Schwarz-Bart, Simone


Simone Schwarz-Bart is an internationally known writer in the company of Guadeloupean novelists Maryse Condé and Myriam Warner-Vieyra. Born in 1938 in the French West Indies to a teacher and military man, Schwarz-Bart studied in Pointe-á-Pitre, Paris and Dakar. Her four novels have each achieved laudatory reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Times, Présence Africaine, Figaro Littéraire, The French Review, Savacou, Nouvelle Revue Française, The New Yorker, and many others in the United States and abroad. Her oeuvre lucidly narrates the harsh realities Caribbean women endure in the clutches of slavery and colonization. Publication of her six-volume work, Hommage à la Femme Noire (In Praise of Women of Color) in 1989, testifies to her lifelong commitment to unearthing the unknown history and culture of black women of the diaspora. In her lifetime, Schwarz-Bart has lived in France, Africa, and Switzerland. She currently resides in both Lausanne, France and Guadeloupe.

The Schwarz-Bart Partnership

Last of the Just, 1960

Last of the Just, 1960

When she was eighteen and a student in Paris, Simone met writer André Schwarz-Bart. They married in 1961 and, two years later, he won the Prix Goncourt for Le Dernier Des Justes (The Last of the Just). A Polish Jew, André Schwarz-Bart lost both of his parents during the Holocaust. The Last of the Just charts the history of one Jewish family since the year 1000. Both deeply politically committed, the couple began a stunning creative collaboration which resulted in two first-class historical novels, Un Plat de Porc aux Bananes Vertes (A Plate of Pork With Green Bananas) and La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Well-received by critics, A Plate of Pork with Green Bananas recounts a Martinican woman’s alienation from French society and her search for her lost Caribbean identity. Elderly and disabled, Mariotte spends her final days in a Paris asylum for the aged as she revisits her past.

In their second collaboration, the couple continue to revisit history from the perspective of a woman of color. Reconstructing the events of one slave woman’s existence in the late eighteenth century, La Mulâtresse Solitude portrays Solitude’s disturbing encounters during colonial slavery in Guadeloupe. Critics often attribute full authorship of this novel to André Schwarz-Bart, not always giving equal credit to Simone. In her essay on La Mulâtresse Solitude, Charlotte Bruner acknowledges this collaboration as she points to the work’s publication history. In its publicity, Simone is mentioned as a collaborator who is part of the couple’s shared purpose of “telling the history of Guadeloupe in a cycle of novels of historic reconstruction.” However, the Seuil edition names only her husband. When it was translated into English the year of its original publication, Simone finally attained credit as co-author. Simone is further attributed credit in Donald Herdeck’s Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographic Critical Encyclopedia. Mention of the joint authorship of Solitude also appears in Le Dernier des Justes, in the list of André Schwarz-Bart’s forthcoming works. The publisher note reads “in collaboration with his wife, Simone, André Schwarz-Bart has embarked on publication of a sequel in the form of a novel” (Bruner 238). To date, no studies exist which consider the Schwarz-Bart partnership in depth.

Major Themes

In her later novels and one-act play, Ton Bon Capitaine (Your Handsome Captain), Schwarz-Bart weaves the multiple locations and languages of her heritage as she constructs a matrilineal narrative of Guadeloupean women’s identities. Publishing widely beyond the two novels she and her husband composed together, her first solo act, when it first appeared in 1972, enjoyed critical acclaim and was later translated into twelve languages. The story of three generations of Guadeloupean women, Pluie et Vent sur Telumée Miracle (The Bridge of Beyond), is hailed by critics for its lyrical examination of exile as it doubly impacts the lives of West Indian women. Her fourth novel, Ti Jean L’Horizon (Between Two Worlds), fuses magical realism with science fiction in its depiction of a legendary Guadeloupean folk hero. As with all of her fiction, her play Ton Beau Capitaine dramatizes the unyielding trauma of exile and the subtleties of patriarchal domination. Inspired by her grandmother’s wisdom and integrity, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s unforgettable women characters use the power of expression to combat the abuses of racial and sexual domination.


  • Schwarz-Bart, Simone. “An Author’s Perspective on Her Own Creation: Reflections of Simone Schwarz-Bart on Her Novel Pluie et Vent Sur Télumée Miracle.”  BIM 18. 71 (December 1987): 27-35.
  • —. Hommage à la Femme Noire (In Praise of Women of Color). Paris: Éditions Consulaires, 1989.
  • —. La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Paris: Seuil, 1972.
  • —. Pluie et Vent sur Télumée Miracle (The Bridge of Beyond). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1972.
  • —. Ti Jean L’Horizon (Between Two Worlds). Paris: Seuil, 1979.
  • —. Ton Beau Capitaine (Your Handsome Captain). Paris: Seuil, 1987.
  • —. Un Plat de Porc aux Bananes Vertes (A Plate of Pork With Green Bananas). Paris: Seuil, 1967.


  • Bruner, Charlotte. “A Caribbean Madness: Half Slave and Half Free.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 11.2 (1984): 236-48.
  • Busia, Abena P.A. “This Gift of Metaphor: Symbolic Strategies and the Triumph of Survival in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond.” Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Eds. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido.  Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990. 289-301.
  • Black Literature Criticism Supplement. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.
  • Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from “Contemporary Authors.” Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
  • Herdeck, Donald, ed. Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Critical Encyclopedia. Washington: Three Continents Press, 1979.
  • Karamcheti, Indira. “The Geographics of Marginality: Place and Textuality in Simone Schwarz-Bart and Anita Desai.” Feminist Explorations of Literary Space.  Eds. Margaret R. Higonnet and Joan Templeton. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. 125-146.
  • McKinney, Kitzie.  “Memory, Voice, and Metaphor in the Works of Simone Schwarz-Bart.” Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers. Eds. Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Micheline Rice-Maximin, Keith L. Walker, and Jack A. Yeager. Minneapolis/ London: University Minnesota Press, 1996. 22-41.
  • Robinson, Lillian. Modern Women Writers. NY: Continuum, 1996.

Author: Michelle Hunter, Spring 2000

Last edited: June 2012


Ernest Gellner
Miroslav Hroch
Eric Hobsbawm
Ernest Renan
Benedict Anderson
Slavoj Zizek and Renata Salecl on Nation and Nationalism
Banal Nationalism and the Internet

The methods of partitioning land have undergone tremendous change since the thirteenth century. During medieval and renaissance times, royal dynasties and religious organizations formed the foundations of political and geographical divisions. As the modern era approached, people began to question the Divine Right of Kings and the dynastic apportioning of their land.  The following are the most influential theorists of nationalism: Ernest Gellner, Miroslav Hroch, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Renan and Benedict Anderson. Gellner, Hroch and Hobsbawm propose general models for the rise of nations, while Renan and Anderson define nationalism and examine its ideological and conceptual mechanisms.

Ernest Gellner

In his essay, “The Coming of Nationalism and Its Interpretations: The Myths of Nation and Class,” Gellner creates a model for micro-units evolving into “nations.” There are five stages in the transition:

  1. Baseline: “A world exists where ethnicity is still not yet self-evidently present, and where the idea of any link between it and political legitimacy is almost entirely absent.”
  2. Nationalist Irredentism: “A world which has inherited and retained most of its political boundaries and structures from the previous stage, but within which ethnicity as a political principle — in other words, nationalism — is beginning to operate … The old borders and polities are under pressure from nationalist agitation.”
  3. Emergence of Nationalist States: “National Irredentism triumphant and self-defeating. Plural empires collapse, and with them the entire dynastic-religious style of political legitimation, and it is replaced by nationalism as the main effective principle. A set of smaller states emerge, purporting to fulfill the national destiny of the ethnic group with which they are identified. This condition is self-defeating, in so far as these new units are just as minority-haunted as the larger ones which had preceded them. The new units are haunted by all the weaknesses of their precursors, plus some additional ones of their own. “
  4. Nacht and Nebel. “This is a term employed by the Nazis for some of their operations in the course of the Second World War. Under cover of wartime secrecy, or in the heat of conflict and passion, or during the period of retaliatory indignation, moral standards are suspended, and the principle of nationalism, demanding compact homogenous ethnic groups within given political-territorial units, is implemented with a new ruthlessness. It is no longer done by the older and benign method of assimilation, but by mass murder or forcible transplantation of populations.”
  5. Cultural Convergence: “High level of satiation of the nationalist requirement, plus generalized affluence, plus cultural convergence, leads to a diminution, though not the disappearance, of the virulence of nationalist revindication.”

Gellner grounds each stage historically. It is interesting to note that he considers the world on eve of the French Revolution in 1789 as the “baseline” society, although it bears very little resemblance to either one of the two societies Gellner describes as “baseline.” Prior to the French Revolution, dynastic monarchies invoked the Divine Right of Kings to apportion land and to govern the people.

Miroslav Hroch

In his essay “From National Movement to the Fully-Formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe,” Hroch classifies a nation as “a large social group integrated not by one but by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships (economic, political, linguistic, cultural, religious, geographical, historical) and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness.” Hroch identifies three keys to creating a nation: “a ‘memory’ of a common past, treated as a ‘destiny’ of the group; a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group or beyond it; a conception of the equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society.” These three keys to creating a national identity generally occur in Phase A of Hroch’s three phases:

Phase A: Activists strive to lay the foundation for a national identity. They research the cultural, linguistic, social and sometimes historical attributes of a non-dominant group in order to raise awareness of the common traits — but they do this “without pressing specifically national demands to remedy deficits.”
Phase B: “A new range of activists emerged, who sought to win over as many of their ethnic group as possible to the project of creating a future nation.”
Phase C: The majority of the population forms a mass movement. “In this phase, a full social movement comes into being and movement branches into conservative-clerical, liberal and democratic wings, each with its own program.”

Eric Hobsbawm

In Nations and Nationalism, Hobsbawm incorporates Hroch’s three phases into his model for the development of nations and adds to them:

National Consciousness: Hobsbawm’s first stage describes how national consciousness develops “unevenly among the social groupings and regions of a country … the popular masses – workers, servants, peasants — are the last to be affected by it” (12).

Phase A: Hobsbawm adopts Hroch’s terminology, describing Phase A as the emergence of cultural, literary and folkloric identity for a particular social group or region (12). Within this phase, Hobsbawm cites three criteria for making claims of nationality:

1.”Its historic association with a current state or one with a fairly lengthy and recent past” (37).
2.”The existence of a long-established cultural elite, possessing a written national literary and administrative vernacular” (37).
3.”A proven capacity for conquest” (38).

Phase B/Popular Proto-Nationalism: A body emerges, which consists of pioneers and militants of “the national idea.” They begin to campaign for this idea of “nationality” (12). He gives four main criteria for the development of “popular proto-nationalism”:

1. Language
2. Ethnicity
3. Religion
4. “The consciousness of belonging or having belonged to a lasting political entity — the most decisive criterion of proto-nationalism” (73).

Phase C: “Nationalist programmes acquire mass support, or at least some of the the mass support that nationalists always claim they represent” (12).

Hobsbawm demonstrates the historical relevancy of this stage, dividing the nationalist movement into three periods:

1. The transformation of nationalism (1870-1918): In this period, the world witnessed the completion of German and Italian unifications during the “Mazzinian phase” (1870-1880), as well as the collapse of multinational empires (the Hapsburg empire, the Ottoman empire, Russia) from 1880-1918 (101-130)
2. The apogee of nationalism (1918-1950): he describes this period as the triumph of the nineteenth century “principle of nationality” (131).
3. Nationalism in the late twentieth century: the rise of “internationalism”(163-183).

Ernest Renan

In his essay “What is a Nation?” Renan argues that:

a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things constitute this soul or spiritual principle…One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is a present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form” (19).

Sacrifices constitute the foundation of nations: “a nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future” (19). Renan disregards conventional proposals that race, religion and language generate nationalism. However, he does cite geography as a significant factor. Historically, as Anderson also emphasized, most nations began as dynasties. According to Renan, dynastic territories progress to nations in one of three ways: dynastic unions, general popular consciousness and direct will of provinces (12).

Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities, 1983.   Imagined Communities, 1983.

In his book, Imagined Communities, Anderson proposed that nationalism filled the void left by the decline of religious and dynastic territorial control. He writes that “through the general principle of verticality, dynastic marriages brought together diverse populations under new auspices” (20). The power of dynastic unions emerged most clearly through the Hapsburg family. Monarchs invoked the Divine Right of Kings to manipulate their subjects (as opposed to their citizens), and the Hapsburg family embodies that potent combination of religion and monarchy. In 1452, the Archduke of Austria (a Hapsburg) was elected Holy Roman Emperor, marking the beginning of a dynastic superpower that would endure until the First World War. However, as the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment approached, such blind faith in the monarchy diminished, and people beganto consider the concept of becoming a nation. The First World War saw the demise of many dynastic realms: “by 1922, Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs and Ottomans were gone … From this time on, the legitimate international norm was the nation-state, so that in the League [of Nations] even the surviving imperial powers came dressed in national costume rather than imperial uniform” (113).

Timeline of the Major Events in the History of Nations

1450- Invention of the printing press (Gutenberg)
1452- The Archduke of Austria selected as Holy Roman Emperor, marking the beginning of the Hapsburg Dynasty (1452-1918)
1492- The Unification of Spain
1618-1648- The Thirty Years’ War
1648- Peace of Westphalia
1702-1713- War of Spanish Succession
1713-1714- Treaties of Utrecht and Rastadt
1776-1783- The War for American Independence
1789- French Revolution
1792-1815- Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
1815- Congress of Vienna
1848- Revolutions of 1848
1859- The Italian War
1864- The Danish War
1866- The Austro-Prussian War
1870- The Franco-Prussian War
1871- Italian and German Unification completed
1914-1918- World War I
1917- Russian Revolution
1919- Treaty of Versailles
1933-1945- Germany’s Third Reich: Hitler comes to power
1938- Munich crisis; Germany annexes Austria
1939-1945- Second World War
1945- United Nations established (51 members); Cold War begins
1947- India and Pakistan independent
1948- Burma independent, Israel established
1949- People’s Republic of China established; Dutch leave Indonesia
1950s- Japan regains sovereignty; various African independence movements
1960s- More African independence movements; Vietnam War begins

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: New Left Books, 1991.
  • Gellner, Ernest. “The Coming of Nationalism and Its Interpretation: The Myths  of Nation and Class.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Hroch, Miroslav. “From National Movement to the Fully-formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Palmer, R.R. and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.
  • Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” Nation and Narration. edited by Homi Bhabha. New York: Routledge Books, 1990.

Selected Bibliography

  • Bauer, Otto. “The Nation.” Mapping the Nation, edited by Gopal Balakrishnan. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Gellner, Ernest. Encounters with Nationalism. Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Blackwell Publishing, 1994.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric. “Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe Today.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Notions of Nationalism. A collection of essays, edited by Sukumar Periwal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Smith, Anthony D. “Nationalism and the Historians.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.

Section Author:  Jessica Whitehead, Fall 2001   Last edited June 2012

Slavoj Zizek and Renata Salecl on Nation and Nationalism

Slavoj Žižek, Warsaw, 2009 (by Mariusz Kubik)/CC Licensed

Slavoj Žižek, Warsaw, 2009 (by Mariusz Kubik)/CC Licensed

Slavoj Zizek is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and is a Professor at the European Graduate School. He is the author of numerous books, including Cogito and the Unconscious (1998), The Plague of Fantasies (1997), Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992), For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (1991), Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002) The Parallax View (2006), Terrorism and Communism (2007). In his work Zizek engages political theory, psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Renata Salecl is a philosopher and sociologist. She works as a researcher in the Institute of Criminology at the Faculty of Law, Ljubljana, Slovenia, and has been a visiting scholar at several institutions including the New School for Social Research, London School of Economics and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Her books include Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (1996), Sexuation (2000), On Anxiety (2004), Choice (2010).

“Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!” is the last chapter of Tarrying with the Negative, in which Slavoj Zizek brilliantly expounds on the notions of nation and nationalism as they are reflected in Eastern Europe today. He starts by pointing to the fact that the disintegration of communism in this part of the world was paradoxically followed by a distorted image of a what he calls “reinvented democracy”: “The reality emerging now in Eastern Europe [shows] the gradual retreat of the liberal-democratic tendency in the face of the growth of corporate national populism which includes all its usual elements, from xenophobia to anti-Semitism” (200). Zizek explains this shift by rethinking the notion of national identification from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective. He argues that “national identification is by definition sustained by a relationship toward the Nation qua Thing” (201), which carries contradictory properties. On the one hand, it is something that belongs to one particular group or community of people and not to others. It is “our Thing,” and therefore inaccessible and denied to the Other. On the other hand, however, it is that which is under constant threat by the Other, even though at times only under a symbolic menace. When the latter is the case, it resembles Freud’s notion of castration. Practically, it cannot happen, but theoretically, the possibility of it happening is ever present, and because of this there is no escape from its looming threat.

The “Nation-Thing” is connected to a community’s way of life, their traditions and social practices, their rituals and myths. Nonetheless, besides being a way of life, the “Nation-Thing” is also something in which members of the community have a propensity to believe. This belief, and the belief that others share it, sanctions the “Nation-Thing.” The nation is therefore not only a product constructed by specific discursive practices but it also consists of a certain underlying “substance,” which according to Lacan would be “jouissance” or “the remainder of some real” (Zizek translates jouissance as enjoyment). It is this non-discursive entity “which must be present for the Nation qua discursive entity — effect to achieve its ontological consistency” (202). The national Thing resists universalization, but functions, nevertheless, as a “particular Absolute.” It is the particular way in which an ethnic community organizes its enjoyment through national myths and traditions.

Ethnic tensions ensue in the clash between different modes of ethnic enjoyment, between different modalities that structure one’s relationship to enjoyment. The Other’s excess of enjoyment is always bothersome and often regarded as a threat, precisely because it also signifies a theft of enjoyment. In her book The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism After the Fall of Socialism, Renata Salecl provides a clear example of this theft of enjoyment when she suggest the ways in which:

… Serbian authoritarian populism … has produced an entire mythology about the struggle against internal and external enemies. The primary enemies are Albanians, who are perceived as threatening to cut off the Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo and thereby stealing Serbian land and culture. The secondary enemy is an alienated bureaucracy which threatens the power of the people: alienated from the nation, it is said to be devouring the Serbian national identity from within. And the third enemy has become the Croats, who with their politics of ‘genocide’ are outlawing the Serbian population from ‘historically’ Serbian territories in Croatia. Nowadays the enemies are primarily Muslims who are pictured as Islamic fundamentalists threatening the Serbs living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (22)

The attitude towards the Other’s enjoyment is always ambivalent. On the one hand, the Other’s enjoyment presents a threat to our enjoyment, whereas on the other hand, we are fascinated by the Other’s enjoyment because there is something of it in ourselves. It is that which is “‘in us more than ourselves,” and thus prevents us from achieving full identity with ourselves. “The hatred of the other is the hatred of our own excess of enjoyment” (206). The national enemy thus always assumes the form of an excess or destructive imbalance. Referring to the hatred of the Other’s enjoyment, Salecl quotes Jacques-Alain Miller who suggests that:

I am willing to see my neighbour in the Other but only on condition that he is not my neighbour. I am prepared to love him as myself only if he is far away, if he is removed. … When the Other comes too near, when it mingles with you, as Lacan says, new fantasies emerge which concern above all the surplus of enjoyment of the Other…What is at stake is of course the imputation of an excessive enjoyment…The question of tolerance or intolerance is not at all concerned with the subject of science and its human rights. It is located on the level of tolerance or intolerance toward the enjoyment of the Other, the Other as he who essentially steals my own enjoyment. (21)

Salecl analyzes the Other’s relationship to “us” thusly:

…the Other who outrages ‘our’ sense of the kind of nation ours should be, the Other who steals our enjoyment is always the Other in our own interior; i.e. our hatred of the Other is really the hatred of the part (the surplus) of our own enjoyment which we find unbearable and cannot acknowledge, and which we transpose (‘project’) onto the Other via a fantasy of the ‘Other’s enjoyment.’ Therefore hatred of the Other, in the final analysis, is hatred of one’s own enjoyment. (21-22)

Postmodernism is often described as the age of fragmentation and the unlimited inflation or plurality of subject positions. In this respect, postmodernism follows the logic of rampant capitalism; the more production grows, the more the need to produce grows and satisfaction is never achieved. Similarly in Freudian terms, the greater the repentance stimulated by the transgression of the Law, the greater the guilt. Opposite to the logic of capitalism of superfluous overproduction and of the postmodern dispersion of subject positions, nationalism assumes excessive identification with one particular ethnic position, at the expense of all other possible subject positions. Zizek emphasizes that, “the more the logic of Capital becomes universal, the more its opposite will assume features of ‘irrational fundamentalism’” (220).

In their discussions on national identity, both Zizek and Salecl bring up the issue of a postmodern type of racism, which Etienne Balibar has called “meta-racism.” If the old type of racism was based on the idea that racial differences were biologically determined, “meta-racism,” makes these differences culturally and historically contingent. Meta-racism is identified as even more dangerous than racism, because it employs racist measures while pretending to oppose racism, thus falsely posing as its opposite. Salecl further explains that “culture itself functions as a ‘natural’ determinative force: it locks individuals and groups a priori into their cultural genealogy. ‘Meta-racism’ perceives cultures as fixed entities and tries desperately to maintain ‘cultural distances’” (12).

Salecl analyzes the major political and social events after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the upsurge of ethnic tensions in the former Yugoslavia using Lacanian psychoanalysis and its notion of fantasy. Claiming that “the structure of power is inherently fantasmatic” (7) and that ideology reflects “the way society deals with the fundamental impossibility of it being a closed harmonious totality,” Salecl argues that:

Behind every ideology lies a kernel of enjoyment (jouissance) that resists being fully integrated into the ideological universe. Here is where fantasy comes into play: fantasy stages a scenario to conceal this kernel…when we identify with a certain political discourse, when we ‘obey the power’, what we relate to is precisely this fantasy structure behind the ideological meaning of the discourse. (6)

Fantasy fills out an empty place, a void, that cannot be fully symbolized. Like Zizek, Salecl emphasizes the fantasy structure of the nation and of national identification pointing to the imaginary surplus that refuses symbolization. The nation always presents us with the impossibility to define that which in us is “more than ourselves.” In this respect, the nation is connected to the Lacanian real, the always missing link, that dimension which can never be incorporated into the symbolic realm. In order to deal with the impossibility of managing its own excess, a society appeals to a fantasy structure or “scenario, through which [it] perceives itself as a homogeneous entity” (15). Fantasy always organizes itself around the traumatic element that refuses symbolization: in this case, the nation.

Homi K. Bhabha also points to the ambivalence of the nation when in the introduction to Nation and Narration he refers to “the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force [in spite of] the attempt by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of national progress, the narcissism of self-generation, the primeval present of the Volk” (1). What Salecl calls “fantasy” Bhabha calls “the act of narration” which fills out the empty space of the nation. However, the ambivalence of narration lies in the “instability of knowledge,” or its “conceptual indeterminacy, its wavering between vocabularies” (2).  Bhabha describes this narration as giving citizens “the heimlich pleasures of the hearth, the unheimlich terror of the space or race of the Other; the comfort of social belonging, the hidden injuries of class; the customs of taste, the powers of political affiliation” (2).

Works Cited

  • Bhabha, Homi K. “Introduction: Narrating the Nation.” Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990. 1-7.
  • Salecl, Renata. The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism after the Fall of Socialism. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Zizek, Slavoj. “Enjoy Your Nation As Yourself!” Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Section Author:  Ruxandra Mandoiu, Fall 1998

Last edited: June 2012

Banal Nationalism and the Internet

On the internet, no one knows you’re a blond (tee hee).

The usual markers of national identity – for example, race, dress, physical and geographical location – are easily elided on the internet. Despite this, and even in the context of multinational virtual communities, people tend to retain a strong sense of their nationality. A new set of markers has developed and been deployed both in deliberate nationalism (what Michael Billig describes as “flag-waving”) and as everyday background noise, or Billig’s “banal nationalism”.

Billig uses the term “banal nationalism” to describe “the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced” (6). His primary example is the ubiquity of the American flag, with which he illustrates the methods by which “national identity in established nations is remembered because it is embedded in routines of life, which constantly remind, or ‘flag’, nationhood”(38). However, he points out, it is precisely because these reminders are not consciously noticed (and thereby opened to questioning or interpretation) that they are powerful.

On the internet, people are identified by their email addresses as much as by any name which they offer. Email addresses identify the individual in a two-part format, much like the given-name family-name convention of modern ‘real life’ names; on the internet, the convention is given-name “@” domain-name, identifying the person inextricably with the organization which puts them online. To someone capable of ‘reading’ domain-names, this offers as much information as a genealogist might obtain from a family-name. In particular, almost every domain-name indicates the country of origin in the ‘top-level’ (last) segment of the name. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) provides these “country codes” to the domain name servers (DNS) responsible for delivering email and other internet communications; each country receives a two-letter designation which should suffix the domain-name of each resident.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States of America is an exception to this rule. While the U.S. does have a country code (“.us”), the original internet did not extend outside of the U.S.; domain-names ended with a designation of internal boundaries: the distinctions were between commercial, non-profit, educational, military, and governmental organizations). American organizations are still grandfathered in by this precedent; thus “.edu” implicitly designates the named individual as a resident, though not necessarily a citizen, of the U.S. However, Frances Cairncross points out that:

a British company, for example, would end its name “,” and a Japanese one with “” American companies rarely put a national tag at the end of their domain names. To be registered as “,” therefore, suggests a global company, while “” marks a business as a purely British concern. As a result, a rising proportion of names in the “.com” category do not designate U.S. companies. The official Chinese news agency, for example, has registered the name of “” (to the indignation of the Taiwan government). (199-200)

Domain names are valuable; inevitably, organizations have begun to fight over them. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is trying to deal with this “sure recipe for conflict: an international naming space and multi-dimensional trademark law rooted in national law” (, but the traditional policy of InterNIC, the organization responsible for the registration of .com domain names, and of all registry services has been “first come, first serve,” a principle with an anarchist’s disrespect for trademark law rather than a lawyer’s concern for prior claims. This disputed ownership of cyberspace must be understood as a question of colonial motivations: the goal is to “raise your flag on new territory in cyberspace, put your name (or the name you choose) on the ‘land.’ But whose land is it? Is the first person there the one with the right to claim it?” (Leventhal). Increasingly, American courts (under whose jurisdiction fall most of the contested trademarks as well as InterNIC itself) are ruling in favor of ‘real world’ trademark holders over first-comers.

Works Cited

  • Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism. London: SAGE Publications, 1995.
  • “Generic Top-Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding.” Web. 19 April 1998. <>
  • Cairncross, Frances. The Death of Distance. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 1997.
  • Grossman, Wendy M. net.wars. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • Guckes, Sven, ed. “Alt.Fan.Warlord FAQ: Signatures, Alt.Fan.Warlord, and the Inner Circle.” Web. 6 April 1998. <>
  • Leventhal, Michael. “Who can stake a claim in cyberspace?” Wired Law: The Techno Culture Archive. Web. 19 April 1998. < November 1997>
  • Raymond, Eric S., ed. “The Jargon File 4.0.0.” Web. 6 April 1998. <>

Related Sites

The Nationalism Project

Author: Caitlin Shaw, Spring 1998
Last edited: June 2012

Third World and Third World Women

What geographical regions constitute the Third World? Who are Third World women? Who defines and writes about the terms “Third World” and “Third World Women”? The answers to the above questions are important to both postcolonial studies and feminist studies.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains that the term “Third World” was initially coined in 1955 by those emerging from the “old” world order:

The initial attempt in the Bandung Conference (1955) to establish a third way — neither with the Eastern nor within the Western bloc — in the world system, in response to the seemingly new world order established after the Second World War, was not accompanied by a commensurate intellectual effort. The only idioms deployed for the nurturing of this nascent Third World in the cultural field belonged then to positions emerging from resistance within the supposedly ‘old’ world order — anti-imperialism, and/or nationalism (270).

Kum Kum Sangari argues that the term “Third World” not only designates specific geographical areas, but imaginary spaces. According to Sangari, “Third World” is “a term that both signifies and blurs the functioning of an economic, political, and imaginary geography able to unite vast and vastly differentiated areas of the world into a single ‘underdeveloped’ terrain” (217). Sangari is critical of the way “Third World” is used by the West to indiscriminately lump together vastly different places.

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism book cover

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1991

Chandra Talpade Mohanty defines the Third World geographically:

The nation-states of Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, China, South Africa, and Oceania constitute the parameters of the non-European third world. In addition, black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples (5).

Cheryl Johnson-Odim explains that “the term Third World is frequently applied in two ways: to refer to ‘underdeveloped’/over-exploited geopolitical entities, i.e. countries, regions, even continents; and to refer to oppressed nationalities from these world areas who are now resident in ‘developed’ First World countries.” Johnson-Odim further identifies problems some Third World women have with First World feminism:

While it may be legitimately argued that there is no one school of thought on feminism among First World feminists — who are not, after all, monolithic — there is still, among Third World women, a widely accepted perception that the feminism emerging from white, middle-class Western women narrowly confines itself to a struggle against gender discrimination. (314, 315)

The use of the term “Third World Women” by Western feminists has been widely critiqued. Mohanty uses the term interchangeably with “women of color” (7). She argues that “what seems to constitute ‘women of color’ or ‘third world women’ as a viable oppositional alliance is a common context of struggle rather than color or racial identifications. Similarly, it is third world women’s oppositional political relation to sexist, racist, and imperialistic structures that constitutes our political commonality” (7). Although she uses the term “third world women,” Mohanty argues that western feminisms appropriate the production of the”third world woman as a singular monolithic subject,” for a “discursive colonization” (51). Furthermore, western feminisms articulate a discursive colonization through the production of “third world difference”: “that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all of the women in [third world] countries” (53-54). Western feminisms’ use of the category of “third world woman” and “third world difference” ties into a larger, latent cultural and economic colonialism:

In the context of the hegemony of the Western scholarly establishment in the production and dissemination of texts, and the context of the legitimating imperative of humanistic and scientific discourse, the definition of the ‘third world woman’ as a monolith might well tie into the larger cultural and economic praxis of ‘disinterested’ scientific inquiry and pluralism which are the surface manifestations of a latent economic and cultural colonization of the ‘non-Western’ world (74).

Trinh T. Minh-ha argues that “‘difference’ is essentially ‘division’ in the understanding of many. It is no more than a tool of self-defense and conquest” (14). Trinh’s concern is with the use of the third world woman as the “native” Other in Western anthropology and feminisms. Answering the question, “‘why do we have to be concerned with the question of Third World women? After all, it is only one issue among many others,’” Trinh replies:

Delete the phrase Third World and the sentence immediately unveils its value-loaded cliches. Generally speaking, a similar result is obtained through the substitution of words like racist for sexist, or vice-versa, and the established image of the Third World Woman in the context of (pseudo)-feminism readily merges with that of the Native in the context of (neo-colonialist) anthropology (17).

Self-defined Third World women who inhabit a place within First World feminist academia are also the subject of critique. Diane Brydon writes, “now that the marginal is being revalued as the new voice of authority in discourse, it is tempting to accept the imperial definition of the colonized as marginal”(4). In a direct attack on Mohanty and Trinh as well as bell hooks, Sara Suleri argues that:

Rather than extending an inquiry into the discursive possibilities represented by the intersection of gender and race, feminist intellectuals like hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative. Such claims to radical revisionism take refuge in the political untouchability that is accorded the category of Third World Woman, and in the process sully the crucial knowledge that such a category has still to offer to the dialogue of feminism today (765).

Suleri also argues:

[The] claim to authenticity — only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture — points to the great difficulty posited by the ‘authenticity’ of female racial voices in the great game which claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want (760).

Similarly, Suleri attacks hooks and Trinh for claiming that “personal narrative is the only salve to the rude abrasions that Western feminist theory has inflicted on the body of ethnicity” (764). Suleri advocates examining how “realism locates its language within the postcolonial condition,” and suggests that “lived experience does not achieve its articulation through autobiography, but through that other third-person narrative known as the law” (766).

As the above arguments indicate, the terms “Third World” and”Third World Women” are by no means stable categories. Rather, these terms are a locus of contention not only between First World feminisms and Third World women, but also between Third World women themselves within the complex field of postcolonial studies.

See also: Gender and Nation, Nawal el Saadawi, Women, Islam, and the Hijab, Chicana Feminism, FGM, Victorian Women Travellers


  • Brydon, Diana. “Commonwealth or Common Poverty?” Kunapipi: Special Issue on Post-Colonial Criticism 11-1 (1989): 1-16.
  • Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Introduction” and “Under Western Eyes.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1991.
  • Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Eds. Abdul Jan Mohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1992): 756-769.
  • Trinh, Minh-ha. “Difference: ‘A Special Third World Woman Issue.” Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 86-87): 10-37.

Author: Nicola Graves, Spring 1996  Last edited: May 2012

African American Studies and Postcolonialism

“Colonial racism is no different from any other racism.”
- Frantz Fanon

A Need To Talk Back

While African American Studies and Postcolonial studies are different fields, both share a goal of destabilizing racial hierarchies. Discussions of power relationships between the colonizer and the colonized are sometimes similar to studies on slavery and relationships between masters and slaves. Within the United States and other postcolonies the current reality of discrimination and racism towards minority populations bridges these two studies together through a joint target of neocolonialism. Critical of current American educational policy, prominent black feminist bell hooks states, “I believe that black experience has been and continues to be one of internal colonialism” (148). A need to decolonize the mindset of contemporary America fuels current efforts in reclaiming and recovering minority history and literature. New sociological and literary approaches to history (Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, for example) become useful methods for reclaiming the past and forging culturally sensitive paradigms for the future. Critics like Henry Louis Gates, Barbara Christian, Ella Shohat and Homi Bhabha are connected through a need to “talk back.”

Race and Multiculturalism in Academia: Writing Back

Toni Morrison, Marlene van Niekerk, and Anthony Appiah at the PEN World Voices Festival, 2010.

African American Studies and Postcolonial studies similarly flesh out such issues as representation, essentialism, and nationalism. Under the rubric of these disciplines, literature and literary theory often become vehicles for social commentary. While nation-making and redefining nation, along with the blurring between public and private spaces are among common themes, critics in both fields are quick to point to the dangers of hastily dismissing this literary work as political. Gates writes of a need to dispel the myth of alleged primacy of  “Western tradition” over the “so-called non-canonical tradition such as that of the Afro-American.” Especially conscious of the dangers of essentialism in his book The Signifying Monkey, Gates studies the need “to create a new narrative space for representing the recurring referent of Afro-American literature, the so-called Black Experience” (111). Similarly critical of essentialism, Homi Bhabha, a prominent Cultural Studies and Postcolonial critic, connects the two fields together as he remarks: “The intervention of postcolonial or black critique is aimed at transforming the conditions of enunciation at the level of the sign . . . not simply setting up new symbols of identity, new ‘positive images’ that fuel an unreflective ‘identity politics’” (247). Bhabha even conducts a detailed reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the introduction to The Location of Culture.

"Race," Writing, and Difference, 1986.

“Race,” Writing, and Difference, 1986

Scholarship does indeed overlap in interesting ways between these two fields. Much in the same way Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark analyzes and enumerates the ways in which white selfhood in literary America is further constituted by objectifying “black” presence, Edward Said’s Orientalism seeks  “to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (3).  Race, Writing and Difference (1986), edited by Henry Louis Gates includes prominent postcolonial critics like Gayatri C. Spivak  and Abdul R. JanMohamed. In fact, a more recent anthology edited by Gates, Identities, is co-edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a scholar of Afro-American Studies who has also written on postcolonial theory. Such examples of overlap in scholarship compels us to reconsider deeper questions of the politics of reading and writing and the applicability of scholarly methods which enhance an understanding and emphasis on culturally sensitive modes of carving out scholarly discourse.


The intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender politics has produced provocative discussions in the works of bell hooks, Barbara Christian, and Shirley Anne Williams (to name a few African American feminist critics) as well as in the work of Gayatri Spivak and Chandra T. Mohanty. Patriarchy often becomes a metaphor, a trope of power imbalance and the culprit for the ills of colonialism and neocolonialism. bell hooks states in Outlaw Culture, “For contemporary critics to condemn the imperialism of the white colonizer without critiquing patriarchy is a tactic that seeks to minimize the particular ways gender determines the specific forms oppression may take within a specific group” (203).

Alongside this obvious intersection of marginalized positions comes the risk of totalizing. Barbara Christian, in  “Race for Theory” which cautions against essentialist constructions of black womanhood, compares the dangers of an overly prescriptive black feminism to the monolithic, monotheistic Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Chandra Mohanty urges against the same essentializing practice in the growing discourse on Third World feminism. Discussions of class are similarly called for in both fields of study. Interestingly, Hooks comments upon what she sees as an overlooked problem in cross-cultural feminist discussion in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. She states, “We often forget that many Third World nationals bring to this country the same kind of contempt and disrespect for blackness that is most frequently associated with white imperialism” (93).

The Future?

Ann Ducille’s essay “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity” not only highlights some concerns about the threat of essentialism in both disciplines but it also suggests the possibility for what she considers the dangerous possibility of the interchangeability of the two. She states, “Whereas the critique posed by African American studies and the alternative (non-Eurocentric) worldview asserted by Afrocentricity cut uncomfortably close to home, postcoloniality seems to offer its opposition from a distance—as Gayatri Spivak might say, “in other worlds” (34).

However, data in recent MLA tabulations of full-time positions accepted by African Americanists and Postcolonialists suggests that the hiring trend for African Americanists has been greater than the trend for Postcolonialists during the last five years. Such data in based on accepted full-time positions drawn from percentages of each year’s total available pool of English and foreign language departmental positions only, not controlled studies monitoring the growth of these specific disciplines.*

Scholarship seems to be moving towards an even more self-conscious appraisal of individual, subjective identities.  Specificity in deconstructions of “race” becomes one method to combat the unproductive lumping together of all “marginalized” voices. Gates, Christian, and Sara Suleri (see Identities) are among others who often work against what they see as an unproductive totalizing of all “minority” discourse(s). Reconfiguring American Studies may serve as a discipline of common ground as some scholars, like Hazel Carby and Mario Garcia, work to question basic tenets of American historiography. Others, like Ella Shohat, encourage the compatibility between the distinct realms of Ethnic Studies and Postcolonialism. Meanwhile, critics encourage further questioning of the similarities and differences between multiculturalism, postcolonialism, and ethnic studies and their developments in relation to the lingering threat of cultural closemindedness.

*Basic tabulations of job information compiled by David Laurence
Director, MLA English Programs and ADE

Works Cited/Bibliography

  • Appiah, Kwame A. and Henry L. Gates, eds. Identities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • —.  “The Multicultural Wars.”  Radical History Review  54 (1992):  7-18.
  • Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Within the Circle. Ed. Angela Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.
  • Ducille, Ann. “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity: Discourse and Dat Course.” The Black Columbiad.  Eds. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Garcia, Mario T. “Multiculturalism and American Studies.” Radical History Review 54 (1992): 49-56.
  • Gates, Henry L., ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • —. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
  • Mohanty, Chandra al, ed. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991.
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  • Shohat, Ella. “American Orientalism.” Suitcase: A Journal of Transcultural Traffic 2 (1997):  56-62.

Related Links

Links to African American Studies site (course information/syllabi) at Emory

African American Studies at Colby

Angela Davis

Edwidge Danticat

Links to American Studies at Emory

Michelle Cliff

Paule Marshall

Author: Reshmi J. Hebbar, Fall 1998
Last edited: October 2012

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007/CC Licensed

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007/CC Licensed

While she is best known as a postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak describes herself as a “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher”– though her early career would have included “applied deconstruction.” Her reputation was first made for her translation and preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976) and she has since applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses including feminism, Marxism, literary criticism and postcolonialism.

My position is generally a reactive one. I am viewed by Marxists as too codic, by feminists as too male-identified, by indigenous theorists as too committed to Western Theory. I am uneasily pleased about this. (Post-Colonial Critic)

Despite her outsider status — or partly, perhaps, because of it — Spivak is widely cited in a range of disciplines. Her work is nearly evenly split between dense theoretical writing peppered with flashes of compelling insight, and published interviews in which she wrestles with many of the same issues in a more personable and immediate manner. What Edward Said calls a “contrapuntal” reading strategy is recommended as her ideas are continually evolving and resist, in true deconstructive fashion, a straight textual analysis. She has said that she prefers the teaching environment where ideas are continually in motion and development. Nonetheless, the glossary of key terms and motifs that is available below may serve as a kind of legend to a map of her work. It is not intended as a “bluffer’s guide to Spivakism” (The Spivak Reader) but rather blazes on a trail into this difficult and important body of work.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta, West Bengal, 24 February 1942 to “solidly metropolitan middle class” parents (PCC). She thus belonged to the “first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence,” a more interesting perspective she claims, than that of the Midnight’s Children, who were “born free by chronological accident” (Arteaga interview). She did her undergraduate work in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. She borrowed money to go to the US in the early 1960s to do graduate work at Cornell, which she chose because she “knew the names of Harvard, Yale and Cornell, and thought half of them were too good for me. (I’m intellectually a very insecure person … to an extent I still feel that way)” (de Kock interview 33). She “fell into comparative literature” because it was the only department that offered her money (Ibid.). She received her MA in English from Cornell and taught at the University of Iowa while working on her Ph.D. Her dissertation was on Yeats (published as Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats [1974)]) and was directed by Paul de Man. Of her work with de Man she says, “I wasn’t groomed for anything. I learnt from him. I took good notes and slowly sort of understood” (de Kock interview). “When I was de Man’s student,” she adds, “he had not read Derrida yet.  I went to teach at Iowa in 1965 and did not know about the famous Hopkins conference on the Structuralists Controversy in 1966″ (E-mail communication).  She ordered _de la grammatologie_ out of a catalogue in 1967 and began working on the translation some time after that (E-mail communication).  During this time she married and divorced an American, Talbot Spivak. Her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology has been variously described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces” (editor’s introduction to The Spivak Reader) and “absolutely unreadable, its only virtue being that it makes Derrida that much more enjoyable.” Her subsequent work consists in post-structuralist literary criticism, deconstructivist readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism (including work with the Subaltern Studies group and a critical reading of American cultural studies in Outside in the Teaching Machine [1993]), and translations of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. She is currently a University Professor at Columbia.

Glossary of Key Terms in Spivak’s Work

Ethical responsibility/Ethical singularity

Spivak’s usage of “responsibility” (like her dialogic understanding of “speaking,” noted above) is akin to Bakhtin’s “answerability” (otvetstvennost: sometimes also translated as “responsibility”). It signifies not only the act of response which completes the transaction of speaker and listener, but also the ethical stance of making discursive room for the Other to exist. In other words, “ethics are not just a problem of knowledge but a call to a relationship” (Introduction to The Spivak Reader). The ideal relationship is individual and intimate. This is what she means by “ethical singularity,” the engagement of the Other in non-essential, non-crisis terms.

We all know that when we engage profoundly with one person, the responses come from both sides: this is responsibility and accountability… The object of ethical action is not an object of benevolence, for here responses flow from both sides. (SR 269-270)

The ideal relation to the Other, then, is an “embrace, an act of love” (ibid.). Such an embrace may be unrequited, as the differences and distances are too great, but if we are ever to get beyond the vicious cycle of abuse, it is essential to remain open-hearted; not to attempt to recreate the Other narcissistically, in one’s own image, but generously, with care and attention.


Spivak’s work explores “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (SR). She interrogates the politics of culture from a marginal perspective (“outside”) while maintaining the prerogatives of a professional position within the hegemony. Through deconstruction she turns hegemonic narratives inside out, and as a third world woman in a position of privilege in the American academy, she brings the outside in. Hence Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993). These contradictory positions have led her to develop the notion that the center is also a margin, more like the center line on a road than the center of town. “This is the classic deconstructive position, in the middle, but not on either side” (de Kock interview). This reconfiguring of the “center” (or re-centering, perhaps) also changes the position and status of the margins: no longer outside looking in, but an integral, if minor, language.

Strategic Essentialism

In the Boundary 2 interview, Spivak wistfully pronounces that, of the two things she is best known for, both are often misunderstood. The first was her answer to the question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and the second is the notion of strategic essentialism.

Essentialism is bad, not in its essence — which would be a tautology — but only in its application. The goal of essentialist critique is not the exposure of error, but the interrogation of the essentialist terms. Uncritical deployment is dangerous. Critique is simply reading the instructions for use. Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive.

Spivak’s strategy is deconstructivist, like that of a good lawyer: when on defense, prod the prosecution’s narrative until the cracks begin to appear and when prosecuting, piece together a case by understanding the criminal’s motivation. “Strategic essentialism” is like role-playing, briefly inhabiting the criminal mind in order to understand what makes it tick. The Subaltern Studies group, for example, succeeds in unraveling official Indian history by particularizing its narrative: “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (The Spivak Reader 214). This is also the way Spivak uses deconstruction, for example, without fully subscribing to it as a viable philosophic system or practice, much less a political program. Or, as she puts it, “[Deconstruction] is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced.” (Arteaga interview) “Although I make specific use of deconstruction, I’m not a Deconstructivist” (Post-Colonial Critic).

The misuse of the concept of “strategic essentialism” is that less “scrupulous” practitioners ignore the element of strategy, and treat it as simply “a union ticket for essentialism. As to what is meant by strategy , no-one wondered about that.” She claims to have given up on the phrase, though not the concept (Danius and Jonsson interview).


Spivak achieved a certain degree of misplaced notoriety for her 1985 article “Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice” (Wedge 7/8 [Winter/Spring 1985]: 120-130). In it, she describes the circumstances surrounding the suicide of a young Bengali woman that indicates a failed attempt at self-representation. Because her attempt at “speaking” outside normal patriarchal channels was not understood or supported, Spivak concluded that “the subaltern cannot speak.” Her extremely nuanced argument, admittedly confounded by her sometimes opaque style, led some incautious readers to accuse her of phallocentric complicity, of not recognizing or even not letting the subaltern speak. Some critics, missing the point, buttressed their arguments with anecdotal evidence of messages cried out by burning widows. Her point was not that the subaltern does not cry out in various ways, but that speaking is “a transaction between speaker and listener” (Landry and MacLean interview). Subaltern talk, in other words, does not achieve the dialogic level of utterance.

Beyond this specific misunderstanding (proof perhaps that Gayatri Spivak cannot speak?) Spivak also objects to the sloppy use of the term and its appropriation by other marginalized, but not specifically “subaltern” groups. “Subaltern,” Spivak insists, is not “just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie.” She points out that in Gramsci‘s original covert usage (being obliged to encrypt his writing to get it past prison censors), it signified “proletarian,” whose voice could not be heard, being structurally written out of the capitalist bourgeois narrative. In postcolonial terms, “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern” (de Kock interview).

Another misreading of the concept is that, since the subaltern cannot speak, she needs an advocate to speak for her, affirmative action or special regulatory protection. Spivak objects, “Who the hell wants to protect subalternity? Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers. No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference … You don’t give the subaltern voice. You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity” (ibid). She cites the work of the Subaltern Studies group as an example of how this critical work can be practiced, not to give the subaltern voice, but to clear the space to allow it to speak.

Spivak is particularly leery of the misappropriation of the term by those who simply want to claim disenfranchisement within the system of hegemonic discourse, i.e. those who can speak, but feel they are not being given their turn. “Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus, they don’t need the word ‘subaltern’ … They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse wanting a piece of the pie and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern” (ibid).

Unlearning one’s privilege as one’s loss

Privilege is also a kind of insularity which cuts off the privileged from certain kinds of “other” knowledge. One should strive to recognize these limitations and overcome them, not as a magnanimous gesture of inclusion, but simply for the increase of knowledge. The way to do this is by working critically through one’s beliefs, prejudices and assumptions and understanding how they arose and became naturalized. Any Zen master, chiropractor, or guitar teacher will tell you that real learning can only begin once years of mental habit, bad posture, and learning riffs the wrong way are undone, or unlearned.

What we are asking is that the holders of the hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other rather than simply say, “OK, sorry, we are just very good white people, therefore we do not speak for the blacks” (Intervention interview).

Major Publications

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Translation of and introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins, 1976.
  • —. A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
  • —.  “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the interpretation of Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313.
  • —. Death of a Discipline. New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • —. “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman” in Mark Krupnik, ed. Displacement: Derrida and After. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983: 169-95.
  • —. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics.London: Methuen, 1987.
  • —. Outside In the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • —. Selected Subaltern Studies. Ed. with Ranajit Guha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
  • —. The Spivak Reader. Ed. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. New York and London: Routledge, 1996. This book includes an extensive list of publications, including many interviews.
  • —. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. London: Routledge, 1990.

Interviews cited

  • “The Intervention Interview.” Southern Humanities Review 22:4 (Fall 1988): 323-342
  • Leon de Kock. “New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 23:3 (July 1992): 29-47
  • Sara Danius and Stefan Jonsson. Boundary 2 20:2 (1993): 24-50
  • Alfred Arteaga. “Bonding in Difference.” The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Landry and MacLean. “Subaltern Talk.” The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.

Author: Michael Kilburn, Spring 1996
Last edited: June 2012

Dangarembga, Tsitsi


Tsitsi Dangarembga in 2006

Image by David Clarke/CC Licensed

In 1959, Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, in the town of Mutoko. She spent her early childhood, ages two through six, in Britain. She began her education in a British school but after returning to Rhodesia with her family, she concluded her early education, her A-levels, in a missionary school in the City of Mutare. Later, she went back to Britain to attend Cambridge University where she pursued a course of study in medicine. Dangarembga was not destined to stay in Britain; after becoming homesick and alienated she returned to her homeland of Rhodesia in 1980 just before it became Zimbabwe under black-majority rule.

She continued her educational pursuits in Rhodesia and began a course of study at the University of Harare in psychology. During her studies, Dangarembga held a job at a marketing agency as a copywriter for two years and was a member of the drama group affiliated with the university. This is where her early writing was given an avenue for expression. She wrote many of the plays that were put into production at the university. In 1983 she directed and wrote a play entitled “The Lost of the Soil”. She then became an active member of a theater group called Zambuko. This group was directed by Robert McLaren. While involved in this groups she participated in the production of two plays, “Katshaa!” and “Mavambo.”

While involved in theater she also explored prose writing. In 1985, she published a short story in Sweden entitled “The Letter” and in 1987, she published a play in Harare entitled “She No Longer Weeps.” Her real success came at age twenty-five with the publication of her novel Nervous Conditions. This novel was the first to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. In 1989, Nervous Conditions won her the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Prior to this award she had won a second prize in a short story competition of the Swedish aid-organization, SIDA. After Nervous Conditions was published in Denmark, she made a trip there in 1991 to be part of the Images-of-Africa festival. Dangaremba continued her education in Berlin at the Deutsche Film und Fernseh Akademie where she studied film direction. While in school she made many film productions, including a documentary for German television. She then made the film entitled Everyone’s Child in 1996. It was shown world wide at various festivals including the Dublin Film Festival. In 2006, she published The Book of Not: A Sequel to Nervous Conditions.

Nervous Conditions

“The condition of native is a nervous condition.”

Nervous Conditions is a partially autobiographical story of Tambu, a young girl who lives on an impoverished Rhodesian farm during the late 1960s. The death of Tambu’s brother forces her to live with Babamukuru, her uncle who has been educated in the west, and become the provider for her family. She quickly accepts this situation because it offers her the opportunity of missionary schooling and the knowledge of a western educated family. Tambu has great aspirations for her personal education despite the obstacles that stand in her way: race, class and sex. The topics of education and its relation to gender are important facets of this novel. Education is used as a type of power by many characters in the novel, most importantly Babamukuru. The novel also follows the story of Tambu’s cousin who has anorexia, an illness not usually associated with African countries. This disease is used in the novel as a form of control for Tambu’s cousin who is torn between two cultures, that of her home, Rhodesia and that of England. The novel also discusses the many facets of poverty and the effects that it has on people. Poverty affects each character in the novel creating in each of them a type of nervous condition.

Selected Bibliography

  • Buck, Claire.  The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature, New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1992. 247.
  • Creamer, Heidi. “An Apple for the Teacher?: Femininity, Coloniality and Food in Nervous Conditions,” in Anna Rutherford, ed. In to the Nineties. New South Wales: Dangaroo Press, 1994. 344-360.
  • Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions, Seattle: Seal Press, 1989.
  • Vizzard, Michelle. “Of Mimicry and Woman’ Hysteria and Anti-colonial Feminism in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions,”  Journal of the South Pacific Association for the Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. 1993.

Links to Related Sites

Nervous Conditions synopsis and information

Postcolonial pathology in Nervous Conditions

Information about Everyone’s Child 

Author: Rebecca Grady, Fall 1997
Last edited: May 2012


Historical Background

South Africa is a land of abundant natural resources, mild climate, and fertile lands. Their resources range from diamond and gold to platinum and their land is fertile enough to feed the rest of the world if cultivated intensively. Yet many believed Africa to be the Dark Continent, a continent of poverty, harsh climate, and political turmoil (Woods 10). Though apartheid officially began in 1948, Africa’s history of racial domination and oppression began as early as the mid-17th century when the Dutch East India Company set up a provisioning station on the Cape (US Government Source).

White settlers from the Netherlands arrived in South Africa in the mid17th century, forcing the occupants of South Africa out of their land or using them as laborers. The “Scramble for Africa” then came in the18th and 19th century where the French, British, Portuguese, Germans, Belgians, Spanish, and Dutch colonized and took control of almost all of the Fifty states which make up the African nation (Woods 15). By the 20th century, the British controlled most of northeast, east, west, center, and South Africa, and the French controlled most of northwest Africa.

The original architects of apartheid from the Apartheid Museum archives/public domain

The original architects of apartheid from the Apartheid Museum archives/public domain

Southern Africa was separated into four territories in the end of the 19th century, two of which were under British rule and the other two in the hands of the Afrikaners. The Black people did not have any political rights in these four territories and segregation was already in full force at this point. The Dutch descendants, also known as the Boers or Afrikaners, revolted against the British in the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, trying to claim the two other colonies. They did not succeed and British rule was established in all four colonies.

By 1910, the four colonies were joined together under the Act of the Union, and the British handed the administration of the country over to the White locals. The Union preserved all regulations on black rights and also removed all parliamentary rights for Black people. In the three decades to follow until the Apartheid was established, racial segregation and white domination could be seen in all aspects such as land ownership, legal system, distribution of wealth and in the social relations.

Apartheid in Action

The apartheid was a creation of three hundred and seventeen laws by Dr. D.F. Malan’s nationalist party, which was elected in 1948. The apartheid only proceeded to add structure to the racial segregation and domination that already existed within the nation. Even before 1948,the Nationalist Party feared the influx of Africans into White towns, and therefore restricted the areas in which they could live. The Whites passed various bills in the next four decades, to ensure that the movement of Africans into their towns were kept at a minimum, and also sought political, economical, and social domination.

Bills Passed

  • The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, and Immorality Act, 1950, constituted the government’s first step in institutionalizing racial differentiation.These acts prohibited sexual intercourse and marriage between Whites and Blacks. All people over the age of sixteen were required to carry identity cards that grouped the people into various racial categories.
  • A sign from the Apartheid era/public domain

    A sign from the Apartheid era/public domain

    The Groups Areas Act, 1950, restricted the entrance of Blacks into the urban, industrial, and agricultural areas, reserving these areas only for the Whites. Most people who were allowed to be within the reserved areas were workers, housemaids or gardeners, who were given state permission. Spouses and other family members were also restricted from living with those who were granted permission. If Blacks were caught with family members who did not have the permission to be in the area, they were arrested and imprisoned, once spotted by the inspectors.

  • The Population Registration Act, also in 1950, required that all Africans were classified into three categories according to race. These were Black, Colored, or White, and the government made these classifications according to a person’s habits, education, appearance, and manner. Rules were given according to race and had to be followed to prevent dire consequences.
  • The Bantu Authorities Act, 1951, assigned all Africans to their native land. This stole power away from the Africans, and instead allowed them to vote solely within their homeland. This allowed the denationalization of Africans possible. The Bantu Education Act applied apartheid to the educational system. The education of Whites, Blacks, and Colored was separately administered and financed.
  • The Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act, 1952, required all Africans to carry a pass-book, similar to a passport. The pass-book contained all personal information, such as name, photograph of holder, fingerprints, and also gave a detailed explanation on where a person could be employed, and their performance at work. If Africans did not obey the rules, they were kicked out from the area, and their crime would be reported in their pass-books. The penalty for not carrying the book at all times was also severe, ranging from imprisonment and fines, to a torturous death.


Apartheid influenced the lives of all those residing in South Africa – including the children. Schooling was separated for all the races. Whites, Indians, Colored, and Africans, attended different schools, except in some rare cases where Indian and African children were sent to the same school due to a lack of number in students. The White education was controlled by the Dept. of National Education, while the Indian, colored, and African education was governed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The per capita expenditure on education during 1980 to 1981 for whites were around1000 rands, while for the Africans, it was 200 rands. Many schools for Black children were constantly in need of repair, and classroom shortages were frequent. The student to teacher ratio for White schools was1:18 and 1:48 for the African schools, in 1981. Due to the inadequate educational system of the African schools, many African students did not go beyond primary school, while the White children were mandated to attend school until the age of fifteen. By 1980, a survey showed that for an African school to create a curriculum more like the White schools, they would have to triple the expenditures for African schools.

Resistance to Apartheid

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998, South Africa the Good News/public domain

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998, South Africa the Good News/public domain

One of the first political organizations in Africa opposed to the apartheid was Lubumba Yama Afrika, which believed that the only way to fight the Whites was through African unity. This party began in the 19th century, and spurred on many other parties from that point on.  Opposition to the apartheid was also influenced by outside powers, such as Mahatma Gandhi’s theory of non-violence. In 1960, a large group of Africans in Sharpeville revolted by not carrying around their pass-books. This resulted in the government declaring a state of emergency in this region. The emergency continued for 156 days, leaving 69 people dead and 190 wounded.

Many feared political protest, even if non-violent, because of the severe consequences which followed. Once arrested, many died in custody, or were sentenced to prison for life.

Nelson Mandela became involved with the ANC, African National Congress during the peak of the Second World War. Along with sixty other members, the mission of the ANC was to turn the group into a mass movement. By 1952, Mandela was elected National Volunteer-in-Chief. His job was to travel around the country, organizing resistance against discrimination. Because of his role in the ANC, Mandela was convicted of going against the Suppression of Communism Act and sent to Johannesburg prison for six months. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the ANC was outlawed. Mandela continued to fight for the rights of his people, traveling illegally outside South Africa in 1962, and addressing the Conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa. After his return to Africa, he was once again arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. During these five years, he was charged with sabotage, and sentenced this time to life in prison. Like Gandhi, Mandela fought a war of non-violence and equal opportunities for all people. He was released on February 11th, 1990, and was elected as the first democratically chosen president of South Africa on may 10th 1994. In 1993, he received the Nobel Peace prize on behalf of all the South Africans who suffered to bring peace to the land.

The Outside World

Apartheid did not receive any international attention when the laws were first created in 1948. The rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and the revolt of colonial rule in Asia and Africa drew attention to the situation in South Africa. The United Nations helped to draw more international attention by imposing an arms embargo in November 1977 and by creating a Security Council sanctions committee in December 1977. India helped to draw attention on the Indian population in Southern Africa and as various countries claimed their independence, the necessity for action to be taken on the apartheid increased. Internationally, other ways in which action was taken was by denying South African airways from landing in their countries, breaking off diplomatic relations with the government of South Africa, and boycotting all South African goods and refraining from exporting goods (Anti-Apartheid Movement 105).  However, South Africa was indifferent to these international criticisms because of its continuance in economic prosperity.

The End of Apartheid

Apartheid finally came to an end in 1990 when president F.W. de Klerk announced a formal end to the apartheid.  By 1991, all apartheid laws were repealed.  The sanctions, created by the UN, were repealed as well. South Africa is presently in a process of transition. The government has been working to stimulate growth, create jobs, and to integrate the workforce. Foreign countries have been keen on integrating South Africa into their businesses.  Though racism has not been erased from the lives of many people, South Africa is undergoing great changes even to this day.

Works Cited

  • “Apartheid, the Facts.” International Defense and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. London: A.G. Bishop and Sons Ltd., 1983.
  • Berkeley, Bill. “Truth on Trial: South Africa’s Past Shades its Future.” (1996) 21 Nov. 2000. Web. <>
  • Coutsoukis, Photius.  “South Africa.” (Oct. 1997) ABC Maps of South Africa. 20 Nov. 2000. Web. <>
  • McCuen, Gary. The Apartheid Reader. Hudson: Gary McCuen Publications Inc., 1986.
  • “Racism and Apartheid in Southern Africa.” Anti-Apartheid Movement. Paris: Unesco Press, 1974.
  • “Sam and Joel’s South Africa Project.” South Africa Report. 20 Nov.  2000.  Web. <>
  • “US Government Source.” Background Notes. 25 Nov.  2000. Web.
  • <>
  • Woods, Donald, and Mike Bostock. Apartheid: A Graphic Guide. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986.
  • Woods, Donald. Apartheid: The Propaganda and the Reality. London: International Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, 1985.

Related Links

Apartheid Literature

J.M. Coetzee


Author: Mai Noguchi, Fall 2000.
Last edited: October 2012

Victorian Women Travelers in the 19th Century

Why Women Began To Travel

Portsmouth Dockyard painting by James Tissot, 1877//public domain

Portsmouth Dockyard painting by James Tissot, 1877/public domain

Women began to travel in the nineteenth century for many personal and political reasons. Some women sought to further a cause, like missionary work, while others traveled to satisfy personal curiosities of “exotic” lands. Most women, however, traveled to escape gender oppression in Europe (Stevenson 2). One form of gender oppression had manifested in scholarly and scientific writing, in which women scholars were not taken seriously. This was especially clear in attitudes towards women who researched and collected data, so women traveled to create a space for their research. In India, this proved to be a successful method of advancement in anthropology. White women were admitted into harems and zenanas, the homes of hundreds of eastern women, for the purpose of study. Men, however, were not allowed into these female dwellings. This allowed women that had come abroad to study and have expertise in an area where men had no access (Ghose 10). Race provided women with immediate empowerment (Ghose 9).

White women travelers were hailed for their advancement of feminism. Many of the women were surprised at this honor for their intent was not political. Yet whether women traveled for a political purpose or not, the power they gained in foreign lands as opposed to at home caused them to re-examine their position in Europe (Blunt 124). This realization of oppression and domination by the male gender, however, did little for the liberation of people in the East. Rather, the East was seen as a place for women to regain power through race, which was lost at home because of gender (Stevenson 125).

Uses of Personal and Scientific Research

Many of the observations made by women traveling to the East concerned the indigenous people (Stevenson 10). Women viewed the people of the “Orient” from many different personal positions. Some female travelers identified with the people of the land as objects of study. They related to the native people because as women they were also objectified in Europe. This relation of marginalization allowed feminist travelers to advance the status of European women by showing gender hierarchy in another context. Anti-feminists, however, identified with the native women to support the idea that European women were losing their femininity (Ghose 53). Although few of the women travelers were known to be sympathetic to the cause of the indigenous peoples, Mary Kingsley advocated for anticolonial causes (Stevenson 11).

Objectification rather than identification was the more common approach on the study of native people. By studying the indigenous peoples, women were able to rise to the status of the white male in scholarly writing and in literature. These women behaved paternalistically towards the natives, as white men acted towards them.  Female European researchers who objectified native women were very critical of the people and the land that they saw around them. The travel writings of the 19th century are known to be full of exaggeration, specifically about the violent tendencies of the native peoples. Victorian women often painted a picture in which African peoples were savages waiting to be tamed and trained to live better lives (Stevenson 10).

Marie Postans, an English traveler, represents many of the superior attitudes of Europeans. In the following example, she writes of Hindu holidays and their interference with daily life: “Hindu holidays interfere sadly with the labors of the working classes” (Ghose 35). Postans’ words re-emphasize the idea that the Indian way of living is lazy and fun-loving thus being unsuitable for the development of their own peoples. Postans’ documentation of Indian behavior supported an existing belief in the Puritan work ethic during the nineteenth century. By describing the Indian population as lazy, the European population, in contrast, became sober and hard working. According to colonial belief, it was only through better European schooling and exposure to English enlightenment that would lead to an advancement of the Indian people (35).

Another example is illustrated within the context of the remarks made by white women about women’s behavior in the harem or zenana in India. Many conservative white women viewed Indian women in harems as the over-sexed and demented. White women contrasted their own behavior to the behavior of Indian women. As Isabella Bird claims:

I have lived in Zenanas, and have seen the daily life of the secluded woman, and I can speak from bitter experience of what their lives are–the intellect dwarfed, so that a woman of twenty or thirty years of age is more like a child of eight, intellectually; while all the worst passions of human nature are stimulated and developed to a Fearful degree: jealousy, envy, murderous hate, intrigue, running to such an extent that in some countries I have hardly ever been to a woman’s house without being asked for drugs with which to disfigure the favorite wife, or to take away the life of the favorite wife’s infant son.  (qtd in Ghose 63)

Bird’s description of the native population makes Europeans seem superior in intelligence and morality. She views the “child-like” Indian woman and believes that Indians need to be saved from their own demise. As with many English, Bird felt that Indian people left alone without the enlightenment of the Europeans were doomed to destroy themselves.

Bird and Postans were two of many imperialist women who contributed to the discourses of Orientalism. Their personal opinions of natives represent the attitudes of the majority of Victorian women who wrote and studied the women of the East and Africa. Below are quotes from various women whose travel journals also helped to shape Victorian attitudes towards the non-Western peoples.

Significant Quotations

Lady Mary Whortley Montague, Turkey:

I have seen all that has been called lovely either in England or Germany, and must own that I never saw anything so gloriously beautiful … I confess, though the Greek lady had before given me a great opinion of her beauty I was so struck with admiration that I could not for some time speak with her, being wholly struck taken up with gazing. (qtd in Ghose 58)

Mary Billington, India:

According to modern “emancipated” lights, the answer of a poor Mohammedan woman in Calcutta to my question as to what she regarded as the chief happiness she would desire for herself might seem a contracted one. “To see my husband happy, and to know that what I have cooked and done for him has helped to make him so; to see my sons grow up as men, honest and strong, and to know that my daughters are well married” — is in my view a praiseworthy domestic ideal, enough even when set beside the possibilities of a bank holiday on Hampstead Heath.  (qtd in Ghose 65)

Mary Carpenter, India:

In England, such girls would be generally intended for domestic service, and prepared for its duties while at school. I was informed, however, that such can rarely be the case in India, owing to the universal employment of men in the household occupations with us exclusively appropriate to women; it would not, therefore, be safe for a young girl to be placed as a servant in the family. The girls are usually married when about fifteen or sixteen to native converts, and it is of importance that they should be prepared to be good wives and mothers of families … The singing is sweet, and in other respect this school gave me satisfactory proof that, under good female instruction, Hindoo girls are quite equal to their English sisters. (qtd in Ghose 117)

H.H. Princess Marie Louise, Gold Coast, Africa:

The cloth is draped over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm and shoulder bare, and hangs down in heavy folds resembling a Roman toga. When an African, be he chief or otherwise, speaks to one of high or royal rank, he bares his left shoulder, removes his crown or fillet from his head and takes off his sandals. A chief’s ornaments, anklets, rings and bracelets, are very beautiful and of pure Ashanti gold, strange and rare in design and of the best native workmanship. (qtd in Romero 163)

Hitherto the young African desirous and keen for higher education has had to seek his training overseas, in surroundings alien to those amongst which he must ultimately live and work, thus exposing himself to the danger of growing out of touch with his own race during the most important period of his intellectual development. (qtd in Romero 165)

Anne Louise Dundas, Tanganyika, Africa:

As the entertainment at this stage is growing rather thin, and our host appears somewhat anxious and weary, the European ladies adjourn by invitation to view their Hindu sisters, hidden from vulgar male curiosity … Everywhere about the floor of the inner sanctum lie wee brown babies, sleeping peacefully in their stiff, gold-lace caps, looking not unlike luscious chocolate drops decorated by a French confectioner.  (qtd in Romero 115)

Joan Rosita Forbes, East Africa:

As soon as a married couple arrive at a suitable age they are entitled to a portion of the family land, sufficiently large for its products to support them. This is chosen by arbiters appointed by the district, within whose bounds the husband has the right to cut sufficient wood for the construction of his house. Friends and relations carry this material to the appointed site. (Forbes quoted in Romero 144)

Miss John Gray, Canton:

The courtesy of the Chinese is very great. You feel on entering one of their houses that their great desire is to please you and that their whole attention is given to you as a guest. Henry says when he has called a house of mourning, in which, according to Chinese custom, the seats of the chairs are covered with blue, a servant has been called to bring a red covering to place on the chair intended for him, as a Chinese gentleman consider it is not kind to make his friends mourn for his particular loss. (qtd in Robinson 300)

Lady Sheil, Persia:

Here then we are fairly launched on the monotonous current of life in Persia. To a man the existence is tiresome enough, but to a woman it is still more dreary. The former has the resource of his occupation, the sports of the field, the gossip and the scandal of the town, in which he must join whether he likes to or not; and finally, Persian visiting cannot be altogether neglected, and if freely entered into, is alone a lavish consumer of time. With a woman it is otherwise. She cannot move abroad without being thickly veiled; she cannot amuse herself by shopping in the bazaars, owing to the attention she would attract unless attired in Persian garments. This is precluded by the inconvenience of the little shoes hardly covering half the foot, with a small heel three inches high in the middle of the sole.  (qtd in Robinson 174-175)

Works Cited

  • Blunt, Alison. Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa. New York: The Guilford Press, 1994.
  • Ghose, Indira. Women Travelers In Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Romero, Patricia. Women’s Voices on West Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Robinson, Jane. Unsuitable For Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travelers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. Victorian Women Travel Writers in Africa. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Related Sites

Victorian Women Writers

Author: Aziza Ahmed, Fall 1998   Last edited: May 2012