A new equinox, a new reminder that I’m woefully behind on keeping up with this blog! Before stepping into this summer, I wanted to recap the women’s fiction (intended to be) read summer 2019.
This particular summer I wanted to revisit my college days of looking at texts via postcolonial theory and read novels by and about women set around the era of Western colonization (that is, between 1500 and 1850). To this day, we can still observe the repercussions of colonialism and its bloody legacy bent on stealing land, killing its Native peoples, and enslaving Africans for financial gain. However, this year’s reading taught me about a type of neocolonialism happening around the world and just in the past century. Whether it was 400 or only 40 years ago, colonialism and its consequences have had an especially oppressive impact on the women involved.
What I Read
Exploring women’s role in colonialism, I read the following:
- Erased Faces by Graciela Limón, 2001
- Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, 1966
- A Mercy by Toni Morrison, 2008
What I Saw
Here are their covers:
- Erased Faces: A soldier whose eyes are uncovered looks directly at the viewer. They hold a military-style gun amid a background of red, superimposed over negatives of the same picture. The soldier appears to be a young woman. Who is the soldier? What are they fighting for and against whom? In reference to the title, how and why are faces being erased (reading this as they are losing their lives or identities)?
- Wide Sargasso Sea: A family of 3 shadows stands at the center of what appears to be a house. They’re surrounded by splashes of color, perhaps tropical plants. Who are the people? Why are their faces obscured? What are they looking at?
- A Mercy: We see a naturescape with no one in sight; lush, green land with water, untouched. Is this America before colonists stole and infected it with the plagues of Western religion and greed? Regarding the title, who receives mercy and who gives it?
What I Learned
- Erased Faces: This book was in a little library that I traded for some time ago. The author’s name sounded familiar, and the back cover summary drew me in. Erased Faces follows two women who have lost their families and find romantic companionship with one another while fighting in the Chiapas rebellion. A prime example of neocolonialism, the book portrays the short-lived yet bloody war between Mexico’s indigenous people and the Mexican government just 26 years ago in 1994. In a struggle for indigenous rights and self-governance, one of the female protagonists Juana is seen being sold off for marriage, surviving domestic abuse, and then becoming a fearless martyr for the cause. Author Graciela Limón, known for her works exploring Mexican identity and Hispanic American literature, places the mythology of the Lacandón people in the modern day to reveal the oppression and violence against women still occurring throughout Mexico. In defending their rights as native people—and perhaps more importantly as women—Limón’s characters fight for their faces to be seen, not to be erased by colonialism.
- The concept of erasure is an especially damaging symptom of colonialism, and the book’s title immediately alludes to an erasure of identities, culture, and even physicalities (i.e., faces). How can women’s fiction undo the effects of colonial erasure and honor the identities lost?
- Erased Faces details just one example of neocolonialism with its focus on the Chiapas rebellion. What other examples of neocolonialism have disproportionately affected women? Is there women’s fiction written about these events?
- While lesbian relationships had been honored or considered commonplace in indigenous or non-Western religions, the spread of Christianity and homophobic biblical teachings may have led to the criminalization of such relationships in colonized countries. Now that legalizing gay marriage is at the forefront of human rights activism around the world, how can women’s fiction help to support this cause in conjunction with the continued campaign for women’s rights?
- Wide Sargasso Sea: After I read Jane Eyre several years ago this retelling/prequel was suggested to me. Although I’m a fan of Victorian Brit lit (especially the Gothic kind!), I thought Jane Eyre dull and its characters gross—with the exception of the crazy woman in the attic. Who was she and why was she there? Jean Rhys must have wondered the same, as her novel explores Charlotte Brontë’s unspoken-for character and gives her a voice and a history. Set in the Victorian era in Jamaica, Antoinette (who becomes Brontë’s mysterious villainess) is a pariah among her peers; a white descendant of slave owners living among a primarily Afro-Caribbean population, she and her family are too Creole to be considered English (read: white) yet at the same time too white to be considered Creole. Madness runs in Antoinette’s family, and her wealth and fallen social status make her a target for the greedy, manipulative, predatory, etc., etc., Mr. Rochester. We know Antoinette’s story doesn’t end well, but Rhys’s interpretation of this character sheds light on the postcolonial politics of Caribbean plantations and the tense race relations across the British empire. Her retelling also counters the patriarchal white hegemony of the classic literary canon (and even enchants it with a little obeah).
- Published in 1847, Jane Eyre is considered one of the first feminist novels in part due to its first-person portrayal of women by a woman writer. However, its treatment of certain female characters (like Bertha Mason) can also be seen as regressive. How can rewriting women’s fiction be a mechanism for giving voices to otherwise voiceless female characters in protofeminist novels? What other retellings like Wide Sargasso Sea have already been written?
- Similarly, Wide Sargasso Sea rewrites the past by “writing back” at the British Empire, turning the narrative of colonialism on its head against the colonizers. How can writing back be used to undo postcolonialism and empower the colonized?
- Obeah, a type of magic and spiritualism brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans, plays an important role in the novel and helps to establish a sense of place in stark contrast to England. What can we learn about gender and colonialism from women’s fiction that employs obeah or other forms of magic?
- A Mercy: I purchased this novel after Toni Morrison passed away last year, but having read several of her books and seen her lecture in person, I had already planned to read this novel. From Beloved to The Bluest Eye to A Mercy, her characters are both heartbreaking and haunting. I will never know first hand what it’s like to be a Black woman in America today, what it was like yesterday, or what it will be like tomorrow, but Morrison’s prose speaking to lived experiences of Black women and race in America is a necessary education. A Mercy explores women’s treatment and identity (or lack, thereof) during colonial settlement. Even with the most well-intentioned patriarch owning Virginia land and supposedly free servants in 1682, Morrison shows there is no such thing—that these merciful men are still slave owners who hunger after wealth at the cost of women’s lives. In highlighting the bonds of mothers and daughters (Florens and her minha mãe, and Sorrow becoming Complete), as well as the trauma caused by severing these bonds, Morrison hints at the additional burden women bore at the hands of slave masters—children conceived through rape—slave breeding https://networks.h-net.org/node/4113/reviews/64746/sears-smithers-slave-breeding-sex-violence-and-memory-african-american being a form of sexual violence enacted on Black people to uphold white supremacy and profit from the slaveholding system. Embodied by the Native American character Lina stripped of language and tribe, Morrison also alludes to America, the motherland, as a victim of colonialism whose people were relocated or removed (i.e., murdered) http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/becomingamer/growth/text7/indianlands.pdf. In this novel, the idea of mercy—who gives it and to whom—is as complicated as its characters.
- Both Lina and Florens speak English at the farm; that is, they don’t speak their mother tongues. How does language and its loss https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/540/handouts/indiapol/node8.html intersect with motherhood? Can the relearning of a mother tongue function as a weapon against colonial trauma?
- For women to be free, it seems they must be wild—whether that’s breaking from romantic relationships or searching for their own truth (or just not wearing shoes!). How does the idea of untamed women http://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/women_who_run_with_the_wolves__myths_and_stories_of_the_wild_woman_archetype_101250.htm inform gender roles in postcolonial literature?
- Here Morrison’s women endure more psychological rather than physical violence at the hands of men. How can women’s fiction and the community it creates help to shine a light on colonial violence and heal its lasting wounds?
In their depiction of female characters as broken, healed, tamed, wild, victim, and victor, these three novels portray women’s triple oppression https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_oppression (experiencing racism, sexism, classism) as a result of Western colonization. I’ve learned much about these issues via women’s fiction, but I can never learn too much! Are there any other postcolonial books about women that you would recommend? Any fiction or theory is welcome! Leave any comments or suggestions below!