Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

All the fraught politics: race, gender and the female traveller

Susan Ash


When I grew up, my maternal grandparents were daily fixtures in the household. I'm speaking about Flint, Michigan in the late 50s and early 60s. Our neighbourhood was situated on the border between commerce and industry. In one direction, Downtown; in the other, all the sprawling Ford and General Motors factories. Between these factories and our house were several acres of undeveloped land we called "The Field." Every summer the weeds grew thickly above our heads, and we'd construct a maze of tunnels. This was where my sisters and I played our make-believe games. Generally, versions of television programs like "Combat" or "Wagon Train."

In the middle of The Field was a three-story high billboard we called the Sign. On the front, a procession of massive Chevrolets and Buicks. Which didn't much interest us. But these images were supported from behind by a series of diagonal and horizontal black iron bars; a very tricky scaffolding for young climbers to negotiate. Naturally, we were absolutely forbidden to climb the Sign, because we would break our necks.

The boundaries of our playground were also strictly demarcated. We were forbidden to venture past an old shack, a ditch, and a major highway. My grandmother helped ensure our compliance by telling us this story:

... bad coloured men hid in the shack beyond the ditch; they waited to do their "dirty truck" on nice little girls.

To this day I don't know what my grandmother meant by "dirty truck," but it was a very effective story, because I don't remember ever transgressing that perimeter. But we climbed that Sign all the time; my father would catch us, switch our legs with a forsythia branch, which stung, but we did it again and again. Any child who wouldn't was a wimp. Even though that billboard represented real danger to a child, while the "bad black bogey" was an utter fabrication.

This story is appalling; perhaps more so because I don't think it was unusual. And I came from a family who believed we harboured no racial prejudice because we had learned to use the "approved" words, Negro and coloured, rather than some of the less respectful alternatives. It didn't take long to understand that this figure hovering on the outskirts of the Field and my imagination was racist. But at that time, I did not recognize it as just one particular instance of a culturally pervasive mythology that constructed white girls inherently at risk from violent black men.

So ... my grandmother invokes the figure of ominous black men to try and induce me to stay home. It is not my family's racism I want to comment on here. And of course, it is not the curtailment of personal freedom that matters, but the wider circulation and pressure that this myth has exerted: white women inherently vulnerable to the sexual aggression of black men.

There are literary and historical genealogies for this myth [in the West]. Caliban who was, as Prospero says, "lodg'd ... In mine own cell" until he "didst seek to violate/The honour of my child" (I:ii 348-50). I can only allude here to the concept of femininity as part of a complex system of control, complicity and resistance. The safety of white women in the Empire became an ongoing ideological question, linked inextricably to the legitimization of colonial power. Protecting the "virtue" of white women was the pretext for instituting draconian measures against oppressed peoples.

And this myth of white female vulnerability continues to act as a code in western society. For example, in the context of travel, the British Docklands Light Railway News (1986) promoted its company with the following illustration. A kindly white uniformed officer assists "a young white woman buying a ticket at an automatic dispenser ... "

Immediately behind ... lurks[s] the figure of a black man wearing sunglasses, his head turned in the direction of the white woman.

The viewer is invited to understand that the black man's posture and dark glasses directly threaten the young woman who is "fortunately" protected by the presence of a white railway guard.1

This paper is part of a wider project that began a couple of years ago reading James Clifford's accounts of the ethnographers' rendering of landscape and the native as Other, feminized, eroticized. I wanted to see if women constructed a different sort of gaze. I looked at, for example, Mary Hall's travelogue of New Zealand, Australia and Singapore published early this century. What I discovered was not so much an "othering," or feminizing of the land/culture as a smoothing out of difference, producing for its audience in England an account of safe adventure. Very much inculcating the notion of a secure, accessible empire. Even the Milford Track is produced as "wild" but accessible to an older woman. The "locals" are the British settlers; Maori people are neatly observed in a contained site, that is, Rotorua. While not explicitly discussing women's safety, the issue seems to underpin the project of the narrative.2

As part of this work, and mostly out of curiosity, I looked at Tourist Guides published in the 1970s-90s. How did these texts position women travellers? Most include advice for women. However, the 70s versions generally focussed on things like ... shopping. With sections typically subtitled, "All About a Girl's Best Friend," containing information about buying diamonds in Hong Kong. More recent guides, however, seem to focus on safety. For example, one on Malaysia contained this information: "although it is generally safe, do not look the local men in the eye; a gigolo service unofficially operated in this area."

Regarding the white female tourist specifically, I wanted to consider issues of complicity and resistance, asking such questions as: Where did she situate herself in relation to the hegemony of imperialism? In relation to indigenous peoples? How was her complicity manifested? What kind of affinities and alliances did she construct with local people? In short, was there any part of the female traveller's text that could be salvaged or aligned with political struggles of indigenous people against oppression?


With these questions in mind, and the attendant myth of white women's vulnerability, I turn now to fiction and close reading to establish the points of reference for my argument. Gail Jones' story, "Veronica," invokes several Western mythologies about travel in India from a white female perspective.3 I chose this story because it troubled me. I wasn't sure how to talk about it. I wasn't sure how to construe its meaning and the implications about power relations.

In this story, a young woman, Elizabeth, arrives in a North Indian town. The narrator explicitly directs us how to understand this first-world spectator, operating under the ready assumption of her own privilege and superiority:

Let us say that she had ... the smugness of a conqueror: having governed her unease at bodies and smells, at the different skins of others, she wishes now to repose in first world sovereignty, to enjoy what she sees for its souvenirs and its spectacles. (85-86)

The narrator explains that although "enough money" enabled this traveller to seek out the best hotel in town, she is falsely guided to one that bears a "shred of mattress" and a "coverlet marked all over with stains of semen and urine" (86-87). Elizabeth vows to stay "only one night."

From this hotel room, she enacts a typical convention of imperial representation.4 Positioned upstairs at her room's window she surveys the street scene below, rendering a relationship of dominance. She sees a "woman in an emerald sari is flirting with a young man ... To the left an older woman weeps alone in a shadow." And so on. But Elizabeth considers this scene too uninteresting to photograph. And because this town proves "ill appointed for tourists seeking solace and diversion," she retreats to her room, preferring to read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, escaping the heat, noise, and confusion of the Indian scene for the narrative of fictive "mountains and cold air" where "cultivated voices debate the verities." With "lyrical refinement" (87-8). Thus, Elizabeth invokes an accommodating European mythology to blot out an unsatisfying Indian reality.

At twilight she discards Mann to move outdoors and photograph a bridal procession, processing the scene in terms of "the nation's archetypes": the couple conveyed on a "bullock cart bedecked" with garlands of flowers, double rows of bright coins fringing canopy, the bride "weighted with jewellery of gold, a ring through her nose, heavy chains." In short, "a dazzling pair, felicitously translated [for Elizabeth] into the idol-like pose" (88). Framing the couple with her camera, she regrets the absence of an "enveloping soft focus of lanterns and candles." The bamboo-mounted electric lights create a mechanical, artificial aspect, rather than the preferred natural, authentic.

Travel for Elizabeth seems more a matter of constructing than observing India: her experience filtered through the lens of her camera. In other words, the text sets up Elizabeth to represent a particular kind of tourist. Non-invasive perhaps, but nevertheless invoking certain privileges of the West: money, notions of safety, cleanliness. And detachment. India is described in highly sensual terms; for example: the "scent of samosas turning in oil. The alliterative ingredients of cardomon, chilli, cumin, coriander" (86). But these impressions don't so much interest or inform Elizabeth as instigate a pervading sense of unease. Even the meal so redolently described, she "stuffs down" with "unseemly haste"(86). As if she could not bear to make physical contact even with Indian food.

Significantly, it is when Elizabeth seeks to intervene that she is hurt. A local beggar stumbles; as she reaches out to help a generator falls onto her arm, and we read "metal burns away a disfiguring impression. The pain is exact" (90). The word "impression" is particularly multivalent in this context. Suddenly she is excruciatingly aware of her own body, not India, as a site of inscription. In an instant, Elizabeth exchanges subject/object positions. She is now the object of spectacle. Codes of romance are evoked but not fulfilled as a local man "clasps" her, "encircling like a lover." He promises to secure a doctor, but rapes her instead (92).

How are we to construe meaning for this narrative event? As some manifestation of anxiety about male sexual threat? Foregrounding gender, should we mention that all women are vulnerable to male sexual violence? But wouldn't such reading give "currency [both] to racist prejudices and to patronizing ideologies of female protection"?5 One more perpetuation of the myth of black sexual aggression? Or does the story indicate that Elizabeth undergoes some form of justifiable punishment for her role as a quiet but arrogant western tourist? A bad tourist?

Neither reading works. "Veronica" represents to me the utter inadequacy of reading exclusively in terms of gender (women's vulnerability to male violence), or exclusively in terms of race (that is, critiquing white woman's anxiety about black male violence). I chose this story because it resists being reduced to a single issue, to the problematics of a single discourse.

Possibly, the rape might signify punishment or reward. But I think it more useful to consider not the meaning but the outcome of this act of violation. The rape changes Elizabeth utterly. (I feel more than a little overtone from Yeats here.) Before the rape Elizabeth sees with nothing more than an eye for a good photo opportunity. Her kind of gaze not only maintains subject/object positions - West to Indian - but also widens the gap between the two.

The rape, however, marks the moment when Elizabeth forgoes detachment and ceases to centre herself as privileged Western subject. After the attack, Elizabeth undergoes some kind of transformation.

Her skin has become caramel, her clothing a sari. She has felt her features remould: a longer nose with a jewel, broader lips, darker eyes, a gloss of black hair. Her body feels irreducibly local and exact; it correlates to its place, is attentive, identified. (92)

How are we to read this apparent transformation? As some easy gesture of affinity through women's shared condition as objects of violence? I don't think so. I want to stress that this story does not reduce the violence of the act of rape, doesn't back off the violation that rape signifies. At the same time, I think it is crucial to notice that, although Elizabeth feels enough outrage to curse the rapist, at this point, she ceases to invoke the privilege of white female or privileged tourist from the West. As if acknowledging that her particular race doesn't grant her privileged immunity against violence.

I sometimes feel confused about how to implement Spivak's directives, but it seems to me that this event marks a fictive enactment of Spivak's caution to first world academics. That is, "holders of hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other ... "6

So, where the pain of burning makes her feel her body, the rape makes her locate her body in this place, Northern India. After the rape, it is not Mann's cool mountains that Elizabeth invokes, but the women of India. The woman is the emerald sari. Not in competition for victim status. On the contrary, this moment marks her first attempt to "learn to occupy" another's subject position. For the first time, Elizabeth is "attentive."

To complicate matters, the narrator is not the only interpreter of Elizabeth's experience. The narrator reports a male colleague's response to this story:

It is a Veronica myth; [he says] there is nothing more to it. A dismissive sneer arose on his face, scholastic, stringent and unimpeachably sure. (85)

As with Elizabeth's interest in India, it is her story as text that engages him. Elizabeth's own distancing and textualizing of India is paralleled by the colleague's determination to avoid engaging with the brutality of the narrated events. To foreground his detachment, the narrative deliberately situates his comments to interrupt points of physical pain. When Elizabeth burns, he "proposes his scholarly explanation" for the medieval Veronica legend: a "woman of Jerusalem" offers her head scarf to Christ during his walk to the cross; on return the scarf bears the perfect image of Christ's face. Known as the vera icon; true likeness (90). At the point of rape, the colleague interrupts to point out that Veronica is also the name of a classic cape movement in Spanish bull fighting (91-2).

Thus the colleague is able to determine with authority that Elizabeth is no more than a "blank, a mere structure of narrative." (92)

... she has no significance other than that she recycles with predictability a plot already orthodox, conventional, and known. That the icon of suffering is transferred to the body is of no particular interest ... (90)

In other words, for the colleague, this figure is no more than a part of a signifying system, a site for theorizing, attributing or withholding value. What interests me here is the interstices between two interpretive acts and the narrator's resistance to the colleague's gloss:

My colleague says with authority: Elizabeth is unoriginal ... a mere structure of narrative. But I see her there ... substantial, abject imagining the real ... becoming explorative, becoming other, almost becoming, one might even say - with all the fraught politics of race in attendant complications - almost becoming Indian. (92-3)

The question the story asks but cannot answer is: How to attend to the real bodies, the actuality of suffering in our discursive activities?


I'll stop reading now and offer some concluding thoughts. I want to argue that Gail Jones recycles the myth of white vulnerability to black male sexual aggression not to reconstitute it, but to redeploy the myth to ends described by Trinh T. Minh-Ha:

rehashing stereotypes to criticize stereotyping can "constitute a powerful practice ... For repetition as a practice and strategy differs from incognizant repetition in that it bears with it the seeds of transformation."7

I would argue with Trinh Minh-Ha, that this kind of cognizant recycling, "looks at itself exerting power and therefore, creates for itself possibilities to repeatedly thwart its own power, inflating it only to deflate it better" (190). Myth is thwarted in part by the colleague's dismissive theoretical gloss ("... she recycles with predictability ... That the icon of suffering is transferred to the body is of no particular interest"). His words reflect the kind of Western certainty that acts of imperialism require, historically and intellectually, racially, sexually.

It is at this point that I am reminded of another "Veronica" narrative, Somer Broddribb's recent critique of postmodernism:

Derrida creates Veronica - "true image" in medieval Latin - woman as representation of the transparency of meaning. Then he deconstructs her while denouncing feminists for defying her: Veronica must be his and must be appearance only ... She may be summoned to appear, but shall not summon the College, to account; to politics, responsibility, justice.8

Both Jones' story and Broddribb summon to account the way certain discursive praxes determine the meaning of the image of Woman, define her as a blank. Blanks require other subjects to speak them. I haven't time to develop this connection with Derrida here; he is not my target today.

This paper reflects my underlying anxiety that, in the interest of "helping," the politics of race invoked can foreclose on the politics of gender. I use the word, "foreclose," as Spivak, the "interested denial of something." That is, "when you are vigorously denying something because it is present in excess."9 I'm talking here about the "interested" collapse of the categories "woman" and "man" into the categories "people." I am talking here about my own apprehension that I share with McDonald Graham that "post-colonial discourse is able to operate as an ideological retreat from feminism."10 While I understand the arguments for privileging race over gender, often coming from oppressed peoples themselves, I can not stop asking who benefits from the foreclosure on gender issues? Who benefits while I sling it out with other women? Certainly not other women.

There is something deficient in exclusively invoking gender identity politics or exclusively invoking race identity politics because we all inhabit both categories. Or to quote Spivak, who puts it better:

I start from the assumption that men and women occupy different positions in the making of a culture. Any discussion of culture that does not take this into consideration is symptom more than explanation.11

I turn to another account of rape that I read recently in Sara Suleri's essay "Feminism Skin Deep." A 15 year old girl is raped by her aunt's husband and son. Suleri explains that under Pakistani law rape can be defined as when "man or woman have illicit sex knowing that they are not validly married to each other."12 I'm simplifying the law greatly here, but because the accused men led no defence, the girl's testimony was enough to see her convicted for fornication and sentenced to 100 lashes. Suleri cites this example to point out problems endemic to postcolonial feminist criticism, laying blame on the US government's support of the military regime.

The image of this 15 year old girl haunts me. I think often of Spivak's questions to first-world academic women of the past few years: she calls these the "necessary but impossible questions." What does it mean to unlearn our learning so that we can speak to the wider constituency of the world's women? "What is it to learn to help?" These are the questions that she says she "can neither answer nor stop asking."13 What does it mean to learn to help? These are the questions I can not stop asking: How can I act (intervene) in a way that isn't in effect another form of cultural oppression? To what extent do I support other women's right to practise customs that appear to confirm their subordination? How can we (as women) form the psychic, emotional, and intellectual affinities that include an adequate understanding of difference, but also result in productive alliances for all women?

It seems to me that our discussions are fraught with anxiety. We feel intense emotional and intellectual engagement. And quite rightly we are cautious about what can be said and how to say it. But I worry that this strong fear about getting things wrong is leading some of us to the point of paralysis. I am afraid our discussion will lead us, disappearing down some cul-de-sac of unresolved oppositions.


Back in Flint Michigan, where I began this afternoon. Well - the Sign is gone; the Field is now a huge used-car lot. But I think a lot about my grandmother's story these days. And her plea to be vigilant. But it is not the figure lurking in the shack that I'm vigilant about, but how that myth continues to operate. For as Trinh Minh-Ha has argued:

The fight is always multiple and it needs to be carried out on many fronts at once. Participation never goes without a certain vigilance.14

Vigilant, then, about the ways, as Spivak says, I am "complicit with what [I am] so carefully and cleanly opposing."15

At the same time, with no less energy or investment, I want to remain vigilant to the interested ways certain arguments mobilize or immobilize the category "Woman." To resist subsuming feminism under the post-colonial. Resist construing feminism either as subordinate to, or in competition with, postcolonial discourse. Rather, I see feminist and postcolonial discourses, with their inevitable intersection of constituencies, as mutually illuminating, interacting so that each of these projects "brings the other to crisis ... serious crisis."16

Edith Cowan University


1 Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History (Verso: London, 1992) 9-10.

2 Mary Hall, A Woman in the Antipodes and in the Far East (London: Methuen 1914). She explicitly discusses the safety of women in A Woman's Trek from the Cape to Cairo (London: Methuen 1907). See Susan L. Blake's discussion in "What Difference Does Gender Make?" in Western Women and Imperialism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1992), eds. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, 20 - 34.

3 Gail Jones, The House of Breathing (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1992). Page references in the text are to this edition.

4 See Mary Pratt's discussion of imperial tropes in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

5 Sharon Marcus, "Fighting bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention," in Feminists Theorize the Political, eds. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992) 388.

6 S. Harayam, ed. Gayatri Spivak: The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (London: Routledge 1990) 121.

7 Trinh T. Minh-Ha, "The World as a Foreign Land," When The Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (New York: Routlege, 1991) 190.

8 Somer Broddribb, Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism (Spinifex: North Melbourne, 1992) xvi.

9 S. Harayam, ed. Gayatri Spivak, 125.

10 From a conversation with Carmel McDonald-Graham, and reproduced in her unpublished paper given at a Postcolonial Seminar at Edith Cowan University, WA, on July 2, 1993.

11 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Acting Bits/Identity Talk," Critical Inquiry (18 Summer 1992) 775.

12 Sara Suleri, "Feminism Skin Deep: Feminism and the Post-colonial Condition," Critical Inquiry (18 Summer 1992) 767-768.

13 Spivak, Critical Inquiry, 779.

14 Trinh T. Minh-Ha, 186.

15 S. Harayam, ed. Gayatri Spivak, 122.

16 S. Harayam, ex. Gayatri Spivak, 138.

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 18 April, 2015