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"something of non-speakingness....or, welcoming selective inhabitants of the margin in order to better exclude the margin"

Anne Dalke's picture

I had a bit of a revelation during our discussion of Little Bee on Tuesday, and since--in the midst of insight!--may not have been very clear about what I was suddenly seeing, I wanted to write it out here.

In 1899, Joseph Conrad published Heart of Darkness. In the late 1950's, Chinua Achebe critiqued the novel as "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." He then created a new work of fiction, the novel Things Fall Apart, to give life and flesh to the sorts of figures Conrad had objectified in his novel. In 1979, the appearance of Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood called attention, in turn, to the peripheral role women had played in Achebe's novel. In this sequence a story was repeatedly re-worked-- first in criticism, then in fiction-- in order to bring into the foreground the sorts of characters whose lives had been neglected in earlier fiction. In each case, the attempt to fill one gap unexpectedly created another one.

Something quite similar happened with Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Like Achebe's essay, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 1988 discussion of "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" made problematic the fictional use of people of color as representations of the tortured psyches of Europeans. Spivak's analysis helps explain the generation of Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Bertha Rochester takes center stage (in Bronte's novel, she had been confined to the attic as a madwoman, a figure of Jane Eyre's unexpressed rage).

What I realized, as we were talking about Chris Cleave's novel, is that Kaye and I had structured our discussion-- asking "What do these characters have to say to us? What might they ask us to do? How might we respond?"-- along the same lines that Achebe and Spivak had critiqued: as if their lives were important, in the end, primarily for what they might teach us/what use we could make of them/what action we could take.  In another essay published in 1988, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak asks us to attend to the silence of the subaltern, a person without agency because of social status:

"The subaltern 'occupies the space cut off from the lines of mobility in a colonized country. .. there is something of the non-speakingness in the very notion of the subaltern.' If she were able to make herself heard, she would cease to be the subaltern .... But such speaking is NOT brought about by intellectual attempts to represent the oppressed, or by pretending to let them speak for themselves..." Spivak cautions against "welcoming selective inhabitants of the margin in order to better exclude the margin."

My revelation was that that was precisely the welcome we were offering…