The divided mind: new perspectives on colonial representations in Isabela Figueiredo's Caderno de Memorias Coloniais.
I use the term double consciousness to refer to a split within the protagonist, who is conflicted between being faithful to her Portuguese roots and (re)telling the truth about the colonization of Mozambique. (3) This question of truthfulness is explored in relation to the literary genre of the book, which puts at stake emotional and political implications for the understanding of history. This paper's main goals are to contribute to the deconstruction of the links between identity, nation and citizenship in a postcolonial context, and to provoke awareness of the validity of different versions of history that are created by social regimes of remembering and forgetting.
Caderno de Memorias Coloniais is a first person account of Figueiredo's recollections of life in colonial Mozambique under the Portuguese dictatorship. The writer, born to Portuguese parents in Maputo (former Lourenco Marques) in 1963, moved to Lisbon in 1975 as one of many returnees who fled to Portugal following the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974. Being too young to participate in colonial oppression, instead the author acts as witness. She crudely describes and interprets the everyday life in the former colony, the atrocities of the colonial war, the massacres that plagued the regime's collapse and the aftermath of the traumatic decolonization process of the former colony.
I find the adjective transcultural appropriate to describe how the Mozambican and Portuguese cultures cohabitate within the mind of the narrator. The term transculturation was coined by Fernando Ortiz to refer to "[...] the turbulent and unpredictable process resulting from the interaction among cultures in contact [...] which potentiates, in spite of unequal power relations, the emergence of new cultural forms" (qtd. in Cheadle and Pelletier xi). More recently, Roland Walter defines transculturation as "a critical paradigm enabling us to trace the ways that transmission occurs within and between different cultures" (idem 27). I argue that the narrator is in this contact zone, occupying the position of mediator between the two cultures. This in-betweenness is visible in many ways. She lies between two homelands: Portugal, the land of her inherited roots and country of citizenship but which she does not see until she is nearly thirteenth, and Mozambique, the place of her birth and childhood, but, lacking a natural claim to the land, a place to which she never fully belongs. When describing her last images of Maputo before taking the plane to Portugal, the narrator says: "I wouldn't return to that place, which, being my land, did not belong to me" (Figueiredo 87). In another passage, referring to the adult moment when she wrote those words, the storyteller states: "I am here, but I'm still there. In fact, I can only speak using the words border, transition, stained, dual formed therein" (107). This double standard is also perceptible in her overlapped feelings for her dead father: "When we love and we are violated at the same time, and we cannot escape, we deal from the same distance with love and hate" (117). Furthermore, this split is the result of a (then) young girl's inability to understand the unequal power relations at work in the former colony based on socially constructed distance of races. Her curiosity of the black children, and desire to join them in play could not be pursued because they lived in separate worlds: "Life in the colony was impossible. One was either colonizer or colonized, we could not be anything intermediate [...] without a price of madness on the horizon" (104). This consciousness of the self and the other disturbs her identity.
To write is then a way of redeeming herself before the facts that she witnessed as a girl. Despite distancing her present-self from the colonial community of her youth, the narrator cannot escape shared guilt for colonial domination. Although she was just a child, she writes, "I say us (emphasis added) because I was there too" (23). Narrative oscillation between first and third person reveals this difficulty in positioning herself. Feelings of shame directed at the colonizers are shown through ironic depiction of their crude and xenophobic attitudes: "White women were serious. [...] White men used to go into the reeds and paid beer, tobacco, or sarongs to whoever black woman they picked. Them wanting or not. After, they buttoned back their flies and disappeared to their honest homes" (14).
Figueiredo feels the need to personally engage with the telling of her story, choosing an intimate style that lies between the different confidential genres of autobiography, memoir, and diary. Through this personal and--supposedly--veridical account, she frees herself from the haunting guilt. She reveals in an interview that Caderno de Memorias Coloniais represented to her a commitment to the truth: "I could not conceal it inside me anymore. [...] I know this is the truth, and my awareness of this fact is enough for me" (Ipsilon 2009). However, the accuracy in depicting the events is certainly questionable. First, the temporal and spatial lines that separate the author from the facts she claims to have witnessed draws attention to questions of memory. Confusions, memory lapses, and distortions produced over time are intentionally played with by the narrator: "Which one of these scenes is the real one? [...] I prefer the second scenario. Maybe both have happened. Temporal coherence, at a distance, gets lost. [...] But one thing is for sure: it happened (76)". The recovery of past events requires an exercise of remembering that is always condemned to imperfection. Second, the traumatic nature of such events witnessed by a child complicates veracity: "The heads of the whites that rolled on the ground were losing face, skin, eyes and brains, and what was left of dented flesh and broken jaws" (79).
Linda Anderson asserts that "memory is also about the instability of memory in the face of shock" (101). In any case, "the memory allows the past reality to be reflected upon and its specific social configuration to come into view" (112). Caruth draws attention to the implications of trauma in historical representation when she states that "trauma poses the problem of an inability to witness historical events except 'at the cost of witnessing oneself'." (qtd. in Anderson 128). However, she adds that this fact does not intercept "the possibility of a 'transmissible truth" (129), which makes the narration always pertinent. In addition to the mediation of time, space and traumatic memory, we should add that the autobiographical account reflects subjectivity through writing about oneself, which often overlaps object and subject and complicates representation.
The question of truthfulness can be further examined through the analysis of the genre of the book in its relation to certain paratextual elements. The contract established with the reader in the title promises a notebook of recollections situated within a bounded historical period. Christine Etherington-Wright writes that "[a]ll titles, however innocent, influence the reader" (205). In fact, the unpretentious word notebook contrasts with the seriousness associated with colonial memories. A publisher's note in the back cover labels it an "unparalleled book in our (emphasis added) autobiographical literature". This comment identifies the audience and establishes the genre: autobiography. By definition, the autobiography "offer[s] a special kind of biographical truth: a life, reshaped by recollection, with all of recollection's conscious and unconscious omissions and distortions" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012). These distortions and omissions point to the autobiography's special relationship to truth telling, which Linda Anderson describes in these terms: "autobiographies produce fictions" (13). But she also adds that "autobiography becomes both a way of testifying to oppression and empowering the subjects through their cultural inscription and recognition" (104). I claim that history can indeed be revealed through fictional writing.
This is problematized by Figueiredo's chosen epigraphs. The first of them is taken from Paul Auster's memoir The Invention of Solitude. In this excerpt, Auster discusses the emotional effects of invading his father's privacy, feeling like an intruder revealing his father's mind. Conversely, throughout Figueiredo's book the narrator's father is blamed for being the personification of colonialism. The Auster epigraph works to justify any betrayal the book might represent. Ironically enough, the book is also dedicated to the memory of her father, which may function as a cathartic release of a burden from the past. The second epigraph is an excerpt from Primo Levi's I sommersi e i salvati, in which the Italian writer reflects on the distortion effects time has on human memory. Levi's words remind us of the fictional nature of a literature that participates in historical discourse, which is the product of natural distortions that arise as a result of different mediatory processes. Hence the concept of a complete and unique truth is not reachable, but representations of personal "truths" can subvert historical canons of knowledge, opening up the possibility of accessing different versions of history.
The goal of this discussion is to show how the genre of "autobiography", the label offered by the paratext of the book, becomes problematic when applied to Caderno de Memorias Coloniais because it foregrounds the tension that exists between the political and historical effects that the question of truth may provoke. This is illustrated by the last paratextual element to be discussed: the photographs that appear not only on the cover, but also accompany the text. Etherington-Wright draws attention to the importance of pictures accompanying autobiographies when she says that "[p]hotography, placed in conjunction with autobiographical texts, helps us to unpack [...] identities and the notion of 'self'" (107). These real photographs from the author's childhood albums show her as a blond child, often dressed in white and smiling at the pictures. They give off an air of happy childhood innocence but are uncannily placed next to accounts of crude racism and sexual abuse. As Etherington-Wright explains, "as a part of the autobiographical narrative, these images are allied to notions of personal identity and consciousness contained in the body of the text" (107). They function as evidence of "truth" because they are real pictures, while lending credibility to the described events. They are thus, on the one hand, spaces of interpretation, persuading and manipulating the reader, and on the other, proof of an irretrievable childhood tarnished by painful events. When combined with what the reader knows of the text they suggest absence and nostalgia.
This sense of nostalgia is deeply connected with (and displayed by) the transcultural and liminal position the narrator adopts, where the impossibility of belonging creates a double consciousness. The narrator lies both inside and outside cultural borders, plotting her identity within that fluid, transnational and transcultural space. She is between nations and identities: she is Portuguese, but born in Mozambique; she imagines Portugal, her homeland of origin, but once she 'returns' is shocked and disappointed because she does not recognize it; and, in her birthplace, her 'real' homeland, she cannot claim to be Mozambican, lacking both citizenship and knowledge of the locals, which is filtered by an outside regime.
Benedict Anderson explains how memory is constructed by the imperial power in colonial relationships: "the imperial metropole disposed of formidable bureaucratic and ideological apparatuses, which permitted them for many centuries to impose their will" (189). This collective memory promotes the creation of an imaginary homeland to which an individual is rooted. Language is one bond that connects colonizers from the metropolis and the colony, working as an identity framework for the construction of imagined communities. For Anderson, language acts as private property (84). In Figueiredo's book, Portuguese language is a privilege of the whites and works, naturally, as a tool for colonial power. Contrariwise, the local onomastics and toponymy are looked down upon: "My cousin was born in Lourenco Marques and never uttered the very difficult three syllables of the word Maputo. Mapu-to. The five of Lourenco Marques flowed liquid. Very white" (65). For the narrator, the disappearance of the name of the city where she was born, with the fall of the regime, establishes instead an impossible return and localizes the homeland within a mythic space: "Lourenco Marques was left behind, so tender, so ripe" (106). Renaming a place is usually connoted with a recovery of identity, but for the protagonist it represents an irretrievable loss. This is visible in the crudity and rawness of Figueiredo's language--when referring to episodes of sexual content or overt prejudice--, which works to overcome the difficulty of putting into words a traumatic past.
The narrator's self-placement in a liminal space is metaphorically represented by the trip of 'return' to Portugal. Faced with a 'homeland' that she does not recognize and that does not recognize her, she is unsettled by her return to a foreign home. The flight to Portugal also marks her entry into adulthood, a split between the past and the future, between her birthplace and her roots, and the separation from her family (that stayed longer in Mozambique). It is a cut that creates the condition for interior exile. Arjun Appadurai argues that "[d]eterritorialization (...) affects the loyalties of groups (especially in the context of complex diasporas)" (49). And through the freedom that comes with her deterritorialization, the narrator questions assumptions about Portuguese postcolonial discourse. She breaks with her sense of obligation towards the whites of the former colony when describing the details of colonial relations, with its shameful prejudices against native people: "Blacks were [seen as] bad life stock" (51).
Figueiredo recalls her own version of Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique, challenging public memory by commenting on the historical archive of Lusophone postcolonial discourse. The decision to publish her version of the events is both an attempt to come to terms with the memories of a traumatic past, and a commitment to her representation of that same past. The autobiography, which in Figueiredo's hand becomes a blend of different confessional genres, creates tension between the question of truth and the political and historical effects that truth may unleash. This tension between truth and its effects also raises another possibility: that history could be about what might have happened, not just what happened. In a history of possibility the limits of fiction and reality are less important than the chance to imagine a different History through memory and identity play. This reasoning helps us better comprehend the relativity of the historical archives, whose seemingly solid foundation of knowledge teeters atop constructed memory and imagination. By acknowledging the limits of truth we can break with restricted versions of history and highlight the importance of remembering as Figueiredo does when she destroys the common characterization of "soft Portuguese colonialism" (131) present in many Portuguese colonial narratives. She achieves this by using a transcultural perspective that allows for a process of rewriting the past to challenge the links between identity, language, history and nation. Figueiredo challenges the concept of nation, defined by Anderson as "an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (6). How can community exist when one does not fit in with the nations where she is to belong? The narrator declares that she "[had] never delivered the message that [she] carried" (111). This message refers to acts of retaliation led by black people during the colonial war. In spite of mentioning some of these episodes, she does so by inserting other voices' direct speech, while using her own voice to report acts of violence led by the whites.
In writing Caderno de Memorias Coloniais, Figueiredo helps deepen knowledge about a historical moment that cannot be erased. Despite the possibility of fictional elements, the text still communicates facts, gives new insights, captures emotions and promotes action and historical awareness. It does not matter how distanced from what really happened the narration is, what is important is that the events are being told, and in their telling spin off a new history.
Azade Seyhan argues that writers from the diaspora are history keepers, even preserving what public memory sometimes tries to erase (12). Their writing operates as metanarratives and therefore as precious social archives, capable of rescuing lost pieces of history and reactivating collective memory, which contributes to modern literary awareness (12). Figueiredo's book reminds us of the relativity of history and contributes to the acknowledgement of different histories, at the same time as it problematizes the validity of the Portuguese public memory, and the links between nation, identity and memory.
"Autobiography." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/44709/autobiography>.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006.
Anderson, Linda. Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
Appadurai, Arjun. "Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology". Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P., 1996. 48-65.
Cheadle, Norman, Pelletier, Lucien (Editors). Canadian Cultural Exchange: Translation and Transculturation. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007.
Etherington-Wright, Christine. Gender, Professions and Discourse. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Figueiredo, Isabela. Caderno de Memorias Coloniais. Coimbra: Angelus Novus, 2009.
Seyhan, Azade. "Introduction. Neither Here/ Nor There: The Culture of Exile." Writing Outside the Nation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001, p. 3-21.
Joana Pimentel (1)
(1) I wish to acknowledge the funding institution Fundacao para a Ciencia e a Tecnologia for supporting my doctoral project (reference SFRH/BD/76723/2011).
(2) All translations from Portuguese to English from Caderno de Memorias Coloniais are my own.
(3) This notion of double consciousness was originally applied by Du Bois to refer to the ambiguous position occupied by black people who perceived themselves both as insiders and as outsiders within the white American society.
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|Date:||May 1, 2013|
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