Western Experiences: Education and "Third World Women" in the Fictions of Tsitsi Dangarembga and Meena Alexander

Rahul Krishna Gairola, Rhode Island College

Copyright © 2000 by Rahul Krishna Gairola, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. In The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon writes "The colonial world is a world divided into compartments . . . this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species. The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask human realities" (32). While we explicitly see this in Dangarembga's Nervous Condition, the "colonial world" in a postcolonial context takes on an updated version problematized and complicated by the life-jarring process of American immigration in Meena Alexander's Manhattan Music. We are no longer dealing only with the discourse of women's education in the native country, hence postcolonial ideology changes face for both the experiencer of the geographical shift and his/her new homeland. As Rosemary Marangoly George has observed, writers in the immigrant genre always view the present in terms of its distance from the past and future, while never forgetting the experience of "homelessness" (171). As such, Alexander's character Sandhya is vexed by her removal from India, marriage to a Jewish man and subsequent cultural schizophrenia that leads to an attempted suicide.

  2. The female experience in relation to the English language is one that leaves the residue of violence upon the characters of Manhattan Music as experienced by the author. As an immigrant, Alexander has struggled with the processes of coming to terms with the English language while also trying to retain other languages that were de-emphasized by the Crown. She documents this experience in The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience, writing "It was a shock to me, a crisis in my writing life, if not in all the rest of what goes on under that phrase -- my life, as if it were an elixir I possessed and might drink to the full or spit out as I chose -- to realise that the machine of the colonial, technically postcolonial education I had received and, indeed, had fostered, was cutting my words off from the very wellsprings of desire. Suddenly, I felt that even the memory would be impossible if I did not turn my attention to the violence very close at hand, attendant, in fact, upon the procedures of my own writing" (4).

  3. The construction of Alexander's female characters can be traced back into the history of the author's own life growing up in Kerala, a southern Indian state, as documented in Fault Lines: A Memoir, in which she narrates her childhood encounters with many tongues including Malayalam, English, Hindi and Arabic (41). To demonstrate the intense influence that knowledge of the English language had on her, Alexander metaphorically speaks of her learning of English to the erasing of a blackboard - a mental tabula rasa (clean slate) -- in which hegemony via language and culture is inscribed in her psyche. She writes, "Sometimes I think I have to write myself into being. Write in order not to be erased" (93). Ironically, this process of writing oneself into being is achieved through the medium of English as the threat of erasure is perhaps a function of the author writing in her native language. Alexander tells us:
    I could never figure out those scrawls on the blackboard, the names and dates I had to learn, all taken out of the old first-form textbooks. The books had faded, tobacco-colored covers. Imported from Britain, they were stored in the corner of the school library. I had nothing but mistrust for the facts and dates contained in those bound volumes - information about Bodicea, Julius Caesar, the history of the Britons and Celts, the Crusades, even Suleiman the Magnificent. It never struck me, how curious it was that in an independent Sudan, Sith Samia, fresh out of Teacher's Training College in Omdurman, would have to plod through these old British colonial textbooks. What I had as protection was a stubborn skepticism. (93)

  4. The above passage exemplifies a number of biographical facets of Alexander's life that illustrate the impact of a British education on a young woman: 1) the "scrawls on the blackboard" imply an inscription of language and culture upon the colored tabula rasa; 2) the books are "imported from Britain," and include only a list of Western writers - this illustrates not only literary hegemony, an "importation" of education, but a racist educational discourse as well; and 3) like Tambu's school that "manufactured guaranteed young ladies," the same kind of assimilation is encouraged and instituted for teachers. Alexander sums up the devastation impacted upon her by the colonial linguistic agenda in two simple yet powerful sentences: "Sometimes I think of the English language as a pale skin that has covered up my flesh, the broken parts of my world. In order to free my face, in order to appear, I have had to use my teeth and nails, I have had to tear that fine skin, to speak out my discrepant otherness" (73).

  5. We are challenged with an interesting question when we move beyond the colonial homestead of Kerala into the postcolonial, immigrant nation where Alexander's fiction unfolds: how does this "neo"postcolonial deal with geographical difference in relation to native experience? Unlike Dangarembga, Alexander creates a feminist space where characters are given a voice in the havens of fiction and new nationality, yet there are problems in the promised land as well. As noted by George, displacement literatures are actually an integral part of postcolonial literature: "For the immigrant genre, like the social phenomenon from which it takes its name, is born of a history of global colonialism and is therefore an undeniable part of postcolonialism and of decolonizing discourses"(278).

  6. If we examine Alexander's assignment of allegory to the two female protagonists in Manhattan Music, we may assume that Sandhya is the representative female postcolonial immigrant straddled between two homelands. Draupadi, her friend, contrasts by being constructed as an intense, street-smart woman born in the United States who wonders what kind of female power it takes Sandhya to wrap the six yards of sari around herself (Alexander 50). Here, as suggested in Deepa Mehta's critically acclaimed film Fire, the sari is an allegorical body wrap that confines the Indian woman to traditional cultural and gender roles. Sandhya and Draupadi, like Tambu and Nyasha, are literary foils to one another, and are allegorical in similar ways. Draupadi, not a first-generation immigrant, embodies the essence of the second generation ethnic while Sandhya is more symbolic of her former nation, her former homeland. There seems, however, in Draupadi a need to connect to India though she is US-born and has been exposed to Western literature in school. In one part of the novel, Jay, Sandhya's cousin, questions Draupadi's ostensibly nostalgic and self-constructed bond with India. While Alexander writes "India owed her [Draupadi] and she would draw what she wished from that world, rework the language, pack it with lore," Jay asks Draupadi:
    "But is this your past?"
    "I want to make it up," she argued.
    "But why call the Mahabharata your heritage?" he quizzed her. "Why not the Iliad and Odyssey also?"
    And for once she had no answer. The shreds of memory she got from her grandmother didn't add up to the wild glory of the epic. All she had were whispers, shards of songs, torn phrases, and could they add up to a heritage? Still, as a human being, she felt she had a right to anything out there. And what came from India was closer. (52)

  7. The above passage illustrates a number of problems in the construction of Draupadi's identity, which is a continuum rather than a static reflection of US life. As noted by the editors in their introduction to Memory, Narrative & Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures, during immigration, "identity instead of being seen as fixed, becomes a dynamic construction that adjusts continually to the changes experienced within and surrounding the self" (Singh et al. 17). Draupadi is Indian in physical attributes but American in cultural upbringing, which induces within her a craving to relate to Indian culture - this yearning, this "cultural cry" for an intimacy with the Indian culture characterizes the cultural schizophrenia experienced by a number of NRIs (Non-resident Indians). We later witness a schism between the postcolonial native of India and the US-born neocolonial -- Jay's questioning of Draupadi's "authentic" past almost seems to be a criticism of her attempt to connect to a past she did not experience firsthand. And for Draupadi, American nationality doesn't comprise her whole self for it doesn't include her Indian ancestry. This problem of Alexander's character reflects Edward Said's assertion in "Invention, Memory, and Place" that though a national identity always involves itself with narratives of the host country, such identities are "never undisputed or merely a matter of the neutral recital of facts" (177).

  8. Ironically, the Greek texts Jay thinks should be part of Draupadi's American heritage are the same texts he, Sandhya and other immigrants would have been studying in India. That Jay thinks he has the insight and/or right to direct Draupadi's connection to the past stems from an assumption that he, as a man from India, has experienced something more authentic or valid - as if the experience of the NRI isn't itself as traumatic as that of immigration. Draupadi tells us, "Columbus struck America and called it India. It was India to him till the very end, when mad, bound raving to the bottom of his boat, he was shipped in chains to Spain . . . I stopped, shut my eyes, took in the applause, stepped back, dizzy as if India were all around" (122). Draupadi embodies a narrative discourse in ethnic American literature in which memory is the political gauge to the past and must be reconsidered in the context of history and the act of forgetting, for she experiences an amnesia of a country in which she wasn't even born.

  9. Paradoxically, the India imagined by Draupadi where the Mahabarata is hailed as a gilded epic is not the India experienced by Sandhya, who cannot even read her mother tongue of Malayalam though she is prolific in English. The narrator tells us, "she [Sandhya] had been brought up within the boundaries of a new India, where regional divisions were not considered overly important. She had fallen back on the Hindi of her school days and the English that people of her class mixed in with whatever they spoke, the polyglot nature of their sentences a sign of breeding" (69). It is ironic in this passage that the common bond between the persons in Sandhya's class are polyglot sentences which are unified by bits and pieces of English - the English language is the linguistic glue that connects together her several "native" tongues. Not only do we understand here the pervasiveness of English as a sign of a hegemonic discourse, but also its ability to serve as a root of these polyglot languages rather than incidents within them. In the context of South Asian languages, English establishes itself as a linguistic root as did Latin among the Romance Languages. This process of "Englishization," claims Braj B. Kachru, has "thus caused a transmutation of languages, equipping them in the process for new societal, scientific and technological demands" (295).

  10. Unlike Draupadi, Sandhya also experiences cultural schizophrenia, and her own trials and tribulations send her to the edge of her mind where she closes her eyes and melts into her thoughts while voices in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English call out to her (Alexander 226). For Sandhya, this is a side effect of what Deepika Bahri calls the "promise of America . . . the promise of a fresh start in a new world" (51). Because Sandhya is immersed in the immigrant country, her cultural schizophrenia delves to a deeper level than that experienced by Draupadi, who retains a sort of American identity comfort having never directly experienced life in India, only the same exotic and spiritualized perceptions of most white Westerners. Though it is clear that both women are molded by Said's four distinct hegemonic power discourses previously outlined, national context in the narrative creates the ground for the vast differences between the younger, beatnik Draupadi and her older, immigrant counterpart Sandhya.

  11. Yet unlike Dangarembga's Tambu, the realization of linguistic hegemony and assimilation to American ideals induces a stronger sense of connection to the ancestral homeland for Alexander's female protagonists. In trying to convey to her readers the isolation of the self and homeland her characters experience, Alexander writes: "She [Sandhya] felt nothing of the guilt so many of her compatriots bore in switching passports, as if they were mortgaging one world for another. She was Indian, she would live and die that way. No one could changer her skin, or say to her: your parents are not buried in the churchyard in Tiruvella; your in-laws never lived in Nagercoil. Nor have you ever spoken Malayalam. Surely it is the greatest of illusions that it is your mother tongue. None of that would happen" (132). Hence, in Manhattan Music, the female postcolonial subject experiences through the learning of English and Americanization, something similar to the malaise pervasive among NRIs - a spiritual displacement that results in an enforced allegiance to the Indian ancestral homeland. And for both the female immigrant and the NRI living in New York City, a certain sense of cultural schizophrenia pervades the psyche as a result of geographical and cultural displacement.

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Last Modified: 7 March 2002