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"... methodologically innovative... precise and perceptive and conscious... " —Text and Performance Quarterly
"Woman, Native, Other is located at the juncture of a number of different fields and disciplines, and it genuinely succeeds in pushing the boundaries of these disciplines further. It is one of the very few theoretical attempts to grapple with the writings of women of color." —Chandra Talpade Mohanty
"The idea of Trinh T. Minh-ha is as powerful as her films... formidable... " —Village Voice
"... its very forms invite the reader to participate in the effort to understand how language structures lived possibilities." —Artpaper
"Highly recommended for anyone struggling to understand voices and experiences of those ‘we’ label ‘other’." —Religious Studies Review
Indiana University Press
Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box
A grain of sand contains all land and sea
"poetic language" ... is an unsettling process—when not an outright destruction—of the identity of meaning and speaking subject, and consequently, of transcendence or, by derivation, of "religious sensitivity."
—Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language
i was made to believe
we who write also dance
yet no dancer writes
(the way we write)
no writer ever dances
(the way they dance)
while writing we bend
and bend over
stoop sit and squat
and can neither stand erect
nor lie flat on our back
whoever pretends to feed
walk skip run while writing
must be flying free
as free as a cage-bird
seeing not lines as lines
bars as bars
nor any prison-yard
All stills are taken from the following films by Trinh T. Minh-ha: Reassemblage (R); Naked Spaces—Living Is Round (NS); Surname Viet Given Name Nam (SVGNN); India—China (work in progress) (I-C). The production photographs are by Jean-Paul Bourdier.
The triple bind
Neither black/red/yellow nor woman but poet or writer. For many of us, the question of priorities remains a crucial issue. Being merely "a writer" without doubt ensures one a status of far greater weight than being "a woman of color who writes" ever does. Imputing race or sex to the creative act has long been a means by which the literary establishment cheapens and discredits the achievements of non-mainstream women writers. She who "happens to be" a (non-white) Third World member, a woman, and a writer is bound to go through the ordeal of exposing her work to the abuse of praises and criticisms that either ignore, dispense with, or overemphasize her racial and sexual attributes. Yet the time has passed when she can confidently identify herself with a profession or artistic vocation without questioning and relating it to her color-woman condition. Today, the growing ethnic-feminist consciousness has made it increasingly difficult for her to turn a blind eye not only to the specification of the writer as historical subject (who writes? and in what context?), but also to writing itself as a practice located at the intersection of subject and history—a literary practice that involves the possible knowledge (linguistical and ideological) of itself as such. On the one hand, no matter what position she decides to take, she will sooner or later find herself driven into situations where she is made to feel she must choose from among three conflicting identities. Writer of color? Woman writer? Or woman of color? Which comes first? Where does she place her loyalties? On the other hand, she often finds herself at odds with language, which partakes in the white-male-is-norm ideology and is used predominantly as a vehicle to circulate established power relations. This is further intensified by her finding herself also at odds with her relation to writing, which when carried out uncritically often proves to be one of domination: as holder of speech, she usually writes from a position of power, creating as an "author," situating herself above her work and existing before it, rarely simultaneously with it. Thus, it has become almost impossible for her to take up her pen without at the same time questioning her relation to the material that defines her and her creative work. As focal point of cultural consciousness and social change, writing weaves into language the complex relations of a subject caught between the problems of race and gender and the practice of literature as the very place where social alienation is thwarted differently according to each specific context.
Silence in time
Writing, reading, thinking, imagining, speculating. These are luxury activities, so I am reminded, permitted to a privileged few, whose idle hours of the day can be viewed otherwise than as a bowl of rice or a loaf of bread less to share with the family. "If we wish to increase the supply of rare and remarkable women like the Brontes," wrote our reputed foresister Virginia Woolf, "we should give the Joneses and the Smiths rooms of their own and five hundred [pounds] a year. One cannot grow fine flowers in a thin soil." Substantial creative achievement demands not necessarily genius, but acumen, bent, persistence, time. And time, in the framework of industrial development, means a wage that admits of leisure and living conditions that do not require that writing be incessantly interrupted, deferred, denied, at any rate subordinated to family responsibilities. "When the claims of creation cannot be primary," Tillie Olsen observes, "the results are atrophy; unfinished work; minor effort and accomplishment; silences." The message Olsen conveys in Silences leaves no doubt as to the circumstances under which most women writers function. It is a constant reminder of those who never come to writing: "the invisible, the as-innately-capable: the born to the wrong circumstances—diminished, excluded, foundered." To say this, however, is not to say that writing should be held in veneration in all milieus or that every woman who fails to write is a disabled being. (What Denise Paulme learned in this regard during her first period of fieldwork in Africa is revealing. Comparing her life one day with those of the women in an area of the French Sudan, she was congratulating herself on not having to do a chore like theirs—pounding millet for the meals day in and day out—when she overheard herself commented upon by one of the women nearby: "That girl makes me tired with her everlasting paper and pencil: what sort of a life is that?" The lesson, Paulme concluded, "was a salutary one, and I have never forgotten it.") To point out that, in general, the situation of women does not favor literary productivity is to imply that it is almost impossible for them (and especially for those bound up with the Third World) to engage in writing as an occupation without their letting themselves be consumed by a deep and pervasive sense of guilt. Guilt over the selfishness implied in such activity, over themselves as housewives and "women," over their families, their friends, and all other "less fortunate" women. The circle in which they turn proves to be vicious, and writing in such a context is always practiced at the cost of other women's labor. Doubts, lack of confidence, frustrations, despair: these are sentiments born with the habits of distraction, distortion, discontinuity, and silence. After having toiled for a number of years on her book, hattie gossett exclaims to herself:
Who do you think you are [to be writing a book]? and who cares what you think about anything enough to pay money for it ... a major portion of your audience not only cant read but seems to think readin is a waste of time? plus books like this arent sold in the ghetto bookshops or even in airports?
The same doubt is to be heard through Gloria Anzaldua's voice:
Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me? ... The voice recurs in me: Who am I, a poor Chicanita from the sticks, to think I could write? How dared I even consider becoming a writer as I stooped over the tomato fields bending, bending under the hot sun....
How hard it is for us to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and believe that we can.
Rites of passage
S/he who writes, writes. In uncertainty, in necessity. And does not ask whether s/he is given the permission to do so or not. Yet, in the context of today's market-dependent societies, "to be a writer" can no longer mean purely to perform the act of writing. For a laywo/man to enter the priesthood—the sacred world of writers—s/he must fulfill a number of unwritten conditions. S/he must undergo a series of rituals, be baptized and ordained. S/he must submit her writings to the law laid down by the corporation of literary/literacy victims and be prepared to accept their verdict. Every woman who writes and wishes to become established as a writer has known the taste of rejection. Sylvia Plath's experience is often cited. Her years of darkness, despair, and disillusion, her agony of slow rebirth, her moments of fearsome excitement at the start of the writing of The Bell Jar, her unsuccessful attempts at re-submitting her first book of poems under ever-changing titles, and the distress with which she upbraided herself are parts of the realities that affect many women writers:
Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing, which remark I guess shows I still don't have a pure motive (O it's-such-fun-I-just-can't-stop-whocares-if-it's-published-or-read) about writing. ... I still want to see it finally ritualized in print.
Accumulated unpublished writings do stink. They heap up before your eyes like despicable confessions that no one cares to hear; they sap your self-confidence by incessantly reminding you of your failure to incorporate. For publication means the breaking of a first seal, the end of a "no-admitted" status, the end of a soliloquy confined to the private sphere, and the start of a possible sharing with the unknown other—the reader, whose collaboration with the writer alone allows the work to come into full being. Without such a rite of passage, the woman-writer-to-be/woman-to-be-writer is condemned to wander about, begging for permission to join in and be a member. If it is difficult for any woman to find acceptance for her writing, it is all the more so for those who do not match the stereotype of the "real woman"—the colored, the minority, the physically or mentally handicapped. Emma Santos, who spent her days running to and fro between two worlds—that of hospitals and that of the "normal" system—equally rejected by Psychiatry and by Literature, is another writer whose first book has been repeatedly dismissed (by twenty-two publishing houses). Driven to obsession by a well-known publisher who promised to send her an agreement but never did, she followed him, spied on him, called him twenty times a day on the phone, and ended up feeling like "a pile of shit making after great men of letters." Writing, she remarks, is "a shameful, venereal disease," and Literature, nothing more than "a long beseeching." Having no acquaintance, no friend to introduce her when she sought admission for her work among the publishers, she describes her experience as follows:
I receive encouraging letters but I am goitrous. Publishers, summons, these are worse than psychiatrists, interrogatories. The publishers perceive a sick and oblivious girl. They would have liked the text, the same one, without changing a single word, had it been presented by a young man from the [Ecole] Normale Supérieure, agrégé of philosophy, worthy of the Goncourt prize.
To capture a publisher's attention, to convince, to negotiate: these constitute one step forward into the world of writers, one distress, one guilt. One guilt among the many yet to come, all of which bide their time to loom up out of their hiding places, for the path is long and there is an ambush at every turn. Writing: not letting it merely haunt you and die over and over again in you until you no longer know how to speak. Getting published: not loathing yourself, not burning it, not giving up. Now I (the all-knowing subject) feel almost secure with such definite "not-to-do's." Yet, I/i (the plural, non-unitary subject) cannot set my mind at rest with them without at the same time recognizing their precariousness, i (the personal race- and gender-specific subject) have, in fact turned a deaf ear to a number of primary questions: Why write? For whom? What necessity? What writing? What impels you and me and hattie gossett to continue to write when we know for a fact that our books are not going to be "sold in the ghetto bookshops or even in airports?" And why do we care for their destinations at all? "A writer," proclaims Toni Cade Bambara, "like any other cultural worker, like any other member of the community, ought to try to put her/his skills in the service of the community." It is apparently on account of such a conviction that Bambara "began a career as the neighborhood scribe," helping people write letters to faraway relatives as well as letters of complaint, petitions, contracts, and the like. For those of us who call ourselves "writers" in the context of a community whose major portion "not only cant read but seems to think readin is a waste of time" (gossett), being "the neighborhood scribe" is no doubt one of the most gratifying and unpretentious ways of dedicating oneself to one's people. Writing as a social function—as differentiated from the ideal of art for art's sake—is the aim that Third World writers, in defining their roles, highly esteem and claim. Literacy and literature intertwine so tightly, indeed, that the latter has never ceased to imply both the ability to read and the condition of being well read—and thereby to convey the sense of polite learning through the arts of grammar and rhetoric. The illiterate, the ignorant versus the wo/man of "letters" (of wide reading), the highly educated. With such discrimination and opposition, it is hardly surprising that the writer should be viewed as a social parasite. Whether s/he makes common cause with the upper classes or chooses to disengage her/himself by adopting the myth of the bohemian artist, the writer is a kept wo/man who for her/his living largely relies on the generosity of that portion of society called the literate. A room of one's own and a pension of five hundred pounds per year solely for making ink marks on paper: this, symbolically speaking, is what many people refer to when they say the writer's activity is "gratuitous" and "useless." No matter how devoted to the vocation s/he may be, the writer cannot subsist on words and mere fresh air, nor can s/he really "live by the pen," since her/his work—arbitrarily estimated as it is—has no definite market value. Reading in this context may actually prove to be "a waste of time," and writing, as Woolf puts it, "a reputable and harmless occupation." Reflecting on her profession as a writer (in a 1979 interview), Toni Cade Bambara noted that she probably did not begin "getting really serious about writing until maybe five years ago. Prior to that, in spite of all good sense, I always thought writing was rather frivolous, that it was something you did because you didn't feel like doing any work." The concept of "writing" here seems to be incompatible with the concept of "work." As the years went by and Toni Cade Bambara got more involved in writing, however, she changed her attitude and has "come to appreciate that it is a perfectly legitimate way to participate in struggle."
Commitment as an ideal is particularly dear to Third World writers. It helps to alleviate the Guilt: that of being privileged (Inequality), of "going over the hill" to join the clan of literates (Assimilation), and of indulging in a "useless" activity while most community members "stoop over the tomato fields, bending under the hot sun" (a perpetuation of the same privilege). In a sense, committed writers are the ones who write both to awaken to the consciousness of their guilt and to give their readers a guilty conscience. Bound to one another by an awareness of their guilt, writer and reader may thus assess their positions, engaging themselves wholly in their situations and carrying their weight into the weight of their communities, the weight of the world. Such a definition naturally places the committed writers on the side of Power. For every discourse that breeds fault and guilt is a discourse of authority and arrogance. To say this, however, is not to say that all power discourses produce equal oppression or that those established are necessary. Discussing African literature and the various degrees of propaganda prompted by commitment, Ezekiel Mphahlele observes that although "propaganda is always going to be with us"—for "there will always be the passionate outcry against injustice, war, fascism, poverty"—the manner in which a writer protests reflects to a large extent her/his regard for the reader and "decides the literary worth of a work." "Commitment," Mphahlele adds, "need not give rise to propaganda: the writer can make [her/] his stand known without advocating it ... in two-dimensional terms, i.e., in terms of one response to one stimulus." Thus, in the whirlwind of prescriptive general formula such as: Black art must "respond positively to the reality of revolution" or Black art must "expose the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution" (Ron Karenga, my italics), one also hears distinct, unyielding voices whose autonomy asserts itself as follows:
Black pride need not blind us to our own weaknesses: in fact it should help us to perceive our weaknesses....
I do not care for black pride that drugs us into a condition of stupor and inertia. I do not care for it if leaders use it to dupe the masses.
To us, the man who adores the Negro is as sick as the man who abominates him.
Excerpted from Woman, Native, Other by Trinh T. Minh-ha. Copyright © 1989 Trinh T. Minh-ha. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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The Story Began Long Ago.....
I. Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box
The triple bind
Silence in time
Rites of passage
Freedom and the masses
For the people, by the people, and from the people
Vertically imposed language: on clarity, craftsmanship, and She who steals language
A sketched window on the world
The infinite play of empty mirrors
II. The Language of Nativism: Anthropology as a Scientific Conversation of Man with Man
The reign of worn codes
The positivist dream: We, the natives; They, the natives
A Western Science of man
A Myth of mythology
What "man" and which "man"?
Gossip and science: a conversation on what I love according to truth
See them as they see each other
III. Difference: "A Special Third World Women Issue"
The Policy of "separate development"
The Sense of specialness
The question of roots and authenticity
Infinite Layer: I am not i can be you and me
The female identity enclosure
"Woman" and the subtle power of linguistic exclusion
Ethnicity or womanhood: whose duality?
The Gender controversy
IV. Grandma’s Story
Truth and fact: story and history
Keepers and transmitters
Storytelling in the "civilized" context
A regenerating force
At once "black" and "white" magic
The woman warrior: she who breaks open the spell
A cure and a protection from illness
"Tell it the way they tell it"
"The story must be told. There must not be any lie"
Indiana University Press