The comfort of the marginal position
…they took passports and left to become somebody else, to become what they weren’t and what they couldn’t be in their language: from solitaries solidaries, from idiorrhythmics cenobites1F
…what I call love is openness to the other 2F
We live in an era of multi-corporational neocolonialism and the cultural hegemony of Eurocentrism, and we might as well say Amerocentrism. We constantly, and rightfully, complain that we are silenced. We even derive pleasure from competing in being more marginalised than the others. Thus, it is quite obvious why Henry Louis Gates Jr. remarks in Derridian style that there is ‘nothing outside of (the discourse of) colonialism’, to which Slemon adds ‘all discourse must be nothing other than colonial discourse itself’. (Slemon 1995, 51)
Still, are we not discriminating more than the privileged? Do we expect to be disadvantaged at all costs, and, perhaps, in a certain sense, hope we will be, so as to be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience? Is it not bewildering to be equal, identical, same, blended, and unnoticeable? What do we do when nobody ever considers us strangers? What if we stop considering ourselves strangers within?
This nightmare scenario points to the fact that the ‘West’ exists as much due to the need of the ‘East’ to distinguish itself from it, as due to its neoimperialistic and violent self-definition. The position of an outsider is as comfortable as the elite position, in a certain sense even more powerful (in its subversiveness).
While we keep asking whether the privileged nations can read marginalised literature and culture without prejudice (when they read it at all), we might as well ask conversely, whether the underprivileged subjects can read dominant literature and culture without prejudice (as often as they read it).
Encounter, recognition, and naming of otherness
Otherness is born in an encounter (with another person or with ourselves). It begins by noticing the difference, the other which inspires binarity. This other, says Kristeva, ‘bears the mark of a crossed threshold’, is experienced ‘in addition’ to ourselves and cripples the wellbeing of the individual. (2005, 238) Every addition tells us we are not enough; we are not complete and immaculate.
‘The Museum’ is a short story about the encounter of two others. It is an excellent commentary on how postcolonial nations see the ‘West’ and on how they believe it sees them. This short story, which brought the Caine Prize for African Writing to Leila Aboulela in 2000, tells the story of a postgraduate Sudanese student of Mathematics who refuses to fall in love with a Scottish intellectual of a lower class partially because she is promised to a rich heir in Sudan, but because of numerous other reasons as well. These other reasons are what she stirs in her encounter with the other.
We are accustomed to recognising the other even before we name it. Once we have named it, we intepellate it as other. Shadia, the main female character, when first named by Bryan, the main male character, is named as Shadiya. This, seemingly simple mistake of pronunciation, indicates how, in a foreign country, the name and identity assigned to us by our parents (and Shadia means educated) is easily subverted. He certainly does not do it on purpose: his culture does it for him. The blame rests with Shadia, who, despite noticing he is wrong, persistently refuses to tell him how her name should be pronounced and what her identity is, or, at least, what the identity she answers to at home is. Abroad, it is almost irrelevant what name you answer to; you will always be recognised as strange. Yet, it seems she makes use of her strangeness to protect her broken identity, put under question with the very abandonment of her home.
Bryan himself has, if not an alternative pronunciation, then at least an alternative spelling (Bryan, instead of the more frequent Brian). With him this is the indicator of his difference. To emphasise the irony and our powerlessness in a foreign language, the name of the author is Leila (Lay-lah, or perhaps a mispronunciation of Lee-lah) Aboulela. If we were to go even further, we would ask ourselves whether this should be pronounced with a soft, medium or hard ‘l’. However, it is not only language that makes us different.
Types and degrees of otherness
The others are not the same, but of various intensity, manifold, and situational. We discard certain others immediately, without offering them a chance (we abject them). Some, on the contrary, we are ready to turn a blind eye to. Who are the acceptable others probably depends upon the degree to which they are different and how much they compromise our self.
1. Visible otherness
It is not difficult to recognise the foreign. This is the first conclusion our senses will establish. With the very first sentence we learn Shadia was afraid of Bryan owing to his earring and his long hair. Otherness, normally, begins with the gaze. To a traditionally brought up Muslim, it is inconceivable that a man should identify himself with these attributes. To Bryan they are a sign of revolt at his uncomfortable rootedness in his own culture and a need for escape, but to her they are a violation of and an attack to her integrity and her culture. It is quite natural, then, for her to dismiss them as a part of the ‘strangeness of the West’3F (Aboulela 2001, 99)4F, of the other culture, which she also perceives as something foreign. One of the first definitions for that culture is the cold and the rain which abuse her hair twisting it into locks. She cannot keep it loose and wild as she used to at home, rather, she has to discipline it with gels and pins and keep it in a bun.
To her fortune, or misfortune, Bryan’s otherness is flexible. In an uncontrolled moment of sincerity she makes him take off his earring and have his hair cut. She even feels tempted to advise him to treat his spots with lemon juice, but refrains from it. On the other hand, in Sudan, a marriage with a different other awaits her. Fareed, her fiancé, is too fat for her taste. He is informed about this, yet never considers jeopardising his comfort and the delicious food his mother cooks for the love of hers.
One would expect now Shadia to be demanded to make adjustments to her appearance, however nobody urges her to do so. In fact, the two of them do not. The imperialistic consumer culture almost insists on it, even though subtly, by means of seemingly innocent representations. The first memory of Africa shared with us is her fair-haired doll and the way she used to spend ‘hours combing that doll’s hair. She had longed for such straight hair. When she went to Paradise she would have hair like that.’ (99)
Shadia is painfully aware of the visual aspect of otherness. ‘In a photograph we would not look nice together,’ (116) she muses about herself and Bryan. Nonetheless, she forgets that this same photograph would be equally ideologically determined by her prejudice, as the photographs in the museum they both will visit are focalised thorough the colonising ideology of the first explorers of Africa.
1. Milorad Pavić 1990 Предео сликан чајем (Landscape Painted with Tea) Земун, Драганиќ. (124) All translations from Serbian and Macedonian are mine.
2. Кристева (2005, 308). This work is a translation of the original written in Macedonian. Where an English translation was unavailable to me I was obliged to translate into English from Macedonian sources.
3 Shadia forgets that the earring and the long hair constitute a part of the ‘strangeness’ of the East as well. In many countries in Africa, men wear earrings, and in India they are considered a protection against evil. The long hair has an equally long tradition in China.
4. The references to the quotations from the short story will henceforth include only the page number.