Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Can the Indigent Speak? Poverty Studies, the Postcolonial and the Global Appeal of Q & A and the White Tiger*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Can the Indigent Speak? Poverty Studies, the Postcolonial and the Global Appeal of Q & A and the White Tiger*

Article excerpt

1. Poverty as a Challenge for Literary Criticism

In a document of the United Nations, poverty is defined as "a human condition characterised by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights" (UN 2001). This definition reflects the current understanding of poverty - in the social and economic sciences as well as in the humanities - as lack in terms not only of material, but also human and cultural capitals. In the twenty-first century, indigence and crass social inequality have become phenomena located not only in developing countries, but also increasingly in the societies of Europe and North America. In an age of globalisation, new social walls between rich and poor are being erected everywhere. Faced with the new worldwide visibility of poverty, Poverty Studies are on the rise, and they have begun to include the analysis of literature (as well as other forms of art),1 acknowledging, just as studies in human development have recently done,2 that the literary narrative has a special capacity to present poverty as the multi-faceted experience of individual human beings rather than in the form of anonymous statistics.

Literary and cultural studies are challenged to offer approaches to such (re-)presentations, not only in light of traditions of 'poverty literature7 which, in the English language, date back to the Middle Ages,3 but also with respect to theoretical questions. It is here that an important impetus comes from Postcolonial Studies - not primarily because this area of study focuses on cultures in which poverty has always been an urgent problem.4 Above all, issues prominent in the discussion of poverty (now and in former periods) have long been analysed for the forms of marginalisation - and resistance to them - that arise from colonial subordination: the power over and of representation (Stuart Hall), the importance of 'authority' (Homi Bhabha), and the 'agency' to act and speak for oneself.5 In particular, Poverty Studies frequently echoes Gayatri Spivak's influential question, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In her seminal essay, Spivak answers this question in the negative (cf. 308), and she also rejects attempts to 'lend' the poor a collective, homogenising and paternalistic voice.6

This is a position also encountered in recent discussions of poverty literature. Walter Benn Michaels (2006), for instance, who sparked a debate on the literary treatment of poverty in the US, observes that such treatment is rarely authored by the poor themselves, and that in the cases where poor people do speak for themselves, they employ forms of articulation that transcend their own class and reach privileged readers only (cf. Michaels 200). Such claims can hardly be contested. What seems more important, however, and should concern literary and cultural critics more, is the fact that literature has long spoken about poverty, and that there is an accumulation of literary presentations of indigent life throughout time and across cultures that has reached readers and affected the ways in which these readers imagine7 and take positions on poverty. It appears to be the prime responsibility of literary studies to scrutinise the modes and ideological positions of these representations, while their specific authorship seems of subordinate importance. Of course, whether subalterns are granted opportunities to speak, and to be listened to, are questions of social and ethical relevance which literary criticism must not push aside. But are the non-poor disentitled to write about poverty? Not from the point of view of Aravind Adiga who, in an interview published in The Guardian about The White Tiger (one of the novels to be discussed below), claimed his right to write about experiences he never had himself: "I think the whole point of being in literature, of being in imaginative fiction, is to try and get under the skin of someone else and to speak in the voice of someone else [. …

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