A question of voice


A Question of Voice?

By Loreli C. Buenaventura

Feb. 27, 2000


The other day as I grabbed a jar of curry paste from the fridge to add to chickpeas heating on the stove, I was met by a look of puzzlement on my roommate’s face. She, an international student from Delhi, explained to me that she does not buy packaged curry in India, be it paste, spice or powder. What I refer to as curry is her equivalent of cooking with cumin, turmeric, ginger, garlic and onions. As she is speaking, I stare at her in amazement, my mind wandering to how the developing world is represented in the West. The next day, as I watch my roommate swirl cumin seeds in hot oil with a soft brush of her long handled spoon, and as the aroma meets my nose, I realize how her curry cooking cannot be captured in a Western jar of curry paste. So much is lost in the “translation” and I can sense a gulf between her and I because of this experience.In one of my Sociology classes the following week, a parallel occurrence takes place. Our class is studying the conceptualization of nationhood and the spread of nationalism. Though I find interesting how print capitalism coincided with the rise of nationalism and imagined communities, an element in the discussion prevents me from being fully engaged. From my perspective, the classroom and textual discourse cannot grasp the passion behind why people die for their country, especially in the developing world. As in my realization the week before of how curry cannot be represented fully in the Western world, our discussion on nationalism cannot be communicated with full integrity. The courage and resilience of thousands of people who fought against colonialism in the name of freedom seem lost in this academic discourse, as is the impact of brutal violence inflicted on the colonized by colonizers. I am under the impression that we are studying what Filipino nationalist scholar Renato Constantino calls “history without tears.” As the discussion on imperalism and colonized societies continues, I find another element missing – the complex heterogeneity of experience that exists among the colonized, especially based on gender and sexuality. What happens to these voices when they are not represented in text?

In Writing Diaspora (1993), Rey Chow distinguishes the discourses of the colonizer from the colonized, relegating the act of “speaking” to a well-defined structure and history of domination. According to Chow, there is a chasm between the two discourses because of the “essential intranslatability” from one to the other. In other words, the colonized cannot be represented fully in imperialist discourse because of what is lost in the translation. In Thinking Through (1995), Himani Bannerji broadens this discussion when she speaks of the difficulties with regard to centring “Third World” voices in Western cultural production – when such voices are present, they are usually out of step with the rest of the expressive enterprises.

Bannerji’s words resonate with me as I recall my sense of frustration when sitting through studies of nationalism in a Western classroom. I first learned about nationalism through the performing arts. For ten years, I studied under my late uncle, a political activist in the Philippines who formed a popular theatre group when he immigrated to Winnipeg. His signature piece, Walang Takbuhan (No Running Away) comprised a cast of twelve who enacted the real lives of activists with whom he worked alongside in solidarity. In assuming these roles, we knew each of their names and their history of resistance. My uncle impressed upon us the seriousness of who and what we represented. And what I learned about nationalism through song, dance, storytelling, improvisation and movement could never be grasped in talks taking place within graduate studies seminars. I understand now that Western academic texts can never capture what is communicated through a clenched fist, the circular composition and dispersion of bodies on stage or the slight rise in my grandmother’s voice when speaking of surviving Japanese occupation in the Philippines.

As we traveled across Canadian and US cities to perform Walang Takbuhan, I sensed the pain my uncle experienced each night in watching pastiches of his life performed on stage. This was not a study of history without tears. Instead, we learned about Philippine history through a lot of tears – a lot of anger, frustration, pride and joy, too. And through it all, I learned not to be detached from this history of revolution passed on to me from previous generations.

As these thoughts run through my mind, I am more and more waging a struggle in the classroom. In discussing nationalism in a Western academic context, I feel forced to compartmentalize my intellect from my feelings. I want so much to approach the subject matter more holistically, to be a full-embodied being in the classroom, to be present, to be visible But in this moment I sense a divide that separates me from everyone else in the room because the information I want to share about nationalism cannot be translated entirely to Western academic and imperialist discourse. I can only communicate such knowledge through a forceful kick in the air, a pirouette in lightly lit space and the outstretch of a hand. I realize then that the question is no longer who can speak. Instead I ask, who can hear and who will listen?

Loreli C. Buenaventura is the Arts Editor of Pagitica magazine.