At the end of her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak concludes that the subaltern has no voice. But what defines the subaltern? Traditionally, race, gender, and economics have delineated class distinctions within a particular society. The postcolonial society, however, complicates this stratification. Tsitsi Dangarembga explores the indistinct notion of class and privilege in her novel Nervous Conditions. Tambu, the narrator, faces the racial distinctions of colonialism as well as the patriarchy ingrained in her society as obstacles to her quest for an education and a better life. Yet, once she receives the opportunity for an education, she seemingly transcends both these obstacles and her subaltern status—or does she? Dangarembga argues the contrary by comparing Tambu to her cousin, Nyasha, who despite her financial privilege still is oppressed by patriarchy and disparate social standards. By highlighting the effect of gender distinctions on her perceived social status, Tambu’s narrative demonstrates the complexity of subaltern status, which cannot be effaced solely through economic gain.
At the beginning of the novel, Tambu’s gender encompasses the crux of her subaltern status. Tambu’s relationship to her brother, Nhamo, demonstrates this aspect of her gender. When Tambu complains about not being able to go to school, her mother, Mainini, advises her to accept her lack of opportunity and to bear “the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other” (Dangarembga 16). Tambu does not accept her condition and cites her aunt, Maiguru, as an example of overcoming both the “burdens” of race and gender. She bases this observation, however, upo...
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... same complications that plague her educated female relatives. Although by the end of the novel, she does not tacitly accept subaltern status, her selective ignorance of the factors contributing to her subordination preserves such status. Ultimately, true to Spivak’s original claim, Tambu fails to gain her full voice but awaits the completion of her path to hegemony.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. New edition. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2004.
Gairola, Rahul. “Burning with Shame: Desire and South Asian Patriarchy, from Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ to Deepa Mehta’s Fire.” Comparative Literature 54:4 (Fall 2002). 307-324. EBSCOhost.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994. 66-111.
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