in Indian women’s cinema make it apparent that repression, rather than expression, marks a woman’s life, and it is only through transgression that this identity may change and evolve. Significantly, such transgressions, once few and far between, are increasingly assuming an aspect of normalcy that heralds new dimensions in perceptions/representations of female desire as it shapes the Indian woman’s postcolonial identity.




1. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Third W orld Women a n d the P o litics o f Feminism, ChandraTalpade Mohanty et al., eds. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1991) 51-80. 2. Teresa de Lauretis, “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory,” Linda Dittmar and Janice R. Welsch, eds. (Minneapolis and London: Uof Minnesota P, 1994), 140-161.

M u ltip le V oices in F em in ist F ilm C riticism , Diane Carson,

3. Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” N o te s on Women ’s C in em a , Claire Johnston, ed. (London: Society for Education inFilmand Television, 1973), 31. 4. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure andNarrative Cinema,” S creen 16.3 (1975): 7; Mulvey rethoughtthis essayin“Afterthoughtson‘Visual Pleasure andNarrative Cinema’ Inspiredby D u e l in the Sun (KingVidor, 1946),” F ra m ew o rk 15/16/17 (Summer, 1981): 12-15. 5. Kaja Silverman, “Dis-embodyingthe Female Voice,”R e-visio n: E ssays in Fem inist Film

C riticism , Mary AnnDoane, PatriciaMellencamp andLindaWilliams, eds. (Frederick, MD:

University Publications ofAmerica, inassociationwiththe American FilmInstitute, 1984), 137. 6. E. Ann Kaplan, W omen a n d Film : B oth S id e s o f the Routledge, 1983): 205.

C a m era

(NewYork and London:

7. Jackie Byars, “Gazes/Voices/Power: Expanding Psychoanalysis for Feminist Film and TelevisionTheory,”F em ale S pectators: Looking a t Film a n d Television, E. Deirdre Pribram, ed. (London andNewYork: Verso, 1988), 111. 8. Amy Lawrence, “Women’s Voices inThird World Cinema,”M u ltiple Voices in F em inist Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar andJanice R. Welsch, eds. (Minneapolis and London: Uof Minnesota P, 1994), 410.

Film Criticism ,

9. PoonamArora, “The Production ofThird World Subjects for First World Consumption: (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1994), 293.

S alaam B om bay andParam a ,”M ultiple Voices in F em inist Film C riticism

10. ChandraTalpade Mohanty, “Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience,” 1 (Fall 1987): 40

C o p y rig h t

11. ParitaTrivedi, “ToDenyOur Fullness: AsianWomenintheMakingofHistory,”F em inist (July 1984): 38

R e v ie w 1 7

12. Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar, “ChallengingImperial Feminism,”F em inist R e v ie w 17 (July 1984): 3-19 132


13. Pratibha Parmar, "Other Kinds of Dreams,"Fem inist R e view 31 (Spring 1989): 58. 14. Farrah Anwar, “Bhaji on the Beach,” S ig h t a n d S o u n d 4.2 (February 1994): 47. 15. bell hooks andAnuradhaDingwaney, “Sisters ofthe Yam: M ississippi M asala ,” Z, 1993: 41. 16. Cherry Smyth, “The Pleasure Threshold: Looking at Lesbian Pornography on Film,” 34 (Spring 1990): 154.

F em in ist R e v ie w

17. Pratibha Parmar, inresponse to B. Ruby Rich, “NewQueer Cinema,” S ig h t a n d S ou n d 2.5 (Spring 1992): 35-9. 18. Chris Straayer, “The Hypothetical Lesbian Heroine inNarrative Feature Film,” M ultiple V oices in F em in ist Film C riticism (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P), 343.




Feminist Critiques o f Nationalism and Communalism from Bangladesh and India A Transnational Reading B is h n u p r iy a G h o s h

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.1 The production of national histories, emerging from present “moments of danger,” perpetuates and reimagines national communities. Such a look back includes official versions and unofficial renditions (popular memories, alternative histories and repressed accounts) of the past.2 One of the primary questions posed by Walter Benjamin’s interventionist dialecticism (quoted above) is: who writes what version of national history, and why? This essay focuses on the act of rewriting national histories, a glance back engendered by a crisis at hand. In keeping with the foci of this anthology, the choice of crises relates to gender issues: I examine gender as it intervenes into constructions of nation, by revising the stories and myths that enable nations to continue as living phenomena. Women, who are the subjects of this volume, often find themselves in contextually marginal positions which distance them from investments in national interests, and enable them to critique or interrogate both conceptions of nation and the power of the nation-state.3My essay presents some critiques of nation that have emerged from South Asian countries— specifically, Bangladesh and India with their intertwined histories; critiques that use gendered marginality, and feminist perspectives, as positions of reevaluation. While I present an account of such critiques, I also problematize my act of representing (in

the political sense) from a “First World” location, feminist voices from the “Third World.”4

REWRITING NATION: HISTORICIZING FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS In exploring the intersections of gender and nation in India and Bangladesh, my intent is to historicize the feminist perspectives/gendered interventions emerging from these locations. I will argue that a common older feminist agenda in the subcontinent focused primarily on gender as it existed in opposition to nation; these feminist perspectives criticized national exclusions and mythifications of women as real historical subjects and as active political participants. “Woman” was a unified category under which all women could unite and intervene into national discourses and practices. But after forty years of postcolonial experience and nationhood—and after the fact that each of the three South Asian subcontinental nations have had female heads of state— two changes occurred in this perspective. First, women began to focus on differences between women in an effort to revaluate the grounds of their feminist struggles. This propelled the second change: feminists became keenly aware of how affiliations based on religion, class, caste, rural and urban locations, and so forth reconstitute gendered positions. Nation, too, had to be approached in a different way, as the concept was increasingly contested by secessionist movements, communal rivalries, emigration issues, and so forth. In order to intervene effectively into nation, feminists found themselves grappling with these other forces; they began to target nation via the other dissensions and debates that challenged the idea of a unified nation, and also directly impacted gender constructions. Communalism, as a central antinational force, is the focus of much feminist criticism in India and Bangladesh today; in analyzing the effect of communal politics on women, many feminists, paradoxically, find themselves toting earlier subcontinental nationalist ideals which foregrounded secularism as one of the intrinsic supports of the modem nation.5 1 will elaborate on and historicize this shift in subcontinental feminist perspectives, focusing closely on the cultural interventions of three feminists whose works illustrate this change. Kumari Jayawardena’s early work, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, set an agenda for the analysis of subcontinental women’s struggles in the context of Indian nationalism in preindependent India-Pakistan-Bangladesh.6 Since then there have been many valuable inquiries into the relationship of gender (that is, constructions of masculinity and femininity, as well as feminist endeavors) and nation in the subcontinental context.7 Most feminist critiques have explored the challenges extended by subcontinental women/feminists to homogenizing national discourses and practices. My work is inspired by both these insights and 136


the recent controversy surrounding Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi woman writer who fled her country following a fatwa issued against her because she had used her marginal position in Bangladeshi middle-class Islamic society to denounce the communal politics of the fundamentalist-dominated Bangladeshi government. Nasreen’s case is particularly instructive in reassessing the discussions on feminism and nationalism because she seems to attack what she perceives as an antinational force (Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalism), and throws in her lot with the idea of a secular Bangladesh fought for in the 1971 war against Pakistan. I do not read this merely as a choice between the devil and the deep sea: that is, a choice between a marginal position in Islamic society, and an equally marginal position in a male-governed secular modem nation. I would argue that her analysis is a part of this complex new feminist perspective that is making its mark in the politics of the South Asian subcontinent. I reiterate the two perspectives as I read them. First, an earlier generation of feminists were concerned with examining the failed promise of the “modern” nation which, with all its technological aspirations and developmental schemas, failed to adequately address the needs of its women citizenry; women felt “used” as mythic sites by nationalist rhetorics aimed at the British colonial government, and ignored as active participants in the tasks of nation building that came after independence. So the initial feminist critiques were aimed at the birth of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Second, with forty years of the postcolonial experience, the magical promises of the new India and Pakistan are neither the question, nor the expectation, any longer. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—though in very different ways—grapple with the rising conflicts of class and religious affiliations, conflicts once containable under the mythic, homogenized idea of a newborn nation. A second generation of feminists begin to position themselves in relation to the images of fragmented nations; they have to evaluate their position within the national community via the dissensions that exist in that collectivity. Survival rather than birth becomes the crucial issue. I am interested in mapping these two different feminist articulations against nation; and I analyze these positionings as they appear in the cultural production—literary, journalistic and filmic— of three feminists. Anita Desai’s postcolonial feminist intervention into the birth of the Indian nation, and thereby her dialectical rereading of the nationalisms of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century (which gave birth to India and Pakistan in 1947), provides an example of the first kind of gendered intervention I have noted above. Anand Patwardhan’s critique of religious fundamentalism as it effects gender and nation, and Taslima Nasreen’s current feminist take on Islamic fundamentalism and Bangladeshi nationhood offer examples of the second kind of feminist perspective. FEMINIST CRITIQUES


Before moving on to analyses of their particular interventions, there are two important issues to be noted here. First, there is the question of men using feminist positions to effect analyses of gender. Patwardhan presents a seminal analysis of Indian masculinity as it is defined by religion and national identity in Father, Son and Holy War. Taking on the recent feminist interests in gender as a relational construct that begs the question of masculinity, Patwardhan utilizes a Marxist-feminist perspective to embark on a critique of communal violence generated by nationalist masculinist discourses. Patwardhan assumes a feminist objectivist position, rather than intervening through felt oppression. Taslima Nasreen, on the other hand, is forced to intervene as a feminist because of her marginal position as a woman. I emphasize this dichotomy between objective and experiential/subjective interventions not to devalue Patwardhan’s work in any way. Indeed, I see it as the first of its kind: authoritative and influential in its direct and unabashed political stances. But with our emphasis, in this anthology, on how an experienced position of subordination may be utilized to create an intervention, my main focus will be on Nasreen. Moreover, the Nasreen controversy highlights the second issue here: the question of who speaks for whom. While I am interested in exploring the history of Indian/Bangladeshi interventions into the idea of nation, I am well aware of the difficulty of embarking on such a project from a First World location. For instance, even in terms of framework, I am using Desai’s vision as an example of the earlier Indian and Bangladeshi feminist perspectives on nation. Admittedly, the histories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were inextricable before 1947, and so Desai’s reassessment might present a common version of the major occurrences and dilemmas for all three nations. But such a step does not escape the Indian hegemonizing of subcontinental experiences. The debates surrounding the Nasreen case illustrate these problematics well, and so I will use them to foreground the borders around my own subjective renditions of these “Third World” interventions, in the concluding section of this essay. I hope, then, to theorize such transnational feminist historiography as a dialogue that acknowledges the distance between subject and historian, rather than one which attempts to speak for others or champion causes that are not wholly my own.

MYTHIC SITES: INDIAN NATIONALISM AND THE WOMAN QUESTION The starting point for comprehending present feminist interventions by writers such as Desai and Nasreen is the history of women’s nationalist struggles in colonial British India.8 Jayawardena (1986) offers an analysis of Indian women’s aspirations for the new India, as well as their participation in the freedom struggle: she records the contribution of social reformers such as Torn Dutt, D. K. Karve 138


and Cornelia Sorabjee, Gandhi an s such as Sarojini Naidu, and militants such as Pundita Ramabai. While both middle-class and peasant women participated in the Quit India movement, organized schools and vocational training centers, and went to international feminist conferences, the Indian woman remained an ideal that served a strategic political function. In other words, the chaste Sita or Savitri figures from Indian myth were manipulated by men like Gandhi who privileged an ideal of sacrifice as the role model for the women of new India. It was as if women’s politicization was contingent only on crisis-ridden moments; ideally, in postindependent India, these politically active women would retire indoors. Other men in power, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, were less idealistic about promises made to women in the India to come: I should like to remind the women present here that no group, no community, no country, has ever got rid of its disabilities by the generosity of the oppressor. India will not be free until we are strong enough to force our will on England and the women of India will not attain their full rights by the mere generosity of the men of India. They will have to fight for them, and force their will on the menfolks before they can succeed.9 Needless to say, feminists in the postindependent subcontinent continued the struggle prophesied by Nehru. Born of a German mother and an Indian father, Anita Desai is one of the “older [generation of] feminists” who witnessed the birth pangs of modem India in 1947. Ranjana Ash, in an essay on contemporary Indian women writers, demarcates the concerns of this “older” generation of feminists from contemporary Indian women’s struggles. Recent Indian feminism is classoriented: educated, middle-class feminists attempt to forge links, as well as mark differences between their own class and that of working-class and peasant women. But the “older [generation of] feminists” are caught in a time lag: they are still concerned with analyzing the significance of “freedom” and “nationhood” for the female citizens of India; they are preoccupied with the task of politicizing the Indian woman who seems bound to the “private” spheres of hearth and home.10 This older generation consists of women who lived during the struggle for freedom, were familiar with the highly charged rhetoric of motherhood used in that political discourse, but had deep misgivings about the status of women as political citizens of the modem nation-state. The thrust of these earlier feminist interventions was toward deconstructing the mythmaking functions of nation formation. Mythmaking, as Homi Bhabha (1992) reminds us, operates on the “pedagogical” axis of nation building.11 This idea of the nation or the people is one located at an originary moment; in the case FEMINIST CRITIQUES


of the new India and Pakistan this occurs at midnight, August 15th, 1947. Arguably, the originary event of people imagining themselves as a nation precedes the actual moment of freedom. But Bhabha does not insist on the particularities of origin; rather, he notes the conflict between pedagogical representation and the performative nature of nationness. People, as culturally heterogenous subjects defining themselves against each other in lived realities, challenge the oneness of nationhood. For example, in India, the scheduled castes (the former “untouchables”) or religious minorities might actively choose to define themselves against the nation, thereby destabilizing the conception of oneness often based on the idea of common inherent traits, a continuous history or shared political power. Thus, in Bhabha’s scheme, the nation becomes a liminal form of social representation, a space marked internally by “cultural differences,” “the heterogenous histories of contending peoples,” “antagonistic authorities” and “tense cultural locations” (299). Using Bhabha’s schema, I will focus on Desai’s Where Shall We Go This Summer? to analyze her critique of nation and modernity, since this is the novel where Desai most clearly allegorizes nation.12 National communities depend on mythifications for their perpetuation, and so Desai’s allegory revisions a new India. I refer to the novel as an allegory because, although nation building and the postcolonial responsibilities of a freedom fighter are thematized, there are no references to real historical leaders or events (save the moment of Indian independence). The fate of the female protagonist exemplifies the perspectives of the children who witnessed the hour of independence and experienced its consequences. Sita, allegorically named after the mythic exemplary wife of Ram in the Indian epic, Ramayana, is a woman unsure of her place in the discourse and the creation of a nation. Desai envisions her protagonist as the initially disenfranchised subaltern woman, who finally is able to use her marginality to effect a critique of nationalist mythmaking. Bhabha (1992) claims the radical potential of “nation” is its liminal figuration, a space that ensures no political ideologies become “transcendent” or metaphysically “authoritative.” In such a “gap” between the idea/myth and the reality, the pedagogical and the performative, the postcolonial subject must articulate his or her political identity. Sita, as the postcolonial subject, creates her female self by exposing this liminality and repositioning herself in the trajectory of nationhood. In the Indian context, as in the case of many other nations, the nation’s generative trajectory is allegorized by father-mother-infant relations. Indian nationalist rhetoric always projected the nation as maternal in form, generative but “raped” by the British.13 Lauren Berlant (1991) argues that the maternal body, its wholeness and promise of plenitude, is an integrative national fantasy where the individual reads the promise of political subjecthood (22-24). In the Indian 140


colonial context, the besieged maternal body was to be restored to wholeness when the British were expelled from the land. The “sons” would redeem the mother; the leaders of the nation often assumed double roles as sons, and paternal figures who guided the work of the sons for the mother (thus, Gandhi’s title “Bapu,” meaning “father”). Later in the 1960s, long after the historical setting of Desai’s novel, Indira Gandhi was often referred to as Mother India, conflating the real leader with the national maternal anatomy in the cultural imaginary. In the Indian nationalist imaginary the matemal/paternal dynamic is always territorialized, with the ideas of ownership, possession and force being attached to the maternal national body.14Desai’s protagonist, Sita, is the daughter who has to deal with an identification with the mother which entails her possible reduction to a mere sign (the “ideal” Indian woman), possessed and constructed within the paternalistic national imagination. Desai asks the question: in the mother-son-father framework, where does the daughter, as a citizen of modern, India place herself?


Within the tradition of the Indo-Anglian novel, Desai can be categorized as one of the second generation of Indo-Anglian writers.15 Unlike R. K. Narayan or Raja Rao’s anticolonialism and their emphases on the construction of an essential “Indianness,” Desai’s works stress the need for negotiations between India’s precolonial past and her postcolonial legacies. In many other novels, Desai’s concern is modem India: the adolescence of a nation whose people still grapple with the task of nation building.16 W h ere S h a ll W e G o T h is S u m m e r ?, like Salman Rushdie’s M id n ig h t's C h ild r e n , centers on the birth of the nation. Desai, too, is preoccupied with “magic”—the figure of excess which best encapsulates the symbolic overload that births a new nation. And like Rushdie’s unreliable narrator, Sita is a historian whose present “moment of danger” forces her to cast an eye back at her own— and the nation’s— childhood. The mythmaker in W h e re S h a ll W e G o T h is S u m m e r ? is Sita’s father, the freedom fighter who retires to an island after Indian independence. A rich industrialist in independent India presents Manori, an island off the coast of Bombay, to Sita’s father in return for her father’s services to the country during the freedom struggle. Her father withdraws from politics and from the grueling task of nation making, choosing to create an “imagined community” of his own: “ T always wanted,’ he confessed, ‘to find a village where I could put my social theories into practice. I have been theorizing for too many years.’ ” (60). While other freedom fighters occupy themselves with managing and containing the riots which engulf postpartition India, Sita’s father begins to e x p e r im e n t on Manori. His



“experiment” is the creation of a microcosmic ideal community buttressed by new social, economic, and religious practices— a model of “nation” for postindependence India. Landing on Manori in the winter of 1947, Sita’s father transforms the island into “Jeevan Ashram” or “the Home of Life.” Many young intellectuals and disciples of the colonial era follow him there. Her father conducts intellectual debates, prayer sessions, musical evenings; he plants crops with the villagers at Manori, constructs a well and participates in the community life of the island. A student of chemistry when he was at the university, he administers medicines to the islanders, often curing them of minor aches and pains. Soon he becomes a legend, and his “magical” powers are venerated by the poor fisher folk who bring him daily supplies of rice, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Sita and her brother Jivan, motherless but belonging to the huge family of followers (“chelas”) and villagers, grow up convinced of the transformatory potential of their father’s magic. Their father had succeeded in creating a cameo nation, the ideal community cut off from the troubles of the mainland India. These facts are presented as a personal memory, but they become, in their allegorical status, a revisioning of national history. Faced with a crisis in her own life—the birth of yet another child— Sita tries to find her “real” self which she had always believed to be nurturing and creative. In doing so, she realizes her only reference point for all creativity is her father’s ability to transform the ordinary into “magic,” the island into the ideal “nation.” And Sita wonders: at what cost was the myth of Manori created? What cost to herself, to the people of the island, and to her lost mother? The dialectical nature of Sita’s memories is made clear through a tripartite structure: the first part marks Sita’s flight to the island of Manori, in 1967 (twenty years after independence), and the circumstances of her present life; the second part records the Manori of her childhood set in the winter of 1947, immediately after independence; and the third part returns to 1967 when, through her revaluations, Sita gains some understanding of her present crisis and decides to return to Bombay. When Sita begins to rethink her father’s magic, many unsavory facts begin to emerge. As time passed, she realizes with a shock, most of the intellectuals leave her father as though discomforted by his legendary potential; her father no longer goes out to the village, becoming more and more housebound, restricting himself to conducting prayers and administering various cures to the fisher folk. In a conversation between her father and his old friend which Sita overhears, her father admits to fraudulence: he does not actually administer medicine but depends on the villagers’ faith and simplicity to cure them of their minor ailments. He exoticizes the potions he prepares by adding minute amounts of ground jewels to 142


them. Phoolmaya, a village beauty, is cured of infertility; in retrospect, Sita is no longer sure if the cure was medical or if her father merely impregnated Phoolmaya. The men in the village begin to avoid her father, but the women come in droves as if compelled by his majesty and legendary powers. The adult Sita questions her father’s manipulation of class privilege, learning, technological expertise, and sexual charisma to charm the villagers and immortalize himself. In his task of mythmaking the cause of “nation” is forgotten— “he himself became a cause” (75). The ideal oneness and egalitarianism of the imagined Gandhian “nation” is forsaken for the position of authority intrinsic to nation making. Thinking back, Sita cannot recall the exact nature of his philosophies: No one, neither these suddenly childish, exuberant chelas, nor the villagers who were attracted to the house by its buoyant new life and came, ostensibly with gifts of fish or coconuts, and actually to satisfy their curiosity, seemed to realize that it was all a creation, a construction of the father’s that they were a part of the experiment he was making... Yet no one could decide—the fact that all his biographers avoided this issue proved this—the precise nature of the experiment. Had it been religious? Or social? Or moral? (64) Who, then, began the legend? He was the legend but whether he began it by plan and deliberation, or acquired it by force of pressure from the simple people around him, remained a matter of debate. (71) The islanders’ consciousness of themselves as a blessed people springs from their simple belief in his paternalistic protection: they have faith in his “magic” that saves lives and brings good harvest. We are told other freedom fighters engaged in governmental responsibilities, or even those who had returned to mundane lives and livelihoods, were dismissive of the Manori experiment: “the island and father’s experiment had made them faintly smile, shake their heads and refuse to come” (91). Sita’s father’s experiment with a microcosmic nation is based on a pedagogical approach wielded through his authoritative class position. He tries to maintain egalitarian relations with the fisher folk, symbolically walking “barefoot” and in “homespun” (Gandhi’s symbol of promoting indigenous industries) and fetching his own water from the community well along with the villagers. But the pedagogical exists in tension with the performative, or the real differences within the “nation.” Phoolmaya and the other women are sexually attracted to Sita’s father; other villagers are drawn to him by their lack of scientific knowledge, their



need for fertilizers, medicines, and guidance on civic constructions. Their interests are different and diverse, separated from those of the father and his chelas by class and/or gender. Desai reveals the pedagogical as an assertion of class privilege, exploitative and destructive to dominated groups: She [Sita] remembered that moment of realization, that faint smile when the pockmarked Champa touched his feet with her forehead— that self-sacrifice and service place power in a man’s hand, ennoble and enlarge a human being into a super-human being (especially in a setting of ignorance and poverty and gullibility) and how, once this super-humanity is recognized (that procession coming on through the coconut grove with offerings of oil and hibiscus and fish) it can be used as a means to power and glory, not of a cause (a cause is abstract, unattractive to the poor) but of one’s own self—solid, primary and obvious as an idol in the temple of the simple. (75) Desai clearly shows how the legacy of nationhood was inherited by a nationalist elite, a criticism repeatedly levelled at Indian politicians by older national leaders such as Tagore (in his lectures on nationalism in 1917), and by postcolonial Indian intellectuals such as the members of the Subaltern Studies group: for example, Partha Chatterji comes close to Bhabha in his assertion that to form a nation is a “utopian ideal” undercut by the Indian “political reality”; he shows in his analyses how anti-imperialist nationalism has a history of avoidance and evasion, and that nationalism has become a “panacea” for not dealing with economic disparities and social injustices.17 While Desai’s novel both anticipates and references some of these thinkers in her presentation of Sita and her father as political subjects, she keeps to the feminist adage: the personal is the political. Sita’s position as daughter, wife, and mother propel her to enact a feminist critique. Her political self-realization is effected through a personal journey: remembrance and retrieval. Within each part of the novel’s tripartite structure, Sita’s relationship to her father changes along three trajectories of self-knowledge. Firstly, in looking at his task of nation building, she realizes his investment in her negative self-image. She perceives of herself as a victim, an object created within her father’s “net of illusion,” and begins to fathom her inability to create or take the position of the creator (101). To be in touch with her creative instincts entails a rejection of paternalism, its “experiments” and objectifications. The second set of Sita’s realizations about her childhood and present life, center around the memory of her father’s abhorrent sexuality. There are intimations of sexual tension between Sita’s father and Sita’s elder step-sister; there are even suggestions of sexual abuse directed at the adolescent Sita: “There had been other occasions— a few...but she 144


shrank away from them, shutting then away in the dark. They had all been wordless and agitated by the queerest, the most horrible sensations” (80). Lastly, Sita reconciles herself to her motherlessness, imagining her lost mother in order to identify with her and reject the father. Desai characterizes nation making as entirely a paternal task. We are told Sita is one of “those flower children of the independence movement,” the “wan, moth-eyed children, reflectively regarding the w hite-and-black masses below them as they sit on the raised dais, with the leaders” (84). Sita’s mother, like Sita, is a deserter who leaves her husband and children’s nomadic lifestyle and goes to Benares, the holy dumping ground for Hindu widows and who degenerate into destitution and hopelessness. But Sita envisions her mother on the island: she is “the ghost in white, stripped of its jewels, lost in Benares” who haunts the casurina groves (87). It is from the shelter of these groves that Sita overhears her father’s disillusioning conversations; from these groves she watches her father’s mixing of powders with the jewels (belonging to her mother). She learns of her father’s treachery, begins to understand her mother’s desertion, and soon locates herself as a ghostly outsider to the island nation. Reconciliation with the mother thus entails Sita’s situation on the margins of society—the peripheral groves that separate the island from the sea. Through these three trajectories Sita effects a political analysis of her father. She locates her lack of self-worth by perceiving the similarities between herself and Phoolmaya, the peasant woman believed to be impregnated by her father. Both Phoolmaya and the ghostly maternal figure are symbolic of the silenced figures of the woman and the peasant in Indian nationalist politics. As mentioned earlier, Gandhi— referred to as “Bapuji” or the “father” of India—privileged the image of the Indian woman as the chaste “Sita” and “Savitri” of Hindu myth. In Where Shall We Go This Summer?, the father-figure is an avowed follower of Gandhi’s philosophical and social doctrines, and certainly a prototype for the Gandhian politicians of modern India; even the initial impetus for the Manori experiment with its stress on local politics and indigenous economic production is a Gandhian impulse. Partha Chatterjee (1990) argues that Indian nationalists (Gandhians included) posited the “spiritual superiority of the East” over the “material” dominance of the West (233-253). It was the mythic figure of the Indian woman that maintained this spiritual superiority by remaining untouched by the material, political, and legal changes of modern India. As opposed to this bastion of culture, the lower-class Indian woman—the maidservant, washerwoman, prostitute, market woman—was represented as a defilement, the negative pole that maintained the morality of the middle-class woman. The effect of such politics was the production of the Indian woman as the silenced “subaltern” figure of Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) “Can the Subaltern Speak?”18 Desai takes up the political silencing and exploitation of women by depicting the peasant F E M IN IS T C R IT IQ U E S


woman, the mother who is either dead or in a self-imposed exile, and the daughter. The daughter (with Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi the historical referent) must deal with the difficult, and sometimes devastating, legacies of magic; but, suggests Desai, the way out does not lie in simply donning the paternalistic role (as Mrs. Gandhi had done). Desai sometimes presents Sita as a protagonist who understands herself through identifying with Phoolmaya and the abused women from the village; at other moments, Desai reveals her own class assumptions by exoticizing the villagers “simplicity” and “faith.” The villager’s mythiiy the father in their chants, ballads, and lore, while Sita, as the middle-class educated protagonist, is given the privilege of deep psychological insight and political disillusion. It is as if the subaltern figures do not ascribe to the political cynicism of modern India. Only Sita moves beyond naivete and mystification. Desai’s final vision is a dark one which undercuts Sita’s feminist revisionism. For Sita will find no lasting place in the popular memory of the nation. Her disappearance as a national subject is noted by the fact that she, like her mother, leaves no trace upon the memory of the nation. We are told Sita’s father exists in the national memory, crucial to nation building, as a freedom fighter and a man of will and courage. The biographers of mainland India simply avoid references to his experiments on Manori. But the father also exists in folk memory as the novel starts and ends with the stories the fisher folk tell of his magic: they chant his legendary “magic,” making “a kind of music like a religious chant not wholly intelligible,” a music that belonged to “the island of Manori...separate from them all” (11, 157). The songs and lore reveal the obliteration of women from the face of the nation as the choric village folk recall only the father. Unlike Sita’s mother who vanishes without trace, Sita’s father had left “not merely traces but what could be called monuments” (88). The fisher folk are dismissive of Sita, the unglamorous daughter of illustrious man: “ ‘Let her go. Who cares? We will only remember him, the father. How he lived, and his magic. The island is his, it is really his.’ ” (157). Thus in the closing lines the daughter, too, is expunged from memory and the national collectivity. Desai’s novel then exemplifies a certain kind of feminist intervention into the birth of the Indian nation. Gender is a common category under which all women unite— from Phoolmaya to Sita—regardless of class; moreover, “woman” and “nation” are the only dominant affiliations that the feminist writer has to negotiate. The trouble is with “magic”: the glowing, magical, freakish children of Rushdie’s work pale into the wan, overlooked children of freedom fighters in Desai’s gendered perspective. For the recent generation of feminists in the subcontinent, failed promises, magic and expectations take the backseat to a growing concern with and a need to 146


assess the antinational conflicts that reformulate gender in specific ways. To illustrate this shift in perspective, I now turn to the work of Anand Patwardhan and Taslima Nasreen.

THE MALE REGENERATION OF INDIA: PATWARDHAN’S ANALYSIS OF COMMUNALISM AND GENDER IN F A TH E R , SO N A N D H O L Y W AR Anand Patwardhan’s Father, Son and Holy War links patriarchy and capitalism to communal violence. The first part of this documentary, titled ‘Trial by Fire,” focuses on discursive constructions of femininity (with an analysis of Roop Kan war’s 1987 sati, and the way in which this event was manipulated by different groups), the position of women within religious and nationalist structures, and the sites of resistance by and for women. The second part, “The Hero Pharmacy,” focus closely on the manipulation of masculine prototypes for purposes of religious segregation and communally accented nationalisms. I will not discuss the content of Patwardhan’s work at length, but will merely point to why endeavors such as his are important in the scope of our discussion. To a certain extent Patwardhan’s is a predictable Marxist-feminist take on the overdetermined nature of women’s oppressions. Patriarchal discourses and practices are reinforced by modern nations’ rush toward technological development and political power; their intensified capitalist modes of production increase the commodification of women’s reproductive potential and labor. Patwardhan’s Marxist framework is overlaid with an anthropological perspective which links economic and social change with cultural symbolizations of power; this move is best exemplified in the logic of his historical narrative about the fall of female deities and the rise of male ones. Patwardhan makes a strong case for real situations of domination and subordination as effects of discursive practices, and in this he interrogates the collective imaginaries that contribute to the oppression of women. The documentary presents a somewhat simplified causal link between patriarchy, capitalism, and violence, but this simplification may be a result of his intention to address the “man on the street” and various local groups in struggle rather than academics or theoreticians.19 He explicitly positions himself against elite definitions of agitprop, and emphasizes emotional intensity over “subtlety” in his films. His film is therefore pitched to a heterogeneous audience by his own definition: middle-class audiences in India and abroad, women’s groups, slum dwellers, unions, and the like. This heterogeneity is also reflected in his representation of the numerous sites of resistance. Unlike Desai, who presents a single oppositional platform based on gender affiliations and a unified voice for women, Patwardhan delineates the “scattered hegemonies” that engender sites of FEMINIST CRITIQUES


resistance for both women and men.20 He presents various forums for women’s struggles: college and school student marches, urban women’s groups mobilizing locally and nationally in the streets, or Muslim women’s meetings at home. He is also careful to represent those women who buy into the nationalist and religious rhetorics that attempt to manipulate them: we see a whisper and laugh pass between women who hear a Shiv Sena leader exhort them not to use birth control and to produce more Hindu children, and we hear the testimony of a woman who believes in and deifies the sati, Roop Kanwar. Religious groups are also presented as occupying different positions: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena valorize masculine potency, while the followers of Swami Vivekanada preach secular feminist liberatory doctrines. Patwardhan’s film gives us a sense of the intersections of gender, religion and national identity as complicated ones, interrelated hegemonies. What is very clear, though, is his criticism of communal divisive politics within Hindu and Muslim communities which generate acts of violence. In an India which has seen forty years of failed economic development, an India where secessionist movements, religious disorder and class conflicts have become the norm following postcolonial disillusionment, religious movements offer an alternative. Postcolonial antinationalism is harnessed into separatist rhetorics that (still) speak of a Hindu India and discrete Muslim states within that nation. In Patwardhan’s perspective this antinationalism is clearly negative in two ways. Firstly, in its effects on women, regressively tying them to hearth, home and multiple childbirths (in a massively overpopulated nation); and secondly, in its production of a new war-like masculine prototype who undertakes acts of symbolic and ritual violence. For the “common man” potency, and its visible proof in children, are real ways of intervening into nation by actually—if infinitesimally—altering the population ratio between the warring communities. Religious movements encourage such assumptions by pitting Hindu generativity against Muslim generativity. The result: overpopulation and violence, violence and overpopulation. Patwardhan’s film opens with the Bombay riots following the Babri Masjid destruction, and the following tract becomes a rumination on how these riots came to be. The old question— what will India be ?—posed by the founding fathers of the nation, is now reformulated as: Whose India shall this be? Patwardhan’s film presents a cautionary tale. In this it may be regarded as a feminist intervention into the nationalisms as they are manipulated by religious movements. Seminal in its analysis of mass machismo and its effects, Father, Son and Holy War effects a critique of new nationalisms by using feminist theory as a critical lens and an analytic tool. A similar project is undertaken by Patwardhan’s contemporary, Taslima Nasreen, who also approaches nation from a feminist perspective, and via 148


religious discourses and practices as they reconstitute nationalist rhetorics and agendas. I will now turn to her intervention into Bangladeshi religious politics and nationalism, in order to further explore this second kind of feminist perspective.

FAILED PROMISES: NASREEN’S CRITIQUE OF ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM IN L A J JA TaslimaNasreen’s Lajja, the focus of the controversy that drove the writer from her native Bangladesh to Sweden, mixes fiction and history in a rewriting of Bangladeshi history perceived from a present debacle: the communal disharmony following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in India. More than a work of fiction, Lajja may best be understood as an outpouring of anger and grief at the violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. Of course, the interpretation of the novel is filtered through the manifold layers of communal politics in India and Bangladesh (for example, the championing of Lajja by the Indian press which refueled the Islamic fundamentalist anger against Nasreen); of the struggle over political rhetoric between postcolonial nations and their former colonizers (presented as a single “allied” West); and of the reception of “Third World” feminist conflicts in transnational circuits. How can such a novel, interventionist as it is, be understood? Can it be evaluated for its literary or feminist values? What are the assumptions behind such assessments? I present a subjective account of the Nasreen controversy first, before placing our distancing filters over my reading of this novel. The story begins in India with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. It was argued that Babar, the Muslim ruler and conqueror, had desecrated the temple constructed to mark Ram’s birthplace (Ram, the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, is worshipped as a god throughout India); Babar had built the Babri Masjid on the ruins of that Hindu temple. Under renewed Hindu militant fervor, fueled by religious sectarianism, Babar’s mosque was torn down in a riot in December 1992. Almost immediately, communal violence swept all over India as Muslims took revenge by destroying Hindu temples, and Hindus retaliated in turn; when the death toll had risen to a thousand, violence spread to the Islamic states of Bangladesh and Pakistan. In Februaiy 1993, Taslima Nasreen, known for her outspoken feminist tracts against Islamic laws pertaining to women, published her book Lajja, which effected a strong critique of Muslim violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. She was immediately branded a traitor and the book was banned; it was picked up by Ananda publishers in Calcutta (where the same language, Bengali, is spoken), later in that year. In October 1993, a Muslim fundamentalist organization, Sahaba Sainik Parishad, offered a fatwa—takka fifty thousand—for Nasreen’s life (similar to the one issued against Salman Rushdie); on June 10, 1994, this offer was



backed by takka one lakh from Mufti Nazrul Islam. In a country where Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise since 1975 and where Islamic laws have become a part of the state apparatus, Nasreen was sued for violating the religious feelings of her fellow citizens under Section 295(A) of the criminal procedure code. Events escalated when a Calcutta newspaper misquoted Nasreen: she was said to have criticized the Qu’ran in an interview. In reality she had criticized the Shariat laws governing the marriage and divorce of women and men. Nasreen, who had been in hiding since June 1994, finally fled to Stockholm in August. There she further inflamed the debates surrounding her “exile” by accepting the Tucholsky Prize for a distinguished writer living in exile, funded by the Swedish Ministry of Culture. What did Lajja say that so offended the Muslim fundamentalist leaders who exert such influence on Bangladeshi politics? The novel is written in a journalistic documentary style with the fate of one Hindu family at the center of the narrative. Suranjan Dutta, a disaffected, unemployed Hindu youth, is the central character; he is a generation apart from his father, Sudhamoy, who had participated in Bangladesh’s struggle against Pakistan from 1964 to 1971. Bangladesh, partitioned off from India along religious lines in 1947 when the British left (and known then as East Pakistan), seceded from Pakistan in 1971. The liberation war with Pakistan was based on perceptions of shared linguistic, cultural, and geographic commonalities within East Pakistan, ties that set off that imagined community from West Pakistan. Sudhamoy, the father in Lajja, thus has a secular vision of Bangladesh as a nation bound by ties of language, geography, culture, and a shared vision of civic peace. The arguments between father and son foreground different perceptions of Bangladesh as a nation: the patriotic father still believes in the magical promises of a newborn, secular nation, but the son, bitter and disillusioned, foresees an all-Muslim state where Hindus have very few civil rights and therefore argues for emigration to India. The novel is set during the riots of 1993. The whole family (father, mother, son, and daughter) wait in fear and trepidation as Hindu temples, businesses, and homes are destroyed, and as women are raped and men are killed. Much of the novel draws out this experience of waiting and trepidation as the reader participates in the dread of coming violence, with the nagging surety that it will affect the protagonists. The family is finally attacked, their home ransacked, and the daughter (Maya) is carried off (and presumably raped) by seven Muslim men. Through this personal frame of a family story, Nasreen weaves the history of Hindus in Bangladesh (citizens who have remained in Bangladesh because they believe in national, rather than religious, allegiances), their dreams, fears, anxieties, and beliefs; their friends and neighbors, both Hindu and Muslim; their family and relatives, most of whom have fled to Hindu-dominant India. Large 150


sections of the novel detail specific violent acts against Hindu taking place at the time, as well as similar past acts encouraged by the rising Islamic fundamentalist control over the state and the people. There are pages and pages listing temples burnt, businesses looted, and families violated. These lists break the rules of narrative realism—especially when they are mentioned in conversations between friends and neighbors—and make Lajja a historical document. Nasreen painstakingly, and in a journalistic manner, details places, streets, different localities, and families in such as way that the reader loses the sense of inhabiting a novelistic world and begins to treat those details as facts. Along with these lists, Nasreen intersperses Bangladeshi legal and political tracts pertaining to religion and nationhood: she mentions acts and statutes that discriminate on grounds of religion, even as she quotes and paraphrases several political thinkers who had called for a secular nation.21 Thus Nasreen offers fragments of the official history of Hindus in Bangladesh. Through her personal frame of one family and their network of relatives, friends and neighbors, however, she also includes feelings, viewpoints, and/or knowledges that remain in the popular memory of heterogenous communities within the nation. In such an endeavor, she becomes a postmodern historian in the Lyotardian sense: History is made up wisps of narratives, stories that one tells, that one hears, that one acts out; the people do not exist as subject but as a mass of millions of insignificant and serious little stories that sometimes let themselves be collected together to constitute big stories and sometimes disperse into digressive elements.22 The part-fiction, part-documentary style enables her to present a fragmented, oral history of an unrepresented community within the nation. For example, through the Dutta family’s trials, we gain access to (smaller) intercommunity interactions which would be lost in large demographic accounts. We are told that the family has several Muslim friends who try to help them out the best they can: the father was hidden by a Muslim family during the 1971 war, and the son was once in love with a Muslim woman. Of course, we also see how political violence enters and distorts human relationships as suspicions develop between members of the Dutta family and Muslim friends previously thought to be liberal and loyal. Nasreen’s construction of a dialectical position to Bangladeshi history and nationhood is the main impetus in Lajja, not a dedication to literary aesthetics. (I feel the need to emphasize this because of the endless criticisms of Nasreen’s failed literary style that appeared in the Bangladeshi and Indian [Bengali] presses, and because of the many and wearisome comparisons to Rushdie’s metaphorical FEMINIST CRITIQUES


and jeweled prose. It is important to note that the aesthetic merit of a work can be put on the back burner in cases such as these where history is rewritten from the trenches and the intervention matters above questions of literary style.23) Lajja works through several conflicts that the main protagonists have to negotiate. One major conflict is loyalty to the family versus belief in the nation or religion. This is shown through the progression of events: Sudhamoy ultimately loses his daughter because he had earlier refused to leave Bangladesh and flee to India; we are also told that when he had refused to change his religion at a Pakistani prison camp during the 1971 liberation war, he was forcibly circumcised, and the untended wound led to his impotence and the termination of sexual relations with his wife. Another conflict is civic nationhood versus religious nationhood. In this case, Nasreen plays the omniscient narrator who makes critical comments that reiterate her views expressed elsewhere. In various interviews she has claimed that “culture” (the Bengali language and literature) is the definitive force in nation building; she waxes lyrical over Rabindranath Tagore, and dedicates Lajja to a contemporary West Bengali writer, Buddhadev Guha.24 In Lajja, Nasreen indicts the mullahs who exercise political power in Bangladesh by arguing that these same fundamentalists were traitors to the Bangladeshi cause during the liberation war; they had sided with Pakistan and the idea of a Pan-Islamic culture (thus the use of religion as the nation building tie). Why, asks Nasreen— and I think this is what made for Lajja*s controversial reception— should these same leaders enjoy so much political power in independent Bangladesh? If Bangladesh had fought for cultural integrity (which was being swamped in their merger with West Pakistan) and against religious affinity, why should the citizens of this same nation now act in the interests of religion only? Since Hindu Bangladeshis (typified in the character of the father, Sudhamoy) had fought shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim comrades, why the divisions between the two communities now? If Lajja rewrites history and questions religious politics, it is no surprise it was banned in Bangladesh. A journalist, Suhas Chakma, points to the fact that the current Bangladeshi government has a history of repressing alternative cultural documents: it had banned Ekattorer Jishu and Smriti Ekkator, controversial films that raised the specter of local collaborators (with West Pakistan) during the 1971 liberation war. Nasreen uses gender to effect her critique of Bangladeshi politics and individual political responsibility. Firstly, she presents gender as the overdetermined symbol of all other unequal relations. For instance, the marginal position of Hindu men, their lack of civic rights, political power, and economic privilege within the Islamic state, is represented by the father’s symbolic loss of sexual potency. This emasculation takes place in 1971, and so the new nation 152


generates an impotent Hindu subject. Moreover, the two climactic events of violence and revenge are figured through two rapes: the abduction and possible rape of Maya, the Hindu daughter, which marks the moral destitution of the Dutta family; and the rape of a Muslim prostitute by Suranjan, the son, as revenge for Maya’s abduction. (The latter scene is graphic in its violence, and sympathetic to the plight of the economically deprived Muslim woman who submits to the rape for money.) Secondly, not only are gendered oppressions heightened symbols for other oppressions—religious, national, cultural— but in themselves they present Nasreen’s indictment of patriarchal society’s commodification of women. I am reading L a jja in context of her journalistic feminist pieces, her feminist novel N i r b a c h i t o K o l o m , and her proclaimed next project on women and the Q u 'ran {Q u 'ra n e r N a r i) .25 In the war against Hindu private property (temple, businesses, and homes), in L a jj a , women become one other thing to be captured and ransacked. Women are seen as oppressed within both Hindu and Muslim societies.26 This is made evident by the fact that the two rapes are of women from the Hindu a n d the Muslim communities. Thus Nasreen argues for ties beyond those forged by religion, and the rape of women becomes a universal moral debacle. Gender in Nasreen’s work, at the levels of argument, narrative structure, and thematic concerns, acts as a politico-social arrangement that both exemplifies and symbolizes unequal relations. Her own position within gender systems grants Nasreen a marginal position from which she can critique those unequal relations. Of course, even before the publication of L a jj a , Nasreen had marked herself as a feminist in a country where patriarchal structures were being increasingly strengthened under Islamic fundamentalist influences. She referred to the women o f Bangladesh as “second-class citizens,” and repeatedly criticized the S h a r ia t laws as well as the commodification of women in modern Bangladesh. In a categorical statement to the press, she asserted: I write against the religion because if women want to live like human beings, they have to live outside the religion and the Islamic law.27 I would argue that her position of historic marginality from the nation-state has made her a critic of not just patriarchy but other injustices existent in the Islamic body politic. What is poignant here is the passion for Bangladesh that resounds through L a jj a . Even as she is marginalized, Nasreen seems to perceive herself as constructed by the Bangladeshi nationalist and gendered discourses. In being a part of that nation, she asserts her Islamic right of ijt e h a d (the right to debate), which, critics argue, disappears under fundamentalist controls over interpretations



of the Qu Wan. In Lajja, Nasreen takes on the Bangladeshi state, religion, and citizens, indicting all Muslims for either participating in— or at least condoning and acquiescing to—the violence against the Hindu minority. She uses her position as a woman as an entry point into nationalist and religious politics, thereby transgressing many kinds of boundaries (speech, gender, citizenship) as she interrogates the various inequalities. By the same token, gender is not a unified category for her, but one redefined by the kind of nationalism one believes in as well as one’s religion. I have used Desai, Patwardhan, and Nasreen as examples of certain feminist interventions into the idea of nation, and have attempted to place the different kinds of interventions in historical relation to each other. But as was stressed in the introduction to this anthology, thereJs another axis that one needs to take into account when exploring Third World feminist practices: the axis of geopolitical location. The politics of location bear on my essay in two ways. First, my own attempt to “voice” feminist interventions in South Asia. Here the problems of gaining access to information, the sites in which I discuss these feminist practices, my rhetorical production of the “Third World” and “the subcontinent” as a hermeneutic categories need to be redressed. Secondly, the two women writers and Patwardhan are all affiliated in various ways with the West: Anita Desai often teaches, and now lives, in the United States and her novels have a transnational reception; Anand Patwardhan has traveled internationally with his films, and therefore his analyses target not only Indian audiences but also First World audiences; Taslima Nasreen is currently exiled from her country, and is the locus of much discussion in the Western press, among writers in the First World, and in transnational feminist circuits. By her own admission, Nasreen’s literary influences are, as they are for many postcolonial writers, global: Virginia Woolf, Maxim Gorky, and Leo Tolstoy, to name a few.281 will touch upon the politics of location drawing primarily on her case, since it best illuminates some of the political tensions intrinsic to speaking across First and Third World divides.

TALKING FEMINISM, ETCHING BORDERS: THE CASE OF TASLIMA NASREEN The Nasreen case accentuates the need for an interrogation of the location from where one speaks, because it was a transnational matter from the start. Even the first riots in Bangladesh had ties beyond national parameters, since they were triggered by events in India. Nasreen’s plight was further exacerbated by the fact that her work (the source of Muslims’ “shame”) was published in predominantly Hindu Calcutta where she was championed as a brave crusader; moreover, she was misquoted in a Calcutta newspaper about criticizing the Qu’ran, an event which was denounced by religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh and India (for 154


example, Syed Shahabuddin, the Janata Dal leader, called for a ban on Lajja in India). She becomes “famous” when Sweden offered her political asylum and the Western press represented her as a second Rushdie, another victim of the militant brand of Islamic fundamentalism so abhorred in the West. Soon after her “escape,” a hundred French-speaking intellectuals called on the Bangladeshi government to offer Nasreen protection from the ulema. These national/South Asian/transnational interfaces are perceived by the Bangladeshi and the Indian press as an imperialistic transgression of national and South Asian borders. An Indian journalist criticizes the West for intruding in a national affair, given that Nasreen, unlike Rushdie, was not a “citizen” of the West and should therefore play by the rules of her own milieu. The West is further taken to task for imposing its “liberal standards” of conduct to an emotional issue and geopolitical militancy that it could not possibly fathom.29 Another Calcutta paper criticized the South Asian countries for not offering her asylum, and for bowing to fears of further inflaming political and religious subcontinental tensions.30 Some Bangladeshi journalists accused the Western and Indian presses of not taking sufficient note of support extended to Nasreen from leftist and progressive groups in Dhaka, such as the Democratic Students Unity and the United Cultural Council.31 In these cases, the borders that Nasreen transgresses— extratextually by her very production as a victim-figure—are those of the nation/world, and the West/non-West, or the First World/Third World. Another locus for the debate was waged over depictions of Islam. A Bangladeshi writer supports Nasreen but defends Islam by saying that Nasreen’s plight is not a result of a rigidity inherent to Islam, but is a result of an ossified version of Islam often found in backward, poor, or illiterate societies where the checks and balances against religious leaders are not in place. Here, Bangladesh as a backward nation is cordoned off from the rest of the Islamic world. Thus, Nasreen should have taken refuge in another Islamic country.32 In another attack, Bhagirath Misra rather pompously challenges Nasreen’s sensational depiction of Islamic oppression of women; he argues that if she were an adept student of history, she would know that women are oppressed everywhere, and that Islamic repression is simply delicious consumption for the West in a climate of anti-Islamic feelings.33 Sk Sadar Nayeem reformulates the controversy, with its structuring dichotomy of “tolerance” and “intolerance,” as a continuing struggle between Islam and Christianity raging since the Crusades; he asserts that the Armageddon rhetorics of the Gulf War, for example, clearly demonstrate Western anti-Islamic agendas and these have, in turn, spawned a particularly militant form of Islam.34 What is interesting in this battle over these concentric borders is that each limit produces or invents a different Taslima Nasreen. For instance, the cultural FEMINIST CRITIQUES


imperialism of West Bengalis (in India) toward their fellow Bengalis (in Bangladesh) leads to a portrait of Nasreen as an inferior, less literary, and more journalistic writer: one writer comments on the fact that she writes a “document’' and not a “novel,” and that her “harangue style” in Lajja is more suited to the “podium” than the “pen.”35 Of course numerous unfavorable comparisons are made between her direct style and Rushdie’s highly acclaimed satirical and metaphorical one. Never mind the fact that Nasreen’s will to history is somewhat different from Rushdie’s more Western, postmodern take on the subcontinent, and never mind the fact that Nasreen’s testament to inequality is addressed to a non-elite public. Calcuttans feel the need to comment on the cultural merits of Nasreen’s Bengali literary prose. Other writers place her in a canon according to situation; for example, Annadashankar Ray (from Calcutta) compares Nasreen to Thomas Mann and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writers who wrote under other repressive circumstances. In feminist circles Nasreen is championed for her social critique. When comparisons are made to Rushdie, they are contextualized in terms of the social production of Nasreen as a “woman.” An Indian woman journalist points to the fact that while Rushdie’s private life was never the index by which his literary output was measured, Nasreen faces closer scrutiny because she is a woman— her three marriages are often cited as signs of her “moral laxity” which, in turn (according to fundamentalist conservatives), accounts for her critiques of the Shariat laws.36 Western feminists support her intervention, but also use her case to once more reaffirm the West’s “free” and “democratic” public spheres. These different Nasreens reveal the fact that each moment of production has certain epistemological and political limits governed by the geopolitics of location. And so, I conclude by marking the limitations of my own location, an account that may be used as a filter for this essay. There are two narratives that construct this personal boundary. The first is my immigrant status and current location within the United States academy. This exerts an enormous influence on the material I analyze; for example, in my definitions of the two feminist perspectives there is a paucity of examples of those different feminist practices. I have few newspaper clippings, manifestos, or Indian and Bangladeshi journal articles that support my contentions. I restrict myself to Desai as an example of the earlier generation of feminists not only because her work exemplifies the agendas of that generation, but because her novels have extensive distribution in First World markets; thus I was able to do a thorough study of her novels, interviews, and short fiction. My location as an academic also places demands on the language and address of this paper; this creates the paradoxical situation of representing in an abstract manner those who resist such theorizing—both Patwardhan and Nasreen would qualify under this category. 156


Finally, my location shapes the kinds of facts I choose to present and/or emphasize; for instance, reiterating 1947 as the date for Indian and Pakistani independence, and 1971 for the Bangladeshi war of liberation. Locational boundaries also inhibit the way in which this history I have presented will be consumed; as information and as theory on feminist dialogues. The second narrative concerns my cultural upbringing as a Hindu which, I am sure, leads me to accent Islam’s attitudes toward women in a particular way; the Hindu liberal milieu in which I grew up also prejudices me against forms of religious fundamentalism, both Hindu and Muslim, which strengthens my interest in and commitment to anticommunal writing. Structured by that interest, I have chosen to narrate particular kinds of feminist interventions. These boundaries provide interpretive lenses that will distance the reader from the readings of feminism presented here. The distances between speaker and subject, historian and the history, events and their political implications create a dialogic model for effective transnational feminist dialogues. One can look at a case such as Nasreen’s, mark one’s own borders as the first filter of interpretation, and then proceed centrifugally to restore a multifaceted image/text (such as the different Nasreens we have encountered). This multifaceted figure will emerge when one pursues it across the discursive limits which produce each of its facets; in turn, such pursuit will reveal the terms of each limit/border, and the relation of that limit/border to other ones. Somewhere, in this shaping of relationships between the context we are talking about (India/Bangladesh/Europe/United States) and the context we are talking in (be it a journal, newspaper, or conference), perhaps we can figure out the politics and the possibilities of representing another’s feminism.




1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses onthe Philosophy of History,” Illum inations , Hannah Arendt, ed. and Harry Zohn, trans. (NewYork: Schocken, 1969), 255. 2. Michel Foucault’s delineations of official history and the present as a point of intervention, is perhaps most clear in his D isc ip lin e a n d P unish: The B irth o f the P riso n , Alan Sheridan, trans. (NewYork: Pantheon, 1975). For a seminal account of history writing buttresses “nation,” see, Benedict Anderson, Im a g in ed C om m unities: R e flectio n s on the O rig in a n d S p re a d o f N a tio n a lism (NewYork: Verso, 1983). Andrew Higson presents a convincing argument for the role of official histories in perpetuating nation in “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche inthe Heritage Film,” F ires W ere S ta rted : B ritish C inem a a n d T hatcherism , Leslie Friedman, ed. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), 109-129. 3. Since it is not possible to catalog here the large amount of work done on the intersections of gender and nation, I mention some pertinent examples: Kumkum Sangari and Suresh Vaid, eds., R ecasting Women: E ssays on Indian C olon ial H istory (NewBrunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990); Partha Chatteijee, N a tio n a list T hought in the C o lo n ia l W orld: A D e riv a tiv e D isco u rse? (London: Zed Books, 1986); Sumita Chakravarty, N a tio n a l Ide n tity in Indian C inem a, 1 9 4 7 - 8 7 (Austin: Texas UP, 1993). 4. For a detailed examination of my self-conscious use of the terms “Third” and “First” world, see the introduction written by Brinda Bose and myself. 5.1use the term“communalism” advisedly to markthe antinational nature of struggles that fall under this definition. Gyanendra Pandey (1990) historicizes the current sense of the term, bylocating its emergence as a perceived threat to nationalisminthe second phase of Indian nationalism(late nineteenth/early twentieth century). See, Gyanendra Pandey, The C onstruction o f Com m unalism in C olon ial Northern India (NewDelhi: Oxford UP, 1990). 6. Kumari Jayawardena, F em inism Books, 1986).

a n d N a tio n a lism in the T hird W orld

(London: Zed

7. Critics have focused on this older feminist agenda of analyzing the effect of nationhood on gender identity. Postcolonial feminists have taken up the challenge of situating the questionof gender withinthe politics of nationalism. Some of the seminal works on nation and postcolonialismare: Benedict Anderson (1983); Homi K.Bhabha, “Dissemi-Nation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modem Nation,” N a tion a n d N a rra tio n , Homi Bhabha, ed. (NewYork: Routledge, 1992), 291-322; Rabindranath Tagore, N atio n a lism (New York: Macmillan, 1917); Partha Chatteijee, N a tio n a list T hought a n d the C o lo n ia l W orld : A D e r iv a tiv e D isc o u rse ? (London: Zed Books, 1986); Rajat K. Ray, “Three Interpretations of Indian Nationalism,” E ssa ys in M odern In d ia , B. Q. Nanda, ed. (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1980). For essays on postcolonial feminism, see: Chandra Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism,” Mohanty 158


et al., eds., T hird W o rld W omen a n d the P o litic s o f F em inism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991); Gayatri Spivak, The P o stc o lo n ia l C ritic: Interview s, S trategies, D ia lo g u e s (New York: Routledge, 1990); Denis Kandiyoti’s “Identity and its Discontents: Women and Nation,” PatrickWilliams and Laura Chrisman, eds., C olon ial D isc o u rse a n d P o stc o lo n ia l T h eo ry: A R e a d e r (New York: Columbia UP, 1994). For recent examples, see: Shirley Chew, “Searching Voices: Anita Desai’s C le a r L igh t o f D a y and Nayantara Sahgal’s R ich L ike U s ,” Susheila Nasta, ed. M o th erla n d s: B la ck W o m en ’s W riting fr o m A frica, the C aribbean a n d South A sia (NewBrunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992), 43-63; the essays by Lydia Liu, Nalini Natarajan and Kamala Visweswaran in the recent collection, S c a tte re d H e g e m o n ie s: P o stm o d e m ity a n d T ra n sn a tio n a l F em in ist P ra c tic e , Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds. (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1994) also address the relationship of gender, nation, and modernity. 8.1use the term“subcontinental” partly as a heuristic since to say India, Bangladesh, and Pakistanevery time I refer to developments inthose regions wouldbe clumsy; but, as I have mentioned, it is also true that these regions have a shared history prior to 1947 (with the understanding that my comprehension of that history was mostly acquired in India). 9. Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech inAllahabad, at the IndianNational Congress meeting, March 31, 1928, was quoted inJayawardena (1986), 73. 10. Ranjana Ash, “The Search For Freedom in Indian Women’s Writing,” Nasta (1992), 152-174. 11. See Benedict Anderson (1983) andHomi K. Bhabha (1992). There are other writers on nationalismwhomI take for granted, such as Ernest Renan’s seminal account, “What is a Nation?” Bhabha (1992), 8-22. 12. Anita Desai, Where Shall We G o This Summer? (NewDelhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1982). All further citations fromthis text will refer to this edition of the text. 13. Inballads, folklore, andother popular images, national leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore would use the mother figure to describe India incolonial turbulent times; they would envision a besieged mother whose sons had deserted her; but this mother still served as an inspiration for anticolonial struggles. This idea is not limited to the Indian context; for instance, LaurenBerlant examines the use of the maternal body inthe American nationalist imaginary, The A n a to m y o f N a tio n a l F an tasy: H aw th orne, U topia a n d E v eryd a y Life (Chicago: Uof Chicago P, 1991). 14. For a detailed and complex analysis of Brahmanical masculinity and femininity see: Ashis Nandy, “Woman versus Womanliness,” and other essays in A t the E dge o f P sych o lo g y: E ssa ys in P o litic s a n d C u ltu re (NewDelhi: Oxford University Press, 1980).



15. I use the term “Indo-Anglian,” following Meenakshi Mukheijee’s work on Indo-Anglian fiction, to denote original work by Indians inEnglish. She borrows the term from Professor Iyengar, justifying it on the following grounds: “that of all possible combinations of the words E nglish and In d ia , A n g lo -In d ia n has an obvious ethnic connotation inIndia and cannot be used inanother context like literature; In d o -E n g lish is suitable, but cannot be used conveniently both as an adjective and a substantive; In d o -A n g lia n is, therefore, the only remaining possibility.” The T w ic e -b o rn F ictio n : T h em es a n d T ech n iqu es o f the Indian N o v e l in E nglish (London and New Delhi: Heinemann, 1971), 14.1classify writers such as R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, etc., as the “first generation” of Indian novelists writing in English. Broadly speaking, they are concerned with differentiating a distinctly Indian milieu, consciousness and voice against British appraisals of India. The “second generation,” comprising writers such as Anita Desai, Upamanyu Chatteijee, Amitava Ghosh, Kamala Markandaya, etc., try to negotiate their mixed literary pasts, acknowledging and reinterpreting the influence of European cultures on India. It must be understood that I am not using the word “generation” with reference to age—Upamanyu Chatteijee and Amitava Ghosh, for instance, are much younger that Desai and Markandaya who have been writing since the late 1950s and 1960s—but rather as a term that distinguishes between sets of concerns about the Indo-Anglian novel. For categorizations of IndianwritinginEnglish, see: Mukheijee (1971) and M. E. Derrett, The M o d e m Indian N o v e l in E nglish: A C o m p a ra tive A p p ro a c h (Brussels: Éditions de l’Insitut de Sociologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1966). For an excellent recent analysis, see: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, C ulture a n d Im perialism in the In d o -E n g lish N o v e l (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1993). 16. See, for example, C le a r L ig h t o f D a y (NewDelhi: Penguin Books, 1980). 17. See RabindranathTagore (1917); Partha Chatteijee (1986), 79; Rajat Ray (1980) 1-41. 18. Spivak argues that the Indian woman is produced by colonial and Brahmanical discourses: for example, the Rani of Sirmur’s impulse to commit sati is interpreted as “her own desire” by Hindus, and “a markof free choice” by the British. Nowhere is the voice of the real Rani to be found; infact Spivakquestions the possibility of locating Indian women as real historical subjects. See Gayatri Spivak Chakravarty, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson, eds. M a rx ism a n d the In terpretation o f C u ltu re (Urbana, IL: Uof Illinois P, 1988), 271-313. 19. Inaninterviewwith Amrit Gangar and Sudhir Yardi, “The Documentary Aesthetic: A Discussion on the Documentary Mediumwith Anand Patwardhan,” F ilm In dia , 18-25. 20. I borrow this term fromGrewal and Kaplan (1994) as it strikes me as a particularly effective one indelineating the shifting sites and relations of power at any given historical juncture.



21. For instance, a list of past offenses against Hindus that Suranjan recollects lasts six pages. See Taslima Nasreen, L a jja (Calcutta: Ananda Publishers, 1993), 36-40. For an example of what I characterize as political tracts, see page 13. 22. Jean-Francois Lyotard, In stru ction s P a ie n n es (Paris: Galilee, 1977), 39. 23. A feminist journalist champions Nasreen for fighting from trenches, while Rushdie writes safely behinddefense lines; she further criticizes literary luminaries, such as Mrinal Sen and Kanti Biswas, for flaying Nasreen’s lack of style. Sonali Chatterjee, “Gritty Woman,” fromThe T eleg ra p h (June 18, 1994). I extend my thanks to Radharani Ray for facilitating my research on the Nasreen controversy. 24. See: “Bangla is NowMore Fundamentalist,” fromA m rita 1994).

B a za a r P a trik a

(August 20,

25. See “I Will Deal a Blow to Evil Forces with the Power of the Pen” [my translation], (May 22, 1994).

Ju g a n to r

26. InaninterviewwithJu gan tor , a Calcutta newspaper, Nasreen reiterates the fact that in anywar or riot, women are the casualties regardless of their religious or national affiliation. Ju g a n to r (May 22, 1994). 27. “Women are Slaves,” A m rita B a za a r P a trik a (June 22, 1994). 28. See J u g a n to r interview(May 22, 1994). 29. N. J. Nanporia, “Through an Occident of Faith,” The T eleg raph (August 9, 1994). 30. Suhas Chakma, “InSympathy with Devils,” The

T eleg ra p h

(August 3, 1994).

31. Ershadul Huq, “Forces Rally Around Taslima in Dhaka,” A m rita 25, 1994).

B a z a a r P a trik a


32. Danial Latifi, “Where Mullahs Rule the Roost,”A m rita B a za ar P atrika (June 29, 1994); and Nazreen Hussain, “Writes and Wrongs about the Q u ra n ,” The T eleg ra p h (July 22, 1994). 33. Paraphrased from a Bengali newspaper, “Taslima, Try to Go To the Source” [my translation], Bhagirath Misra, A n an da B a z a a r (August 27, 1993); his denunciation of Nasreen meets opposition by Anuradha Dutt, “Thank God for Taslima,” A m rita B a za a r P a trik a (June 5, 1994), with the argument that first hand experiences count best toward cataloging oppressions. Other accounts of Nasreen’s singling out of Islam(Parvez Hafeez, “The Sacred and the Profane,” The T eleg ra p h [July 19, 1994]) point to the fact that there was no hue and cry over Sikh intolerance in a similar case where ten million rupees were offered for the death of the Pakistani author, Sadiq Hussain. FEMINIST CRITIQUES


34. Sk Sadar Nayeem, “Crusade in a Tea Cup,” The T eleg ra p h (July 7,1994). 35. “LowArt, Moral High,” The T eleg ra p h (June 17, 1994). 36. Anuradha Dutt, “Thank God for Taslima,” A m rita B a z a a r P a trik a (June 5, 1994).




Of Tortillas and Texts Postcolonial Dialogues in the Latin American Testimonial Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Much has been written in the last decade or so about the possibility of global feminism, of the collaboration and coalition between so-called First World and Third World women,1 as well as between marginalized and elite women within both the First and the Third Worlds.2 In the realm of literature, Latin American women’s testimonials, which pool the efforts of an upper-class scribe and a subaltern testifier, offer one of the most striking examples of such collaboration. Testimonials such as Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la consciencia by Guatemalan Quiché Indian Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, and “Si me permiten hablar... "Testimonio de Domitilia, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia, by Bolivian mestiza Domitila Barrios de Chungara, bear witness not only to the oppression and exploitation described by the testifier, but also to the power and the peril of such collaborations among women from different nations, races, and classes. Although the scribes are obviously sympathetic to their subjects, and see their projects in feminist, anti-imperialist, and antiracist terms, in these two testimonials we can see subtle but unmistakable gestures that work to deauthorize the testimonial subject at the same time as they bring her into writing. I propose to explore the power dynamics embedded in these testimonials, which surreptitiously reinforce existing oppressor/oppressed hierarchies through the invisible agency of the scribe. These testimonials have much to teach us about the possibilities, as well as the pitfalls, of First World/Third World feminist collaboration. Although the Latin American testimonial is always the product of two subjects in dialogue—the testifier, generally an illiterate member of a subaltern group, and

the scribe, generally a literate intellectual of the Euramerican elite class—the final product is a first-person narrative that reads like an unmediated autobiography; the scribe, after transcribing, editing, and shaping the testifier’s oral presentation, effaces herself completely from the text.3 Too often, readers have taken these texts less as complex, double-voiced literary collaborations than as transparent, first-person narrative cultural documents. A recent treatment, “Testimonial Narrative,” in the volume Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions by John Beverly and Marc Zimmerman, does mention the “testimonial’s location at the center of the dialectic of oppressor and oppressed in the postcolonial world,” which gives rise to “the possibility for...the manipulation of a genuine popular voice by well-intentioned but repressive notions of political correctness or pertinence (176). However, Beverly and Zimmerman prefer to look at the testimonial’s testifier/scribe relation in a more positive light: The relation of narrator and compiler in the production of a testimonial...can also a powerful ideological figure or symbol of the union of a radicalized intelligentsia with the poor and working masses of a country.... Politically, the question in testimonial is not so much the difference of the social situations of the direct narrator and the interlocutor as the possibility of their articulation together in a common program or front. (176-77) Significantly, once Beverly and Zimmerman begin discussing specific testimonials, the question of the relation between testifier and scribe is no longer interrogated for its political implications. Discussing Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu, Beverly and Zimmerman can make a statement such as “Rigoberta Menchu speaks through her narrative directly of the pain of her people” (italics mine; 202) without pausing to consider the contradictions implied in the idea of “speaking directly” “through a narrative” which has been written by someone else.4 Beverly and Zimmerman, like so many readers of testimonials, have fallen under the seduction of the genre, which is based on its appeal to truth: we are presented with the powerful illusion of listening, through a transparent textual medium, to the real monologue of an actual subaltern testifier who did indeed live through the often torturous events s/he narrates. There is truth to this vision of the testimonial, of course, but it is not the whole story. Behind the apparent monologue of the testimonial lies a scene of dialogue between two subjects from radically different sociopolitical positions. By suppressing this dialogue in the course of the textualization process, the scribes are engaging in a discursive power play that runs the risk, identified by Gayatri Spivak (1988) in her article “Can the



Subaltern Speak?”, of turning the scribe into “the first-world intellectual masquerading as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves” (292).5 Spivak points to the possibility of conflating the two senses of the verb “to represent”: “representation as “speaking for,” as in politics, and representation as “re-presentation,” as in art or philosophy” (275). This is precisely what happens in the testimonial genre, where an educated, intellectual scribe “represents,” in both senses of the word, a less educated, working-class or peasant testifier. George Yudice (1991) argues that Menchu’s testimonial “is not at all about representation or about deconstructing representation by the violence to the marginal. Instead, it is a practice, part of the struggle for hegemony” (29). I would contend, however, that it is impossible to bracket the question of representation in this way, particularly when dealing with as artificial a genre as the testimonial. Me llamo Rigoberta is indeed a “practice,” one that is articulated through the complex politics of representation that Spivak discusses. The political efficacy of the text is bound up with questions of representational authority. To what extent does the textualization of the testifier’s oral life story, with its forcible manipulation of the scene of representation and the resulting transformation of dialogue into (false) monologue, undermine the testifier’s authority? Despite the presumed political sympathy and good intentions of the scribe, can such a discursive practice avoid participation in and recuperation by the power dynamics of postcolonial imperialism? This question is particularly urgent in the case of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu, arguably the best-known testimonial in the United States, especially since Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Menchu’s testimonial now appears frequently in the curricula for courses in “multicultural studies,” “postcolonial studies,” “cultural studies,” and “Third World feminist studies,” seemingly fulfilling her goal of reaching out to a wider audience in the hopes of effecting political changes for her people. However, it is hard to tell whether all this attention has gained any real ground for Menchu and the people whom she represents; peace talks between the Guatemalan government and the indigenous guerillas have been going on since 1990 without much progress and, as the recent indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, shows, the suffering and anger of the indigenous people of the region continues.6 Does the Nobel Prize give Menchu greater power and authority, or is it an insidious form of recuperation by the West, a way of bringing her into the fold and weakening her resistance without making any significant changes in the Guatemalan elites’ domination of the Indians? I would argue that both the granting of the Nobel Prize and the enthusiastic international reception of



Menchú’s testimonial follow the same complicated power dynamics evident in the testifer/scribe relation within the testimonial genre as a whole, in which Menchú’s potential for resistance is co-opted into mere opposition. As Ross Chambers notes in Room for Maneuver, this opposition attempts to “use the characteristics of power against the power and for one’s own purposes,” but never manages to go beyond the oppressor/oppressed binary structures that ultimately uphold the status quo (11). To return to the question of reading, it seems to me that the power dynamics we observe embedded in the testimonial’s means of representation operate in a homologous fashion to the critical practice of First World feminist critics (such as myself), as Edward Said has noted in another context, “The World, the Text, and the Critic”: “Far from being a type of conversation between equals, the discursive situation is more usually like the unequal relation between colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed”(48). The underlying—metatextual—question I want to address in this essay is the crucial one of how to read subaltern women’s texts from a position within the United States academy at the heart of late twentieth century intellectual and material imperialism. Is it possible to deploy an enabling, coalitional, feminist, critical practice that would strive to engage these texts in open and equal dialogue, thus resisting the model of appropriation and domination that is demonstrated by the testimonial textualization process? Both Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la consciencia, edited by Elizabeth Burgos, and “5/ me permiten hablar.... ’’Testimonial de Domitila, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia, edited by Moema Viezzer, tell remarkable stories of oppression and resistance. Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Quiché Indian, loses her parents, many of her siblings, and many members of her tribe to the brutal repression of the Guatemalan government, an extension of the U.S. imperialism that dominates Central America. Domitila Barrios, a Bolivian miner’s wife, is imprisoned and tortured for her role as a union activist, in one instance losing her unborn child to the savage beatings of the government agents. Menchú and Barrios tell their life stories to Burgos and Viezzer in the hopes of attracting the attention of the liberal metropolitan audiences who they believe might be able to intercede on the behalf of their political causes; for Barrios, telling the story of her activism against the oppressive Bolivian government is also an attempt to inspire other Bolivians to take part in this resistance.7 In a short preface to “Si me permiten hablar..., ’’ Barrios stresses that for her the implied readers of her testimonial are working-class people, not only intellectuals:


quiero que llegue a la gente más pobre, a la gente que no puede tener dinero, pero que sí necesita de alguna orientación, de algún ejemplo que les pueda servir en su vida futura. Para ellos acepto que se escriba lo que voy a relatar. No importa con qué clase de papel pero sí quiero que sirva para la clase trabajadora y no solamente para gentes intelectuales o para personas que nomás negocian con estas cosas (13). [I want it [my testimonial] to reach the poorest people, the people who don’t have money, but who do need some orientation, some example that can be of use in their future life. For them I accept that the story I am going to tell should be written. It doesn’t matter the quality of the paper, but I do want it to help the working class and not only intellectual people or people who only negotiate these things.]8 Both Menchú and Barrios agree to participate in the testimonial process in the hopes of having some effect on the real world, of improving the desperate conditions of their peoples. For the testifiers, then, the testimonial is perceived as a subversive instrument of resistance. The scribes, Burgos and Viezzer, also apparently see the testimonials as resistance literature: “Rigoberta ha elegido el

arma de la palabra como medio de lucha, y dicha palabra es lo que yo he querido ratificar por escrito,” says Burgos in her introduction to the text (16) [“Rigoberta has opted for the weapon of the word as a means of struggle, and this word is what I have wanted to ratify in writing”]. Already in this seemingly innocent declaration of her support for Menchú’s cause, however, the deep-seated power dynamics at work in the text are revealed. Both Burgos and Viezzer insist on calling Menchú and Barrios by their first names in their introductions to the texts, and this practice has been followed by the publisher on the books’ dust jacket blurbs, as well as by most of the critics who have written about the texts.9 It could be argued that Menchú and Barrios themselves ask to be seen as simple and unpretentious, thus justifying the first-name basis that exists between them and their amanuenses; however, when this practice extends to critics, it must be questioned for its patronizing implications. Would any critic dare to call Burgos and Viezzer “Elizabeth” and “Moema”? Furthermore, Burgos’ use of the word “ratify” in the quote above is immediately suspect. The word, with its colonial connotations of treaty making (according to Webster ’s, to ratify means “to approve or sanction formally, as in a treaty”), cannot be politically neutral when used in the context of the testimonial. The scribe apparently sees the necessity of sanctioning her subject’s speech by turning it into writing, thereby giving it the authority and legitimacy that she assumes it does not have on its own.



Viezzer follows the same approach when she declares, in her preface to “Si me permiten hablar... “Es primordial...permitir hablar a una mujer del pueblo, escucharla y procurar entender cómo vive, siente e interpreta los acontecimientos” (3) [“it is fundamental to permit a woman of the people to speak, to listen to her and to try to understand how she lives, feels, and interprets events”]. This is rhetorically quite different from saying that a working-class woman like Barrios de Chungara has the right to speak and to be listened to, independent of the permission of bourgeois intellectuals like Viezzer and her readers. Burgos’ “ratification” and Viezzer’s “permission” are symptoms of a deeper problem in the texts: the question of authorship. Even before we go beyond the covers of the texts, the appropriation of the testifiers’ spoken words by the scribes’ written words is apparent in the fact that it is Burgos and Viezzer, not Menchú and Barrios, who are listed as the texts’ “authors.” To find these texts in the “author” references of a library cataloging system, one looks under the scribes’ names, and not that of the testifiers. In the process of inscribing the spoken words of Menchú and Barrios, it seems that Burgos and Viezzer have usurped the position of author, turning Menchú and Barrios into discursive objects rather than subjects of their own discourse.10 In their introductions, Burgos and Viezzer are open in their discussion of how they transformed their testifiers’ spoken life stories into textual narratives conforming to Western expectations of autobiography. Viezzer candidly admits in her introduction to “Si me permiten hablar... ” that the text is not really a monologue:

No es un monólogo de Domitila lo que presento aquí. Es el resultado de numerosas entrevistas que tuve con ella en México y en Bolivia, de sus intervenciones en la Tribuna, así como también de exposiciones, charlas y diálogos que desarrolló con grupos de obreros, estudiantes y empleados universitarios, habitantes de barrios populares, exiliados latinoamericanos residentes en México y representantes de la prensa, radio y televisión. Todo ese material grabado, como también alguna correspondencia escrita, fue ordenado y posteriormente revisado con Domitila, dando lugar al presente testimonial. (2) [What I present here is not Domitila’s monologue. It is the result of numerous interviews that I had with her in Mexico and Bolivia, of her interventions in the Tribune, as well as lectures, talks, and dialogues she had with groups of workers, students, and university employees, inhabitants of poor neighborhoods, exiled Latin American residents in


Mexico, and representatives of the press, radio, and television. All this recorded material, as well as some written correspondence, was organized and later revised with Domitila, resulting in the present testimonial.] The seductive illusion of the smooth monologue, then, is really a patchwork of dialogues with a variety of interlocutors, in many different contexts. The same is true for Me llamo Rigoberta, where Burgos has molded Menchú’s oral presentation of her life story into a chronological framework, which has more to do with what a Western reader expects in an autobiography than with how Menchú reads her own life. Burgos explains: Para las grabaciones, elaboré un esquema rápido, estableciendo un hilo conductor cronológico: infancia, adolescencia, familia, compromiso a la lucha, que hemos seguido aproximadamente. Ahora bien, a medida que avanzábamos, Rigoberta se desviaba cada vez con más frecuencia, insertando en el relato la descripción de sus prácticas culturales y cambiando así completamente el orden cronológico que yo había establecido. (16-17) [For the recordings, I made up a rapid outline, establishing a chronological thread: infancy, adolescence, family, commitment to the struggle, which we followed more or less. However, as we went on, Rigoberta got off the track more and more frequently, inserting in the story the description of her cultural practices and changing completely the chronological order I had established.] Although Burgos allows Menchú to “deviate” from her script, she later pulls the material back into the familiar autobiographical chronology. Five hundred pages of transcription are compressed into the 270 pages of Me llamo Rigoberta, arranged in chapters according to Burgos’ notion of how a life story should be organized, and with repetitions and grammatical errors suppressed. And of course, changed from dialogue into monologue. “Muy pronto,” says Burgos, decidí dar al manuscrito forma de monólogo, ya que así volvía a sonar en mis oídos al releerlo. Resolví, pues, suprimir todas mis preguntas. Situarme en el lugar que me correspondía: primero escuchando y dejando hablar a Rigoberta, y luego connvirtiendome en une especie de doble suyo, en el instrumento que operaría el paso de lo oral a lo escrito. (17-18)



[Very quickly I decided to give the manuscript the form of a monologue, which is how I heard it as I reread it. I decided to suppress all my questions, to situate myself in the place that was appropriate to me: first listening and letting Rigoberta speak, and then converting myself into a kind of double, into the instrument that would effect the passage from the oral to the written.] But Burgos and Viezzer are not neutral “instruments,” and the passage from the oral to the written is more complicated than Burgos lets on. In changing the form of the spoken words of the testifiers, Burgos and Viezzer cannot help but alter the content as well, furthering the translation/transformation of Menchú’s and Barrios’ worldview into one more acceptable or understandable to their metropolitan audience. It is interesting to note that it is in precisely the areas in which Menchú’s and Barrios’ resistance most closely matches the values of their scribes that their testimonies read most powerfully. Burgos and Viezzer are both sympathetic to socialist and feminist causes: Burgos has worked as a journalist for various French feminist publications, and meets Menchú at a socialist conference in Paris; Viezzer has worked as a popular educator in Brazil, and meets Barrios at a feminist conference in Mexico. Some of the strongest sections of the texts deal with Menchú’s and Barrios’ insistence on the revolutionary potential of women; here, we may presume, the visions of testifier and scribe match most closely. It is at these moments in the text that we must be particularly on guard for what Caren Kaplan calls “feminist appropriation or theoretical totalization,” pointing to the struggle in one critic’s reading of Menchú between the critic’s desire to read Menchú in feminist terms, and Menchú’s resistance to being branded a “feminist.” 11 Menchú is passionate in her discussion of her decision not to marry or have children— another example of how she is forced by circumstances beyond her control to paradoxically sacrifice her traditional values in order to save them.12 Unwilling to subject her children to the inhumane treatment of Guatemalan society, she chooses a path of resistance that she hopes will ultimately benefit all Guatemalan Indian children:

Llegó un momento en que yo ya estaba clara...que yo estaba luchando por un pueblo y estaba luchando por los muchos niños que no tienen qué comer....yo soy humana y soy una mujer, y no puedo decir que yo rechazo al matrimonio, pero mi tarea principal, pienso que es primero mi pueblo y después mi alegría personal. (249)



[A moment arrived in which I was clear...that I was fighting for a people and for many children who had nothing to eat....I am a human being and I am a woman, and I can’t say that I reject marriage, but my principal task is first my people and then my personal happiness.] Menchú refuses to put her womb at the service of the Guatemalan government, which needs her children to serve as slave labor in the coffee plantations in order to maintain its power.13 Barrios, already a wife and mother when she becomes active in the Comité de Amas de Casa de Siglo XX (Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX), also puts her role as an activist before her role as mother. The section of “5* m e p e r m ite n h a b l a r ...” describing her anguish over the government’s threats against her children, and the death of her unborn child in a Bolivian prison, are particularly powerful moments in the text. When the Bolivian secret police threaten to kill her children, she is torn between her roles as activist and as mother, but finally chooses to put her political goals first, refusing to give in to the agents’ demands that she sign a blank release form: “5/ e llo s a h o r a m a ta n a m is h ijo s , e l l o s tie n e n q u e p a g a r c o n s u c o n c ie n c ia . P o r q u e , s i y o f i r m o un p a p e l e n b la n c o ... ¿ a c u á n ta M e jo r , n o f i r m o ” (140) [If they kill my children now, they will have to pay with their consciences. If I sign a blank paper, how many innocent people will I be compromising? Better not to sign]. While it is tempting to concentrate on these powerful textual scenes that seem to represent an alignment between the values of testifier, scribe, and the reader, it is important to recognize other moments in the texts when Menchú and Barrios offer resistance to the Western values and worldviews of their scribes. Menchú, for instance, says repeatedly in her testimony that there are some aspects of her culture that she cannot reveal; in her protestations we can hear the echoing of Burgos’ effaced questioning. In the section on the n a h u a l , the Indians’ sacred totem, Menchú concludes: “ To n o p u e d o d e c i r c ú a l e s m i n a h u a l p o r q u e e s u n o d e n u e s tr o s s e c r e to s ” (41) [I cannot say what my n a h u a l is because it is one of our secrets]. Burgos places the issue of secrets at the end of the text as well; Menchú’s last written words speak her resistance to the questioning of intellectuals (such as Burgos herself): “S ig o o c u lta n d o lo q u e y o c o n s id e r o q u e n a d ie s a b e , n i s iq u ie r a

g e n te in o c e n te p u e d o c o m p r e m e te r ?

u n a n tr o p ó lo g o , n i un in te le c tu a l, p o r m á s q u e te n g a n m u c h o s lib r o s , n o s a b e n d is tin g u ir to d o s n u e s tr o s s e c r e t o s ” (271) [I continue to hide what I consider that no one knows; not even an anthropologist or an intellectual, as many books as they have, can know all our secrets]. The editor’s decision to place this mention of secrets tantalizingly at the end of the text strengthens, perhaps unwittingly, the complex politics of desire that Menchú sets in play. Paradoxically, Menchú holds



the most authority over the text precisely at the point where she stops speaking, where she refuses to participate in the textualization process. By asserting the existence of secret knowledge that she will not share with scribe or reader, Menchú inverts the power dynamics to which she acquiesced in order to get her story out to a wider audience, placing scribe and reader in the weaker position of supplicants who want something she will not let us have. As Doris Sommer observes in “Rigoberta’s Secrets,” Menchú’s refusal to speak about certain issues is an active gesture, “a flamboyant refusal of information” that “califs] attention to an unknowable subtext” (36). For Sommer, “the calculated result of Rigoberta’s gesture” is to exclude us as readers “from her circle of intimates,” producing “a particular kind of distance akin to respect” (36). Gareth Williams, however, reads Menchú’s reticence as “more than a modest request for respect.” “It is,” he asserts, “a conscious act of defiance towards metropolitan readers... By incorporating silence into the textual body in such a way as to render it the precondition upon and from which speech is founded, silence becomes the defensive foundation from which cultural survival is discursively negotiated” (96). Menchú’s act of withholding information— and telling us that she is doing so—draws on what Native American writer Anna Lee Walters calls “the power of language,” which is often most evident in its absence, silence. Walters writes: “Through their speech and voices, and through the ensuing silence, the people, the clans, knew they lived. This is the power of language, but often it is not realized until silence prevails” (13). Menchú’s mention of “secrets” draws our attention to one of the few rhetorical strategies of control that remain open to her in the representation process of her testimonial: an active silence, which appears in discourse as the trace of an unspoken message, proclaiming the continuance of Menchú’s Quiché culture despite the assimilatory gestures— such as speaking Spanish or rejecting marriage and children—that she has been forced to make. This kind of resistance to co-optation is also evident in “Si me permiten hablar...”. Barrios refuses, for example, to be manipulated by the feminist movement, which she perceives as an instrument of imperialist domination rather than as an ally. At the 1975 feminist conference in Mexico City, Barrios feels alienated from most of the women there, whose fight is not against governmental repression, but against the personal repression of men as fathers, husbands, boyfriends, and rapists. “Hablábamos lenguajes muy distintos, ¿no?” (221), she comments wryly [We spoke very different languages, no?]. When Betty Friedan and other First World feminists ask her to stop thinking so much about massacres and to start thinking more about solidarity among women, her reply is scathing:



Señora, cada mañana usted llega con un traje diferente...pintada y peinada como quien tiene tiempo de pasar en una peluquería bien elegante....Y para presentarse aquí como se presenta, estoy segura de que usted vive en una vivienda bien elegante, en un barrio también elegante, ¿no? Y sin embargo, nosotras las mujeres de los mineros, tenemos solamente una pequeña vivienda prestada y cuando se muere nuestro esposo o se enferma o lo retiran de la empresa, tenemos noventa días para abandonar la vivienda y estamos en la calle. Ahora, señora, dígame: ¿tiene usted algo semejante a mi situación? ¿Tengo yo algo semejante a su situación de usted? Entonces, ¿de qué igualdad vamos a hablar entre nosotras?...Nosotras no podemos, en este momento, ser iguales, aún como mujers, ¿no le parece? (225) [Lady, each morning you arrive in a different suit, made up like one who has time to pass in an elegant beauty shop....And in order to present yourself this way, I am sure that you live in a very elegant house, in a very elegant neighborhood, no? And nevertheless, we, the wives of the miners, have only a small borrowed house, and when our husband dies or gets sick or they retire him from the company, we have 90 days to get out of the house and we are in the street. Now, tell me, lady: do you have anything in common with my situation? Do I have anything in common with your situation? So, how are we going to talk about equality between us?...We cannot, at this time, be equal, even as women, don’t you agree?] Her experience at the conference confirms for Barrios “cómo los intereses de la burguesía no son realmente nuestros intereses” (227) [how the interests of the bourgeois are not really our interests]. Might this statement apply as well to Menchú’s and Barrios’ bourgeois scribes? Despite their sympathy for their testifiers, the Western biases of the scribes find their way into the texts of the testimonials, ultimately undermining their subversive potential. Burgos gives a most glaring example of this in her introduction to Me llamo Rigoberta, which includes a long description of her meeting with Menchú at Burgos’ Paris residence. Burgos begins by describing Menchú as a childlike primitive, dressed in her “vestido tradicional” : “Lo que me sorprendió a primera vista fue su sonrisa franca y casi infantile....Su mirada franca era la de un niño, con labios siempre dispuestos a sonreír” (12) [What surprised me at first was her frank and almost infantile smile....Her frank look was like that of a child, with lips always ready to smile]. Having infantilized Menchú in words, Burgos goes on to paint Menchú in the role of domestic servant/cook. Burgos happens to have cornmeal in her house, and in her account Menchú



happily sets to work at making tortillas. Notice the nuances of the following description:

Una amiga me había traído de Venezuela harina de maíz para hacer pan....No podría describir la felicidad de Rigoberta. La mía también era grande, pues el aroma de las tortillas mientras se cocí devolvieron a mi infancia venezolana, cuando las mujeres se levantaban para cocer las arepas del desayuno....Por la mañana, al levantarse, un reflejo milenario impulsaba a Rigoberta a preparar la masa y cocer las tortillas para el desayuno, y lo mismo al mediodía y ala noche. Verla trabajar me producía un placer inmenso. (13) [A friend had brought me com meal from Venezuela for making bread....I couldn’t describe the happiness of Rigoberta. Mine was also great, as the aroma of the tortillas as they cooked returned me to my Venezuelan childhood, when the women would get up to make the arepas for breakfast....In the morning, when she got up, an age-old reflex drove Rigoberta to prepare the dough and make the tortillas for breakfast, and the same at midday and at night. Watching her work gave me immense pleasure.] Besides the patronizing use of Menchú’s first name, this description places Menchú squarely in the colonial scenario, making tortillas three times a day while the (white) mistress of the house looks on contentedly, as suggested by Burgos’ reference to her own privileged childhood in Venezuela. Burgos’ unqualified attribution of Menchú’s behavior to a “reflejo milenario” reveals her profound (and perhaps willful?) ignorance of the ways in which Menchú’s tortilla making is a function of her interpellation in the colonial, class, and gender constructions that have conspired to keep indigenous women in the kitchen waiting on their Euramerican mistresses.14 The point is not that Menchú perhaps wanted to make tortillas; the point is, what is this description doing in the introduction to her testimonial? Why invoke a scene that places Menchú in a servile position at the beginning of a supposedly revolutionary text? The inclusion of this scene in the introduction is the more remarkable when set against a later chapter in the testimonial, in which Menchú describes the economic, sexual, and psychological abuse she endures while working as a maid in the home of rich Guatemalans. She relates how on her first night as a servant in the house, she discovers that she is worth less to her patrones than their fat little dog:



La comida que me dieron era un poquito de frijol con unas tortillas bien tiesas. Tenían un perro en la casa. Un perro bien gordito, bien lindo, blanco. Cuando vi que la sirvienta sacó la comida del perro. Iban pedazos de carne, arroz, cosas así que comieron los señores. Y a mí me dieron un poquito de frijol y unas tortillas tiesas. A mí eso me dolía mucho, mucho, que el perro había comido muy bien y que yo no merecía la comida que mereció el sentía muy marginada. Menos que el animal que existía en la casa. (118) [The food they gave me was a little bit of beans with some very stale tortillas. They had a dog in the house, a nice, fat, pretty, white little dog. I saw that the servant was getting out the dog’s food, and there were pieces of meat, rice, the same things that the masters of the house ate. And to me they gave a little beans and some stale tortillas. This hurt me very much, that the dog ate so well, and that I didn’t deserve to eat as well as the dog. I felt very insignificant, as though I were worth less than the animal of the house.] Menchú puts up with this treatment for many months, but the final straw is when her mistress forces her to make an enormous batch of tamales for a Christmas party, gives her one as a special favor, and then later in the evening takes it away again to give to a guest who arrived late, with the result that Menchú has nothing to eat on Christmas Eve. Para mi era algo insuportable, pues. No le dije nada. No era porque quería comer el tamal. No era por no comerlo que me sentía herida. Me lo habían dado como un rechazo, como para decir, esto es lo que te quedó. Pero, sin embargo, lo que quedó, me lo tuvo que quitar. Para mí significaba mucho, mucho eso. (125-126) [For me this was unbearable. I didn’t say anything to her. It wasn’t because I wanted to eat the tamal that I felt hurt. They had given it to me like a rejection, as if to say, this is what’s left over for you. And even then she took it away. For me this was a very significant event.] As this chapter shows, Menchú does not take food lightly, and indeed if the Quichés decide to rebel against prevailing conditions in their society, it is a fight undertaken mostly in the name of ending their hunger. When, a few sentences later in the introduction, Burgos remembers how Menchú told her one day that “ Nosotros no confiamos más que en los que comen lo mismo que nosotros ’ ” (13) [“We only trust those who eat what we eat”], she is taking this quote very



much out of context, in a most self-serving rhetorical gesture. Menchú makes this statement in a section of her testimonial dealing with the Indians’ relations with the rebel guerillas in Guatemala:

Nosotros hemos depositado nuestra confianza en los compañeros de la montaña. Ellos vieron nuestra situación y viven un poco lo que nosotros vivimos. Se plegaron a las mismas condiciones que nosotros. Uno ama sólo aquella persona que como lo que nosotros comemos. (228) [We have put our trust in the mountain compañeros. They saw our situation and they go through some of what we go through. They have adapted to the same conditions that we have. One only loves a person who eats what we eat.] It is obvious that Burgos, with her elite Venezuelan background and her snug Paris apartment, does not “go through” what Menchú “goes through,” and though they may eat the same things during the course of the interviews for the testimonial, this fact does not erase the profound differences in subject positions that Burgos and Menchú occupy, both in life and in the text. In fact, if we compare tortilla making to text making, we can see some striking similarities between Burgos’ domestic description and the portrait we have been drawing here of the relation between testifier and scribe. Burgos provides the tortilla ingredients and the kitchen, and watches contentedly while Menchú does the work— just as she will provide the taping and writing materials for Menchú’s story, and will look on at a remove while Menchú does the work and the suffering. The tortilla scene is in fact a clue to the underlying scenario of both Me llamo Rigoberta and “Si me permiten hablar...” in which racial and class hierarchies are not transcended, but merely disguised. What is most disturbing about the tortilla scene in Me llamo Rigoberta is the way it draws us as readers into a complicitous acceptance of the colonial power hierarchies that underwrite it. Burgos assumes that her readers are Euramerican intellectuals like herself: “está en nosotros,” she says, “los que pertenecemos culturalmente a la población blanca del continente, comprender las reivindicaciones específicas de las poblaciones indígenas” (italics mine; 8) [it is for us, who belong culturally to the white population of the continent, to understand the specific claims of the indigenous populations].15 Is there a way that we as First World feminist readers can reject the stereotypical roles in which Burgos would cast us and meet Menchú on an equal footing—to get our own hands in the masa as well, so to speak, and make tortillas together with the Menchús of the world? As feminist critics, First World readers of Third World



subaltern texts, is there a way to proceed without, as Gayatri Spivak (1988) puts it, falling into the colonial paradigm of “the European Subject, which seeks to produce an Other that would consolidate an inside, its own subject status” (293)? Edward Said (1983) has proposed a method of criticism that he calls “affiliative,” in which the task of the critic is “to make visible...the strands holding the text to society, author, and culture” (174). Such criticism, Said says, should make clear its own relation to the text, its method of approach and its reasons for attempting this approach; it should also be aware of its own “marginality to the text it discusses” (50). When Burgos and Viezzer, like other testimonial scribes, deliberately efface themselves from their texts, they are concealing their own connections to the testimonies, hiding the marks of their interactions with (or approaches to) the testifiers. Although they may have intended this effacement as a signal of their own perceived marginality vis-à-vis the testimonies, this method actually functions to strengthen their appropriation of the testimonies: the spoken discourse of the testifier is so completely rewritten into the textual discourse of the scribe that the oral presentation is rendered invisible. An alternative to the testimonial method would be to leave the dialogue intact, to allow the voices of testifier and scribe to sound equally. This approach has been proposed by Dennis Tedlock (1983) in relation to anthropological discourse; Tedlock suggests that instead of the traditional “analogical anthropology,” which rewrites the dialogue between native informant and anthropologist into monologue, the dialogue should be left in the text.16 However, even in written dialogues such as interviews, the interviewer’s questions, the interview format, and the discursive power plays that inevitably adhere to the different languages themselves, profoundly influence the interviewee’s expression.17 As Rey Chow notes, “a radical alternative [to conventional literary criticism] can be conceived only when we recognize the essential untranslatability from subaltern discourse to imperialist discourse” (35). Chow points to “the native’s silence” as the starting point for an anti-imperialist criticism; in that silence, she says, lies the potential power of the native to “return the gaze” of the colonizer and take control of her own discourse (51). This is perhaps what Rigoberta Menchu is aiming at in her tactical invocation of “secrets,” which reveals a chink in the armor of what George Yudice calls “the straitjacket of representation” (143); these “secrets” demonstrate Menchu’s construction of us, her readers, as marginal to the story of her life and her people. By pointing to an edge or a margin in her discourse beyond which we are not welcome, Menchu converts this margin into what bell hooks calls “a site of resistance” (153), and what Rey Chow calls a “para-site” or a space of tactical intervention that “erodes” the stability of the prevailing discourse (16). In order



to follow Menchü’s lead, we must both acknowledge our marginality to the subaltern texts we study, and allow the gaps between us to remain open in our texts, where they can function as “para-sites,” strategic challenges to the manufactured monologue of the testimonial. We must meet Menchü, Barrios, and other subaltern subjects in the margin, for it is in the margin that the full potential o f literary criticism as a truly collaborative feminist discourse can be realized.




1. These terms must be usedwithcare, as they refer to constituencies and geographic areas which cannot always be easily demarcated. There are “Third World” peoples within the United States, as well as “First World” peoples in Latin America and other less-developed areas of the world. Inthe case of the testimonials I discuss here, I will use the term“Third World” to refer to the subaltern testifiers, and “First World” to refer to their educated, upper-class scribes. 2. Two excellent recent collections of essays on global feminist practice are T hird W orld Women a n d the P o litics o f Fem inism , Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, eds., and S c a tte re d H egem on ies: P o stm o d e m ity a n d T ran sn ation al F em in ist P ra c tic e s , Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds. 3. Indeed, the effacement of the scribe is even mandated by one of the deans of the genre, Miguel Barnet, who insists that the scribe must elide him/herself from the text of the testimonial: co n sid ero im prescindible p a ra la ejecución de la n o vela -testim on su presión d e l yo , d e l eg o d e l e s c rito r o d e l s o c ió lo g o ; o s i n o la su presión , p a r a s e r m ás ju s to s , la d isc reció n en e l uso d e l yo , en la p re se n c ia d e l a u to r y su e g o en la s

(Bamet, 288). [I believe the suppressionof the I, of the eg o of thewriter or sociologist, is essential for the execution of the novel-testimonial; or if not suppression, to be morejust, discretion inthe use of the I, inthe presence of the author and his e g o in the work.] o b ra s.

Bamet and other testimonial amanuenses argue that by editing themselves out of the texts, the testifiers’ voices can be more clearly heard by the readers, who are put into the position of the scribe herself as listener. 4. In a more recent article,“ ‘Through All Things Modem’: Second Thoughts on Testimonial” {boundary 2, 18/2 (Summer 1991): 1-21), John Beverly pushes the questions implicit inthe testimonial forma bit harder. While he still takes a positive approach to the potential for the genre to serve as “the union of a radicalized (Marxist) intelligentsia with the subaltern” (4), he does make it clear that the testimonial is “not an authentic expression of the subaltern,” being “located at the intersection of the cultural forms of bourgeois humanism, like literature and the book, engendered by the academy and colonialismand imperialism, and subaltern cultural forms” (11). 5. Ina recent discussionof testimonials, Jean Franco questions the political relationship of the scribe andthe testifier: “Very often the intellectual virtually disappears fromthe text in order to let ‘the subalternspeak,’ thus raisingthequestionof her relationship to the political struggles she records[?] Is it that of a bystander? An impartial observer? Is she creating on the basis of somebodyelse’s rawmaterial? Or is it possible by means of double-voicing to



bridgethegulfbetweenthe intelligentsiaandthepopularclasses?” SeeFranco,“GoingPublic: Reinhabiting the Private,” 72. Significantly, Franco provides no answer to her question. 6. As many Latin American intellectuals argue, it often makes more sense to analyse Latin American politics interms of regions rather than nation-states. The indigenous people of Chiapas, who finally tookto arms to get the message oftheir poverty and oppression out to the world, have more incommonwiththe indigenous peoples ofGuatemala(all descendants of the enormous Mayan empire) than with many of their fellowMexicans. 7. As Doris Sommer observes, for Menchú“there are literallyno ideal readers,” since “[t]hose who ideallyunderstand [her], members ofher ownQuiché community, are not readers at all.” See, Menchú, “Rigoberta’s Secrets,” 40. M e llam o R ig o b erta M enchú is thus aimed almost exclusively at anon-Quiché audience, a factor that undoubtedly influences the way inwhich Menchú chooses to tell her story, and the way Burgos chooses to inscribe it. 8. All translations are mine. 9. Even Doris Sommer, whose essay “Rigoberta’s Secrets” is in part a manifesto for a “respectful,”“coalitional”critical practice (48), uniformlyreferstoMenchúbyher first name; and all ofthe other critics and writers she mentions by their last names, thereby implying, perhaps unintentionallybutnonetheless damagingly, ahierarchical difference inher“respect” for Menchú as opposedto her respect for Sarmiento, Ocampo, Molloy, de Man, and all the other writers she refers to by last name. 10. The titles ofthe texts, chosenofcourse bythe scribes, alsoworkagainst the possibility of the testifiers’ positioning as strong, active agents of resistance: Menchú’s title—M e llam o R igo b erta y a s í me nació la consciencia —is deliberately simplistic, with a kindof childlike diction, while Barrios’ title—”Si m e perm iten hablar... ”Testim onial de D om itila, una m ujer de las m inas de B olivia —puts Barrios inthe position of pleading timidly andpolitely for an audience, and further infantilizes her by calling her only by her first name. 11. Kaplandiscusses ElizabethMeese’sessay“(Dis)locations: Readingthe Theory ofaThird World Woman in I, R ig o b e rta M enchú ,” in her essay “The Politics of Location as Transnational Feminist Practice,” inthe collection, S c a tte re d H egem on ies. 12. Many critics have commented on this paradox: Doris Sommer (1991), to takejust one example, comments that “we cansensehowperfectlypossible it is, and(personally) tragic for Rigoberta, to stop being an ‘Indian,’ because her political work depends on mixing and transgressing categories, on violating the ethnic boundaries that safeguard secrets” (35). 13. See inthis connection Gayatri Spivak’s feminist rewriting of Marx in“Feminismand Critical Theory,” In O th er W orlds, 78-80. Menchú’s decision not to have children is a revolutionary refusal to become a unit of production inthe imperialist/capitalist systemthat controls Guatemala.



14. Robert Carr’sdiscussionofthisscene, inhis essay“CrossingtheFirst World/ThirdWorld Divides: Testimonial, Transnational Feminisms, and the Postmodern Condition,” reads Burgos’ invocation of the “re jle jo m ile n a r io ” as “the construction of a transcendental signified,” inwhich “the instances ofguerillawarfare, labor exploitation and genocide that dominate M e L lam o R ig o b erta M enchu dissolve intothinair” (159). “What is silenced,” he concludes, is “historical specificitythat opens ontothe role ofFirst Worldeconomic interests inthe superexploitation described inthe book, and a call to arms” (161). 15. Viezzer follows the same pattern, aligning her readers with herselfrather than with the testifier: Barrios, she says (except that she actually says “Domitila”) “nos d a la o p ortu n idad de c o n o c e r y com prender m ejor e l tem ple d e a close tra b a ja d o ra boliviano!' ( italics mine; 4) [ ustheopportunitytoknowandunderstandbetterthespiritoftheBolivianworking class]. That “n os” [“us”], which brings the reader into a complicitous relationship with the scribe, is obviously intended to stress that reader and scribe are n o t of the working class. 16. Tedlock (1983) describes the difference between analogical anddialogical anthropology as follows: Analogical anthropology...involves the replacement of one discourse with another. It is claimed that this newdiscourse, however far removed it may seemto be, is equivalentorproportionate, inaquasi-mathematical sense, tothepreviousdiscourse. A n a -lo g o s , inGreek, literally means “talking above,” “talkingbeyond,” or “talking later,” as contrastedwiththe talking back andforthof dialogue. The dialogue is a continuing process and itself illustrates process and change; the analogue, on the other hand, is a product, a result. (324) 17. Inhisessay“TheConcept ofCultural Translation,”Talal Asadcomments onwhat hecalls “the inequality of languages,” inwhich Western languages are, for obvious socioeconomic reasons, “stronger” thanthe Third World languages (157). The translation of Menchu’s text fromQuiche to Spanish(a translationshe performs herself, orally), andthenfromSpanishto English, is not, as Asad would remind us, without an inherent cultural politics of its own.



REFERENCES Asad, Talad. “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology.” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics o f Ethnography. James Clifford and George Marcus, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 141-164. Barnet, Miguel. “La novela testimonio— socio-literatura.” Unión, Año 6.4 (1969): 99-122. Barrios de Chungara, Domitila. “Si me permiten hablar... ’’Testimonio de Domitila, Una Mujer de las Minas de Bolivia. Moema Viezzer, ed. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno, 1977. Beverly, John. “ ‘Through All Things Modern’: Second Thoughts on Testimonio.” boundary 2 18:2 (Summer 1991): 1-21. --------- “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics o f Gender in Women’s Autobiography. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. 91-114. Beverly, John, and Marc Zimmerman. Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Carr, Robert. “Crossing the First World/Third World Divides: Testimonial, Transnational Feminisms, and the Postmodern Condition.” Scattered Hegemonies. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 153-172. Chambers, Ross. Room fo r Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics o f Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993. Franco, Jean. “Going Public: Reinhabiting the Private.” On Edge: The Crisis in Contemporary Latin American Culture. George Yúdice, Jean Franco, and Juan Flores, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. 65-84.



Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan, eds. Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990. 145-154. Kaplan, Caren. “The Politics of Locations as Transnational Feminist Practice.” Scattered Hegemonies. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 137-152. Menchú, Rigoberta. Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y asi me nació la consciencia. Elizabeth Burgos, ed. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno, 1985. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics o f Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Said, Edward W. “The World, the Text, and the Critic” and “Reflections on American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism.” The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. 31-53; 158-77. Sommer, Doris. “ ‘Not Just A Personal Story’: Women’s Testimonios and the Plural Self.” Life/Lines. Bella Brodski and Celeste Schenck, eds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. 107-130. --------- . “Rigoberta’s Secrets.” Latin American Perspectives IQ. 18:3 (Summer 1991): 32-50. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation o f Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313. --------- . “Feminism and Critical Theory.” In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. NewYork: Routledge, 1988. 77-94.



Tedlock, Dennis. “The Analogical Tradition and the Emergence of a Dialogical Anthropology.” The Spoken Word and the Work o f Interpretation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. 321-38. Walters, Anna Lee. Talking Indian: Reflections on Survival and Writing. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1992. Williams, Gareth. “Translation and Mourning: The Cultural Challenge of Latin American Testimonial Autobiography.” Latin American Perspectives 21:4 (Jan-June 1993): 79-99. Yudice, George. “Marginality and the Ethics of Survival.” Universal Abandon? The Politics o f Postmodernism. Andrew Ross, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. 214-36. --------- . “For A Practical Aesthetics.” Social Text 25-26 (1990): 129-45. --------- . “Testimonio and Postmodernism.” Latin American Perspectives 70. 18:3 (Summer 1991): 15-31.




Writing the Difference Feminists’ Invention o f the “Arab Woman” Amal Amir eh

One of the most important developments in feminist theory and practice has been the challenge from within feminism itself to the limitations of the white, middle-class, heterosexual feminism dominant in the Euro-American academy. At the center of this challenge has always been the question of “representation” in both its political sense (who speaks for/instead of whom) and its aesthetic sense (the production of images of other women). Both kinds of representation are interlinked, of course. Middle-class Western feminists claimed political representation of all women—the right to speak for them—by constructing the image of a universal womanhood that privileged categories of gender and erased those of race and class. Third World women, located both in the First World and the Third World, contributed significantly to what has been a productive and invigorating debate. Although the study of Arab women has benefited greatly from these debates, this essay will show that despite the new developments in feminist scholarship, obsolete paradigms and categories of analysis persist and even dominate when the subject of study is Arab women.1 The following discussion will focus on four writers who claim that their works give voice to otherwise voiceless women and whose texts are examples of the kind of knowledge still being produced in the First World about Arab women. Evelyne Accad’s two essays “Sexuality and Sexual Politics: Conflicts and Contradictions for Contemporary Women in the Middle East,” and “Excision: Practices, Discourses and Feminist Commitment;” Wedad Zenie-Ziegler’s In Search o f Shadows: Conversations with Egyptian Women; Nayra Atiya’s Khul-Khal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories; and Margot Badran’s Harem Years: The Memoirs o f An Egyptian Feminist (1897-1924) are all problematic “feminist” texts.2 The strategies employed in them to “represent” other women (politically and aesthetically) produce what Chandra Talpade

Mohanty calls “the Third World difference” and undermine in fundamental ways their declared feminist project (1991, 72). These texts, I believe, teach us more about the writers themselves than about the Arab women supposedly at their center, and more about the domination and exploitation of women by other women than about feminist solidarity. Inseparable from these writers’ “representation” of Arab women is their self-presentation to their primarily Western/First World audience. Accad, Zenie-Ziegler, and Atiya in particular deploy a discourse of authenticity to claim legitimacy for their texts. Thus they inform their readers of their Arab origin, of their fluency in the Arabic language, and of the fact that they once lived in the part of the world they are now unveiling to their audience. By constituting themselves as “authentic subjects,” then, they claim the “birth right” to represent their Arab sisters to a non-Arab audience. However, all three writers reterritorialize themselves as hybrids, as “Westernised Easterners” who have been living and working in the United States and Europe for the major part of their adult lives. Their hybridity becomes another means for legitimizing their “representations” of other women, but this time because it allows them to differentiate themselves from the subjects of their representations. The elaboration of their hybridity does not lead them to produce “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1988) or to scrutinize the politics of their location. Instead, their duality becomes a strategy of differentiation, separating them as elite Third World women positioned in the First World from the millions of Third World women who do not have an unmediated access to the same world. Theirs is a hybridity that perpetuates unequal power relations between women because it cements rather than deconstructs the opposition between self and other, West and “non-W est.”3 The deployment of hybridity in Accad’s “Sexuality and Sexual Politics” is achieved through the elaboration of a victim discourse that fetishizes Islam, reifies Arab women, and highlights the writer’s difference from them. Women of the “Middle East” are seen as a homogeneous mass, defined essentially by their experience of oppression. Victims of a monolithic Islam and a tribal Arab culture, they are permanently locked out of history and allowed to be only objects— of study, of pity, and of liberation. They are denied agency and subjectivity and thought to be capable only of the victims’ inarticulate whispers for help, which in Accad’s work usually take the form of “confessions” related to her by total strangers whom she meets either on field trips or in the corridors of international conferences. With the dutifulness of a native informant, Accad discloses these confidences to her Western readers along with the usual laundry list of the eternal grievances of the Arab woman: the veil, polygamy, clitoridectomy, claustration, virginity, forced marriage, frequent births, repudiation, and beatings. Accad



confines herself to the “list” format and substitutes it for rigorous analysis. Instead of viewing these oppressions in their complexities and in specific historical contexts, Accad’s texts root them in a timeless world of “Islamo-Arab influences” (246). Not surprisingly, Accad’s ideas of how to change the status quo as she describes it are vague and rarely go beyond an expression o f the hope that there will be “a change of attitude” (246). Completely erased from her texts are Arab women’s histories, struggles, and lived experiences. In Accad’s hands, the dangerous feminist idea that “the personal is political” becomes the safe one that “the political is purely personal.” Nothing exemplifies the limitations of Accad’s approach to Arab women more than her treatment of female genital mutilation.4 In “Excision: Practices, Discourses and Feminist Commitment,” victim discourse and hybrid discourse are combined to reproduce the self/other dichotomy at the core of orientalist writing. While contributing nothing new to the literature on female genital mutilation, the essay exemplifies how writings about such sensational subjects do not need to meet the usual academic standards of scholarship.5 The essay opens with the writer’s experience with excision. We learn that she heard about it for the first time while studying in the United States. She dwells on her shock and horror—“it was worse than anything I could have imagined” (47)— and informs us that this newly acquired knowledge marked a turning point in her life and career. Her concern about excision prompts her years later to return to the Middle East and North Africa to conduct field research on the subject. But she does not go alone. She extends an invitation to her readers to join her: “Let me now take you along with me on some of the journeys I took in 1978 and in 1983...” (51). Following the footsteps of so many travelers before them, the researcher and her Western audience embark on one more journey to the “heart of darkness” to discover what they already know—the otherness of the Arab woman. This discovery is made through the researcher’s interviews with some Egyptian and Sudanese women. These interviews with a small number of women in only two Arab countries were conducted ten and fifteen years before her article was published. Yet they still serve as the basis for generalizations about all Arab women in 1993. Neither the writer nor the editors of Feminist Issues, where the article appeared, question the credibility of her claims. This critical lapse can only proceed from an assumption on both their parts that things do not change in the Arab world, especially for women. While these interviews are meant to create the impression that scientific research is being conducted with “authentic subjects” whose voices are being heard directly, they in fact reveal more about the interviewer than the interviewees.



Accad’s questions focus exclusively on excision—whether it is done and why it is done—and aim at extracting an admission of victimhood from total strangers, women she had never met before and is not likely to see again. She seeks to elicit answers that confirm her stereotyped view of Arab women as the “other.” By casting the interviewee as the other, Accad locates her outside the present relations of power in which Accad herself and the interviewee are caught. In other words, casting the woman as the other allows Accad herself to escape troubling interrogations and preserve her own sense of herself as a discrete self not constituted within and by neocolonial/imperialist relations of power. In one instance, she enters a hospital in a poor district chosen because her cousin works there. In another instance, she interviews another relative’s maid. It is clear from reading the interviews that she is as interested in distributing information as she is in gathering it, for she often assumes the role of teacher and moralist. Her interviews are examples of the kind of feminist research that the critic Marie-Françoise Chanfrault-Duchet (1991) terms “savage social therapy” (77-92). Here is a typical “interview”: Accad: What is your opinion on excision? Woman: It’s a tradition. Accad: Do you think it’s good for women? Woman: It’s a tradition. Accad: Do you know it causes frigidity in women? No answer. (52) When a nurse states that “all the other families here excise their daughters and circumcise their boys,” Accad patiently preaches: “But the excision of girls and the circumcision of boys are two different things. Excision is a loss, a bad thing for a girl, it is not so for a boy” (54). Accad is less patient with the “woman intellectual scholar” who insists that things are changing in the country, and that as far as she knows excision does not exist in the cities. As an example of change, the woman offers the fact that her own daughter is not excised. Not convinced, Accad questions her like a lawyer cross-examining a hostile witness. When the Egyptian woman states, “[excision] is not an Islamic tradition. It is an Egyptian one. It is not written in the Qur ’a n ” Accad insists that it is mentioned in the Hadith and quotes the relevant Prophet’s saying.6 Accad here presents herself as knowing more about Islam than the “Muslim woman” whose life supposedly is completely governed by religion (Lazreg 1990, 331). The “interview” assumes a different tone when this seemingly self-possessed, articulate woman “unveils” herself to Accad as another victim by



confessing her long-buried secret—that she too was excised as a child. Accad completes the picture by concluding, without any evidence, that the woman is oppressed by her Muslim son who forces her to wear the veil and monitors her every word and move (56—57).7 The researcher’s reaction to the woman also changes after the confession: “I was moved by the story of this woman, by the torments she must be going through and by her trust, I was overwhelmed with great emotions and my tears started flowing” (57). But Accad’s empathy does not transform into solidarity because it is undermined by the self-congratulatory conclusion that her intervention was instrumental in bringing about change. Indeed, she believes that her role “was not only one of recorder of interviews and observer, but also of shaker of knowledge and opinions” (57). After interviewing her aunt’s maid she says, “I pondered over the fact that our questions had made this woman think about the things we had discussed and ask herself questions she might never have thought of otherwise” (57). Here, feminist intervention bears a disturbing resemblance to other interventions—colonialist and neocolonialist—that historically have defined the relationship between West and East, First World and Third World. “We came, we saw, we were horrified, we intervened,” summarizes the feminist project as Accad defines it (Mani 18). Most problematically, this project fails to acknowledge the fact that the power relations between the two sides are asymmetrical, that one side represents while the other only submits to being represented. The Arab woman is present only in her capacity as a victim, who needs to be made aware of her “victimhood” by a woman who knows more (or better). She can only learn from her rescuer, but she herself does not have anything to teach. She cannot initiate change on her own and needs outside help. In this relationship the difference between self and other is maintained as an opposition between knowledge and ignorance, change and stasis, feminist and victim. Far from undermining or unsettling the boundaries between subject and object, Accad’s “feminist intervention” fortifies the old boundaries and erects new ones of its own. On the rare occasions in which the writer shows Arab women as agents actively shaping their environment, she does so with much hesitation and condescension. On her visit to the Sudan, for instance, she cannot hide her surprise at meeting with indigenous women activists. She writes: Many nights...I could not sleep because I was so overwhelmed with what was happening, the kind of commitment and determination to change things I witnessed in the women interviewed. Sudan was probably the worse [sic] place I traveled to, in terms of living conditions, the adjustments I had to make to the harshness of daily existence: muddy



water, no bottled drinking water, no bottled drinking liquid of any kind I could feel safe drinking, scarcity and unappealing food, but in terms of women’s awareness and activism, it was one of the most exciting places. (58) Her surprise at discovering Sudanese activists struggling against the practice of clitoridectomy can only stem from a presupposition that such activism must be an anomaly in the Arab world and the Sudan, an unrepresentative exception. Assuming her audience shares this presupposition, she feels compelled to “explain,” even apologize for these activists. Ignoring the fact that Sudanese women’s organizations have long struggled under harsh political, economic, and social conditions to combat not only excision but many other modes of oppression, she depicts these women’s voices as individual and disconnected. On the contrary, their struggles are collective, part of a broad women’s movement emerging from a tradition of activism whose successes and failures have much to teach Western women.8 In fact, Accad’s texts consistently fail to acknowledge Arab women’s histories and their dynamic contemporary reality. Arab feminism has evolved in response to this complex reality. Resisting the imposition of a Western feminist agenda on Arab women, Arab feminism insists on seeing women’s sexuality in relation to, and not in isolation from, the social, economic and political realities of their lives. It argues that racism, poverty, and imperialism are as much women’s issues as clitoridectomy, virginity, and rape (El Saadawi 1980b, 177). In “Sexuality and Sexual Politics” Accad interprets this insistence on seeing women in the totality of their relations as a mere refusal to acknowledge the importance of sexuality in Third World women’s lives. Without adequately engaging these feminists, she dismisses their arguments as “paternalistic” and “irrelevant” (238). They are simply “dogma” from Marxist women, “speaking in the name of all Third World women,” and clamoring that food and shelter are more important than sex. Third World women intellectuals are implicitly dismissed as not real (i.e., Western) feminists because they are not free— of either ideology, politics, or culture. They subscribe to “progressive dogmas” and unquestioningly adhere “to dogmatic political systems of thinking” (243). Never referring to any of these intellectuals by name nor mentioning any of their works, Accad bases her conclusions entirely on personal encounters and anecdotal evidence that are impossible to verify. In one such anecdote she tells how, during an African studies conference in the United States, the African women in attendance sided against her when an African male panelist objected to her use of the word “mutilation” in reference to excision. Later she discovered that



they did so not because they disliked what she said but because they wanted to present a united front to the West (1993, 63-5). As Accad describes the incident, in suppressing their true feelings about excision, these African women have failed to be “pure women.” Implicit but unexamined in her account is a humanist feminist view in which the racial identity, colonialist history, and neocolonialist present of these women are mere accidents of circumstance to be transcended. Armed with this humanism, she explains the resistance she encounters from Third World women in the following way: they “have sublimated or reinterpreted their experience of oppression in terms of patriarchal ways of thinking (such as Marxism, nationalism, capitalism, etc.) It is the result of a split between the intellectuals themselves, their search for identity, and the political, economic and social tensions created by the crisis the Arab world is undergoing” (1993, 66-7). Here a commitment to a totalizing feminist project responsive to social complexity and change is portrayed as false consciousness hindering African women from discovering their true feminine identity. But while Arab women’s multiple identifications are explained in terms of “a false-male-consciousness,” which disqualifies them as feminists, Accad claims that her own “multicultural identity” allows her to resist limiting discourses and preserve a space for humanist self-knowledge. She defines herself as “an Arab Lebanese Christian, with a Swiss mother and a Lebanese father born in Egypt, myself born and raised in Beirut— one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world at the time—presently teaching in the United States.” Then she lists the privileges that come with “a hybrid identity card”: it “allows me to see problems from many angles, to identify or distance myself when necessary. It gave me courage to leave [Lebanon] when I felt life was closing in on me, and strength to return when I thought I might be effective in bringing about some necessary changes.... It allowed me to assert myself as an autonomous woman, rejecting traditional as well as neocolonialist values, and struggling in this world for more (w)human values in both East and West, finding out how difficult it is in both” (1993, 65-6). Here class privilege and personal preference are made into marks of personal courage and resistance to oppression (Ahmad 209). Accad’s hybridity ensures her independence and autonomy. This humanistic conception of the autonomous self obscures and shields from critique the social relations underpinning her own identity. Similarly, as I have argued, her conceptualization of Arab women in terms of the other located them outside any present relations of power in which Accad herself might be implicated. As she presents herself, she exists on a wholly discrete temporal plane from which she looks back on Arab women as to her own past. Accad’s hybridity, with the space of freedom it brings, enables her to produce “disinterested knowledges” about



other women (Haraway, 1988). In her self-presentation, it is by virtue of being liberated from all patriarchal systems that she earns the right to speak for the dumb and downtrodden woman of the Middle East. Having achieved a disinterested knowledge of woman’s essential nature and needs through her own self-exploration, she is authorized to show others the way to enlightenment. Criticism of her by Arab feminists can be dismissed in similar humanistic terms as stemming from “feelings of insecurity, jealousy and resentment” (1993, 65).9 Benighted, they resent her for daring to “unveil“ truths they have not had the courage to face. Unlike Accad, Zenie-Ziegler has a more sophisticated awareness of the politics of her location as an Arab woman living in the First World and writing for a First World audience. In the preface to her book, In Search o f Shadows, she recounts how, as an upper-class Greek orthodox Egyptian, she received an education that valorized the West and undervalued Arab culture. Her class background, along with her extended stay in Europe, alienated her from “the common people” and made her a tourist in her own country.10 She returns to Egypt with the hope of overcoming her “alienating socialization,” and of restoring the part of herself that she was taught to reject and despise (11-19). At first, then, she seems poised to interrogate institutional discourses, the relations of power they naturalize, and the constitution of her own identity by such discourses. Her conversation with Egyptian women promises to be a process of mutual enlightenment, with both sides learning about their differences, limitations, and misconceptions, and moving towards mutual recognition, respect, sympathy, and a sense of the present relations that have obstructed such mutual understanding. Instead, Zenie-Ziegler only projects onto them the attributes of the “other” as part of a self-involved effort to reaffirm her own uncertain identity. She describes her return using orientalist metaphors. She embarks on a journey into a “mysterious, unknown world,” a “secret world” that she wants to “penetrate” in a search of the shadows of her past (7). She realizes that only by confronting the other can her search for the self be achieved. Once face to face with the women she went in search of, Zenie-Ziegler uses only a language of generalization to describe them. With this language she constructs an Arab Woman who is coherent and free of conflicts and contradictions, who leads “a simple life” (136) because she is “always already a victim” (Mohanty 1991, 58). Like Accad, Zenie-Ziegler bases her conclusions on a handful of interviews she conducts with total strangers. She sees these interviews not as an opportunity to open up a dialogue between her and the women, but rather as a way to confirm and validate her assumptions and preconceptions about them. She asks leading questions, challenges their answers, points out their ignorance to them, and relentlessly probes into their privacy. In



her encounter with peasant women, she predictably focuses on arranged marriage, polygamy, clitoridectomy, and defloration. More than anything else, however, it is the women’s fertility which seems to fascinate her. Her interviews are full of the following sorts of questions: “Why do you have so many children if you are not in a position to look after them?” (28) “What do you get out of having so many children?” (31) To a woman who is pregnant with her sixth child: “Doesn’t that bother you?” (45) To a woman who does not want to take the Pill: “But this way you could have ten children!” (29) “How can you stand death, especially the death of children?” (31) The fertility of Egyptian peasant women is a constant source of astonishment for Zenie-Ziegler, who presents it as irrefutable evidence of their victimization and a damning sign of their fatalism— a fatalism that makes them view everything in their lives as “banal.” With dismay she announces that, for these women, “giving birth seems the most commonplace event in the world” (70). Rather than proceeding from a good faith effort to see things from their perspective, her questions aim only at eliciting answers which will confirm her in her sense of difference and feed her voyeuristic preoccupation with their otherness. To complete her picture of the banal life of Arab women who are essentially victims, Zenie-Ziegler has to completely deny their agency. Thus she emphasizes the fact that the peasant women she interviews do not want to change: these peasant women have an absolute terror of any form of evolution, of all change, of any alteration to the ancestral order; an order that is reassuring because it is familiar. Change seems dangerous to them because it implies a questioning to their entire being. An even greater peril: by not conforming to traditional rules, the disturbing risk of upsetting the social balance. To live according to the established order remains the only possible choice... (66) Even the young women she interviews at Cairo University “exhibit the same inertia observed in the village women, inspired by a fear of any change” (82). She bases her conclusions on their answers to such questions as “how can you accept such a situation [of not being entirely free]?,” or “don’t you think that [inequality between men and women] is reason enough to rebel?” (79). Implied in her questions is the idea that Western feminist freedoms are the end towards which



Arab women ought to strive. A simplistic teleological narrative of Western “progress” becomes the implied yardstick against which she measures Arab society, seen again as existing on a discrete temporal plane apart from Western history, as if the histories of the First and the Third World never touched. Zenie-Ziegler in fact consistently locates Arab women and Arab societies not only on a different temporal plane but outside history altogether. Like many orientalists before her, she refuses to consider Arab men and women as historical subjects and can only see “[ejtemal date palms” and men reminiscent of “biblical times” (13). She writes, “since my childhood, nothing had changed. Landscapes, customs and the rhythm of life, all seem suspended in time” (12).11 It is only logical that in such a timeless landscape, where even domestic chores such as bread baking exist only as rituals, women’s oppression should also be timeless (14). We are reminded of this fact by Simone Lacouture who, in the preface and with a single stroke of her pen, simultaneously sums up Zenie-Ziegler’s book and erases three decades of Arab women’s history when she laments that for Arab women “nothing has changed” in thirty years (1). In case some readers miss Lacouture’s announcement, Zenie-Ziegler makes sure to begin her book and each of her chapters with a verse from the Qur'an dealing with the status of women. By framing the interviews and stories with these quotes, she insists that we see Arab women’s oppression in the context of a monolithic and ahistorical Islam. Indeed, she asserts that: “Islam, the religion of the majority of the population, exercises a predominant influence on Egypt. The legislation inspired by it, Shari'a law, is mainly—but not exclusively—responsible for the social, emotional and economic oppression of women” (132). Predictably, Zenie-Ziegler does not see the need to offer any evidence to support her statement aside from the five Qur'anic verses and the one Hadith that appear at the beginning of the sections. Zenie-Ziegler is part of a new generation of “feminist orientalists” who, like their predecessors, continue to perpetuate the myth that Arab societies are predominantly molded by a fossilized Islam that does not evolve in history.12 The only change this kind of analysis acknowledges is a return to the past, an Islamic revival, of which the most striking symbol is the contemporary veiled woman. Although the interviews she conducts with veiled university students and the little contexualization she provides clearly show the complex social, economic, and political factors that inform these women’s decision to wear an Islamic dress, Zenie-Ziegler still insists on seeing the veil as a signifier of resistance to change. Islam is also offered as the reason there has been no organized feminist movement in Egypt since the days of Huda Shaarawi in the 1930s. In her view, a ubiquitous Islamic law has made any alternative inconceivable (134). No space exists outside



Islam for any collective struggle to gain a foothold. The emancipated women she names, who are active on women’s behalf, are mentioned as individuals— lone voices in a wilderness of apathy and indifference. Despite Zenie-Ziegler’s attempt to show the women she interviews as passive and resigned, her text contains several examples of their resistance to her intrusive questions and condescending attitude. While some respond to her probing about fertility with a terse “it’s God’s will,” and about clitoridectomy with a more confident “ [e]ach place has its traditions” (47), others openly laugh at her astonishment (50). Some women in a polygamous marriage, sensing her disapproval, mischievously wish her the pleasures of a similar marital arrangement, to which she answers that her religion “forbids it.” (48). Her friend’s maid, who promises to take her to a zaar, never fulfills her promise despite the author’s many reminders (53). One woman even forces to the surface the question of location and power when she asks: “Are you going to play this recording back at your place so people can laugh at us?” (134). Zenie-Ziegler would have written a better book had she taken this question seriously and attempted to answer it. Instead, she views these instances of the women’s rejection of her as further evidence of their fatalism and resistance to change.13 At one point she does admit that her “inquisitorial approach” shows “a lack of tact,” that her questions presuppose the women were victims, and that her investigations focus on what interested her personally rather than on what mattered to the women themselves (65). Yet she still concludes that: “In this book, it is the women of Egypt who speak” (132). Like Accad, she never doubts the validity of her “research” or acknowledges the problematic nature of her relation to her subjects. Unlike Accad, however, she does not believe that she has any role to play in bringing about change in these women’s lives, who, despite their encounter with her, remain unchanged. If anything, she is relieved that her questions “were not able to sow doubts in the minds of the women [she] spoke to, so unshakable are their beliefs and their roots in the soil of Egypt” (134-5). While they fail to change, Zenie-Ziegler, on the other hand, emerges from her encounter with these “shadows” of her past a different person. She is able now to experience her duality not as alienation and rupture, but as an empowering hybridity. She writes: I shall assume the responsibility of belonging to these two contradictory, conflicting worlds, the Occidental and the Oriental. Both enthrall me, mould me. This double sense of belonging, which I have long experienced as a painful estrangement, now seems to me— thanks mainly to my stay amongst the women of Egypt— a unique opportunity, rich in all the



possibilities acquired through the simultaneous participation in two cultures which, though foreign to each other, are both nourished by the immemorial experience of two peoples. (137) This passage shows that Zenie-Ziegler continues to experience her two worlds as separate spaces. Her hybridity does not enable her to see the connections and continuities between the two poles of her identity. Instead of empowering her to deconstruct the orientalist dichotomy between East and West, hybridity affirms their separation and difference. She herself becomes a symbol of this difference. The complexity of this “hybrid” self becomes the mark of her difference from the other, attesting to her “delicate” humanity, her responsiveness to change and manifold experience. Thus she presents her own “exile” as a painful experience in her life, which matures and rounds her. In describing the displacement of Egyptian villagers, however, she assures us that for them “there is no real sense of being uprooted. No place to stay? Not to worry! They will build themselves a mud house anywhere they can find a little patch of uninhabited land; in a cemetery or on a piece of waste ground” (11). By casting the villagers as less sensitive, indeed less human than she is, Zenie-Ziegler need not be pained by sympathy or guilt nor worried about unjust relations of power. In contrast to the submissive Egyptian women who reject change, she has rebelled against tradition and against the limitations of her classist upbringing (135). More importantly, she is a hybrid subject, contradictory and complex, unlike the women she meets and whom she patronizingly describes in her penultimate paragraph: Faced with the women in Egypt I felt, from time to time, contradictory feelings. In a way, I envied their fates. A nostalgia for the “simple life” they lead engulfed me. They at least do not know the anguish of making decisions, of freedom! Baking the bread, looking after the cattle,...serving their husband, giving birth to children and bringing them up are their only ambitions. They accomplish them without resentment. For them, there are no contradictions, no painful conflicts between domestic and emotional life, between a professional career, financial autonomy and personal emancipation. At such times, a sudden desire to exchange places came over me. At other times I was seized with a desire to flee. (136)

At the end of her journey, Zenie-Zeigler constructs a self and affirms a subjectivity. But she does so at the expense of the poor rural and urban women of



Egypt for whom subjectivity is another First World commodity beyond their reach. Accad’s and Zenie-Ziegler’s work show the problems that arise when some women claim the right to speak for and about other women whom they believe cannot represent themselves. But even when some Arab women are given the permission to speak for themselves and to narrate their own stories, their voices still reach us through the mediation of translators and editors who select, shape, and interpret the women’s texts and lives for us. In Khul-Khal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, Nayra Atiya translates and edits the life stories of five Egyptian women, four of whom belong to the urban working class. In her desire to present their stories as authentic narratives or “oral histories,” Atiya suppresses the role she plays in producing these narratives. By failing to acknowledge both the power she exerts on these texts and the hierarchical nature of her relation to the women she represents, she ends up perpetuating the imbalance that exists between the two sides. This lack of self-scrutiny calls into question the objectives of the project as a whole. Like Accad and Zenie-Ziegler, Atiya employs her cross-cultural experiences or “hybridity” as an authenticating device that authorizes her as a credible mediator of these women’s voices. The women’s stories are framed by a foreword written by Andrea Rugh, an American anthropologist and a friend of Atiya. Rugh assures readers of the “representativeness” of the Egyptian women we are about to hear from and of the privileged perspective Atiya has of Egypt. As someone who knows colloquial Arabic, Atiya can speak to the women directly and can translate their stories; as someone who has lived in the United States for the past twenty years she has the distance required for a clear vision. Rugh gives the following statement concerning the advantages of Atiya’s insider/outsider position: because she had left the country as a child, there were some gaps in her understanding of Egyptian culture and society that are necessary to a flawless interaction in the society. For us, who are her friends and readers, this turned out to be to our advantage for it left her with an outsider’s perspective open to discovering the subtleties of human relationships in the Egyptian context. Because she was a relative newcomer to adult Egyptian life, she saw some aspects of it more clearly, (xx) Rugh does not explain how the gaps in Atiya’s “understanding of Egyptian culture and society” are “necessary to a flawless interaction in the society.” Neither does she offer any specific details to support her claim that Atiya’s



position as an outsider allows her to see “more clearly.” Instead, she presents the women’s stories themselves as a testimony to Atiya’s privileged vision. The women attest to Atiya’s success in bridging class barriers and in forming “intimate relations with the world of the urban lower classes.” According to Rugh, the women “leave us with no doubt that she [Atiya] was able to create an atmosphere of openness and trust with the women she interviewed” (xxi). Rugh insists on the stories’ authenticity by emphasizing Atiya’s role as only a “collector,” who did not influence the form or content of the narratives: “the vivid details of these events have naturally flowed out of the narrative, not selected by her, but chosen by the women themselves as the subjects around which to organize their discourses” (xxii, emphasis mine). Rugh wants us to believe that the women themselves had total control over their voices. Atiya encourages the same understanding. In her preface, she plays down her role by emphasizing the randomness by which the five women were selected: “they were picked at random from among Egyptians I saw over a period of three years, 1976-1979, mostly in the course of ordinary daily activities” ( xxiii). They were not meant to be “representatives” of Egyptians or of any particular class, and it is “pure coincidence” that four of the five women belong to the lower class (xxviii). She does not offer an analysis of the stories because she is not a trained anthropologist or sociologist. Her motive in undertaking this project is not that of a researcher who wants to study “the natives” but rather of someone who is hoping to become reacquainted with her country after years of separation. Through these stories, she writes, “I felt I was being allowed a privileged peek into a society I knew almost nothing about and which I longed to understand, as much as I longed to become intimately acquainted with an Egypt I had left to go to the United States as a child some twenty-five years earlier” (xxiii). Atiya’s book, however, does not uphold the claims that she and Rugh make concerning the former’s “innocent” relationship to the women and their stories. To begin with, the claim of randomness in choice of subjects is undercut by the fact that one of them, Dunya, was Atiya’s maid, who came to clean for her six days a week (xxiii). Another, Om Gad, was the wife of the garage keeper who, Atiya tells us, lived with her family “in the three rooms at the back of the garage where I used to park my car” (xxvi). Om Gad and her husband made a living by guarding the parked cars at night and by washing them in the morning, for which they were paid one Egyptian pound for each car. The third woman, Om Naeema, was a fisherwoman living with her husband in the boat across from the writer’s own boathouse. And finally Suda was a housekeeper, working for an upper-middle class family the writer knew. Clearly, Atiya’s relationship with these women was far from random. It was “determined” by her class position and



theirs. The class difference between Atiya and these women is too important to be ignored. It denotes an unequal power relationship that calls into question the claims Atiya makes about “friendship,” “trust,” “intimacy,” and “reciprocity” (xxiii-xxvii). Is it possible that Atiya chose these women because their lower-class status made them seem more “authentic”? Does their “difference“ make them better suited to be objects of discovery? Atiya’s choice to sidestep her hierarchical relationship with these women is deeply problematic and shows a lack of sensitivity to issues of power and domination that no feminist can afford to ignore. Atiya’s problematic relationship with the women extends to her relationship with their stories. She suppresses the fact that she, as collector, editor, and translator, has primary control over the production and consumption of the text. The women are not given a chance to be equal or nearly equal partners; they were not made aware of why their stories were recorded or for whom. Atiya tells us that they found it “amusing” that she was interested in publishing their life stories in a book, and Suda, for one, treated the whole thing as “a big joke” (xxvii). Moreover, they are not offered a chance to edit, revise, or hear their own stories.14 Consequently, the final product is not the result of collaboration, friendship, and reciprocity between equally situated women as Atiya would like us to believe. Instead it replicates the political economy of First W orld-Third World relations of production and consumption. The “life-history” genre she chooses as vehicle for telling the women’s stories is both advantageous and problematic. On the one hand, it allows her to present a complex picture of the women as agents, not just suffering but shaping their dynamic everyday reality—a picture absent from both Accad’s and Zenie-Ziegler’s accounts. On the other hand, Atiya uses this mode to create the illusion of immediacy and to obscure the active role she plays in the production of these stories. She creates the impression that these are natural, unconstructed stories. She does not include the questions that she asked to prompt and direct the women’s narrative. Such questions, as seen with Accad and Zenie-Ziegler, are never innocent. Her intervention can be seen in the privileging of those issues that most emphasize the women’s difference from their audience: clitoridectomy and defloration. These issues are mentioned as refrains in each of the stories. In the case of the first story, Atiya uses the following epigraph to frame our reading of the narrative: “Blood has to come out. It stands for honor” (1). These are Om Gad’s words describing the night of her defloration, but Atiya is the one who decides that they should “introduce” the reader to the woman’s story. By doing so, she is implying that Om Gad’s defloration is the central event in her life, a conclusion not



supported by the story itself. In fact, the one issue that Om Gad keeps coming back to and which she seems to view as the most important event in her life is her loss through the death of several children and relatives, particularly the death of her thirteen-year-old son. Why does Atiya not present these experiences as central? It would seem that because a mother’s grief over the death of her children is a universal emotion that transcends cultures, Om Gad’s experience of loss cannot be used as effectively to highlight “difference.” For similar reasons, Atiya privileges Dunya’s words, “I was six years old when I was circumcised,” by using them as a caption to a photograph of a young Egyptian girl (110). Again, circumcision is deemed more deserving of a central position in Dunya’s narrative than any other issue. These decisions by Atiya contradict Rugh’s claim that what the women talked about “flowed naturally” and was not directed by Atiya. Atiya did in fact help generate the narratives by asking the women particular questions, all of which are absent from the text. There is other evidence to show that Atiya played an important role in prompting and guiding the women’s narratives. For instance, notice the artificiality and abruptness with which Om Gad introduces the section about her circumcision. She says: “There are some occasions in life which are unforgettable. One of these was my circumcision” (11). Her narration of her circumcision is intercepted with defensive statements as if to explain the practice to someone who does not know it: “Circumcision is absolutely necessary. I don’t know why, but it is a tradition.... It’s true that God created us this way, but when we woke up to ourselves we found this custom handed down to us.... My people do this, and so I must do like they do” (11). Sometimes, Om Gad’s narrative is a mixture of her own words and those of Atiya, as says: “Circumcision doesn’t affect sexual desire. Some women just want a man all the time” (13). The passage in Dunya’s narrative describing defloration sounds as if it is taken out of a manual for beginners: They hold the girl and pull her legs apart. A strong woman sits directly behind, legs stretched on either side of the bride, holding her. She has to be strong because unless she can hold firm, the girl might squirm or move and this way be injured by the thrust of the man’s finger into her vagina. ( 110) This account is complemented a few pages later with a more personalized description of Dunya’s own defloration on her wedding night. Here, as in the case of circumcision, readers become voyeurs, participants in a peep show, allowed a “privileged peek” and “a generous glimpse”—the words Atiya uses to describe her privileged vision— of women who are hardly aware of this audience’s existence.15



A tiya’s stories clearly cannot resist the representation of difference as a way to appeal to a Western audience that historically has had an insatiable appetite for stories about the mysterious, exotic, and inferior other. The emphasis on difference, unfortunately, undermines the book’s ability to build bridges of solidarity and understanding among women from different cultures. Similarly, in her capacity as the editor of Harem Years: The Memoirs o f an Egyptian Feminist (1879-1924), Margot Badran seems motivated more by a desire to satisfy the demand of a Western marketplace for “harem stories” than by a desire to introduce Huda Shaarawi’s voice to new audiences. Although Badran’s book differs in many ways from the works discussed above, it resembles them in its failure to confront the problematic nature of her relation to her subject as a First World feminist translating an Arab woman for a Western audience. Badran, unlike Atiya, does not seek to hide her aggressive role as editor, but she also does not seem to be aware of the political implications of her editorial interventions and the ways in which they shape Shaarawi’s text. This “political innocence” is hardly acceptable, especially coming from a feminist who is writing, as the cover advertises, “in the best tradition of feminist scholarship.” Badran’s editorial decisions, which she discusses in her preface and introduction, produce/write Shaarawi and condition our reading of her. The most important of these decisions is Badran’s rejection of the original title Shaarawi chose, My Memoirs, and the imposition instead of the highly charged Harem Years. The title Shaarawi gave to her narrative might not be as attention-gripping in U.S. bookstores as the one Badran invented. However, Shaarawi’s title puts her at the center of her own narrative, emphasizes her subjectivity and agency, and identifies her as the source of enunciation. Badran’s title, on the other hand, identifies Shaarawi with an institution and locates the narrative in a “harem.” Badran is aware that the word “harem” does not simply connote a neutral private sphere, like “family” and “home” for instance, but rather invokes valences of degradation and subjugation. She even presents the reader with a brief critical history of the Western fascination with the harem (7-10). But this critique of “harem writing” turns out to be an empty gesture, since Badran insists not only on imposing the word on the title but also on defining Shaarawi and the women of her class as “harem women,” without stopping to explain whether or not these women viewed themselves in the same way. As if to meet the expectations she has raised by her revised title, Badran goes on to subject the memoirs themselves to significant alterations.16 By focusing primarily on Shaarawi’s earlier years, which she believes “will appeal to anyone eager to know about life in the harem,” Badran transforms the memoirs into one more example of the kind of writing she is supposedly critical of—the writing that



offers a voyeuristic Western audience another “peek” into an oriental harem, a glimpse behind the veil (7).17 This is ironic considering the fact that Huda Shaarawi is credited with signaling “the end of the harem system in Egypt” when she unveiled herself in public in 1923—the incident with which Badran opens her introduction (7).18 Badran believes that Shaarawi’s public activities and her role in the national liberation struggle against the British are not central to her version o f the memoirs, and assigns them to an epilogue. Not only that, but Badran undermines Shaarawi’s own voice by “weaving” the latter’s account o f her nationalist activities during the revolution of 1919 into a historical narrative of her own. These decisions, which Badran insufficiently justifies by saying “it seemed best,” subvert Shaarawi’s authority over her own text and show the power the editor has in deciding which part of Shaarawi’s life and career is central and which is marginal. Badran does not hesitate to exercise this power again, when she relegates to an appendix Shaarawi’s defense of her father’s patriotism against charges that he facilitated the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. Badran justifies her decision thus: “This [refutation of the charges], however important for her to put on record and for the interested historian, does not form part of the central narrative of her own reminiscences” (3). Shaarawi obviously believed otherwise, and wanted both her national activities and her defense of her father to occupy an important place in her memoirs. But Badran “knows best” and has the power to overrule Shaarawi’s choices. Interestingly, Badran’s editorial decisions produce a text that supports her own view of the Egyptian feminist movement as one “rooted in the harem.” Badran believes that Shaarawi’s memoirs show that the roots of upper-class women’s feminism in Egypt are found in the nexus of their harem experience and growing change around the turn of the centuiy. We see that women’s participation in the national movement did not produce feminism (as frequently assumed) but was the turning point for moving from changes in consciousness and the using o f close and expanding connections between women to public activism. (20) In fact, Shaarawi’s memoirs (as the original writer wanted them) emphasize the close relationship between her feminism and her nationalism and do not support the division Badran implies existed between a private feminism, or what she calls “feminism of the harem,” and a public feminism with a national agenda. They also do not uphold the view that Badran has of the memoirs as a “private” document, offering a glimpse of a carefully guarded private life (1). Shaarawi’s use of her memoirs to refute the slanderous charges leveled at her father in the published



memoirs of the political leader, Ahmad Urabi, shows that she saw her text as a public document with political implications, not simply a confessional record of sacrosanct inner feelings and thoughts. The Arabic edition of the memoirs, which was published in Egypt in 1981, seems to support this view, for that version does not stop at 1924 but covers Shaarawi’s activities in the late 1920s and 1930s. Significantly, Badran neglects to mention the Arabic edition anywhere in her book. Only later, when she is taken to task for this omission does she explain her decision. Her explanation reveals that the manuscript she had is incomplete and that the complete manuscript, which becomes the Arabic edition, belonged to Shaarawi’s secretary, Abd al Hamid Fahmy Mursi, who refused to part with his possession and insisted that Shaarawi wanted him to publish the manuscript. Badran maintains that she did not mention that controversy because she did not want it to divert attention away from Shaarawi herself (1988, 5). While Badran’s concern is legitimate, by erasing the controversy surrounding the publication of the text, she suppresses information that calls the authority of her text, and her authority as editor, into question. One is inclined to agree with Leila Ahmad’s conclusion that by erasing the Arabic history of the memoirs, Badran presents the English version as the authoritative text, herself as the sole authority on Shaarawi, and her Western audience as the only audience to be considered (1987, 8). Badran’s access to both the First and the Third Worlds empowers her but, again, at the expense of her subject. Instead of echoing Shaarawi’s voice as she hoped to do, she reinterprets the memoirs so that they meet the expectations of their targeted Western audience, and reinvents Shaarawi so that she fits the image Badran has of an Egyptian feminist. The writers discussed in this essay fail to confront their own positionality as investigating subjects, and as a result produce texts that replicate the power relations that exist between First World women and Third World women. As members of a class of international elites (Mani, 1989), they need to go beyond an empty celebration of hybridity and a superficial appropriation of the language of multiculturalism towards a radical examination of the ways in which their site of enunciation—where they speak from, to whom, and about whom—conditions their constitution of Arab women as objects of knowledge. Without accepting Arab women as subjects in their own right, without “making way for [them] to come forth not as spectacles but in their contradictions” (Chow, 104), cross-cultural inquiry will remain a relationship of domination, and feminist solidarity will continue to be elusive.




1. Some of the excellent recent scholarship on Arab women is helping redefine the field of Middle Eastern Studies as a whole. See, for example, Lazreg (1994), Abu-Lughod (1993), Ahmed (1992), Grahm-Brown, andTucker (1985). Two essays that offer a probing critique of the problematic categories of analysis in feminist writings about Arab women are Lazreg (1990), and Hammami and Rieker. 2. The twoessays by Accad are representative of her work as a whole. I focus on themhere because of space limitations, and because they were published in an explicitly feminist context. This is particularly true of the first essay which appeared in Mohanty et al., eds. T hird W orld W omen a n d the P o litic s o f Fem inism , an anthology which radically criticizes the assumptions underlying much of the writing about Third World women. Accad’s essay exemplifies exactly thekindof writing that the anthology’s editors protest. It is also the only essay in the book about Arab women, thus perpetuating the idea that Arab women are a homogeneous entity with no inner differentiation (unlike, for instance, Caribbean or Latin American women). 3. Recently, some significant scholarship has been produced dealing with the problematic relationship between First World feminist intellectuals and Third World women. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work on this subject is most influential. See, for example, her “Can the Subaltern Speak?”( 1988a) and “French Feminism in an International Frame,” in In O th er W orlds: E ssa y in C ultural P o litic s , 134-53. Other works on the subject fromwhich my essay has benefited greatly are Chow, Mohanty, Patai, and Alcoff. 4. Clitoridectomy is a central issue in Accad’s work. See her novel, L ’e x c isé e . 5. One is hard pressed to find a thesis for this essay beyond “[ejxcision exists and it is oppressive to Arab women.” Accad defines the three types ofexcision, briefly mentions two works by African women about it, and inher customary way, dismisses critiques of Western feminists’ handling of the issue without ever adequately presenting these critiques or engaging with them. To her, they are only a cover for Third World women’s fear of commitment and a justification for their inaction (1993, 49-50). For a critique of the Westerndiscourse onexcision, see El Saadawi (1980a, xiv ; 1980b, 177), andrecent reviews of Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar’s film/book W a rrio r M arks. Selbe Dawit and Salem Mekuria, for instance, point out that Walker’s filmis another instance of the way the West sees female genital mutilation as “the gender oppression to end all oppressions. Instead of being an issue worthy of attention initself, it has become a powerfully emotive lens through which to viewpersonal pain—a gauge by which to measure distance between the West and the rest of humanity” (N ew York T im es , Dec. 7, 1993, 27). 6. The H adith Accad recites is the only reference to circumcision in Islam. It is considered a weak H a d ith by some, attributed to the prophet but not actually said by him. Feminists who challenge the practice from a Muslim perspective use this strategy of calling the H a d ith ’s authenticity into question. In fact, excision is a pre-Islamic tradition that is now 204


practicedbymembers ofotherreligions, including Christianity andJudaism. About excision andIslam, see Winter (955-6). 7. After her briefencounter withthe son, Accad describes himas arrogant, aggressive, racist, andsexist (1993,57). The portrait of Arab men as essentially victimizes and despots is very problematic because it corresponds to the stereotypical views prevalent inthe West of Arab menas terrorists, and more recently as Muslimfundamentalists who are a threat to Western civilization as a whole. A detailed discussion of this topic, however, is beyond the scope of this essay. 8. The Arabic literature by and about Sudanese women’s organizations and their political involvement is extensive. For English sources, see El-Bakri and Kameir, Kahif-Badri, and Hale (1986,1993). 9. Accad writes that in a conference inTunisia, she was “accused of being CIA, engaging in orgies, andstealing boyfriends” because she “hadraised issues connecting sexuality to war” (1991,242). As usual, no evidence is offered except this “gossipy” information. 10. For a critique of the privileging of the migrant intellectual as a “figure of exile” in postcolonialist writing, see Ahmad, especially his chapter onEdward Said, 159-219. 11. She contradicts herself when she talks a few paragraphs later about the great social mobility the villages of Upper Egypt have experienced in the early 1970s, and about immigration fromthe countryside to the cities (11,17). 12. For other examples of “feminist orientalists” see Ghousoub, Haddad and Smith. This is not to negate that Islam is an important element in these societies. But it is not the only element; nor shouldit be considered in isolation fromthe socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab world. For an example of an essay that looks at Islam in such a context, see Hoodfar. 13. Their resistance totaking the Pill is similarly explained as their resistance to change. For a more complex viewofEgyptian peasant women’s attitude to contraception, see Hammami and Rieker, 104. 14. For anexample of a reciprocal relationshipbetweena First Worldeditor/translator andthe ThirdWorld woman whose story is being toldto a Western audience, see Stephen. 15. Contrast this presentation withthe wayLila Abu-Lughoddeals withthe same issue in her book Writing W om en’s W orlds: Bedoin Stories. Thedeflorationepisode is not a “confession” made to the ethnographer. Instead, the ethnographer sees it from the perspective of the Bedouin women she is writing about by becoming a participant in a communal event. We learn of the details of what took place behind closed doors fromthe discussion that ensues. Duringthis discussion, the tables are turnedandinstead of the ethnographer interrogating the women, theyinterrogate her about the way wedding night intercourse is done in her country. See Abu-Lughod (1993,189-202). WRITING THE DIFFERENCE


16. For other critics who discussed some of these alterations when they reviewed the book, see Ahmed (1987) andHatem. 17. Elsewhere, Badran (1988) explains that the manuscript of Shaarawi’s memoirs in her possession breaks off in the early 1920s, unlike the one in the possession of Shaarawi’s secretary, which covers Shaarawi’s activities in the late 1920s and 1930s and which is published in Arabic. This important piece of information is, unfortunately, absent fromthe Englishtext. Had it beenthere, it would have mitigated against Badran’s construction of the memoirs as a haremstory. 18. There is no first hand account of this incident in H arem Years. One would expect Shaarawi to provide an account of the incident she is most famous for. Badran does not explain whether Shaarawi did not write about the incident (which would be an interesting detail), or whether she, as editor, decided to narrate the well-known event in her own voice.



REFERENCES AbuKhalil, As’ad. “Toward the Study of Women and Politics in the Arab World: The Debate and the Reality.” Feminist Issues 131 (1993): 3-22. Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” Women and Performance 5 (1990): 7-27. --------- . Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Accad, Evelyne. L ’Excisée. Washington: Three Continents Press, 1989. --------- . “Sexuality and Sexual Politics: Conflicts and Contradictions for Contemporary Women in the Middle East.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Mohany et al., eds. 237-250. --------- . “Excision: Practices, Discourses and Feminist Commitment.” Feminist Issues 13 (1993): 47-68. Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992. Ahmed, Leila. “Women of Egypt.” Review of Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, by Margot Badran, ed. The Women’s Review of Books Nov. 1987: 7-8. --------- . Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Albrecht, Lisa, and Rose M. Brewer, eds. Bridges o f Power: Women’s Multicultural Alliances. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990. Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” In Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds: Feminism and the Problem o f Sisterhood, Weisser and Fleischner, eds. 285-309. Amos, Valerie and Pratibha Parmer. “Challenging Imperial Feminism.” Feminist Review 17 (1984): 3-19.



Anzaldüa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Atiya, Nayra. ed. and trans. Khul-Khal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1982. Badran, Margot, ed. and trans. Harem Years: The Memoirs o f an Egyptian Feminist (1879-1924), by Huda Shaarawi. New York: The Feminist Press, 1986. --------- . “Letters to the Editor.” Women*s Review of Books Feb. 1988: 5. Bannerji, Himani et al., eds. Unsettling Relations: The University as a Site of Feminist Struggle. Boston: South End Press, 1991. Chanfrault-Duchet, Marie-Françoise. “Narrative Structures, Social Models, and Symbolic Representations in the Life Story.” Women*s Words: The Feminist Practice o f Oral History, Shema Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds. New York: Routledge, 1991. 77-92. Chow, Rey. “ ‘It’s you, and not me’: Domination and ‘Othering’ in Theorizing the ‘Third W orld/ ” Coming to Terms, Elizabeth Weed, ed. New York: Routledge, 1989. Reprinted in American Feminist Thought at Century*s End: A Reader, Kauffman, ed. 95-106. El Bakri, Z. B. and E. M. Kameir. “Aspects of Women’s Political Participation in Sudan.” International Social Science Journal 35 (1983): 605-23. El Saadawi, Nawal. The Hidden Face o f Eve: Women in the Arab World. Sherif Hetata, trans. London: Zed Press, 1980a. --------- . “Arab Women and Western Feminism: An Interview with Nawal El Saadawi.” Race and Class 22 (1980b): 175-182. Enole, Cynthia.“Bananas, Beaches, and Bases.” Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense o f International Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Reprinted in American Feminist Thought at Century*s End: A Reader, Kauffman, ed. 441-464.



Ghousoub, Mai. “Feminism—or the Eternal Masculine—in the Arab World.” New Left Review 161 (1987): 3-19. Grahm-Brown, Sarah. Images o f Women: The Portrayal o f Women in Photography o f the Middle East, 1860-1950. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Haddad, Yvonne Y., and Jane L. Smith. “Eve: Islamic Image of Woman.” Women and Islam, Aziza A1 Hibri, ed. New York: Pergamon Press, 1982. 135-44. Hale, Sondra. “The Wing of the Patriarch: Sudanese Women and Revolutionary Parties.” Middle East Report 16 (1986): 25-30. --------- . ‘Transforming Culture or Fostering Second-Hand Consciousness?” Arab Women: Old Boundaries and New Frontiers, Judith Tucker, ed. 149-174. Hammami, Rema, and Martina Rieker. “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism.” New Left Review 162 (1988): 93-106. Haraway, Donna.“Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (1988): 575-99. Harding, Sandra. “ Reinventing Ourselves as Other: More New Agents of History and Knowledge.” Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Reprinted in American Feminist Thought at Century’s End: A Reader, Kauffman, ed. 140-164. Hatem, Mervat. “Feminist Analysis and the Subjective World of Women.” Review of Harem Years: Memoirs o f an Egyptian Feminist. Margot Badran, ed. Association o f Middle East Women’s Studies News 2 (1988):7-9. Hoodfar, Homa. “Devices and Desires: Population Policy and Gender Roles in the Islamic Republic.” Middle East Report (Sept.-Oct. 1994): 11-17. John, Mary E. “Postcolonial Feminists in the Western Intellectual Field: Anthropologists and Native Informants?” Inscriptions 5 (1989): 49-73. Joseph, Gloria I., and Jill Lewis, eds. Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives. Boston: South End Press, 1981.



Kahif-Badri, Hagga. “The History, Development, Organization and Position of Women’s Studies in the Sudan.” Social Science Research and Women in the Arab World. Paris: UNESCO, 1984. 94-112. Kauffman, Linda, ed. American Feminist Thought at Century’s End: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. Lazreg, Mamia.“Feminism and Difference: The Perils of Writing as a Woman on Women in Algeria.” In Conflicts in Feminism, Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller, eds. New York: Routledge, 1990. 326-348. --------- . The Eloquence o f Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge, 1994. Mani, Lata. “Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception.” Inscriptions 5 (1989): 1-23. Mernissi, Fatima, and Mallica Vajarathon. “A Critical Look at the Wellesley Conference.” Quest 4 (1978): 101-108. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.“Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Third World and the Politics o f Feminism. Mohanty et al., eds. 51-80. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women o f Color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1981. Patai, Daphne. “U.S. Academics and Third-World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?” Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds: Feminism and the Problem o f Sisterhood, Weisser and Fleischner, eds. 21-43. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation o f Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988a. 271-313.



--------- . In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988b. --------- . “Who Claims Alterity?” Remaking History, Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani, eds. Discussions in Contemporary Culture 4, Dia Art Foundation. Seattle: Bay Press, 1989. 269-92. Stephen, Lynnd, ed. and trans. Hear My Testimony: Maria Teresa Tula, Human Rights Activist o f El Salvador. Boston: South End Press, 1994. Trinh T., Minh-Ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Tucker, Judith E. Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Tucker, Judith E., ed. Arab Women: Old Boundaries and New Frontiers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Winter, Bronwyn.“Women, the Law, and Cultural Relativism in France: The Case of Excision.” Signs: Journal o f Women in Culture and Soceity 19 (1994): 939-74. Wisser, Susan Ostrov, and Jennifer Fleischner, eds. Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds: Feminism and the Problem o f Sisterhood. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Zenie-Ziegler, Wedad. In Search o f Shadows: Conversations with Egyptian Women. London: Zed Books, 1988.




Third World Women’s Cinema If the Subaltern Speaks, Will We Listen? Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Perhaps the question posed by Gayatri Spivak (1988), “Can the subaltern speak?,” might properly be resituated in the discourse of the speaking subaltern filmmaker. When the subaltern speaks, are “we” listening or are “we” unable to listen? In an age in which there has been a voluminous outpouring of “postcolonial,” “emergent” feminist criticism, a specious lack of dialogue addresses the scanty discourse of Third World women filmmakers. The speaking, writing, and filmic creative “testimony” of non-Western women challenges the crossing borders of feminism and arguably transforms and problematizes academic pedagogy. In my research, I was particularly struck by the complex ramifications of the last sentence in a lengthy interview of Brazilian filmmaker Ana Carolina by Simon Hartog: ...when I went to Cannes the reaction to my work received was as if I was a complete sex maniac. I never thought it was, nor did the public [in Brazil]. Strangely, here they’re considered intellectual...we’re perhaps amongst those who use sex the least, and that’s possibly why the censor thinks we are more immoral. Because I deal with the family, sex in the family, sex in institutions. So it’s very aggressive. But for the market I’m not a director who works with sex. I don’t know if that’s the answer you wanted. (68-69) Throughout many of the interviews I’ve read of women filmmakers, there are fairly consistent topoi (of markers or gaps between artist, academician, audience or critic) but Carolina’s statement, “I don’t know if that’s the answer you wanted,” locates an inherent situational anxiety in representation (and self-representation)

of the postcolonial, non-Westem, woman filmmaker. This representational crisis extends beyond the language of the speaking subaltern, and is embedded in emerging postcolonial criticism. Often, non-Westem women filmmakers suffer from an emerging colonialism of critical privilege. Aware that she may well be subject to being “eaten as the Other,” to borrow a phrase from bell hooks, Carolina, in one short quip, subverts the discourse of a Western interview, wherein the subject/object relation often disguises a wish for “containment.” “Containment,” as described by Jonathan Dollimore, “destroys difference through a coerced conformity masquerading as voluntary submission” (94). I do not wish to further suppress the testimony of non-W estem women filmmakers by devaluing the critical apparatus of the Western interview. On the contrary: even if I cannot agree with Spivak’s premise that “there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself,” I strongly agree that “the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation” (1988, 285). But even a decentered approach does not effectively answer Spivak’s question: “how to keep the ethnocentric subject from establishing itself by selectively defining an Other” (1988, 292). The raging debate among scholars who are working in the areas of non-Westem cultures, subaltern studies and gender studies is all too often aware of the dangers inherent in interdisciplinary work, frequently characterized as essentialist, historicist, colonialist, and so forth. The language of such warnings conveys a representational crisis not unlike that which erupts in the Ana Carolina interview. Linda Gordon, for example, effectively warns us of the “dangers of perceiving a common ground where there is none,” when invoking the “difference m otif’ (96). Gordon reminds us of “what is being avoided” when Western critics speak of one category of (racial and gendered) difference: “the denial of the possibility of human subjectivity...belittles the search for shared meanings of womanhood...” (105). Difference study, Gordon concludes, can often result in an environment that is “constricting, even paralyzing” (106), and has a “chilling effect on the struggle to recognize others and hence to end the categorization other ” (107). Filmmaker/critic Trinh T. Minh-ha underscores the problematics in studies of difference and the “other,” with the statement: “the idea that there is a hidden truth in the other’s culture that needs the joint effort of the outsider and the insider to be fully unveiled is highly misleading” (238). Even if we call into practice a decentered position, we are frequently reminded that we must not “silence by a telescoping act of interpretation the multiple and specific voices of the autobiographical texts [of non-Westem women]” (Smith and Watson, xxviii). Sara Suleri’s recent criticism of the categorization of a postcolonial woman



identifies the “simplicities that underlie unthinking celebrations of oppression, elevating the racially female voice into a metaphor for ‘the good’ ” (758-59). Critics such as Elizabeth Abel argue that “If we produce our readings cautiously and locate them in self-conscious and self-critical relation,” [we are] “thereby expanding the possibilities of dialogue across as well as about racial boundaries” (498). Gayatri Spivak recently moves the responsibility of voicing non-Westem identity back to those who have been subject to Western scrutiny: “The national artist in the Third World has a responsibility not to speak for the nation in response to a demand made for this craving for intercultural exchange” (1992, 798). Spivak locates the need for a speaking “feminist internationalist,” granting, however, the ironies involved, “when we mobilize that secret ontic intimate knowledge, we lose it, but I see no other way” (803). In Spivak’s schema, it is the Western critic who becomes an Other and who is, in effect, problematized. Approaches to decolonizing the subject positionality of the critical power relationship is by no means a simple or straightforward task. It is an area fraught with issues of power that cut across disciplines and deconstructs our most basic notions of identity. Critical discourse may seem to be treading its wheels mired in a muddy impasse, one which is well characterized by Spivak, who recognized in 1987: “the radical intellectual in the West is either caught in a deliberate choice of subaltemity, granting to the oppressed either that very expressive subjectivity which s/he criticizes or, instead, a total unrepresentability” (1987, 209). Unfortunately, many women filmmakers have found their work deemed unrepresentable, to some extent because of this critical crisis of representation. The Sankofa Film and Video Collective responded to the silencing of neocolonial British black culture with their film Passion and Remembrance (1988). Martina Attile, a member of the collective, told an interviewer: “We couldn’t deny our history, our knowledge” (Jackson, 23). Describing the film community of “apprehension” in England as a “crisis,” Attile’s remarks could easily be applied to the academic environment. The collective “decided to use fiction because it opened up a space to fantasize about possibilities, even though we don’t have answers” (Jackson, 23). The feminist critical community can learn from the example of this collective group, and perhaps learn to pose more questions than answers. In doing so, perhaps we can adopt Linda Gordon’s suggested strategy of “transformation of the difference slogan into a more relational, power-conscious, and subversive set of analytical premises and questions” (107). The task of the cultural critic is not only centrally consumed with questioning “the politics of identity as given, but to show how all representations are constructed, for what purpose, by whom, and with what compliments” (Said, 314). Listening to the subaltern speak should be one


21 5

of the main tenets of such a task, for if the subaltern is silenced, criticism as an “oppositional program may be compromised before the pact, and there will be no purposeful intervention as such within the cultural matrix,” as R. C. Davis has warned (40). Unfortunately, listening to the subaltern, to the voice of the Third World woman filmmaker is often nearly impossible because of the constraints of academe, the limited to access and distribution of Third World cinema, and the lack of publications on, about, and authored by Third Women in cinema. In addition, the inherent hegemonic presumptions of reading texts from Other worlds have been based on the notions of fixed identity and fixed historicity. As Yuejin Wang demonstrates, when “historical flux is acknowledged, the notion of cultural identity loses its fixity,” and “the very paradigm of the self versus Other has to be reversed” (32). For Homi K. Bhabha (1989), the latter is by no means simple or even operational, for “the term ‘critical theory/ often untheorized and unargued, was definitely the Other” (111). Bhaba’s comments, concerning an academic film conference and the Western logocentrism of criticism, reiterate common problematics of film criticism: What is at stake in the naming of critical theory as “Western”? It is obviously a designation of institutional power and ideological Eurocentricity. Critical theory often engages with Third World within the familiar traditions and conditions of colonial anthropology either to “universalize” their meaning within its own cultural and academic discourse, or to sharpen its internal critique of the Western logocentric sign, the idealist “subject,” or indeed the illusion and delusion of civil society. This is a familiar manoeuvre of theoretical knowledge, where, having opened up the chasm of cultural “difference”— of the indeterminacy of meaning or the crisis of representation— a mediator or metaphor of “Otherness” must be found to contain that “difference.” (123) Critical approaches to Third World women’s cinema, if one can even speak of such a category, is then located on the grid of intelligibility that is mired in Eurocentric power struggles of meaning and sign ownership. Even poststructural and postmodern approaches have been recently characterized as “metanarratives” which “threaten to treat ex-colonial peoples as bounded units, cut off from their historical contexts” (Coronil, 103). If “the concept ‘woman’ effaces the difference between women in specific socio-historical contexts, between women defined precisely as historical subjects rather than a psychic subject” (hooks, 124), how



can one speak of “women’s” cinema, much less Third World cinema? I agree with Trinh T. M inh-ha’s statement: “The claim of identity is often a strategic claim” (157), and I am drawn to her own claim: I make a distinction between an alienating notion of Otherness (The Other of man, the Other of the West) and an empowering notion of difference. As long as Difference is not given to us, the coast is clear. (185) Sri Lankan filmmaker Laleen Jayamanne speaks of filmmaking itself as an interventionist strategy against Western subjugation/signification: This is where filmmakers can intervene, the conditions for the rapid transformation of the culture are there, Adynata, a kind of pastiche of images of Orientalism, [is] meant as a condemnation of a certain Western or colonial gaze.... In fact Edward Said’s Orientalism helped trigger the project. (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 249-250) The critical testimony and the films of women such as Laleen Jayamanne and Trinh T. M inh-ha exemplify a site in which one can locate the speaking subaltemity of a de-objectified postcolonial tongue/camera. We may well be better serving the needs of the critical questions of postcolonialism by assuming the subject position of the listener, rather than the dominant position of the gazer/criticizer, when we are listening to the Third World woman filmmaker. As Fernando Coronil suggests, perhaps this practice of listening may support practices of decolonization outside and within academia (106). Subaltern cinema is not unlike the Subaltern Studies collective, which Spivak locates as oppositionally involved in “bringing hegemonic historiography to crisis,” in which they “open themselves to older debates between spontaneity and consciousness or structure and history” (1987,198). Like the Subaltern Studies collective, Trinh T. Minh-ha has come under attack for her desire to articulate identity within a critical discursive practice, most recently by Sara Suleri, who disagrees with many presumptions in Trinh T. M inh-ha’s text Woman, Native, Other (1989). Suleri deems Trinh’s “radical subjectivity” as “low grade romanticism” (761). For Suleri, the critical repositioning of the “racial body in the absence of historical context” is a “hidden and unnecessary desire to resuscitate the ‘self ” (762). Suleri cautions against the dangers of divisive binarisms within feminist discourse, maintaining that the “category” of the Third World woman is as nascent and politically charged as “woman” herself.



This political tension is evident in Judith Mayne’s remarkable study of Trinh T. M inh-ha and Laleen Jayamanne’s films. Mayne notes a discomfort with the category of Third World Women’s cinema, as it lays a “burden of the demonstration of cultural difference” on the filmmaker (222). Nevertheless, Mayne points out that it is perhaps equally problematic to categorize Trinh’s and Jayamanne’s films in a tradition of women’s cinema, as this risks “the flattening out of difference (221). Ironically, the cinematic approach to the body of the Third World Woman in the films of Trinh T. M inh-ha is the hallmark of what many feminists consider to be opening up the discursive knowledge of selves in Third World cinema. As Felix Thompson notes, for E. Ann Kaplan and Annette Kuhn “the crucial thrust of the feminist argument is through the juxtaposition of documentary and fiction discourses in order to raise questions for the spectator about both discourses” (50). Feminist criticism must continue to allow for violently opposing viewpoints, because, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty stresses, “however sophisticated or problematical its use as an explanatory construct, colonization almost invariably implies a relation of structural domination, and a suppression— often violent— of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question” (336). It would hardly be useful or prescient to suppress postmodern approaches of Third World Women’s cinema, especially to position a monologic feminist Third World definition of self. That the debate has been so rigorous reflects a continuing interest in defining the self which, as Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson note, is central to Western meaning: “the politics of this T have been the politics of centripetal consolidation and centrifugal domination” (xvii). The outlaw subaltern cinema of Trinh T. Minh-ha, like the work of much Third World Women’s cinema, is involved in a struggle similar to that of the postcolonial woman writer: as “ ‘illegitimate’ speakers [they] have a way of exposing the instability of forms” (Smith and Watson, xx). Turning to Simon Hartog’s interview with Ana Carolina, I can hear a pattern of breaking the stability of the Western form of interview, a disruption of the subject/object relation of the Western interview, as well as a pronounced renunciation of Western feminism in many of the statements made by Carolina. While the interviewer states that “it does not seem that Ana Carolina knows exactly what she wants to express in the film” (73), Carolina states [in another interview], “What I want to say is in my films, not in my interviews” (75). In the passage that I have used to begin this article, Carolina “explains” the sexuality of her film O mar de rosas (1985) to the Western reviewers. She is obviously hampered by the Westerner’s inability to grasp her explanation, and she underscores her frustration with the interview process with the statement: “I don’t know if that’s the answer you wanted.” Carolina explains that her fiction film O



mar de rosas was originally intended as a documentary. She then expresses disgust for the fiction form: “I had been ashamed to produce fiction, to imagine lies. More than anything else, fiction is a big lie, or a great truth, but it was very difficult for me to go that way” (65). Carolina’s remarks seem designed to decenter Western expectations, he interviewer describes her camera work as an “icy and deliberately distant, reflexive” (74). This visual style explores the realm of Western subject/object relations theory in a manner similar to her testimony. As a filmmaker and speaker, Carolina resists assimilation as Other. Western feminists “have much to learn from postcolonial critics such as Spivak and Ngugi [and Carolina] who have had to struggle against their own subject positions in order to speak through the historical contradictions that constrain their discourses” (McGee, 171). Feminists cannot, as McGee warns, simply resort to “speaking for others or insisting that others speak for themselves” (124). The subaltern speaker is challenged by the limits of subjectivity and inclusivity. Sarah Maldoror, an African filmmaker, delineates her mutable status as Other: I feel at home wherever I am. I am from everywhere and from nowhere. My ancestors were slaves. In my case it may sometimes be difficult to define myself. The West Indians blame me for not having lived in the West Indies, the Africans say I was not bom in Africa and the French blame me for not being like them. (Pfaff, 205) Maldoror is placed in the subject position when asked about Sambizanga (1972), a film about the events that led up to an armed uprising in Luanda against Portuguese authorities. Maldoror explains why the film has so little on-screen violence:

Sambizanga is by no means a war film as, for instance, American cinema would regard it The film intends to describe a real story which occurred in the 1960s at the beginning of anticolonial resistance in Angola. I show how people try to organize a resistance movement. (Pfaff, 211) Vietnamese filmmaker Ann Hui is treated to the same Western “grilling” by the critics at Cannes, after a screening of Boat People (1984), as reported by interviewer Karen Jaehne. Jaehne states that the Cannes’ critical discussions “revolved indecisively around [the film’s] reception in America” (16), in a demonstration of the “theoretical truism that works by inspiring in the colonized subject the desire to assume the identity of his or her colonizers” (Silverman,



299). Amazingly, Hui found herself in the (subject) position of trying to defend the amount of on-screen violence in the film. Hui responds that, in her view, “the violence was in fact restrained,” adding, “when I showed the film to some of the refugees I knew, they asked me just the opposite question— why I had not shown some of the dreadful violence” (Jaehne, 17). H ui’s “grilling” demonstrates a case in point which Trinh T. M inh-ha has expounded upon: “every time you hear similar reactions to your films, you are bound to realize how small the limits and the territory remain in which you are allowed to work” (164). Ludicrous critical attacks on non-Western works as in the case of Boat People, typify cases of “subject deprivation of the female” as described by Spivak (1987, 218). Western interviewers and critics all too easily subject the subaltern filmmaker to questions based on Western pre(assumptions). Questioned about her film Mississippi Masala (1991), Mira Nair succinctly explains to Andrea Stuart her plan for a subversion of the Western norm: “I wanted the white characters to be absent. There are other stories to tell” (8). In a similar vein, Aparna Sen and Prema Karanth, two Indian film directors, exemplify the struggle to speak from a subaltern position on themes such as sexuality and the sanctity of marriage. As Barbara Quart demonstrates, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), “can be seen as quite daring in an Indian context, for taking on the plight of an Anglo-Indian as its central subject; for its sexuality in an Indian cinema (250). Suspended between indigenous and “postcolonialized” culture, the main character in Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane explores the subaltern status of the “no-man’s land” of the Anglo-Indian figure. Prema Karanth’s Phaniyamma is perhaps more directly involved, as Quart suggests, in “all the ways women have been buried, have been turned into selfless helpers in their various captivities in different cultures” (252). Quart’s analysis avoids speaking for the subaltern, yet, to some extent, Quart’s study reminds us of the subaltern status of non-Western women in film. Quart’s chapter on Third World women filmmakers is one of the only available sources on non-Western women directors. (Annette Kuhn and Susannah Radstone’s The Women's Companion to International Film also provides a great deal of information on the subject.) Nevertheless, the non-Western woman filmmaker often remains held in a double shadow, unable to transgress gender and class stratification. The women in Third World cinema are subject to Western generalizations, and their enunciations often seem designed to circumvent Western subjugation. In looking back at the Westerner as subject, the subaltern disrupts feminist and postcolonial discourse. As Sarah Maldoror told Sylvia Harvey: “I’m no adherent to the concept of the Third World.’ I make films so that people— no matter what race or color they are—can understand them. For me there are only exploiters and



the exploited, that’s all. To make a film means to take a position...” (73). Maldoror’s comments seek to deconstruct and transform liberational struggles across the global assembly line of the discourses of gender, race, and class through self-representation. Christine Choy, who filmed Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1989), seems equally eager to dismiss an Othered categorization: I always get classified as either one category or another: It started with “immigrant,” later on I became an “Asian,” later on I became a “woman of color,” or “minority” and [the list] goes on and on and many labels... (Hanson, 17)

Who Killed Vincent Chin? is concerned with the seemingly lenient sentencing of the white killers of a Chinese man, who was murdered in Manhattan. Her film attacks sanctioned Western ignorance of racism.“Sanctioned ignorance,” according to Spivak, “is inseparable from colonial domination” (1987, 199). Choy sanctions neither ignorance of Eurocentric racism, nor the discursive power relations involved in naming the Asian-American woman as Other. The importance of self-definition is a marker in the discourse of the woman filmmaker. For example, Barbara Hammer disrupts expectations with her complaint: “I was becoming known as a lesbian filmmaker. Although I thought of myself as a film artist, I wasn’t being seen that way” (37-8). Similarly, Agnieszka Holland feels herself in the grip of a political “blackmail,” in which “the thing that is most annoying is that you [as a Polish woman director] are condemned to be political” (Brunette, 17). Sally Potter has felt constrained by the limits of a patriarchal and colonialist film industry in which “women are generally ‘allowed’ to make the smaller kind of women’s issue documentary film,” and she sees her goal as disrupting those limitations (Cook, 29). Potter succeeded admirably in disrupting those limitations in her 1993 film, Orlando. New Zealand-born Jane Campion, director of Sweetie (1990), An Angel at My Table (1991), and The Piano (1993), told Maitland McDonaugh: “Anything and everything interests me, especially what I’m told not to look at” (22). Boundaries set out in Western conventions and criticism continue to be crumbled by women filmmakers. In an interview with Scott MacDonald, Yvonne Rainer expresses amazement at an audience member’s negative response to her experimental work Privilege (1991). The response concretizes the artistic limitations permeated in Western culture. “Why are you so committed to depriving the audience of pleasure?” (26), Rainer was asked. “I always thought I was introducing new pleasures,” she responded (26). Alile Sharon Larkin expresses anger at what she sees as a movement that compels Black women artists to dialogically “speak in a



voice that is not really our own” (158). Larkin, not on only a self-described “Black woman film-maker,” but an academic as well, repositions herself as an individual within a larger postcolonial movement: objective is to contribute to the development of our own definitions. My objectives are ultimately no different from that of many Black male filmmakers, et I find that my “gender-consciousness” is being defined by feminists within Western culture in the same way that my Blackness has been defined by that dominant culture. (158) Larkin responds to the negative criticism of her film A Different Image (1982) by saying that it “has come from ‘radical’ feminists and would be their demand that I condemn Black men and align myself with white women against the patriarchy,” and that “a few white progressives believe that my Pan-Africanism is a naive and incorrect solution for the problems of Black people” (171). Able Sharon Larkin demonstrates the crisis of representation in academic discourse as a multitiered, politically charged agenda. Toni Morrison, however, discourages “totalizing approaches to African-American scholarship which has no drive other than the exchange of domination— dominant Eurocentric scholarship replaced by dominant Afrocentric scholarship” (8). More interesting to Morrison, and perhaps more pertinent, is the underlying question: “what makes intellectual domination possible, how knowledge is transformed from invasion and conquest to revelation and choice; what ignites and informs the literary imagination, and what forces help establish the parameters of criticism” (Morrison, 8). Juxtaposing Larkin and Morrison, we have then, not critical polarities at opposite ends of a spectrum, but a heterogeneity of feminist approaches to colonialist hegemonies. Speaking for or about an/other will and should continue to be fraught with difficulties, enigmas, crises in representation and fractures, because, as R. C. Davis notes: The power to control the positions of speech and of what can be said— as Edward W. Said has said about authority in general and as Cixous and Spivak demonstrate about patriarchal authority specifically—“must be analyzed” before any effective social critique can take place. (41) Cross-cultural readings in film are, as E. Ann Kaplan notes, “fraught with dangers,” not only for the above reasons, but because film studies are often particularly rooted in psychoanalytic methodology. As Kaplan notes, “until we



know more about the unconscious of different cultures as it might pertain to the level of the imaginary,” how is the film critic to “read” the gaze formed outside of Western subject-object relation? (40) And how can a Western Other presume to know anything about the psychology of a non-Western individual? Kaja Silverman notes that in the field of “symbolic and imaginary identification” image production, “specific positions from which we live on desire have important extra-psychic ramifications, as do the images through which we acquire our Active selves” (337). Feminists have much to learn from the speaking subaltern; we must learn how to listen more than we postulate. We can take responsibility, like Diane Bell, by not speaking for the Other, but instead “provide a basis on which cross-cultural understanding may be built, to locate issues of gender and race within a wider perspective, to offer an analysis of social change” (23). In adapting ourselves to the task, we might well listen to the voices of outlaw women in cinema such as Trinh T. Minh-ha: The precarious line we walk on is one that allows us to challenge the West as authoritative subject of feminist knowledge, while also resisting the terms of binarist discourse that would concede feminism to the West all over again. (153)



REFERENCES Abel, Elizabeth. “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation.” Critical Inquiry 19.3 (Spring 1993): 470-98. Bell, Diane. “Aboriginal Women, Separate Places, and Feminism.” A Reader In Feminist Knowledge. SnejaGunew, ed. New York: Routledge, 1991. 13-26. Bhabha, Homi K. “The Commitment to Theory.” Questions o f Third Cinema. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, eds. London: BFI, 1989. 111—32. Brunette, Peter. “Lessons from the Past: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland.” Cineaste 15.1 (1986): 15-8. Cook, Pam. “ The Gold Diggers: Interview with Sally Potter.” Framework 24 (Spring 1984): 12-31. Coronil, Fernando. “Can Postcoloniality be Decolonized? Imperial Banality and Postcolonial Power.” Public Culture. 5.1 (Fall 1992): 89-108. Davis, R. C. “Cixous, Spivak, and Oppositional Theory.” Literature Interpretation Theory. 4.1 (1992): 29—42. Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Gordon, Linda. “On ‘Difference.’ ” Genders 10 (Spring 1991): 91-111. Hammer, Barbara. “Barbara Hammer Interviewed by Yann Beauvais.” Spiral 6 (January 1986): 33-8. Hanson, Peter. “NYU Professor’s Journey into Film.” Washington Square News (March 29, 1989): 5, 10, 17, 18. Hartog, Simon. “Ana Carolina Teixeira Soares.” Framework 28 (1985): 64-77. Harvey, Sylvia. “Third World Perspectives: Focus on Sarah Maldoror.” Women and Film 1.5/6 (1974): 71-5.



hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. Jackson, Lynne, and Jean Rasenberger. “The Passion of Remembrance: An Interview with Martina Attile and Isaac Julien.” Cineaste 14.4 (1988): 23-37. Jaehne, Karen. “Boat People: An Interview with Ann Hui.” Cineaste 13.2 (1984): 16-9. Kaplan, E. Ann. “Problematizing Cross-Cultural Analysis: The Case of Women in the Recent Chinese Cinema.” Wide Angle 11.2 (May 1989): 40-50. Kuhn, Annette, and Susannah Radstone, eds. The Women's Companion to International Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Larkin, Alile Sharon. “Black Women Film-makers Defining Ourselves: Feminism in Our Own Voice.” Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television. E. Diedre Pribram, ed. London: Verso, 1988. 157-173. MacDonald, Scott. “Yvonne Rainer with Scott MacDonald ” Film Quarterly 45.1 (Fall 1991): 25-32. Mayne, Judith. The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women's Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. McDonagh, Maitland. “Jane Campion’s ‘Angel’ Is Another Quirky Soul.” The New York Times (May 19, 1991). McGee, Patrick. Telling the Other: The Question o f Value in Modern and Postcolonial Writing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2.12 (1984): 336-. Morrison, Toni. Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. Pfaff, Francoise. Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.



Quart, Barbara. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema. New York: Praeger, 1988. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993. Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992. Smith, Sidonie, and Julie Watson. “De/Colonization and the Politics of Discourse in Women’s Autobiographical Practices.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics o f Gender in Women’s Autobiography. Sidonie Smith, and Julia Watson, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992: xi-xxvii. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravarty. “Acting Bits/Identity Talk.” Critical Inquiry. 18.4 (Summer 1992): 770-803. --------- . In Other Words: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen, 1987. --------- . “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation o f Culture. Cary Nelson, and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-316. Stuart, Andrea, “Mississippi Masala.” Sight and Sound (November 1991): 7-9. Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (Summer 1992): 756-69. Thompson, Felix. “Metaphors of Space: Polarization, Dualism and Third World Cinema.” Screen 34.1 (Spring 1993): 38-53. Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Wang, Yuejin. “The Cinematic Other and the Cultural Self? De-centering the Cultural Identity on Cinema.” Wide Angle 11.2 (May 1989): 32-9.




From Third World Politics to First World Practices Contemporary Latina Writers in the United States Maribel Ortiz-Marquez

How could one succesfully write about Latino/Latina writers in the United States without problematizing the categories which are at the core of our own definition of national literature? How could one engage in a discussion of the “politics of displacement’’ and cultural dislocation without, at least, questioning the notion of the Third World and those narratives? In this essay, I will examine the novels Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García, When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago, and How the García Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez to address these questions.1 It is my contention that these three narratives illustrate the problematic use of categories such as “national literature,” “Third World/First World” and “woman of color” in the analysis of the literature written by Latinas. I will show that the use of such categories without a discussion of their historical specificity endangers the attempt to write a cultural history of “minor literatures.”2 Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in her essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” has warned critics about the problems confronted by feminist scholars who write about Third World women.3 She argues that while “Western feminism” has gone beyond the discussion of issues such as the heterogeneous character of the woman construct, some sectors still work with monolithic categories which they indiscriminately apply to women in the Third World. Thus, the use of “woman”—the category—when discussed in relation to the category Third World, always implies a “homogeneous ‘powerless’ group often located as implicit victims of particular cultural and socioeconomic systems” (200), inserting them in one of six possible contexts: “victims of male violence,” “universal dependants,” “married women as victims of the colonial process,”

“women and the familial system,” “women and religious ideologies” and “women and the development process.” While her critique is not exclusively of “Western feminists” but also of “middle-class, urban African and Asian scholars producing scholarship on or about their rural or working-class sisters,” her criticism is right on track when it problematizes the privileged status of the “native” critic, the one with a so-called advantageous point of view on the subject based on her/his affiliation with the community or ethnic group. Within this framework, I will address two issues which, in my opinion, best exemplify the conflictual nature of Latina literature and the criticism of that literature: the construction of gender identity and the inconclusive search for a home as a location from where culture can be grasped. TOWARDS A GENEALOGY OF GENDER If one can characterize the three narratives, When I Was Puerto Rican, Dreaming in Cuban, and How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, one can say that they exemplify what others have called a “genealogy of gender.”4 Like House on Mango Street, by the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros, the three narratives attempt to trace the significant steps in the construction of gender identity and the development of such identity as an important step in the formation of the “nation form.”5 Indeed, in each of these narratives this search is done through the metaphor of the journey, which encompasses the experience of cultural dislocation and gender configuration. It is Negi’s traveling odyssey from the countryside of Puerto Rico to the urban milieu of Brooklyn in the United States in Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican; or the four García sisters’ odyssey from an isolated compound in the Dominican Republic to an apartment in New York City, to the suburban neighborhoods of Long Island, to Yolanda’s return to the island in Julia Alvarez’s How The García Girls Lost Their Accent', or, Pilar’s journey from Cuba to the United States and her return as a young woman in search of her grandmother in Dreaming in Cuban. These female characters go beyond their geographical boundaries in order to confront a new spatial configuration that bears down on the different aspects of their lives, such as their images of themselves as women and the search for a home and a language that will allow them to reconfigurate themselves. Thus, the journey, like the narratives that transcribe their experiences, has to to be understood as a significant metaphor in the analysis of the texts. As it can be seen in the three texts in question, travel constitutes a metaphorical trip recalling all the significant steps in the construction of womanhood in the women’s respective Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban cultures, and an attempt to trace that journey as a sentimental, if not political, education. Recent novels by Latinas are marked by a significant journey, or, in 228


some cases, a religious pilgrimage, that constitutes an attempt to come to grips with gender identity and its relation to sexuality.6 Most of these voyages recount the subject’s establishment of a new social position—mainly as “ethnic other.” Despite the women’s previous social position, their voyages also make a statement about the way they come to identify themselves as “women” once established in the United States. Indeed, in the three narratives there is an attempt to document the formation of gender identity as an important event in the configuration of language and sexual politics. Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, When I Was Puerto Rican, published originally in 1993 in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish by the author,7 narrates the migratory saga of a young girl, Negi, from the countryside in Puerto Rico (Macún) to the metropolitan area of Brooklyn, New York; but it also recounts her transformation from a girl living in the countryside to a young woman in her twenties studying at Harvard. As opposed to the other texts under analysis, When I was Puerto Rican is told—like any other autobiography written by a woman—by a first-person female narrator/character who recollects the events that lead her to leave her “homeland,” thus, inserting the text in the ethnic autobiographical tradition as described by Betty Bergland.8 But the trajectory from Puerto Rico to New York is marked from the beginning, on the one hand, by a signifier which is embodied in the past tense (When I Was Puerto Rican), creating a significant split in the chronological account of her life through the narration and the fait accompli of the title;9 and, on the other hand, by the suggestion that such a past is overcome by a later stage in her life where Negi is no longer Puerto Rican, a strong indicator of a narrative of cultural assimilation. Thus, the Spanish translation, anticipating and incorporating critiques of the title, includes an explanatory note stating: The title of this book is in the past tense: when I was Puerto Rican. This does not mean that I have stopped being Puerto Rican but that the book describes that stage of my life defined by the culture of the Puerto Rican country side. When we “crossed over” (“brincamos el charco”) in order to come to the United States, I changed. I stopped being, superficially, a Puerto Rican peasant (jíbara) to become a hybrid between one world and another world: a Puerto Rican who lives in the United States, speaks English all day long, handles herself in the American culture day and night (my translation; xvii). My interest, however, does not reside in the study of the assimilation process that the title may convey, but in the narration of the steps in the formation of Negi’s gender identity. I will argue that Negi— through her gendered position—is able THIRD WORLD POLITICS TO FIRST WORLD PRACTICES


to posit a different identity that does not correspond to her positioning as an “ethnic” subject writing about ethnicity. Following Betty Bergland’s analysis of autobiographies of Russian women immigrants, one can state that a chronotope analysis of Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography—one that takes into consideration “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature”10—takes us from the supermarket where she finds a guava in her adult life, an object of remembrance that leads to the writing of her autobiography, to P.S. 66, the school where she returns once she has gone to study at Harvard, hoping to be now included in the “famous alumni” bulletin board. As with other “ethnic” autobiographies which inscribe themselves in the politics of assimilation, Negi occupies the spaces traditionally identified with institutional knowledge, spaces that tend to regulate the process of integration of immigrants into the society of the United States as “law abiding citizens.” The spaces where Negi dwells, either in New York or in Puerto Rico, are related to institutions where knowledge is normative, serving different projects of cultural assimilation and adaptation—for example, the chapter entitled “The American’s Invasion of Macún.” Her learning experience, in these cases, is circumscribed by a conscious effort to provide models of the “American way of life” or of urban living. But there are other spaces as well, where the knowledge acquired is far from institutionalized, and which produces instead an alternative historicity of the “ethnic” subject. (I refer principally to the home and its surroundings.) In the Puerto Rican countryside, like many other Caribbean countries with tropical climates, home life is lived outside the house. The climate permits a domestic life which extends outside of the seclusion of the “home,” allowing children’s games and entertainment to be in the surroundings, away from parental supervision and strict ethics of formal living. In the case of Negi and her family, her childhood is mainly lived outside, where she and her brothers and sisters play and where they can escape the heat of their tin house. Not enough living space inside the house and economic restrictions make the outside another domestic space where the mother, the father and the children cook, play, and do various chores. This is particularly significant if we contrast it with the life lived in the city—for instance, in Santurce [of the following chapters] in Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, where the living space is severely limited and the anonymity of the urban dweller restricts the children’s opportunity to play outside.11 While in Macún the children wander through spaces that are limited but difficult to control. Don Lalao’s farms and its grapefruits, signify this kind of outlawed, restricted area, where children love to go but should not. Within the geographical boundaries of the countryside, Negi had her first sexual experience with her



neighbor Tato, and that experience serves as a marker in the configuration of her gender identity. According to Linda Nicholson in her article “Interpreting Gender,” feminist theoreticians have not been able to depart from a “foundational” interpretation of gender, one that still relies on biological differences to establish patterns of behavior for women and men. It is her contention that, while this type of interpretation seems to prevail in feminist studies—even in those which try to dissuade us of the use of sexual differentiation—we must go beyond biological differences to articulate an interpretation of gender that accounts for social differences between women and men, and for differences in the interpretation of gender amongst cultures. In particular, Nicholson exhibits a certain reluctance about the possibility of interpreting gender in different cultures without considering possible rearrangements of sexual performance which do not comply with Western patterns: Most societies known to Western scholarship do appear to have some kind of male/female distinction. Moreover, most appear to relate this distinction to some kind of bodily distinction between women and men. From such observation it is very tempting to move to the above claim. (Namely, that those differences bear upon the distinction of male/female and that “this labeling bears some common characteristic with some common effect.”) I would argue, however, that such a move is faulty. And the reason is that “some kind of male/female distinction” and “some kind of bodily distinction include a wide range of possible subtle differences in the meaning of the male/female distinction and of how bodily distinction works in relationship to it. (96) While recognizing the importance of the “ethnic fabric” of the texts studied— an importance which has been privileged through the critical recognition of their value as markers and examples of the ethnic sectors of American society12— it is possible to posit the following questions: How do these texts inscribe bodily distinctions in their narratives? How do these distinctions relate to the configuration of gender identities? Further, how could these distinctions be interpreted within a particular cultural context? Thus, my intention is not to deny the “ethnic” fabric of these texts, but to problematize the limited scope that readings attending exclusively to ethnicity have produced. Isn’t the interpretation of gender, as Linda Nicholson has pointed out, a construction which is culturally bound, thereby also shedding some light on the construction of ethnicity? Returning to Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, Negi’s sexual encounter with her neighbor explicitly shows the bodily differences that historically have THIRD WORLD POLITICS TO FIRST WORLD PRACTICES


accounted for the foundation of gender patterns. The encounter establishes a first marker through the viewing of the organs that have come to signify the distinctions between females and males, but it does not account for the significance of those differences in different cultures, of the sort insisted upon by Nicholson. Finally, it does not account for the way in which those bodies that signify the masculine and the feminine have been inscribed in language.13 In order to interpret the content of such markers, we have to go to the narratives themselves and to the relations that such differences establish throughout the texts. I intend to show that bodily differences seem to become a main source of knowledge and, thus, of power, in the three narratives examined here. In Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, all experiences related to the configuration of gender have to do with viewing and recognizing differences between her and others’ bodies, and how those differences come to signify what it is to be a “woman.” From her early experience with viewing Tato’s penis, where Negi refuses to pull down her pants, since—according to her—she has not discovered anything that she has already seen in her little brothers, to the piano lessons in which her teacher watches her breasts while she plays,14 to the experience in New York where a man is masturbating in front of a warehouse while she watches through her window, to her relationship with Chico who insists on paying her some money for looking at her breasts, Negi participates in exchanges having to do with the power she has acquired as a viewer or as an object to be viewed. Thus, the differences do not bear down on the bodily organs but in the power that those differences have come to signify in Puerto Rican culture. One cannot understand those differences until Negi relates Tato’s sexuality to women’s complaint about men: “Men are such pigs”; or until all of them are explained and rationalized by the fact that Negi is almost a señorita and señoritas need to act, talk, and behave certain ways.15 Viewing and the control of the “viewed” is what seems to be at stake, since it points to different positions they ought to take: “Men only want one thing, I’d been told. A female’s gaze was enough to send them groping for their huevos. That was why Marilyn Monroe always looked at the camera and smiled. Men only want one thing, and until then, I thought it was up to me to give it up” (When I Was Puerto Rican, 239), Negi concludes while watching the truck driver in New York. One can conclude that while she was in Puerto Rico, Negi’s understanding of gender and gender patterns had to do with the ability to control her body since that body was meant to be directed by her, even in the event that someone else wanted to take control. In New York, however, enclosed in an apartment building where mother and children now live, she has come to understand that while she still has no control of when and where gender differences are going to be reenacted, she still does have the power to direct the “gaze” and make it work to her advantage. 232


Julia Alvarez’s novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, presents a more complicated “genealogy” than Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography. Here, too, bodily differences seem to suggest a fundamental first encounter with inscribed differences between male and female reproductive organs—significantly enough between Yolanda and her cousin, Mundin, at the end of the text16— and at the same time translate, as Linda Nicholson has pointed out, to differences in the way boys and girls are to behave once they enter puberty. The meaning of those differences is tied, in the novel, to Yolanda’s understanding of language and language acquisition in the United States. The transition, the journey from the Dominican Republic as a girl to the puberty years in the United States, is marked by the awakening to the difficulties of adapting to language experiences related to the configuration of sexual and gender identities.17 Indeed, Yolanda’s struggle with language signifies, from the beginning, a way to establish boundaries, to mark her gender identity in the United States and the Dominican Republic. Her inability to establish those boundaries is related to the difficulties she experiences as a “non-native speaker,” thus, not familiar enough with a linguistic corpus which has historically inscribed the body into a semantics of differences in both places.18 This is clearly seen in the chapter where Yolanda is in the hospital recounting her marriage to John: “I love you,” John said, rejoicing, trickled by the barks and the howls. But Yolanda was afraid. Once they got started on words, there was no telling what they could say. ( How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 70) And indeed, words always seem to fall short when it comes to account for her subjectivity, tom between a “corpus” that was not quite inscribed in Spanish nor in English: For the hundredth time, I cursed my immigrant origins. If only I too had been born in Connecticut or Virginia, I too would understand the jokes everyone was making on the last digits of the year, 1969; I too would be having sex and smoking dope; I too would have suntanned parents who took me skiing in Colorado over Christmas break, and I would say things like “no shit,” without feeling like I was imitating someone else. (95) Language, as she understands it, becomes a medium through which things can be transformed, a materiality which is not exhausted through language. But that materiality seems more difficult to grasp through language if it is not accompanied by a sense of belonging to a linguistic community that has— although one is always negotiating the boundaries of gender and sexuality— a history of


23 3

negotiation that can be defied or adopted. If she expressed the fact that she “didn’t have the vocabulary back then to explain even to myself what annoyed me about their remark” (refering to Rudy’s parents’ commentary about her as a “geographical lesson” that will teach their son “about people from other cultures” [98]), she is beginning to understand that language cannot account for the cultural dislocation she felt, as others felt it too, because it is tied to a history of national identities that the “other ethnic subject” defies and surpasses. Since I explore these narratives in an attempt to posit a “genealogy of gender,” the Cuban American novel seems to be the easiest to follow. It retraces the steps taken by male authors to establish their identity as a continuation of the patriarchal order,19 but reverses its sign in three distinctive ways: the text establishes a matriarchal succession that problematizes the masculine character of the discourse on Cuban national identity (Bakhtin, 1981); the succession simultaneously privileges non-hierarchical relationships where children and adults negotiate their differences but mainly engage in a learning experience; and finally, the text defies the possibility of one voice, thus privileging polyphony by the use of multiple narrators. All of the narrators are Celia’s grandchildren (with the exception of the neighbor, Herminia) who, although summoned by a grand narrator, have had the possibility of articulating their own voice within the narration. For Pilar, her gender identity is a genealogical project which requires her return to the “homeland” to recuperate her grandmother’s legacy.

THE POLITICS OF THE “UNHOMELY” Homi Bhabha, in his seminal essay “The World and the Home,” described the state of “unhomelyness” as “the shock of the recognition of the world-in-the-hom e, the home-in-the-world.”20 As opposed to the state of homelessness, Bhabha describes this paradigmatic postcolonial condition as “...the estranging sense of relocation of the home and the world in an unhallowed place. To be unhomed is not to be homeless, nor can the “unhomely” be easily accommodated in that familiar division of social life into the private and the public spheres” (141). Thus, the “unhomely” has to do more with “...the uncanny literary and social effect of enforced social accommodation, or historical migrations and cultural relocation...” (141), creating a distinct type of narrative which seems to be recurrent in today’s literature—particularly in the production of women “minor” writers. My interest in the “unhomely” stems from the significance it attributes to “history” and to the development of alternative histories which compete in the interpretation of social reality. It seems to me that such a state effectively describes the lives of the female characters in the three texts examined here, since it points to their conflicting and problematic feelings towards the “home” as the spatial 234


configuration where issues exclusively pertaining to the “private sphere” can be discussed. Indeed, the “home,” in the three texts, always carries a multidimensional level of interpretation, arousing feelings of security as well as helplessness. It simultaneously reenacts and surpasses the structures of the “homeland,” which are often repressive, exclusive, and mainly masculine-based in their orientation.21 Yet, the home that is established abroad offers the possibility of different social arrangements which come from the difficulties experienced during the migratory journey. Therefore, the “home” is recalled only when its destructive forces have subsided, and have been replaced by the liberating forces exemplified in the construction of a state of “unhomelyness” wherein the main characters find a new alternative home. As Bhabha suggests, this alternative space integrates the experience of immigration and cultural relocation. This sense of the “unhomely” is clearly marked in the opening scene of How the García Girls Lost Their Accent. Yolanda, the third daughter of the García family and the main character of the novel,22 goes back to the Dominican Republic after five years of absence in order to consider the possibility of establishing her permanent residence there: There is so much she wants, it is hard to single out one wish. There have been too many stops on the road of the last twenty-nine years since her family left this island behind. She and her sisters have led such turbulent lives—so many husbands, homes, jobs, wrong turns among them. But look at their cousins, women with households and authority in their voices. Let this turn out to be my home, Yolanda wishes. (11) The passage seems to establish a clear division between the liberating aspects of the “home” where the cousins establish their “authority,” a reign of limited matriarchal order (since it only pertains to issues related to domesticity), and the “turbulence” that has characterized the García sisters’s lives in the United States. It seems to deepen the binary opposition which has marked the production of earlier literary texts by Latino writers where the “native” culture, and specifically some aspects of that culture such as cooking and mothering, has been privileged to counteract the influence of the “new” environment.23 This passage seems to suggest that migratory movements never successfully articulate an alternative home which incorporates bits and pieces of the “old” with the new in a pastiche that grants other possible interpretations of the domestic space.24 And yet, that is not the case. As the narrative develops, the “home” becomes a difficult space to define. Yolanda’s description of the compound where the García girls spent their early years of childhood is always accompanied by “mixed feelings”: her discomfort with her status as a woman of a wealthy class surrounded THIRD WORLD POLITICS TO FIRST WORLD PRACTICES


by all the privileges that her class has granted her (maids, service, presents)25, and her longing for the “age of innocence” where the sisters and cousins enjoyed their precarious peace and tranquility. The description of the house precludes the possibility of organizing a semantic field where the “home” and the “homeland” are in opposition to the “new” country; from the beginning of the novel we are introduced to a conflicting relation between the two locations. Indeed, the opening scene is marked by Yolanda’s subtle struggle to reject the norms established by her maternal family as proper “woman’s” behavior, and her “foreign” approach to issues such as clothes, makeup, traveling, and friends. Her appreciation of the anonymity and the relative freedom that she enjoys in the United States is clearly intertwined with the comfort she experiences in the familiarity of her surroundings in the Dominican Republic. In her subtle struggles, one can appreciate the blurred line between domesticity and history, between the “private” and the “public” sphere which is at the core of the novel itself and which informs the sense of the “unhomely.” What Bhabha refers to in his essay is not tied to a progressive and causal narrative of significant events. Bhabha’s definition is obviously influenced by Walter Benjamin’s critical privileging of the “fragmented,” the “discontinuous,” the “superfluous,” the “ephemeral” (words that seem to characterize the texts examined) which, at the same time, seem to capture the “historical event” through their ruptures, through their cracks. Bhabha states: The present that informs the aesthetic process is not a transcendental passage but a moment of “transit,” a form of temporality that is open to disjunction and discontinuity and sees the process of history engaged, rather like art, in a negotiation of the framing and naming of social reality— not what lies inside or outside reality, but where to draw (or inscribe) the “meaningful” line between them. (41) In Julia Alvarez’s novel, the reader is forced to attempt to “name” that social reality which lies not at the core of the text, but at its margins. The Garcias’ exile stems from the political turmoil experienced during the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. The narration of events in the novel, however, is developed not through the recounting of the officially recorded “historical” events which led to the political turmoil, but through remembering the daily struggles in the home when the family desperately needs to leave the country before an underground plot to overthrow Trujillo comes into being (a situation where autobiography and fiction merge). Does the chilling narration of Yolanda’s fear when the military men enter the house to seize her father capture our imagination? Or does the



desperate attempt to learn the language in the United States strike us as a significant historical process?26 The reconfiguration of the “home” as a frontier space where elements of the “private” and “public” sphere coincide is also characteristic of Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban. The novel, written in 1992 by a young Cuban American journalist, includes several narrators, in third and first person, and a collection of letters written by Celia, the grandmother, to her distant Spanish lover Gustavo. The story intertwines parallel narrations from both sides of the ocean— New York-Miami and Habana-Santa Teresa del Mar—to present the effects of the migratory experiences in the del Pino and Puente families. As in Julia Alvarez’s novel, Pilar, Celia’s teenager granddaughter who is living in New York, marks the trajectory of the migratory saga by establishing the need to return “home”: Even though I’ve been living in Brooklyn all my life, it doesn’t feel like home to me. I’m not sure Cuba is, but I want to find out. If I could only see Abuela Celia again, I’d know where I belonged. (58) Belonging is the privileged feeling in all three narratives. It expresses the need to be somewhere where the boundaries of “here” and “there” can be easily defined, where the sense of estrangement can be abolished, where the “home” can be located and, at the same time, grasped as the coherent concept of communal territoriality. Belonging is an extremely difficult project for the one that departs and the one that returns back to the “homeland,” since it problematizes the same categories that it conjures up: the “home” and the “homeland.” How can anyone belong, being outside of the juridical limits that establish that space? How can we organize a semantics of belonging that is not tied to the national boundaries and the national identities of either the United States or the Caribbean islands? As Julio Ramos has pointed out in his essay “Migratorias,” in the case of the Puerto Rican writer Tato Laviera’s aesthetic project, the option has been the development of a “portable ethics,” which “is a way to conceptualize identity that diffuses the topographic nets and the harsh categories of territoriality and its telluric metaphorization.”27 In Dreaming in Cuban I sense a clear problematization of Cuba—the island socialist state—and its discourse on national identity by the younger generations of Cuban Americans. This problematization is found in Pilar when she states her confused feelings about her relationship with Cuba, a relationship that is marked by an attempt to recuperate the “homeland”:



Most days Cuba is kind of dead to me. But every once in a while a wave of longing will hit me and it’s all I can do not to hijack a plane to Havana or something.... Every day Cuba fades a little more inside me, my grandmother fades a little more inside me. And there’s only my imagination where history should be (my emphasis; 137-8). History and imagination, an image that takes over the historical consciousness—isn’t that precisely what being away is all about? Can one easily mark the boundaries of “history” and “imagination,” either at home or elsewhere? Isn’t that feeling precisely the one that is captured in the “unhomely”? Can one accurately account for the displacement suffered in the imaginary when one is away? In the discussion of the development of a discourse on “national identity” in Cuba, Dreaming in Cuban proposes a recuperation of the historical through the imaginary, through a literary discourse that is identified with a matriarchal succession marked on the dedication page (“For my grandmother...”) all the way to the novel’s end:

January 11, 1959 My dearest Gustavo, The revolution is eleven days old. My granddaughter Pilar Puente del Pino, was bom today. It is also my birthday. I am fifty years old. I will no longer write to you, mi amor. She will remember everything. My love always, Celia. (138)

Dreaming in Cuban is also an attempt to reverse the male symbiology that has become associated with the revolution. If the return to the “homeland” is a difficult or undesirable project to undertake by younger generations that grow up in metropolitan centers (New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles), the recuperation of a female succession is a partial response to the impossibility to return to the “homeland” and the difficulty of establishing an alternative home somewhere else. As Pilar states: I’ve started dreaming in Spanish, which has never happened before. I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible. There is magic here working through my veins...I love Havana, its noise and decay and painted ladyness. I could happily sit on one of those wrought-iron balconies for days, or keep my grandmother company on her porch, with its ringside view of the sea. I am


afraid to lose all this, to lose Abuela Celia again. But sooner or later I’d have to return to New York. I know it’s where I belong—not instead of here, but more than here. How could I tell my grandmother this? (235-6) Finally, Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, When I Was Puerto Rican, seems to posit a different question. The precarious state of constantly living on the verge of moving again characterizes the definition of a space called “home” in Negi’s narration. It is hard to locate a “home” when that space is continuously being redefined by displacement. Thus, for Negi, the autobiographical subject, the first “home,” the tin house in the Puerto Rican countryside, becomes that all-encompassing term that relates not only to the site of enunciation but to a “foundational locus” that marks the development of her identity. As in the works of other women writers, such as in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place28, the configuration of “home” is marked by a negation; in Esmeralda Santiago this is clear even in the title. The “home,” the “homeland,” and national identity are all concepts related to the sense of dislocation that enables the subject to view herself only in the past, as a ‘jibarcT (woman from the countryside) who cannot establish when she became a part of the past and when she will end. The “home,” like the “homeland,” has lost its ability to recuperate the lost ground of childhood. As Adorno stated: “In exile, writing is the only home” (Ramos, 1994). CONCLUSION In my discussion of these narrative texts by Latina writers I have attempted to reveal the problematic nature of categories which underlie the tradition of national literatures. It seems to me that one of those categories that is reenacted in the study of Latina writers is the distinction “Third/First World.” As Chandra Mohanty states: Terms like “Third” and “First” World are very problematical both in suggesting oversimplified similarities between and amongst countries labelled “Third” or “First” World, as well as implicitly reinforcing existing economic, cultural and ideological hierarchies. (Mohanty 1994, 216) It is clear that while Negi’s living conditions could be identified with the developing countries at the beginning of Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, Julia Alvarez’s novel explicitly shows that some sectors of the population in the Dominican Republic have access to goods and services which do not comply with our understanding of the “Third World.” One can also argue that Yolanda’s difficulties in the United States are tied to her relative familiarity with U.S. culture, which simultaneously enhanced and crippled her possibilities of becoming THIRD WORLD POLITICS TO FIRST WORLD PRACTICES


an “All American girl” much as she wishes it.29 Her ingenious response to the conflict, once back in her “homeland” years, is later related to a understanding both cultures and the misconceptions that both “worlds” have generated. Thus, in the final analysis, no category has essential operative value if it is not contextualized in the narrative being studied. On the other hand, the “ethnic reading” of these texts has to be problematized. The “ethnic” subject that these Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban women authors have transcribed in their narratives is the result of the migratory movement that they, like their characters, embodied. In other words, they become “ethnic” as a result of the migration which their parents forced on them. This argument, of course, needs some qualification. While the characters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accent are still affected by the privileged nature of the life they left behind in the Dominican Republic, Pilar, in Cristina Garcia’s novel, came to the United States as a girl, as a daughter of a political refugee—a fact that granted her a different status. Negi, on the other hand, traces a different trajectory. As a member of the underclass in Puerto Rico, she was able to rise above her family’s social status and become a writer. Thus “ethnicity” is both thematized and recounted through the texts studied. More importantly, the “ethnic subject” has been constructed only through the deployment of strategies which produce a “female ethnic body” that unveils the gendered base of nationhood. Hence the writing—and the lives of these Latinas as they move back and forth between the First and Third Worlds— challenges the legitimacy of national literature formations and initiates an alternative means of constructing gender and national identities.30




I. Fromnowon, Iwill refer to the followingeditions of the texts: When / W as P u e rto R ican (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994), D ream in g in C uban (New York: Knopf, 1992); and H o w the G a rcia G irls L o st T heir A c cen t (NewYork: Penguin Books, 1992). Quotations will be marked in the text by page. 2.1refer the reader to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s book: K afka:

T o w a rd s a M in o r

L iteratu re, translatedwith and an introduction by Dana Polan (Minnesota:

P, 1986).

Uof Minnesota

3. Chandra Talpade Mohanty “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” C o lo n ia l D isc o u rse a n d P o s t-C o lo n ia l T heory: A R e a d e r , edited and introduced by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), 196-220. 4. Linda Nicholson, “Interpreting Gender,” Signs 20.1 (1994): 79-105. 5. “The NationForm: Language and Ideology,” Race, N ation, C lass. A m bigu ou s Id e n titie s , Ettiene Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, eds. (London and New York: Verso, 1988), 86-106. 6. This seems to be the case of Ana Castillo’s So F a r F rom Norton, 1992).

G od

(NewYork and London:

7. NewYork: Vintage Español, 1994. 8. Betty Bergland “Postmodernism and Autobiographical Subject: Reconstructing the ‘Other,’ ” A u to b io g ra p h y a n d P o stm o d ern ism , Katheleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters, eds. (Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1994) 130-166. 9. Infact, most articles published about the autobiography dwell on this aspect of the text. See Hugo Rodriguez Vecchini’s “C u an do E sm era ld a ’e r ’p u e rto rriq u eñ a : A u to b io g ra fía e tn o g rá fica y a u to b io g ra fía n e o p ic a re sc a ,” N ó m ada 1 (April 1995): 145-160, and Efrain Barradas’s book reviewinD iá lo g o , May 1994. 10.1quote fromMikhail Baktin’s The D ia lo g ica l Im agin ation : Texas P, 1981), 84.

F o u r E ssays.

(Austin: U of

II. “Being cooped upinside all daywas boring. InMacún, we couldrunandclimb trees and jump fromrock mountains. But inEl Mangle, we couldn’t do anything...” says Negi ( 136).



12.1have benefited fromJudith Butler’s analysis of the body, inB o d ie s th a t M a tte r (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). 13. Inthis occasion, Negi is delegatedto a passive role while the active one came fromthe teacher whowas watching “howthe neckline on my (her) dress puffed out for a clear view, to anyone standing above, of the slight mounds, like egg yolks, that had recently begun to ache on my chest” (178). 14. “Señorita” means two different things inLatin culture: onthe one hand, it literallymeans “Miss,” designating the marital status of a woman; on the other, it means that a girl has begun to menstruate, thus, she needs to behave in a “womanly” fashion. 15. This section chronologically constitutes the beginning of the story. 16. In order to simplify the argument, I have only discussed Yolanda’s character but the same conclusioncan be reached with other characters as well. I amthinking about Carla’s encounter with a man looking for directions on her way back from school. The man is half-nakedandCarla fledthe scene. Once the police came to her house to file charges and askedher about theencounter, the narrator states: “Carla thought hard for what could be the name of a man’s genitals. They came to this country before she had reach puberty in Spanish, so a lot of the keywords she wouldhave been picking up in the last year, she had missed. Now, she was learning English in a Catholic classroom, where no nun had ever mentioned the words she was needing...” As we can see, the experience of migration and cultural dislocation can be transcribed to the realmof language as well. 17. These difficulties can be seeninbothcontexts. Inthe opening scene, in her returning to the Dominican Republic, she is unable to understand what “a n to jo s ” means. Although her aunts translate the word as “craving for something you have to eat” and later as what someone wants “when they are taken over by un sa n to who wants something,” the context is clearly relatedto woman’s domainintwo different ways: first, because “a n tojo ” is usually related to what pregnant women want to eat due to their pregnancy; and second, because once Yolanda tells what she wants—“I can’t wait to eat some guavas. Maybe I can pick some whenIgo northina fewdays”— she is remindedthat she should go to the hillside by herself: “This is not the States.... A woman just doesn’t travel alone in this country. Especially these days” (H ow the G a rcia L o st T h eir A c cen t, 9). 18. I refer the reader toJuanG. Gelpi’s analysis of René Marqués” “L a víspera d e l hom bre ” in L itera tu ra y p a te m a lis m o en P u e rto R ico (Río Piedras: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1993) 60-119. 19.1refer the reader to Roberto Fernández Retamar’s C a lib a n a n d O th e r E ssa y s , originally published in 1972, translated by Edward Baker (Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1989), as anemblematic text of this kind of position. Marti, as its successor, Fidel Castro, establishes a genealogy which can be traced to the nineteenth century.



20. “The World and the Home,” S o c ia l Text 31/32: 141-53.1amquoting frompage 141. 21.1 refer the reader to N a tio n a lism s a n d S ex u a litie s, Andrew Parker, Mary Ruso, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaecer, eds. (NewYork and London: Routledge, 1992). 22. Yolanda’s character is clearly privileged during the novel. Beyond the fact that she has beengiven the opening andclosing sections of thebook, she has beengranted more sections that any other character. I have to add that she is the main character of other short stories written by the author. See “Customs” inIguana D rea m s: N ew L atin o F iction , Delia Poey and Virgil Suarez, eds. (NewYork: Harper Collins, 1992) 1-16.1also heard another short story read by the author in an activity sponsored by the University of Vermont where Yolanda was the main character (1993). 23. Sandra María Esteves’s poem“My name is María Cristina” seems to be paradigmatic of this kind of opposition. Efraín Barradas’s H erejes y m itifica d o res and Yamila Azize’s article “ACommentary on the Works of Three Puerto Rican Women Poets in NewYork” (inB reaking B oundaries .’L atina W riting a n d C ritical R ea d in g s , Asunción Homo-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Stembach, eds. [Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1989], 146-65) have both done an analysis of the text. Luz María Umpierre responded with the poem“My name is not María Cristina.” 24. For an analysis of the Casitas, the Puerto Rican development of centers in the Bronx which are constructed as wooded houses fromthe countryside, Irefer the reader to Celeste Olalquiaga’s M e g a lo p o lis (Minneapolis, MN: Uof Minnesota P, 1992: 80-1) and to Luis Aponte-Parés, “What is YellowandWhite and Has Land All Around It? AppropriatingPlace in Puerto Rican Barrios” (C en tro d e E stu d io s P u e rto rriq u eñ o s , Bulletin Volume VII, Number 1: 8-19). 25. Her family’s privilegedstatus is confirmed throughout the text. In “Floor Show,” Sandi recalled the adjustment whichtheyhave hadto make since they moved to the States: “Sandi realized witha pang one of the things that had been missing in the last fewmonths. It was precisely this kind of special attention paid to them. At home there had always been a chauffeur opening a car door or a gardener tipping his hat and a half dozen maids and nursemaids acting as if the health and well-being of the la Torre-García children were of wide public concern...” (H o w the G a rcia G irls L o st T heir A ccen t, 174). 26. The attempt toexamine the “blur” lines that configure the reignof “domesticity” are not limited to Julia Alvárez’s first novel but seems tobe at the core of her literary project. In her second novel, In the Tim es o f the Butterflies (Chapel Hill, NC: Alonquin Books, 1994), she further examines such space whenit focuses inon the political involvement of the Mirabal sisters and their murder during the sixties. Like many other women authors, the first novel recounts the configuration of their gender identity to establish a foundation, a “homebase,” from which they can launch other literary projects. One can trace similar development in texts where Yolanda is the main character. I refer the reader to “Customs.”



27. “Migratorias,” P o std a ta 9 (1994): 75-9. 28. A

S m all P la c e

(London: Verso, 1988).

29. One has to remember that the de la Torre family was very familiar with the American culture, but mainly, withAmerican’s patterns of consumption. One has to recall thefin de siè c le experience of Latin American modernity in order to understand the contradictions involvedinthat relationship. I refer the reader to Claudio Veliz’s The C e n tra list T radition in L atin A m erica (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980). 30. The distinctions that theyestablish amongst themselves are very significant. When Julia Alvarez was invited to speak at the University of Vermont by the faculty group “Third World Educators,” thequestions posed by the professors and the audience clearly signified the discrepancies betweenthe “ethnic” reading of her texts and the way she conceptualized them.



CONTRIBUTORS Amal Amireh is a doctoral student in the English Department at Boston University, in the process of completing her dissertation on the representation of working-class women in American fiction. She has published reviews of Arabic and postcolonial literature in World Literature Today and Edebiyat: The Journal of Middle Eastern Literature; currently, she is coediting a collection of essays on Third World women and the politics of reception. B rinda Bose teaches English at Hindu College, Delhi University, India. Her published works include essays on South Asian and African postcolonial writers; she continues to work on colonial/postcolonial literature and film, as well as feminist theory. N upur Chaudhuri is an independent historian who has published several essays on the relationship of women, both Indian and British, to colonial cultures and lifestyles. She is the coeditor of Western Women and Imperialism: complicity and resistance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). She also serves as guest coeditor for a special issue (on global feminism and interactions between class, gender and race) of the National Women's Studies Journal. Belinda Edmondson teaches in the Departments of English and African/African-American Studies at Rutgers University, Newark. Currently, she is working on a manuscript that studies issues of race and gender in the construction of authorship in the Caribbean narrative. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster teaches at the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Her books include Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary (New York: Greenwood Press, 1995); Women Film Directors o f the Diaspora (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming); and an anthology on the films of Chantal Akerman (New York: Flicks/Praeger, forthcoming). Bishnupriya Ghosh teaches in the English Department at Utah State University, where she is also the Vice-Chair of the Women's Studies Program. She has published essays on South Asian women novelists, postcolonial feminist theory, and the Indian film directors, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. She is currently working on a manuscript which studies the aesthetics of postcolonial cultural migrancy/displacement.

Jennifer Browdy de H ernandez teaches in the English Department at Simon Rock College of Bard, specializing in Latin American, Caribbean, and multicultural North American literature. Her recent published work includes essays on the politics of Native American and ethnic American autobiography. Susan Koshy teaches in the Asian American Studies Department, University of California at Santa Barbara. Her published work includes essays on Bharati Muhkerjee and Asian American literature. Currently, she is working on a manuscript that effects a comparative analysis of South Asian diasporic writers in the United States and Canada. M elissa L ockhart teaches at the Department of Romance Languages at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. She has published articles on Brazilian popular culture, film, and theater as well as on Argentine writers Reina Roffé and Griselda Gambaro, the Uruguayan writer Armonia Somers, and the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit. She serves as the Editorial Consultant for the journal Chasqui: Revista de

Literatura Latinoamericana.

P ilar M oyano teaches Spanish at Union College, Schenectady, New York. She is the author of Fernando Villalón: el poeta y su obra (1990), and has published articles on the Spanish Generation of 1927 and on contemporary women's writings in Latin America. M aribel O rtiz-M árquez teaches in the Department of Spanish at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. She is currently working on a manuscript about Latina writers. Elizabeth Willey teaches at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, where she is an Assistant Professor of Multicultural Literature. Her publications include work on both Anglophone and Francophone authors such as Jomo Kenyatta and Ousmane Sembene. Currently, she is working on a manuscript that explores the interactions between nationalist rhetoric and novelistic discourse in African fiction.



Abel, Elizabeth, 215 Accad Evelyne, 185-92, 204 African Personality, 7-10, 15 See also, Kwame Nkrumah Aggrey, Kwegyir, 3, 6, 26 Agosin, Marjorie, 97 Aidoo, Ama Ata, 4-6, 10-1,13 Changes, 18-25 Our Sister Killjoy, 13-8 Alvarez, Julia, 227-8,

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 236-7 Amos, Valerie, xiii-iv, xxviii-ix, 126-7 AMPRONAC, see Nicaragua Anderson, Benedict, 6, 83, 87, 93 Anzaldua, Gloria, xv, xxii Appiah, Anthony, 5 Arab women, xxix, 185-7, 189-91, 193-4, 203 clitoridectomy, 199 defloration, 199-200, 205-6 excision/circumcision, 187-8, 191-2, 200, 204 feminism, 190, 201-2 harem, 201-2 polygamy, 193 veil, 194 See also, Egyptian women; Islam; Sudanese women

Argentina, xxiv, 99 censorship, 100, 106 homosexuality, 100 lesbianism, 106, 107,110-1

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, 97, 99, 105 Pinochet, 99 Proceso, 98, 100, 105 Sex roles, 98, 104, 111 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 97 See also, Latina women Arora, Poonam, 122, 124-5 Ash, Ranjana, 139 Atiya, Nayra, 185-6, 201-3 Attile, Martina, 215 Autobiography (autobiographical fiction), 46,65,164,168-9,229-30,239 Avellaneda, Andrés, 100 Badran, Margot, 185-6, 201-3 Bangladesh, xxx, 136-7, 149-54 See also, Islamic fundamentalism; South Asia Barrios de Chunagara, Domitila, 163,166, 169,172-3 Bell, Diane, 223 Belli, Gioconda, 79, 81-2, 84, 86-92 Bengali women, 32, 34, 37

bhadramahila(bhadralok), 31-2,42

See also, South Asia

Benjamin, Walter, 135, 236 Bergland, Betty, 229-30 Berlant, Lauren, 140 Bemikow, Louise, xviii Beverley, John, 164 See also, Marc Zimmerman Bhabha, Homi K., 46-7,139-41 216, 234-6 Bolivia, 165,171 Booth, Wayne C , 100 Brodber, Ema, 63 Brown, Lloyd, 4 Burgos, Elizabeth, 166-9,173-6 Byars, Jackie, 121 Caliban (in Shakespeare), 64-5, 69, Califia, Pat, 111 Campion, Jane, 221 Cardenal, Ernesto, 86 Caribbean, see, West Indies Caribbean masculinity, 64, 66, 69 See also, West Indies (sexuality) Carolina, Ana, 213-4, 218-20 O mar de rosas, 219 Chadha, Gurinder, 123 Bhaji on the Beach, 127-8 Chambers, Ross, 166 Chanfrault-Duchet, Marie Françoise, 188 Chatteijee, Partha, xxv, 31,144-5 Chatteijee, Ramananda, 32 Chatteijee, Santa Devi, xxvii, 32, 37, 39-41 Cage o f Gold, 35-6, 38 Sahara Uparay, 36, 38-9 Tales o f Bengal, 32 Udayanlata, 35, 38-9 Chatteijee, Sita Devi, see Chatteijee, Santa Devi Chow, Rey, 177 Choy, Christine, 221 248

Chuchryk, Patricia, 80 Cliff, Michelle, 65

No Telephone to Heaven, 66-74 Abeng, 71 Colonialism, xxv-vi, 3 -4 ,1 0 , 16, 65, 75,138 -9 ,1 6 7 ,1 7 4 ,1 7 6 ,1 8 9 214,216-7, 221,227 See also, neocolonialism Communalism, 9 ,1 3 6 ,1 4 7 -8 ,1 5 8 Seealso,Hindu fundamentalism; Islam Consciencism, 10,16, 26 See also, Kwame Nkrumah Convention People's Party (CPP), 7, 10, 29, See also , Kwame Nkrumah Coronil, Femando, 217 Cott, Nancy, 40 Cuba, 228, 234, 237-8, See also,diaspora; Latina women Cudjoe, Selwyn, 63 Darío, Rubén, 84 Davis, R.C., 216, 222 DeLauretis, Teresa, xxi-ii, 58, 106, 110, 120 Desai, Anita, 137-40

Where Shall We Go This Summer?, 141-7

Diaspora, 48, 56-8,127-30, 234-9 British black identity, 215,221 See also, migrancy; location; South Asia Dictatorship, see, Argentina; Dominican Republic Dingwaney, Anuradha, 129, See also, bell hooks Documentary (genre), 123, 218-9, 221 Dollimore, Jonathan, 214 Dominican Republic, 239 Trujillo regime, 236;

See also dictatorship Egyptian women, 187-8, 192, 196 See also, Arab women Emasculation, 4, 68, 148, 152, See also, masculinity Emery, Mary Lou, 71 Excision, see Arab women Fanon, Frantz, 68, 75-6 Foster, David, 111 Frankenberg, Ruth, xviii Friedan, Betty, 172-3 Foucault, Michel, 104-6, 158 Gambaro, Griselda, 97-100 Ganarse la Muerte, 101-105 Garcia, Cristina, 227-8 Dreaming in Cuban, 237 Genres, xxix, 164, 179, see autobiography; documentary; life-story; memoirs; testimonial Ghana (national identity), xxvii, 3-5, 8, 10, 25 Sex roles, 4-5 See also, consciencism; Convention People's Party; Kwame Nkrumah; Pan-Africanism Gilbert, Sandra, 113 Globalization, vii, xvi, xxxiv, See also, migrancy; diaspora; location Gordon, Linda, 214-5 Gramsci, Antonio, xxvi Grewal, Inderpal, xvii, xix, See also, Caren Kaplan Guatemala, indigenous population, 165, 180 Quiché culture, 172, 175, Hammer, Barbara, 221 Harem, see Arab women Harlow, Barbara, 73

Harris, Wilson, 73 Hindu fundamentalism, 138, 147-9 Ramayana, 140 See also, communalism; Anand Patwardhan Holland, Agnieszka, 221 hooks, bell, xxv, 129 Hountondji, Paulin, 9, 27 Hui, Ann, 219-20 Immigrants, see diaspora; migrancy; location India (national identity), xxv, 135-41 Gandhi, Indira, 141, 146 Gandhi, Mohandas K., 139,143, 145, 159 masculinity, 147-9 sex roles, 140-1, 159 women, see South Asia See also, Bengali women; communalism; Hindu fundamentalism; Islam; South Asia Interventions, xvi, xix, xxviii-xxxiii, 50, 5 8-9 ,8 1 -2 , 122, 124, 135-8, 146, 148, 154, 157, 177-9, 189, 199, 216-7 Interview (form), 187, 189, 193, 218, 213-4, 218-20 Islam, xxv-vi, 155, 186, 188-9 Hadith, 188, 194, 205 Islamic fundamentalism, xxviii, 137, 149-50,152-3, 155-7 Ijtehad, 153 Shariat Laws, 150, 153, 194 See also, communalism; Hudood Ordinances', Taslima Nasreen Jaehne, Karen, 219 Jayamanne, Laleen, 217 249

Jayawardena, Kumari, 136 Johnson-Odim, Cheryl, 33 Johnston, Claire, 120 Kaplan, Caren, xix, 51,170, See also, Inderpal Grewal Kaplan, E. Ann, 121,, 218, 222 Karanth, Prema, 220 Phaniyamma, 220 Keesing, Roger, 50 Kuhn, Annette, 218 Lacouture, Simone, 194 Lamming, George, 64 Pleasures o f Exile, 64 Water With Berries, 65 Larkin, Alile Sharon, 221-2 A Different Image, 221 Latin American testimonial, see testimonial Latina women, 227-8 ethnicity, 229, 240 genealogy of gender, 228, 233-4 migration, 234-9 sexuality, see Argentina Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, 90, 97 See also, Nicaraguan women Lawrence, Amy, 121-2 Life-story (genre), 199 See also, autobiography, memoir Location, politics of, xvi, xxxiv-v, 47-50, 56-7, 59, 72-3, 136,138, 154-7, 195, 227-8 See also, diaspora; migrancy Ludmer, Josefma, 90 Lyotard, Jean-François, 151 Macropolitical formations, xxv-vii, xxxi, xxxvii 250

See also, dictatorship; Hindu fundamentalism; Islam (fundamentalism);nadonalisms; revolution Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, See Argentina Maldoror, Sarah, 219-221 Sambizanga, 219 Mani, Lata, 189 Manuh, Takyiwah, 10-11 Martinez, Elena, 110-1 Masculinity, xvii, xx, See also, Caribbean masculinity; emasculation; Ghana (sex roles); Indian masculinity; sex role; sexuality Mayne, Judith, 218 McGee, Patrick, 219 McWilliams, Sally, 5 Memoirs (genre), 46, 201-2 See also, life-story Menchu, Rigoberta, 163,165,169,172-6 Migrancy, xxvii-viii, xxxi-ii, 45,49, 72, 234-6, 240, 242 See also, diaspora; location Modernity, 32, 35-6, 83,93, 244 Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, xvii-xviii, xxxi, 4, 31, 119,121-2,186, 192, 218, 227-8, 239 Molyneaux, Maxine, 79 Morrison, Toni, 222 Mulvey, Laura, 120 Murguialday, Clara, 81 Naipaul, V.S., 64, 68 Guerillas, 68 Nair, Mira, 123, 220, Mississipi Masala, 128-30 Nasreen,Taslima,xix, 137-8,149,154-6 Lajja, 149-56

Nationalisms, xxvi-vii, xxxi-ii, see, Ghana; India; Pakistan Nehru, Jawaharlal, 139,159 Neocolonialism, xxvi, 4, 7, 9, 188-9,215 See also, colonialism; postcolonialism Neruda, Pablo, 84-6 Nicaragua, xxv-vi AMPRONAC, 90 Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), 87, 90 Sandinista Revolution, 79-80, 83, 90,92 women, 80-2, 91, See also, Latina women female icons, 82, 84 Nicholson, Linda, 231-2 Nkrumah, Kwame, 3 ,7 -1 0 ,1 1 -1 2 , See also African Personality; CPP; Consciencism; Ghana Odamttn, Vincent, 12, 27 Ostriker, Alicia, 82 Pakistan, 48-9 Hudood Ordinances, 57 Jinnah, 53 muhajirs, 47 nationalism, 45-6, 53-5, 57 Times o f Karachi, 51 women, 52 See also, cultural migrancy; Islam; South Asia Pan-Africanism, 8 Parmar, Pratibha, xiii-iv, xxviii-ix, 123,130-1,204 Khush, 126-7

Patwardhan, Anand, 137-8,147

Father, Son and Holy War, 147-9 Postcolonialism, xx, xxiv, xxvi, xxxiv, 5 ,7 , 13,46-7, 52-3, 119-20, 122,140-1,144,158-9,164-5, 179, 217-8, 222, 234 See also, neocolonialism Postmodernism, xix, 156, 216 Potter, Sally, 221 Pratt, Mary Louise, 82-3 Proceso, see Argentina Quart, Barbara, 220 Quiche culture, see Guatemala Race, 220-1, 223, see, South Asia; West Indies Rainer, Yvonne, 221 Ramos, Julio, 237-9 Reif, Linda, 79, 81,90 Religious fundamentalism, see, communalism; Hindu fundamentalism; Islam Renan, Ernest, 6 Revolution, see Nicaragua; West Indies Rhys, Jean, 71-2 Rich, Adrienne, 90 Riley, Denise, 53 RofT6, Reina, 97-100,105-6 Monte de Venus, 106-114 Rose, Jacqueline, 58 Rugh, Andrea, 197-201 Rushdie, Salman, xxvi, 151,155-6,160 Midnight's Children, 141,146 Shame, 48 Said, Edward, 166,177 Salamanca, Douglas, 81-2


Stallybrass, Peter, 72, Sandinista National Front, See also, Allon White see Nicaragua Subaltern, 59-60, 62, 106-7, 145-6, Sandinista Revolution, 165, 177, 179,213,215,219 see Nicaragua See also, Gayatri Chakravarty Sankofa Film and Video Spivak; postcolonialism Collective, 215 Sudanese women, 187, 190 Santiago, Esmeralda, 227-8 See also, Arab women When / Was Puerto Rican, Suleri, Sara, xxiv, 45-6, 52-3, 214, 217 229-32 Meatless Days, 47-57 Second wave feminism, xviii Tagore, Rabindranath, 144, 152, 159 Sen, Apama, 123, 220 Tedlock, Dennis, 177 Parama, 124-7 36 Chowringhee Lane, 220 Testimonial, 163-4, 177, 179 Sex roles, see emasculation; Thompson, Felix, 218 masculinity; Argentina; Ghana; Trinh T. Minh-ha, xxix, 214-5, 217-8, 220, 223 Latina women; sexuality; South Trivedi, Parita, 123 Asia; West Indies Veil, see Arab women Sexuality, lesbian, 221 See Argentina, Latina women Viezzer, Moema, 166-9 (genealogy of gender); sex roles; Walcott, Derek, 63 South Asia; West Indies Walters, Anna Lee, 172 Wang, Yuejin, 216 Shaarawi, Huda, 201-3 Shariat Laws, see Islam Watson, Julie, 213, See also, Sidonie Smith Shohat, Ella, xvi West Indies, xxiv, xxix, 63-4, 71,75 Silverman, Kaja, 121, 223 Smith, Sidonie, 213, See also, Black Power, 75-6, 78 history writing, 63-5, 72-6 Julie Watson Smyth, Cheryl, 130 nationalism, 68, 70 Sommer, Doris, 172, 180 obeah, 67, 73-4 Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, race, 66, 68-9 see Latina women revolution, 65-8 South Asia, xxxi, 135-7 sex roles and sexuality, 69-73, diaspora, 127-30, See also, 75-6 See also, Caliban; Caribbean cultural migrancy; diaspora, gays and lesbians, 130-1 masculinity race, 129 White, Allon, 72, See also Peter Stallybrass women, xxiii, 123, 126-8, 139 See also, India and Pakistan Williams, Gareth, 172 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravarty, xxiv, Yudice, George, 165, 177 104, 145, 164, 177,213-5,221 Zamora, Daisy, 8 0 -1 ,9 2


Zenie-Ziegler, Wedad, 185-6, 192-6

Zimmerman, Marc, 164, See also John Beverly