Geographies of pain
Hands To Mark the Time When They Were Warriors” Literature, as a discursive practice that encodes and transmits as well as creates ideology, is a mediating force in society: it structures our sense of the world since narrative or stylistic conventions and plot resolutions serve to either sanction and perpetuate cultural myths, or to create new mythologies that allow the writer and the reader to engage in a constructive re-writing of their social contexts. Women writers are often especially aware of their task as producers of images that both participate in the dominant representations of their culture and simultaneously undermine and subvert those images by offering a re-vision of familiar scripts. Thus, Harriet Jacobs, the nineteenth-century African-American writer, uses the conventions of the seduction novel as well as the Victorian ideology of “true womanhood” in order to attract readership for her Incidents in the Life of a Slave
Girl. But she transforms those conventions by concluding her autobiographical tale with the statement “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage” (201), thus placing a high value on a woman’s need for independence and self-expression-a radical stance in 1861. Jacobs also stresses the right of her character, Linda Brent, to choose to act in a deliberately calculated way with a single purpose in mind: freedom, even if some of Linda’s actions (sexual activity outside of marriage) are socially unacceptable, and morally reprehensible to her readers. Here, for the female slave, the end clearly justifies the means, even if the means are morally suspect. As Jean Fagan Yellin has said: “Instead of coupling unsanctioned female sexual activity with self-destruction and death, Incidents presents it as a mistaken tactic in the struggle for freedom. Jacobs’s narrator does not characterize herself conventionally as a passive female victim, but asserts that-even when young and a slave-she was an effective moral agent” (xxx). Harriet Jacobs redefines morality by reframing the subject of woman’s sexual oppression. She addresses the issue of feminine desire and sexual agency in a way that helps to demystify the ideology of feminine virtue as it was previously constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. As heirs to the tradition-exemplified by Jacobs-that recasts female subjectivity and agency by allowing women to name structures of oppression, and to resist their debilitating effects, many twentieth-century black women writers in Africa and the diaspora have, since the 1970s, been equating marriage itself (or other forms of heterosexual alliances) with confinement and captivity, denouncing their culture’s failure to offer models of sexual partnership that are not demeaning or degrading to women, and that allow for the mutual recognition of differences. These African and African-American writers generally place the burden of responsibility for the insidious and gradual deterioration of gender relations on male characters whose indifference and/or aggression serve to perpetuate the structures of authority that contain, confine, and silence women within the domestic domain.1 Though victimized by patriarchal social structures that perpetuate their invisibility and dehumanization, black female characters actively resist their objectification, to the point of committing murder. This extreme step is often taken after years of attempting to survive in an environment where they are, at best, the victims of sheer neglect, and, at worst, the object of violent abuse. Three contemporary writers, Gayl Jones, Bessie Head, and Myriam Warner-Vieyra, use female murderers as main protagonists, and the themes of disfiguration, castration, and imprisonment feature prominently in their texts. In this essay, I shall attempt to delineate the similarities among the fictions of these authors in order to come to some theoretical conclusions about the symbolic meaning of their choice of motifs, and the cultural anxieties it seems to reveal.