An Escape through the Naked Truth

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Words: Eva Mustapha (She/Her) 

Caged under the weight of subjugation. Remnants of bodies moulded into the shape of the latest nation by rough, clenched fingers. Invaded, then tattooed with unknown handprints and impaled by the flagpole of a foreign identity. His victory is celebrated, whilst she opens and closes at his demand… A colony, or a woman? 

Diction surrounding colonised land and the colonised woman is synonymous. Endless historical and literary accounts exist where men feminise land in their depiction of colonisation.  However, literature also serves to expose the differentiation between liberating the land oppressed and the woman oppressed. And, more importantly, whether any liberation has happened at all. 

Gayatri Spivak’s seminal piece Can the Subaltern Speak? assumes a position which states that people who live outside the most marginalised communities would not be able to understand the needs of those most marginalised even if they listened. Essentially, this is because people who live within mainstream discourses are dislocated from the necessary cultural relativism and therefore aren’t equipped with the correct listening apparatus to actually understand what it is that the ‘subaltern’ is saying. Spivak describes this not as an issue of linguistics, but rather one of spatiality. If misinterpreted, this belief could be used to justify Western complacency and to defend the exploitation of non-Western countries due to the indolent excuse of ‘not understanding’.  

I would argue that whilst Spivak’s theory has some profound truth, literature can function outside of social sciences and theories to elicit attention, so long as you are willing to listen. Western imposed exploitation has led to incessant destruction, however literature allows us to hear unheard stories and witness unseen suffering. Unlike most channels of communication, it  doesn’t elect an author, rather provides the writer with authority and autonomy, and the reader with access to the experiences of even the most marginalised people. 

Colonialism has been sexualised since the earliest accounts of conquest. Columbus himself described the Americas as a woman’s breast when approaching land. Such dangerous imagery demonstrates what men believe a woman’s purpose to be: a site to which men can tether their uninhibited, self-proclaimed power. Both colonisation and patriarchal oppression see their subjects as naked. Colonisers declared the land they ‘discovered’ to be vacant, allowing them to ignore the complex communities and histories that embody the land. In the same way, the colonised woman is left naked, stripped of all her livelihood: all that makes her a sentient human and all that makes her equal to man. Both are remodelled, renamed, and reclothed at the hand of (white) men. 

Poetry stands as a form of literature that flips this narrative from one of vulnerability and subjugation to what Malika Ndlovu describes as the “naked truth”. Ndlovu is a South African poet who writes about the reduction of women’s bodies to territories under a postcolonial patriarchy. ‘Spinal Secrets’, ‘Born in Africa but’, and ‘Next Door’ are poems that particularly encapsulate her truths. As a woman of colour whose land has been recently liberated, the poems delve into the remaining issues. Covert histories and the domestic abuse of silenced women which permeate the cracks of an unhealed society. Her poetry tells us that facts are not enough.

 Post 1994, when the Apartheid regime was abolished, was there heightened concern about the emancipation of African women and African countries? Has our approach towards archaic terms such as “Third World countries” changed? To what extent do countries achieve liberation when their actions, both domestic and international, often still rely on Western powers? This is not to deny the culpability countries sustain in propagating their own dependence on others. However, it serves to acknowledge that what we understand of freedom from a history book when translated onto a piece of literature exposes that liberation is not as straightforward as it was made to seem. The honesty of literature forces a more comprehensive acknowledgement that independence does not necessitate liberty. The literary “naked truth” propagates autonomy. 

Crucially, the “naked truth” exposes manifestations of a patriarchal society. Ndlovu’s poetry particularly highlights the difference between the liberation of land and the liberation of women. If an entire population of people is colonised, women and men alike will be systematically repressed and dominated. But women face domination in a very literal sense, often forced to suffer sexual assault and objectification. A nation may be liberated from colonial rule, but that does not mean that the women of that nation are free. We remain entangled in a web of patriarchy, and personal accounts, in any literary form, serve as a reminder of this. 

Natalie Diaz is a Native American poet who defends the importance of literature as an act of documentation. More specifically, one that is not circumscribed by an ideal. In its most honest form, literature showcases all that defines humanity. Access to indigenous poetry, music, or language allows us to diverge from an understanding of history founded entirely on colonialist accounts. The accessibility of diverse historical accounts rejects a monolithic view of the world, allowing us to see how the world truly was shaped by the imposition of nations. In turn, this permits a different perspective on how nations are being moulded and exploited today. Perhaps, we might even see reflections of those first missions of conquest.

Diaz mentioned in an interview that she believes that ‘language is not the body but what might make the body act’. Diaz highlights that lyrical documentation brings events and history to life, and incites engagement. Without the “naked truth” of literature, the world lacks authenticity and our consumption of information remains unchallenged. Partaking in the act of reading and writing renders literature a mechanism of enhancing representation and understanding. So long as you are willing to listen, stepping outside the noise of mainstream discourses allows you to hear the voices of the oppressed. With every nation violated, the woman is always doubly subjugated. Moved between translucent cages. However, the creation and consumption of literature allows her to tell her story and reclaim her body and her nation.

Queer Ecologies edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson – some of Mahmoud Darwish poems – “Politics of the Female Body” in the Selected Poems of Malika Ndlovu by Sharada Chigurupati – some of Malika Ndlovu’s poems

‘Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi, translated with a Foreword by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

“Flag of Freedom” by Sukirtharani, translated by N. Kalyan Raman – ‘Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Review)’ by Deborah A. Miranda Can the Subaltern Speak?  by Gayatri Spivak 


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