Defying Containment, Deskinning Woman

Molly Yancovitz '98, English 27, 1997

Sara Suleri addresses what she identifies as the problems endemic to postcolonial feminist criticism in her theoretical writing. She seeks to dismantle the iconic status of postcolonial feminism, noting that the coupling of postcolonial and feminism "almost inevitably leads to the simplicities that underline unthinking celebrations of oppression, elevating the racially female voice into a metaphor for ๋the good.' Such metaphoricity cannot exactly be called essentialist, but it certainly functions as an impediment to a reading that attempts to look beyond the obvious questions of good and evil." Suleri's common critique of others is their reliance on the "banalities of easy dichotomies." (For example, she refers to this embarrassing tendency in relation to Mohanty and hooks). My question is, how does Suleri extend beyond such simplistic categorization in her own writing? In Meatless Days, Suleri complicates the representation of woman through the symbolic use of cultural migrancy, plot and water, eschewing the localization of identity amidst veils of ambiguity.

Suleri disestablishes the simplistic public/private dichotomy (the political/ domestic split) between her father and mother, highlighting the intricacies of power and respect amongst family members, and their relation to the state. Her father is a journalist, overtly implicated in the activities of the nation through his thoughts and their repercussions (including imprisonment). Her mother ultimately embraces the role of the domestic, but not the subservient. There is power in her silence, meaningful for Suleri and the family. As Suleri noted in her article subtitled "Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition," cultural migrancy "helpfully derails the postcolonial condition from the strictures of national histories." Thus Suleri's mother is perhaps an inherently more political body than her father, for it is her mother who is the border crosser, the European living in Pakistan.

We were accustomed to assuming that my father's historical posture prevailed heavily on our home, but this could be our slight error. What if we questioned their joint apportioning of duty, looked again at what was literature, what was history? I recall my father waking my mother up to say expressly, "Mairi, look at the beauty -- the balance -- of this front page!" He made each front page fit into his control of the aesthetic of his history. My mother, however, let history seep, so that, miraculously, she had no language in which to locate its functioning but held it rather as a distracted manner sheathed about her face, a scarf. "Mamma was more political . . ." I essayed the idea to Tillat. "She did not have to put it into print -- it was the sheet in which she slept . . ." So of course she never noticed the imprint on her face as it wore, for she was that imprint: she was her own dust before her bones had dreamed that they could crumble. (168)

Mairi lacks a language with which to speak of her history, which tells of its defiance of containment.

Suleri identifies the need to possess and the fear of being possessed as contributing to her father's desire for her mother, and similarly, to the community's suspicion of her mother upon her arrival in Pakistan. It is by placing herself above these desires that Suleri's mother locates the subtle power of absence in her life. By blurring the (racial) divisions between herself and her family, by deflating expectations of possessor and possessed, she defies the simple categorization of her difference. "She learned to live apart, then -- apart even from herself -- growing into that curiously powerful disinterest in owning, in belonging. . . . She let commitment and belonging become my father's domain, learning instead the way of walking with tact on other people's land" (164). Note the use of let as negating any proscribed power relation between the couple. She has chosen this division of domains, and it is not disempowering, nor is it transparently dialectic. Instead, her intellect and emotions remain ambiguously situated. "In her, distraction unalloyed was simply her habit of possible serenity. Out of that vagueness floated the precision of her judgment, and we were never able to determine which came first. Was precision the fodder for her vacant peace, or was it vacancy that allowed her to be lucid?"(166).

The characters in Meatless Days are explained in terms of their plots, their stories, which connote the inherent complexity of their identities. Suleri spends much time analyzing her mother's complicated behavior, how she dismantles the identity dictated to her upon entering Pakistan. "Her plot therefore must waver: it must weave in her own manner of sudden retreating, as though I can almost see her surprise when she found herself in Pakistan, on someone else's land. I, who have watched her read a book, and teach it, should be able to envisage the surrendering of black and white behind her reading of the land. No wonder she felt nuanced, when her progeny was brown" (164). The trope of plot displays her mother's stability and intricacy. This woman has dismissed the need to add or subtract anything to herself, rendering her completely unreadable.

Mamma moved through Pakistan with a curious relaxation that seemed unencumbered by any judgment -- an odd claim to make about such a judicious woman, but she certainly appeared to suggest that the possibility of adding herself to anything was irrelevant to her. By the same token, she did not fear subtraction; her method of exchange functioned at the greatest possible remove from the structure of a bargain. Since the world she inhabited was so committedly fond of the language of bargaining, she became to that community a creature of unique and unclassifiable discourse. (165-166)

By undermining statements that would support a dichotomous reading, Suleri redistributes the emphasis of power. Her mother's silence is strong, impressive, in control.

Pakistan OV Gender OV Postcolonial Theory Sara Suleri