This section contains 3,537 words
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Critical Essay by Suzanne Kehde
SOURCE: "Colonial Discourse and Female Identity: Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 70-7.
In the following essay, Kehde analyzes Mukherjee's focus on the myth of America as Eden and Jasmine's identification first and foremost as a woman in Mukherjee's Jasmine.
For Jasmine, Mukherjee's eponymous protagonist, the kind of liberty she enjoys is a consequence of, rather than the reason for, her coming to the New World. An illegal immigrant from Punjab, who "phantom[s her] way through three continents" on unscheduled flights landing on the disused airfields of the shadow world, she finally crosses the Atlantic in a sea voyage as horrifying as any suffered by the Mayflower pilgrims. Her first sight of America is no more attractive than Plymouth Rock was to them:
The first thing I saw were the two cones of a nuclear plant, and smoke spreading from them in complicated but seemingly purposeful patterns, edges lit by the rising sun, like a gray, intricate map of an unexplored island continent, against the pale unscratched blue of the sky. I waded through Eden's waste: plastic bottles, floating oranges, boards, sodden boxes, white and green plastic sacks tied shut but picked open by birds and pulled apart by crabs.
The "unexplored island continent" is not what Spivak calls "uninscribed earth"; it is aggressively inscribed with the signs of contemporary American culture. This passage, however, is not as simply ironic as it may appear in isolation. As throughout the novel, the relationship between the myth of Eden and the narrative trajectory is not that of parodic inversion. For example, nuclear plants may be dangerous, but they signal a country where hot water is taken for granted: "a miracle, that even here in a place that looked deserted … the tiles and porcelain should be clean, without smells, without bugs."
Invoking the myth of America as Eden, Mukherjee brings colonial discourse into play. The image of Paradise has informed representations of America since the news of Columbus's discovery reached Europe at the beginning of the mercantile period. The Genesis account of Eden justifies a "natural" hierarchy based on gender and control of the natural world enforced by language. Man is the focus of power. All the resources of the earth exist for his welfare and pleasure. His right to rule legitimated by the Heavenly Father, Adam is the first patriarch; naming the animals while he is the sole human being, he establishes language as a function of domination. Eve is born into a preexistent hierarchy with only a father, thus entering an already constituted discourse with no one to speak for her as a woman; flesh of Adam's flesh, her identity is forever subordinated to his. This model provides the justification for the "natural" subordination of women to men and, by extension, the appropriation of the land, goods, and labor of the colonial subject, whose feminization is a condition of his subjugation.
As Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook and Angela Carter's Passion of New Eve suggest, the exploitative opportunities implicit in the myth are not available to women in the same configurations as to men because the myth constitutes women as already colonized subjects. This is not to imply that women cannot be colonizers, exploiters, or oppressors, only that their relationship to colonial discourse is more problematic. In Jasmine's case, her relationships to people she meets are defined by colonial discourse; that is, they attempt to construct her by the mechanisms of difference, resemblance, and desire. She may resist these constructions in some cases, acquiesce in others. Half-Face, the owner of the boat bringing her to Florida—whose injuries sustained in Vietnam might perhaps have suggested to him that colonizers do not necessarily escape unscathed—reads Jasmine as "one prime little piece" who is so afraid of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that he can rape her with impunity, so docile he falls asleep while she is in the shower. When he sees her above him naked with her mouth open and blood pouring from her tongue, he is so startled he cannot prevent her from slitting one of his carotid arteries. Lillian Gordon, for whom "the world's misery was a challenge to her ingenuity," scrutinizes Jasmine for marks of difference that must be erased lest they betray her to the Immigration and Naturalization Service: her jeweled sandals, her inability to manage escalators and revolving doors, her un-American gait. The Vadheras, earlier (legal) immigrants who give her shelter in New York, emphasize resemblance, trying to pressure her into the "modesty of appearance and attitude" proper to a Hindu widow. Educated people are interested in differences because "they are always out to improve themselves"—in this case, by learning from her experience, which is perhaps democratic, as Jasmine sees it, but is also a kind of exploitation. The farmers she meets in Iowa, on the other hand, familiarize her because "alien knowledge means intelligence." Rapists, sympathizers, intellectuals, and farmers read her according to their own desires.
In some cases, Jasmine uses her Otherness to construct herself according to the colonizer's desires. This behavior began with her marriage in Punjab (as a girl, she strenuously resisted the traditional Hindu engenderment of woman.) Taken in as an au pair, she wishes to become what Taylor and Wylie imagine her to be: "humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate. Not illegal, not murderer, not widowed, destitute, fearful." An Iowa farm banker falls in love with her "because I am alien. I am darkness, mystery, inscrutability." Here is an example of what Homi Bhabha calls "the repeated hesitancy that afflicts the colonialist discourse when it contemplates its discriminated subjects—the inscrutability of the Chinese, the unspeakable rites of the Indians, the indescribable habits of the Hottentots"; however, it is colonial discourse used by the colonial subject to describe herself as she believes she appears to the colonizer. Once more, Mukherjee's use of colonial discourse is problematized. When a distraught farmer shoots and cripples Bud Ripplemeyer, Jasmine becomes what he needs—nurse, inventive sex partner, adoptive parent, expectant mother. Because she accepts them consciously, these identities provide sites of resistance for her. She never internalizes any one role—refusing to settle into being, she is always becoming. She draws attention to her multiplicity of identities: "I have had a husband for each of the women I have been. Prakash for Jasmine. Taylor for Jase, Bud for Jane, Half-Face for Kali." Although she consciously adapts to these proffered roles, her exploitation is not cynical. She is not hypocritical in the sense that she pretends to be someone she is not while clinging to another image of her "real" self. Rather, she has never conceived of herself as a unified, single, transcendental subject, but as a contingent being—a position of considerable strength. Her fluidity of personality not only allows her to survive multiple trauma but also makes room for hope.
The myth of America as Eden disrupts an earlier mythology. Jyoti/Jasmine's earliest memory, with which the novel opens, is of a Hindu astrologer's prediction of her widowhood and exile. This the seven year old resists by asserting her own claim to wisdom, through which resistance she accidentally acquires her "third eye." This star-shaped scar on her forehead (in the spot where Hindu women traditionally wear a tika) is thus an emblem of both her self-assertion and her power of foresight, forever throbbing with "pain and hope, hope and pain." In the same way, as a twelve-year-old she resists her father's essentialist construction—"the thing is that bright ladies are bearing bright sons, that is nature's design"—with a demand to be educated as a physician. Jasmine does not abandon Hindu mythology: she carries with her a small Ganpati (a version of Ganesha, the elephant god of knowledge); she makes frequent references to Lord Yama, the god of death, and others to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The myth of America as Eden begins to appear even before Jasmine/Jyoti thinks of coming to America. Her most desired characteristic in a prospective husband is his ability to speak English: "To want English was to want more than you had been given at birth, it was to want the world." Prakash, who attempts to remake Jyoti into Jasmine, a new woman, yearns for America, where his fellow graduates live in houses with electricity twenty-four hours a day and hot running water, which becomes for Jasmine the enduring paradisal attribute. But the myth of America never displaces Hindu mythology. In America, Jasmine seems to embrace the idea of reincarnation: "[T]he Lord lends us a body, gives us an assignment, and sends us down. When we get the job done, the Lord calls us home again for the next assignment." Though astonished by "the American need … to possess a vision so privately," she responds to an anthropologist's claim to out-of-body experiences by saying, "[T]heoretically, I believe in reincarnation"—a belief that underlies her ability to assume different identities. The colonial discourse of the American myth and the metaphysical discourse of Hinduism disrupt each other continually.
Juxtaposed to both these discourses is Jasmine's personal story of origin. Wishing to spare her fifth daughter both the pain of a dowryless bride and the exclusion from heaven of an unmarried woman, Jasmine's mother tried to strangle her at birth. Jasmine understands this attempted murder as an act of love. The act propels her into a new identity: "My grandmother may have named me Jyoti/Light, but in surviving I was already Jane, a fighter and adapter." This personal myth of intertwined ends and beginnings helps Jyoti/Jasmine/Jane negotiate the American and Hindu myths without allowing either one to define her. Consequently, she can maintain the fluid personality necessary for survival in a contingent world.
For Jasmine, events that appear as ends may, in fact, be beginnings—her widowhood at eighteen, for example, which in India would have mandated a life of mourning as a companion to her mother in her native village. Instead, Jasmine takes Prakash's new suit to the campus of the Florida college where he had been accepted, there to burn it and with the intention to commit sati in the blaze. This sense of a divinely appointed mission supports her through all the difficulties of her journey—one example of the way elements from all her myth systems provide support at critical moments. America turns out to be a site of new beginnings for Jasmine in spite of her intention to make it the site of her end. Throughout, beginnings and ends are woven inextricably together, and both are steeped in violence. Jasmine sees new beginnings as the assumptions of new identities rather than as the simpler assumption of a new way of life: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams." These self-murders are the inner corollary of exterior violence, psychological suicides necessitated by the shift in power position attendant upon murder and rape. Jasmine does not see her rape by Half-Face as a satiric comment on America as Eden. The world is generally violent: her mother's murder attempt, and her husband's death at the hands of a Sikh fanatic both took place in India. Each of these acts of violence propels her into a new identity.
In spite of the realist surface of her fiction, Mukherjee sees identity as constituted by discourse rather than as a stable attribute of the transcendent, unified individual of the realist novel. The flexibility necessary for survival in a changing world comes from the understanding—either conscious or unconscious—of the discursive basis of identity and the willingness to negotiate the discourse(s). Jasmine's well-honed ability to survive depends on her resistance to definition by any one discourse. This is emphasized by the trajectory of Darrel Lutz's story. He is conflicted by two identities constructed from incompatible myths. The first is the myth of the midwest family farm he grew up with, the second of a more nebulous idea of getting off the land. Jasmine succinctly describes these two identities: "Crazy, Darrel wants an Indian princess and a Radio Shack franchise in Santa Fe…. Sane, he wants to baby-sit three hundred hogs and reinvent the fertilizer/pesticide wheel." What provokes Jasmine to label these alternatives crazy and sane is unclear; they are, however, obviously incompatible. Needing to constitute himself as a single, unified personality, Darrel cannot live in this split condition. Suicide—a solution to difficult situations that Jasmine repeatedly entertains, then resists—is the only way he can imagine to resolve his conflict.
Jasmine/Jane's ruminations on Darrel's situation as the site of irreconcilable discourses provide a foil for her own colonized condition, which is augmented by her analysis of the subjectivity of Du, her adopted son. He is split in a much more complex way than Darrel Lutz, who is merely caught in a conflict generated by a single culture. Du, a Vietnamese orphan, is already split before coming to the United States. A "Saigon sophisticate" whose family owned technological appliances like television, he was presumably displaced by the United States withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, which made him a refugee (once more, presumably, Mukherjee shows the consequences of his history rather than furnishing that history itself) in another country, most probably Thailand, where the Vietnamese are alien outcasts, herded into camps, surviving on "live worms and lizards and crabs so [they] wouldn't starve to death." In Iowa, he tries to assimilate as quickly as possible. Seeing as Jasmine does that America is "a place where the language you speak is what you are," he refuses to talk if he doesn't know the right English phrases. He rejects the role of colonial subject his teacher attempts to impose: "Yogi's [a nickname bestowed by his classmates] in a hurry to become all-American, isn't he?… They were like that, the kids who hung around us in Saigon…. I tried a little Vietnamese on him … and he just froze up." In order to define the context of these comments, Mukherjee has Jasmine (silently) gloss them: "How dare you? What must [Du] have thought? His history teacher in Baden, Iowa, just happens to know a little street Vietnamese? Now where would he have picked it up?" The benevolent teacher reminds the refugee of his own role as colonial aggressor—the representative of the most recent of a long line of colonizers, including the Chinese and the French—by equating Du with the beggar orphans Jasmine knows he would have despised. Barely veiled, American imperialism controls student-teacher relations in a high school in America, where in the cinemas and in the home innumerable movies show rivers full of corpses and tracts of leafless "jungle" while Vietnamese teenagers write of the beautiful forests and the white, sandy river beaches they do not expect to see ever again.
Mr. Skola's representative attempt to constitute Du as a colonial subject provides for Du a site of resistance and for Jasmine an opportunity to scrutinize an especially overt manifestation of the mechanisms by which the colonial subject is constituted. Through Jasmine, Mukherjee forwards an analysis of the constitution of the (male) colonial subject so complex and subtle that, in contrast to the way in which Jasmine's situation is generally presented, it needs to be articulated rather than implied. When Jasmine discovers that, although she has never before heard Du speak Vietnamese, he has "made a life for himself among the Vietnamese in Baden," she realizes that he is "a hybrid." Here Mukherjee seems to use Bhabha's formulation of hybridization:
Produced through the strategy of disavowal, the reference of discrimination is always to a process of splitting as the condition of subjection; a discrimination between the Mother culture and its bastards, the self and its doubles, where the trace of what is disavowed is not repressed, but repeated as something different—a mutation, a hybrid…. [Hybridity] unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power, but re-implicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power. For the colonial hybrid is the articulation of the ambivalent space where the rite of power is enacted on the site of desire.
Bhabha's formulation explains Du's apparent attempt to become the all-American boy as mimicry rather than emulation, a site of resistance rather than acquiescence. Caught between two languages (and at least two discourses), Du establishes a position that not only enables him to deal with the conflict but empowers him to constitute that conflict as an opportunity for self definition. Jasmine sees him as hyphenated: "Du (Yogi) Ripplemeyer, a Vietnamese-American." Although Du's hyphenation allows him to move between two cultures taking advantage of select features of each, his split condition precludes the desirable power position of the transcendent (male) individual—a position that male postcolonial theorists like Bhabha seem to want to reclaim for Third World men.
Jasmine, comparing her own state with Du's hyphenation, remarks that her "transformation has been genetic." She apparently does not regard this transformation—so thorough as to require a biological metaphor—as a capitulation to the colonizer's demands; she does not constitute herself as hybrid or hyphenated Indian American. Her relationship to nationality cannot be the same as Du's not only because of their countries' different colonial histories, not only because the construction of nationality itself is specific to each nation, but also because of the difference of gender. Du has more to gain by maintaining his cultural and national identity. According to the Edenic myth that served as a blueprint for the depredations of the Old World, woman is the primary colonial subject; further, contemporary psychoanalytic theory holds that the sense of self depends upon differentiation from the Other, for signs of which the colonizer scrutinizes the colonized, just as gender categories are typically reinforced by policing the boundaries. Thus a male from a Third World country oppressed by a thousand years of successive colonial masters is inevitably constructed as a feminized Other by the imperial power. However, if he maintains ties with his native community, he may be able to retain at least a simulacrum of his position in his accustomed hierarchy. He will always outrank a woman or a Hmong peasant, for example. Jyoti/Jasmine/Jane has no comparable reason for remaining in touch with an Indian community, a vivid emblem of which is provided by the Vadheras in New York, for whom Jasmine was completely constituted by her marital history. She rejects the past they represent just as she rejects the nostalgia of the grade B Bombay movies they rent daily from the video store. She understands the attraction of clinging to the safety of a sanitized, burnished past but refuses it for herself: "To bunker herself inside nostalgia, to sheathe the heart in a bullet-proof vest, was to be a coward."
America allows for a greater range of positive and negative freedoms—admittedly,the latter are constrained by the threat of (male) violence, but, as Jasmine remarks, in the Indian district where she was born "bad luck dogged dowryless wives, rebellious wives, barren wives. They fell into wells, they got run over by trains, they burned to death heating milk on kerosene stoves." Even young, unmarried girls evacuating their bowels in a field before dawn may be attacked by mad dogs. As women have less to gain from ideologies of nationality, so they may be less invested in them. In both India and America, Jasmine's primary identification is as a woman, which she constitutes as a site of flexibility.
Thus, through her appropriation of the myth of America as Eden, Mukherjee brings colonial discourse into play; analyzing the construction of the colonial subject, she engages in a postcolonial critique of that discourse. Eschewing simple inversion, her critique of the myth, neither ironic nor parodic, takes the form of disruption: just as Jasmine's identity is disrupted, so are the various discourses that Mukherjee uses. The novel ends without closure. Jasmine sets off on a new life—or, rather, on a new version of a previous life when Taylor drives up and urges her to accompany him to California. Pregnant with Bud's child, and "caught between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness," she nonetheless chooses "adventure, risk, transformation." She bounds out the door to the car "greedy with wants and reckless from hope." There is no criticism of Jasmine (no longer thinking of herself as Jane) for her refusal to be pinned down to the past. Certainly, her acceptance of family configurations and caretaking roles (even of unorthodox ones) may be construed as a manifestation of the essentialist sense of self preached by her father, but it also suggests a willingness to recognize opportunity in unlikely situations. There is no reason to suppose that Jasmine, at twenty-four, still in the process of becoming, will be forever trapped in domestic preoccupations. Rather, Mukherjee endorses the fluid personality as a site of possibility, particularly for a woman, for whom in this novel the operant discourses are always restrictive, always forcing Jasmine back into the paternal essentialism, always (re)constructing her as the primary colonial subject. In this examination of the construction of national identity and gender identity, Mukherjee recommends not an ideology of female resistance but an ad hoc selection of useful features from whatever discourse is at hand—a resistance to ossification of identity, a resiliency articulated toward survival.
This section contains 3,537 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)