Re-writing the Male Text:
Mapping Cultural Spaces in
Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! and
Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place
Copyright © 2000 by Angelia Poon, 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.
It is that act of speech, of "talking back" that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice.
bell hooks, Talking Back (9)
- In recounting her personal struggle to find a voice and her determination to speak on her own terms, bell hooks identifies "talking back" as an essential component, if only at times a first step, of all feminist endeavor. Often undertaken in the face of express cultural interdictions against speech, "talking back" is risky business. This is particularly so for Third World and postcolonial women given the multiple intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality and nationality in the determination of their oppression. In the face of such "multiple jeopardy" (if one may borrow a phrase used by Deborah King to describe the interrelated forms of oppression confronting Black women in America),  the act of "talking back" by Third World and postcolonial women must occur on various fronts at once.
- For Third World women writers now living in the economically developed first world, many of whom also hail from former colonies, the project of "writing back" has meant challenging systematic forms of domination and oppressive power structures both in their original and their new home countries. These women's oppositional relation to sexist, racist and imperialist structures is, I argue, frequently manifested in a re-writing of the male "text" or a redrawing of its textual borders to include perspectives and areas of experience hitherto excluded or marginalized. Here, the male "text" is understood both literally and metaphorically: it includes but is not restricted to patriarchal colonial and neo-colonial discourses, grand male-centered narratives about national and cultural identity scripted by political leaders from former colonies as well as works by first world intellectuals who write from a masculinist position, ignoring any consideration of Third World women and their specific histories and experiences.
- In what follows, I would like to focus on how Third World and postcolonial feminism(s) may disrupt and re-write the male text as it occurs in its myriad forms but particularly as it pertains to the concepts of "nation" and "culture." These concepts have come under intense critical scrutiny given the diverse and increasingly global nature of our world at this historical juncture. Contemporary appeals to diaspora and cultural hybridity by such critics as Stuart Hall and Trinh Minh-ha problematize essentialist ways of thinking about identity while also raising questions about how we might understand culture more specifically as a series of gendered practices. In the light of such theories, I propose separate readings of two very different works by diasporic women writers from the Caribbean living in the United States -- Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! (1996) and Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place (1988). Although the tone and tenor of these texts could not be more dissimilar, both writers nevertheless are intervening strategically in the on-going processes of creating, articulating and mapping the cultural spaces defined as "Haiti" and "Antigua" respectively, activities traditionally considered masculine. Thus, instead of statically viewing Krik? Krak! and A Small Place as "authentic" and culturally-representative literary products, both texts are more usefully situated within larger pitched battles against other narratives jostling for cultural hegemony.
- The oppositional feminist politics of "writing back" in Krik? Krak! may be located in its representation of Haitian women and in its attempts to remember and carve out a space for them in a country where they have been consistently written out of "History." Their absence is all the more conspicuous given the predominance in official Haitian history and public political life of such towering male figures as the revolutionary leader, Touissant L'Ouverture, and the Duvalier father-and-son team in this century. In A Small Place, Kincaid leaves the realm of imaginative fiction for a more indeterminate, genre-liminal space amidst fiction, travelogue and essay from which to voice her polemic. She takes on the British colonial and capitalist neo-colonial history of Antigua, written by white men, in a contentious struggle to make Antigua mean something else. The pervasive culture of corruption put in place by the unnamed Antiguan Prime Minister, his two sons, and the rest of his ministers is also attacked and re-written. Through their work, Danticat and Kincaid insist on the importance of challenging the primacy of the male text in the construction of national cultures and histories. Yet, as Trinh Minh-ha has cautioned in Framer Framed, a "straight counterdiscourse" in and of itself may not be radical enough since "[i]t ultimately contributes to things remaining in place, because it tends more often than not, to block critical thinking" (138). Hence the ways in which Krik? Krak! and A Small Place might move beyond simply writing back to the male text to interrogating the very terms of the debate need also to be examined.
- The idea that one can participate in the construction of one's culture rather than merely reflect it as if culture were always-already constituted and therefore "representable" has attained currency in debates centering on diaspora and diasporic consciousness. In his essay "Cultural Identity and Diaspora," Stuart Hall argues for a relational and spatial understanding of culture. Undermining the notion that there is an authentic "core" identity that can be discovered or recovered, he writes:
Cultural identities are the points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. Hence, there is always a politics of identity, a politics of position, which has no absolute guarantee in an unproblematic, transcendental 'law of origin.' (226)
Hall stresses the act of identification and posits cultural identity as a discursive formation always constituted within representation, articulable relative to different reference points and open to contestation. If cultural identity is a positioning, one's own location in the enunciation and delimiting of identity and its borders is then always critically important. Although Hall is silent on the question of gender and how that might affect the spatial politics of cultural identity, his theoretical formulation does usefully foreground the power dynamics involved in identity construction. Hall's argument also opens the way for feminist intervention since all claims about cultural identity are now seen to be strategic, contingent, subject to challenge and hence, change.
- The transnational notion of diaspora has also proven useful in the effective disruption of monolithic and exclusive nationalist ideologies where the nation is frequently figured in progressive, teleological terms with a continuous, linear history. Here, the image of the nation tends to be a closed one bounded by secure, impermeable borders. This image is disproved, however, by the ways in which diasporic communities dwelling in displacement outside of their homeland constantly shape and alter the contours of their "home" culture whether it is through such ordinary activities as communicating with the people back home in writing or over the phone, remitting money to family members, or representing their country of origin to others. As James Clifford points out, the strategic invocation of discrete cultures and strict borders has tended to occur only in the face of interaction, travel and the mass movement of peoples. He observes:
Indeed, the currency of culture and identity as performative acts can be traced to their articulation of homelands, safe spaces where the traffic across borders can be controlled. Such acts of control, maintaining coherent insides and outsides, are always tactical. Cultural action, the making and remaking of identities, takes place in the contact zones, along the policed and transgressive intercultural frontiers of nations, peoples, locales. Stasis and purity are asserted -- creatively and violently -- against historical forces of movement and contamination. (7)
Clifford's assertion that "routes" determine "roots," rather than the converse as is commonly believed, denaturalizes and demystifies the idea of a stable and unchanging home country or culture as point of origin. That claims of homogeneity or national coherence are generally advanced within a context of displacement and fear of entanglement with the foreign Other, is evidenced, for example, by the 1937 massacre and expulsion of Haitians by citizens of the Dominican Republic, a historical event which returns repeatedly to haunt the pages of Danticat's work.
- In the intense and sometimes bloody struggles over the meaning of the national or cultural space, acts of writing and story-telling have assumed a centrality as forms of resistance and sources of agency for many diasporic Third World women. Given these women's frequent exclusion as actors from the standard, male-normative historical record, remembering, re-telling history, narrating stories, inventing images and fashioning imaginative feminine spaces all become potentially radical activities through which they may write back to and destabilize the male text. As Chandra Mohanty, charting the critical terrain for a Third World feminism and stressing the importance of Third World women writing or telling their stories, puts it:
Feminist analysis has always recognized the centrality of rewriting and remembering history. This is a process which is significant not merely as a corrective to the gaps, erasures, and misunderstandings of hegemonic masculinist history, but because the very practice of remembering and rewriting leads to the formation of politicized consciousness and self-identity. (34)
As a social scientist, Mohanty works within a more traditional critical framework of activist feminism emphasizing consciousness and agency. Confronting the same problems and opportunities facing diasporic Third World women, Trinh Minh-ha employs the notion of "hybridity" in describing their place. She embraces hybridity as something radically empowering and destabilizing of containment, boundaries and borders. She says in an interview:
Dominated and marginalized people have been socialized to see always more than their own point of view. In the complex reality of postcoloniality it is therefore vital to assume one's radical "impurity" and to recognize the necessity of speaking from a hybrid place, hence of saying at least two, three things at a time. (Framer 140)
- Hybridity resists easy definition and unitary meaning. Third World women in diasporic communities are caught in the interstices or overlapping areas between cultures, languages and societies. Rather than look nostalgically and reactively for a lost origin or a previous time of wholeness, "speaking from a hybrid place" raises the possibility of finding common areas and points of connection between, for example, men and women, or a painful past and the present. Viewed in this light, rewriting the male text is also seen as tactical and contingent. It is thus less likely to be inscribed as the new Law in any coercive fashion. For, although Trinh recognizes the importance of rewriting history and of using the imagination and poetic language to question received history in order to reveal its partiality, she warns that writing back to the male text is limiting if such seemingly confrontational moves merely entail simple reversal. Strategies of reversal have, in her view, to be inextricably tied to "strategies of displacement" (Framer 157). Only then can we move beyond a dualistic and binary model of thinking to examine the ways in which literary works like Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! and Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place raise fundamental questions about the organization of gender, cultural and social relations while re-writing the male text.
- Edwidge Danticat takes the title of her collection of stories from the folk and oral tradition of story-telling in Haiti. The teller of the tale begins by asking "Krik?" while the audience responds with "Krak!" in a show of reciprocity, affirmation and participation. The significance of this tradition as a cultural practice lies less in the creation of original stories, since the story to be told is often a re-telling of a known tale, than in its promotion of communal feeling and solidarity. By invoking a narrative tradition that is also powerfully associated with the female, Danticat signals the important place that Haitian women will occupy in all her stories as she brings to the fore their lives and struggles as well as the creative and imaginary worlds they inhabit. Moreover, in encompassing her stories within this "Krik? Krak!" frame, Danticat impresses upon the reader a sense of dialogue, particularly appropriate given that many of her stories revolve around the idea of communication and/or miscommunication. The notion of a conversational or verbal exchange also informs our reading of Danticat's stories as interrelated and connected; her stories "speak" to and influence each other, even as the events and characters in these tales are formally separated in terms of time and place.
- The idea of a dialogic interchange is presented to us right from the beginning in Danticat's powerful first story, "Children of the Sea." Organized and structured as an exchange of unsent letters between a boy and a girl kept apart from each other by an ocean as a result of political strife, "Children of the Sea" raises a central question about the place of Danticat as a writer and story-teller. Danticat uses the flight of thousands of Haitians in overcrowded, poorly-constructed boats during the 1980s as the context for her story. The male narrator is a student activist and political refugee fleeing Haiti. He writes his letters in a rickety boat bound for America together with other Haitians while his girlfriend writes faithfully from Haiti. Since this exchange of letters cannot occur, only the reader is in a privileged position to read both sides of the correspondence. Eventually, the male narrator has to throw his notebook containing these missives into the sea as the boat begins to leak and sink. On one level, Danticat's role in this story is as a preserver and teller of history, a personal history of individuals not to be found documented in any official, recorded version of the event. The Haitians in the boat lose more than their lives when they drown; they lose the stories of their lives. Thus, in this sense, Danticat is performing an act of recovery by retrieving personal stories from the silence in every newspaper report or radio broadcast about a tragic occurrence like this. In these other media narratives, the victims are invariably seen as a nameless unindividuated mass. Yet, whatever Danticat "recovers" can only ever be an invention -- an imagined fiction. Against the violent political reality and official History of Haiti scripted by patriarchal dictators and their thuggish underlings, the tonton macoutes, Danticat stakes out an oppositional and creative space for herself as a writer. Through her imagination of erased and effaced stories, Danticat also redefines the meaning of the archive. For in this story, it is the sea that becomes an archive of sorts, a fluid repository of the submerged lives not only of Haitians but also of their African ancestors who perished in the middle passage en route to slavery. In death, all become children of the sea.
- Danticat's investment in forging connections and establishing historical continuity is readily apparent from the way the male narrator in "Children of the Sea" reclaims his country's slave past and identifies with his African ancestors while adrift in a sea devoid of "borderlines" (6). Addressing his sweetheart in Haiti, he writes, for example, half in jest, "Yes, I am finally an African. I am even darker than your father" (11). Danticat's vision of Haitian community and of their shared history and culture permeates the whole of her text and is reinforced by her use of particular narrative strategies and stylistic devices. Thus, throughout her stories, verbal echoes and recurrent images abound. Water, for example, with its symbolic associations of purification, cleansing and rebirth, is one of the more common motifs that get circulated in Danticat's stories. Sentence fragments, phrases and even whole lines get repeated in different stories. In "Children of the Sea," the male narrator describes the old man beside him with a pipe in his mouth, as "a painting," adding, "Seeing things simply, you could fill a museum with the sights you have here" (21). The phrase "Seeing things simply" is also, however, the title of another story in the collection. In that narrative, the young woman, Princesse, keeps running into a drunk old man with a pipe, a character she eventually sketches. As Princesse develops in self-awareness, her desire to be an artist is expressed thus:
It struck Princesse that this is why she wanted to make pictures, to have something to leave behind even after she was gone, something that showed what she had observed in a way that no one else had and no one else would after her. (140)
This urge to record something that could be left behind as a legacy links Princesse to the male narrator in the first story as well as to Danticat, the author. There is a suggestion as Princesse begins to draw by the end of the story that she carries on the dream and the "simple" vision of the male narrator in "Children of the Sea."
- In emphasizing the connectedness of Haitian people to each other, Danticat attempts to weave together a dispersed people torn apart by political violence and poverty. Hers is an overtly political strategy to re-define the Haitian community across national boundaries and beyond the geographical space that is Haiti. Thus, in "Caroline's Wedding," the reader is reminded of the deaths of Célianne and her baby in the first story when the narrator Gracina and her mother attend a funeral mass for a Haitian refugee girl who, like Célianne, threw herself and her baby into the sea. Danticat is here counting on the reader to be able to make the connection between the two stories, in other words, to remember. Indeed, it is memory or the need to remember that figures as an especially crucial element in the feminist struggle against the continued silence surrounding Third World women marginalized and frequently forgotten in the male-text of official History and newsworthy stories.
- For Gracina, the diasporic Haitian woman occupying the space of cultural hybridity in "Caroline's Wedding," the act of remembering is vital; memory is something that has to be lived and re-lived daily as an intrinsic part of one's existence, rather than re-visited occasionally. Thus, after a dream about her father one night, so fearful is she of forgetting that she writes her memories down:
That morning, I wrote down a list of things that I remembered having learned from my father. I had to remind myself, at least under my breath, that I did remember still. In the back of my mind, I could almost hear his voice saying these things to me, in the very same way that he had spoken over the years: "You have memory of walking in a mist at dawn in a banana jungle that no longer exists. You have lived this long in this strange world, so far from home, because you remember." (177)
Unlike her sister Caroline, who was born in America and whose deformed arm seems to serve as a constant reminder that she has lost something by not having known Haiti, Gracina remains attached to Haiti. She acts as a bridge between her strongly-identified Haitian mother and her sister. At one point, Gracina recalls a riddle her father used to ask her: "Why is it that when you lose something, it is always in the very last place you look?" It is a riddle repeated at the end of the story, this time by her mother, as they play once again the game of questions. The solution, "Because of course, once you remember, you always stop looking" (216) aptly sums up the position of both Gracina and her mother as they deal with the loss of Gracina's father and Caroline from their lives, one as a result of death, the other, marriage. The line, however, also stands as testimony to the importance of memory as that which draws people together and which puts an end to all futile searches.
- Throughout her text, Edwidge Danticat uses her stories as a means of evoking and re-writing some of the key historical moments in Haiti's modern history. "Traditionally," as Myriam Chancy has argued, "Haitian women have been subsumed under an overtly male-identified national identity. What Haitian women writers demonstrate is that the project of recovering Haitian women's lives must begin with the re-composition of history and nationality" (13). This is precisely what Danticat undertakes in "Nineteen Thirty-Seven." In this story, Danticat refers to the brutal massacre of Haitians within the Dominican Republic on the orders of General Dios Trujillo. The narrator's mother escapes death by swimming across the river that divides Haiti from the Dominican Republic. While this watery border between two countries separated by language and history is the site of horrific killings, Danticat also uses it as the starting point for a different tale of connection -- "The river was the place where it had all begun" (41). For although the narrator's grandmother fails to escape to Haiti and is killed, the narrator is born that very night, almost as if to take the place of her grandmother. As another character, Jacqueline, puts it, "life is never lost, another one always comes up to replace the last" (48). The border of death and destruction also becomes the site for the emergence of a new female solidarity as the women who survived the ordeal meet to commemorate the event every year by dipping their hands in the river. The narrator realizes she is inextricably and inescapably a part of this only at the end of the story when her mother dies. Ironically, death serves to connect the narrator to her mother in a way that life never could. Obsessed with the question as to whether her mother could really fly, she finds her answer in memory, but only upon her mother's death. She says, "Then the story came back to me as my mother had often told it. On that day so long ago, in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-seven, in the Massacre River, my mother did fly" (49). Flying, the act that is supposed to justify her mother's imprisonment for witchcraft, is here transformed by the narrator into an act of freedom that recalls the folk belief that once dead, the souls of slaves used to fly back to Africa. In recalling her mother's flight, the narrator thus also memorializes much more.
- In her envisioning of the ties and bonds of affiliation between women, Danticat shows how the gaps and divisions in Haitian society may be productively and meaningfully filled. In "The Missing Peace," she draws two disparate women together amidst the explosive and uncertain violence of Haiti after the coup that fissured the country into two camps -- those who belong to the old regime and those to the new. The narrator, a fourteen-year-old girl named Lamort , brings Emilie, an American woman in search of her "missing" mother, to a mass grave, defying the imposed curfew on movement at night. In the story, the two "vagabond" soldiers, Toto and Raymond, represent the masculinist culture of war and arbitrary violence that has so torn Haiti and littered its landscape with graves where "if you looked very closely, you could see a bushy head of hair poking through the ground" (106). In a confrontation between Emilie and Toto, Lamort narrowly saves the former from being killed by begging for her life on her behalf and shouting aloud the ironically-designated password, "Peace." Emilie's brush with death makes her determined to record both men's names. In a telling gesture, she writes both names down on the back of a photograph of her mother and gives it to Lamort: '"My mother's name was Isabelle," she said, "keep this for posterity" (122). Here, the act of memory serves a different function: the men's names must be remembered and recorded for accountability, in the name of justice. Emilie's gesture is however, a double-sided one as the act of remembering the men's names must always be accompanied by the memory of victims like her mother, Isabelle. Influenced by Emilie, it is significant that Lamort (whose name means "death") decides at the end of the story to take on her mother's name of Marie Magdalene. Her decision represents a positive act of remembrance and continuity that affirms life and defies death.
- In the stories set in Haiti, we see how the male-identified military and the secret police force of the Duvaliers, the tonton macoutes, write a culture of daily terror and fear for ordinary Haitians. These men create a crazy, chaotic world where killings and torture are rife. In this space, categories are overturned and people are forced to cross the most inviolable of borders as sons are made to lie with their mothers, and daughters, their fathers. In "Children of the Sea," the soldiers are variously referred to as "bastards" and "pigs," inhuman beings who perpetuate all manner of outrage. Significantly, we also find lurking at the edges of this story, the shadowy and invisible male figure of the deposed President.  In so far as he represents hope for a better future, his continued absence from Haiti merely means, however, more slaughter and bloodshed. Like the tonton macoutes, the prison guards in "Nineteen Thirty-Seven" are also portrayed as vicious, merciless men who subject the narrator's mother to a cruel daily regime and who eventually beat her to death. The narrator recalls:
I was there watching when they shaved her head for the first time. At first, I thought they were doing it so that the open gashes on her scalp could heal. Later, when I saw all the other women in the yard, I realized that they wanted to make them look like crows, like men. (39)
- It is interesting that punishment for these women in prison should lie in stripping them of their female identity and re-making them into "men." The narrator's mother, like all the other women prisoners, has been arrested and thrown into jail on the charge of witchcraft: "All of these women were here for the same reason. They were said to have been seen at night rising from the ground like birds on fire" (38). Apart from subjecting these women to a daily routine of beatings and shaving their heads, the guards also
made them throw tin cups of cold water at one another so that their bodies would not be able to muster up enough heat to grow those wings made of flames, fly away in the middle of the night, slip into the slumber of innocent children and steal their breath. (37-8)
The excessive brutality of the prison guards belies a deeper anxiety and fear of a female power that can never be fully explainable or articulable in a male-dominated discourse of rationality. There is also a sense that these incarcerated women somehow possess some inner strength or power of survival that cannot be broken. We learn, for example, that the narrator's mother was killed only because "prison could not cure her" (47). The power of a collective female solidarity is also palpably suggested when the narrator and Jacqueline enter her mother's cell to collect the latter's personal belongings. Here, the narrator describes the "women who sat like statues in different corners of the cell." They are her mother's cell-mates, gathered together to mourn her death. Instead of seeing them as witches, the narrator transforms their power into a positive force, viewing them with "their arms close to their bodies, like angels hiding their wings" (47).
- As the above story shows, Danticat's women in Krik? Krak! are often seen to possess an alternative knowledge and wisdom that may figure variously in the text as magic, spirituality or some kind of folk tradition. It is a way of living and knowing however, that tends to be silenced and marginalized by the rest of society. In delineating this cultural space, Danticat may be seen to participate in a theory that Myriam Chancy has termed culture-lacune, "a theory that positions the margin as its own center and, paradoxically, as a tool not only for subversion but also for self-expression" (17). In story after story, a conventional knowledge and rationality is displaced by a female wisdom and imagination that is initially viewed as insignificant or irrelevant. Thus, in "Caroline's Wedding," for example, Gracina's mother makes pot after pot of "strong bone soup" for Caroline in the hope that she would marry a Haitian instead of her Bahamian boyfriend, Eric. The soup and the mother's ways in general, are a source of amusement and mild irritation to her children at the beginning of the story. On the day of the wedding, however, when Caroline feels mysteriously unwell, it is her mother who nurses her back to health with a herbal remedy. In other stories, Danticat shows how Haitian women rely on their imaginative wisdom to construct alternative realities and spaces for themselves and their loved ones. In "Night Women," for example, the prostitute protects her son from learning the truth about what she does for a living by telling him that angels are the ones who come to visit them at night, not men. Surrounding him with such innocent images as butterflies and hibiscus flowers, and whispering her "mountain stories" and "stories of the ghost women and the stars in their hair" (86), she creates for him a dream world all the more beautiful and poignant because she knows her son will soon grow too old to believe her any longer. In many ways, as one of the most achingly lyrical and moving stories in the collection, "Night Women" stands as a tribute to the creative imagination of Haitian women who can fashion something beautiful from the grim and ugly circumstances of their lives.
- In response to the male visions of Haiti that have tended to consist of nothing but bloodshed and pain, Danticat uses the space of her text to fashion a community of women who support and "mother" each other, even if only in spirit or in dreams.  Indeed, throughout her stories, she refers to several communities of women: there are ghost women, angels, night women, mothers and daughters. In the tale, "Between the Pool and the Gardenias," the narrator reveals her connection with the other women in the text when she claims them as her ancestors whose spirits visit her regularly in her dreams:
Mama had to introduce me to them, because they had all died before I was born. There was my great grandmother Eveline who was killed by Dominican soldiers at the Massacre River. My grandmother Défilé who died with a bald head in prison, because God had given her wings. My godmother Lili who killed herself in old age because her husband had jumped out of a flying balloon and her grown son left her to go Miami.
We all salute you Mary, Mother of God. Pray for us poor sinners, from now until the hour of our death. Amen. (94)
- As in the above quotation and in "Nineteen Thirty-Seven," the Virgin Mary is invoked as a symbol of motherhood, a figure uniting all women. In the Epilogue entitled "Women Like Us," Danticat breaks the fictional frame of the text to address the reader who is defined by her as Haitian and not unlike her own persona. She argues that there is really no difference between the act of writing for a Haitian woman and other approved feminine tasks like cooking and braiding. She notes, "When you write, it's like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse unruly strands and attempting to bring them unity" (220). She also refers to "kitchen poets" who "slip phrases into their stew" and "make narrative dumplings" (219-20). By rendering indistinguishable all these tasks, Danticat is able to see herself as having always been part of the women in her family rather than an outsider:
You have never been able to escape the pounding of a thousand other hearts that have outlived yours by thousands of years. And over the years when you have needed us, you have always cried "Krik?" and we have answered "Krak!" and it has shown us that you have not forgotten us. (224)
- Through her stories, Danticat participates in the ever-changing definition of Haiti. Whereas in newspaper articles and international documents, Haiti is constantly described as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Danticat's stories revise that narrative by suggesting a rich Haitian culture and community, with Haitian women very much in the center. While not denying entry to men even as she writes back and re-writes the male text, Danticat celebrates Haitian women and locates herself firmly within an empowering tradition of women who live by creating.
- Jamaica Kincaid begins her project of re-writing the male text when, in the form of the ignorant musings of a tourist to Antigua, she questions the Antiguan Prime Minister's act of naming the country's airport after himself. In a move that opens the way for her later excoriation of government corruption, she reveals this act to be part of an arrogant male narrative of appropriating public places for self-aggrandizement at the expense of ordinary Antiguans. Kincaid is here claiming her right to write her country of origin and she achieves this in the first section of her text (the section closest in form to a travelogue) by constantly anticipating the tourist's gaze and thoughts, while providing her accompanying narrative as an alternative guided tour commentary. Kincaid's fictional tourist, is, her narrator specifies, "a North American or European -- to be frank, white -- " (4) who is also implicitly coded as male. In any case, this character is also "us," the readers, since Kincaid uses the second person pronoun, "you," throughout her narrative. While one could certainly argue that many of us who read A Small Place do not conform to the tourist described, it is difficult not to read ourselves as anything other than the ones being addressed given the coercive nature of "you" as an unmarked, inclusive and direct form of address.
- As part of her bold denunciatory style, Kincaid turns the oft-touted tourist experience in Antigua of luxury and self-indulgence on its head by setting it in a different context. She points, for example, to the ironic discrepancy between the interests of the tourist and the native as the former craves the sun as part of his holiday fun while the latter has to live with long periods of drought. She further undermines the conventional snapshot of the "happy natives" when she draws our attention to a hidden narrative of corruption that accounts for what would appear to be "charming" island ways to the tourist. Thus, the taxi-driver who drives a luxury Japanese car does so only because "the banks are encouraged by the government to make loans available for cars" and "the two main car dealerships in Antigua are owned in part or outright by ministers in government" (7). Similarly, the fact that the library destroyed by an earthquake in 1974 is still unrepaired is a shameful indictment of the government rather than "a sort of quaintness on the part of these islanders, these people descended from slaves -- what a strange, unusual perception of time they have" (9).
- The tourist is figured in Kincaid's text as the most superficial kind of observer and learner of another culture. In this sense, he is not unlike the colonial traveller of old who could produce lengthy travelogues on whole countries based on short periods of stay and minimal interaction with the local population. As a vacationer in pursuit of pleasure in a foreign place, the tourist becomes the center of every setting and is blind and impervious to the local inhabitants:
You see yourself taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you). You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself . . . (13)
While the tourist may be a harmless, ordinary person in his own country, ordinariness is no excuse as he remains, according to Kincaid, inextricably implicated in the exploitative networks of global capitalism. In the eyes of the "native" whom Kincaid's narrator also speaks for, he is resented:
-- so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. (19)
Kincaid returns the tourist's gaze with the native's. By showing how the tourist is seen to profit in a cannibalistic fashion from the unnoticed misfortunes of the natives, Kincaid is writing back to European-authored travel narratives in which the Caribbean is presented as a tropical paradise catering to the desires of the visitor whose presence and impact on local life is in turn, frequently left unexamined.
- In Kincaid's eyes, there is a clear sense of historical continuity between the tourist and the colonizer of old. The second section begins with the narrator still addressing "you, a tourist" (23). The target of her vituperative verbal attack grows, however, when the boundaries of "you" are expanded to include the English colonizers and other Western neo-colonizers:
Have you ever wondered why it is that all we seem to learn from you is how to corrupt our societies and how to be tyrants? You will have to accept that this is mostly your fault. Let me just show you how you looked to us. You came. You took things that were not yours, and you did not even, for appearances' sake, ask first. (34-5)
Stressing the affiliation between tourist and colonizer, Kincaid's rewriting of Antigua's history involves insisting on links where some would rather not see connections. Alison Donnell has argued that A Small Place confronts the readers of post-colonial texts who are paralyzed by "liberal guilt" and calls for a re-evaluation of the ways in which cross-cultural readings may occur. Referring to the same passage above, she writes: "Surely the narrative voice here presents an exaggerated version, almost a pastiche, of the post-colonial text that plays upon white readers' Angst" (114). Donnell attributes too much of her own politics to Kincaid. It seems to me that the troubling power of Kincaid's text lies precisely in its damning approach towards everyone and everything; there is no sense of any ironical or satirical intent in her accusations. Donnell's reading assumes that Kincaid recognizes the existence of liberal guilt whereas Kincaid appears to suggest that there is not enough guilt, particularly among white, Western readers, hence her need to push this point and call for the acceptance of responsibility as a first step towards healing the wounds of the past.
- Kincaid counters History from the colonizers' point of view and responds effectively to the inflated rhetoric of the English civilizing mission in the colonies. She writes: "Even if I really came from people who were living like monkeys in trees, it was better to be that than what happened to me, what I became after I met you" (37). She presents the colonial encounter as a rude and violent rupture in Antiguan history. Viewed through this lens, Antigua was established, run and named after the dregs of English society -- criminals like Horatio Nelson and slave-traders like the Barclay brothers. In A Small Place, Kincaid also evokes books and narratives that whitewash the West's exploitative relationship with its former colonies. The tourist is imagined as reading, for example, a book on economic history about how the West got rich, not as a result of slavery and economic injustice to the non-Western parts of the world but through their hard work and ingenuity (9-10). The colonial institutions of the school and library are also shown to be places where "you distorted or erased my history and glorified your own" (36). Kincaid opposes this official History by writing her memory of Antigua. Proposing this as a valid cultural and historical counter-narrative, she shows how her memory of growing up in Antigua is indelibly colored by incidents of racism and discrimination suffered variously at the hands of the white doctor and the exclusive Mill Reef Club.
- In Kincaid's personal cultural map of Antigua, the library is the place she most remembers with nostalgia. It is also, however, the site of greatest ambivalence and contradiction in the text. She writes:
But if you saw the old library, situated as it was, in a big, old wooden building painted a shade of yellow that is beautiful to people like me . . . the beauty of us sitting there like communicants at an altar, taking in, again and again, the fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did, how beautiful you were, are, and always will be; if you could see all of that in just one glimpse, you would see why my heart would break at the dung heap that now passes for a library in Antigua. (42-3)
Kincaid's hitherto unrelentingly hostile stance towards the tourist/colonizer/reader is rendered more ambiguous in the above passage. The colonizer's narrative, that which she has attacked and sought to re-write, is remembered here as a "fairy tale" -- a false account that was nevertheless a source of enjoyment and enchantment. Kincaid's position in relation to both the colonizer and her fellow Antiguans is interestingly configured as it is to the former's sympathetic understanding that she appeals. Antiguans, it appears, would not be able to understand as they do not share her appreciation for knowledge and books in the same way. According to Kincaid, education standards in Antigua have fallen: "In Antigua today, most young people seem almost illiterate. On the airwaves, where they work as news personalities, they speak English as if it were their sixth language" (43). It is the Antiguans who are to be blamed for the state the library is in now. Significantly, the standard of spoken English, a language Kincaid has previously called the "criminal's tongue," is also used as an indicator of Antigua's progress (or lack thereof). In her critique of Antiguans, Kincaid displays a disturbing reliance on the vocabulary and positional superiority of the very objects of her oppositional writing -- Western colonizers and neo-colonizers. It belies the "hybrid place" from which she speaks as a privileged Antiguan living in America.
- Some of Kincaid's harshest criticism in her text is reserved for the male-dominated government of Antigua. The Antiguan Prime Minister and his sons, much like the Haitian Duvaliers (73), are responsible for inscribing a male text and culture of corruption and deception in her country. The Government ministers' connections with certain Syrians and Lebanese show them to be traitorous as they allow these "foreigners" to change the Antiguan landscape, both physical and cultural, for the sake of enriching themselves. In her tirade against the government, Kincaid highlights the incident in which her mother, once a member of the only opposition party on the island, "talks back" to the Minister of Culture:
When the minister, hearing a great hubbub (my mother would only do this with a great hubbub) came outside and saw that it was my mother, he said, perhaps to the air, "What is she doing here?" and to this my mother replied, "I may be a she, but I am a good she. Not someone who steals stamps from Redonda. Whatever this meant to the Minister of Culture my mother would not tell me, but it made the minister turn and go back inside his house without a reply. (50)
Kincaid's mother effectively silences the Minister with her pointed retort about the latter's cheating ways. In addition to uniting mother and daughter in a way rarely seen elsewhere in her work, the event mirrors Kincaid's own political undertaking in her book to write back to the male text. It suggests the agency that Antiguans, especially Antiguan women, can have in resisting and preventing the powers-that-be from having a monopoly on defining the Antiguan nation.
- Perhaps Kincaid's greatest frustration with Antigua lies in what she sees as its narrowness of vision, a phenomenon she repeatedly equates with its physical smallness. Living in Antigua, according to her, is stifling and suffocating, "as if everything and everybody inside it were locked in and everything and everybody that is not inside it were locked out" (79). The island is too self-contained and isolated in an intense way. Antiguans seem trapped in a time warp, unable to view themselves within a larger global history and context. This is where Kincaid comes in. As both an insider and an outsider, she provides much-needed perspective. Ultimately, she argues that Antiguans must start assuming responsibility for themselves and stop seeing themselves as victims. She paves the way for this with her conclusion when she levels colonizer and colonized, slave-owner and slave, tourist and Antiguan; all, Kincaid notes, are "human beings."
- Despite the tentative way forward pointed out by Jamaica Kincaid at the end of A Small Place, the overall impression one gets from her polemical rewriting of the various male texts of global capitalism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and Antiguan politics is not altogether unproblematic. For one thing, in her splenetic attack on various groups of people, her own position is rather conveniently left unquestioned. In an interview, Kincaid says: "Yes. I thought [writing A Small Place] was a turning point in me. I wrote with a kind of recklessness in that book. I didn't know what I would say ahead of time. Once I wrote it, I felt very radicalized by it. I would have just thought of myself as a liberal person until I wrote it, and now I feel that liberal is as far right as I can go. . . . I've really come to love anger. And I liked it even more when reviewers said it's so angry" (Ferguson 95-6). This anger, however, seems to be directed at all except herself, and her forceful, accusatory tone brooks few distinctions among different, historically-specific groups of oppressors.
* * *
In re-writing the male text of history, national culture and current political life, Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid emphatically refuse the position of silence often expected of Third World Women. With regard to their respective countries of origin, both writers confront the difficulties of coming to terms with a past marked by slavery and colonialism, and with a present characterized by poverty and political uncertainty. In mapping out the cultural spaces of Haiti and Antigua as they see them and displacing the male text from its privileged position, Danticat and Kincaid demonstrate their investment in the politics of cultural identity formation, proving in the process the creative power that diasporic Third World women possess.
See King, 220-42. Back
The Haitian President alluded to here is President Aristide, the Roman Catholic priest who won the general election in 1990 by a large majority but who was forced into exile the following year. He returned to Haiti as President in 1994. Back
See also Shea's interview with Danticat in Callaloo on the importance of mothering in the latter's work. Back
- Chancy, Myriam J. A. Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997.
- Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
- Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak! New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
- Donnell, Alison. "She Ties Her Tongue: The Problems of Cultural Paralysis in Postcolonial Criticism." Caribbean Women Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. 112-16.
- Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.
- Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 222-37.
- hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1989.
- Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
- King, Deborah. "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology." Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. Ed. Diane Tietjens Meyers. New York: Routledge, 1997. 220-42.
- Mohanty, Chandra, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.
- Shea, Renee H. "The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat: An Interview." Callaloo 19.2 (1996): 382- 389.
- Trinh Minh-ha. Framer Framed. New York: Routledge, 1992.