What’s the Point of Conferences, Anyway?

 

That was the recurring thought running through my head as I fussed over my PowerPoint presentation slides for the Social Research Social Justice (SRSJ) and the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) conferences two weeks ago. Reading and re-reading my slides and papers to check the coherency of my writing, I felt the weight of presenting bearing down on me more acutely with every additional hour that I stayed back at the library.

I spend many nights like this at the (usually empty) library, slogging through readings, writing papers, sifting through research databases. More often than not, I find myself wondering why I consign myself to this hermetic existence as I watch my friends and other KU students leave to hang out with friends, watch a movie, or party the weekend away, essentially to “live the college life.” Some days, when the work has been intellectually rewarding, I am able to counter the appeal of this alternative lifestyle and offer justification for my choice to go the extra mile; other days, on the other hand, when the readings and research are particularly tedious and frustrating, I become irritable and cynical, internally echoing some of the common grievances I’ve heard my peers lob at the enterprise of scholarship:

“What’s the point of theory, anyway? What’s the point of research and research conferences when they have nothing to do with the real world?”

And so, I found myself increasingly lamenting the pointlessness of my scholarly endeavors in the week leading up to the conferences as the stress of the semester took its toll. Thus, it was with the specter of these doubts about the utility of scholarship that I came to approach the conferences with a tinge of indifference, apprehensive about their ability to speak in any meaningful way to my learning experience.

I am glad to say that I was emphatically proven wrong.

On Friday, April 8th, I presented my research paper titled “The Doctrine of State Responsibility: The Case of China in Sudan” at the SRSJ conference at Muhlenberg College. Written for an international law course I took last spring, my paper examined the extent to which the Chinese government was culpable for the acts of its national oil companies (NOCs) in perpetrating human rights abuses in their oil investment ventures in Sudan. Dr. Clemens, my faculty supervisor for my independent study on postcolonial theory this semester did a fantastic job moderating my panel, allowing connections to be drawn between my research regarding China’s international presence and the other panelist, Kellie Dietrich’s research on China’s one-child policy.

Despite the seemingly vast divide separating our projects on China’s international and domestic issues, a common theme that emerged through the Q&A session is the lack of foresight that plagues governments worldwide in carving out viable policies that are politically, economically, and ethically sound.  In China’s case, what seemed like a very straightforward, no-frills, business-only investment model for African countries has revealed itself to be more complex in practice than on paper. With civil strife raging unabatedly in places such as Libya and Sudan, China is increasingly finding itself inevitability embroiled in human rights issues as a result of turning a blind eye towards despotic regimes in the service of facilitating economic goals that not only mars its international reputation, but impedes even its initial goals of economic gains. Likewise, its domestic policies on population control show a similar trajectory of producing more immediate, short-term gains but reveal a set of unintended and problematic blowbacks such as a severely disproportionate male to female population ratio in the long-term.

These policy-execution difficulties are not unique to China and illustrate the complexities of establishing clear cause-effect relationships in the vast tangle of socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors that contribute to whatever issue a policy is designed to ameliorate.

The following day, I presented again at the LVAIC WGS conference at DeSales University, this time on a paper entitled “The Bride Price and Children of the New World: Liminality and the Fate of the Postcolonial Female Subject.” Written for my Women Writers around the World class with Dr. Clemens last semester, my paper examines the consequence of occupying a liminal space for the female postcolonial subject who is caught between her native and Western colonial cultures. Once again, I had the opportunity to make connections between my research and those of other students. It was especially invigorating to be able to talk to people from other universities who were also invested in their scholarship and to be immersed in an atmosphere that promoted the exchange of intellectual ideas. Marlana Eck’s keynote speech served as a much-needed source of encouragement to persevere in the field as a young female scholar despite the challenges, and a reminder to be thankful for the many “womyn-fluences” (as she calls it) who have helped to inspire and build us along the way.

Throughout the two days I spent at both these conferences, I got the chance to witness abstract theory translate to very real and material issues across the globe. As I listened to presenters talk about ethnic discrimination in Russia largely due to an insistence on a monolithic “Russian” national identity, and the complications faced regarding the integration of Russian minorities into the Baltic States (i.e., Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) at the SRSJ conference, I recalled the readings earlier this semester regarding the difficulties of creating and maintaining a unified, homogenous “national identity” in a postcolonial milieu. At both conferences, LGBTQ struggles resulting from the insistence of imposing unyielding male/female binary norms were also highlighted. A presentation on the use of Snapchat as a possible means of reducing stereotypes through exposure to other cultures according to the Intergroup Contact Theory (IGCT) allowed me to see the potential for social platforms to be utilized as a means of exposing and undermining the myth of the other.

In short, theory has everything to do with the real world. The fact that it does not vociferously announce its presence in the realm of practical, everyday life experiences does not mean it is not intricately woven into its fabric, its true nature concealed. What struck me as a common thread running through these various presentations is how easily we forget that history and reality as we know it has been constructed, and thus heightening our susceptibility to conflations of the socially engineered as “natural.” It is this amnesia that is arguably to blame for a large proportion of the issues we observe in society today. Maybe this is the hopelessly naïve scholar in me speaking, but I think theory has a place in unveiling these cognitive fallacies, providing tools for critical analysis from which to mount a plan for remedial action. Don’t get me wrong, theory is not an adequate substitute for action; in fact, subsequent inaction renders it pointless. Nonetheless, theory is a necessary prerequisite for the birth of corrective action, providing a common framework and vocabulary for the inception of critical discourse.

But even without all the intellectual stimulation provided by these conferences, this one encounter I had at the WGS conference alone made it all worth it. A lady came up to me after my panel was over and said: “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” I found out that she was born in Uganda and had migrated to the U.S. as a child (if I remember this correctly) and had also grown up experiencing the push and pull of her native and adopted Western cultures. She had heard about the conference after recently moving into the area and decided to check it out. Being able to say “No, you’re not alone, there’s a whole bunch of us out there and an entire field of scholarship on this topic!” was one of the most profound instances of connection I have experienced. The opportunity to share that moment of connection with someone else was made all the more priceless having personally experienced the relief in being able to relate to the concept of the postcolonial liminal subject and the vocabulary it accorded me to articulate the inner tug-of-war between my cultural identities.

All in all, I am thankful to have had a platform to share my voice and the opportunity to be reminded that my work belongs to a much broader community of scholarship and scholars. I am especially thankful also to Dr. Clemens, who first sparked my interest in the postcolonial in her Intro to World Literature course during my junior year, and who has since been integral in helping me find my voice through subsequent classes and this independent study.

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Feminism: Power, Desire, Interest, and the Voice of the Subaltern

Discussions on female sexuality and empowerment have reignited across social media in recent weeks, largely thanks to this nude selfie of Kim Kardashian. As with all issues of debate, public response has been divided into two camps, each arguing Kardashian’s public display of sexuality as for or against the feminist agenda of advancing women’s rights. Scanning through a few of these opinions, a common thread that emerges across these opposing arguments is the difficulty of representing and asserting female sexuality in a global capitalist economy that objectifies women.

This conundrum illustrates how easily we as humans take our agency as subjects for granted, especially in a digital epoch teeming with avenues for individual and communal expression and action. However, “since human subjectivity is constructed by ideology (Althusser), language (Lacan) or discourse (Foucault), the corollary is that any action performed by that subject must also be to some extent a consequence of those things” (Ashcroft 10). Given that postcolonial subjectivity is constituted and governed by imperialist rhetoric, the readings this week question the assumption that feminism as an intellectual and political discourse can operate independently of the collusion between power, desire, and interest to advance the rights of women across the globe (Spivak 272).

This article from The Guardian came up this week on my Facebook newsfeed, serving as timely reminder of the susceptibility of feminist discourse to co-optation by the narrative of the middle-class, Western woman, who is herself also circumscribed as a subject by the global capitalist economy. Addressing the issue of domestic labor in the UK (composed of local and migrant female workers from lower socio-economic groups), the article poses this question to its readers:

“Think of your colleague on the next computer, or the person who lives in the house opposite. What do you know about them? Their immediate family’s names, probably. Pets, maybe. Jobs, interests, what they got up to at the weekend? Bar a few gaps, you could probably give a pretty good potted history of these acquaintances. Now what about your cleaner?”

Who is this cleaner, this subaltern woman?

Can she speak?

The conspicuous silence of the cleaner emphasizes middle-class feminism’s blind spots regarding the representation of their less-wealthy counterparts both within the country and across the globe, echoing the question Spivak addresses in her famous critical piece “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Defined as subaltern in an androcentric and colonial order, women and colonized subjects share many parallels in their experiences that seem to make for natural allies between the two groups. Both the feminist and the postcolonial subject oppose domination exerted in the form of patriarchy or imperialism, utilizing similar strategies of resistance to challenge the extent to which these dominant discourses have structured modes of representation and language crucial to the construction of identity and subjectivity in the subaltern female or colonial subject (Ashcroft 117). Yet, the proliferation of articles such as Spivak’s in recent years highlights the profound impact of the forces that construct (and thus limit) the agency of the subject seeking political recourse.

The Guardian piece is one of many examples that points to the unfortunate reality that feminist discourse has been surreptitiously infiltrated by the discourse of Western imperialism, making strides for white, middle/upper-class women while erroneously assuming that this progress transcends cultures and socio-economic classes to meet the differing needs of women across a vast range of socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts. Gender is at once over and under emphasized as a crucial factor in the structuring the lives of the postcolonial female subject; “we say too little and too much at the same time” when we pinpoint gender as the common denominator underlying all oppression (Mohanty 68).

In “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty asserts that Western feminists who subscribe to this reductionist mode of thinking only succeed in perpetrating the binary of men as oppressor and women as the oppressed. Coupled with the nationalists who uphold the binary of colonizer/colonized in reaction to imperialism, both discourses effectively silence the voice of the subaltern woman. There is no space for the subaltern who is both a postcolonial and a female subject, her identity subsumed under the calcified dichotomies of men/women and colonizer/colonized. Consequently, the question of agency for the subaltern woman is doubly compounded under a system of “double colonization.”

Effectively silenced, the subaltern woman is instead spoken for and represented by a multiplicity of voices driven by the interests of the elite. Mohanty generates a whole list of concrete examples to illustrate this phenomenon. She asserts that feminist discourse, dominated by the narrative of the middle-class, white woman, has served as colonialism’s unwitting handmaiden in perpetuating colonial mentality by constructing a “reductive and homogenous notion” of “third-world difference” in their presentation of a composite, singular “third-world woman,” an illusive Other arbitrarily constructed without regard for their identities as “real material subjects of their collective histories” (Mohanty 62).

Western, middle-class feminism, in assuming the universality of its experience, imposes its culture on the rest of the global female population when it evaluates the “third-world woman” as Other and prescribes political action according to Western values and beliefs. Represented this way, the “third-world woman” is essentially characterized by dependency relationships, and is a victim of male violence, patriarchal kinship systems, religious ideologies, and economic developmental policies. As a result, the image of the “third-world woman” as controlled and produced by the first-world is religious, traditional, ignorant of their legal rights, sexually repressed etc. (80). She is, in essence, backward in every respect compared to the first-world woman. In this way, the western woman is able to construct herself as the center and a beacon of progress to be emulated (81).

This mode of representation is especially prevalent in depictions of Muslim women, as evident in Leila Ahmed’s “The Discourse of the Veil.” Islam, judged according to Western ethnocentrism, is continuously and systematically produced as an inferior Other, especially in its oppressive practices towards women. Therefore, the veil became “the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies” as a symbol of female oppression in Western discourse, when in fact, it is worn in reality for many different reasons across a range of socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts (322). As such, Ahmed shares Mohanty’s contention in writing that “the Victorian male establishment…captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men” (321).

Thus, these theorists extend Said’s claim regarding the oft-ignored complicity between the seemingly disparate domains of the political and the intellectual to the feminist movement, revealing how Western feminism has erroneously overstated the explanatory power of gender in explaining the oppression of women.

All this to say that the agency of all social groups are not equally constituted.  The subaltern who is both postcolonial and female is doubly marginalized, constrained by Western and local patriarchal hegemony that renders her voiceless. Thus, “For the ‘true’ subaltern group whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself…” (Spivak 285). However, the issue is not so much her ability to speak as much as recognizing the dominant forces that determine (and thus limit) when, where, how, and why her voice is heard, thereby increasing its susceptibility to misrepresentation. Considering larger forces such as the international division of labor created by the global free-market economy as well as localized socio-cultural and political forces is therefore essential in addressing the real, material needs of women across cultural and class lines.

Orientalism and the Myth of the O/other

Image source:

https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/1907150_gjimenez-y-martin-orientalist-painting

The Orient: exotic and fascinating, at once a place of mystical religiosity and barbarity, but most of all strange. One could generate an entire list of adjectives used to described the Orient that can be boiled down to one word: alterity/difference. Or, as Rudyard Kipling would say: “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” (Singh).

This week, the idea of constructs operating as natural givens are again revisited in the conception of the Orient. Orientalist discourse, as delineated in Edward Said’s seminal piece, Orientalism, highlights the pervasiveness of power in shaping it as a “system of statements within which the world can be known” (Ashcroft 51).

Said takes great care to emphasize Orientalist discourse not just as some “airy European fantasy” about the Orient, but an institutionalized discipline, created to systematically “manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (73). In short, Orientalism is a structural misrepresentation of the East, a “style of thought” founded upon the “ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and … ‘the Occident’” (72).

The power of dominant groups in constituting the terrain of truth or reality (Ashcroft 51) is illustrated in the idea of universalism, in which the culture of the dominant group is imposed as natural and desirable on the rest of the world (Ashcroft 268). The Ashcroft text offers English Literature as one of the prime examples of this phenomenon in its claims of depicting the ‘universal human condition.’ In fact, this assumption of a universal subject and reader in English literature is based on Eurocentric ideals (Ashcroft 269). In this sense, colonialist discourse operates as Roland Barthes’s myth in its naturalization of the Western as universal, thus allowing the exploitative goals of the colonial enterprise to masquerade as benevolent claims of advancement and civilization.

As a postcolonial subject myself, what is disconcerting is the covertness in which this mode of discourse operates, so much so that the authority of the West in dictating the representation of the colonized subject has largely gone unquestioned, penetrating deep into the latter’s subconscious and weaving itself into the constitutional fabric of his/her identity. My experience attests to the conundrum this phenomenon creates in the postcolonial subject. All my life, I had consumed Western cultural productions of movies, music, and books unquestioningly because they offered me the complexity and depth that I did not find in local or other Eastern productions. Productions from Hong Kong, South Korea, and local Malay artists that were so popular among my peers failed to impress me as I thought they were poorly produced and scripted, with stock characters that adhered staunchly to gender stereotypes and pedaling clichéd variations of the girl-meets-boy narrative.

In light of this knowledge, is my gravitation towards these materials a manifestation of this Eurocentric mentality that denigrates the O/other as inferior? Are all Western representations of the rest of the world as such automatically consigned to perpetuating the reality of this illusive Orient by virtue of their genesis in Western institutions that have invested in the material embodiment of this conception?

Said would seem to say yes when he asserts that any European or American studying the Orient “comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second” (79). This awareness of being European or American means being cognizant (however faintly) of belonging “to a power with definite interests in the Orient” (79).

Nonetheless, the difficulties of discerning this mentality in operation only speaks to its success in infiltrating the subconscious of the colonized subject. What is unequivocal in the discussion on cultural value is the centrality of power in governing the modes of production. Held firmly in the hands of the West, the reins of power continually allow the hegemon to utilize mass culture to disseminate values of what is desirable and “natural”. Other countries thus operate at a structural disadvantage, in addition to being curtailed by domestic political censorship. There is a dearth of political films, for example, from Chinese film makers because Beijing exercises an iron fist in regulating their content to expunge even the slightest trace of political dissent; only the political that exults the Chinese state is allowed.

Furthermore, the authority of Orientalist discourse in driving Western (especially U.S.) foreign policy and conceptualizing the world view of the East today underscores Said’s contention that the political and the academic are necessarily and ineluctably intertwined, despite attempts to draw clear lines of demarcation between the two. The subjugated O/other has no say in the matter of its representation in the production of knowledge; the process of Othering, for example, of designating Islam as the enemy in the War on Terror, only serves to confirm the reality of the colonizing Other (Ashcroft 189) and perpetuates its interests.

The Orient, inasmuch as it disorients the West in its exoticism and “strangeness,” serves as an indispensable orienting element for the metropolis. Therefore, Said’s compelling argument, while revealing the myth of the Orient as a Western construct, also highlights the fact that the colonizing Other depends just as much on its colonized others for its continued existence, being established at the same time the latter are produced as subjects (Ashcroft 188). Consequently, it is also this revelation that poses complications in dispelling the myth of Orientalism in addition to its “naturalization.” For even if the subaltern were allowed to speak for themselves, theorist Gayatri Spivak would contend that doing so disregards the fact that the subaltern voice was, and still is “ constrained by the discourses within which they were constructed as subaltern” (Ashcroft 97).

Ultimately, Orientalism, like much of postcolonial discourse, illustrates the difficulties of extricating traces of the colonialist from the colonized, as it is impossible to do so without unravelling the whole.

Hybridity: Recovering the Space in Between

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Image taken from https://digitalobby.spu.edu/eng2248/2016/01/21/maiguru-and-hybridity/.

“It’s the Englishness,” she said. “It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful…The problem is the Englishness, so you just be careful!” (207).

Mainini, Tambu’s mother, issues this warning with Tambu’s increasing immersion in the world of “Englishness” at the mission. In the second half of Nervous Conditions, the tension created by the ambivalence of mimicry crescendos and finally explodes as its accompanying anxieties wreak havoc on the psyche of the characters.

This fear of “Englishness” intensifies because clear lines have been drawn in the cultural milieu of colonial Zimbabwe, demarcating the boundaries between the cultures of the colonizer and the colonized. Threats and warnings are issued by the local community on the perils of crossing that line because there is no “in-between” in binary systems such as colonial Zimbabwe, no “ambiguous or interstitial spaces between the opposed categories, so that any overlapping region…becomes impossible according to binary logic, and a region of taboo in social experience” (Ashcroft 25 ).  There is no return once a person crosses the line into an opposing category. Consequently, the state between binarisms, such as the colonizer/colonized binary, “will evidence the signs of extreme ambivalence manifested in mimicry, or will put energy into confirming one or the other side of the binarism, for example, Anglocentrism or nationalism” (Ashcroft 25).

The problems detailed above are illustrated in the second half of the novel, most clearly through Nyasha. Categorized as a “been-to”, Nyasha finds herself ostracized because she has crossed over to the culture of the colonizer on the other side of the binary. However, as I mentioned last week, she does not fully belong to the culture of her colonizer either, for to be Anglicized “is emphatically not to be English” (Bhabha 267). There is no space between these rigid binaries to accommodate her hybrid identity. Subsequently, this displacement weighs heavily on Nyasha and causes her acute distress. Nyasha confides these difficulties in a letter she writes to Tambu after the latter leaves to study at Sacred Heart: “I find it more and more difficult to speak with the girls at school. I try, Tambu, but there is not much to speak of between us…They think that I am a snob…because I do not feel that I am inferior to men” (Dangarembga 200).

Derek Walcott addresses the issue of mimicry in “The Caribbean: Culture of Mimicry”. Against accusations (specifically that of V.S. Naipaul) of merely being a mimic man, Walcott replies that if Caribbean culture is mere mimicry, then all prior cultural endeavors can be said to be no more than mimicry too, for “there is no memory or history of the moment when man stopped imitating the ape, his ancestor, and became human. Therefore, everything is mere repetition” (260). Defiantly, he proclaims that “Nothing will always be created in the West Indies…because what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before” (261). He points to the Carnival, the calypso, and steelband music as evidence of this hybrid creative production. Produced from nothing, they “are original and temporarily as inimitable as what they first attempted to copy” (261). Despite its appearance of mere imitation, Caribbean culture has appropriated American culture and created something entirely unique and original – “the river, stilled, may reflect, mirror, mimic other images, but that is not its depth.” (259)

Walcott’s response echoes Bhabha’s assertion in the sense that mimicry never results in a carbon copy of colonialist culture. Instead, the result of colonial contact is hybridization, where “new transcultural forms” (Ashcroft 135) are produced due to the mutual construction of colonizer and colonized subjectivities. According to Bhabha, cultural identity always emerges in this contradictory and ambivalent “Third Space of enunciation” (Ashcroft 136). Hybridity is therefore presented as a solution to disrupt the fixities of binary oppositions. However, while Bhabha’s projection of hybridity is hopeful in theory, his concept translates rather messily to the realities of the characters in the novel.

Nyasha most clearly illustrates the perils of embodying this hybrid identity as she finds herself constantly challenging the boundaries of her native culture. The second half of the novel was particularly difficult to read as I watched Nyasha gradually consumed by this perpetual state of nervous displacement, as manifested in her battle with bulimia and anorexia. “Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away” (204)… They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped us” (205)”, Nyasha rages at the end of the novel -“I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you” (205).

Bhabha’s proposed “Third Space” has the potential to be liberatory in theory, but the truth is that, more often than not, the hybrid subject acutely feels the walls of these rigid binaries closing in on both sides. In Nyasha’s case, this distress weighs on her psyche in the form of eating disorders. Inhabiting a liminal state of flux that is “a constant process of engagement, contestation and appropriation” (Ashcroft 145) is exhausting and comes at a cost, as evidenced by Nyasha. Therefore, to inhabit the liminal space is to live in perpetual discomfort, anxiety, and tension in a world constructed around rigid binaries.

Although Tambu is not as adversely affected by her state of liminality as Nyasha, she develops her own demons to battle even as she progresses in her education at Sacred Heart. She is increasingly tormented by the conflicting demands of navigating both cultures, especially in regards to the roles prescribed for women. Tambu experiences profound psychological distress when the Christian ideas of sin that she has been taught at the mission are applied to her parents, and indirectly to her. She struggles to reconcile the mounting discrepancies engendered by her hybridization, trying to maintain the roots of her native culture even while she pursues a Western education to increase her social mobility.

In many ways, Tambu’s journey reminds me of my own. Like Tambu, I had fought to pursue a Western education, eager to escape the confines of my society; like Tambu, I had looked to attaining a U.S. education “as a sunrise on my horizon” (208). I remember setting foot in Kutztown for the first time four years ago, nervous but hopeful, thinking that maybe this was where I would finally belong. But after spending four years here, I’m not so sure anymore. Like Tambu, I’ve tried banishing the doubts and the suspicion, but with graduation quickly approaching, I’m beginning to realize that I don’t really fit here as much as I didn’t fit at home. Still, Tambu’s fate is hopeful, if open-ended at the end of the novel, an alternative to the outcome of the liminal subject as embodied in Nyasha. I don’t know what inhabiting this “in-between” space entails yet for me, but Tambu’s experience shows that navigating this space, while difficult and painful, is not impossible.

The Nervous Condition of Mimicry

Nervous conditions

 “The condition of native is a nervous condition” – from an introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

So reads the quote from which Tsitsi Dangerembga derives the name for her novel, Nervous Conditions. Indeed, this bildungsroman is underscored by a disquieting current of anxiety and tension even as we follow the protagonist, Tambu’s journey of emancipation from the clutches of tradition in her rural village in Zimbabwe to the beginnings of her transformation at the mission in the first half of the novel.

The tension between the opposing colonial and local culture is apparent already in the opening pages of the novel. Colonial Zimbabwe illustrates the “phenomenon of the contact zone…where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other” (264). Contact with the culture of the British colonizers engenders the process of mimicry, which is a driving force that shapes many characters in the novel as they imbibe the culture of their colonizers in different degrees.

Tambu displays the ambivalence that is both a product and producer of mimicry. Tenacious and bright, her desire to procure an education is birthed as a result of the contrast she is provided between the squalor of her family and the relative prosperity that education has offered her uncle and his family. However, being female adds an added layer of complexity to the clashes between the disparate worlds of Zimbabwean and British culture. Education is perceived as the province of men in her native cultural climate, but deemed incompatible with its staunchly patriarchal designation of the space of women at home.

Nonetheless, Tambu is not discouraged when her father tells her that she does not need to be educated and must instead learn to be a good wife: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” (15). On the contrary, her fervent desire to go to school only grows stronger. The divergent pathways of the educated versus the uneducated women in her family spurs Tambu’s determination to not be consigned to the same fate as her mother, forever dependent and subservient to her husband. Instead, she aspires to be her aunt, Maiguru, “who was not poor and had not been crushed by the weight of womanhood” (16).

However, the odds are stacked against her from the start, and the fact that her brother is offered the opportunity by Babamukuru to study at the mission further underscores the injustice of her situation. As Tambu quickly learns, being female greatly compounds the nervous condition that is the fate of the native.

In the first half of the novel that I read this week, Tambu has yet to be fully transformed by this process of mimicry, unlike her cousin, Nyasha who is classified as a “been-to”, having spent her childhood in England. Her reactions to the culture of the colonizer are thus characterized by ambivalence. On the one hand, she desperately wishes to acquire the Western education that would allow her to emulate her aunt and uncle in manners and lifestyle but, at the same time, is equally suspicious of this same culture as seen in her reactions to Nyasha.

Although she does not recognize it at the time, this suspicion underlies her immediate disapproval of her cousins upon meeting them for the first time after their return from England (39). In fact, she is bewildered, disappointed, and even offended that they have forgotten how to speak Shona (42). Later on at the mission, she is aghast at Nyasha’s attitude  (perceived as disrespectful according to local customs) towards her parents even as she submerges herself in reading the books of British authors such as Enid Blyton and the Bronte sisters (94). Nyasha is at once stranger and compatriot to Tambu in the reincarnation that she so greatly desires.

While Tambu’s hostility towards Nyasha gradually thaws as they begin to forge a friendship, the same cannot be said of her friends parents and friends. Nyasha’s assertiveness and keen intelligence (cultivated by her formative years in Britain) is misperceived as defiance by her parents and arrogance by her peers, as these characteristics are the antithesis of those traditionally prescribed for females by local custom. Consequently, she is constantly at loggerheads with her parents and is vilified by her peers because of her adoption of Western manners and dress.

Nyasha thus serves as a prime embodiment of the end result of mimicry according to Homi Bhabha: “almost the same but not white” (269), presenting an image of what Tambu might become. Decidedly “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” as Lord Macaulay would say, she is nonetheless “Anglicized”, which “is emphatically not to be English” (267). While Bhabha posits that this mimicry disrupts colonial authority in revealing the ambivalence of colonial discourse, I would argue that this partial presence comes at a cost especially for the women in this story. This Anglicization is already precluding Nyasha’s reintegration into her native society, and will continue to plague her later on as indicated in the introduction to the novel. Tambu’s fate, however, remains to be seen.

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Native vs. Colonizer: Speaking the “Authentic” Language of National Culture

 

Language is Culture

Unlike many international students for whom English is a second language, issues of communicating in a foreign language were the least of my concerns when I boarded the plane from Malaysia to the U.S. for the first time in August 2012 to begin my undergraduate studies. All the materials I had consumed in my life for leisure or entertainment – books, movies, music etc. – had been in English. Sure, I spoke Malay and Mandarin, but I considered myself most fluent in English. What could possibly be the problem?

Or so I thought until I tried explaining certain aspects of my culture that required my use of Malay and Mandarin because I didn’t know of an equivalent word in English. For instance, I was stumped the first time I had to explain nasi lemak (a common Malay dish back home) to friends of other nationalities. I found it difficult to explain the rice dish to people outside my culture without using words like sambal and ikan bilis, words that needed no explanation for people in my culture who were familiar with its taste. The English words I used did not do justice in conveying the richness and flavor of the dish that my fellow Malaysians and I had grown up consuming for either breakfast, lunch or dinner.

For the first time, I was struck by the extent to which language is inextricably linked to culture, and thus, national identity, so much so that I had taken it for granted on a day to day basis until I interacted with people outside my culture.

Consequently, the imposition of colonial language through decades of colonial rule raises issues as to its impact on the construction of language and culture in the postcolonial society. Underlying the readings this week is the fundamental question of whether a culture can exist in the language of its colonizer. Is the death of the culture of the postcolonial nation inevitable in the continued use of the language of the colonizer? Each of these authors provide divergent perspectives and answers to this crucial question.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o places language at the “heart of the two contending social forces in the Africa of the twentieth century” in “The Language of African Literature”, contending that colonial domination over the native’s language is synonymous with cultural domination. In his view, the continued use of the colonial language perpetuates the distortion of the African mentality to uphold the ‘fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature’ (146) to the detriment of African languages and culture. Thus, he asserts that African literature can only be written in an African language to truly embody and convey the African culture and experience. Any writer that attempts to do so in the language of the colonizer is bound to misrepresent the realities of the African people (i.e., the peasantry and working class), who do not have the same complexes about their languages and cultures as the bourgeoisie (159).

In his poem, “A Latin Primer”, Derek Walcott’s speaker propounds a similar idea of death to his native language in his immersion in the language of the colonizer. There is a profound desire to find his voice – “I had nothing against which to notch the growth of my work…no language but the shallows in my long walk” – as he engages with “distant literatures”.  As a Latin professor later, he professes a deep sense of guilt at inculcating the same conflict in his students of alienation from their native language and culture, and ultimately death. Like Ngugi, he rediscovers his voice in the language of his people – “and that native metaphor made by the strokes of oars…made one with my horizon.”

The discussion of the impact of colonial legacy on language is, in essence, an extension on the discussion last week on national identity, which brings us back again to issues of ascribing social constructs with the status of “natural” entities. If Anderson’s piece last week served as a reminder of the cultural roots of the construct of the nation, Ferdinand Saussure’s linguistic model (which I read in literary theory this week) reveals language itself as a construction, deriving its relational meaning arbitrarily from social interactions as opposed to being endowed with an inherent, substantive meaning. This image from the Business Insider beautifully illustrates how “authentic” native languages themselves have evolved over time:

language family tree_cropped

With this in mind, Ngugi’s thesis, while compelling, is problematic in its implicit assumptions regarding the nature of language.

I agree with what Ngugi and Walcott are saying to the extent that there is a certain death that occurs when the colonial language disrupts existing ties between a society’s language and its culture. Ngugi is also right about the disconnect between the language of the intellectual bourgeoisie and the language of the peasantry. However, to claim that one embodies a more authentic national culture over the other commits the same imperialist fallacy of drawing simplistic boxes of binary oppositions and fails to account for the vast range of experiences and influences that constitute a national culture. Invoking the very notion of an ideal “African” literature and imposing strict parameters around what that ideal means employs the same essentialist mode of thinking that characterized the colonial model of representing the colonial subject as an Other (97). If language is indeed a social construct, according to Saussure, then it follows that it should be amenable to adaptation and evolution. As such, while I understand the need for the postcolonial nation to reclaim ownership of its culture, retaining these binary oppositions by asserting an “authentic” national language forces a system that is characterized by dynamism and fluidity into a static mold.

In direct contrast to Ngugi, Salman Rushdie presents a viewpoint that is more reflective of language as a fluid and dynamic construct. In “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist”, he illustrates the difficulties of trying to define ‘Commonwealth literature’, and the subsequent problems that arise from this simplistic categorization. For example, are Commonwealth citizens writing in languages besides English permitted in the club? What about writers like Ngugi who revert back to their native language? He likens this phantom category to an exclusive ghetto, created for persons writing in the English language “who are not themselves white Britons, or Irish, or citizens of the United States of America.” Therefore, he concludes that ‘Commonwealth literature’ does not, and should not exist, because “if it did not, we could appreciate writers for what they are…we could discuss literature in terms of its real groupings…” Rushdie’s closing comments further sheds light on the conflict between the two language spheres: “The English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago…in which case, it’s time to admit that the center cannot hold.” The crux of the conflict is this: that the British colonial enterprise inculcated whole generations of English speakers well-versed in Western values in their colonies yet insisted on retaining an exclusive British identity. The same can be said of the other European colonial powers.

Again, the inadequacies of current national identities as a construct come to the fore. Ngugi’s solution of asserting an “authentic” national identity inevitably commits the same errors of exclusion, for the pre-colonial society was not characterized by a single language and culture, a fact that Rushdie highlights in regards to India. Centuries of intermingling between the cultures of the colonialist and the native has created generations of hybrid peoples that are displaced by the drawing of boxes of binary oppositions on both sides. The tensions that arise from this displacement are illustrated by the narrator in “The Courter”, who is a product of his Indian heritage and his British education. He is both Indian and British, but not according to the rigid boxes of “authentic” national identity. Thus, he demonstrates familiarity with Western culture yet is characterized as an outsider at school because his language marks him as different; he frequently acknowledges his Indian heritage yet wishes to obtain British citizenship. Because he is both Indian and British, he belongs to neither culture, and thus acutely feels the ropes of East and West pulling him in different directions.

The fact is that the legacy of colonialism has forever altered the socio-cultural landscape of the postcolonial nation. In regards to language, it has created fissures between the colonial-educated elite and a peasantry still grounded in their native tongue, among many other issues. But these issues are a product of the colonial experience that have become part and parcel of postcolonial culture. I don’t see how the postcolonial nation can isolate and disentangle the threads of colonial influence without unraveling the whole. The very fact that the postcolonial nation stands on the European construct of a nation is testament to its inextricable ties to the colonial culture.

Ultimately, the battle between the languages stems from the fact that neither side is willing to acknowledge and accommodate the legacy of colonialism. Having spent centuries in control of the world order, the “first” world is terrified of the consequences should the ‘center’ cease to hold. Thus, it has instilled this fear in the rest of the world as well, in the values it has disseminated regarding national identity and the use of standard English as “a construction of imperial rhetoric that constantly separates ‘center’ from ‘margin’”(166). Moving forward, however, such ideals of an “authentic” national language and culture will prove even more difficult to preserve given the colonial establishment of diasporic communities and the increasing porosity of borders in the age of globalization. The threat of death to a native language and culture in the colonialist’s language is reified only in the conceptualization of language and culture as static, “natural” entities. The continued subscription to these rigid ideals only serves to obscure the nature of language and culture as social, not natural constructs, and impedes the progress of all nations.

National Identity: Escaping the Bog of the Single story

 

The story of the nation in its current guise begins (like everything else) in Europe, in the dissolution of the ancient European empires and their recasting as the personal territories of monarchies into abstract entities whose interests and powers are manifested through institutional vehicles (e.g., parliament and the military).

It begins in Europe because power determines whose stories get told, how and when they get told (see Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story). In their quest to consolidate these newly-emergent nation-states, an overarching national ideology had to be perpetuated by the authorities. According to Hobson, colonialism thus became an extension of this social construction, a vehicle to perpetuate nationalism in the juxtaposition between a unified “us” and “them”, creating oppositional groups characterized by exclusivity and homogeneity. So it became that spatial and cultural lines were redrawn according to this Eurocentric vision; nothing existed prior to the dawn of European “civilization”. Thus, we were denied the right to write our own stories, and instead forced to swallow the ones arbitrarily assigned to us by the European colonizers.

Although the colonial era has since ended, its legacy has dramatically impacted all areas of the postcolonial society, and none more profoundly so than the question of national identity, ironically the same fundamental question that plagued the colonizers’ homeland. The readings this week were instrumental in my understanding of the forces that reordered the international community with Europe (and later the U.S.) at the top of the food chain – devouring and conquering ruthlessly as they saw fit through the colonial enterprise – and shed light in different ways on how this has impacted the immense struggle of postcolonial nations to wrest back authorial control of their own narratives.

According to Fanon, the first, and most crucial step in reclaiming a national culture (and thus national identity) is the physical liberation of the nation from colonial rule, for “it is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and the framework necessary to culture” (217).  There is and can be no nation apart from colonial rule, for to be colonized is to be denied a nation and a culture. Or to put it in Césaire’s words: “colonization= ‘thingification’”(62). Césaire rails against this colonial legacy in his Discourse on Colonialism, dismantling the noble façade of the colonial enterprise by arguing that there was no room for human contact with the colonized man apart from his subjugation into an “instrument of production” (62).

Physical liberation has since been achieved but the seeds of colonial mentality have germinated, growing deep roots into the subconscious soil of the colonized, imbuing their values into the psychological fabric of the colonized peoples, and turning them against their own culture. These psychological scars, I would argue, have been the most damaging to the postcolonial endeavor at reconstructing a national culture. Furthermore, the postcolonial nation is beset with the same challenges that plagued its European colonizers in carving out a national identity because it stands on the same fragile grounds of the nation as a social construction, founded upon a contested myth of a cohesive national ideology that reflects the interests of the dominant class. It seems that we have untangled ourselves from the pernicious web of the colonizer’s narrative only to find ourselves forced into the rigid contours of another monolithic national narrative that is equally exclusionary.

Anderson’s piece on the cultural origins of the nation illustrates this myth of a national unitary whole when he elaborates on the twin precipitants of capitalism and print technology that laid the linguistic bedrock for the modern nation, culminating in the theory-practice disconnect in the use of national languages today. The postcolonial nation finds itself doubly challenged in this process amid a Eurocentric world order that ensures the preservation and expansion of Western interests at the expense of the developing world. Thus, it is Western culture and Western values that continue to be promulgated today through the agents of globalization.

The issue of Western hegemony is apparent in the study of literature, which was used as an instrument of socio-political control by the colonial authorities to disseminate Western culture in India, replete with all its Eurocentric values, assumptions and prejudices that are still intact today. Frederic Jameson pushes back against this exclusionary view of the literary canon, arguing that the exclusion of “third-world” literature comes at the price of crippling human impoverishment to the “first-world”. While I agree with the thrust of his argument that first and third-world literature should be read differently due to their vastly different histories as colonizer and colonized, I find it difficult to accept his assertion that the story of the third-world individual always functions as an allegory of the national destiny, even as I have alluded to this parallelism myself in my own struggle for identity. I would love to explore what other theorists have said on this matter.

In the face of all this opposition at creating a national identity, what then is the postcolonial nation (and subject) to do? An avenue for redress can be found in appropriation as a method of counteracting the discourse of the colonizer. Postcolonial subjects can utilize aspects of colonial culture to aid in the articulation of their identities. Yet, here again, power hijacks the stage of the postcolonial subject whenever the colonizer appropriates the culture of the colonized. Such cultural co-opting is prevalent in the entertainment industry, the most recent example being Coldplay’s music video with Beyoncé, “Hymn for the Weekend”,  disguised under the innocuous sheep’s clothing of artistic freedom and creative license:

Cultural appropriation in itself is not the problem (as explained here and here). While I love Coldplay, the problem with productions such as “Hymn for the Weekend” is that they occur against a historical backdrop of unequal footing and exploitation. Relegating the people and streets of India to the background is problematic because it denies the postcolonial nation its authorial right to write and star in its own narrative. In taking the Indian culture out of context, videos like these also perpetuate the single story of an exotic and poor India. For unlike the developing world, the United States and Europe are privy to the modes of production that accord them the privilege of generating a multiplicity of stories to counteract the single reductive version of  culture that plagues many postcolonial societies.

Thus, the challenge faced by the postcolonial nation in carving out a national identity is two-fold: it struggles to cast off the single story imposed by the legacy of colonialism even as it stands on the contested foundation of a unified national ideology that it created for itself. This is not to say that these challenges are insurmountable, but rather to highlight the pitfalls of the single story that remains a pervasive obstacle in the postcolonial endeavor to create a truly inclusive and representative national identity.