Western Experiences: Education and "Third World Women" in the Fictions of Tsitsi Dangarembga and Meena Alexander

Rahul Krishna Gairola, Rhode Island College

Copyright © 2000 by Rahul Krishna Gairola, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. If we consider Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and Alexander's Manhattan Music as novels that illustrate English as a "metalanguage," that is, a transcendental linguistic discourse used by the characters to facilitate their relationship to other languages, we can categorize both novels as meta-narratives of cultural schizophrenia. Terry Eagleton has noted, "Questions of 'meta-narrative' no longer concern just literary works, but the terms in which the post-Enlightenment West has traditionally couched its own imperial project. The decentering and deconstruction of categories and identities assume fresh urgency in a context of racism, ethnic conflict, neo-colonial domination; The 'other' is no longer merely a theoretical concept but groups and peoples written out of history, subjected to slavery, insult, mystification, genocide" (205). The narratives of Tambu and Sandhya are not only consequences of all these aspects of colonial discourse noted by Eagleton, but are also related to one of the most important aspects of American and post-colonial cultures left out by Eagleton - the reign of the patriarchal superstructure and how it merges with other ideologies to shape the status and experiences of (dis)placed Third World women.

  2. Hence, "the other" and her experience of cultural schizophrenia delicately waver not only on sex and nationality, but also on the varying ways in which these elements of identity interact with one another and form new political discourses on identity. In the different cases of Tambu and Sandhya, we witness personal alliances toward either western or eastern hegemonic trends that are primarily created and enforced on nationality. The initiatives of writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga and Meena Alexander are important in understanding postcolonial identities as continuously metamorphosing identities depending on the various contexts (e.g. sex, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.) within which they are combined. For once we understand the fluid dynamics of postcolonial identities, we come a step closer to finding a stable discourse that resists the totalizing agenda of essentialized identity or a dominant body of theory (like postmodernism) that first "others" the Third World economically, and subsequently racially.

  3. However, Western education and hegemony cannot be demoted simply as the attempt of the West to taint the ancient cultures of the East with its perversity. While Tambu gravitates toward Western education in the colonial homeland as necessity, Sandhya gravitates toward facets of Indian culture to recover what has almost been erased within her. Defying any neat stack of cultural identities, Draupadi, in this case study of women and colonial education, is an anomalous NRI who has been cultivated in the US tradition but who constantly imagines herself as a more "authentic" product of the Indian culture. Her very consciousness thus becomes a multi-faceted reflection of the postmodern society she lives in, resisting set definitions that try to stabilize her identity by centering it but inversely fling it into the margins by trying to do so.

  4. Perhaps the trend of postcolonialism in literary studies is historically just - it may well be high time for the East to colonize the West, at least theoretically. Aren't we, after all, academics who advocate and encourage the global tug-of-war of intellect that creates new polemical discourses? This is currently happening within postcolonial studies as a colonizing force in academia trying to document the experiences of peoples written out of history. For most of us, the stories of women like Tambu, Sandhya and Draupadi are extraordinary since we cannot grasp their full identities in the same ways that their literary foils and other characters do, nor can we easily understand the différance that sutures the experience of colonialism. In these many ways, the differences themselves between novels like Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and Meena Alexander's Manhattan Music should be appreciated and studied, for the narrative polemics instilled in such fictions about Third World women give agency to the many levels of being and becoming a subaltern subject - even in one's former and/or current "homeland."

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Last Modified: 7 March 2002