White women writing the (post)colony : creolite, home and estrangement in novels by Rhys, Duras and Van Niekerk

Van Houwelingen, Caren (2012-03)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2012.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: This thesis investigates the ways in which white subjectivity is shaped by colonial and imperial spaces. Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (1934), Marguerite Duras’s The Sea Wall (1952/1967) and Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat (2004/2006) are vastly different novels from multifarious literary traditions, yet they join each other through their protagonists: white creole women. In this study, I engage most prominently with white creole female subjectivity, framing my study with theories of the subject proposed by Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler. In order to interrogate creolité, I draw on Bhabha’s concept of “thirdness” – a category signifying a position in-between binary categories of representation – and Butler’s conceptualisation of subjectivity/subjection, through which she highlights the ambivalences of the process of interpellation. I also read through lenses proposed by whiteness studies in the United States and South Africa, approaching creolité not as an indication of racial hybridity, but rather a term connoting cultural and political in-betweenness. As my discussions of the novels illustrate, white creole femininity in the (post)colony is a subject position through which intricate webs of “complicity and resistance” (Whitlock 349) have to be negotiated. Looking at the white creole women as textual constructs embedded in genres which advance a particular set of politics, I explore the ways in which the authors, through their novels and protagonists, navigate various political and cultural ambiguities and inconsistencies. Establishing the theoretical framework in the introductory first chapter, in Chapter 2 I read Rhys’s novel as a modernist text that elicits a particular postcolonial politics. I link the protagonist’s social alienation in London and the Caribbean to the experience of the middle passage; this is followed by an exploration of her sexuality with reference to the figures of the European prostitute and the ‘Hottentot’ Venus. In Chapter 3 I investigate Duras’s novel and trace the ways in which a family of impoverished “Colonial natives” (Duras 138) continually fail to establish themselves as ‘legitimate’ white colonials in (French colonial) Southeast Asia. Lastly, in Chapter 4, I approach Van Niekerk’s novel not only as a feminist re-writing of the plaasroman, but also as a “complicitous critique” (Warnes 121) that reflects nostalgically – yet critically – on Afrikaner nationalism. I show how the novel registers a vision of the quotidian that is uncomfortable and unhomely. Together, the three novels speak in highly comparable and complex ways about how white creole women experience (un)homeliness in the (post)colony. This thesis probes the extent to which the novels negotiate ‘home’ (or the lack thereof): displaced, alienated and often expressing forms of nostalgia, the protagonists struggle to establish forms of belonging in spaces within which they oscillate between opposed cultures, ideologies and politics. Ultimately, my study is crucially underscored by the question of displacement and estrangement (in various guises), and the way in which they inflect the establishment and performance of femininity.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Hierdie tesis ondersoek die wyses waarop koloniale en imperiale ruimtes wit subjektiwiteit beïnvloed. Jean Rhys se Voyage in the Dark (1934), Marguerite Duras se The Sea Wall (1952/1967) en Marlene van Niekerk se Agaat (2004/2006) is uiteenlopende romans uit verskeie literêre tradisies: nietemin sluit hulle by mekaar aan deur hul hoofkarakters – wit kreoolse vroue. ‘n Bespreking van wit kreoolse vroulike subjektiwiteit vorm die grondslag van my studie, en ek struktureer dit rondom Homi Bhabha en Judith Butler se teorieë van subjektiwiteit. Ek benader kreoolsheid deur middel van Bhabha se konsep van “thirdness” – a kategorie wat ‘n plek tussen binêre opposisies aandui – asook Butler se teorie van “subjectivity/subjection” waarin sy the ambivalente proses van interpellasie belig. Verder lees ek die tekste met behulp van benaderings soos uiteengelê deur blankheid studies in die Verenigde State en Suid-Afrika. Ek beskou (wit) kreoolsheid dus nie as ‘n aanduiding van ras-hibrideit nie, maar eerder kulturele en politieke ambivalensie. My bespreking van die drie romans illustreer postkoloniale wit kreoolse vroulikheid as ‘n subjek-kategorie wat verwikkeld is in vorms van medepligtigheid én opstandigheid (Whitlock 349). Ek beskou die karakters as literêre konstrukte wat ingebed is in genres met spesifieke politieke standpunte. As sodanig, dink ek ook na oor die wyses waarop the outeurs, deur middel van hul romans en hoofkarakters, uiteenlopende politieke en kulturele teenstrydighede uitbeeld. In Hoofstuk 1 lê ek ‘n teoretiese raamwerk uiteen, en in Hoofstuk 2 beskou ek Rhys se roman as ‘n modernistiese teks wat terselfdertyd opvallende postkoloniale politieke temas bevat. Ek vergelyk die hoofkarakter se posisie as sosiale verstoteling in Londen en die Karibiese Eilande met die ervaring van die “middle passage”; daarna vergelyk ek haar seksualiteit met dié van die wit Europese prostituut en die ‘Hottentot’ Venus. In Hoofstuk 3 bespreek ek Duras se roman, en verken die wyses waarop ‘n gesin van “Koloniale inboorlinge” (Duras 138) in Suidoos Asië deurentyd misluk om rykdom en sosiale aansien te bekom. Laastens, in Hoofstuk 4, interpreteer ek Van Niekerk se roman nie net as ‘n feministiese herskrywing van die plaasroman nie, maar ook as ‘n “complicitous critique” (Warnes 121) wat nostalgies, maar ook op ‘n kritiese wyse, oor Afrikaner-nasionalisme nadink. Ek argumenteer verder dat die teks ‘n ongemaklike beeld van die alledaagse, asook die identifisering met die eie, skets. Wanneer die drie romans tesame beskou word, is dit duidelik dat hulle op hoogs vergelykbare en komplekse maniere nadink oor hoe wit kreoolse vroue hul sosiale en politieke posisies in (post)koloniale ruimtes ervaar. Hierdie tesis ondersoek die wyses waarop die romans tuisheid (of die gebrek daaraan) te bowe kom: die hoofkarakters is dikwels misplaas, vervreem en nostalgies, en is dikwels verwikkeld in ‘n stryd om te behoort, midde-in teenoorgestelde kulture, ideologieë en politieke standpunte. Ek baseer my tesis op die groter oorkoepelende problematiek van ontheemdheid en verveemding (in verskeie gedaantes), en hoe dit vorm gee aan die vestiging en beoefening van vroulike subjektiwiteit.

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