| Big Book Chain Chat #68: Naipaul’s temerity carves into the heart of the matter
Upon reading VS Naipaul’s utterances about his clairvoyant ability to distinguish a writer’s gender by simply reading a paragraph, I was shocked beyond the realm of language; was this Nobel Prize for Literature winner really echoing Sir Robert Southey’s letter to Charlotte Brontë from 1837 who famously said, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and ought not to be”? It would be ludicrously obvious to jump on to a feminist horse at this juncture and prattle on about the fact that we need to create a discourse that gives women a unique voice in literature, but the truth is that language is but a tool that we colour as we see fit. We all use language to enact an identity, our identity that is made up of our own experiences, background, framework and beliefs – to me the true crime that Naipaul’s utterances commit is that he has the audacity to claim that all women from all cultures have the same "sentimentality [and] narrow view of the world"; blatantly ejaculating that women are without context, without authentic voice and without the ability to apprehend the world – as individuals.
I find it unacceptable that someone who is a “who’s who” in the literary community, who writes chiefly about Colonialism and Othering, can stand up on his phallocentric pedestal and Other more than half the population of the world. Have we not moved past this? How can it be that in 2011 we still have this ridiculous fight to fight: “Women are people too” – I cringe as I type that little fragment, thinking it’s so obvious, isn’t it? Apparently not. The fact that Naipaul as an educated person can invoke a binary as troglodytic as “man = rational and woman = irrational” is just too absurd even to contemplate; and yet he left us in no doubt that that is exactly what he means.
In her rebuttal to this cycloptic “member” of the human race, Gillian Schutte raises an interesting point: perhaps Naipaul has done us a favour by unmasking the truth behind the politically correct discourse that we hide behind in literature. True, we no longer live in Victorian England, where we literally have to fight “The Man”, but it does make the fight for marginal voices all the more difficult when the dominant discourse claims to be all-inclusive, but is then selective about the voices that it allows to be heard – the hypocrisy is tenfold.
Perhaps we need people like Naipaul to come by and shake our trees a little now and then, so that we do not become complacent and trapped in our own discourse. Perhaps we should, instead of focusing on the fact that Naipaul has said that women are not equal to him as writers, focus on the idea that he is employing a discourse of Othering that he seeks to abandon and crack open in his works of fiction: he explores the damage of the colonial legacy in novels such as Half a Life, but sadly does not realise that he is propagating the selfsame in his utterances as a supposedly “emancipated” subject.
Naipaul’s utterances, though appallingly misogynistic, highlight the broader problem of a duplicitous discourse which, although outwardly denouncing a totalising patriarchal occidental prerequisite, fails to truly deliver egalitarian opportunities to all. He draws our attention to the fact that most literature is pigeonholed: according to him women write “feminine tosh”, but on a broader scale, black male writers write “African literature”, black female writers write “African women’s literature” … In a way, he is participating in the great debate about literature as a whole, and neatly brings us back to the conundrum of “Who gives whom the right to label what as literature?”
That is not a question that can truly be answered, but until we embrace the fact that there is no superior voice in literature and that this business that we are in is a craft – with each person etching at different depths and with more or less complexity on the same block of wood – we will not get to a place where we can appreciate literature for its being instead of its circumstances.
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