The Politics of Position


Tapati Bharadwaj

Loyola Univerisity, Chicago IL

Copyright © 2002 by Tapati Bharadwaj, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Amireh, Amal and Losa Suhair Majaj, eds. Going Global. The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.

  1. Multiculturalism and globalization in the United States have meant the presence and inclusion of Third World texts within First World academic spaces. But the global flow of culture and scholarship, as postcolonial scholars, feminists in particular, have suggested, has not necessarily subverted the unequal power relations that exist between the center and the margins. When commenting on the interest aroused by the works of Third World women in First World academic institutions, Chandra Mohanty points out that their presence is not "evidence of decentering hegemonic histories" and, instead, urges for sufficient attention to be paid to how these works are "read, understood and located institutionally" (34). By drawing attention to the material processes that accompany the production and dissemination of Third World texts in the First World, it is possible to comment that the presence of these texts in the western academy cannot guarantee a displacement of its dominant Eurocentric norms. Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers, a collection of ten essays, attempts to interrogate the invisible institutional dynamics which are involved in the "processes of translation, editing, publishing, and marketing that had brought Third World women's texts into First World marketplaces" (Amireh and Majaj 2). Central to this collection is an attempt to analyze how the writings of Third World women are received within the western academic institution, examining how and why certain Third World writers/ texts are interpreted to conform to the epistemological paradigms of First World institutions.

  2. The essays in the book are divided into three sections, which enable the readers to approach the various issues thematically. Marnia Lazreg's "The Triumphant Discourse of Global Feminism: Should Other Women be Known?" is the opening essay in the section, "Women's Texts, Global Scripts," and sets the critical tone of this collection. Third World texts, when received by the Anglo-American academic institution, enter over-determined spaces, defined by pre- existing discursive texts about Third World women. Lazreg's concern is to problematise how First World feminists, despite their attempts to engage in a dialogue with Third World women's writings, inevitably interpret these texts within existing stereotypical Eurocentric notions of the exotic Other. According to Lazreg, western feminists consider Third World texts as being articulated from within the "theater of the indigenous," which serve to maintain the hegemonic difference of Western experience, and also allow First World feminists to "distance themselves from Other women at the same time as they appear to be closing the gap between them" (35). This kind of interrogation makes evident the power relations that operate institutionally, where the western academy maintains its control over the discursive interpretation of the Other.

  3. Such analyses, as posited by Lazreg, should be juxtaposed by similar critiques of how Third World texts are received in their countries of origin; doing so will reveal how First World institutional practices work in collusion with dominant, non-western institutions to appropriate women's writings for predetermined desires. In "An Affair to Remember: Scripted Performances in the 'Nasreen Affair'," Bishnupriya Ghosh arrives at such a conclusion when she examines how Tasleema Nasreen, a Bangladeshi feminist writer, became "a text produced and deployed for various strategic reasons in Bangladesh, India and the West." While the West tended to concentrate on Nasreen's body politic -- as a woman in a Third World Islamic country -- India and Bangladesh were concerned with her controversial novel, Lajja. But whether seen as a victim of certain fundamentalist forces or as a liberal, western-educated aggressor, Nasreen, Ghosh argues, was "deployed as a signifier for material, political and historical anxieties and concerns" which the First and Third World had about each other (40). The Bangladeshi author/ text became the subject who was written upon by the socio-political needs of the First and Third Worlds.

  4. An awareness of how Third World texts are received in their country of origin can enable more nuanced readings of these writings in First World academic spaces. Moreover, oftentimes the First World forgets that these feminist works, despite being quite accessible to the western press and academicians, are not easily "available to or read by the very women [in the Third World] they purportedly represent." In "Palestinian Woman and the Politics of Reception," Theresa Saliba and Jeanne Kattani examine how the literary reception of feminist texts in Palestine occur under difficult circumstances and are affected "by the material conditions of military occupation, as well as by a social/ political context bound by the imperatives of nationalist struggle" (85). Their study, based on the interviews that the writers conducted with Palestinian women writers and students, concludes that western readers need to understand how "occupation, economics, and social relations circumscribe" the "cultural production" and exchange of Palestinian women writers and their readers (107).

  5. First World institutional hegemony is also evident in the way certain genres of Third World writings -- the autobiography, in particular -- are valorized in the west. The second section, "Writer as Text," engages with this issue from numerous perspectives. The personal narrative of the oppressed, Third World woman has a position of value in the Anglo-American academy as it is seen as representing the authentic voice of the subaltern Other. But the institutional valorization of a particular kind of testimonial narrative has meant that those texts from the Third World which do not conform to this western definition are often excluded and remain invisible in academia. In "Race, Gender, and the Politics of Reception of Latin Ameircan Testimonios," Eva Paulino Bueno raises such a question and examines how certain testimonials, studied in the North American academy, have to conform to specific definitive norms; testimonios of an individual have to represent the larger community while texts that are not representative of this pattern are not well received, as is evident in her analysis of three such texts. I . . . Rigoberta Menchú; An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgod-Debray and Let me Speak! by Domitila Barrios de Chungara and Moema Viezzer are valorised as testimonios as these narratives are "community-based, collectively-driven, racially homogeneous," while Carolina Maria de Jesus's Child of the Dark is excluded from the "canon" as it is seen as the narrative of an oppressed individual (139). What this essay does is draw attention to the manner in which institutional practices operate to perpetuate First World paradigms.

  6. The processes of translation and transmission of Third World writings into western academic settings, by erasing the specific social issues which the text refers to, also enable textual interpretations which conform to First World academic concerns about Third World women. This critical perspective informs Mohja Kahf and Patricia Geesey's essay, "Packaging 'Huda': Sha'rawi's Memoirs in the United States Reception Environment." The authors argue that Arab women, in the western academy, are often stereotypically signified within the "harem of Third World difference," and this affects the translation and the meaning of Huda Sha'rawi's memoirs in the west. Patricia Geesey does a similar analysis in "Identity and Community in Autobiographies of Algerian Women in France," where she examines the personal narratives of three Algerian women and regards these texts as "challenging, or . . . insidiously reaffirming the dominant discourse about North American women in France" (174). She argues that these texts have to be seen as resisting "appropriation and (re)inscription into the dominant discourse" about North African Muslim women and desiring for an "in-between" space (175).

  7. The need, therefore, as argued by these authors, is of conceptualizing interpretative methodologies that resist Third World texts to be read within scripted First World responses. All the four essays in the last section, "Resistant Readings," conceptualize ways of reading Third World texts which resist conformity to the hegemonic discursive constructs of the west. In "'Sharp contrast of all colors': the Legacy of Toru Dutt," Alpana Sharma Knippling examines the west's reception of Toru Dutt, a nineteenth-century Indian woman poet writing in English in the colonial period. The dominant critical tendency, the author argues, has been to categorize Toru Dutt either as a "true daughter of India" or as "imitative of Western poetic trends," and this is a flawed position as it is not possible to locate her either as "colonial" or "anti-colonial" (216). Knippling argues for a more nuanced perspective where Dutt is regarded as inhabiting an in-between space, resisting both patriarchy and colonial oppression. The kind of resistant reading that Knippling engages in implies an interrogation of the dominant processes in the west and colonial India that were involved in disseminating Dutt's writings for specific reasons. By being aware of the situated nature of the reader, writer, specific cultural ideologies, and the global flow of cultural capital, it is possible for the First World reader to respond to literary works from the Third World without operating within the west's scripted responses to the Other woman.

  8. An acknowledgment of the epistemological difficulty of reading non-western, Third World texts from the "space [of the western reader . . .] far removed" (230) from the realities of the poor Third World woman can lead to a critical awareness of the processes which are involved in the interpretation of these works. In "Grim Fairy Tales: Taking a Risk: Reading Imaginary Maps," Jennifer Wenzel examines how Imaginary Maps, due to the collaboration between Mahasweta Devi and Gayatri Spivak, "teaches a reader to read it" (246). Reading of this kind requires engaging with a sense of ambivalence as well as with being aware of the text/author's historical specificity. The essay attempts to conceptualize an interpretative framework for a First World reader, unaware of the socio-economic conditions of Third World countries. Sally McWilliams also problematises such an issue in "Trajectories of Change: The Politics of Reading Postcolonial Women's Texts in the Undergraduate Classroom." "How do we," she writes, "both students and instructors, read texts from cultures other than the ones with which we are most familiar from daily experience?" (252). Students, according to her, usually use two typical paradigms of reading: "according to criteria they have used for everything they have ever read..." or they take the text as a representation of the "exotic" other (253). By interrogating how identity politics affect interpretative frameworks, McWilliams argues for a kind of self-awareness which can move towards a more nuanced approach to the construction of textual meaning.

  9. Central to this collection is the attempt to problematise how the mere presence of Third World texts in First World institutions is insufficient to displace hegemonic Anglo-American institutional practices. In "Coming to America: Reflections on Hair and Memory Loss," Ella Shohat furthers this argument by positing the view that the tangible presence of immigrant bodies of color does not affect the discursive scripts which define how Third World texts are received by the center. Using her personal experiences as a Jewish woman from Iran, Shohat examines how the "White dominant norm" in the United States constructs immigrants of color within the category of the Other, and in the process, disregards that immigrants cannot be homogenized within a monolithic category (287). This reception of immigrants, she writes, has to do with the fact that the United States operate with "essentialist assumptions about identity" that can be reduced to one country or one ethnicity or one race (289). Shohat's is an appropriate conclusion to this collection of essays, as she reveals the racially inflected matrices which define and are intrinsic within Anglo-American society and institutions.

  10. Despite the fact that postcolonial scholarship, in the last two decades or so, has been quite vocal in its critique of the exclusionary and hegemonic nature of the Anglo-American academic institution, this collection of essays makes evident how it still maintains discursive control over its non-white, Third World counterparts. It is also important to keep in mind that this book is a part of an ongoing larger discourse on postcolonial theory, which keeps on re-inventing and redefining itself to parallel the constant changes within socio-economic structures. In the "Introduction" to the book, the editors also make this evident when they write: "This collection thus seeks to answer the call of the editors of The Post-Colonial Studies Reader for more studies to be done in this area" (14), that is, the examination of how Third World texts are still circumscribed by the neo-colonial control of global publishing institutions. What this kind of scholarship does is reveal how, at the very moment that the Anglo-American academy includes the multicultural Other, it does so through exclusionary practices. Constant interrogation can lead to a creation of new critical tools which can allow for non-oppressive epistemological spaces.

Work Cited:

Mohanty, Chandra. "Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience." Copyright 1 (1987): 30-44.

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