Textual transgressions and consuming the self in the fiction of Helen Oyeyemi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
All the texts are burgeoning with strange cravings, fears, desires and an acute attention to detail. In this manner, Oyeyemi and Adichie stage an active and almost pathological struggle with articulation. I define articulation as the expression of one's inner voice--this incorporates speech acts as well as action. This active struggle is transcribed into metaphors; with the manner of struggle varying from the psychosomatic or the physical to the supernatural. I am interested in how strange compulsions and psychosomatic manifestations, often connected to the vocal chords, the digestive system and the mouth, signify not just an active struggle for articulation, but also a defiance of the commodification of truth and experience. For instance, Dominick LaCapra refers to the act of consumption as "commodified experience" (46) and wonders if "commodified experience" counts as experience (46). He concludes that one should "see the commodification of experience as a stage or aspect of commodificafion, along with the commodificafion of goods and services" (46).
The collective experiences of marginalised communities, be they third-world, postcolonial, coloured or otherwise subject to collective trauma, are often commodified in mass-produced literature, art or advertising, bell hooks writes, "the commodification of Otherness has been so successful and offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling" (336). The intense, new delight that hooks talks about, the excitement about cultural difference, can be translated into ways of consuming another person's life. This can be seen, for instance, in the way in which the protagonist of Oyeyemi's White Is for Witching seems to be erotically cannibalising her Yoruba lover, or how the protagonists of Adichie's short stories fight against cultural commodification by refusing to contribute to the stereotypical expectations about their country.
Consumption of experiences incorporates the consumption of trauma, torture and instances of domination, served up as a tasty literary treat for their audiences. Both Adichie and Oyeyemi navigate the dangerous terrain of writing back to the consumption of narratives of identity. The problem of articulating experience without accidentally commodifying that experience is even more fraught for a woman writer from a postcolonial nation, or any nation that is pregnant not just with narratives of conquest and domination, but those of stereotypes imposed by mainstream, privileged culture. Against the bastion of such preconceptions, articulation becomes a troubled territory, a battlefield which involves the vocal chords, and in relation to the vocal chords, the digestive system. In "The Laugh of the Medusa", Helene Cixous speaks of the double distress which occurs when a woman voices herself; it feels like a transgression, her "ground and language" slip away (116-17). In the texts under discussion here, transgression is linked to the psychosomatic and to supernatural external manifestations of the struggle for agency, as seen in the repeated metaphor of the twin or psychic double. The psychosomatic evidences of the struggle to articulate can be discerned in Cixous's "double distress", this act of transgression may fall upon "deaf ears". The seeming futility of this struggle may be linked to discourses of both power and desire, that is, the desire to articulate. Oyeyemi's and Adichie's uses of the Gothic allow the reader to discern these struggles, in a transgressive and, in some cases, grotesque form such as the physical act of strangulation which Chabella inflicts upon Maja in Oyeyemi's The Opposite House to stop her from reporting a rape, or the psychosomatic choking sensation as experienced by the protagonist of Adichie's story "The Thing around Your Neck".
Both writers tackle the struggle to speak up, to be heard and understood across cultural barriers--whether of one's own supposed root culture or that of the supposed Other. At the heart of the differences between these two writers, one Yoruba and one Igbo, there is a commonality--the problem of voicing, of articulating that which lies between overlapping states of being. Whether a woman speaks within a male-dominated culture, or as an othered voice in a more outwardly liberal society, what she says both as a woman and an othered person of colour must seem dissonant and harsh. Deirdre Lashgari argues:
[what] is read by the dominant group as alien, rough-edged, jolting, strident, is more likely to offend when it comes from a woman. If the woman writer's root culture also has strong injunctions against 'making noise," the temptation to self-silencing increases as does the risk and necessity for breaking through. The risk often influences the way a writer shapes her work, its dramatic and narrative strategies, its language and imagery. (2)
The struggle for articulation is against not just external modes of silencing but also an internal apparatus of self-stifling and, in the texts under discussion, it involves the psychosomatic metaphors of choking and eating disorders. The struggle which is both physiological and psychological is also further complicated by the opposing forces of patriarchal culture and of imperialistic capitalism, which seem to pigeonhole and distort. The place in-between cultures will be forever fractured, making any question of "authenticity" loaded. The fracture may resolve within narratives into metaphors of splitting, doubling and hatching. Alison Rudd comments of the soucouyant, the most obvious supernatural metaphor for splitting, that it is a "hybrid of vampire, ghost and zombie": she is "presented in traditional terms as a fairy-tale character, but she is also a fitting metaphor for the workings of neo-colonialism that condemn the poor and dispossessed" (51). Cultural soul-theft can become a metaphor for the way in which the postcolonial, less privileged person is forever stuck in-between, troubled by the mechanisms of cross-cultural commodification, where even identity and truth become a currency.
This may be discerned in the dissonance between the internal monologues of the protagonists, the revenants that haunt them and their actual interactions with other characters. Conventions of the Gothic narrative are repeatedly invoked by Adichie and Oyeyemi.
The transgressions and strange physiological conditions in these Gothic texts are linked to a reaction against the commodification of experience and what is called "truth". The commodification of truth is linked to the presence of authority, whether patriarchal or imperialistic, which seeks to confine the expression of that truth. Often, the action of refusing this commodification may seem to be self-destructive, as is the case with the protagonist of Adichie's short story "The American Embassy". This act of refusal is a transgression against superimposed guidelines that require the protagonist to articulate her trauma and loss in a manner which could be understood by her interviewer.
What David Punter refers to as the struggle between the Law and the monsters of Gothic fiction, is further fraught for the hybrid, postcolonial subject (Gothic Pathologies 44). These monsters are no longer mythical chimeras but individuals who stand in-between cultures, perhaps fitting the metaphor of Frankenstein's creation in that they are composite. Punter writes that the "dialectic of monstrosity ... has been within Gothic from the beginning, and it focuses on the body, on what we might call the 'case' of the body" (46). Punter refers here to the body as a "shell" or a container; this division of the spirit or consciousness from the body/physicality is an attribute commonly connected to the act of "splitting". Like the monster, perhaps the hybrid individuals who reside within these texts will be self-destructive, consume themselves or allow themselves to be consumed by textual soucouyants--Caribbean, soul-eating entities. It is in these perverse, self-inflicted compulsions that we may observe the struggle between the body and authority. The psychosomatic choking sensations exhibited by Maja in The Opposite House, or Akunna in "The Thing around Your Neck" can be located as sites of an ontological turmoil, the fear of articulation rendered complex and physiological.
There is a strong connection between the postcolonial Gothic "haunting" and the struggle for articulation. The connection between the struggle for articulation and the lineaments of the Gothic narrative is relevant in the study of the general direction of postcolonial feminisms. The relevance lies in the lineaments of these texts themselves, in the supernatural manifestations of memory, in the ghosts, in the horror of the splitting-doubling motifs which are related not just to a deep-rooted cosmological belief but also to the manner in which these supernatural elements in the narratives connect with the horror of being Other.
Of consuming the self and forgotten gods
The idea of consumption and consuming is central to the plot of White Is for Witching. The protagonist, Miranda, stops eating in silent, unconscious protest over the autonomy of the house being overthrown by her father, Luc, a dangerously benign patriarch. Oyeyemi defines pica in the novel as an "appetite for non-food items, things that don't nourish" (22).
Whenever Miri talked about her pica with Lily she seemed so grown up about it, a shaky balance of humility and dignity. Dad was relieved that Miri didn't mean to be rebellious. I might remember Miri's special pastries as more elaborate than they really were, but Dad made some astonishing things for her. Flaky cones smothered in honey and coconut and chocolate and whatever else he could think of. He did a lot of soft foods, too, soups, and jellies with (eye)balls of peeled fruit staring out of them. What Miri did was, she crammed chalk into her mouth under her covers. She hid the packaging at the bottom of her bag and threw it away when we got to school. But then there'd be cramps that twisted her body, pushed her off her seat and laid her on the floor, helplessly pedalling her legs. (22-23)
This scene starkly depicts the contrast between the abundant excess of Luc's culinary creations and Miranda's refusal to partake of it. The result of her refusal is the "cramps" that twist or distort her, causing her to pedal her legs, the pain rendering her grotesque (23). Miranda's eating disorder seems to be connected to her doppelganger; in one scene, the doppelganger eats half of the food that Miranda's father has left for her (78). The association of food with the body is a continuous thread throughout the novel, and here, peeled fruit is described unappetisingly as "(eye)balls". The connection between Miranda's pica and her father's futile attempts to feed her suggests that food is connected to her body, and her refusal to partake of it seems to be a search for self-autonomy by not consuming the self. Luc, as a patriarch takes over the "rule" of the house that previously ran from daughter to daughter in the Good lineage. His unconscious usurpation of power is emblematised by his decision to replace the lift in the Bed and Breakfast. The new lift in its turn causes an eerie episode--the twin children of their immigrant caretakers are trapped in it all night.
Both girls admitted that they had spent the day before playing around with the lift, pressing buttons for three floors at once, holding the "door open" button until the lift zinged with confusion. That was reason enough for the lift to later try to travel unbidden from first floor to second, grinding to a halt between the two. But why was Deme standing in the corner of the lift when Luc, Azwer and the technician prised the doors open? She was standing, not sitting or kneeling. They found her in the back left corner, where there once had been a hole in the floor, and she was standing on tiptoe, so close to the alarm button, looking at it in fact, her eyes wide as if all night she had been sinking and all night a stubborn thing in her had kept her on her feet. (36)
The imagery of the lift and the hole in the floor coincides with the eerie sense of hidden levels and trapdoors in the house. The house, in the context of Gothic fiction, is also often synonymous with the human being and its hidden depths. 29 Barton Road's arbitrary actions in terrorising children--themselves twins--suggests the presence of a deep-rooted disturbance. The identification of Miranda and her doppelganger with the house can be seen in tandem with the metaphor of the trapdoor and what it leads towards--her gagged and bound ancestors--as will be discussed later in this article. The lift and what it symbolises directly connect with Miranda's problematic relationship with her father. The lift stands as a monument to his arbitrary insertion into the internal landscape of the house; the male patriarch who stands in for authority.
The relationship between Miranda and her father is an example of the dyad of male patriarch and unvoiced, almost doll-like feminised victim within a patriarchal Gothic setting. Susan Wolstenholme observes that "women must usurp the positions of the gazing male artist if they are to write. They frame and project their apparitions of themselves within the boundaries of a mental space within which they watch and which the reader is also invited to watch" (5). In White Is for Witching Luc seems benign but he is still inimical to a house that is rendered grotesque and evil, as well as to his daughter--an ambiguous entity that remains unvoiced. Oyeyemi's subversions of dominant narratives and her textual transgressions raise important questions about the uneasy power relationships between male and female, between Centre and Other, in the context of a post-Baby Boomer Britain. Oyeyemi creates in Luc an ineffectual Prospero who has to deal with the disappearance of, first, his wife and then his daughter into the tomb-like embrace of the sentient house. In doing so, she plays with the connection between race and gender issues--showing that a complex and seemingly compassionate man may yet be operating within patriarchal imperatives to silence and control, even though he may not be self-aware of this.
The external and physiological manifestations of the struggle to articulate are tied up with Oyeyemi's textual transgressions. An important component of this is the grotesque element inherent in these physiological signposts. The relationship between Luc, Miranda's father and herself is sinister. Luc is a cook and a food critic, and there is a relationship between his cooking and his connection with the Silver/Good bloodline. He "wooed his wife with peach tarts he'd learnt from his pastry-maker father", and yet his daughter gets a condition in which she is unable to eat normal food. Luc is constantly domineering over Miranda for her own good, nailing shut her drawers, picking out her clothes, cooking food for her and trying to get her to eat despite her pica. Miranda's eating disorder occurs inside a sentient house which is a liminal location between the physical world and the supernatural realm; the house in itself is an embodiment of the fraught meeting place of in-between cultures. Miranda's eventual loss of self and disappearance is connected to Luc's take-over of the house as the "Master" after his wife's death.
Luc's attitude and personality are put under scrutiny with his controlling actions in relation to his daughter. The mannequin that Miranda uses to make her own clothing is also implicated in the goodlady as Miranda's supernatural double. Her father seems to take Miranda's madness, or pica, as his excuse to in many instances overrule her: determining what she eats and her choices of attire, or not wanting her to apply for Cambridge. Luc's patriarchal overriding of Miranda's wishes and his insensitive handling of her mental condition exacerbates Miranda's eating disorder, as may be seen in the scene in which Luc takes Miranda out shopping for clothes. It is an exercise in cruelty disguised as kindness, since he decides not to let her have a single dress.
"I'm all right," she said. "You are not all right. None of these dresses will do. They will not do at all. Nothing that fits you now will do, do you understand?" "I suppose so, but what am I going to do about clothes, then?" He looked around. Was his cue written on the walls? "You will have to eat. You will wear your other clothes until they fit. It will be good for you." Miranda nodded and her reflection nodded, so that was twice. She crossed her hands over her stomach, as if that would stop her from retching. She blushed because the light in the fitting rooms was stark and hot, like being stared at. (40)
As a response to this Miranda makes her own clothing, and gets admitted to Cambridge against her father's wishes--in that he feels she is not physically or emotionally capable. Luc pinned his expectations on Miranda's brother who fails to get into Cambridge. The suppression of Miranda's self-determination by her father is represented by his control of her eating habits (due to her eating disorder) and of her clothes. However, these are smaller indicators of a bigger problem, the manner in which he controls her life and her right to education. In the passage above, this suppression invites a psychosomatic or supernatural manifestation, that of the reflection in the mirror. The repetition of Miranda's nod by her reflection in the mirror (pointed out to the reader by Oyeyemi) foreshadows Miranda's splitting and the advent of her disturbing doppelganger. The goodlady or soucouyant is later represented by the mannequin that Miranda uses to fashion her own clothes. Later, however, her mental breakdown causes her to be suspended from Cambridge and she ends up a captive in the house.
The connection between Miranda Silver, Anna Good and the house is that of an intergenerational vampirism and silencing. Consuming and consumption as an insidious mode of silencing and suppression can be seen throughout the story, in various metaphors related to food and death. This is connected also to the complicated love affair between Ore and Miranda, which takes on a horrific and surreal tangent when the reader realises that, like a succubus, Miranda is feeding off Ore's life-force.
Miranda had needed Ore open. Her head had spun with the desire to taste. She lay her head against Ore's chest and heard Ore's heart. The beat was ponderous. Like an oyster, living quietly in its serving-dish shell this heart barely moved. Miranda could have taken it, she knew she could. Ore would hardly have felt it. The watch had ticked loudly, with the sound of a tongue slapped disapprovingly against the roof of a mouth. Then came the recoil-- would I really? and she'd bitten her own wrist, to test the idea of Ore not feeling a thing. Beneath her teeth the skin of her wrist bulged, trying to move the veins away from the pressure, trying to protect them. (191)
Miranda's pathological need to consume unnatural things, including her own body, suggests the manner in which she is impoverished. Her need to open Ore may be connected to the trapdoor in the house that leads her deeper into her ancestry as well as her psyche (25). The metaphors of splitting open are consistently repeated not just in the above passage, but throughout the text. The cannibalistic act of consuming another's body and identity is a strong indication that this is Miranda/Anna Good in her capacity as a soucouyant--the metaphor of the oyster which opens to reveal its soft kernel, ripe for consumption, may be read as a symbol for soul-theft--an oyster shell, once robbed of its soft kernel, is merely a husk. The act of consuming the insides of another corresponds with folkloric accounts of the Caribbean soucouyant. Miranda's pica is symbolic; her self-destructive urge to starve the self is because something else is starved. Miranda Good is replaced by her ancestor more than once in the text, as the soucouyant feeds upon the inhabitants of the house.
The perverse act of cannibalistic feeding relates to Miranda's eating disorders and how they are acts of rebellion against the laws instituted by her father, Luc. It is almost as though, by force-feeding her, Luc is starving her. Her consumption is connected to the house's aggressive consumption of the immigrants of Dover as well as the manner in which it tricks and preys on the inhabitants within its walls. The house stands as a metaphor for xenophobia; its victims include the children of the former housekeeper, Deme and Suryaz, who were also immigrants. The house performs various acts of aggression on both Sade, the new Yoruba housekeeper, and Ore, Miranda's lover. The house attempts to inject whiteness into them by making them eat poisoned apples, cocooning them, or by stripping the black from their skin. The inimical relationship between Miranda's lover Ore and the house is complicated by the house and the desire of its attendant/captive spirit, Anna Good, to keep Ore within it. Strength is sapped out of the immigrants. It is significant that the two survivors of the house are Yoruba. Because of their ability to walk between worlds, both Ore and Sade can see the supernatural "otherfolk"; they can bridge the gap between worlds and survive.
"Sade, I want to ask you something," I said. "If you say yes, I'll believe you. Just tell me. There's something wrong with this house, isn't there," I said. "It is a monster," Sade said, simply. (212)
This acknowledgement and the advice Sade gives, help Ore negotiate the horrific things that happen to her within the house, such as Miranda's sapping away of her life force in true succubus fashion (213). Miranda is never fully herself, whether she walks between worlds or whether she resides in the physical reality of the novel; she is a duality at a very deep level, and this resides both within her and outside of her form. This duality is represented by her other self, Miranda Good. The manner in which her double is introduced in the narrative evokes the connected metaphors of splitting, doubling and hatching. It is telling when her great-grandmother, Anna, says that she is named the same from back to front. We learn that the Miranda we encounter within the text is actually possessed by Anna, who is a supernatural "mirror". Ore, her lover, uncovers this secret in the supernatural realm. The following passage is saturated with food-based imagery and the metaphors of consuming which connect with the act of supernatural splitting:
She tensed and I cracked her open like a bad nut with a glutinous shell. She split, and cleanly from head to toe. There was another girl inside her, the girl from the photograph, all long straight hair and pretty pearlescence. This other girl wailed, "No, no, why did you do this? Put me back in." She gathered the halves of her shed skin and tried to fit them back together across herself. I fell down and watched her, amazed, from where I sat. (230)
In this very physical imagery of a supernatural splitting, Miranda Silver sits neatly inside Miranda Good. The split between the personality of Miranda as either "Silver" or "Good" is markedly problematic, particularly since Miranda Silver is actually Miranda's ancestor impersonating her, the sinister Anna Good. The split second of tension followed by the act of Miranda being cracked open like "a bad nut" provides the reader with the disorienting image of a different person hiding inside another. Earlier in the text, the imagery of a kernel could be found in the metaphor of an oyster; here, Oyeyemi invokes nuts--and this reinforces the idea of a being sitting within one's being, an inimical double. Marina Warner writes that a double may either seem "an alien creature inside you, a monster who claims you share your being, but who feels like a foreign body" or "a hideous stranger who might be impersonating you on the outside or taking possession of you and masquerading as you inside your own person" (164). In the quoted passage, clearly it is the latter, but elsewhere in the text this alien creature, this other version of Miranda, walks the corridors of the house.
The passage is striking not just because it combines the metaphors of splitting and doubling, but also that of hatching. Marina Warner comments that the latter "forms a potent subset in the transformational imagery of alchemy and of witchcraft", particularly because "eggs offer witches all kinds of sympathetic possibilities, including transport" (76). This is a striking visual, and particularly apt, considering the emergence of the goodlady from the discarded shell of Miranda's old form, marking a psychic transformation, the Caribbean zombie/vampire who arises to suck out the life-substance from the other living beings in the home.
The egg can also be seen as a metaphor for forbidden knowledge, such as the egg held by the bride protagonist of the fairytale Bluebeard, in which the egg and the key lead the brides to their doom (death by a bloodthirsty groom). In White Is for Witching, this metaphor, as connected to consumption and suppression, is reinforced by Miranda's descent through a trapdoor into a surreal scene of Otherworldly horror. I find it particularly enthralling that the suppression of the voices of four generations of women is so deftly connected to the act of consumption or withheld consumption in the following passage--Miranda's ancestors and parent all have padlocks on their mouths. The physical embodiment of both her phantom half and her ancestor within her speaks of generations of locked voices which occur within this novel.
They leaned forward, anticipating a meal. They were naked except for corsets laced so tightly that their desiccated bodices dipped in and out like parchment scrolls bound around the middle. They stared at Miranda in numb agony. Padlocks were placed over their parted mouths, boring through the top lip and closing at the bottom. Miranda could see their tongues writhing. "Who did this to them?" Miranda asked Lily, curling her arms around her mother's neck. Lily turned her head away. "I did," she said. She sounded proud. (126-27)
The women around the table are depicted as anticipating a meal that will never come, leaning forward, even if their mouths are locked--this image of powerlessness, of having power robbed from them, is coupled with an extraordinary visual of sexual fetishising, as represented by the Victorian image of the corsets. They are nude except for these corsets that are laced so tightly that their bodies, which are "desiccated"--a term that is striking because it is usually employed for food--resemble parchment. In the panoply of images that Oyeyemi has provided, the women are partaking in their own consumption and their bodies resemble mute parchments. It is a particularly striking indictment against silencing as related not just to the presence of the soucouyant, but also to the conditions that brought into being the supernatural horror of the house. I am primarily interested in the connection between these physical-yet-supernatural acts of silencing and the events of racial terrorism which occur as a result of a xenophobic house infused with the spirit of Miranda's xenophobic ancestor. The metaphors of split open oyster shells, nut kernels and even the hole in the lift (which is now invisible thanks to being covered) correspond with the padlocked mouths of Miranda's mother and her ancestors. They evoke repressed consumption which leads to eating disorders and madness: consuming one's own body and identity because one is unable to articulate, or act in accordance with one's desires.
The silencing occurs from within; this is a telling message about the connection between the suppression of the female voice and the way in which the influence of other females within a patriarchal framework can be insidious and damaging. I compare this act of suppression with the act of strangulation that Chabella inflicts upon her daughter, Maja. An inimical relationship between mother and daughter features in all three of Oyeyemi's novels, and may be seen in Jessamy's relationship with her mother in The Icarus Girl as well. This recalls the problematic relationship between mother and daughter that occurs within the Snow White fairytale type. Lily proudly announces that she is responsible for the silencing of her mother and grandmother, but the fact that both the house and the town of Dover are being haunted by the soucouyant makes this assertion questionable. However, there is a definite animosity between the generations of women that Oyeyemi foreshadows with the metaphor of Snow White and the recurring image of the apple. The prologue seems to suggest that an apple lodged deep within her throat is responsible for Miranda's death, and that this leads to her disappearance beneath the house. And the scene that follows is striking because it evokes the two-coloured apples, a familiar feature in different versions of the Snow White fairytale:
When she got home, all-season apples were heaped on one of the counters--the sheer number constituted a warning. Some kind of warning to her. The temperature in the kitchen felt well below zero and the apples were turned so that their white sides were hidden and their red sides glowed like false fire. (234)
The colour metaphors are striking in this tale, the starkness of the white contrasting with the juxtaposition of black in the psychomantium as well as in the metaphorical (and racialised) sense, and the red of blood or "false fire" (234). The connection between the apple and mirror metaphors within this story is significant, particularly because the mirror or psychomantium in Miranda's room is responsible for the silencing and disappearance of more than one protagonist. "In a psychomantium," Oyeyemi writes, "glass topples darkness. Things appear as they really are, people appear as they really are. Visions are called from a point inside the mirror, from a point inside the mind" (33). A psychomantium is not an ordinary mirror, it is a mirror used for scrying and for contacting the dead; it is the kind of mirror the Wicked Stepmother in Snow White would have used. This reinforces the Snow White allusion in this novel, and it is connected to the troubling message about consumption and how it leads to transgression. As with The Icarus Girl and Oyeyemi's early play, Juniper's Whitening, there is just one surviving twin, Eliot in White Is for Witching. However, he may have a sinister connection with the apples, because he baked them into a pie (237). "He meant something by the pie," Miranda muses. She feels that he meant to disable her or cure her--but we are not given any indication of whether he was the actual murderer or if Miranda was paranoid.
"Why did you use the winter apples?" she asked. He wouldn't come into the dark. "What are you talking about?" She beckoned him frantically, but he stayed where he was. "Why did you use the winter apples?" "Miri," he said. His eyes were wet. Or maybe not, it wasn't clear. The goodlady called to her. She should not have to go to trapdoor-room alone. (238)
There is a distinct sense of sibling betrayal as well as a competitive and uneasy relationship between the twins, as evidenced by her inner voice saying "no he's eliot eliot is me we were once one cell" (238). The dialectic of replacement between twins, that is so strongly reinforced in The Icarus Girl, reappears again in White Is for Witching. All the surviving (and sometimes supernatural) twins within Oyeyemi's texts are metaphors for the loss of identity, the disappearance or assimilation of the other half of the hybrid, who may be portrayed as grotesque and flawed. Even though Eliot awaits Miranda's return from the Underworld, she remains locked in a stasis between worlds, her disappearance so complete that not even a pair of shoes marks that she has walked out of the house. However, the story ends with a question mark, a more positive disappearance than the instances in Oyeyemi's Juniper's Whitening and The Icarus Girl. The metaphor of the Grecian Underworld is powerful. In the end, Miranda has descended not just to find herself or to find out who Miranda Silver is. Because she is more progressive than her predecessors, she descends also to save Ore and to win herself back from a legacy of manic xenophobia.
Oyeyemi has already established early on connections between food, trauma and unnatural instances of consumption. These are found in her early play, Juniper's Whitening, in which the male protagonist systematically feeds and nurtures the Beth/Juniper entity before murdering her/them. Although seemingly benign, Miranda's father performs the same function as the patriarchs in both Oyeyemi's and Adichie's texts. There are troubling domestic males in all of Oyeyemi's tales--men who are patriarchs, but who are, to a certain extent, passive aggressive despots. There is also still a connection between the patriarch and education. Miranda fights to ensure that her "hysteria" doesn't affect her education, but in the end it does. She has to take leave of absence from Cambridge and this coincides with her "disappearance".
Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House is categorised as literary fiction. However, a major component of the novel is speculative and steeped in the rich narrative tradition of Yoruba storytelling. I am primarily interested in the silencing that occurs within this text and how Oyeyemi utilises the supernatural Otherworld in order to speak to the problems of agency from the perspective of the outsider, the dialectical Other. The text consists of two overlapping stories: Maja and her mother Chabella in London and that of her "hysteric" counterpart Aya, in the "somewherehouse", a supernatural location that straddles both Lagos and London by sitting improbably in-between both locations. Similarly to Miranda in White Is for Witching, and Jessamy in The Icarus Girl, Maja is a protagonist with what may be termed "mental disorders". Oyeyemi begins her novel by "telling it slant", as Emily Dickinson puts it, bringing us to the house that exists in a supernatural otherworld:
Below is a basement pillared with stone. Spiders zigzag their gluey webs all over the chairs. The basement's back wall holds two doors. One door takes Yemaya straight out into London and the ragged hum of a city after dark. The other door opens out onto the striped flag and cooking-smell cheer of that tattered jester, Lagos--always, this door leads to a place that is floridly day. (1)
The Opposite House is a tale of diaspora, but also one of the alternate states of mind encountered by any person who lives between two worlds. Maja's family's migration from Cuba to London creates for her a difficulty with self-articulation.
When I remember, my accent is as firm and clean as I can make it; it bears unabbreviated sentences with all their rich vowels gutted out by a sharp tip of mindfulness. I speak like this because my parents--their voices smoothed to calm, placeless melody through academia--speak English like this.
And I speak like this because it is important that I am understood. In a country where ears are attuned to courteous, clipped white noise, being asked to repeat myself batters down the words in me, makes my tongue fall down in my throat. (22)
This struggle manifests psychosomatically in the form of her personal "hysteric" who, unknown to her, lives her own existence in another world, that of the "somewherehouse". On the other side of the wall, we are introduced to Aya of the somewherehouse--a limInal structure that straddles countries and realities. Yemaya Saramagua is introduced as a child "with wise eyes" (1) but the figure of Yemaya is also an important component of the Yoruba religion (26).
Aya overflows with ache, or power. When the accent is taken off it, ache describes, in English, bone-deep pain. But otherwise ache is blood ... fleeing and returning ... red momentum. Ache is, ache is is is, kin to fear--a frayed pause near the end of a thread where the cloth matters too much to fail. The kind of need that takes you across water on nothing but bare feet. Ache is energy, damage, it is constant, in Aya's mind all the time. She was born that way--powerful, half mad, but quiet about it. (3)
Ache, as a word, is depicted in a synesthetic way in the above excerpt; for instance, the colour red is connected with blood and the human body. Menstrual blood is referred to as blood that is forever fleeing and returning, so this ache is connected with the menstrual cycle, and traditional notions of female hysteria. This ache or power is later transcribed as Maja's hysteric, one that leads her to strange disorders, complicating her relationship with her family and her partner. Maja muses about her personal hysteric, that perhaps it is "the revelation that we refuse to be consoled for all this noise, for all this noise, for the attacks on our softnesses" (35), that somehow this inconsolable ontological instability leads to the creation of different beings and different supernatural universes. It is not a new metaphorical landscape for Oyeyemi; she has been revisiting it since her early plays, and in all of her novels. Maja muses that "[s]ometimes we cannot see or hear or breathe because of our fright that this is all our bodies will know" (35), leading the reader into that intimate, claustrophobic borderland between madness and vision. The connection between Maja's hysteric and her physical disorders is encrypted within metaphors of consumption, the vocal chords and the biological rhythms of the female body.
Maja's mother Chabella is a santero, a woman who practices the Santeria religion of Cuba, which is based on the syncretic belief in orishas as well as the Catholic faith (23). This causes problems in the family home--Maja's father does not share the same beliefs (23) and ends up destroying his wife's altar. Despite this, both his wife and daughter share an interest in mysticism, which manifests in a shared supernatural Otherworld. The hidden gods, who have been brought over from Yorubaland via the slave-ships to Cuba, become a reality in Oyeyemi's text, beyond the destroyed altars of Chabella and the silencing of her daughter. Within the somewherehouse, the great myths of Greece and Yorubaland combine, as Mama Proserpine shares an inimical relationship with Aya. This is at the heart of the problematic agency in Oyeyemi's texts. Chabella is a spiritual woman but she contributes in a large way to Maja's silencing. This silencing is caused by an acute manifestation of the uncanny due to the fear and dislocation experienced by both Maja and her mother after being transplanted from Cuba to London. Silencing as a result of the uncanny may be discerned in the following scene, which is central in the conflict between Maja and her mother. They witness the rape of a girl and Maja wants to report it:
"So what if your English is bad?" I said. "I'll talk to them." Mami kissed my forehead, her arms dropped down around me; I stiffened because she was laughing and crying at once and I didn't know what it meant. Her hands clasped around my throat and when I looked into her eyes I couldn't find her. Instead I saw something inky and strange rising. I said, "Mami?" She was hurting me. (149)
Chabella strangles her daughter to silence her, a traumatic incident similar to the struggle between the chilling Mama Proserpine and Aya in the somewherehouse. Maja comments that the incident was the first time she "learnt that I needed to protect my throat, my voice, because that was where my hands went first, to the circling pain" (149). The physical act of choking to suppress voicing and agency becomes connected to the psychosomatic feeling of being choked later in Maja's life. This is made even more significant when the reader realises that Maja is a singer by profession.
Chabella is a complicated and fascinating woman, appearing at once monstrous and sympathetic in Maja's vision. She is identifiable in many ways with the "bad woman" who shows up in Aya's Otherworld, and with Mama Proserpine. Her fear of not possessing the words to protect her daughter leads to her strangling her. She takes up the lineaments of the soucouyant in her daughter's mind. The act of splitting is evident in The Opposite House--the creation of bifurcated realities, and of supernatural women who walk in-between worlds, epitomises monstrousness. The relationship between Maja and Chabella is fraught and problematic but, in a sense, they still remain allies, as outsiders and as mystical women on the fringes of patriarchy who cradle a holy madness.
Chabella was brave because she didn't have a plan. She isn't a storm or a leader or a king or a war or anything or anyone whose life and death makes noise. All she knew was that the words she loved were not all. There is skin, yes. And then, inside that, there is your language, the casual, inherited magic spells that make your skin real. It's too late now--even if we could say "Shut up" or "Where's my dinner?" in the first language, the real language, the words weren't born in us. And unless your skin and your language touch each other without interruption, there is no word that is strong enough to make you understand that it matters that you live. The things that really say "stay" are an Orisha, a kind night, a pretended boy, a garden song that made no sense. Those come closer to being enough. (185)
Oyeyemi's protagonist understands that voicing is not enough for the woman who straddles worlds. She depicts the ontological divide between cultures in the creation of the world of the somewherehouse, where the Orishas laugh, dream, fight, struggle and sleep. In the divide between their world and the physical, everyday world of the protagonists, female Yoruba archetypes syncretise with Greek, Russian and Catholic archetypes, creating a unique, hybrid voice, even if the resulting elision between cultures creates Gelassenheit, the longing to surrender to a holy madness, within the two female characters. This haunting elegy for that state between realities becomes transcribed into what is known as madness. In this manner Oyeyemi again transgresses ideas of voicing and silencing, by showing poignantly how some truths can never be fully articulated in the borderlands of culture.
A constriction of the vocal cords and the commodification of truth
The trope of silencing pervades Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fiction; the choking sensation of not being able to articulate loss is very present within Purple Hibiscus and in some of the short stories in The Thing around Your Neck. Lily Mabura argues that Adichie tends to "tease out the peculiarities of the Postcolonial Gothic in continental Africa" by dissecting "fraught African psyches" and reclaiming her Igbo heritage in a Gothic manner (206). However, the elements of the Gothic may also be found in the contrast between gendered domains in Adichie's text, and in her narratives of Nigerians abroad, as may be seen in the title story of The Thing around Your Neck. The struggle for articulation is connected to a Gothic haunting. For instance, there is a direct connection between Punter's "gothic revenant" and the struggle for articulation, which is further compounded by the liminal dissonances experienced by the hybrid postcolonial writer. My argument is that the struggle is connected to the overlapping states and currents of cultural expectation. In Purple Hibiscus, this struggle not to articulate is particularly poignant as it connects the reader to the alphabet of abuse. This is evident when every disclosure or revelation that is outside of the complicated system of what is allowed or not allowed by Kambili's father, Eugene, meets with either physical or psychological abuse. This very effective method of silencing makes it difficult for Kambili to articulate herself; she disappears within the dissonance of an internal historicity which works like a loop, bringing the reader from the present to the past, at the moment when "Things Fall Apart". The issue of silencing and truth is found very strongly within the trio of stories that deal with this subject: "The Thing around Your Neck", the title story of the anthology, "Tomorrow Is Too Far" and "Jumping Monkey Hill".
All three of the protagonists in the stories in Adichie's The Thing around Your Neck are expected to portray their lived experience in Nigeria and America within certain parameters. In "Jumping Monkey Hill", Ujunwa, a young Nigerian writer, is invited to a writers' workshop in South Africa, known as Jumping Monkey Hill. She finds that the workshop is run by a writer and scholar who pigeonholes writers from different parts of Africa and expects them to write only certain things about their nation. Ujunwa masks her stark reality as fiction, a truth that speaks of her own experience as the victim of sexual harassment and prejudice. Akunna seeks authenticity in America, which in itself complicates the process of voicing. Authenticity is used as a weapon of commodification, which ends up silencing the female narrators/protagonists of the three short stories. Akunna arrives only to encounter the haunting loss of identity found in-between different cultural constructs, a condition which creates the "thing" around her "neck".
In "The American Embassy", the third woman seeks political asylum in America. Her son has been killed by the henchmen sent by the ruling party to kill her husband, a whistle-blowing journalist who uncovers details about a corrupt government. When she tries to emigrate, the words to describe to the officer who deals with her case the extreme tragedy that has befallen her will not come easily into her mouth. This protagonist does not want to cheapen her story under the external and clinical gaze of the immigration officer by presenting sensationalised details and facts. She chooses instead to walk out of the Embassy. She does not get her visa, and the tension within the tale reflects how difficult the experience of living in a postcolonial country can be. All three stories come after each other in the anthology, a significant grouping, particularly since all three women are writers in different stages of development. All three are effectively silenced by their roles, either as mother, girlfriend or single woman--the words they choose might contribute either to the stereotyping of themselves or of their cultures.
Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi says that the issue of speech or agency is complicated by the pressures and expectations placed upon African women writers. In African Wo/Man Palava, Ogunyemi mediates the gap between Eurocentric feminism and African womanism, reaching into Igbo and Yoruba ontologies to re-frame Nigerian womanist discourse within the idea of the "palava". Ogunyemi notes that although "often restrained and tentative, women's texts contain political innuendoes, as well as criticism of failure in the domestic and public domains" (5). She argues that, for the Nigerian woman writer, the "palava" moves beyond feminism to African womanism: "their perspective encompasses all oppressed people, men included; as a human problem" (5), and further asserts that the "Nigerian dilemma must be resolved by the collaborative effects of men and women" (5-6).
While this feeling of communal responsibility may be seen in all three of Adichie's short stories, the notion of "palava" is riven with complexities for the third generation Nigerian woman writer who writes back to the canon from the outside. In "The Thing around Your Neck", Akunna is a young Igbo woman who migrated from Nigeria to Connecticut in search of a better life. The narrative is presented in the second person, a choice which makes the story more immediate, placing the reader in the shoes of the interlocutor.
You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don't buy a gun like those Americans. (115)
Akunna's hopes are soon dashed and she does not stay long in her uncle's house in Connecticut, preferring to work and find her way. The narration is stark and Akunna's living situation in Connecticut is full of hardship, with the uncanny waiting to strike at her at every turn. She fights to eke out a living and to improve her situation in life. In doing so, she has to work against multiple layers of prejudice and objectification. It is a difficult and lonely existence in which Akunna's speech is swallowed by the silence of shame and disappointment. Adichie uses evocative language in unveiling this un-voicing and the feeling of acute invisibility:
Nobody knows where you were, because you told no one. Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arms. Once, Juan asked if you had a man that hit you because he would take care of him and you laughed a mysterious laugh. At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep. (119)
The neck is where the larynx is located. This is the area that determines how much air enters the lungs. The un-voicing occurs both internally and externally because some truths are too alien to be shared. She resents the privileged and spoiled life of her American boyfriend, who wishes to visit the "shantytowns" of Nigeria to find the "real people". The thing that wraps itself around the narrator's neck is a restraining of the vocal chords, a poignant and symbolic un-voicing and removal of power. Trinh T. Minh-ha writes about this unique dichotomy between voicing and silencing which occurs when a woman from a nation designated as the "third world" speaks:
In trying to tell something, a woman is told, shredding herself into opaque words while her voice dissolves on the walls of silence. Writing: a commitment of language. The web of her gestures, like all modes of writing, denotes a historical solidarity (on the understanding that her story remains inseparable from history). She has been warned of the risk she incurs by letting words run off the rails, time and again tempted by the desire to gear herself to the accepted norms. (80)
The risk and the un-voicing that Trinh so poignantly captures--that of one's voice and self disappearing In the act of re-telling an experience--is at the heart of the struggle of not just the Nigerian woman writer, transacting in what Ogunyemi calls the wo/man palava, but also that of postcolonial women everywhere, writing in-between cultures. In re-telling her experience, she commits a different kind of act of consumption, one related to commodification. In contributing to the inevitable commodification of her culture by the West, she is again silenced.
However, this does not mean that Nigerian women do not have an agency, even if that agency is complicated by the liminal disruptions that happen in-between; these disruptions create and further complicate the effect of un-voicing. Ogunyemi argues that "Nigerian women have always had a stand, though beset by numerous oppositions set up within and without. Indeed, they are not standing still, but are already on the course, participating in the discourse without waiting for a formal invitation" (7). The moment in which Adichie's narrators decide to stand up, in either a gesture of speech or silence, is pivotal in all three stories. In "The Thing around Your Neck", Akunna finally fights back against her boyfriend's objectification which was masked behind a deep interest in West African culture. This is also the moment when the thing around her neck symbolically loosens:
He said he really wanted to see Nigeria and he could pay for you both to go. You did not want him to pay for you to visit home. You did not want him to go to Nigeria, to add it to the list of countries where he went to gawk at the lives of poor people who could never gawk back at his life. (....) The two of you argued, your voices raised as you walked along the calm water. He said you were wrong to call him self-righteous. You said he was wrong to call only the poor Indians in Bombay the real Indians. Did it mean he wasn't a real American since he was not like the poor fat people you and he had seen in Hartford? (126)
In the above passage, Akunna situates herself against what she perceives as her boyfriend's privileged American background. She stands in solidarity not just with her fellow Nigerian women, but also with other postcolonial nations whose experiences are collectively commodified by people such as her boyfriend. In this moment, Akunna leaps into her own; in so doing, she participates in the discursive space at the heart of Ogunyemi's "palava', a circle in which both male and female speak. When Akunna argues, she fights for both the Nigerian man and woman, notably her father who lies on the other side of the privileged scale. The narrator has to fight against both internal and external presuppositions in explaining the complexities of life in a nation designated as "third world".
Trinh accurately places and interrogates the presupposition as the myth of "authenticity" (88). She notes that the idea of the authentic and "unspoiled African, Asian or Native American" is actually a product (88). It represents a commodification of culture that has nothing to do with the conditions of life within or without the liminal spaces of the in-between. In "Jumping Monkey Hill", Adichie encapsulates this resistance towards prescribed discourse spaces. By situating the writer's workshop in a luxurious resort in South Africa, Adichie heightens the disparity between the organiser and the attendees from the different African nations, all of whom have come to learn to be better writers.
The name itself was incongruous, and the resort had the complacence of the well-fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa. (95)
By placing the incongruous name and location first, Adichie turns our gaze to the tableau of the young writers from various parts of Africa, hand-picked for the workshop and required to write with authenticity about their home countries. There is a white South African woman, a black South African man, a Tanzanian man, a Ugandan man, a Zimbabwean woman, a Kenyan man, a Senegalese woman and Ujunwa from Nigeria. All of them assess one another as well as Edward; they remain wary about their location and are ironic about the manner in which the workshop is being run.
Matters come to a head when the stories begin to be written and start to be assessed. Edward, assertive in his passion for African literature, first tells the Zimbabwean writer that his story is passe, the "writing was certainly ambitious, but the story itself begged the quest-ion 'So what?' There was something terribly passe about it when one considered all the other things happening in Zimbabwe under the horrible Mugabe" (107). Ujunwa is incredulous and outraged at this trivialising and pigeonholing of the stories by her fellow writers. She later challenges Edward when he says that the story by the Senegalese writer is not African enough because it is about homosexuality. She blurts out, "Which Africa?" (108). In so doing, Ujunwa articulates her discontent at the pigeonholing which creates tensions in the borderlands where writers from African nations must write, not just to represent Africa for themselves, but for the external gaze. This commodification is what Trinh so succinctly encapsulates and which links back to Ogunyemi's wo/man palava. Again, Ujunwa, in speaking up, speaks not just for herself, but in the true spirit of solidarity for her fellow Africans, both male and female. When Edward argues with her, saying that it is not African for a protagonist to tell her family she is homosexual the Senegalese woman speaks up.
The Senegalese burst out in incomprehensible French and then, a minute of fluid speech later, said "I am Senegalese! I am Senegalese!" Edward responded in equally swift French and then said in English, with a soft smile, "I think she had too much of that excellent Bordeaux," and some of the participants chuckled. (109)
What is significant about this passage is the way in which it reflects the new colonisation imposed upon African and postcolonial nations by the commodification of expectations. Trinh has engaged with this issue:
planned authenticity is rife, as a product of hegemony and a remarkable counterpart of universal standardization, it constitutes an efficacious means of silencing the cry of racial oppression. We no longer wish you to erase your difference, we demand, on the contrary, that you remember and assert it. (89)
Silencing is evident in the way in which Edward uses French and Francophone culture as a method of subdueing the non-heteronormative Senegalese woman, demonstrating a dominant discourse stifling the strident voice of the Other. Edward manipulates the situation by defusing her in French and by telling the others that she is inebriated. He effectively un-voices the Senegalese woman--in doing so, he makes her out to be ineffectual as a valid African. It is clear that Edward has no interest in the actual stories being told by the participants of the workshop. He is listening only to how the stories fit within his idea of what African literature should represent. Finally, it is Ujunwa's turn to narrate her story. Her protagonist is a young, literary female who is subdued and silenced by her need for a job; she is expected to provide sexual favours in return for a business contract with a rich man, an alhaji. Ujunwa starts narrating the story without much confidence, but in the end, it becomes her closing gambit against Edward. Edward claims the story is not plausible, protesting that, "this is agenda writing, it isn't a real story of real people" (113). Ujunwa speaks up then, determined to have the last word, refusing to let her life truth be silenced by this external gaze with its presuppositions.
"A real story of real people?" she said, with her eyes on Edward's face. "The only thing I didn't add in the story is that after I left my coworker and walked out of the alhaji's house, I got into the Jeep and insisted that the driver take me home because I knew it was the last time I would be riding in it." (113)
These closing words defy the expectations not just of Edward, but that of the reader of the text. Ujunwa issues a direct challenge to the external gaze with its/our expectations of how a Nigerian writer should portray life in Nigeria.
In all three of the stories mentioned, Adichie places the female writer against the interrogative gaze of the external, hegemonic interlocutor, judging her and how she should act and behave within the prescribed boundaries of culture, within the borderlands created by the shifting and restructuring of boundaries. This is made explicitly clear in "The American Embassy" where the protagonist is at the mercy of not just the government, but also the actions of her husband, and the western world. "The American Embassy" starts out in a stark and simple manner. The protagonist is in a queue outside the American embassy with everyone else, seeking a visa. She is actually seeking political asylum, because her husband, a famous journalist and newspaper editor, has fled the country, and her son has been murdered by the henchmen of a corrupt government. She turns back again and again to the moment in which her son, Ugonna, was killed. She has been coached as to what she should tell the immigration officer:
Don't falter as you answer the questions, the voices had said. Tell them all about Ugonna, what he was like, but don't overdo it, because every day people lie to them to get asylum visas, about dead relatives that were never ever born. Make Ugonna real. Cry, but don't cry too much. (135)
In this manner, truth becomes a necessary commodity, a means by which the protagonist must package her trauma so that she can buy her escape. Like the other two characters of Adichie in the stories under discussion in this article, Akunna and Ujunwa, the protagonist of "The American Embassy" is also a writer, a journalist herself, an author for whom truth is a necessary currency. Despite, or because of this, she is taciturn when dealing with questions. She chooses not to mention to her main interlocutor, a man who is waiting in the queue with her, that her husband, a whistle-blowing journalist who speaks out against General Abacha's government, was considered a hero by the international community. This causes him to judge her, thinking her to be a government sympathiser.
In different circumstances, she might have told him of her own journalism, starting from university in Zaria, when she had organized a rally to protest General Buhari's government's decision to cut student subsidies. (136)
Instead, the protagonist remains silent and within her silence is her own condemnation of her husband. "It is not bravery," she thinks to herself, "it was simply an exaggerated selfishness" (126). With these words, the protagonist blames her husband for her son's death. Adichie situates Ujunwa as a wife who harbours a silent condemnation of her husband's bravery, since it has resulted in the death of her child.
In so doing, Adichie unveils the complicated relationship between male and female writers who operate under different imperatives--the writer as a mother is required to give up that autonomy of voicing, while her husband, the journalist, pushes on with his newspaper crusade. The responsibilities faced by the protagonist as a mother fit within the silent and subtle rebellion by women about which Ogunyemi writes. This may be seen in the protagonist's resolution in the following passage:
she realized she would die gladly at the hands of the man in the black hooded shirt or the one with the shiny bald head before she said a word about Ugonna to this interviewer, or to anybody at the American embassy. Before she hawked Ugonna for a visa to safety. (139)
When the interviewer keeps probing for more facts, more "proof", Ujunwa finds that the only way in which she can remain true to her beliefs, and to her own pain, is by keeping silent. In this haunting message of silence which accompanies our protagonist as she walks out of "The American Embassy", Adichie concludes this triad of stories which speak very strongly about both truth and silence. The voice of the external interlocutor remains unanswered; it belongs to the "face of a person who did not understand her, who probably did not cook with palm oil, or know that palm oil when fresh was a bright, bright red and when not fresh, congealed to a lumpy orange" (121).
In ending "The American Embassy" thus, Adichie heightens the incongruity between lived experience and the narrating of that experience, a sometimes irreconcilable haunting discussed by both Ogunyemi and Trinh. In a world with ever-shifting borders and populations that grow more hybrid and more fraught with the problems of identity politics, more and more postcolonial women writers find themselves writing from the frontiers, negotiating the bonds of cultural allegiance and self-autonomy. Sometimes they succeed in bringing across the message; at others, at the overlap of frontiers that represents truth and the narration of it, the writer's only recourse is to make a stand by refusing to be commodified. This is effectively and tragically portrayed in "The American Embassy". Adichie releases the binds around Akunna's neck but then explains why silence still wraps itself around the neck of the final protagonist, a sad but fitting end to the triad of tales within the other tales in The Thing around Your Neck.
Strange compulsions and splitting as the site of suppression
Gothic writings are often said to be the site of excess, while writings that are connected to the female body are said to contain monstrosities. In Gothic Pathologies, David Punter talks about the function of the "Law" against which Gothic texts react (44). He describes the "process of textualisation as a process of contamination" against the law which acts as a "guardian against encroachment by the night" (44). What Punter refers to as the "law", I refer to as authority from a hybrid, postcolonial context. The "night" that Punter writes about serves as a host for all manner of spectres, perverse desires and monstrosities--it is linked to darkness, and all things hidden and marginalised. The dark space of the Gothic takes on an added edge for the culturally and racially marginalised. In discussing the Caribbean Gothic, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert writes that "racial tension", which involves miscegenation, along with "interracial desire, has been an element of the Gothic" since its early days (241). Paravisini-Gerbert makes this further observation:
In an environment where racial differences have had profound social, political, and economic repercussions, they acquire greater meaning and significance, becoming yet another element through which the Gothic enters into the critique of colonialism. (241)
While this may be true for texts that were written during the period of colonialism, there are other ways in which the Gothic text changes and evolves in accordance to each movement or Gothic sub-genre. For Oyeyemi and Adichie, the issue of authority is far more complex; while concerns about the traumatic impact of colonialism are still ongoing, authority now has many heads. A gendered, Gothic reading of these texts must also take into account the forces of imperialism and patriarchy. It must take into account the various mechanisms that still act as authority or the law which seeks to suppress all that seems strident, perverse, loud, and misshapen.
The monstrous text is connected to the hybrid individual. As Punter observes, the law cannot permit "the exceptional body; before the law, therefore, there cannot be monsters" (44). As I have previously argued, the hybrid may be read as a monster; the hybrid text is a monstrous organism with an ambiguous heritage and identity. When the text becomes the site for a postcolonial feminist Gothic treatment, excess signifies expression or the suppression of that expression. Punter writes about that conflict and suppression of the body by the law within the context of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and he links the "disavowal of the body" to the "intellectual suppression of the passions" (49). This "disavowal of the body" can be found in Miranda's actions in White Is for Witching, as well as in Kambili's retreat into her mind in Purple Hibiscus. In both cases, the protagonists are daughters upon whom their household patriarchs encroach. These fathers function as the law, or as authority. The "monstrosity" created by heroines who consume themselves, or have strange disorders, is juxtaposed against this patriarchal authority. Like Prospero colonising an island with unseen hosts, the patriarchs of Gothic novels colonise the enclosures of a home which is synonymous with the female body, her passions and disorders. These passions, which are read by authority as monstrosity or transgression, engender covert strategies to undermine this authority.
The commodification of experience and truth
I have connected, in this article, the struggle for articulation and agency with the physiological and supernatural manifestations of this struggle in the texts of Adichie and Oyeyemi. I note how the struggle reflects, and is affected by the difficulties of male and female relationships within a postcolonial and contemporary framework. I observe that sometimes the silences are pregnant with a refusal to commodify truth. In this manner both writers subvert and transgress the usual paradigms of voicing and silencing connected to memory and the problematic of identity. It is axiomatic that memory is subjective and can betray even the possessor of this memory. This is even more so when the memory is associated with the site of trauma or terror. In all of the texts under discussion, there are instances of hidden or overt trauma which I have connected to either choking or the perverse permutations of consumption.
The texts contain excess and negation, self-starvation as well as a supernatural gorging of both the spirit and body of others, as may be seen in the soucouyant. There is self-inflicted silencing, another example of perversity and self-destruction as a manifestation of the revolt against commodification, as may be seen in "The American Embassy". In this manner, the aftermath of trauma can and should be linked to the postcolonial Gothic text--but it is also important to consider the role of commodification in these processes. Patricia Yaeger writes a sobering article about the consumption of trauma, in which she implicates academic readers and writers who, in the act of memorialising loss or "the dead", may also be guilty of "eating, swallowing, perusing, consuming, exchanging, circulating" (29). Yaeger also implicates herself, observing that, "We are obsessed with stories that must be passed on, that must not be passed over" (29). Yaeger's dilemma is an authentic one--do we, by remaining silent, further add to the silencing of the dead and the marginalised, or do we speak, and by doing so, commodify those acts of articulation? Yaeger asks, "Can one write and remain in the unpleasure of death? A question terminable and interminable" (48). This question haunts this article. For instance, it may be argued that the expression and examination of perversity or acts of problematic consumption are in themselves acts of spurious and perverse pleasure. At what point, then, should both the writer and the critic stop?
Commodification, within the context of the narration of experience and its literary manifestations, encompasses the desire to consume or be swept away by the marginalised, hybrid, postcolonial experience, and it fuels the publishing and sale of literary fiction by writers of colour from postcolonial nations, who must yet write within the economic forces that drive the publishing and literary industry. Adichie makes note of this with savage irony in "Jumping Monkey Hill", in which the experience of being a Nigerian woman is dictated to her protagonist. In "The American Embassy", her protagonist chooses silence and persecution rather than migration, refusing to "sell" her trauma to the waiting migration officer. Oyeyemi's protagonists, on the other hand, struggle to speak against the myriad forces that limit in strange ways their autonomy and right to self-expression--for instance, Maja's choices in life are informed by that singular act of being strangled by her mother in order to silence her. In The Opposite House, language becomes a strangling cord--Maja's Cuban accent sets her apart from the non-immigrant population of London. In both Adichie's and Oyeyemi's writings, the reader is confronted with complexity and hybridity. The protagonists are complex, their experiences are private and complicated by psychological or supernatural imagery and manifestations. The expression of their experience therefore may not necessarily be evident in what they say, but, rather, in their actions and in the choices they make. Transgression and perversity in these texts are not merely about self-gratification or mental dysfunction. They exist as a testament to self-determination against the odds imposed by competing dominant discourses.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003.
--. The Thing around Your Neck. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Includes the stories "The Thing around Your Neck", "Jumping Monkey Hill" and "The American Embassy".
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(25) Miranda's journey through the trapdoor to a hidden banquet hall is reminiscent of the journey undertaken by the protagonist of the fairytale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, in which a soldier has to find out why the daughters of a king had worn out dancing slippers every morning when they were locked in every night. The descent into a hidden underworld is a motif that runs across Oyeyemi's first three novels.
(26) Yemaya is the Orisha of the sea and is important to the Yoruba diaspora in the Caribbean and in Brazil. Oyeyemi evokes the ultimate feminine archetype with her fictional embodiment of both the Orisha Yemaya and her human counterpart, Maja. (Yemanja is the Caribbean variant of the Orisha Yemaya.)
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|Author:||Satkunananthan, Anita Harris|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2011|
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