Language and Resistance

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

Marxist literary critic Dominic Head observes that "the novel eschews entirely the depiction of revolution, focusing solely on the issue of identity" (123). Instead of depicting violence outright, Gordimer displace the violence of revolution onto the violence of communication that articulates her characters' relationships. What interests me is that the Soweto uprising turned centrally upon the political and cultural work done by language; that is, the riots began in protest of the students' mandatory use of Afrikaans, the Dutch-German-French language of white Afrikaners (African Political Dictionary 35). My point is that imperialism and the struggle for decolonization occupy a linguistic, discursive space in which language becomes a political grammar of social oppression and social resistance. The protest to the use of Afrikaans in Soweto, in other words, suggests a correspondence between communication and power. In July's People, Gordimer foregrounds language as an index of social change. July, whose given name is Mwawate (as the Smales finally learn on page 120), finds himself inscribed by the limits of the English language. "The English word," Gordimer writes, "broke the cadence of their language," much as years of apartheid have broken native morale. In the passage below, following the episode in which July furtively (and perhaps bravely) takes the Smales car keys and takes the bakkie into town in search of rations, Gordimer narrates the linguistic gap that separates Maureen and July:

When she didn't understand him it was her practice to give some noncommittal sign or sound, counting on avoiding the wrong response by waiting to read back his meaning from the context of what he said next. (Despite his praise of Bam-was it not given to wound her rather than exalt Bam?-Bam did not have this skill and often irritated him by a quick answer that made it clear, out of sheer misunderstanding, the black man's English was too poor to speak his mind.) (97)

Whereas the male/male relationship between Bam and July is a straightforward professional relationship of unfortunate and yet acknowledged "misunderstanding," the closer and yet more volatile relationship between Maureen and Bam (a "mistress/servant" relationship, in Head's phrase) is until the very end of the novel a linguistic, perhaps hermeneutic guessing game involving multiple interpretations and re-interpretations of each other's speech. Whereas Bam doesn't carry the "skill" or desire to achieve real intimacy with July, Maureen negotiates an obfuscating system of "noncommittal signs" and "sounds" in order to anticipate July's responses, to "read back his meaning from the context of what he said next." By contrast, Maureen's relationship to her husband goes comparatively unspoken, a condition that somewhat foretells their increasing psychological distance from each other towards the novel's end. "People in the relation they had been in," Gordimer writes, "are used to having to interpret what is never said, between them" (69). The communication between Maureen and is thus "displaced" onto Maureen's more active communication with July. Towards the very end of the novel-in a scene in which Maureen unfairly censures July for stealing Bam's gun-the linguistic relationship between Maureen and July is so intimate (and I would argue, sexual) that Maureen finally understands July even though he speaks in his native language. July lashes out at Maureen for accusing him of stealing Bam's gun and betraying the tacit trust underlying their master/servant relationship:

Suddenly he began to talk at her in his own language, his face flickering powerfully. The heavy cadences surrounded her; the earth was fading and a thin, far radiance from the moon was faintly pinkening parachute-silk hazes stretched over the sky. She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything. (152)

Whereas earlier in the novel Maureen's English "broke the cadences" of July's language (20), here the tables of linguistic power are turned; July's native "cadences surrounded" Maureen, leaving her for the most part powerless. Although I would argue Gordimer rather primitivizes or essentializes July by conflating his speech with the natural imagery of the "radiance from the moon," Gordimer nonetheless empowers July with a language of revolutionary mobilization, "his face flickering powerfully." What interests me especially about this passage is its suggestion of a complicity or alliance between July and Maureen. Maureen "understood although she knew no word," not least because she understands July's subservience to her in terms of her subservience to Bam. The passage itself functions as the crux of the power inversion between the Smales and July. Whereas earlier July had been content to communicate with the Smales by a minimal series of monosyllabic English answers, here he reclaims the agency of native language in order to assert his authority over them.

[These materials have been adapted from a paper written for James Egan's English 160, The Invention of America, Brown University, 1997]

Gordimer OV July's People