Female Genital Cutting

The knife cut down the guardian of the village today.
Now he is dead and gone.
Before the village was dirty,
But now without the guardian it is clean.
So look at us, we are only women and the men have come to
beat the tam-tam.
They have phalli like the elephants.
They have come when we are bleeding.
Now back to the village where a thick Phallus is waiting.
Now we can make love because our sex is clean.   (Lightfoot-Klein, 71).

These lyrics, sung by Kenyan girls after undergoing the process of genital cutting, provides a startling insight into the process. It is a process steeped in religion and custom in many countries. Female genital cutting (referred to as female genital circumcision in some sects) is a rite of passage from childhood to womanhood practiced by numerous cultures. It consists primarily of the cutting the clitoris and/or other major sexual organs (such as the labia minora and majora.) Its severity and type depends on the region and the culturally dominant practice of an area (Kosso-Thomas, 15). Commonly performed on girls from age four to fourteen, it is done as early as age two in some areas. there are four major types of Female Genital Cutting (FGC): circumcision proper (Sunna), excision, infibulation, and introcision (WHO, 4).

Types of FGC

  • Circumcision Proper

This particular form of FGC (referred to as Sunna circumcision in Muslim countries) involves the removal of the prepuce, or “hood” of the clitoris (WHO, 4). The body of the clitoris, however, remains intact (Walker, 367). Sunna is performed under the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, and is done primarily in Sudan (Lightfoot-Klein, 5).  An Arab word meaning“tradition,” Sunna is highly linked to both custom and religion (Lightfoot-Klein, 33).

  • Excision

This form, involving the removal of the clitoris itself as well as the labia minora, is one of the severest forms of FGC (WHO, 4).

  • Infibulation

Referred to as Pharonic circumcision in most Muslim countries, infibulation involves the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and fleshy layers of the labia majora. This is the severest form of FGC and perhaps the most painful. The excisor holds the clitoris between the thumb and the index finger, amputating it with a sharp object, either a knife or sharpened rock. Although there is excessive bleeding in the process, it is partially stopped by packing the wound with gauze. The wound is then fused together with thorns to help with healing (WHO, 7). However, a small opening is left to allow for urine and menstrual flow passage (Walker, 367).

  • Introcision

Introcision is the cutting into the vagina either digitally or by means of a sharp instrument (WHO, 4). Overall, it is the enlargement of the vaginal orifices by means of tearing it downward and is most common in Somalia (Lightfoot-Klein, 33)

Reasons for FGC

The origins of FGC are obscure, yet they are believed to date back to antiquity, as far back as the 5th century B.C in Egypt (Lightfoot-Klein, 27). The current reasons for performing FGC are numerous. For most, FGC is believed to maintain cleanliness of the female sexual organs, decreasing vaginal secretions contaminate the female body (Koso-Thomas, 8). Since sexual intercourse after FGC involves considerable pain, it is believed to prevent promiscuity and preserve the virginity of the excised (Koso-Thomas, 9). It is also believed to “abolish sexual desire in women,” often serving as a means of contraception in some areas  (Lightfoot-Klein, 23). Although the belief is not scientifically based, many also argue that the process maintains good health, with the excised suffering form considerably less disease than uncircumcised women(Thomas, 8). In some extreme cases, it is thought that the clitoris is poisonous and will kill a man if he comes in contact with it during intercourse (Epebolin and Epebolin, qtd. in Lightfoot-Klein, 38). Thus, in order to maintain the man’s life and the woman’s purity, the clitoris is usually excised.

Complications due to the process

There are many immediate and long-term complications associated with the multiple forms of FGC. There are large instances of urinary infections due to unsterile equipment and urine retention due to the excessively small openings left (Thomas, 25).

Septicaemia, or blood poisoning is also common due to these unhygenical equipment as well as haemorrhage of major blood vessels (Thomas, 25). In severe cases, the procedure has also resulted in death. As far as the long term, there is often abscess formation when the embedded stitch fails to be absorbed. The result can be a raised, painful scar, or a cyst which interrupts menstrual flow and makes childbirth doubly painful (WHO, 27). The spread of HIV/AIDS is also associated with FGC due to excessive blood loss and unsanitary equipment (WHO, 28). Yet, the most devastating effect of the process is perhaps the psychological damage endured by the women. Many complain of undue trauma from the procedure: recurrent nightmares, as well as decreased sexual orgasm during intercourse (WHO, 33). For many, the sexual act becomes so painful that it results in severe depression. The wedding night usually starts the cycle of pain. The husband, due to the excessively small hole, must use a knife to loosen the stitches enough to allow for penetration. Similar to the initial ritual of FGM, this involves excessive bleeding. However, the women are submissive to their husbands in fear of hurting his feelings or dishonoring him, suffering the pain for numerous years (Lightfoot-Klein, 11).

The approximate prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in Africa, Afrol News, 2011/ CC licensed

The approximate prevalence of Female Genital Cutting in Africa, Afrol News, 2011/CC Licensed

Where is FGC practiced?

Contrary to popular belief, FGC is not only performed in the remotest depths of Africa. As an indication of cultural awareness, it is performed in higher social classes as well as the lower, “peasant class” (Lightfoot-Klein, 47). In Asia, Muslims of the Philippines and Malaysia still practice varied forms of FGM (Thomas, 17). Within Europe, France and Germany there is an uncommon number of excised women due to African and Asian immigrants that have settled in this area (Thomas, 17). In Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan the procedure is used to stop extramarital affairs due to the excessive pain associated with intercourse (WHO, 2). In Kenya, Uganda, and West African countries such as Sierra Leone, a girl has a child out of wedlock to prove her fertility and then undergoes circumcision shortly before marriage (WHO, 2). Within Africa, the process occurs within a triangular band across the continent: Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, it is concentrated with the Ibo, Hausa, and Yoruba people,with infibulation occurring primarily in the Horn Of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan) (Lightfoot-Klein, 31). The process is so prevalent, that in Sudan 85% of the female population at large is circumcised.

A campaign against female genital mutilation – a road sign near Kapchorwa, Uganda, Amnon Shavit.

A campaign against female genital cutting – a road sign near Kapchorwa, Uganda, Amnon Shavit, 2011/CC Licensed

Attitudes towards FGC

As with all topics, there are differing views on the subject of FGC. Westerners outside of the traditions argue that it is on the same level as torture, with the effects lasting far after the actual ritual is performed. Since older women perform the ritual on the young girls, it is viewed as women perpetuating violence from one generation to the next. In her book, “Warrior Marks” (a transcript of the movie of the same name), Alice Walker points to the excessive mental anguish endured by the survivors of FGC. Interviewing both the excisor and the excised, Walker provides both sides of the issue. While realizing the painful effects of the process, many undergo FGC in order to respect the customs and religion of their nation. Those in favor of continuing FGC often point to the reasons previously listed: maintenance of cleanliness, deterring promiscuity, and increasing healthiness. As long as the process is performed, there will be controversy associated (Walker, Lightfoot-Klein, WHO).

Selected Bibliography

Literature and Film Dealing with Female Genital Cutting

  • Abusharaf, Rogaia Mustafa. Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • Gruenbaum, Ellen. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
  • Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Morgan Robin, and Gloria Steinem. The International Crime of Genital Mutilation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983.
  • Parmar, Pratibha. “Warrior Marks.” Our Daughters Have Mothers Inc.,1993.
  • Robertson, Claire. “Grassroots in Kenya: Women, Genital Mutilation and Collective Action, 1920-1990.” Signs 21.31 (1996): 615-642.
  • Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Works Cited

  • Lightfoot-Klein. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1996.
  • Koso-Thomas, Olayinka. The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy for Eradication. New Jersey: The Bath Press, 1987.
  • Walker, Alice, and Pratibha Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.
  • Walley, Christine J. “Searching for Voices: Feminism, Anthropology,and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations.” Cultural Anthropology 12.3 (1997): 405-438.
  • World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation: an Overview. Geneva: WHO Graphics, 1998.

Related Web Sites

World Health Organization: fact sheet on female genital mutilation





Author:  Jeannelle Bryan, Fall 2000
Last edited: June 2012

Yeats, W.B. and Postcolonialism

Which Yeats?

Picture of W.B. Yeats

Image by George Charles Beresford/Public Domain

There are many versions of William Butler Yeats (b 1865  d 1939),  Ireland’s most famous poet, dramatist, critic and Senator. Variously claimed by nationalists, occultists, fascists, modernists, Romantics, and postcolonialists,Yeats’s life and work are open to many interpretations. As a writer who devoted himself to building Irish culture and literature, Yeats’s position as a postcolonial figure seems obvious. At the same time, he was a member of the Anglo Irish Ascendancy and flirted with fascist ideas in his old age. This article summarizes some of the most compelling arguments for Yeats as a major postcolonial artist.

Critical Overview

This discussion rests on the question of Ireland’s place as a postcolonial nation. In their foundational reader, The Empire Writes Back,  Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin exclude Ireland from the list of postcolonial nations, even though Canada and the United States are included. Even so, they include Ireland within certain points of their discussions.  Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, argues for Yeats as a decolonizing writer, and makes the claim that Ireland is indeed a postcolonial nation. David Lloyd’s essay,”The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State” explores the connections between Yeats’s poetry and nationalism. Interrogating Yeats’s position as both postcolonial and colonialist, Seamus Deane’s Celtic Revivals raises important questions about images of nation and history. Jahan Ramazani uses Yeats to interrogate postcolonial studies, and vice versa, coming to the conclusion that Yeats’s work as a nation-maker qualifies him for inclusion as a postcolonial (Ramazani prefers the term “anticolonial”) poet. Finally, Declan Kiberd works with Yeats’s literary reconstructions of childhood and argues that Yeats’s search for a writing style mirrors a quest for selfhood in a postcolonial context.


The Early Years: Sligo, London, Gonne, Folklore and Mysticism

Born in Dublin in 1865, Yeats was the son of a painter, John Butler Yeats, and Susan Pollexfen Yeats, whose family lived in Sligo, in the Northwest of Ireland. Yeats spent much of his childhood in Sligo,and repeatedly returned to those memories in his work. His homesickness when the family moved to London in 1874 and his sense of isolation in an English school resurface in his Autobiographies. After briefly attending art school, Yeats devoted himself both to Irish literature societies in London and Dublin and his own literary development.

Maud Gonne, whom Yeats met in 1889, would become the inspiration for most of his love poetry. Though Yeats never agreed with Gonne’s militant Republicanism, he continued to write about her all of his life. In the 1890s, Yeats became fascinated by Irish folklore, and published collections of Irish legends and original poems inspired by mythological Irish figures. During this period, Yeats joined the Theosophical Movement, and became a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. This mystical, esoteric group, devoted to the supernatural, supplied Yeats with important symbolic systems. He developed an interest in Indian mysticism.

The Abbey Theater and The Irish Revival

In 1904, Yeats, along with Lady Augusta Gregory and Annie Horniman, founded the Abbey Theater. At the Abbey Yeats sought to create an Irish theater and educate the Irish public by offering a place for the performance of works by Irish dramatists. This laudable goal met with difficulties. The 1907 Playboy Riots, in response to supposed indecency in John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, infuriated Yeats, who supported Synge’s play in the face of pushes for censorship. After discovering ancient Japanese Noh Drama in 1916, Yeats began to incorporate Noh conventions (little scenery, heavy symbolism, stylized movements) into his own drama. The Abbey Theater and Yeats’s poetry made important contributions to the Irish Revival, a resurgence of Irish drama, poetry and prose from the Victorian period to the 1920s.

Politics and Marriage

Though frustrated by the Dublin reaction to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Yeats’s attitude to Ireland changed again in 1916. The Easter Rising of 1916, when roughly 700 Irish volunteers took over parts of Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic, inspired in Yeats a new nationalism. His elegy for those executed by the British, “Easter 1916,” eulogizes the dead while retaining an ambivalent attitude toward violent resistance. In 1917, Yeats married Englishwoman Georgie Hyde-Lees. Yeats believed that his wife was capable of acting as a spirit medium, and based much of his mystical work, A Vision (1925), on her automatic script. The couple had a son and daughter and lived in a Norman castle, Thoor Ballylee. From 1922 to 1928, Yeats served as a Senator for the Irish Free State, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in1923. Yeats died in the South of France in 1939, and was buried in1940 in Sligo.

The Critics on Yeats and Postcolonialism

This section will provide abstracts of a selection of the major critical contributions to the question of Yeats and postcolonialism, arranged chronologically.  For more information on these texts and suggestions for further reading, please see the bibliography.

On Seamus Deane’s Celtic Revivals (1985)

Seamus Deane’s essays debate Yeats’s position as postcolonial writer. At times Deane finds in Yeats a strong cultural nationalist, but just as often he accuses Yeats of writing out of reductive visions of Ireland. He interrogates Yeats’s position in two essays in this volume, “Yeats and the Idea of Revolution” and “O’Casey and Yeats: Exemplary Dramatists.” The first essay implicates Yeats in “inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagination” (38). Deane reads the connections between death and sex in Yeats’s play A Full Moon in March:  “Sex and violence produce poetry. Aristocrat and peasant produce, out of a violent fusion, art” (47). At the same time, Deane sees in Yeats’s attitude towards Ireland and England a conflict that he compares to V. S. Naipaul’s position on India and England: “the English left behind in their twentieth century colonies one of their most enduring inventions — a concept of Englishness.. . The whole Irish Revival is a reaction against this attitude, a movement towards the colony and a way from the mother country, a replacement of ‘Englishness’ by ‘Irishness’” (48). Though Deane has problems with some of Yeats’s “colonialist” dramatizations of Ireland, he investigates this issue in postcolonial terms. Deane’s second essay on Yeats and O’Casey finds in Yeats “a more profoundly political dramatist than O’Casey, that it is in his plays that we find a search for the new form of feeling which would renovate our national consciousness” (122). Deane’s writings explore the question of Yeats as postcolonial writer.

On Edward Said’s “Yeats and Decolonization,” from Culture and Imperialism (1993)

After acknowledging Yeats’s position as a canonical European, modernist poet, Said introduces the notion of Yeats as an “indisputably great national poet who during a period of anti-imperialist resistance articulates the experiences, the restorative vision of a people suffering under the domination of an offshore power” (220).  Said goes on to place Ireland in the context of colonialism, and defines nationalism as the “mobilizing force that coalesced into resistance against an alien and occupying empire on the parts of people possessing a common history, religion, and language” (223).  The essay moves towards Yeats as a postcolonial poet as Said discusses the connection between geography, place names, and the decolonization of both land and language. Grouping Yeats with other English-speaking African and Caribbean authors, Said describes an “overlapping” between Yeats’s “Irish nationalism with his English cultural heritage” (227). After questioning nativism in terms of Yeats’s writing, Said argues that “Yeats’s slide into incoherence and mysticism during the 1920s” relates to a limited nativist perspective (231). Yeats’s preoccupations with an “ideal community” and with history as “the wrong turns, the overlap, the . . .occasionally glorious moment,” Said argues, place him in the company of “all the poets and men of letters of decolonization” (232).  Said ends by placing Yeats somewhere along the way to full postcolonialism:  “True, he stopped short of imagining full political  liberation, but he gave us a major international achievement in cultural decolonization nonetheless” (239).

On David Lloyd’s “The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State” from Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post Colonial Moment (1993)

Emphasizing the important political “discomfort” that Yeats’s poems still cause, Lloyd explores the relationships between Yeats’s poetry and Irish nationalism. Applying later Yeats to the poet’s earlier work, Lloyd detects Yeats’s discomfort with the nationalist force of his own drama and poetry. The famous early Yeats play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan inspired such fervent nationalism that in later life Yeats would ask: “Did that play of mine send out certain men to the English shot?” In Lloyd’s view, this concern is “by no means an overweening assessment of the extraordinary part his writings played in the forging in Ireland of a mode of subjectivity apt to find its political and ethical realization in sacrifice to the nation yet to be” (59).  Lloyd addresses the paradoxical emphasis on foundation and demise in Yeats’s poetry (68).  At the end of the essay, Lloyd turns to Yeats’s female characters, and raises questions about “the antagonism between certain feminisms and the nationalism of the state” (81).

On Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (1995)

Kiberd spends his first chapter, “Childhood and Ireland,” on Yeats, discussing the effect of the poet’s Sligo childhood on both his writing and his vision of Ireland.  He questions the ways that Yeats’s early work, like other Revival texts, “which so nourished the national feeling, were often British in origin, and open to the charge of founding themselves on the imperial strategy of infantilizing the native culture” (102). Kiberd weighs in with other critics on the strong connection between Yeats’s writing and place: “In emphasizing locality, Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory were deliberately aligning themselves with the Gaelic bardic tradition of dinn-sheanchas (knowledge of the lore of places)” (107).  Kiberd offers a reading of the differences between Irish and British definitions of culture: “In (Yeats’s) estimate, a true culture consisted not in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” (111).  “Innocence,” then, “is not inexperience, but its opposite” (112).  In the next chapter, “The National Longing for Form,” Kiberd argues that Yeats and Whitman, as postcolonial writers, both perform “a search for a national style” (116).  This chapter explores the relationship between the literature of the “cultural colonies” and the “parent country” (115). Kiberd then presents a fascinating argument for Yeats’s search for his own style as a form of “self-conquest” (120).  Connecting literature and self, Kiberd argues that for both Whitman and Yeats “the decolonization of the body was a task almost as important as the decolonization of the native culture” (127). Investigating ideas of culture, and arguing for the search for a new style as a quest for a new self and nation, Kiberd reveals connections between Yeats and Whitman as writers of decolonization.

On Jahan Ramazani’s “Is Yeats a Postcolonial Poet?” (1998)

Ramazani’s fascinating essay begins by outlining the arguments for and against Yeats’s inclusion as a postcolonial writer. Acknowledging Yeats’s “whiteness, and his affiliation with the centuries old settler community of Anglo-Irish Protestants, Ramazani argues that due to his “anticolonial resistance to British cultural domination and his effort to transform the degraded colonial present by recuperating the precolonial past,” Yeats warrants examination as an anticolonial writer. If we place Yeats “under the postcolonial microscope, the many different shapes and sizes of postcoloniality need to be distinguished.”  Ramazani then discusses postcolonialism in terms of Yeats and Ireland, arguing that the term “anticolonial” replace “postcolonial.”  With “influences on writers as diverse as Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison, Raja Rao and A. K. Ramanujan, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka,” Yeats belongs to the postcolonial tradition of hybridization.  Ramazani continues to position Yeats with postcolonial,or anticolonial writers: “When Yeats, speaking at a political gathering in 1898, declared that the English empire ‘has been built on the rapine of the world,’ he anticipated Frantz Fanon‘s claim” (81). In terms of Irish cultural history, Ramazani claims that through their “Revival, the poets have turned a corpse like Ireland into a living, vibrant, even awe-inspiring ‘imagined community.’” Finally, Ramazani interrogates Yeats’s use of Indian symbols and characters as neither completely Orientalist nor affiliating, but sees his attraction to India because it “represents the Unity of Culture he wished for Ireland.” Ramzani concludes that as a nation-maker and a writer of hybridization Yeats should be considered an anticolonial writer.

For more Irish entries see:

1. Field Day Theatre

2. Brian Friel

3. Roddy Doyle

4. Eavan Boland


  • Ashcroft, Bill, Griffith, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • —. (eds.) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Brown, Malcom. The Politics of Irish Literature from Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats. Seattle: U Washington P, 1972.
  • Cairns, David and Richards, Shaun. (eds.) Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.
  • Deane, Seamus. Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980. Winston Salem: Wake Forest UP, 1985.
  • —. “Yeats: the Creation of an Audience.” Tradition and Influence in Anglo- Irish Poetry. Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene. (eds.) Totwa: Barnes and Noble, 1989. pp. 31-46.
  • Eagleton, Terry, Jameson, Fredric, and Said, Edward. (eds.) Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 1990.
  • Eagelton, Terry. “Yeats and Poetic Form.” Crazy John and the Bishop and Other Essays on Irish Culture. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1998.
  • Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of William Butler Yeats. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.
  • Foster, John Wilson. “Yeats and the Easter Rising.” Colonial Consequences:Essays in Irish Literature and Culture. Dublin: Lilliput, 1991. pp.133-148.
  • Foster, R. F. Paddy and Mr. Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London: Penguin, 1993.
  • —. W. B. Yeats, A Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
  • Frazier, Adrian. Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theater. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U California P, 1990.
  • Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
  • Lloyd, David. “The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State”. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post Colonial Moment. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993. pp. 59-87.
  • Llyons, F. S. L. Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939: From the Fall of Parnell to the Death of Yeats. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
  • Ramazani, Jahan. “Is Yeats a Postcolonial Poet?.” Raritan vol.17 no. 3 (Winter 1998): pp. 64-89.
  • Said, Edward. “Yeats and Decolonization.” Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993. pp. 220-239.
  • Watson, G. J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey. Washington: Catholic U of American P, 1979.
  • Yeats, William Butler. Autobiographies. New York: Scribner, 1999.
  • —. The Yeats Reader. Richard J. Finneran (ed.). New York: Scribner, 1997.
  • —. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Richard J. Finneran (ed.). New York: Scribner, 1997.

Related Sites

The Atlantic Monthly: All Ireland’s Bard.  Seamus Heaney reviews R. F. Foster’s biography, Yeats, A Life.
The Atlantic Monthly’s Reading of “Easter 1916″ by Peter Davidson, Philip Levine,and Richard Wilbur. Article on “Easter 1916.”
The Atlantic Monthly: William Butler Yeats by Louise Brogan. A 1938 article on Yeats as an older poet with an overview of his life.
Bartelby.com’s index to Yeats’s Responsibilities and Other Poems, The Wind Among the Reeds, and The Wild Swans at Coole.
Emory’s Special Collections Yeats Page

Author: Elizabeth Brewer, Spring 2000
Last edited: April 2012

Smith, Zadie


Image by David Shankbone/CC Licensed

Zadie Smith grew up in Willesden Green, England. She was born into a mixed race family; her mother is from Jamaica, and her father is English. She has two brothers, both younger than she, and two older half-siblings. Smith began writing poems and short stories when she was six. In addition to writing, she loved music and she tap-danced for ten years. One of her favorite pastimes as a kid was watching musical movies. Her aspirations to become the next Ginger Rogers were set aside by her growing interest in writing. Perhaps it was her desire to resist conformity that prompted Smith, at age 14, to change her name from Sadie to Zadie.

In high school, Smith was not an exceptionally ambitious student. She spent the majority of her free time reading and hanging out with friends. She smoked marijuana and characterizes herself at that time as being “a bit of a stoner” (Lyall). In fact, when Smith told one of her high school teachers that she was going to apply to Cambridge, her teacher dismissed the idea as ridiculous (Lyall). But Smith did make it to Cambridge, to the surprise of her colleagues, and found her niche amongst the academics. In college, Smith spent the majority of her time reading up on the techniques and aesthetics of her favorite writers. Her curiosity proved useful as she researched historical accounts in order to write White Teeth. In one interview, Smith was asked how she so effectively captured the perspective of a Jehovah’s Witness, or the thoughts of a middle-aged man. Smith responded, “Books, books, books. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to find out about the last day of World War II or the roots of the Indian Mutiny, get thee to a books catalogue” (Lyall).

Although Smith knew she wanted to pursue writing as a career after college, she never took a creative writing class. Her major, English Literature, provided all the inspiration and learning she felt she needed to pursue her goals as a journalist. In fact, when Smith was preparing to graduate from Cambridge, she sought numerous jobs in the field of journalism. Astonishingly, she was not offered a single interview (Lyall). Nonetheless, Smith was able to succeed as a writer, publishing White Teeth, her first and only novel as of November 2001, immediately after graduation.

White Teeth and Success

After the publication of White Teeth, Zadie Smith was awarded the Whitbread and Guardian prizes for a first novel. She also attracted the attention of Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh) who lauded Smith’s work as “an astonishingly assured debut” (White Teeth).  Smith has been compared with Rushdie, but she finds this comparison flawed (Hattenstone). Rushdie and Smith both address issues of race, history, and gender, but Smith’s writing style is clearly different from that of Rushdie’s.

In the media frenzy that followed White Teeth, Smith struggled with her new-found fame. Because of the social and political import of her novel, Smith was encouraged to become a spokeswoman for sociopolitical issues by the media and literary critics. Smith laments, “I was expected to be some expert on multicultural affairs, as if multiculturalism is a genre of fiction or something, whereas it’s just a fact of life — like there are people of different races on the planet” (Hattenstone). The media’s reaction to White Teeth was almost overwhelming for Smith.  Although she enjoys the attention, Smith feels that to a certain degree, her reputation of being a great new novelist is unearned. Smith is her own harshest critic. White Teeth, despite its critical acclaim, has left Smith wondering what all the fuss is about. She states, “I have great ambitions of writing a very great book, I just don’t think this is it” (Lyall).

Reviews of White Teeth

“Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is a formidably ambitious debut. First novelist Zadie Smith takes on race, sex, class, history, and the minefield of gender politics, and such is her wit and inventiveness that these weighty subjects seem effortlessly light.”

from The Observer

“There is nothing farcical about the pain of wanting to belong. In this respect, White Teeth is full of false smiles and contrived faces, masks that are repeatedly donned in order to better hide the pain. The ‘mongrel’ nation that is Britain is still struggling to find a way to stare into the mirror and accept the ebb and flow of history that has produced this fortuitously diverse condition and its concomitant pain… Zadie Smith’s first novel is an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror… The plot is rich, at times dizzyingly so, but White Teeth squares up to the two questions which gnaw at the very roots of our modern condition:  Who are we?  Why are we here?”

from The Guardian

“An astonishingly assured debut, funny and serious, and the voice has real writerly idiosyncrasy.  I was delighted by White Teeth and often impressed.  It has…bite.”

- Salman Rushdie

Major Themes

identity and nationality
racial discrimination
gender politics
tradition and assimilation

White Teeth takes place in London, home of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Jones (English) and Iqbal (Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi) form a strong friendship when they meet during World War II. Their friendship spans several decades, during which both marry and have children. After a divorce from a tumultuous first marriage, Jones contemplates suicide, but his demise is narrowly averted. That same day, Archie Jones meets Clara. Seeking escape from the strict rules of her Jehovah’s Witness mother, Clara marries Archie in a matter of weeks. Together they have a daughter. Meanwhile, Samad Iqbal struggles with his fate — a second-rate job as a waiter, and the Muslim faith with which he is constantly struggling. White Teeth forces the reader to question his or her beliefs and opinions on racial discrimination, miscegenation, gender roles, and history. It is a lengthy but witty novel, that demands a thorough reading.

Smith in Her Own Words

Zadie Smith is a media favorite not only because of her writing, but also because of her style and charisma. The compilation of quotes illustrate these aspects:

“I express myself with my friends and my family… Novels are not about expressing yourself, they’re about something beautiful, funny, clever and organic. Self-expression? Go and ring a bell in the yard if you want to express yourself.” (Hattenstone).

“I was 21 when I wrote White Teeth, what difference does it make what I think?” (Hattenstone).

“I have an ambition to write a great book, but that’s really a competition with myself. I’ve noticed a lot of young writers, people in all media, want to be famous but they don’t really want to do anything. I can’t think of anything less worth striving for than fame” (Hattenstone).

Works Cited

Selected Works by Zadie Smith

  • Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.
  • —. Autograph Man. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2002.
  • —. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. New York: Penguin, 2009. 
  • —. On Beauty. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005.

Author: Holly Isbister, Fall 2001
Last edited: May 2012

Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art

This article discusses contemporary performance and installation artists who address the objectification of the non-white bodies in Western culture: Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Joyce Scott and Kay Lawal, James Luna, Renée Green, Lyle Ashton Harris and Renée Cox, and Grace Jones. Significantly, many of these performance artists use their own bodies as a medium to interrogate the history of “human exhibitionism” in Europe and the United States. By exhibiting their own bodies these artists use performance art to explore the complex ways in which the displays of the non-white body have affected and continue to feed popular stereotypes about people of color in the Western imagination. The performances assert that racial and cultural difference and “otherness” in Western society are inscribed on the non-white body (see Orientalism). By recalling specific histories of human display, the artists implore their audiences to recognize, reexamine, and transcend their intolerance and prejudice against persons who appear visibly different from themselves.

This page introduces a small, representative sample of artists who have engaged this theme and it serves as an introduction to this genre of performance art. By way of organization, each of the links below take viewers to one performance piece from one of the above mentioned. After an image and a brief discussion, a statement from the artist reflecting on their work follows, and each section concludes with a short bibliography of further reading sources.

An Index of Works

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña . Undiscovered Amerindians, 1992.
The Spectacle of the Hottentot Venus: The Thunder Thigh Revue’s Women of Substance.
James Luna: Artifact Piece.
Renée Green: Revue 1990.
Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Valerie Cox: Hottentot Venus 2000.
Grace Jones: 1985 Performance in Paradise Garage

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Undiscovered Amerindians, 1992.

In order to address the widespread practice of human displays, Fuscoand Gomez-Peña enclosed their own bodies in a ten-by-twelve-foot cage and presented themselves as two previously unknown “specimens representative of the Guatinaui people” in the performance piece “Undiscovered Amerindians.” Inside the cage Fusco and Peña outfitted themselves in outrageous costumes and preoccupied themselves with performing equally outlandish “native” tasks. Gomez-Peña was dressed in an Aztec style breastplate, complete with a leopard skin face wrestler’s mask. Fusco, in some of her performances, donned a grass skirt, leopard skin bra, baseball cap, and sneakers. She also braided her hair, a readily identifiable sign of “native authenticity.”

In a similar fashion to the live human spectacles of the past, Fusco and Gomez-Peña performed the role of cultural “other” for their museum audiences. While on display the artists’ “traditional” daily rituals ranged from sewing voodoo dolls, to lifting weights to watching television to working on laptop computers. During feeding time museum guards passed bananas to the artists and when the couple needed to use the bathroom they were escorted from their cage on leashes. For a small donation, Fusco could be persuaded to dance (to rap music) or both performers would pose for Polaroids. Signs assured the visitors that the Guatinauis “were a jovial and playful race, with a genuine affection for the debris of Western industrialized popular culture … Both of the Guatinauis are quite affectionate in the cage, seemingly uninhibited in their physical and sexual habits despite the presence of an audience.” Two museum guards from local institutions stood by the cage and supplied the inquisitive visitor with additional (equally fictitious) information about the couple. An encyclopedic-looking map of the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, showed the supposed geographic location of their island. Using maps, guides, and the ambiguous museum jargon, Fusco and Gomez-Peña employed the common vocabulary of the museum world to stage their own display.

Despite Fusco and Gomez-Peña’s professed intentions that Undiscovered Amerindians should be perceived as a satirical commentary, more than half of the visitors to the museums who came upon the performance believed that the fictitious Guatinaui identities were real.

In 1992, Fusco and Gomez-Peña first staged the performance on Columbus Plaza, Madrid, Spain, as a part of the event Edge ’92 Biennial, organized in commemoration of the quincentennial of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. The performance piece had an illustrious two year exhibition history  including performances at Covent Garden in London, The National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., The Field Museum in Chicago, the Whitney Museum’s Biennial in New York, the Australian Museum of Natural History and finally in Argentina, on the invitation of the Fundacion Banco Patricios in Buenos Aires.

Quote about Undiscovered Amerindians from Coco Fusco:

According to Fusco, she and Gomez-Peña aimed to conduct a “reverse ethnography … Our cage became a blank screen onto which audiences projected their fantasies of who and what we are. As we assumed the stereotypical role of the domesticated savage, many audience members felt entitled to assume the role of colonizer, only to find themselves uncomfortable with the implications of the game” (Fusco 47).


The Spectacle of the Hottentot Venus: The Thunder  Thigh Revue’s Women of Substance

In 1986 artist Joyce Scott in collaboration with actress and comedian Kay Lawal formed the two-person performance troupe, The Thunder Thigh Revue. As the name of their performance partnership reveals, the two women in the Revue directly engaged issues surrounding the representation and perception of the body, and more specifically the black female body in American society. The first performance the Thunder Thigh Revue produced was called Women of Substance in which the tradition of exhibiting the non-white body in public spectacles was central.

At the moment of Women of Substance, which both the reviewers and Joyce Scott conceive as the pinnacle of the performance, Scott appears in the guise of Saarjite Baartman. The lights in the performance space dim, sobering the atmosphere of the room. Scott walks slowly to the center of the stage wearing an extension on her buttocks made out of sponge. Only a sheer stocking covers the rest of her body. Scott, illuminated by a bright white spotlight, stares blindly out at the audience and begins a mournful cry.

In what sounds like a low-pitched wail, Scott as Baartman speaks to the audience. She laments being far away from home in South Africa, and discusses her infinite loneliness since she was brought to “new shores.” In her portrayal of Baartman, Scott tells of the violation and humiliation of her body as an object of public display. She also speaks of her influence in the popular culture of Europe in the nineteenth century, such as how a popular women’s fashion device’s like the bustle, a padded butt extension, was inspired by her. Although oft-times in Scott’s monologue as Saarjite her individual words are difficult to discern, the overall drone of the wail itself conveys the sadness and pain of being on public display and the subject of ridicule. Through her song Scott gives Baartman a voice, imploring her audience to get past the spectacle of the body to perceive Baartman as a human being with feelings, desire, and subjectivity.

Baartman is part of the cast of characters that Scott and Lawal employ to express “the pain and passion of being the ‘other,’ an overweight black woman in this society”(Stokes Sims 221 ). As Lowery Stokes Sims notes in “Aspects of Performance in the Work of Black American Women,” throughout the performance, “Apparitions of women of substance float in and out of the performance giving testimony to their rage, their indignation, and their pride and determination” (Stokes Sims 219). In the scene that precedes the Hottentot Venus performance, Scott appears as Venus from Botticelli’s famous painting, outfitted in sponge replicas of Venus’ shell and flowing dirty-blond hair, whom she describes as the quintessential personification of beauty in Western art. By performing the two vignettes together, by introducing the audience to these two Venuses, Scott also highlights the vast discrepancies between the Western beauty ideal epitomized in Botticelli’s Venus and the condemnation of the black female body in Western culture. While the latter becomes the celebrated subject of Western painting, the former’s body is fetishized in public freak shows.  Other characters include a black Statue of Liberty and a dialogue with a refrigerator. All the women of substance in the performance encourage their audience to examine the stereotypes people hold based on physical appearance.  In the United States, the Thunder Thigh Revue appeared primarily in art museums and galleries, including The Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland Art Institute, and Sushi Gallery, San Diego. The pair also made numerous theater appearances.They staged Women of Substance at the Edinburgh festival in Scotland.

Quote from Joyce Scott on Women of Substance:

In an interview I conducted with Scott she said her aim in performance art is to seize “gross stereotypes and fuck with them.” She explains,”There’s a cesspool of stereotypes about looks, and I’m trying to put a new spin it …” Scott recognizes that that her own physical appearance which she described as “a fat black woman with gappy teeth and wild hair,” is reminiscent of “the stereotype that African-Americans have tried to debunk since the 1960s!” (Searle 48). Her own personal experience and awareness of how people visually perceive her, is a major impetus behind her investigation through performance of the ways people in society visually appraise, evaluate, and make stereotypic assumptions regarding “others” based on physical appearance.

See also Representation.


  • Hammond, Leslie King, and Lowery Stokes-Sims. Art as A Verb: The Evolving Continuum, Installations, Performances, and Videos. Baltimore: Maryland Institute College of Art,  1988.
  • Searle, Karen. “Joyce Scott: Migrant Worker for the Arts.” Ornament 15.4 (1992) :46-51.
  • Sims, Lowery Stokes. “Aspects of Performance in the Work of Black American Women Artists.” Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology. Ed. Arlene Raven and Cassandra Langer. London: U.M.I Research Press,
  • 1988.  207-225.

James Luna: Artifact Piece

James Luna often uses his body as a means to critique the objectification of Native American cultures in Western museum and cultural displays.  He dramatically calls attention to the exhibition of Native American peoples and Native American cultural objects in his Artifact Piece, 1985-87. For the performance piece Luna donned a loincloth and lay motionless on a bed of sand in a glass museum exhibition case. Luna remained on exhibit for several days, among the Kumeyaay exhibits at the Museum of Man in San Diego. Labels surrounding the artist’s body identified his name and commented on the scars on his body, attributing them to “excessive drinking.” Two other cases in the exhibition contained Luna’s personal documents and ceremonial items from the Luiseño reservation.

Many museum visitors as they approached the “exhibit” were stunned to discover that the encased body was alive and even listening and watching the museum goers. In this way the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer was returned, redirecting the power relationship.

Through the performance piece Luna also called attention to a tendency in Western museum displays to present Native American cultures as extinct cultural forms. Viewers who happened upon Luna’s exhibition expecting a museum presentation of native American cultures as “dead,” were shocked by the living, breathing, “undead” presence of the luiseño artist in the display. Luna in Artifact Piece places his body as the object of display in order to disrupt the modes of representation in museum exhibitions of native others and to claim subjectivity for the silenced voices eclipsed in these displays.

Artifact Piece was first staged in 1987 at the Museum and Man, San Diego. Luna also performed the piece for The Decade Show, 1990, in New York.

Quote from Luna:

The Artifact Piece, 1987, was a performance/installation that questioned American Indian presentation in museums-presentation that furthered stereotype, denied contemporary society and one that did not enable an Indian viewpoint.  The exhibit, through ‘contemporary artifacts’ of a Luiseño man, showed the similarities and differences in the cultures we live, and putting myself on view brought new meaning to “artifact.” (Durland 37)

Suggested Reading

  • Durland, Steven. “Call Me in ’93: An Interview with James Luna.” High Performance (Winter 1991) 34-39.
  • Fisher, Jean. “In Search of the ‘Inauthentic’: Disturbing Signs in Contemporary Native American Art.” Art Journal (Fall 1992) 44-50.
  • Luna, James. “Allow Me to Introduce Myself.” Canadian Theatre Review 68 (Fall 1991) 46-47.

Renée Green: Revue 1990

In the mixed media installation Revue, installation artist Renée Green combined several visual images and texts pertaining to the black female body: a small diminutive representation of the Hottentot Venus is centrally placed in the installation, surrounded by a series of photographically manipulated images of Josephine Baker. Framing these images on both sides run a row of texts, some of which quote Josephine Baker’s critics and others excerpts from 19th century travel accounts. The installation also includes a small open cabinet on which a toy circus comprising several miniaturized animal representations is placed. On the floor in front of the installation another wind-up animal, a lion, is caged in its surroundings.  The wind-up toy has been viewed by critics as stand in for “The Hottentot Venus,” who was similarly caged and performed the part of an animal.

In the installation, Green deals with visual representations of the black female body, like the Hottentot Venus and Josephine Baker, which were prominently positioned at the center of Britain and France’s popular exoticized gaze. Interestingly, Green’s manipulation of the scale of the images, particularly of the small Hottentot Venus image, and the blurred focus of the Baker photographs precisely resists visual apprehension.

Green also concentrations on the fascination with the black female body as manifest discursively in nineteenth century travel literature and in critiques of Baker’s performances. In contrast to the visual images the texts are blown up larger than life.  One of the enlarged panels of the excerpts from a travel account reads: “The dance of the Negresses is incredibly indecent … she gets into positions so lascivious, so lubricious that it’s impossible to describe them … It’s true that the Negresses don’t appear to have the depraved intentions which one would imagine; it’s a very old custom, which continues innocently in this country; so much so that one sees children of six performing this dance, certainly without knowing what they’re leading up to.” The visual and discursive mediations on the black female both in the metropoles of Britain and France and in distant countries, as recorded by a traveler, are juxtaposed in the installation.

Revue was installed as part an exhibition The Body as Measure at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College in 1994. Revue was reinstalled for the exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference, and Desire in London in 1995.

Quote from Green:

In particular I was interested in the way that an artist (filmmaker) and writer such as Laura Mulvey was trying to rethink the way in which certain ideas about visual pleasure were developed.  I was also trying to figure out the way in which a body could be visualized, especially a black female body, yet address the complexity of reading that presence without relinquishing pleasure and history. (Read 146 )

Further Reading

  • Fox, Judith Hoos. The Body as Measure. Wellesley College: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1994.
  • Alan Read. The Fact of Blackness.  Seattle and London: Bay Press and inIVA,  1996.

Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Valerie Cox: “Hottentot Venus 2000″

Book cover of Black Venus / CC Licensed (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

For the exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire (1995), Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Renee Valerie Cox created the photograph, “Venus Hottentot 2000.” In this futuristic reinterpretation of the Hottentot Venus, Renee Valerie Cox directly inserts her own body into the historical matrix of Western representations that configured black female sexuality. In the photograph Cox’s body is transformed, recalling the Hottentot Venus, with the addition of protruding metallic breasts and an accompanying metal butt extension. The white strings that delicately hold these metallic body parts in place with bow, seem to emphasize the artists’ complex and ambivalent relationships to representations of black female sexuality. Cox wears the metallic appendages like a costume or disguise, but her own nude body is simultaneously revealed to the viewer. She stands in profile emphasizing her bodily dimensions, hands akimbo, and stares directly at the viewer.

“Hottentot 2000″ is one photograph in a series by Harris called The Good Life, 1994.

Quote from Harris:

This reclaiming of the image of the Hottentot Venus is a way of exploring my own psychic identification with the image at the level of spectacle. I am playing with what it means to be an African diasporic artist producing and selling work in a culture that is by and large narcissistically mired in the debasement and objectification of blackness. And yet, I see my work less as a didactic critique and more as an interrogation of the ambivalence around the body. (Read 150)


  • Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire. London: ICA and inIVA, 1995.
  • Alan Read. The Fact of Blackness. Seattle and London: Bay Press and inIVA,  1996.

Grace Jones: 1985 Performance in Paradise Garage

Image of grace Jones Performing at a concert

Image by Steffmiester/CC Licensed

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Grace Jones boldly interrogated both racial and sexual stereotypes associated with the black female body, through her work in performance. Interestingly, Jones, a Jamaican born artist, was actively working in the Parisian fashion world as a model at the time she moved into performance art. Her involvement and popularity in the Parisian fashion world as a spectacle, being a model, may be compared with the likes of Josephine Baker and Saarjite Baartman before her, black females whose bodies became the locus of the Parisian imagination.

Jones’ bold and often confrontational dress and performance style played with and disrupted primitivist myths about black sexuality. In collaboration with artists like Jean-Paul Goude and Keith Haring, Jones transformed her body into medley characters, many of which satirized a primitivist reading of the black female body. The multiple personas of Grace Jones ranged widely from overly sexualized dance performances in which she donned a gorilla or tiger suit to very masculinized self-representations. For these performances Jones would appear with a crew cut in a tailored men’s suit. Both these modes of representation in Jones’ work, as hyper-sexualized animal and instances of cross-dressing have been related to Josephine Baker’s performances, more specifically, her “jungle” performances in banana and tusk skirts and the famous photographs of Baker in a top hat and tuxedo (Kershaw 21).

In 1985 Jones collaborated with Keith Haring in a performance staged at Paradise Garage, an alternative dance club in New York City. For the performance Haring painted Jones’ body in characteristically Haring-stylized white designs. Interestingly, Haring’s body art was inspired by the body paintings of the African Masai. Jones also adorned her body with an elaborate sculptural assemblage of pieces of rubber, plastic sheen, and metal, created by Haring and David Spada. A towering sculptural headdress topped off the costume. Her breasts were delineated with protruding metal coils. The metal coils were a deliberate reference to an iron-wire sculpture of Josephine Baker by artist Alexander Calder. Later in the performance Jones appeared in a Baker-style skirt, composed of yellow neon spikes. Through the painting, adornment, and importantly through her performance, Jones played with iconic signs of “the primitive,” and transformed these signifiers and her body into a site of power.


  • Kershaw, Miriam. “Postcolonialism and Androgyny: The Performance Art of Grace  Jones.” Art Journal 56 (Winter 1997): 19-25.
  • Wallace, Michelle. “Modernism, Postmodern and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. Ed.  Russell Ferguson. 39-50.

Author: Krista A. Thompson, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2012

Khan-Din, Ayub


“This was our Pakistani life; this is how we existed outside Salford. A life none of my friends knew or could understand…I think in [East is East] I came as close as possible to understanding my father’s motivation in the way he tried to bring us up,” explains Ayub Khan-Din with regard to his award winning play (Khan-Din, xi). The 38-year-old playwrite is originally from Salford, England. He is the eighth of ten children to a Pakistani father and British mother. With one brother four years his senior and another three years his junior, Khan-Din admits: “I wasn’t part of the older kids or younger kids. I lived in my own world and spent a lot of time daydreaming. It paid off in the end” (qtd. in Wolf). Strangely enough, throughout his childhood, and well into teenage years, Khan-Din had severe difficulty reading and writing. With such poor linguistic skills, it was impossible for anyone to believe that his daydreaming would ever really pay off.

At the age of sixteen, Khan-Din left school and worked at Lee’s Salon, where he went on to become “the worst hairdresser in Manchester.” Khan-Din’s inspiration to become an actor stemmed from David Niven’s autobiography entitled The Moon’s a Balloon, in which Niven writes about his own decision to pursue a career in acting after having served many years in the army. Indeed, Khan-Din also transitioned into the acting profession. His on-screen credits include “My Beautiful Laundrettez” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid”.  He remembers his acting experience to be a tumultuous one, mostly because of his bicultural background: “I had no idea after leaving drama school that I would suddenly be stamped with an invisible mark that said BLACK ACTOR!  So while more of my contemporaries went off to rep, I had the added disadvantage of trying to find a company that enforced integrated casting — I didn’t work for a year!” (Khan-Din, ix). Although Khan-Din wasn’t “working” in the traditional sense per se, he was in process of creating what would later become his ticket to success, East is East. The play is based heavily on Khan-Din’s own life and experiences growing up in a bicultural, working-class background: “The parents are drawn directly from my own family. The youngest boy, Sajid, is me as a child. All the arguments in the film, all the theories behind the father’s way of thinking are my own arguments and theories which I developed from writing the first draft of the stageplay to the last draft of the screenplay. The different issues, the different aspects of the relationships — they’re all very similar to my own background.” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din). Khan-Din’s mother passed away because of Alzheimer’s disease soon after he graduated from the Mountview Drama School. As a tribute to her and in an attempt to understand his past, Khan-Din decided to delve into the complexities of his childhood by writing East is East as a stage play. He later produced it as a screenplay for Miramax films. Khan-Din has received harsh criticism from more traditional members of Asian society for what they believe to be a somewhat derogatory depiction of Pakistani culture. In response to such comments, he claims: “It was a personal story. I wasn’t writing about any specific community, I was writing about my father.” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din). Khan-Din is currently married and has authored several other plays including  So Soon, So Soon and Belmondo Sahib. In 2007 and 2010, Khan-Din’s plays Rafta, Rafta and the sequel to East is East titled West is West premiered.  His work has received mixed reviews, but the overall consensus of critics is that East is East remains his most solid and compelling play.

East is East: Major Themes

Plot Synopsis

East is East poster

East is East poster

Khan-Din’s autobiographical play, East is East, is his most well-known and best received work. It explores the trials and tribulations of George and Ella Khan as they raise eight  rebellious and rambunctious children. George, the children’s Pakistani father is adamant that his children wed other Pakistanis, while Ella, George’s British wife would rather their children marry whomever they choose. The central paradox that the Khan children grapple with is the fact that their own father has married someone outside his race. As critic Les Gutman eloquently states: “The play’s weight… arises from the complex bundle of contradictions that George represents. He is a devout Muslim, proud of his Pakistani heritage and culture. He anguishes over the current fighting between India and Pakistan [...] and longs for the family he left behind. He is firm in his intent to rear his children as Pakistani Muslims which prompts the controversies central to the play.” Indeed, it is George’s own insecurities about his lifestyle and decisions that lead him to place unbearable pressure on his family. George and Ella have been married for nearly twenty-five years and she is his second wife.  “Mrs. Khan number one” as George calls his first wife, lives in Pakistan and is always referred to when George is upset with Ella. George and Ella own and run a fish ‘n’ chips shop, the wages from which are barely enough to support their family. Within the family itself are 7 boys, Nazir, Tariq, Abdul, Maneer, Saleem and Sajid and one girl, Meenah. Khan-Din’s characterization of the Khan children is particularly interesting. On one hand, he cannot develop them to the extent that novels can, so in a sense they are stereotyped. On the other hand, he does provide his audience with just enough information to understand each character’s underlying personality. Nazir breaks away from George’s edict of matrimony very early in the play and is consequently considered no longer part of the family. Tariq, the most strong-willed son and Abdul, the most passive one, are focused on heavily because it is their wedding that George is trying to arrange and what most of the action is centered around.

The entire play hinges on the problems encountered in bicultural families and raises important issues concerning whether two very different cultures can coexist. Additionally, the play has strong historical relevance because it takes place during a very turbulent time in Indian history. The year is 1971 and Bangladesh is trying to gain its freedom and talks of Enoch Powell are always in the air. With so many relevant ideas and themes, the play raises extremely important questions in regards to whether two opposing groups of people can coexist or whether Rudyard Kipling’s quote, from which the play borrows it’s name, holds true that, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.”


There are a variety of issues and themes that Khan-Din explores throughout his play. Most of them can be classified as social, historical, or symbolic in nature.

Social Themes

Bicultural families: Khan-Din is particularly interested in illustrating the obstacles that bicultural families must surmount in order to maintain some level of stability and contentment within them. The cultural differences within the Khan household present various problems for all of its members. Careful exploration of George’s character reveals that he longs for his Pakistani heritage and compensates for it by instilling Pakistani ideals on his children. As Les Gutman states, “East is East beautifully harmonizes the bedlam of life in a large family and the personal crisis of its conflicted immigrant father. The former is at once touching and very funny; the latter, tormented and ugly.” George is a Pakistani man living in Britain during a time in which bi-racial marriages were looked down upon. Although George loves Ella and his family, the reader understands that he longs for his own homeland as well. As for Ella, the dual cultures within her family force her to compromise her thoughts and beliefs heavily. Despite her lack of refinement in behavior, Ella is a loyal wife and mother. However, many problems arise in trying to satisfy her husband’s wishes as well as her children’s. Throughout the play, Ella always feels as though she must choose between the happiness of her children and the happiness of her husband, since both seem to be mutually exclusive.

Gender Roles:  The roles of men and women deserve a close exploration as well. However, Khan-Din is more concerned with depicting the dilemmas faced by his female characters. His principal female character, Ella, challenges many of the societal roles that have been relegated to women. Ella is an interesting character because, on the surface, she is the direct antithesis of femininity. She curses and insults her husband and children, but underneath everything, she is extremely vigilant in regard to her family and sacrifices a lot in order to hold it together. In his representation of women, Khan-Din compels his readers to consider the roles they played in order to hold the family together. The only other character that Khan-Din develops is Meenah. Due to such strong male influences, Meenah is something of a tomboy. Although George tries to enhance Meenah’s Pakistani side, there are  instances which attest to the fact that Meenah simply does not ‘fit’ into George’s ideals.  Even when she is first introduced, she is wearing a sari and it is pointed out that it “makes her look like a sack of spuds” (Khan-Din, 4). Khan-Din’s presentation of women is intriguing and provides many key insights concerning the workings of the Khan family.

Historical Themes

Bangladesh Liberation War: East is East is set in 1971.  During this time period, Bangladesh is trying to gain its independence from Pakistan. In March of 1971, the Pakistani army committed genocide against the east Pakistani people. This prompted the Bengali people to wage a war for their own independence. Because India helped Bangladesh do this, George is always making negative comments about this throughout the play.

Enoch Powell: This historical figure has a foreboding presence throughout the play. Although he is not an official character, he is a major part of the historical backdrop of the play. During the early 1970′s this prominent politician and writer launched attacks on the immigrants taking away British jobs. Of both historical themes, Khan-Din asserts: “Bangladesh’s war of independence had a big effect on our household, because what happened in the house always revolved around the TV news. In a way, it was almost as if the disintegration of Pakistan was happening in our house at the same time. It affected everything that was going on” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din).

Symbolic Themes

Sajid’s parka:  Sajid, the youngest of the Khan’s, and Khan-Din’s representation of himself, is associated with the parka that he constantly wears. The parka is supposed to be the boy’s shield from the harsh realities of the family, as well as the harsh realities of the world. Although Sajid is the youngest member, he is certainly not the most spoiled. He relies on his parka to protect him from what his family cannot. At the end of the play, Sajid makes a landmark decision to discard his parka. The meaning behind this action can be interpreted in many ways, but most readers see this as his readiness to take on the complexities of his lifestyle.

On Stage

Khan-Din originally intended for East is East to be performed as a stage play. It opened first at the London Royal Court Theatre in 1997 and in The Manhattan Theater Club in 1999. Scott Elliot, the artistic chief and director of the Manhattan Theater Club exclaims: “Its unbelievably original…when you read it, you think ‘What is this?’ And then you find out most of it is true, so that really increases your interest. You just know where this play is coming from–the warmth and heart and love and rage that are in this family.”  Khan-Din echoes these sentiments in regards to the play: “The anger is there. But you can get your message across much stronger, I think, through humor and showing humanity. That’s the only way an audience is going to come in. And if you’re not going to get an audience, at the end of the day, your play is a dead duck.” Khan-Din’s play was anything but dead– it sold out in all productions in both London and New York. Additionally, Khan-Din was awarded the Writer’s Guild Award for Best New Writer as well as Best West End Play.

On Screen

In 1999, East is East was distributed to Miramax Films who asked Damien O’Donnell to direct a film version of the play. The cast included Linda Bassett as Ella and Om Puri as George. Although both cast member were a part of the original theater productions of the play, some viewers felt that the film failed to retain the same appealing qualities as the stage play. As Kristine Landon-Smith states: “The film is totally different from the stage play…I found that some of the characters lost their nuances on screen and became stereotypes” (qtd. in Ahmad). Despite a few criticisms, the film received overall positive reviews. During the first week of its release in Britain, the film grossed one million dollars at the box office–pulling ahead of the box-office smash “The Sixth Sense.” Later in 1999, Khan-Din was nominated for best screenplay at the Evening Standard Awards, one of London’s most distinguished honors. Khan-Din did not win, although East is East did receive the award for the best film of 1999. Indeed, Khan-Din’s progress as a writer is best reflected in his plays. However, equally as admirable, is his ability to present his complicated life as understandable pieces — both for his audiences as well as for himself.

Works Cited

  • Guthman, Edward. “Old, New Ways Clash in East’; Pakistani Father Raises a Family in London.” (15 Sept. 2000) Lexis Nexis Academic Universe.  9 Nov 2000. Web.
  • Gutman, Les.  “A CurtainUp Review: East is East.” (2, June 1999) 24  Nov 2000. Web.
  • Khan-Din, Ayub. “East is East.” New York: Hyperion, 1999.
  • “A Quick Chat With Ayub Khan-Din.” (6 Oct. 1999). 9 Nov. 2000. Web.
  • Toscan, Richard.  “Guidelines for Play Competitions.” (1995) The Play Writing Seminars Homepage. 9 Nov. 2000. Web.
  • Wolf, Matt.  “East is East and West is an Off Broadway Stage.” (23 May  1999). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.

Selected Bibliography

  • Ahmad, Shazia. “Din’s Own Story.” American Theater. Vol. 17. (2000). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
  • Bassett, Kate. “I Owe It All to David Niven.” The Daily Telegraph. (1999).  Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
  • Donnell, Alison. Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • French, Philip. “A Fate Worse Than Death?” The Observer. (1999). Lexis  Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
  •  Hingorani, Dominic. British Asian theatre : dramaturgy, process and performance. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Related Links

Reviews of the film


Official Sites

http://www.eastiseastmovie.com (Miramax official site)
http://www.eastiseast.co.uk/index.html (U.K. official site).

Bangladesh Liberation War Site


Author: Tina Bhatnagar, Fall 2000

Last Updated: July 2012

Nwapa, Flora

Nigerian Literature – Cries of Protest

Efuru, 1966

Efuru, 1966

Nigerian literature often expresses the struggles of a nation that has survived the exploitation of colonialism and capitalism as well as the devastation of civil war and authoritarianism. Given the turmoil in Nigerian history, it is inevitable that the postcolonial Nigerian artist would fulfill the traditional role of artist as the voice of the people. The manifestation of protest in the novels, plays and poetry of Nigerian authors in the last 40 years attests to the role of artist as the cry of protest.

The publication of Flora Nwapa’s Efuru in 1966 was a watershed moment for African women writers. Although these writers may not claim the label of feminism, their works offer realistic pictures of gender issues in a patriarchal society and expose a society formed in a history of colonialism and patriarchy.


Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa was born January 18, 1931 in Oguta, East Central State, Nigeria. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from University College, Ibadan in 1957, and a Diploma in Education from University of Edinburgh the following year. Upon her return to Nigeria, she joined the Ministry of Education in Clabar as an Education Officer until 1959. She then accepted a teaching position at Queen’s School in Enugu, where she taught English and Geography from 1969-71. She continued to work in both education and civil service in several positions, including: Assistant Registrar, University of Lagos (1962-1976), Minister of Health and Social Welfare, East Central State (1970-71), and Minister of Lands, Survey and Urban Development (1971-74).

Flora Nwapa began her career as an author with the publication of Efuru in 1966. Nwapa is often credited with being the first African woman to publish in English (although some controversy exists around this claim). She followed with her second novel, Idu, in 1971. After publication of these two novels, Nwapa became unsatisfied with the publicity and distribution efforts by her publisher, Heinemann Educational. In 1974, she founded Tana Press, Ltd and in 1977, Flora Nwapa Books. She published the rest of her works, as well as many other works from other writers, through one of her two publishing companies.

Nwapa continued her career as an educator throughout her life, teaching at colleges and universities around the world, including among others, New York University, Trinity College, University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, and University of Ilorin.

Flora Nwapa died at the age of 62 in 1993.

Major Publications


  • Nwapa, Flora. Efuru. London: Heinemann, 1976.
  • —. Idu. London: Heinemann Educational, 1978.
  • —. Never Again. Enugu, Nigeria: Tana Press, 1986.
  • —. One is Enough. Enugu, Nigeria: Tana Press, 1984.

Short Stories and Poetry

  • Nwapa, Flora. Cassava Song and Rice Song. Enugu, Nigeria: Tana Press, 1986
  • —. This is Lagos and Other Stories. Enugu, Nigeria: Nwankwo-Ifejika & Co., 1971
  • —. Wives at War and Other Stories. Enugu, Nigeria: Tana Press, 1984

Feminist themes

Although Nwapa repeatedly denied being a feminist, many of her works do address questions of tradition and transformation for women. Nwapa weaves together traditional Igbo mores and myths and contemporary dilemmas to create complex characters struggling for independence in their societies. She shows women succeeding outside of the traditional woman’s role of mother and wife, while also reaffirming Igbo culture.

In an interview with Contemporary Authors, Nwapa commented, “I have been writing for nearly thirty years. My interest has been on both the rural and the urban woman in her quest for survival in a fast-changing world dominated by men.”


  • Adeola, James, editor. In Their Own Voices, African Women Writers Talk. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.
  • Andrade, Susan Z. “Rewriting History, Motherhood and Rebellion.” Research in African Literatures 21. (1990): 91-110.
  • Ezeigbo, Theodora Akachi. “Traditional Women’s Institutions in Igbo Society: Implications for the Igbo Female Writer.” African Languages and Cultures 3. (1990): 149-65.
  • Ikonne, Chidi. “The Society and Woman’s Quest for Selfhood in Flora Nwapa’s Early Novels.” Kunapipi 6. (1984): 68-78.
  • Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. Africa Wo/Man Palava. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures, Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

(Biographical information obtained from Contemporary Authors, Gale Research, 1996)

Author: Susan Leisure, Fall 1996
Last edited: June 2012

Blixen, Karen (Isak Dinesen)


Out of Africa, 1992.

Out of Africa, 1992

Karen Blixen remains a complex figure in the writing and history of colonial Africa. Author, storyteller, and early colonizer, she helped to define Africa and its people for the many Europeans who read her novels, chiefly Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. Criticism of her work frequently shifts from admiration of her form to outrage at her portrayal of Africans. Karen Blixen’s complicated life and work continue to be studied, debated, and questioned in light of both the colonial society she inhabited and the modern reality of a postcolonial world.

Born in 1885 fifteen miles north of Copenhagen in Rungstedlund, Denmark, Karen Dinesen grew up on her family’s spacious estate and led a somewhat typical aristocratic life.  Her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, fought in the Prusso-Danish war in 1864, and later lived in the United States for two years amongst Native American tribes.  In 1895 when Karen was ten years old, Wilhelm hung himself, leaving his wife to raise five children alone. Although Karen knew little of her father, she often claimed to identify most with his family and his sense of exploration.  In comparing her life in Africa with her father’s time in America, Blixen comments, “he turned away from Europe and its civilization and lived for three years among Indians in North America without seeing another white man” (Hannah 13).  Much of Blixen’s early life consisted of what she describes as an unhappy childhood amidst strict Victorian sensibilities. Schooled at home with a private tutor, Blixen did not fit well with her family’s expectations. Blixen even contends that differences with her aunt became “one of my main reasons for going to Africa” (15).

Because of this unfulfilled childhood, Blixen quickly turned to storytelling as a source of comfort–a practice she repeated later in life (Hannah 17).  She began writing at the age of eight with the frequent stories she told to her sisters.  Blixen published two stories in 1907 and another in 1909 in Denmark; all three were ghost stories with women as their protagonists.  As a young woman, she attended a school of design in Copenhagen, and later the Danish Royal Academy of Art. Years later, Blixen cited her training as a painter as a major influence in her work.  Commenting upon her work, she says, “painting has constantly revealed the true nature of the world to me.  I have always had difficulty in seeing what a landscape really looks like unless I have been given the key to it by a great painter” (21).  This affinity for rich description became a frequent thread in her writing.  In 1914, Karen Dinesen married her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke and moved to Kenya with him to start a coffee farm in the Ngong Hills. She passed in 1962 after a long bout with illness.

Karen Blixen in Africa

Blixen’s marriage proved an unhappy one and resulted in divorce in 1921 as well as a battle with syphilis a few years earlier.  Despite this, Blixen found her years in Africa to be her most liberating and challenging.  After her divorce, she ran the coffee farm by herself and lived alone, a practice fairly uncommon at the time.  She speaks of her years in Africa as a relief from her former life: “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams” (29).  Blixen found herself outside the Victorian world of Denmark and immersed in the aristocracy of colonial Africa.  She earned the coveted status of an early settler, a position that gave her freedom and standing in society life.  Her writing about Africa filters through this position of social privilege and frames her commentary and description of African natives and the land from a position of colonial authority.

The Colonial System

Colonialism, which Memmi describes as “one variety of fascism” (63), is based on economic privilege, despite suggestion of more noble goals of religious conversion or civilization. Its key tools are racism and terror.

Racism is ingrained in every colonial institution, and establishes the “sub-humanity” of the colonized, fostering poor self-concepts in the colonized as well.  By using terror to quell any reactionary uprising, the colonizers reinforce fear and submission.

The colonial system favors population growth.  In order to keep the salaries of the colonizers high and their cost of living low, there must be high competition among the native laborers.  In other words, the birthrate must rise in order for the system to perpetuate itself.  Since all resources go to the colonizer despite the need for increased resources by the growing colonized population, the standard of living of the colonized inevitably goes down.

Blixen’s Views of the Natives

Blixen’s views of the Masai, Somali, and Kikuyu she came in contact with varied widely.  The early settlers labeled her “pro-native” while others saw her opinions as aristocratic and condescending.  In a 1938 lecture, Blixen describes her feelings for the natives that she encountered: “I loved the natives.  In a way the strongest and the most incalculable emotion I have known in my life.  Did they love me? No.  But they relied on me in a strange, incomprehensible, mysterious way.  A stupendous obligation” (34).  On the one hand, Blixen portrays the natives as her “obligation,” yet she also characterizes her friendships with them as “heroic friendships” (37).  This ambiguous attitude is present in her novels Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, and produces conflicting opinions of her work and personal character.

Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen as Storyteller

Karen Blixen adopted the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen for all of her published work when she returned from Africa in 1931 to live in Denmark permanently.  With the publication and acclaim of Seven Gothic Tales, the true identity of the author soon emerged as Blixen, who wrote under her own well-known maiden name of Dinesen.  In general, Blixen’s tales tend to lean towards mythic themes.  Her stories take place in an “exotic past”–usually eighteenth century West Indies, Persia, or Asia.  Much like ancient myth, her characters often serve as somewhat stylized “types” rather than realistic people.  Much of the time, Blixen relies upon fate to bring her characters to a moment of realization (Johannesson 25).  Throughout her stories, the element of storytelling itself remains important.  The plot many times leads one character to the occasion of telling a story to another (20).  Above all else, Karen Blixen saw herself as a master storyteller, capable of transforming the reader into the world of her imagination.  She remarks:

I belong to an ancient, idle, wild and useless tribe, perhaps I am even one of the last members of it, who, for many thousands of years, in all countries and part of the world, has, now and again, stayed for a time among the hard working honest people in real life, and sometimes has thus been fortunate enough to create another sort of reality for them, which in some way or another, has satisfied them.  I am a storyteller. (Hannah 60)

Both her stories and autobiographical accounts found harsh and favorable criticism in later years.  Many critics began to see Blixen as more than a mere storyteller, but one who could and had shaped views of Africa and its people.

Karen Blixen’s Africa: Conflicting Criticisms

In light of postcolonial African nations seeking to forge an identity and literature of their own, Blixen’s views, and particularly her novels of Africa, came under increased scrutiny.  Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to Blixen in his essay “Literature and Society.” He sees her as a racist author who tries to “define the colonized world for the European colonizer” (16).  He points to Blixen’s repeated use of animal imagery when describing Africans.  In her depiction of her servant Kamante, Ngugi sees Blixen’s comparison to the animal as extreme insult.  He details a passage comparing Kamante’s actions to, “a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present” (18).  Africans also come back to Blixen in dreams as animals rather than human.  Ngugi understands Blixen to hold a very strict hierarchy of life in which Africans have no place:

Her cosmos is hierarchically ordered with God at the top followed by the white aristocracy, ordinary whites, domestic animals, wild animals who are in ‘direct contact’ with God.  Africans don’t figure anywhere in this cosmic picture except as part of wood and stones, different only because occasionally they exhibit impulses towards animals. (19)

In Ngugi’s view, Blixen’s animal imagery degrades the Africans she claims to praise.  He perceives her aristocratic outlook to translate into a world in which the African ranks below the animals and below the land.  Ngugi finds Blixen particularly insulting because of her educated and privileged place in society.  Blixen, he points out, is no uncouth soldier or repressed missionary, but “a refined lady of some discrimination and learning” (19), thereby legitimizing her words.  In light of her education, Ngugi believes that her attitudes are all the more abhorrent.  Much of Ngugi’s anger stems from what he sees as Blixen’s inability to give the Western world a truer picture of Kenya and its people.

Within identical passages, however, other critics dispute Ngugi’s view.  They find instead a noble, if somewhat constructed description of Africa and its people in Blixen’s words.  Blixen’s narration, then, becomes more of an artificial and artful world created by the author (Johannesson 131).  Her stylized portrayal of natives, her animal imagery, translates as a means to provide aesthetic distance from her work (134).  In all her tales, Blixen devotes much time to description and fairly stock characters.  Africa develops as a mere extension of this view; it unfolds as another tale Blixen tells with embellishments.  This criticism seeks to remind the reader that however “realistic” Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass might appear, it still serves as an author’s reconstruction of a land and people (126).  After all, these critics contend, Blixen recalls Africa five years after she left, while in her home in Denmark.

Karen Blixen’s legacy includes much complexity and contention.  To some, she stands as a master storyteller.  Others see her as a writer in a white racist tradition who perpetuates a demeaning portrait of Africans.  Both Baroness Karen Blixen and writer Isak Dinesen, Blixen leaves a written and personal history filled with widely varied opinions.  As postcolonial writers and nations continue their discussion, Blixen will no doubt hold a much debated yet firmly established seat at the table.

Major Works

  • Dinesen, Isak.  Anecdotes of Destiny.  New York: Vintage International, 1993.
  • —.  Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • —.  Daguerreotypes and Other Essays.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • —.  Last Tales.  New York: Vintage International, 1991.
  • —.  Letters from Africa 1914-1931.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • —.  Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.  New York: Vintage International, 1989.
  • —.  Seven Gothic Tales.  New York: Vintage International, 1991.
  • —.  Winter’s Tale.  New York: Vintage International, 1993.

Selected Bibliography

  • Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Dinesen, Isak.  Out of Africa.  New York: Random House, 1970.
  • Hannah, Donald.  Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality.  London: Putnam and Company, 1971.
  • Horton, Susan R.  Difficult Women, Artful Lives.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  • Johannesson, Eric O.  The World of Isak Dinesen.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961.
  • Langbaum, Robert W. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art. New York: Random House, 1965.
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  “Literature and Society.”  Writers in Politics: Essays.  London: Heinemann, 1981.

Related Links

Karen Blixen-Isak Dinesen Information Site

Author:  Leah Wolfson, Fall 1998
Last Edited: April 2012

Shaarawi, Huda


Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947), a feminist nationalist activist, is considered to be a central figure in early twentieth century Egyptian feminism. Born into a very wealthy family, Shaarawi spent her early years in the harem, an experience described in her memoirs, Harem Years.

Philanthropic Work

Shaarawi was involved in philanthropic projects throughout her life. In 1908, she created the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, offering social services for poor women and children. She argued that women-run social service projects were important for two reasons. First, by engaging in such projects, women would widen their horizons, acquire practical knowledge and direct their focus outward. Second, such projects would challenge the view that all women are creatures of pleasure and beings in need of protection. To Shaarawi, problems of the poor were to be resolved through charitable activities of the rich, particularly through donations to education programs. Holding a somewhat romanticized view of poor women’s lives, she viewed them as passive recipients of social services, not to be consulted about priorities or goals. The rich, in turn, were the “guardians and protectors of the nation.”

Egyptian Feminist Union

Shaarawi was a feminist activist throughout her life. In 1914, she founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women. In 1923, she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), in which she was to remain active throughout her life. The EFU consisted of upper and middle class Egyptian women, and at its height had about 250 members. The EFU focused on various issues, particularly women’s suffrage, increased education for women, and changes in the Personal Status laws. While the EFU accomplished few of its goals, it is widely credited with setting the stage for later feminist victories.

Involvement in Nationalist Struggle

Shaarawi was very involved in the Egyptian nationalist struggle, and was a central player in organizing a march of upper and middle class women against the British in 1919. In 1920, she became the president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. Much to the dismay of Shaarawi and other women activists, following independence, the new government denied women suffrage. Shortly afterwards, when the government barred women from the opening of the Egyptian Parliament, Shaarawi led a delegation of women to picket the opening. Revealing the interrelatedness of their feminist and nationalist beliefs, the protesters issued a list of 32 feminist, social and nationalist demands. Eventually, in 1924, Shaarawi split from the Wafdist Central Committee, and began to devote her time to the EFU.

Ties with international women’s movement

Harem Years book cover

Harem Years, 1991

Part of Shaarawi’s motivation for founding the EFU was her desire to send a delegation of Egyptian women to the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome, in May 1923. In a speech at this conference, Shaarawi advanced her conception of Egyptian feminism. She argued, first, that women in ancient Egypt had equal status to men, and only under foreign domination had women lost those rights. Second, she argued that Islam also granted women equal rights to men, but that the Koran had been misinterpreted by those in power. Shaarawi and the EFU maintained their ties with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance for several years. However, in the 1930s, increasingly influenced by the nationalist movement in Palestine, Shaarawi and her colleagues began to define nationalism in pan-Arab, rather than Egyptian, terms. In addition, they became increasingly suspicious of Western feminists, and began to cast their feminist struggle in pan-Arab terms as well. Eventually, they broke their ties to the Suffrage Alliance. In 1945, Shaarawi and the EFU played a major role in founding the All Arab Feminist Union.

Shaarawi and the Veil

Upon her return from the Rome conference in 1923, Shaarawi performed an act that has come to stand as a central symbol of her life: she removed her veil in public at a Cairo train station. While clearly a bold act, its significance may be somewhat exaggerated, since Shaarawi herself argued for a gradualist approach to veil removal. In fact, removal of the veil was never on the EFU’s agenda. In addition, the veil was only an issue for the wealthiest women in Egyptian society, since only they wore it. Thus, ironically, what Shaarawi is best known for — removing her veil — is an issue to which she herself chose to devote little time.


  • Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 1995.
  • Baron, Beth Ann. “Unveiling in Early Twentieth Century Egypt: Practical and Symbolic Considerations.” Middle Eastern Studies. 24(3): 370-86.
  • Hatem, Mervat. “Egyptian Upper- and Middle-Class Women’s Early Nationalist Discourses on National Liberation and Peace in Palestine (1922-1944).” Women and Politics. 9(3): 49-69.
  • Kader, Soha Abdel. Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899-1987. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publisher, 1987.
  • Shaarawi, Huda. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. Translated and introduced by Margot Badran. New York: The Feminist Press, 1987.

Author: Melissa Spatz, Fall 1996
Last edited: May 2012

Bollywood and Women

Brief History of Indian Cinema

Indian Flag on film clapperboard

Image by André Koehne/CC Licensed

In 1896, India was first exposed to motion pictures when the Lumiere Brothers’ Chinematographe showed six soundless short films on July 7 in Bombay. By 1899, Harishchandra Bhatvadekar shot two short films, which were exhibited with Edison’s projecting kinetoscope. Throughout the first two decades, the trend continued with filmmakers such as Hiralal Sen and F. B.  Thanawalla, J. F.  Madan and Abdullah Esoofally, and others. Dada Sahib Phalke produced India’s first indigenous silent film, Raja Harishchandra, in May of 1913, which enabled the film industry to truly arise. By 1920, the Indian Cinema was becoming part of society (“History of Indian Cinema”).

The Representation of Women on Screen

In traditional Indian Society, there are certain prescribed roles which regulate the conduct of women. For example, the conception of the woman as Sita is prevalent in Indian society and film. Sita is a character in the Ramayana, one of the great epics, which embodies values and the differences between right and wrong. She is the wife of Rama, who is representative of many virtues including honor, courage, and loyalty. Much of Indian popular cinema is influenced by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, another epic, which involves the hero Lord Krishna. Sita is the ideal woman and wife that sees her husband as an idol. Indian popular cinema represents this role of the ideal wife’s admiration and unfaltering respect.

Also, according to the Manusmriti, an ancient classical work dealing with laws, ethics, and morality, a woman should be subject to her father in childhood, in youth to her husband, and when her husband is dead, to her children. Within the guidelines of the Manusmriti, women do not enjoy independence. Women are supposed to adhere to the role of a happy figure who takes care of the household. They are supposed to be obedient to their husbands and go to every length to honor them even after death.

Although Indian cinema continues to change and evolve, reflecting new trends in gender relations, at least in very traditional Indian cinema women who live by these traditional norms are portrayed as happy and ethical. Women who go against these rules of narrative and culture in film are punished and seen as immoral.

Four Roles of Women

The Changing Role of Women in Bollywood Cinema, 2011.

These roles and constructions of women are reflected in a great deal of popular Indian Cinema. Four important roles to consider include the ideal wife, ideal mother, the vamp, and the courtesan (Dissanayake 77).

  • The Ideal Wife

This character is represented by sexual purity and fidelity. She must be consistent with traditional Indian roles by honoring the family and depending on the husband. She is closely connected to the domestic domain.

  •  The Ideal Mother

Indian reference to the mother involves religious suggestion. The country is connected with the mother goddess, Shakti, who represents great strength. The role of the mother in Indian film is often seen as a strong force, such as in Mother India (1957).

  •  The Vamp

The vamp in Indian film is modern and imitates western women. Her behavior can include smoking, drinking, and dancing. She can also be quick to fall in and out love. She represents unacceptable behavior and is seen as unwholesome. She is almost always punished for her behavior.

  •  The Courtesan

The courtesan is outside the normal realm of Indian womanhood in that she is a type of prostitute or dancing girl.  She embodies sexuality. She is a character who helps with the physical and emotional needs of men. Often in Indian film, she gives the man comfort and care, after which he leaves her to desperately mourn the loss of him.

Sexuality in Indian Cinema

Many of the roles represented here are similar to that of the roles of women in western film. For example, the women are seen as objects of desire. This relates to the representations of romance and the female figure in Indian popular film.

Kissing was unknown in Indian film for a long time. Public displays of affection are associated with western life.  However, there are blatant scenes involving sexuality. Although more recent films often include scenes of overt sexual relations, traditionally Indian film has used three techniques (as categorized by Richards) to convey this sexuality: tribal dress, dream sequences/wet saris, and behind the bush.

  • Tribal Dress

Because many Indian films involve music and dance, Richards explains, “tribal costumes are used for the exposure of vast expanses of the body, in particular the pelvic region” (qtd. in Dissanayake 79).

  • Dream Sequences/Wet Sari

Dreams offer the ability to express sexual desires and explore forbidden pleasure. Wet saris are often involved in these dreams and are caused by a downpour in which the woman’s flimsy sari allows for exposure of the female body.

  •  Behind the Bush

The music and dance in films often gives characters the opportunity to run behind the bushes quickly. Afterwards the woman wipes off her lips, insinuating what occurred.

Related Links

LA Weekly article “Planet Bollywood?” by David Chute

PBS Independent Lens Indian Musicals

The Bollywood and Its Women by Ritu Ganguli

Works Cited

  • Chakravarty, Sumita S. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
  • Dissanayake, Wimal, and K. Moti Gokulsing. Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change. London: Trentham Books Limited, 1998.
  • “History of Indian Cinema.” Web. <http://www.allindia.com/arts/cinema.htm>

Author:  Carolyn Finch, Fall 2000
Last edited: May 2012

Mukherjee, Bharati


Photo of Mukherjee speaking

Image by DGtal/Public Domain

Bharati Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940 to wealthy parents, Sudhir Lal and Bina Mukherjee in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. She learned how to read and write by the age of three. In 1947, she moved to Britain with her family at the age of eight and lived in Europe for about three and a half years. By the age of ten, Mukherjee knew that she wanted to become a writer, and had written numerous short stories.

After getting her B.A from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and her M.A. in English and Ancient Indian Culture from the University of Baroda in 1961, she came to the United States. Having been awarded a scholarship from the University of Iowa, she earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 1963 and her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1969. While studying at the University of Iowa, she met and married a Canadian student from Harvard, Clark Blaise, on September 19, 1963. The two writers met and, after a brief courtship, married within two weeks. Together, the two writers have produced two books along with their other independent works. Mukherjee’s career as professor and her marriage to Blaise Clark has given her opportunities to teach all over the United States and Canada. Currently she is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Major Themes

Mukherjee’s works focus on the “phenomenon of migration, the status of new immigrants, and the feeling of alienation often experienced by expatriates” as well as on Indian women and their struggle (Alam 7). Her own struggle with identity, first as an exile from India, then an Indian expatriate in Canada and finally as a immigrant in the United States has led to her current state of being an immigrant in a country of immigrants (Alam 10).

Biographer Fakrul Alam’s categorizes Mukherjee’s life into three phases, and her fiction can be interpreted with this schema as well. Her earlier works, such as the The Tiger’s Daughter and parts of Days and Nights in Calcutta, are her attempts to find her identity in her Indian heritage.

The Tiger’s Daughter is about a young girl named Tara who returns to India after many years of being away only to return to poverty and turmoil. This story parallels Mukherjee’s own return to India with Clark Blaise in 1973 and she was deeply affected by the chaos and poverty of Indian and mistreatment of women in the name of tradition. She writes that  “what is unforgivable is the lives that have been sacrificed to notions of propriety and obedience” (Days and Nights 217). However, her husband became very intrigued by the magic of the myth and culture that surrounded every part of Bengal. These differences of opinion, her shock and his awe, are seen in one of their joint publications, Days and Nights in Calcutta.

The second phase of her writing encompasses works such as Wife, the short stories in Darkness, an essay entitled “An Invisible Woman” and The Sorrow and the Terror, a joint effort with her husband. These works originate in Mukherjee’s own experience of racism in Canada, where despite being a tenured professor, she felt humiliated and on the edge of being a “housebound, fearful, aggrieved, obsessive, and unforgiving queen of bitterness”(Mukherjee, qtd. in Alam 10).

After moving back to the United States, she wrote about her personal experiences. One of her short stories entitled “Isolated Incidents” explores the biased Canadian view towards immigrants that she encountered, as well as how government agencies handled assaults on particular races. Another short story titled “The Tenant” continues to reflect on her focus on immigrant Indian women and their mistreatment. The story is about a divorced Indian woman studying in the States and her experiences with interracial relationships. One quotation from the story hints at Mukherjee’s views of Indian men as being too preoccupied to truly care for their wives and children: “‘All Indian men are wife beaters,’ Maya [the narrator] says. She means it and doesn’t mean it.” In Wife, Mukherjee writes about a woman named Dimple who has been oppressed by such men and attempts to be the ideal Bengali wife, but out of fear and personal instability, she murders her husband and eventually commits suicide. The stories in Darkness further endeavor to tell similar stories of immigrants and women.

In her third phase, Mukherjee is described as having accepted being “an immigrant, living in a continent of immigrants” (M. qtd in Alam 9). She claims an American identity and not a hyphenated Indian-American one:

I maintain that I am an American writer of Indian origin, not because I’m ashamed of my past, not because I’m betraying or distorting my past, but because my whole adult life has been lived here, and I write about the people who are immigrants going through the process of making a home here… I write in the tradition of immigrant experience rather than nostalgia and expatriation. That is very important. I am saying that the luxury of being a U.S. citizen for me is that can define myself in terms of things like my politics, my sexual orientation or my education. My affiliation with readers should be on the basis of what they want to read, not in terms of my ethnicity or my race.

(Mukherjee qtd. in Basbanes)

Mukherjee continues writing about the immigrant experience in her novel Jasmine and most of the stories in The Middle Man and Other Stories, a collection of short stories which won her the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Fiction. Jasmine develops this idea of the mixing of the East and West by telling the story of a young Hindu woman who leaves India for the U.S. after her husband’s murder, only to be raped and eventually returned to the position of a caregiver through a series of jobs.

Mukherjee’s focus continues to be on immigrant women. She also uses the female characters to explore the spatio-temporal (Massachusetts to India) connections between different cultures. In Leave It to Me, Mukherjee tells the story of a young woman sociopath named Debby DiMartino, who seeks revenge on parents who abandoned her. The story reveals her ungrateful interaction with kind adoptive parents and a vengeful search for her real parents (described as a murderer and a flower child). The novel also looks at the conflict between Eastern and Western worlds and at mother-daughter relationships.


  • Mukherjee, Bharati. “An Invisible Woman.” Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1981.
  • —. Kautilya’s Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation. Calcutta: Minerva, 1976.
  • —. Darkness. New York: Penguin, 1985.
  • —. Days and Nights in Calcutta. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.
  • —. Desirable Daughters. New York: Hyperion, 2003.
  • —. The Holder of the World. New York: Knopf, 1993.
  • —. Jasmine. New York: Grove, 1989.
  • —. Leave It to Me. New York: Knopf, 1997.
  • —. The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove, 1988.
  • —. Political Culture and Leadership in India. Columbia: South Asia, 1991.
  • —. Regionalism in Indian Perspective. Columbia: South Asia, 1992.
  • —. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. New York: Viking, 1987.
  • —. The Tree Bride. New York: Hyperion, 2004.
  • —. The Tiger’s Daughter. Boston: Houghton, 1972.
  • —. Wife. Boston: Houghton, 1975.

Related Sites

Story hour with Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise


Works Cited

Author: Shilpi Pradhan, Spring 1998   Last edited: June 2012