Postcolonial Fictions| Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)
Edited by Michèle Drouart
Spectral Tattoo: Reconstructive Fictions
Aritha van Herk 1. Refusal
Within what Diane Freedman calls the "wounding" (Freedman, 3) democracy of language, fiction must now - if it wishes to enjoy continuing affectivity - engage in an alterative struggle to evade both the powerful allurement of genred annointment (which has done much to institutionalize all literary forms), and to escape its gentling restraints. The difficulty for any fiction is to negotiate its own terminality, the material ideology which proposes that if an imagined world does not give a reader pleasure, it will at least offer an implied if not overt solution to the enterprise of meaning and its doubtful politics. The seductions of closure, even metafictional closure capable of swallowing itself in reverse, are posited by the narrative momentum. The girdle of chastity which has resisted picking its own lock is fiction's willingness to mollify and to tame, to collaborate in a fetish of commodification (Lentricchia, 325).
The reader is handily taxonomised as a movable site. Recent theory has temptingly framed her as a product of the text, "not a simple and privileged being, but . . . in fact a kind of inverted construct that is somewhere between reader and text" (Davis, 14). This malleable entity might be more accurately described as a readering act rendered dynamically anorgasmic between agent and text. But while I firmly believe that the reader must resist the text that seeks to inscribe her, I also believe that the text must resist its reader: opening a space in which the reader can recuperate the process of text as an ideological dynamic rather than an inventory. That new heroine, the resisting reader of the resistant text, can recognize the potential complicities of the diagrammatic narrative. But can her story narrativize her own subversion, spit out the genre pabulum spooned into her? Is there a potential for revolution in the reader's opposition to the penitentiary of the text? And can the text gain its own parole, or must it endure unmufflement through a perilous metatextuality? It is no longer sufficient to story, to tell a story, to rely on the exigencies of narrative. The challenge to the enterprise of fiction, particularly postcolonial fiction (that fiction which recognizes and refuses its own imperialism) is to negotiate its own terminality, to resist its own cadaverization.
This might propose itself as a hopeless project, inherently defeatist, but there is a potential transcendence to the discontinuity of cross-boundary fiction that suggests a recuperative insurgency. Still, it is better not to designate this narrative moment as transcendent (a dangerously envalued valuation). At the same time as it insists on an historicized self-referentiality, such fiction is intensely spectral. To the postcolonial writer and her reader (both double agents), the window of fiction is now spectacularly reflexive in terms of its political and social imperative, recognizing its designation within the larger context of the imperialistic imagination and yet saucily sidestepping the overt inscribement of a colonizing productivization. How does fiction practise itself as a reconstructive prose form, doubting at the same time as it declares belief, critically reading cultural history at the same time as it seeks to tattoo itself onto such history, to usurp some space in Plato's ideal caveat?
Audre Lorde says in Sister Outsider that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" (112). Her warning demonstrates the oxymoronic position that postcolonial fictions occupy. Such cinderella fiction sits, both privileged and penitential, in an imperial castle, with a pencil in one hand. And within that castle, women's fiction keeps itself down in the cipherable kitchen (inevitably the basement, with a stone cold floor and a great bloody fire-eating stove), holding a spatula in her putatively ascribing hand, worrying about biting the hand that feeds her, although the cynical part of her knows that she feeds the hand that is more than likely to bite her. This double entendre posits the potential interrogations and subalternations of the cross-boundaried woman engaged in cross-boundary writing and reading. Tattooed or branded though it might be by its genred postcoloniality and its apocryphal destination, cross- boundary writing asserts some powerful reconstructivities. Because such texts refuse to occupy the space cleared and approved by genre, they are uncanonical, spurious, will go nowhere. By estranging themselves from the safety zone of genre, they participate in their own marginalization. And by refusing the temporal inheritance of linearity, this writing occupies what Homi Bhaba calls "the moment of culture caught in an aporetic, contingent position, in-between a plurality of practices that are different and yet must occupy the same space of adjudication and articulation" (Bhaba, 57). There is an abrogation of citizenship in the fiction of border jumpers that makes these texts perennially homeless; their refusal of an authenticating space permits them to question the persistent locations of race, gender, nation, and language. "To . . . inhabit the border country of frontiers and margins robs discourse of a conciliatory conclusion" (Chambers, 116). It is as refugees from conciliation that such writing locates its praxis, in exchange for the freedom to question the master/piece and the concomitant time/piece of linear and structural narrative that such palimpsesticism offers. I will cite four reconstructive fictions that strategize this abroachment, that question the tactics of narrative through their own aloofness from its prosthetic effect.
My engagement with these texts is indecisive and abjectly readersome, at the same time as I seek within them a representation of my own writerly enslavement to textation, how to achieve entextment, how to take audacities with language and to get away without scars, the collusion between writer, reader, and text. To that end, I employ these texts discursively, but with considerable prejudice, as objects of a cross-genre desire. They are willfully unrepresentative, but at the same time garrulously disenchanted with the closures of an orchestrated and productivized narrative mode. Particular resistances and refusals tattoo their pages. These narratives refuse to be contained, and yet they are en/booked; they gesture toward intersections of the body, memory and history, and yet ostracize themselves from the potential conclusions that such constructions imply. Nor do they undertake to be what they claim to be and thus, they undercut both representation and its utensilization.
Sara Suleri's Meatless Days purports to be an autobiographical text about the social life and customs, the intellectual configurations, of a woman who comes to America from Pakistan; but Meatless Days is a gathering of anarrativized intensities that cluster around the slippery vertigo of exile, estrangement, and political complicity, metaphorical fragments elegaically verging on postcolonial mourning. Marian Engel's The Tattooed Woman masquerades as a collection of short stories, but Engel herself - or at least Engel in the persona of writer - introduces them as an illogical toolkit to aid in resisting irregular verbs (Engel, xii). Gail Jones' The House of Breathing, also booked as a collection of short fiction, mischievously locates its intertextual genesis with an unsecretive bibliographical acknowledgement advertantly reciting its stories as appropriated arrangements of prenarrativized moments compositionally "employed" (Jones, 159). And Jeannette Winterston's Written on the Body brailles an incipiently lost lover through an ungendered narrator, the indecipherable flesh of the body turning on itself. Edging the tempting specificities of these reconstructive texts, one is inclined to impute to them a more vivid and pointed historicity than is wise. But their dislocutoriums read toward the "disjunctive, fragmented, displaced agency of those who have suffered the sentence of history - subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement - that forces one to think outside the certainly of the sententious" (Bhaba, 56). It is under this high sentence that examination and decipherment of the process and hybridization of these specular texts occurs.
As Kristeva has asserted in Strangers to Ourselves, if it is consciousness of difference that enables the named other entrance, then that exercise of difference must become a commonplace peculiarity. The responsibility for articulating the "insolent happiness" of "perpetual transience" (Kristeva, 4) has long been the purview of writing women, whose exclusion from fixity and canonicity has moved from being a source of sorrow to a source of strength. The mute display of memory that the textual fictions of women engage become subtext to women's illigitimized history, and thus version a reconstruction of erasement. The disjunctive syllogisms of the mnemonic texts of reading and writing women articulate both anesthesia and its refusals.
In this undertaking, memory becomes tyrant, an erotic tyrant full of murder and intent, perversely pleasurable and yet conspiratorially painful. Out of memory these cross-boundary texts walk a peripatetic filigree of confession and delay, extra-temporal sensatiety along with a premonition of extra-narrative loss. The function of narrative is usurped by its mnemonic byproduct, the "insinuendos" (Suleri, 58) of "the impulse to forget" (Suleri, 1). Resurrected moments become acts of courage, shifting beyond the logical interfaces of narrative to prognostic necessity. In Jones' piece, "Dark Times," this narrative moment is encarved by an incomprehensible punctuation.
I shuffle my books in simulation of work. I fiddle with papers and scribble a paragraph. The very word "history" begins to torment me. I change and re-change, unable to concentrate, my article on subaltern class formations. From outside comes the acrid smell of burning cars, and, somewhere within it, persistent traces of musky incense drifting upwards from the temple. (Jones, 59)
Imprisoned, the same narrator is prepared to argue for his complicity with history, but is completely unprepared for his crime to be named as "sexual deviance" (Jones, 65), an erotics of language that he hardly expected would perpetrate his political undoing.
I walk to my burning simply wanting, more than anything, to recover the lost, modest memory of my poem, to return to the moment in which such things were tellable and such words possible, in which the liberties of the body were wider liberties, in which history was something sequestered, sedate and academically amenable. (Jones, 67)
The same desire to remember and forget cultivates the eccentric and self-determined history of Engel's "Madam Hortensia, Equilibriste," who, half-lame, "half-chick" (Engel, 26), proposes for herself a career out of which she can compose a history, a history she later effaces, deliberately refuses to contemplate. Astonishingly athletic, she becomes her own performative feat, subtly designed and discreetly fashioned, and only after "performing" for ten years does she retire from equilibristic fame to hide behind six children and a privet hedge (Engel, 32). There, from the safety of reformed acrobatics, she remembers her virtual success with astonishment and chagrin.
When I look back on it all, I am amazed, but I also see what is wrong. Perhaps it was the Women's Liberation Movement that taught me this. To be different, to set oneself up above other people, even to chase the Borodino boys around the edge of a Buffalo billiard table, is to become an object, a freak. As my parents' little Mireille, I was a person; as Madame Hortensia, I was as unreal, as objectified, as one of the little figures on the Porcelain de Paris plates, as people on talk shows. (Engel, 32)
In Engel's astigmatic collection, memory partakes of history in order to curb ambition's extraordinary expectations. Within that containment, the crippled woman sustains herself on the lost pleasures of acrobatic freedom, an agility she renounces in order to persuade and pursue a public history. And yet, these gestures toward forgetting enhance the locatedness of erasure, its inscription a certain reminder of historic proof.
Suleri suggests a similar gestation in her attribution of historicity to her mother in the section of Meatless Days titled "What Mamma Knew." In order for her English mother to inhabit Suleri's father's history, she must let go of her own, with its imperialistic grammar and configuration.
What an act of concentration it must have requried, after all, the quick conversion through which Mair Jones became Surraya Suleri! She had to redistribute herself through several new syllables, realigning her sense of locality until - within the span of a year - she was ready to leave London and become a citizen of Pakistan. How literal-minded of her. Did she really think that she could assume the burden of empire, that if she let my father colonize her body and her name she would perform some slight reparation for the race from which she came? Could she not see that his desire for her was quickened with empire's ghosts, that his need to possess was a clear index of how he was still possessed? (Suleri, 162-63)
The double entendre that Suleri has the nerve to propose leads her text toward its own enunciation of the public and the private and their illative boundaries. From there she is able to extrapolate further:
No, it is not merely devotion that makes my mother into the land on which this tale must tread. I am curious to locate what she knew of the niceties that living in someone else's history must entail, of how she managed to dismantle that other history she was supposed to represent. Furthermore, I am interested to see how far any tale can sustain the name of "mother," or whether such a name will have to signify the severance of story. Her plot therefore must waver: it must weave in her own manner of sudden retreating, as though I could almost see her early 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.
For Mamma, in whom affection became so soon a figure for obsolescence, must have learned years before I was conceivable in thought what I have discovered only recently, that love renders a body into history. (Suleri, 164)
If "love renders a body into history," then that othered body bodes other to history's memory. Forgetting is the incantation on which Winterston's lover presages possible desire. "'Come to me new,'" she insists. "'Those lines you've learned, forget them'" (Winterston, 54). In the body's history resides the questionable residue of memory and its undoing, and within memory and its undoing resides the articulation of a desire unnamed by imperial history, reluctantly capable of exploding the terrifying powers of legitimation and canonicity. "She seemed determined that I should win her from the tangle of my own past," says Winterston's narrator (Winterston, 54), reconstructing the terminality of text as history in order to set the textual body free of its encodement, able to remit its debt to the reading and writing body. Anatomical recognition will not permit the aloofness that memory pretends to historicize. Instead, it reconstructs, crosses the boundary of what is feasible with what is physical, both tropes of the imagination but unscarred by textual fixity and materiality.
"The ear is receptive to conflicts only if the body looses [sic] its footing" (Kristeva, 17). Reconstruction then articulates itself in women's fiction on the vellum of the body, its intaglio both signified and situation, perversely reflexive by virtue of its reversible impressionability. While the body locates desire, it also must permit colonisation of that desire, and thus write its way out of its own circumlocutious inscriptive trap. If the body must experience desire in order to text the same, but if the text abases or pre-occupies the body (as with a literal tattoo), then no reconstruction is available without literal unwriting. But that distinction too is apprehended by these exemplar bordertexts, which witness an ability to engage the complicities of desire with its writing.
In Marian Engel's "The Tattooed Woman," a woman whose husband has left her for the ubiquitous younger woman decides that she must record her experience, but the only page available to her is the already surgically scarred sheet of her skin.
She took the blade out of her razor and washed it. She went and sat at her dressing table and turned the mirrored lights on. . . . Neatly and very lightly, she carved a little star on her forehead. Experience must show, she thought. . . .
She did not cut deeply. She was not interested in hurting herself. On her breasts she made lovely arabesques, on her forearms almost unnoticeable cross-hatchings of little houses and trees. They did not show very much, but she knew they were there and was comforted. (Engel, 5-6)
The reader's horrified recoil from this writing act is suggestive of the extent to which textual productivization considers writing an act of disfigurement more than inscription or reconstruction, and is indicative of the extent to which the reader demands resolution. "She had kept her figure, but her body, transformed by hysterectomy and appendectomy, was not new or neat or pretty. Surgeons were better now, she understood" (Engel, 4). On the pristine page of a body's history, scarification becomes an enactment of reconstruction, marking new possibilities. This narrator is in control of her own tattooing; she is not a textual body recumbent under the hands of a man, she cannot be "read like a book" (McCracken, 239). And at the end of the story, the doctor suggests, "'It will make a very striking tan'" (Engel, 9), if she takes the opportunity to make brown her own progeny (Suleri, 164).
The body takes on markings, but will also serve as marker, score the intersection between writing and reading acts. This border is permeated by a translation of both exterior and interior forces. That "house of breathing, where, despite everything, one remained alive during the night" (Jones, 157) harbours a potential mitosis that Winterston's narrator struggles to make familiar by reducing the whole to its fragments, seeks to inhabit and inhibit with clinical distillation.
Your face gores me. I am run through. Into the hold I pack splinters of hope but hope does not heal me. Should I pad my eyes with forgetfulness, eyes grown thin through looking? Frontal bone, palatine bones, nasal bones, lacrimal bones, cheek bones, maxilla, vomer, inferior conchae, mandible. (Winterston, 132)
The body, become its own enemy, turns on itself (Winterston, 105), but is also capable of dancing with itself, capable of metastasizing (against all metaphors of illness) its own desire (Winterston, 175). Fragmented, it nevertheless contains a promise of union beyond categorical genre.
In Siberia one knows one's body to be whole because the elements assail it with a totalising force. The air is scintillatingly cold and algebraically precise; there is a mathematical quality to its cutting of angles, its calculable degrees of effect upon the skin, its common-denominative power, its below-zero vital-statistics. In the Siberian cold one feels every extremity, is equated instantaneously to the exactitude of each limb. (Jones, 11-12)
Yet, to resist totalization, the text of the body must desist from unity, its own surgical homogenisation, temptingly offered by "knifestyle" accessorizing (Bordo, 109). Rather, the physical integrity these cross-border texts gesture toward is eristically inclined toward process, the body reconfiguring itself in light of the influence of something as commonplace as cold, or as unfamiliar as reversed and usurped opprobriums.
In this inter-genre is the achievement of women's reconstructive fictions imaged, not as prosthetic ascription, but as surprise and its delicious arousal. Suleri records a moment of inscriptive surprise in a dazzling vertigo of accomplished pleasure, flesh as unlikely receptor to unlikely seduction.
Gol guppas are a strange food: I have never located an equivalent to them or their culinary situation. They are an outdoor food, a passing whim, . . . a small hollow oval of the lightest pastry that is dipped into a fiery liquid sauce made of tamarind and cayenne and lemon and cold water. It is evidently a food invented as a joke, in a moment of good humor. We . . . enjoyed ourselves a great deal, until a friendly elbow knocked the bowl of gol guppa sauce all over my lap. It gave me a new respect for foodstuffs, for never has desire brought me to quite such an instantaneous effect. My groin's surprise called attention to passageways that as a rule I am only theoretically aware of owning, all of which folded up like a concertina in protest against such an explosive aeration. For days after, my pupils stayed dilated, while my interiors felt gaunt and hollow-eyed. (Suleri, 39)
The convinced and convincing text of the body loses its footing when it is unbalanced by the powerful penmanship of such spicy unlettering. The irretrievable process of articulation (its concertinaed moment) surpasses restraint and takes on its own inscription, recording and registering the reactive process.
So the body becomes both text and refusal, both boundary and its crossing, both physical and cerebral site, spectacularly present at its writing. Its own process, in the process of process, it similtaneously names its continuence and erases its history. The tattooed woman can claim, by virtue of her own textual reconstruction, the daring and postcolonial appelation with which writing resists productivization and terminality. Not only does she make her experience text but she historicizes, memorizes and embodies, at last, a lasting textualization.
I am an artist, now, she thought, a true artist. My body is my canvas. I am very old, and very beautiful, I am carved like an old shaman, I am an artifact of an old culture, my body is a pictograph from prehistory, it has been used and bent and violated and broken, but I have resisted. I am Somebody. (Engel, 8)
This cross-boundaried postcolonial body can reconstruct its spectral inagency to arrive at a processual moment of reappropriation where the passive skin, so entexted, can detext, detect, and at last reflect its pagination. "I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields" says Winterston'e narrator (Winterston, 190). The field of the body, alive, unconfined, disengendered, airily crossing the borders of page.
Calgary University, Canada
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Bordo, Susan. "'Material Girl': The Effacements of Postmodern Culture." The Female Body: Figures, Styles, Speculations. Ed. Laurence Goldstein. Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Chambers, Iain. Border Dialogues: Journeys in Postmodernity. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Davis, Lennard J. Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.
Engel, Marian. The Tattooed Woman. Markham, Ontario: Penguin Canada, 1985.
Freedman, Diane. An Alchemy of Genres. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
Jones, Gail. The House of Breathing. South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992.
Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Lentricchia, Frank. "In Place of an Afterword - Someone Reading." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Lentricchia, Frank and McLaughlin, Thomas, Ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, New York: Crossing Press, 1984.
McCracken, Elizabeth. "Indelible Ink." The Female Body: Figures, Styles, Speculations. Ed. Laurence Goldstein. Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Winterston, Jeanette. Written on the Body. Toronto: Alfred Knopf, 1992.
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