Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Beyond Caliban's Curses: The Decolonial Feminist Literacy of Sycorax

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Beyond Caliban's Curses: The Decolonial Feminist Literacy of Sycorax

Article excerpt

The fear of the unknown, the fear of Sycorax, both because she is female and dark as in both being unknown and dark-skinned is what still holds this piece of land.., in thrall to Europe and Prospero. While being articulate in Caliban's and so Prospero's tongues, we are still dumb in the language of Sycorax, whatever that might be. We await the Ceremony of the Souls.

--M. NourbeSe Philip, "A Piece of Land Surrounded"

... This damned witch, Sycorax / For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries [too] terrible / To enter human hearing, from Algiers, / Thou know'st, was banished./...

--Shakespeare, "The Tempest"


Working from the perspective of decolonial feminism, this essay critiques works that view Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611) as a symbol of resistance to eurocentrism, as represented in the character of Prospero. I focus on the literary figure Sycorax, the racialized, sexualized and witched mother of Caliban, because the celebration of Caliban as a symbol of subaltern resistance in Latin American/Latino studies has led to her discursive erasure or marginalization. I critically trace appropriations of Caliban, as well as Miranda (Prospero's daughter), that silence Sycorax. Fundamentally urging the construction of a "literacy of Sycorax," this essay explores the eurocentric reluctance of writers and critics to seriously address issues of spirituality-particularly "feminine" and racialized spirituality-that are negatively coded as magic or superstition within the western modern-colonial imagination. I challenge Latin American/Latino, American, Women's, and Literary studies to consider what it means to position oneself alongside Sycorax--or the racialized, sexualized, spiritually powerful woman of color other that she represents--in order to learn from her occluded tongue. As I argue, the literacy of Sycorax speaks to a third space beyond the oppositional cursing tongues of Caliban and Prospero. Here lies the prospect of healing internalized fear and loathing about "feminine" and racialized spirituality within ourselves and others.

Keywords: Decolonial feminism, Sycorax, Caliban, women of color, spirituality, cultural studies

Introduction: The Absent Presence of Sycorax

This essay explores the figure of Sycorax, first presented in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), to analyze gendered and racialized (de)colonizing discourses about spirituality and sexuality in the Americas. As attested to by innumerable references in creative and scholarly writings, The Tempest's many contested characters persist as "root metaphors" that inform and are informed by dominant western cultures as well as by cultures of resistance (Brown 123). (1) Two figures in particular have become the models of colonizer and colonized par excellence: Prospero, an usurped duke who is cast away and takes over an island, and Caliban, his enslaved native who is depicted as "savage" and "deformed" in Shakespeare's cast of characters (3). Influenced by early modern English ideas about others circulating in the midst of European imperialism in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Americas, Shakespeare's play is a complex staging of the struggle between "the cannibal" and "the oppressor" (close anagrams of Caliban and Prospero respectively). Since the nationalist struggles of the mid-twentieth century, "revisionary histories of colonialism ... frequently evoke the figure of Caliban as a symbol of resistance to colonial [and imperial] regimes" represented by Prospero (Singh 191). Indeed, Caliban continues to be invoked as a way to challenge eurocentric and patriarchal power.

Sycorax, Caliban's North African witch-mother, however, is marginalized or absent in most engagements with the allegory. It is as if her story of banishment in the text sets Sycorax on a path to future discursive banishment, marking the continuity of dominant cultures' refusal or inability to see and listen to Sycorax, a symbol of "the" dark female, the banished woman, and the feared racialized and sexualized witch/healer. …

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