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. Perhaps one of the most ironic elements of postcolonial literary analysis is the fact that readers and critics alike must access and interact with the English language, the imperial tongue of many postcolonial nations, to write about its hegemonizing force on a global level. When combined with the codifying problems of culture and tradition in given pre-independence contexts, it is no wonder that a number of postcolonial feminists have questioned the relationship between the woman and the postcolonial, one subaltern subject with another. In her essay "A Feminist Approach to African Literature," Kristen Holt Petersen asks, "which is the more important, which comes first, the fight for female equality or the fight against Western cultural imperialism?" (252). This question is further problematized when education and language are mixed into the complexity of identities and their constructed hierarchies as channeled and/or policed by colonial discourse, which transforms into the norm and thus generates stereotypes, alliances and biases within the native community.

  2. In this sense, women's positionings in the colonial and postcolonial worlds and subsequently produced texts are riddled with the polemics of subaltern identity, and are doubly difficult to break away from. Thomas Macauley's call to create a race of brown-skinned Englishmen in his notorious "Minute on Indian Education," insult though it was to Indian men, appropriated even less agency to the role of Indian women in the discourse of British colonial culture. For even when women in the East are reluctantly allowed a voice in the patriarchal dialogism of the West, notes Chandra Talpade Mohanty, they are marked by the modifier "third world," which carries with it an implicit stigma of "less than" (172). Subsequently, as noted by British scholar Terry Eagleton, "the plight of women in such societies, forced as they are to assume many of its most wretched burdens, has resulted in a peculiarly fruitful alliance between feminism and postcolonialism" (205). It is no wonder then that many prominent postcolonial theorists are women, and most discussions of the subaltern subject inextricably involve a discussion of the (dis)placement of women in colonial/postcolonial/neocolonial contexts.

  3. This is perhaps one of the primary reasons that systems of epistemology and language acquisition must be historicized in the context of the Third World women's experience. Hence, education and the English language are popular reflective themes in fictions in English written by Third World women, partly since this knowledge of English has become a vehicle for narrating personal histories, be they through memoir, poetry, or fiction, to a world whose ears are already pricked up and familiar with the English language. And though some felt and may feel that subscribing to this "bastard tongue," as termed by Salman Rushdie, was, in a sense, a kind of linguistic betrayal of the mother tongue, it was one of the only ways colonized people could rise economically, socially, and politically under colonialism. This case is especially true for women -- the knowledge of English translated into a new tier in paradigms of social stratification that automatically rendered status to the speaker of the colonizer's tongue in the colonized homeland.

  4. Certainly Africa and India shared this experience, for in the context of the English language, hegemonic linguistic discourse creates the space for a new kind of feminist culture to be born. In other words, the linguistic domination of English has created a new set of (dis)comforts: proficiency in English and/or British schooling enables colonial men and women to be a rung above their subaltern counterparts in pre-independent colonial nations already problematized with stringent class and sex stratification. "Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world," observes Ngugi Wa Thiong'o in "The Language of African Literature" (16). Language, in other words, gives socio-political agency to the self. Following the hegemonic discourse induced by language shift, native Indians and Africans (to name only two peoples) have given a bourgeois status to English which indigenous, regional languages are not privileged with.

  5. When we compare these (dis)positions of the Third World women in relation to Tsisti Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (1988) and Meena Alexander's Manhattan Music (1997), we experience, as critical readers, a transcendence through history and literary space that reveals an interesting study. What makes these two novels an interesting comparison is not their likeness, but conversely, their difference, which raises polemical questions concerned not only with the binary of Europeans vs. native peoples, but man vs. woman, India vs. Africa, and English vs. native tongue. Though the books are set in differing time periods and geographies of empire (Dangarembga's novel unfolds in colonial Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]of the late 1960s while Alexander's novel is set in today's Indian diasporic communities of New York City) these two narratives reflect similar life discourses and survival tactics for postcolonial woman under the whip of the imperial tongue. British education, for these characters, is a necessity, not an option. It is one of the most important facets of life, for being able to speak English constitutes the utterance of intelligence -- both within and outside of the colonized country.

  6. Though the narratives and fictional structures of both novels differ, the protagonists -- Dangarembga's Tambu and Alexander's Sandhya -- are conscious of Britain, conscious of language, and are aware of its power and potential to let women imagine they are transcending from the teeming pool of subaltern subjects to the elite patriarchy of the Crown. English is like an elitist drug, an antidote for the Third World Blues. As noted by Braj B. Kachru, "The alchemy of English (present and future), then, does not only provide social status, it also gives access to attitudinally and materially desirable domains of power and knowledge" (295). This "alchemy" thus is an elixer for postcolonial women to gain agency and visibility, to gain an ideological voice as questioned by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her seminal essay,"Can the Subaltern Speak," in relation to both native and postcolonial worlds.

  7. Kachru's claim that the English language somewhat magically gives people of the Third World a socio-political agency in the global marketplace illustrates not only the power of linguistic hegemony but also its dissemination. Where once upon a time knowledge of English was a cultural commodity, it is now a literary necessity for reading texts, even those written in countries formerly colonized by Britain. Our very interpretation of Dangarembga and Alexander's novels is facilitated through the "Western filter" of the English language, and these authors utilize the dissemination of the colonial language to expose the pains as well as the privileges of being proficient in the language of one's ruler. But there is ambivalence concerning this practice -- the characters of Tambu and Sandhya live experiences with education and language that are bittersweet, even caustic, and their stories in some ways reflect the personal histories of their authors. Hence, these novels strive to make political moves by using personal history as inspiration, and, as Spivak puts it, "world the world" through marginalized voices and narratives (243-44). Dangarembga and Alexander do this in writing their narratives and criticisms, using their female protagonists as textual mediums through which their own subalterned voices are funneled.

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Last Modified: 7 March 2002