one of my favourite undergraduate literature professors once told me that when a moment in a text disturbs you, doesn’t quite align with your argument, or constitutes a point of tension with which you are reluctant to deal, the last thing you should do is try to forget about it and move on. that moment is, more often than not, worthy of investigation.
part of what attracted me to returning home to study literature at the university of cape town was the certainty that doing so would diversify my educational experience. my high school followed an american system, and i simply did not learn south african history. though we did read chinua achebe and frederick douglass for english, our set works were prevailingly those of european white men. at NYU, my literature classes were comparatively global – we travelled through time and space from the bible to the bhagavad gita, john locke to frantz fanon, jane austen to toni morrison – but i would still say that any discussion of resistance and postcolonial literature was either too sanitary or still contextualised and framed within the borders of the united states, a country that is frequently demographically, socially, and politically quite incomparable to countries like south africa. indeed, my professors at UCT are almost all experts in the sort of literature that has troubled the philosophical and semantic certainties of the European canon, and it has been glorious. we have been able to dissect texts with a view to the contemporary moment in this country and discover, with a shudder, that they are still strikingly relevant.
recently, we read kimberlé crenshaw’s mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. particularly struck by the following sentence, i jotted it down in my companionable yellow notebook along with a few parenthetical exclamation marks:
The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.
here, crenshaw identifies the devastating operational implications of white feminism’s lack of intersectionality. she points to the way in which ignorance has directly harmful effects (and i could go on about the way in which the colonial agenda is often excused as ignorance when it was actually a very deliberate move to self-assure and dominate during a period of great epistemological uncertainty). with all this in mind, i recognised how, reading sylvia plath in south africa, there have been moments of tension in her words that my undergrad literature professor would be disappointed to learn i have been conveniently ignoring.
i was reminded of crenshaw again when, the other day, i happened upon marianne egeland’s claiming sylvia plath: the poet as exemplary figure. i have discovered a sylvia plath shelf in the library, and i go there intermittently when the commotion of a full day on campus makes me feel like i need the comfort of a familiar voice and books and quiet. sitting cross-legged on the floor between the stacks, i stopped skimming and began reading when egeland spent some time discussing the large amount of contestation over whether plath can be considered a political (oh, the nebulousness of this term!) writer. egeland notes that while plath adopts what is contemporarily considered problematic language – we’re talking words like ‘colored’ (US context) and ‘indian’ (instead of ‘native american’) – she was nonetheless ‘race-conscious’. she also notes that renée r. curry in white women writing white considers plath to be blind to her own whiteness, though egeland does remark on what she sees as curry’s dubious methods for arriving at such a conclusion.
what does it mean to be at a university where i’m continually trying to critically distance myself from the whiteness of the canon while also trying to make sense of what i still view as trailblazing femininity in the work of my beloved author and poet? i am trying to consider the way in which my contemporary reading is going to inherently be more critical, while also questioning whether and when that new layer of questioning is good or bad. can we be forgiving? if so, when? considering the context? but then does this context not bleed into the same problem crenshaw identifies happening precisely at that moment in history (and still happening)? and even then, is plath only writing white as much as curry wants us to believe? what do we make of the bell jar, which contains a number of problematic racial epithets, but also inspires this? what about how i taught my tutorial students “lady lazarus” recently, and after class, some of them came up to tell me how much it had affected them and asked what else i would recommend reading (and this is in south africa)?
clearly, i still have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. but, perhaps, more anon.