Zoë Wicomb and an examination of representation and femininity in David's Story

Keith Tate, 365 Postcolonial Theory and Literature, Northwestern University

Zoë Wicomb was born in Namaqualand, South Africa where she learned English "by copying the radio" (Anstey). She lived in England the went back to South Africa and taught at the University of the Western Cape. She now resides in Scotland where she is a professor at the University of Strathclyde. She is the author of numerous articles dealing with issues of feminism and postcolonial literature. Her first book, a collection of short stories, You Can't get Lost in Cape Town is regarded very highly. Since then she has written a novel which really wrestles with issues of identity, race, ethnicity, representation, feminism, and love.

Her first novel David's Story has received much critical acclaim although Wicomb is rather wary of the praise. "I have now decided this is a book academics like, a horrible indictment. We don't like academics, do we?" (Anstey) David's Story, however is a remarkable novel which manages to break down the boundaries of definition of the novel. David's Story about a man and a guerilla who questions himself and turns towards his past. He is simultaneously working with a biographer who he hopes may better articulate his life. Quickly though one realizes that David is just a character in a larger story involving the Lefleur's of the past and Dulcie in the present. The one constant throughout the novel are the women and their struggle to find their voice. Dulcie a female activist becomes the key for both the narrator and David. However even through the end of the novel she remains elusive frustrating the reader and the narrator who eventually exclaims in the end "I wash my hands of this story."(213)

Zoe Wicomb's David's Story is the search for the unheard female voice as illustrated by the difficult quest for Dulcie. Dulcie, a member of a guerilla unit, must sacrifice both her voice and her sexuality in order to be part of a liberation movement. She is never fully articulated in the novel, but her importance in David's life and to the movement is incalculable. The gaps in Dulcie's story can not be read as negative subtextually laden space but as peaks highlighting a vast landscape of representational issues. The movement towards liberation is enabled by the women of the novel, but at the same time show signs of the inescapable oppression and eventual backlash. Dulcie is the true protagonist of the novel but it is ultimately impossible to find her fully articulated in the novel. Dulcie's story is certainly one of oppression and representation through asexualization which enables participation in the patriarchal society, but who she actually is remains elusive. The reasons she does not speak for herself become more evident in the last sections of the novel but does little to whet the readers appetite in the end. Instead Dulcie remains just out of reach just beyond our grasp and comprehension. Dulcie's elusiveness is a statement of the elusiveness of the double victim of colonialism and patriarchy. The elusiveness of Dulcie shows the problems of the non-dominant voice, and that representation at times is wholly inadequate to articulate everything important to the individual especially for the women involved in the movement. Their help is accepted but quickly after victory looks at hand the advances of the women within the group are knocked back. The feminist thrust in the novel is unable to like Dulcie find a voice and so is stifled by the patriarchal movement, once their usefulness is gone. The inarticulation of Dulcie shows that representation of the subaltern is problematic, because once one steps out of the subaltern they are at the mercy of colonial corruption. It quickly becomes corrupt, but provides hope that their is certainly the potential for speech if the oppressed is assured that their speech will be heard by an audience willing to listen. Dulcie is reluctant to speak because of the limitations of her audience and so decides to repress her voice. In the end the representation of the guerilla group is incompatible with a feminist drive and so Dulcie must suppress her femininity and her feelings for David. Even after she decides not to become fully realized by articulating her ideas and thoughts because her audience is not yet ready.

Dulcie's voice is not actively suppressed in this novel no more so than David�s, but certainly external factors play into her reasons for not speaking. David himself is wary of allowing his voice to be heard. This is particularly poignant in the hotel, while researching his past, where he eats everything he writes down. What is written though not by David but by the cause is buried in David's front yard. The articulations are literally buried, suppressed and hidden from the world. Ironically though David is meeting with the narrator and telling his story believing her, as an educated western woman, to be more qualified to write and form his verbalizations into a coherent story. At times though David questions her ability as an outsider to understand what he is trying to express. It seems clear that there is a wall between them to deny full understanding which is built by their different backgrounds. David relates some of Dulcie's story but wants in the end to he "does not want her voice represented. That is because he wishes to protect her"(199). Dulcie is not articulated even through David, because he does not want the wall of misunderstanding to do an injustice to Dulcie. He is willing to risk it himself but he will not risk Dulcie because he loves her.

Dulcie is perhaps the strongest and most self assured character in the novel, but must compromise her own identity in order to exhibit her strengths through the movement. She has masculine traits but can not be defined as masculine, nor is she asexual as she desires David. She is also so importantly feminine fighting alongside misogynistic men. The novel refuses to represent her and split her into clearly definable and divisible categories. She has many forms and one form. This shifting identity is not so much about a fluidity but the unimportance of definition in the first place. The representation she finds within the movement is wholly inadequate especially in her self as woman. She becomes asexual while in the movement, and does not admit her feelings for David to herself until the movement has reached a pinnacle and she begins to feel disfranchised. She was not able to care for someone for reasons separate from the cause and not allowed to be a woman. David's wife and others have similar experiences where there services are needed but after their usefulness is gone then so is their status. The asexuality of Dulcie facilitates her success in the movement. She attains a role of senior officer, but she is the victim of violence and torture perhaps by the hands of her peers. Interestingly not rape though, because as her attackers say "that will teach her nothing, leave nothing".(178)This illustrates the degree of her asexuality and that in denying herself she has become strangely inhuman and impervious from an outside perspective to the worst torture that could be inflicted on anyone This illustrates not only that her being allowed to participate in the movement relies on her asexuality, but that external representations are often very wrong and dangerous.

The feminist thrust in the novel represents that an emergence of political change is facilitated and strengthened by female involvement, and that by abandoning this pivotal part of the group everything begins to crumble. The fight for liberation is about more than escaping colonial oppressors but about the rights of all those without the ability to represent themselves on their own. However once the individual's needs and desires are suppressed within the group the system falls apart. After which Dulcie and David are forced to choose allegiances apart from the movement . They choose to become aligned with one another. The union of the liberation front encompasses many different individuals who in times of peace would perhaps be allied against one another in varying representations. However at this time many come together whose views are quite different and become uniformly defined to promote the greater good. It is only when success seems likely that the individuals question who is going to benefit from their efforts. The strong women such as Dulcie, who evolved in the liberation movement, and certainly hope for an equal footing in the patriarchal society quickly become aware of the reality of who will benefit.

The problems of representation have been clearly documented in post colonial criticisms from an external focus, but in this novel the problems of forming a large group with varying allegiances, backgrounds, and priorities creates internal rifts within the group. The cause does not seem to be enough and that necessarily within the cause there must be a degree of reformation as well. The military hierarchy is problematic as it does not allow an equal ability for all to speak. Again the issues of whether or not the non-dominant voices can be heard is addressed. Although arguably the movement itself can be seen as a means for the non-dominant voice to be heard the factions within the groups or the women who are more oppressed are denied a voice. The formation of representation or the collection of repressed people into a large powerful group capable of being heard involves a necessary compromise on the individual level in order for the groups voice to be heard. This shows that the subaltern then can not speak in this manner or at least not fully articulate what they have to say in such an organized and regimented form. The group or representation must be formed around the individual and not the other way around for it to have any measure of success and for it to outlast the immediate goal.

David articulates Dulcie as "a kind of scream somehow echoing through my story." (Wicomb 134) The author rejects this idea and exclaims that "You won"t get away with abstracting her."(134). The author wants a representation a clearly definable image in which people can take solace and relate too. The idea of an individual being so empowered and deep reduced to a metaphorical sound is frustrating. However to the cause this is what the individuals were in danger of becoming. Dulcie and the others were able to make noise but not allowed to articulate their true feelings. The sound that emanated from the group sounded like screaming and those on top were looked to to provide a translation of the noise. The individuals dissatisfaction was felt but the message and motive of their action was reinterpreted by those at the top.

The elusiveness of Dulcie points to the problems of representation. Jenny Sharpe in her essay entitled "Figures of Colonial Resistance" sums up by saying that "The �success" of our critical work depends on the recognition that the subaltern is irreducible and yet ultimately irretrievable. Our models remain inadequate." (Ashcroft 102)The elusiveness of Dulcie seems to show that this is true, but not necessarily because our models are inadequate but because on some more basic level we are unable to understand the very vocabulary of the oppressed. Dulcie is certainly irreducible and irretrievable because she understands our inadequacies not the other way around. Essentially in order for her to risk everything she wants an assurance that her voice will not be misconstrued. The subaltern seem to be waiting for our readiness to understand their articulation.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in "Can the subaltern speak?" states that "If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow." (Ashcroft 28) The impartial narrator certainly is frustrated by this dilemma and desperately wants to hear Dulcie speak, however she is left forever frustrated finally exclaiming "Will I never know what's going on? Does no one care what I think? Will I ever be heard above the rude buzz of the bluebottles?" (213) Dulcie remains elusive and it seems the narrator is frustrated because Dulcie appeared that she held some of the answers. The narrator demands of David "Why the silence, I ask, why does she not speak out?" and David answers "Belief. Pride. Pride in belief. The virus of secrecy." He later adds "in that world things have different meanings. Just as freedom is not the anaemic thing for us that it is for nice, clean liberals, so violence, too, is not a streaming sheet of blood or gore."(204-205) Dulcie herself examines her reasons for not articulating her ideas "she fears for any such writing..........Worse than any instrument of torture is the thought of such hard-found words being fingered by them---jabbed, clubbed, defaced into gibberish that would turn the thing between David and herself into nothing.......Now she insists on keeping a secret." (198) Again Dulcie herself expresses a pride in her words and her fear of their being misconstrued. The idea of secrecy too has been ingrained in her. But her fear is that her relationship to David should be reduced to nothing. Love is a main component in her refusal to speak. The narrator wants her words but will never have them because both Dulcie and David are trying to protect each other. Their love for each other a group with a common and definable aim the protection of one another and not based on a fear of reprisal but on their mutual love for one another. Why will Dulcie remain elusive? Because she was guarded by someone who loved her. What did the narrator want other than a good story? A motive or some self justification. Dulcie gave up the cause and regained her humanity by shrinking from the confines of representation. She elaborates by stating that "her own little secret has come to stand for something else, something to do with a world blown up, enlarged so that comrades huddle like startled animals in unfamiliar groups."(198) The Self-representation of the group has fractured and is unable to define them in light of the changing times. Dulcie's own allegiances are problematized and she finds herself torn between David and her allegiance to the movement. The only option for her seems to be to walk a line between the two and not to separate herself from both.

Dulcie's refusal to speak or articulate her thoughts and through her very elusiveness in the novel is a conscious choice on her part to remain firmly entrenched in Spivak's subaltern. She does not want to ascend the hierarchy for to do so would not only threaten her own self identity, but ultimately lead to her death by removing her element of invisibility. At the moment Dulcie is a phantom surrounded by legends and myths. These legends and myths not a complete misrepresentation but exaggerations which act to protect her. Her ability to in the end find love and thereby in some way embrace her femininity is important too for then she is able to fully embrace her subaltern state. Dulcie is ultimately proud of not what she has accomplished nor the influence she acquires but her own identity. Likewise David has a similar identity crisis. David though while realizing a change taking place in which the power is shifting resulting in perhaps the dominance of the movement is rushing to get everything out to his "biographer" in an effort to capture the essence before it is lost. Both David and Dulcie are significantly interested in preserving the purity of their thoughts and ideas and are unwilling to allow them to be perverted by those that might receive their speech.

Writings of Zoë Wicomb

You Can't get Lost in Cape Town The Feminist Press, New York (1999)

David's Story, a novel, The Feminist Press (March 2001) and Kwela Books, Cape Town.

" N2", Stand Magazine, Vol 1, No 2, University of Leeds.

"An Author's Agenda" and " Tracing the Path from National to Official Culture" in Critical Fictions ed. P. Mariani, Bay Press, Seattle.

"Five Afrikaner Texts and the Rehabilitation of Whiteness' in Social Identities Vol4:3

'Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa' in Attridge, D. & Jolly, R. (eds) , Writing South Africa, CUP.

"Reading, Writing and Visual Production in the New South Africa", The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol XXX No 2

"Motherhood and the Surrogate Reader" in Gendering the Reader, ed. Sara Mills, Harvester Press

"To Hear the Variety of Discourses" in South African Feminisms : Writing, Theory and Criticism ed.Daymond, M.J., Garland Publishing, New York

"La Terra dell altro e l'etnicita nella letteratura sudafricana contemporanea"in La Cultura dell' Alterita, eds. E.Casti e A.Turco, Edizioni Unicopli, Bergamo.

Short stories in various collections including

The Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Short Stories ed. S. Gray, Penguin, Johannesburg,

The Heinemann Book of South African Short Stories ed. D.Hirson, London. The Penguin Book of International Short Stories.

Mohnblumen auf Schwarzem Filz: Autorinnen aus vier Kontinenten , Keil & Bruckner, T. (eds.) Unions verlag, Zurich.

list of works from http://www.strath.ac.uk/Departments/English/wicomb.html


Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Ashcroft, Bill (ed.); Griffiths, Gareth (ed.); Tiffin, Helen (ed.). The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London : Routledge, 1995. pp. 24-28

Sharpe, Jenny "Figures of Colonial Resistance" Ashcroft, Bill (ed.); Griffiths, Gareth (ed.); Tiffin, Helen (ed.). The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London : Routledge, 1995. pp. 99-102.

Anstey, Gillian http://www.sundaytimes.co.za/literaryawards/fictionaward/wicomb.asp


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