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In order for the Imperial country to gain the trust and support of its citizens, making the effects of colonialism appear to be an act of generosity was a necessary precondition. In many colonial discourses, the colonized body is described as savage and unruly. Representations of the colonized, indigenous peoples as female or emasculated served to create a gender binary, one in which the male European Empire must come to the rescue of the damsel in distress. In both Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, the sexual power dynamic of colonial discourse is inverted, effectively giving more agency to the female characters.
Anthologies and encyclopedias came to serve as a first-hand account of Europe’s introduction to Africa.
In his book, The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power, Greg Thomas lays out the “new erotic historicism” which has come to define the social status of nineteenth century Europe. He states that the trend in European representations was to construct an erotic identity specific to a particular Place or people, separated from the culture of dominance emanating from European hegemons.
Positioning scientific reason as opposed to the hyper-sexualized African female body would construct an image of a male, disciplined country of modernity. Thomas argues that “The Man of Reason claims to master the world of sensuality in which primitives are said to dwell” (Thomas 7). Both were carefully calculated stratagems, designed to enlist the aid of good Englishmen and Englishwomen. The creation of distinction was understood across social, cultural, and economic boundaries.
The world was constructed to describe the “superiors” in relation to the “inferiors”, with the top of the great Chain of Being reserved for those selfless English missionaries, dedicated to bringing order to the chaotic world (Thomas 21). The sexual politics projected upon Africa are very similar to those the British Empire projected upon India. In order to make all-encompassing claims about the state of India, the British Empire first had to construct an image that would aid in their endeavors. Janet Price and Margret Shildrick discuss the process of describing the colonized people in their essay, “Mapping the Colonial Body: Sexual Economies and the State in Colonial India”. British imposition of Western rule and supremacy was predicated by the “situated body of Indian women” (Price 388). They mention the words of the political scientist Said in his description of Orientalism, quoting “It is not an airy European fantasy…but a creative body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been considerable material investment” (Price 388).
The authors mention this to touch on the inaccessibility of history. Since all stories and histories are extended versions of narrative, there is a necessary layer of investigation that must go along with understanding history. The authors specifically use the term ‘mapping’ because the exercise of mapping is, ultimately, an exercise of control and regulation. Also, maps are interpretable and reinterpretable. Finally, power and knowledge relations are mapped in the female Indian body, constructing the colonial body politic (Price 389). The relationship between knowledge and power can be complex, since colonial discourses can be paradoxical in representations. In Britain, the discursive representations of India began to compete with one another. There were two prevailing discourses in these representations. The first understood and defined women as their bodies, a measurable and known representation. The other discourse identified the Indian woman as the other, the unknowable (Price 390). The language of rescue and reform emanating from Imperial Britain echoed both discourses, pointing to India as a woman in dire need of rescue. Often times, the single-story was used to construct a totalizing view of Indian women.
Price and Shildrick describe how individual stories, either experienced or fabricated by the British missionaries of the time, were effectively applied to the people en masse. For example, on page 391, Price and Shildrick describe the arguments of a Reverend Ed Jewitt Robinson, who pointed to the necessary chaos and cultural backwardness of India, because of the cultural sanctioning of abuses on women’s bodies. He lists the practice or purdah and other cultural conventions of India as a de-humanizing cultural practice, one which needs the intervention of a more modern and understanding society. In the discursive rationale for colonizing India, woman becomes the currency of discursive exchange (Price 394). Also, multiple representations pointed to the breakdown of the traditional family unit in India. Critics cited the maternal Indian figure as perpetuating foolishness and societal degradation by instilling her children with the culture and traditions of India. Both the family unit and the individual woman are presented in a state of perpetual decay.
In both Midnight’s Children and Half of a Yellow Sun, a male character experiences a disappointing sexual encounter. In Midnight’s Children, the narrator, Saleem Sinai, attempts to lay claim to his girlfriend Padma, by stating he has a sexual dominion over her. He attempts to describe their relationship as hierarchal, where she has metaphorically fallen for his spell. However, Padma erupts and states that Saleem has no real dominion over her. In Half of a Yellow Sun, one of the main characters, Richard, falls for the lovely Nigerian girl Kainene. However, while attempting to prove himself as a suitable man for Kainene, Richard has two unsuccessful sexual encounters. Unable to successfully satisfy Kainene, their relationship shifts from the initial physical desire to a much deeper, personal connection. For Saleem Sinai, the effect of being chastised by Padma sends him into a more tangential form of storytelling. Already subject to tangents and a discontinuous plot structure, Padma’s feelings of anger toward Saleem culminate in her leaving the narrative framing device for a few chapters.
In these chapters, Saleem strays even further from his task of describing his family’s story. Although the effects of Saleem’s actions seem large in the context of this paper, many critics do not stop to consider the role of Padma in the story, when considering gendered representations Rushdie presents in Midnight’s Children. In an epic as large and complex as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, there are a multitude of opinions on Rushdie’s use of symbolism, motif, and discursive representations. In Nalini Natarajan’s essay “Woman, Nation, and Narration in Midnight’s Children”, Natarajan describes many of the rhetorical devices employed in Rushdie’s novel as proof of his remarks on popular Indian cultural representations. The author argues that gendered representations intrinsically align to social imagination, imagining of nation. The motif of pickling, and the sum of parts not clearly representing the whole is the overarching argument presented in Natarajan’s essay. She believes that the systematic imagining of the whole is representative of Bombay cinema (Natarajan 402). She begins by citing one of the first scenes in the novel, Aadam Aziz’s attempted seduction of Naseem.
Through the perforated sheet, Aadam can only see glimpses of what Naseem looks like, but he has imagined the whole based on the composite parts. This is described as synecdoche, although it may be better understood as misappropriated synecdoche. For, after Naseem reveals herself in her entirety, she does not match up with the idealized form Aadam Aziz had imagined. She is ultimately more stubborn and hard-nosed than Aadam Aziz was prepared for. In both a metaphoric and literal sense, she was the boss of him. This metaphoric compiling to construct an image of the whole identity mirrors the issue of nation building, which is central to Salem’s life and subject position. Interestingly, Natarajan describes Rushdie’s inclusion of women as “significantly marginal” (401). She believes that the inclusion of characters like Naseem, Amina, and Brass Monkey is another mover representative of Bombay cinema. She states that a common feature in Bombay cinema is to have the female characters move from the public to private eye, understandably the eye of their true love.
However, in the case of Naseem, she has moved from the private to the public eye. Natarajan concludes by stating that the shifting space in which a woman’s body is occupied is necessarily contrasted to Bombay cinema. She argues that, although Rushdie may be parodying some of these aspects, he is nonetheless colluding in the engendering of nation as male through representations of the female body (408). She believes all narratives imagining nation inevitably add to the engendering language of national identity. Although Natarajan makes some interesting points, her description of Narration may not be fully flushed out. When considering the role of Padma in the meta-narrative plot structure, it is important to note her close ties to the rationale and understanding of the reader. She continually ends tangents and unrelated stories resented by Saleem, in an attempt to create some semblance of a linear story line. It is understandable that Natarajan viewed women’s’ roles in the plot marginal. However, Padma’s role in the meta-narrative marks her as the stronger, or at least more considerate of audience, compared to Saleem. In terms of what is expected, neither Naseem nor Padma are willing to revert to the male expectations.
In the case of Naseem, her control and dominion over Aadam provided some comical scenes, where she either physically or emotionally controlled him. Her stubbornness and strength foregrounded her as a powerful character. It also foregrounded the role of women as more than marginal or expendable. Instead, the matriarch of the family was introduced to the reader, originally shown only a section of her being through the perforated sheet. The perforated sheet is what Saleem believes he wields which gives him dominion over Padma. Saleem claims that Padma must love him, because of the sexual healing he can provide. However, Padma fires back, remarking that Saleem’s “little finger” is not fulfilling its intended purpose. Although Natarajan views women’s roles as marginal, I view them as providing opportunities for the male characters to misunderstand the gender hierarchy they have come to embody.
Aadam’s inability to correctly identify Naseem and her characteristics from under the perforated sheet points to the inevitable impossibility of mapping a woman’s body. Even when he is first introduced to her whole image, he sees her physical beauty and assumes a submissive attitude will follow. Saleem believes he has authority over Padma because of what he can offer in the bedroom. However, his assumptions do not match with the reality of the situation. Through these two examples, it seems as though Rushdie is commenting on the colonial discursive approach of trying to fully map and understand woman’s body. Ultimately, assumptions and preconceived stereotypes fall apart, giving way to a much more complex set of female characters. These characters drive both the plot (the matriarch Naseem, the nurse Mary) and the meta-narrative (Padma guiding Saleem through the narrative, linear structure).
Unlike Aadam Aziz and Saleem Sinai, Half of a Yellow Sun character, Richard, is admittedly lacking information or proper criteria for understanding Kainene. The case of Richard and Kainene is very interesting. As an Englishman, Richard comes to represent the side of the Imperial country which most indigenous, colonized people do not come in contact with. As a man who wants to larn more about Igbo culture and understand his new home in Nigeria, he attempts to learn everything he can about the place and people of Nigeria. Apart from a fanatic fascination with Igbo pottery, Richard has no real knowledge of the cultural norms or status of Nigeria. However, instead of applying a single-story of Africa to Nigeria, he begins at a neutral state and attempts to learn everything he can about his new home and new love, Kainene.
Some scholars have distinguished Kainene and Olanna (sisters) are dually representative of Nigeria. If this is true, then Richard is representative of an aspect of colonialism which was not usually seen in the colonized land. In his article, “Abjection and the Fetish: Reconsidering The Construction of the Postcolonial Exotic in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun”, Madhu Krishnan attempts to describe Richard’s infatuation and deep interest in Kainene as an effect of exoticism. This is logical, since Richard is foregrounded at the beginning of the novel as an ‘outsider’ in British society. Krishnan points to Richard’s conflation of his infatuation with the pots and Kainene to prove he is effectively turning her into a “fetishized object of desire”. Ultimately, Krishnan points towards Richard’s interests in Nigeria and Kainene as symptomatic of attempting to construct a new, national identity. Richard attempts to connect with Kainene by sharing his love of Igbo-Ukwu pottery with her. However, Kainene seems largely disinterested by this show.
Kainene is ultimately unknown to Richard, and he cannot help but view her as “Mostly inscrutable” (Adichie 66). As they spend more time together, Richard attempts to have a physical relationship with Kainene. Krishnan describes his impending impotence as representative of his inability to control his desires. His selfishness and one-sided perspective is illuminated on page 77, where Richard “realized that hers was a life that ran fully and would run fully even if he was not in it.” Much like the competing discourses of colonial bodies’ representations, Richard’s ideals are paradoxical. Ultimately, “Kainene’s importance to Richard functions as a means to authenticate his desired self” (Krishnan 33). After his two scenes of impotence, Richard has to realize the fragility of his relationship with Kainene. He understood that her life would continue “fully” without him, but he has become so enamored by her presence that he could not live without her.
Krishnan describes Richard’s infatuation as strictly metonymic, meaning his obsession with both Kainene and the pots are representative of his desire to construct a Biafran identity. Although this may be a contributing factor to the story, there is no evidence to suggest that what Richard is feeling is not sincere. The highly sexualized description of his dream about Kainene on page 65 points to his mind’s inability to stop thinking about her. Whether this is intrinsically tied to a desire to adopt a new identity cannot be fully known. However, another possible explanation for Richard’s two scenes of impotence would be that his love for Kainene was sincere. Instead of being unable to perform because of self-given pressure, another explanation for Richard’s ‘accidents’ could be that his mind’s infatuation with Kainene betrayed his body’s physical desires. Krishnan writes that the end of the novel, where Kainene is missing and Richard has abandoned his writing, is telling of Richard’s inability to understand his own identity if it is not attached to Kainene.
This interpretation works, even if one were to assume that Richard’s feelings for Kainene were sincere. Thus, the love Richard felt for Kainene and the subsequent grief felt for her disappearance kept him from being able to continue writing about Biafra and his experiences, which was “no longer [his] story to tell”(Adichie 428). Both Midnight’s Children and Half of a Yellow Sun remark on the two overwhelming, paradoxical representations of colonized peoples. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie comments on the attempt to map and understand women’s bodies. This is evident both in Aadam Aziz’s assumptions about the ‘whole’Naseem and Saleem Sinai’s assumptions about his sexual dominion held over Padma. Half of a Yellow Sun also marks a response to the exotic or unknown status of African women. Adichie’s inclusion of Richard as unable to fulfill his duties as a man gives the majority of the agency in the relationship to Kainene.
In both texts, the male characters are largely submissive and following of the females. Although Saleem likes to mock Padma and the etymology of her name, the linear and continuous effect of his narration is dependent on her guidance for relevance. These texts may not be using this switch in gender preference to ‘write back to Empire. Instead, it is possible these representations of the strong woman are created to disprove the all-encompassing colonial rhetoric of gender and empire. By providing their respective novels with powerful female characters, both Rushdie and Adichie have opened a forum for discussion about how one can invert or move away from those engendering discussions on nation-building and constructing an identity.
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