Translation of the Postcolonial Body

Elleke Boehmer discusses the process of pervasive transfiguring of the damaged colonial body within the postcolonial discourse. The author suggests the analogy between Freudian theory of hysteria and symbolization under colonialism.  Freud viewed physical disorders as being translated into a language of body images. Similarly, in colonial representation physical descriptions of the colonized, or the Other, are created into the binary opposition to the colonizer. White, Western man, intellectual and in control is opposed to raw, carnal, dark-skinned Other. Boehmer asserts that,

… images of the body of the Other are conflated with those of the land, unexplored land too being seen as amorphous, wild, seductive, dark, open to possession. Therefore, as opposed to the psychoanalytical scenario (hence the partial analogy), agency in this case belongs to the colonizer/analyst, not to the colonized/ patient. (269-70).African Wood Figure

It is stressed in the article that many early European explorers have paved the way for colonialism. European travelers’ first perception of the Other was based on the distinct from the white man physical characteristics of his body.  The body of the Other had been stripped to its most physical form and had been transformed into the mere signifier of the difference, the explanation of the savagery, wildness and intense sexuality of the colonized. As Boehmer explains,

Under colonialism such representation offered important self-justifications. For what is body and instinctual is by definition dumb and inarticulate. As it does not (itself) signify, or signify coherently, it may be freely occupied, scrutinized, analyzed, resignified. This representation carries complete authority; the Other cannot gainsay it. The body of the Other can represent only its own physicality, its own strangeness. (270).

Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday One of the examples of colonial narrative used by Boehmer is Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”  His colonial image of savage Friday is the enslaved Other, silenced outsider to European life. His existence is diminished to the minimal space of his body. Such silenced representation of the colonized acquires new perspective in modern literature.

In contrast to Defoe, postcolonial writer Vyvanne Loh’s protagonist Claude witnesses a man whose tongue is being plucked out. It inspires Claude to learn Chinese as a proclamation of rejection of colonial power inflicted on him. His body is the ultimate manifestation of the Otherness. His ability to speak Chinese is powerful, and is transformed into anti-colonial proclamation.

Boehmer affirms that, “this is perhaps one of the key distinguishing features of the postcolonial: the conversion of imposed dumbness into self-expression, the self-representation by the colonial “body” of its scars, its history” (272). Postcolonial texts therefore, strive to use the silenced body of the Other as the subject of “symbolic reversal and transfiguration” (Boehmer 272). As Boehmer further observes, “representing its own silence, the colonized body speaks; uttering its wounds, it negates its muted condition” (272). The oppressed body of the colonized articulates its experiences placing itself in a syntax of history.  Referring back to the hysteria analogy, as Boehmer points, postcolonial nationalist writings transform the former object body into the subject of its own narrative, “something like the hysteric’s taking cure” (272).

  Ang Chong Lai “Otherness”The oppressed body inscribes itself, strives for its own representation. The body in the postcolonial discourse becomes the ultimate space for transfiguration, for healing from colonial experiences, or as Boehmer put it, “transfiguration, in effect, becomes the recuperation of the body by way of narrative” (273). One of the forms of postcolonial translation of the oppressed body is employed by Tsitsi Dangarmebga. The female body of her protagonist Nayasha is the turning point of colonial oppression. It is transformed from a silenced object of her father’s control into a powerful tool of protestation. A different approach is taken by Vyvyanne Loh. Her protagonist Claude resorts to the space of his physical body as rejection of colonial infliction that affected his mind. The split body of Claude exemplifies internal alienation that stems from practices of colonial Othering.



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