Desiring Female Power in Cowrie

By McWilliams, Sally | Style, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Desiring Female Power in Cowrie


McWilliams, Sally, Style


Every day is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.

This is the first world, and the last.

Joy Harjo

Identity is a way of re-departing. Rather, the return to a denied heritage allows one to start again with different re-departures, different pauses, different arrivals. [. . .] It is hardly surprising then that when identity is doubled, tripled, multiplied across time (generations) and space (cultures), when differences keep on blooming within despite the rejections from without, she dares--by necessity.

Trinh Minh-ha (1)

Joy Harjo' s poem and Trinh Minh-ha' s prose encapsulate the process that feminist post-colonial texts undertake to disrupt and reconfigure dominant language, customs, and politics that otherwise squeeze out those marked as "other." Harjo's invocation for change and Trinh's for risk-taking foreground the cyclic nature of this struggle and the imaginative power necessary to release that which has been unspoken or unheard. The first and the last now become one--an alternative construction of time that does not erase that which has gone before; past, present, and future recombine to dismantle the hegemonic narrative of "modernity" that favors (neo)colonial power systems and discourses of "development" over the indigenous. (2) And in these narratives "native" is no longer described through the imperial gaze; rather, the authors and narrators of many feminist postcolonial texts challenge the seemingly transparent categories that, until very recently, have valued an ahistorical representation (3) of the native woma n, her authority as authentic spokesperson, and the mythic purity of her customs and values. "Language," writes Cathie Dunsford, "becomes the crucial issue over which integrity and survival are fought" (qtd. in "Margin or Center? 'Let me tell you!"' 159). The politics of narrative discourse collide with the national; Rika-Heke explains that the colonial tradition has institutionalized in the literary an imperialist view that defines the colonized according to [imperialism's] own needs for reflection. The image of the indigene, which is created, reveals very little about us or our culture. It reveals, however, a great deal about whites and their culture. The Maori as cultural item is the result of hegemonic textualization: we are described and defined in order to preserve our position as a unified symbol of national essence. That is, this textualization incorporates an indigenization which excludes the indigene. (150-51)

This historical erasure is one factor that has catalyzed the writing of indigenous representations and representative versions of the truth. Stories and storytelling, then, become pivotal sites where women who have been or are marginalized and silenced by patriarchal, nationalist, and heteronormative ideologies assert control. Female narrators matched with feminist narrative strategies function to disrupt the status quo, unsettling so-called truths about land, culture, subjectivity, and citizenry by allowing "the unspeakable," in Harjo's words, to reshape the literary and political landscapes in their respective social, cultural, and national contexts. (4)

Many Maori women writers have entered this contested space of the cultural and literary narrative of Aotearoa/New Zealand. They have reconceptualized the narratives of colonial settlement, displacement, and domination through strategic renderings of race, culture, gender relations, and sexuality within a Maori-inflected context and consciousness. As writers such as Patricia Grace, Ken Hulme, and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku negotiate the binary thinking of the colonial episteme, they recuperate and write into existence the language, memories, voices, and traditions of Maori culture without reducing them to a sentimentalized collection of exotic objects or acts. In their texts, these women reflect a constant struggle for viable contemporary depictions of the complexity of Maori experience, spirituality, and thinking as it impacts the construction and interpretation of female subjectivity. …

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