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Since the second half of the twentieth century, there has been a commitment on the part of women writers and scholars to revise and rewrite the history and culture of colonial and post-colonial women. This panel seeks to examine issues of women's identities and bodies through literary representations and historical accounts. The aim will be to reconstruct women's identities through the representations of their bodies in literature and to analyse women's bodies historically as sites of abuse, discrimination and violence on the one hand, and of knowledge and artistic production on the other.
We welcome papers that contribute to the formation of a new representation of women through history and literature which fights traditional stereotypes in relation to their bodies and identities.
Convenor M. Isabel ROMERO RUIZ (Universidad de Malaga, ES) [email protected]
Co-Convenor Laëtitia LEFEVRE THIERRY (Université de Caen, FR) [email protected]
REMAPPING THE RACIALIZED BODY IN BHARATI MUKHERJEE'S "A WIFE'S STORY"
"Petru Maior" University of Tg. MureÅŸ, Romania
Immigrant women writers have always emphasized the connection between their bodies, their immigrant experiences and identity formation. Starting from Plato's concept of the body as a prison for the soul, reason, or mind, the paper explores how Panna's body shaped her identity. As her body becomes a reflector of others' concept of beauty, her identity is influenced by this shift in perceptions. While the paper does not try to answer all questions on Indian-American female identity, it does want to create an open space for discussion. The reader witnesses the process by which Panna's body undergoes the necessary changes to fit the mainstream's perceptions and thus become a hybrid body. The hybrid female body, thus, in Mikkail Bahtin's words becomes a "material bearer of meaning", in which souls can be reborn in this process of uprooting and rerooting. Thus Mukherjee's representation fights traditional stereotypes in relation to the female body and identity. She analyzes her character's body as a site of discrimination, on the one hand, and of knowledge, on the other hand. Decolonizing her body due to her upbringing means realizing the body is only secondary to reason or intellect; it is a variable, always constructed and produced.
REMAPPING THE RACIALIZED BODY IN BHARATI MUKHERJEE'S "A WIFE'S STORY"
"Petru Maior" University of Tg. MureÅŸ, Romania
MOTTO: "I find that I am totally thinking differently, and the cadences are different. I'm different, my whole facial muscles are different. My body moves differently when I'm speaking English versus Bengali" (Bharati Mukherjee, 20th c. South Asian American female writer)
The paper first proposes a different politics of the body in postcolonial women's texts and then suggests a poststructuralist approach to Bharati Mukherjee's "A Wife's Story", (included among the eleven stories of her volume The Middleman and Other Stories - 1988), which dissociates her from both Asian and American postcolonial style of writing, making her a true Euro-American female writer. Her text which won the National Book Critics Circle Award) enables a rethinking of the dialectic relations between culture and power (cultural forms which are sustaining and empowering for women and others which are disempowering).
She is writing about "an American immigrant group who are undergoing many transformations within themselves. And who, by their very presence, are changing the country" (Meer "Interview with Bharati Mukherjee"). Her characters, by crossing borders, like Mukherjee herself, suffer a two-way transformation. This infusion of culture on both sides frees body and mind and is expressed in detailed language. Unlike American literary minimalism characterized by economy of words, allowing context to dictate meaning, Mukherjee prefers to use detailed commonplace descriptions of ordinary life. This minimalist white fiction from a South Asian perspective approach allows her to present images of independent women who break away from their confining native traditions and find their own way in the new world. Interestingly enough, many of her female immigrant characters are able to adjust to life in America more easily than their male counterparts. As Panna says, "I've been trained to adapt" ("A Wife's Story" 66). Each of her female characters is in fact a woman who "remakes herself" in the culturally mixed American environment. Her original idea of multicultural America both assimilates its new immigrants and is transformed by them. Reshaping of the self implies thus rejection of the oppressive and nostalgic selves and past standing for the Old World and full embracement of the New World self. As Mukherjee's female character, Jasmine, says: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake ourselves. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the image of dreams" (Jasmine 25). This emphasis on both change and preservation is within a flexible dialogue between cultures. Her characters, as Mukherjee herself, are negotiators of the "Universal Truth", liminal figures/characters (middlemen) in a liminal, uncertain and mobile space where, found in a difficult situation, they learn how to survive.
Immigrant women writers have always emphasized the connection between their bodies, their immigrant experiences and identity formation. In the case of Bharati Mukherjee, it is difficult to shun the autobiographical elements in her fiction. Her protagonists are close projections of her self, embodying her own struggle with identity first as an exile from India, then as an Indian expatriate in Canada and finally as an immigrant in the USA. Once described as the "foremost chronicler of the multicultural new America," (Rudnick 1) (Rudnick, Lois Palken, Judith E. Smith & Rachel Rubin. American Identities: An Introductory Textbook. USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006: 1) Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India from upper middle-class Hindu Brahmin parents. Her mother who was married at 16 encouraged her to attend college and seek a professional career.
In her famous essay "The American Dreamer" (1997), Bharati Mukherjee explains how she defined herself as an expatriate Bengali for her 10 years abroad, struggling to retain her Indianness while living in Canada that openly resisted cultural fusion. She tells her story of coming to the United States and becoming an American citizen. She was raised in a traditional, hierarchical, classification-obsessed society where "one's identity was fixed, derived from religion, caste, patrimony and mother tongue" (35). After she had done her B.A. and M.A. in English and Ancient Indian Culture in Calcutta, she continued her studies at the University of Iowa, USA. Impulsive by nature and with a strong determination to escape the rules, the traditions, and the genealogy of India that deprived her of identity, she married the writer Clark Blaise only a few weeks after she met him, mostly because he was not Brahmanic in appearance, having blue eyes.
From that moment on, she became a negotiator of cultures, a 'middleman' as the title of the volume The Middleman and Other Stories (Mukherjee, Bharati. The Middleman and Other Stories. USA: Grove Press, 1999) suggests. After experiencing racism in Canada, she moved with her husband to USA. As she confesses, her arrival in USA was, unlike other writers, a gain, and not a loss:
"I totally consider myself an American writer, and that has been my big battle: to get to realize that my roots as a writer are no longer, if they ever were, among Indian writers, but that I am writing about the territory, about the feelings of a new kind of pioneer here in America. I'm the first among Asian immigrants to be making this distinction between immigrant writing and expatriate writing. Most Indian writers prior to this, have still thought of themselves as Indians, and their literary inspiration has come from India. India has been the source and home. Whereas I'm saying, those are wonderful roots, but now my roots are here and my emotions are here in North America." (qtd. in Meer, Ameena. Bomb 29/Fall 1989, Literature; http://bombsite.com/issues/29/articles/1264)
Hence, her dissociation from the immigrant writers who use hyphenation when speaking about their origin. By entitling herself an Asian American writer, she highlights the immigrant's binary imagination that remakes any immigrant when he comes to America.
In a televised interview with Bill Moyers (Moyers, Bill. A World of Ideas II, N.York: Doubleday, 1990) Bharati Mukherjee commented: "I feel very American â€¦ I knew the moment I landed as a student in 1961 â€¦ that this is where I belonged. It was an instant kind of love."
However, Mukherjee's approach to life and its problems is deeply moored in her Indian upbringing. Sharma Maya Manju (qtd. in Nagendra 21) refers to this aspect of her creative personality: "In her fiction Mukherjee handles Western themes and settings as well as characters who are westernized or bicultural. Yet she is forced to admit that the very structure of her imagination is essentially Hindu and moral. She dissociates herself from other postcolonial writers of the third world who write about living in perpetual exile and the impossibility of ever having a home. She left India by choice to settle in the USA. She chose a dynamic destiny vs. determinism: "I view myself as an American author in the tradition of other American authors whose ancestors arrived at Ellis Island" (qtd. in Kumar 21) (Kumar, Nagendra. The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Cultural Perspective. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, Nice Printing Press, 2001: 21)
While in the early 1980s, due to the strong emphasis on the cultural construction of identity, the body was relatively under-researched, in the late 1980s an interest in the body revived, partly influenced by feminist theory. Today we are witnessing a variety of ways in which the body is understood, lived and represented. The importance of understanding the body as a socially, historically and culturally constructed concept, looking at differences between bodies, for example in relation to gender, ethnicity and social class has particular relevance in Indian American female writing as well.
One of the most important ways in which our bodies are socially constructed is through gender and race. How male and female bodies become gendered and racialized, how race interacts with gender in the social construction of bodies are therefore important in immigrant literature. Judith Butler's remarks on how patriarchy exercises its power through the gendered body are very useful in this sense (Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. USA: Routledge, 1993). McClintock argues for the importance of understanding the history of any previous colonial power by making reference to the ways in which the development of a national identity is bound to racialized bodies (McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, USA: Routledge, 1995).
Immigrant women writers have always emphasized the connection between their bodies, their immigrant experiences and identity formation. One of the things that white Western thought has done is to construct the Black [Asian] body and related sexuality in a specific way (Evans, Mary. & Lee, Ellie. Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
Bakhtin associates the formation of a new body in a mother's womb (another body) with the raising of a new consciousness wrapped in another's consciousness. (Bakhtin, Mikhail et al. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. USA: University of Texas Press Slavic Series, 1986: 138). I will use Bakhtin's terms of 'creative understanding' and 'dynamic destiny' to show Bharati Mukherjee's use of racialized body as a form of cultural knowledge: "One cannot draw an absolute distinction between body and meaning in the area of culture: culture is not made of dead elements, for even a simple brick â€¦ in the hands of a builder expresses something through its form" (138)
Plato fell into the error of separating body and mind as carriers of cultural codes and markers of identity. As he would say, "the body does not take care of the body and still less of the mind, but the mind takes care of both" (190). (Plato. The Republic. USA: First World Publishing, 2009: 190)
Starting from Plato's concept of the body as a prison for the soul, reason, or mind, the paper analyzes the female body as both a site of oppression and of knowledge.
A politics of the body involves socialization involving layers and levels of ideological influences, sociocultural and religious, that impose knowledge or ignorance of female bodies and construct woman as gendered subject or object. As a woman writer, Bharati Mukherjee presents in "A Wife's Story" the struggle of her protagonist Panna to resist patriarchal domination and definition as wife. This definition (Bakhtin 9) restrains her to an ideological framework that controls her body, oppresses her through the economic, political, and cultural norms imposed on her by the Hindu society. This is mostly visible in the case of postcolonial cultures that are gender specific. Indian women's cultural norms restrict a woman to a dependent self that cannot make a life outside the marital sphere. Trained to see her husband as God, she is encouraged to resist physical and emotional abuse. Culturally lower, Indian women have thus no courage to step out their social and cultural conditioning. As an ex-colonial empire subject, Katrak (9) argues that the postcolonial female body itself is constructed as a figure of exile and self-alienation. (Katrak, Ketu H. Politics of the Female Body. Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World. USA: Rutgers University Press, 2006: 9)
A fissure between body and mind also takes place in diasporic Asians. "The body exists spatially, yet the formless mind rushes to and fro temporarily. The more alienated the body feels from its surroundings, the more prone is the mind to effect an escape through time." (Stanford 8) (qtd. in Friedman, Susan Stanford. Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 1998: 8)
In "A Wife's Story", the first-person narrator is Panna, an Indian woman pursuing higher education in New York, USA, while her husband, unnamed in the story remains in Bombay, India. There are two other characters in the story: Imre, a close friend of Panna's (an immigrant and political dissident from Budapest) and Charity Chin (Panna's roommate, a hand model).
Panna's Americanization in Bharati Mukherjee's "A Wife's Story" or the gradual integration into American society took the form of a "trauma of self-transformation" as Bharati Mukherjee confesses in an interview: "I find that I am totally thinking differently, and the cadences are different. I'm different, my whole facial muscles are different. My body moves differently when I'm speaking English versus Bengali" (126) (Edwards, Bradley C. Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee USA: University Press of Mississippi, 2009: 126)
In India she was geared towards repressing her individual personality but here, in America, making her own decisions, means the patriarch has lost control. She creates her fate "given certain pieces, certain cards". She reinvents herself constantly, and she survives by canceling history â€¦ deleting yesterday â€¦ believing in dynamic fate and creative understanding." (Edwards 128).
The trauma of self-transformation and dynamic fate is based on the Indian Hindu belief in reincarnation: "I was born into a Hindu Bengali Brahmin family which means I have a different sense of the self, of existence, of mortality, than do writers like Malamud. I believe that our souls can be reborn in another body, so the perspective I have about a single character's life is different from that of an American writer who believes that he has only one life". (Carb 651) (Carb Alison B. "An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee", The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Winter, 1988/1989), pp. 645-654: 651)
In "A Wife's Story" the central character, Panna, soliloquizes: "I've made it" (61) (Ferguson, Mary & Jean Carr. Images of Women in Literature, USA: HM Co, 1990). At the center of her dilemma in the beginning was the conflict between her need to find herself and the role of the good Hindu wife. What has she made? How has Panna's body shaped her identity? How has she solved the conflict and the dilemma? As her body becomes a reflector of others' concept of beauty, her identity is influenced by this shift in perceptions. While the paper does not try to answer all questions on Indian-American female identity, it does want to create an open space for discussion. The reader witnesses the process by which Panna's body undergoes the necessary changes to fit the mainstream's perceptions and thus become a hybrid body. The hybrid female body, thus, in Mikhail Bakhtin's words becomes a "material bearer of meaning", in which, as Bharati Mukherjee argues, Hindu souls can be reborn in this process of uprooting and rerooting.
Thus Mukherjee's representation fights traditional stereotypes in relation to the female body and identity. She analyzes her character's body as a traditional site of discrimination and oppression (patriarchal and imperialistic domination) on the one hand, and of knowledge (racialized body as a form of cultural knowledge, mental freedom), on the other hand. Decolonizing her body due to her upbringing means realizing the body is only secondary to reason or intellect; it is a variable, always constructed and produced.
Mukherjee's original belief in creative understanding and dynamic destiny places her female characters in different cultural locations to create those shifting meanings. It is a "limbo space" in a foreign culture (Friedman 87), a neutral space where characters are connected through a neutral language (English) and not through common colonial memories: "In order to understand a foreign culture, one must [be] located outside in time, space, culture â€¦ enter into it, forgetting one's own and view the world through the eyes of this foreign culture â€¦. â€¦ to become Other" (Bakhtin 6). As Bakhtin remarks, it is thus immensely important to be located outside the object of one's creative understanding - in time, space, and culture.
Panna is such a case. She is an outsider to her native culture; she is not behaving as a proper Indian wife when she is dressed in her American cotton pants: she is too shy to break into Dance on Broadway but she hugs Imre instead, she squeezes his hand, and throws verbal attacks towards her theater male neighbor: "You're exploiting my space" ("A Wife's Story" 59)
A dialogic encounter starts between the two cultures (native/Indian/Eastern and foreign/American/Western) which do not result in merging or mixing. It's a two-way transformation in which each retains its own unity, but they are mutually enriched. It's not the old theory about the melting pot and the assimilation theory when the newcomer will have to become an American. Traditional Americans also have to adjust to these non-white immigrants.
It is not even the theory of multiculturalism with its emphasis on racial difference, dehumanization, amd implicitly discrimination. "Multiculturalism, in a sense, is well intentioned, but it ends marginalizing the person," Mukherjee states in the 1990s Bill Moyers televised interview. (Moyers, Bill: A World of Ideas II, New York: Doubleday, 1990). In this statement, Mukherjee seems to be defining 'multiculturalism' from the non-multicultural person's point of view of the person who is multicultural by choice or more often because of colonialism in one form or another. She does not discuss the power multiculturalism can demonstrate once it refuses to be marginalized.
In the same well-known televised interview (1990), Bill Moyers states that immigrants must 'violently murder' their own selves upon coming to the USA. Their female characters metamorphose from former traditional selves into new self-assertive ones by getting rid of their past life and experiences. This is not the case of Bharati Mukherkee. From an exile to an expatriate and then to an immigrant, Bharati Mukherjee defines herself in constant reference to her past identity.
She dissociates herself from other writers of the third world who write about living in perpetual exile and the impossibility of ever having both native and foreign countries and she found it difficult to limit herself to one country; hence she crossed boundaries and saw herself as a pioneer ["A Patel" as she called herself in "A Wife's Story"] of new territories, experiences and literatures. (Cf. Myles 108) (Myles, Anita: Feminism and the Post-Modern Indian Women Novelists in English. New Delhi: Sarup & Son, 2008: 108)
She also dissociates herself from the postcolonialist lament. Her characters are mobile, curious travelers and observers of a new liminal space in which they try to survive. Thus, unlike the sentimental lament for a lost home or origin from postcolonial literature, Mukherjee argues for the optimism of the immigrant experience with its losses and gains. Victims and survivors at the same time, her characters thus escape the labeling of postcolonial characters. They go through the trauma of self-transformation on their way towards Americanization. They fashion identities from the scraps and fragments of their new existence in order to survive and exist as best as they can. The conflict between Panna's life as a dutiful, married South Asian woman and the new life and identity she begins to fashion in New York, in order to survive, is ironically present in the title ("A Wife's Story") of the short story as well.
Bharati Mukherjee places her female characters constantly in non-routine situations where their ethnic bodies are exposed to endless transmutations making their own bodies curiously alien to themselves. She felt that psychic violence left a stronger impact on the mind than physical violence on the body. Therefore, her women characters make interesting psychological studies and her stories are rather about psychological transformation.
Panna's singular ethnic body becomes the object of examination of Western eyes for its material, aesthetic, ethical, scientific, humanitarian and erotic values. The imperialistic white outlook transforms her singular ethnic body into a multiethnic body.
"The theater is so dark that they can't see me" (58), Panna says when she and her friend Imre take a seat in the front row but at the edge. She becomes aware that, as "Patels", i.e. postcolonial immigrants, they "see things [they] shouldn't be seeing" (58) which make them "referees" in this cultural exchange and fusion of enculturation (native culture) and acculturation (foreign culture), critical and understanding at the same time.
Panna gradually becomes 'foreign' to her native values and is filled with a sense of alienation. She begins to question her own identity. Realizing the gulf between the two worlds (India and America), a conflict starts in her mind between her old and new outlook. She was ahead of her time in USA - she was an intellectual woman trained to obey traditions; however, in a 1995 interview (Cf. Collado 11) (Rodriguez Francisco Collado. "Naming Multiplicity: An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee" published in Atlantis XVII 1-2 May - November 1995: 293-306: 11). She became aware of her ethnic body as culturally lower to white bodies of women who should not dictate to them.
Entrapped in a dilemma of tensions between American culture and society and the traditional constraints surrounding an Indian wife, between a feminist desire to be assertive and independent and the Indian need to be submissive and reliant, she is suffering on the inside. She becomes a prisoner in her own body which she looks at in the mirror as a voyeur: "In the mirror that hangs on the bathroom door, I watch my naked body turn, the breasts, the thighs glowâ€¦ I am watching somebody else." ("A Wife's Story" 69)
An outsider to herself, to her husband, to her friend and the people she comes into contact with, Panna uses her racialized body as a form of cultural knowledge, a mode of resistance to patriarchal, imperialistic and cultural oppression. Experiencing a split personality, seeing her body and soul apart, she starts manifesting extreme self-consciousness. Sharing an apartment with a Chinese American model (Charity), dating a Hungarian political refugee (Imre), she is fast becoming part of the multiethnic background of New York which contributes to her fast change. When her husband comes to pay her a short visit, she reminds him of the education she is pursuing and tells him that she has no intention to go back to India at present. He does not know her any longer, and she hardly knows herself, she is becoming an outsider to herself.
This process of the body feeling disconnected, estranged from itself, as though it does not belong to it, brings Mukherjee's female protagonists to a "liminal state of consciousness", to use Victor Turner's evocative concept. It is that space the female character needs to cope with the new situation and thus transcend this 'internalized' circle. (Cf. Katrak 2) It is taking sociocultural autonomysociocultural autonomy over your own female body and hence the end of resistance to colonial, patriarchal and/or imperialistic domination. It is the end of acting as a "middleman", a negotiator in a conflict between her social and individual body, a conflict she is not interested in solving. It is simply finding a space where she can re-belong to her body, i.e. rebirth not physically but emotionally and psychologically.
Raising of consciousness and empowerment are brought about with use of physical body. On their return to the apartment, after the city tour in which they reversed roles, Panna, acting as the guide, the patriarch, the adviser ("I handle the money, buy the tickets. I don't know if this makes me unhappy"), and he as the tourist, the submissive, ("He looks disconcerted. He's used to a different role. He's the knowing, suspicious on in the family') while waiting for her husband who is bathing, feels obliged to "make up to him for many years away", for the "degree she will never use in India", for all the minor changes that gradually turned into major changes widening the gap between them, etc. The final image is of a woman whose bicultural body crosses ethnic body, a woman discovering a new sense of herself: "The body's beauty amazes. I stand here shameless, in ways he has never seen me. I am free, afloat, watching somebody else." ("A Wife's Story" 69).
The conclusion I will reach is that Panna is in neither culture. Her bicultural body, 'floating' in the air places her above both cultures. She is not apologetic about either culture. In her role of negotiator, she reaches in the end that subtle understanding that comes from having to survive in a totally foreign culture. The American Dream has given her choices ("to discard â€¦ history â€¦ and invent a whole new history for myself") but, unlike Determinism, she has to cope with one choice only. Paradoxically and unlike traditional South Asian American female writing, her physical body becomes the catalyst of her individual freedom, that which will liberate her mind as well. She is superior to both cultures because she understands both and learns from both. Her body is beautiful, as liberty is, freed/naked from all stereotypes or cultural constraints. She brings her stereotypes from India (no male-female contact was accepted, no dancing, no dating, etc.) but also sets up her own stereotypes about America, She enjoys and marvels at the beauty of her 'nakedness': a body clothed in neither Indian or American clothes, devoid of all stereotypes and free from all gender or cultural constraints; a body in a knowledgeable woman who has perfect control over her body and mind.
Body is subordinate to mind in diasporic Asians but sex is a duty and not a pleasure in the case of Bharati Mukherjee's female characters. It empowers the mind and allows for it rebirth not physically but psychologically. The trapped body and the escapist mind become one in Bharati Mukherjee's discourse of marginality unlike the diasporic Asian female discourse. The reader witnesses the process by which Panna's body undergoes the necessary changes to fit the mainstream's perceptions and thus become a bicultural, hybrid body which does not connect with other bodies through similar colonial memories but through a neutral language (English); it is a racialized body used as a form of cultural knowledge, a body that erases racial and ethnic memories. Which is the price of this loss, whether she made peace with the American insults as a way of accepting the Other, through these signs of 'visibility', we do not know. All we know is that others helped her discover her body, which she used as one mode of female resistance to oppression, a source of empowering, becoming a metaphor for sexual and later mental freedom.