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La fabrique du genre

 | 
Claude Le Fustec
, 
Sophie Marret

Chapitre I. Voix de femmes

Postmodern, postcolonial and feminist: Marlene Nourbese Philip’s poems at a theoretical junction

Belén Martín Lucas

Texte intégral

  • 1 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard Uni (...)

1Marlene Nourbese Philip was born in Tobago, grew up in Trinidad and migrated to Canada as an adult. There she studied Law and Political Science and worked as a lawyer until 1983 when she became a full-time writer. She is representative of the diasporic writing that characterizes the postcolonial literary scene. Her works are inscribed in the Afrosporic literature–Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic1”–that claims back the silenced history of slavery and its consequences in contemporary life. In her creative and critical works, she offers theorizings of language and silence, moving beyond Western approaches to a womanist feminist perspective. She uses history, geography, race and gender to explore the multiple expressions of silence in its ongoing intercourse with the word, as the titles of her two most famous literary works indicate : She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989) and Looking for Livingstone. An Odyssey of Silence (1991). The manuscript of the first book, She Tries Her Tongue, was the Winner of the Casa de las Américas Poetry Prize in 1988. She was the first anglophone writer to obtain this prize. In 1990, she was made a Fellow in Poetry by the Guggenheim Foundation.

2Her literary production addresses the main issues dealt with in postcolonial writing, and it shows the problematic confluence of the three contemporary trends in this field, postcolonialism, postmodernism and feminism, and the objection by Third World writers to the use of these terms for their writing. At the same time, her work is representative of Caribbean literature, and it alludes explicitly to the socio-historical context of that region.

  • 2 Smaro Kamboureli, On the Edge of Genre : The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem, Toronto, Toronto Univ (...)

3The subject of study in this essay is the poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” included in Philip’s poetry work She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. This is a long poem composed of a series of shorter pieces grouped under section titles, all of them linked by the recurrent tropes of language and silence in the Caribbean herstory–that is, the history of the Caribbean from an African feminist perspective–and playing with concepts and the discourse of Linguistics, as the section titles evidence : “And Over Every Land and Sea,” “Cyclamen Girl,” “African Majesty : From Grassland and Forest (The Barbara and Murray Frum Collection),” “Meditations on the Declensions of Beauty by the Girl with the Flying Cheekbones,” “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” “Universal Grammar,” “The Question of Language is the Answer to Power,” “Testimony Stoops to Mother Tongue,” and “She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks.” Her emphasis on language in all the sections of the book is one of the strategies Philip uses to criticize the various discourses that legitimize and materialize colonialist and neo-colonialist practices, including education, religion, scientific racism, and the documentary. Her use of the long poem is interesting because this is a form that has been widely acclaimed as a Canadian postmodern form, a form that represents both fragmentation and multiplicity, and, most relevant to Philip’s context, an impure or hybrid genre that plays with generic conventions, positioned, in Smaro Kamboureli’s words, “On the Edge2”.

  • 3 Marlene Nourbese Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Charlottetown, Ragweed, (...)

4An introductory essay titled “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy” precedes the poems as a sort of prologue. Philip has described this essay as “A blueprint for my poetic and writing life3”, and she provides in it a clear and concise articulation of how she came to write, and, more importantly for the consideration of this particular poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” of the complexities of “language and its role in a colonial society” (11).

  • 4 In order to appreciate the relevance of these issues implicit in the act of reading, it is very con (...)

5The layout of the poem on the four pages it covers (56-59), with different graphic cases and dispositions, suggests, at first sight, at least three main qualities that are recurrent in contemporary postcolonial writing and which are also considered characteristic of postmodernism and of feminism : fragmentation, multiplicity, and polyphony. The reader is not given a book of instructions on how to read the poem, which results in our having a multiple choice, an idea that will also reappear in one of the sections of the poem. The reading order is optional for each reader. However, our training as readers in a specific Western tradition will make us “naturally” start with the central column on the first page, and go on to the brief “Edict” section on the right, turn the page later to look at the narrative in the left margin, and only then move on to the next page, repeating the same process in the following two pages. This tendency–which can be easily confirmed in a classroom–involves conceptions of the centre and the margin which are crucial in postcolonial writing, and even more so in Philip’s works and in this specific one4.

  • 5 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, in Caribbean Women Writers, S. R. Cudjoe (ed. (...)

6In this reading order–which is the most frequent one, the one Philip certainly “expects” readers to follow–we find a subversion of the hegemony of the imperialist culture, in that the central piece reproduces the style and language of Afro-Caribbean poetry, based on sound repetition, while the judiciary language of imperialism–the father tongue–is a sort of appendix or note in the right-hand margin. The use of italics underlines its difference with respect to the “central” poem. The folktale narrative in the left-hand margin is capitalized, thus making it unavoidably visible, and privileging its narration despite its being marginalized–the mother tongue. Our need to turn the page to read this capital case discourse, the actual gesture of turning the page sideways, can be understood as a strategy of disturbance of the power relations in the arrangement of texts, by means of which, as Philip has pointed out, “the canon of objectivity and universality is shifted and disturbed5”. The texts on the right-hand pages, isolated and centred, follow and mock the conventions of academic language, the language of science and university, respectively, which seem to stand apart from those discourses on the left-hand pages, but which are closely linked to them thematically, as will be commented on. The final section, in the form of a multiple choice test, ends the poem by addressing once again the issue of multiplicity and choice that the reader finds when first approaching the text.

  • 6 Ibidem, p. 298.
  • 7 Coomie S. Vevaina, “Searching for Space : A Conversation with M. Nourbese Philip, 18 May, 1996”, Op (...)

7The arrangement of the pieces across four different pages causes an interruption of the sections that are explicitly linked to the concept of the mother culture (African), which are cut, interrupted, by the discourses of Western imperialism and science, to then follow on the next page. These interruptions reflect, in Philip’s words, “a historical reality6”. Contesting the critics who have classified her poem as “postmodern,” Philip emphasizes the relevance of the historical text of the Caribbean in her work : “the Caribbean is a site of massive interruptions. The Aboriginal was fatally interrupted. The African, European and the Asian worlds are all interrupted–in different ways–and they are all coming up against each other. It seems to me that if I were to try and write that experience in a logical and linear way, then that would do to it a second violence7”. This arrangement also suggests the inadequacy of the written text to transmit an oral discourse ; the page is a narrow space, not large enough to accomodate all the issues at stake, while, at the same time, the body performance and orality are lost in the printed page.

  • 8 Not exclusive of poetry ; Edward Kamau Brathwaite has studied jazz structures in Caribbean fiction  (...)
  • 9 Brenda Carr, “To ‘Heal the Word Wounded’ : Agency and the Materiality of Language and Form in M. No (...)
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 298.
  • 12 Naomi Guttman, “Dream of the Mother Language : Myth and History in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silen (...)

8By reading the text aloud we can clearly appreciate the polyphonic nature of the poem, which requires a chorus of voices, and how performance enriches the implications of the poetic text even if only minimally. This is a quality of Philip’s poetry that she finds is also part of her Caribbean culture since, as she says, “[p] erformance is a part of Caribbean aesthetics”. The structure of the poem resembles, in her opinion, a jazz performance, an image that recalls the musical quality of Afro-Caribbean literature8. For critics of the Western academy, more concerned with the written modes of creative expression, the poem is a “‘crosscultural montage’of parallel literary, non-literary, and social texts9”. Reading it as a postmodern poem, some critics emphasize the “decentring effect of multiply juxtaposed texts, the dialogic counterpointing of multiple voices, the metapoetic questioning of the status of historiographic documents, the parodic mimicry of scientific and religious discourses10”. However, while Philip defends the practice of métissage of cultural traditions, discourses and histories, she insists on asserting that the heterogeneity in her poetry foregrounds the historical conditions of its emergence. Far from being an experimental play with form, she conceives her poetic mode as a sort of signifier with political and social meaning. For her, “the form of the poem becomes not only a true reflection of the experience out of which it came, but also as important as the content11”. The combination of discourses in the poem shows her concern to speak both to the managed and the manager, since she speaks to the Afro-Caribbean communities but also engages Western readers. Naomi Guttman has identified four different discourses of dissent operating in the poem, which she has termed “the discourse of the law […] the discourse of power used by the dominant culture” ; “the discourse of amnesia […] the purposeful forgetting of history on the part of the dominant culture” ; “the discourse of aphasia, which represents the relationship to language of the Caribbean post-colonial subject who is trying to retrieve–to ‘rememory,’to use Toni Morrison’s term, her lost ‘mother-tongue’” ; and “the mythical discourse–the discourse that reclaims history in order to revision the future12”.

  • 13 Brenda Carr, art. cit., p. 78.
  • 14 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths et Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Pos (...)

9Her “simultaneity of discourse” is a textual strategy by which a black woman inscribes her text into a specific communal identity and at the same time contests the hegemonic dominant13. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin have identified this rejection of the privilege of English as a common characteristic of postcolonial writing, using the term abrogation : “Abrogation is a refusal of the categories of the imperial culture, its aesthetics, its illusory standard of normative or ‘correct’ usage, and its assumption of a traditional and fixed meaning ‘inscribed’in the words14”.

  • 15 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 296.

10This dilemma of the Afrosporic writer, in between two cultures, is at the core of the poem, in the central section. Here the poet is coming to terms with the language she has to use for the expression of her creativity, English. The movement from “English,” with a capital “E” on the first page to the small case “english” on the second page marks the ambivalence and ambiguity of the poet in her relationship with this language which is her father tongue and her mother tongue. She tries to find an answer to her questions “how does a writer who belongs to one of those traditionally managed groups begin to write from her place in a language that is not her own ? How does she discover or uncover a place and language of empowerment15 ?”. In this part of the poem, the New World African appears as a linguistic orphan in search of her lost origins.

  • 16 Ibid.

11Philip deals here with the “anguish that is English in colonial societies” (11), a language that she calls “Queenglish and Kinglish” (11) : 1st stanza –“language/l/anguish/anguish/– a foreign anguish.” She associates this language to the “white European male/father” colonizer who used language as a “tool of oppression, a language that has at best omitted the reality and experience of the managed–the African in the New World–and at worst discoursed on her nonbeing16”. In the introductory essay, Philip explains the relevance of the equation word/“i-mage” (12) in any art form in any culture, that is, the necessary balance to express the communal identity in any art form, in this case, in writing : “it is through these activities–poetry, story-telling and writing–that the tribe’s experiences are converted and transformed to i-mage and to word almost simultaneously, and from word back to i-mage again. So metaphorical life takes place, so the language becomes richer, the store of metaphor, myth and fable enlarged, and the experience transcended not by exclusion and alienation, but by inclusion in the linguistic psyche, the racial and generic memory of the group” (14). In the Caribbean this equation was destroyed, with the prohibition for the African slaves to speak African languages. As Philip states in her essay, “to speak another language is to enter another consciousness. Africans in the New World were compelled to enter another consciousness, that of their masters, while simultaneously being excluded from their own” (15) :

English is/my father tongue./A father tongue is/a foreign language,/therefore English is/a foreign language/not a mother tongue.” (2nd stanza)

  • 17 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Po (...)

12The language of the colonizer would become with time the only language available to the Afro-Caribbean writer, Philip’s father tongue, that she describes in the following way : “a foreign language expressive of an alien experiential life–a language comprised of word symbols that even then had affirmed negative i-mages about her, and one which was but a reflection of the experience of the European ethnocentric world view. This would, eventually, become her only language, her only tool to create and express i-mages about herself, and her life experiences, past, present and future. The paradox at the heart of the acquisition of this language is that the African learned both to speak and to be dumb at the same time, to give voice to the experience and i-mage, yet remain silent” (16). This paradox is expressed in the poem’s 5th and 6th stanzas : “I must therefore be tongue/dumb/dumb-tongued/dub-tongued/damn dumb/tongue/but I have/a dumb tongue/tongue dumb/father tongue.” The relationship of the poet with her father tongue is also paradoxical in that, despite being a foreign language, it is also her only one. Philip also claims her right to use and misuse the language, since “The African in the Caribbean and the New World is as much entitled to call the English language her own, as the Englishman in his castle. […] For too long, however, we have been verbal or linguistic squatters, possessing adversely what is truly ours. If possession is, in fact, nine-tenths of the law, then the one-tenth that remains is the legitimisation process” (21) (the use of legal discourse as the remains of her previous career). This process is the one that, according to Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin, will follow abrogation in the postcolonial world, and which they have called appropriation : “appropriation is the process by which the language is taken and made to ‘bear the burden’of one’s own cultural experience, or, as Raja Rao puts it, to ‘convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own’(Rao 1938 : vii17)”. Appropriation is then the process that could turn father English into a mother language.

  • 18 Coomie S. Venaina, art. cit., p..

13The mother language of this Afrosporic poet would then be that unlegitimized English that Afro-Caribbeans speak in the many islands, in all its varieties. Philip identifies this mother tongue with “the demotic which was forbidden […] because it was considered bad English18”, and which Edward Kamau Brathwaite has called “nation language,” the submerged language of enslaved New World Africans :

  • 19 Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “Nation Language”, in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft, Gar (...)

Nation language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, might be English to a greater or lesser degree19”.

  • 20 Philip has pointed out the patriarchal character implicit in Brathwaite’s term in an interview by K (...)
  • 21 Bill Ashcroftet al., op. cit., p. 45.
  • 22 Janice Williamson, “Writing a memory of losing that place. An interview with Marlene Nourbese Phili (...)
  • 23 John Skinner, The Stepmother Tongue. An Introduction to New Anglophone Fiction, Basingstoke, Macmil (...)

14Philip sees these features as strategies of the African in the Caribbean to impress her experience on the language (1720). The result, the mother language, was referred to in negative terms by the dominant powers as bad English, broken English, Patois, or dialect. Philip uses Noam Chomsky’s idea that language is nothing but a dialect with an army and navy to challenge the linguistic hegemony of Western Europe in the Caribbean, to legitimize her mother tongue. Taking up again her idea of the equation word/i-mage, she interprets this appropriation of the English language as a metaphoric representation of their life experience : “the havoc that the African wreaked upon the English language is, in fact, the metaphorical equivalent of the havoc that coming to the New World represented for the African” (18). However, this havoc has not been carried out to the same degree in all islands and by all Afro-Caribbeans, producing a wide range of different degrees of intervention of the African languages on English that linguists have called the Creole continuum21 and which Philip has described as “a spectrum of language22”. John Skinner offers the trope of the “stepmother tongue” to reflect the hybrid nature of this language23. For Philip, “it is in the continuum of expression from standard to Caribbean English that the veracity of the experience lies,” which clarifies her use of standard English (her father tongue) and Caribbean English (her mother tongue), confronting the formal and the demotic within the poetic text. Thus, the central section of the poem presents the main characteristics of the demotic as described by Brathwaite (in “Nation Language”), with its recuperation of the oral tradition based on sound and on the interaction between the poets and their audience. The line “dub tongue”, in the 5th stanza, makes reference to dub poetry, the form of Caribbean poetry that best incorporates African oral and musical traditions. Philip also acknowledges the weight of the Western literary tradition, as she states in her introduction to the poems :

The greatest strength of the Caribbean demotic lies in its oratorical energies which do not necessarily translate to the page easily […]. To keep the deep structure, the movement, the kinetic energy, the tone and pitch, the slides and glissandos of the demotic within a tradition that is primarily page bound–that is the challenge. (23)

  • 24 Brenda Carr, art. cit., p. 74.

15The weight of Western culture on the shoulders of the Afro-Caribbean writer is more clearly reflected in the edict sections, where Philip mimics the authoritarian discourse of the colonizer. These edicts are, according to Brenda Carr, “an (invented) archival document from colonialist history”. In her opinion, “Philip’s mimicry of fact-based discourse is used to recast rather than authorize history, to interrogate the para-legal codes that delegitimize free speech24”. The history of the Caribbean is deeply marked by slavery, which has shaped the actual social and family patterns of the Afro-Caribbean population, but this is a fact which has been silenced, in the same way as slaves were silenced through these edicts : “The African in the Caribbean could move away from the experience of slavery in time ; she could even acquire some perspective upon it, but the experience, having never been reclaimed and integrated metaphorically through the language and so within the psyche, could never be transcended” (15). Philip tries here to recuperate this silenced history. The first of the two edicts makes the imperialist effort to suppress African languages in the Caribbean explicit. As quoted above, the African slaves were made to erase their cultural and racial consciousness in order for them to enter the consciousness of their masters. The word “ethnolinguistic” emphasizes once more the issue at stake in the poem, the claiming back of a language (mother tongue) and a race culture, that is, the word and the i-mage. The suppression of the African languages forced Afro-Caribbeans to use English as the only language available, a language that, according to Philip, “merely served to articulate the non-being of the African.”

  • 25 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 295.
  • 26 See for instance Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane and Madelon Sprengnether (eds.), The M(Other) (...)
  • 27 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 299.
  • 28 Ibidem, p. 298.

16This is precisely the theme in the section on neurolinguistics, where reproducing the supposedly “objective” and “detached” discourse of science, Philip presents the theories of Western scientists that have given name to the sections in charge of linguistic capabilities in the human brain. The fact that two Western male names are used to describe the human (universal) organs that control speech has to be taken into account in this critique of linguistic imperialism. It is also relevant that these two scientists, Broca and Wernicke, worked in the nineteenth century, the moment of widest expansion of European imperialism. Moreover, Broca’s anthropological research, concerned with the comparative study of the craniums of the human races, sustained the racist and sexist hegemony of the white male who “had larger brains than, and were therefore superior to, women, Blacks and other peoples of colour” (57), a hypothesis ironically questioned by Philip’s use of inverted commas for “proving.” Philip opens her article “Managing the Unmanageable” with a reflection on this grouping together of all non-white non-male beings as “the Other” : “European thought has traditionally designated certain groups not only as inferior but also, paradoxically, as threats to their order, systems, and traditions of knowledge. Women, Africans, Asians, and aboriginals can be said to comprise these groups and together they constitute the threat of the Other–that embodiment of everything which the white male perceived himself not to be25”. The Other being defined in negative terms as irrational, uncontrolled, and evil (while the white male was rational, controlled and good), these groups are depicted as potentially dangerous to the western social order and they must be managed. And one powerful way to manage the Other is through language. The brutal suppression of the mother tongue is represented in the second edict with an image of physical violence that works as a metaphor for the excision of the mother tongue, the “linguistic rape” (23) perpetrated by the colonizers. The excised tongue signifies language loss and, by extension, loss of culture and history. The violence in the image of the second edict also represents the violence exerted on the African Caribbean slave descendants, who were given “a language that was used to brutalize and diminish Africans so that they would come to a profound belief in their own lack of humanity” (19). “The offending organ” of this edict also introduces the connection between the tongue and the penis, as instruments of oppression and submission in phallogocentric regimes, which is made explicit in the final section, the multiple choice test. As in the section on neurolinguistics, Philip reproduces here fact-based discourse, subverted by the introduction among the possible answers of blunt statements on the oppression exerted by white colonizers. This section foregrounds the political issues on language and colonialism that the other sections presented metaphorically. Thus, the first of the questions refers back to the concept of father language by establishing a symbolic equivalent value of the penis and the tongue, which, as suggested in the second question, is/are “the principal organ of oppression and exploitation.” The equivalence in terms of power of the tongue and the penis has been theorized in western culture by Freud and Lacan, who associate the child’s entrance into social language as her/his leaving the maternal language to enter the realm of the Law of the Father. In feminist studies, this theory of the Mother/Father tongues has been widely discussed26. The penis in this poem is a symbol of control and domination, as is the overseer’s whip. Philip has written on this double colonization of the black woman : “Historically for her there was the management of the overseer’s whip or gun, but there was the penis, symbol of potential or real management in malefemale relations. Today the overseer’s whip has been replaced in some instances by more subtle practices of racism ; the penis continues, however, to be the symbol of control and management, used to cow or control27”. For the African woman in the New World, the “law of the white father” was not a theoretical concept but a hard reality. In Philip’s poetry, the presence of the material body is very powerful. In this poem, tongue, lips, brain and penis “embody” cultural oppression. The body is a site of memory and history/herstory, in Philip’s words, “the repository of all the tools necessary for spiritual and cultural survival […]. Body, text, history, and memory–the body with its remembered and forgotten texts is of supreme importance in both the larger History and the little histories of the Caribbean28”.

  • 29 Ibid., p. 300.

17The role of the African Caribbean woman as repository and transmitter of memory and history is the theme in the narrative section in the left-hand margins. I previously mentioned that the position of the text is relevant and meaningful, since it disturbs the readers by making us turn the page and look at the capitalized narrative. Philip has offered a definition of the margin that also questions our definitions of it. For her, the margin “also means frontier. And when we think of ourselves as being on the frontier, our perspective immediately changes. Our position is no longer in relation to the managers, but we now face outward, away from them, to the undiscovered space and place up ahead which we are about to uncover–spaces in which we can empower ourselves29”. This section is also on the generic frontier between poetry and the folktale, a form which is also relevant to Philip’s recuperation of the mother culture. The whole collection of poems presents an epic journey of seeking and returning to the mother and the mother tongue (the book has a dedication “For all the mothers”). We must take into account the different socio-historic conditions for the reproduction of mothering and the recuperation of the mother-daughter dyad in the Afro-Caribbean context. The slave trade destroyed the African kinship system through the violence exerted on the African female body, such as forced reproduction and subsequent abduction, that is, the forced separation of the mother and child. The mother in Philip’s poems represents the lost motherland, Africa. During the enslavement history, the mother was often the keeper of the culture’s memory. Philip’s return to her cultural past re-members not only the trauma of being enslaved, but also the enduring esteemed position of the mother. The archetypal configuration of the mother as symbol of the lost motherland is characteristic of diasporic writing, where the separation from the motherland involves the loss of family relationships.

  • 30 Brenda Carr, art. cit., p. 74.

18On the first page, the text deals with the prevailing images of the poem, the tongue and whiteness, with a mother licking the white substance away from the body of her child, a neuter newborn (“it”) that becomes a daughter in the second part of the tale. The mother tongue is physical (a mother’s tongue) and also symbolic of African Caribbean culture. The body here is not just any body, but the African female body, and Philip “theorizes this body as a corporeal text that refused to submit to the cultural deformation of the colonial process30”, a refusal shown in the mother’s licking the white substance away from her baby’s body. The action of “mothering” the baby (caressing, licking and blowing words) presented in the narrative section illuminates those stanzas of the central poem, where the poet plays with the terms “mother” and “tongue” as verbs :

I have no mother/tongue/no mother to tongue/no tongue to mother/to mother/tongue/me,” and last stanza–“tongue mother/tongue me/mothertongue me/mother me/touch me/with the tongue of your/lan lan lang/language. (4th stanza)

  • 31 Françoise Lionnet, “Of Mangoes and Maroons : Language, History, and the Multicultural Subject of Mi (...)
  • 32 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 300.

19The second part of the tale describes the transmission of the mother tongue in a matrilineal succession. As Françoise Lionnet has pointed out, “matrilineal filiation in slave societies was the only acknowledged genealogy, and hence the only possible means of retracing memory and charting the contours of a historical past31”. The women writers of the Caribbean take the silenced text of the female Afro-Caribbean body/memory/herstory onto the printed page and in doing so, they are also subverting and rebelling against management because “the managers have not traditionally thought of us as thinkers, or writers, or keepers of memory and history32”.

  • 33 Janice Williamson, art. cit., p. 244.

20Marlene Nourbese Philip has taken onto her shoulders the responsibility of continuing this role of the African Caribbean woman as keeper of memory and history. As many other postcolonial writers, she believes the storyteller and poet have an important political role in their societies, which she defines in the following way : “a writer needs to be fully cognizant of her responsibilities, of the privilege and blessing that being a writer brings in its train ; and of those many responsibilities, the most important is being a witness to the truth in one’s writing, which is often a difficult undertaking. I believe, as James Baldwin said, that my job as a writer is to disturb the status quo33”.

21Whether we approach her poem for a study of postmodern features, from psychoanalysis, from a feminist perspective, or as a document on colonial relations, there is no doubt that Philip has managed to disturb the status quo of western literary criticism. The multiplicity of discourses in her poem compels the critic to employ as many different critical tools as possible, since no single one would provide us with a complete and deep understanding of the poem.

Notes

1 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1993.

2 Smaro Kamboureli, On the Edge of Genre : The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem, Toronto, Toronto University Press, 1991.

3 Marlene Nourbese Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Charlottetown, Ragweed, 1989, p. 22. Reference to this edition will henceforth be included parenthetically in the text.

4 In order to appreciate the relevance of these issues implicit in the act of reading, it is very convenient to read the poems aloud, so as to realize how the different poetic voices and discourses interrupt and interact. As a teacher of literature in university courses, I have had the opportunity to experiment with the poem’s performative nature. In class, I ask four students, two women and two men, to read the different sections aloud. The gender of the reader of each section is important to understand the connections that Philip establishes within the poem between each discourse and what she has called “father” and “mother” cultures.

5 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, in Caribbean Women Writers, S. R. Cudjoe (ed.), Wellesley, Calaloux, 1990, p. 297.

6 Ibidem, p. 298.

7 Coomie S. Vevaina, “Searching for Space : A Conversation with M. Nourbese Philip, 18 May, 1996”, Open Letter, no. 9, 1997, p. 19.

8 Not exclusive of poetry ; Edward Kamau Brathwaite has studied jazz structures in Caribbean fiction : “Jazz and the West Indian Novel”, in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.), London, Routledge, 1995, p. 327-331.

9 Brenda Carr, “To ‘Heal the Word Wounded’ : Agency and the Materiality of Language and Form in M. Nourbese Philip’s She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks”, Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en Littérature canadienne, vol. 19, no 1, 1994, p. 81.

10 Ibid.

11 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 298.

12 Naomi Guttman, “Dream of the Mother Language : Myth and History in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks”, MELUS, vol. 21, no. 3, Autumn 1996, p. 55.

13 Brenda Carr, art. cit., p. 78.

14 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths et Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures, London, Routledge, 1989, p. 38.

15 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 296.

16 Ibid.

17 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures, p. 38-39.

18 Coomie S. Venaina, art. cit., p..

19 Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “Nation Language”, in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.), London, Routledge, 1995, p. 311.

20 Philip has pointed out the patriarchal character implicit in Brathwaite’s term in an interview by Kristen Mahlis where she explains her use of “demotic” instead : “Kamau Brathwaite talks about ‘nation language’when he refers to the Caribbean–I talk about the demotic, because for me, nation is a male discourse. While I understand and support what he’s doing in that this vernacular or what some call patois or dialect is the language through which people come to assemble themselves as a nation, I can’t rest there. I’m far more interested in playing with the whole idea of demos, going back to Egypt, to draw a bead, so to speak, on the hidden histories of the people responsible for the richly subversive language of the Caribbean.” Kristen Mahlis, “A Poet of Place : An Interview with M. Nourbese Philip”, Callaloo, vol. 27, n° 3, Summer 2004, p. 684-85.

21 Bill Ashcroftet al., op. cit., p. 45.

22 Janice Williamson, “Writing a memory of losing that place. An interview with Marlene Nourbese Philip”, in Sounding Differences. Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers, Janice Williamson (ed.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1993, p. 227.

23 John Skinner, The Stepmother Tongue. An Introduction to New Anglophone Fiction, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1998, p. 162.

24 Brenda Carr, art. cit., p. 74.

25 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 295.

26 See for instance Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane and Madelon Sprengnether (eds.), The M(Other) Tongue : Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985.

27 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 299.

28 Ibidem, p. 298.

29 Ibid., p. 300.

30 Brenda Carr, art. cit., p. 74.

31 Françoise Lionnet, “Of Mangoes and Maroons : Language, History, and the Multicultural Subject of Michelle Cliff’s Abeng”, in De/Colonizing the Subject : the Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (eds.), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p. 339.

32 Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Managing the Unmanageable”, p. 300.

33 Janice Williamson, art. cit., p. 244.

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