Saturday, February 18, 2012

Link of Interest: Article on "The Convert," by Danai Gurira

NPR has an article interviewing Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwe-American woman who spent most of her childhood in Harare, and whose latest play The Convert explores the psychological impact of colonialism. 
Imperialism didn't just happen materially, through military conflict and through ruthless greedy treaties. Earlier this week, I attended a talk on the psychic portrait of contemporary colonialism by Professor George Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk indigenous intellectual who's worked for the Canadian government on Indigenous affairs (and is thus in the best position to critique All That's Wrong with it). 

There's a quote floating around, which runs like this: "When the white man came, we had the land and they had the Bible. They asked us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible." I've seen it attributed to American Indians, but Google tells me that Bishop Desmond Tutu, African spiritual leader, was the first one to say it. 

Missionary schools were among the first formal schools (formal according to Western standards, that is) in Malaysia, particularly the Western peninsula, where I'm from. Until the education reform a few short decades ago that rendered all national education into Malay, missionary schools existed alongside vernacular schools (Chinese & Tamil schools), established by, well, missionaries. Many of them have very old and very good reputations. They also taught in English. Both my parents, growing up in the 60's and 70's, attended these missionary schools (hence why they communicate to each other in English as a common language, since they spoke/speak different dialects). 

But these things always come with a caveat, don't they? A missionary's got a mission, ostensibly to help those less fortunate. Not all the students that these missionary schools took in were that less fortunate, but they might as well have been, since they're not Christian and all. Remember: Glory, gold and God. And so it is, that religion was every bit as used as a tool of imperialism. Marx doesn't call religion the "opium of the masses" for no good reason. 
"There were many, many women who ran to the church — some of them became nuns, some of them became teachers — basically so that they could be free," Mann says. "Women were often fleeing being sold off ... or being given away, without their own permission, to be ... as in this play, the 10th wife of an old man."
Religious institutions do offer a way out for many--Christine de Pizan was one of many women whose affluent upbringing made her realize that traditional marriage kind of sucks, so she retreated into the Church and became a nun (and ensconced within, became a kick-ass writer who challenged misogyny). 

But in colonized countries, these modes of escape come at a price. 
Gurira says that while Chilford is a decent and well-meaning man, "he's a casualty, one could say, of the issue of colonization, in the sense that he really drinks all the Kool-Aid — like every last drop of it — and really [embraces], hook, line and sinker, the idea that a Christian God is very intertwined with the white man."
I'm especially excited about this because the writer herself identifies with the identity of the colonized. It is one thing to see white writers reckon with these issues; it is quite another to see POC explore these issues for ourselves, because we know best the scars written into our psyches, but only if we examine them. 
While white characters are discussed onstage, The Convert is told entirely from the black viewpoint.
I'm really excited about this, because how many of us have been told that our stories are too foreign, and the international market can't relate? Mind you, I'm coming from hearing a series of complaints from friends all over SEAsia that local fantasy writers write almost exclusively in faux-European settings. There is a reason for that, and that's one of the psychic costs of imperialism that slips into part of every day life under the guise of "our own culture is so boring". 

And of course, Gurira asks some really exciting questions, questions that I, too, would like to see POC and non-white peoples explore in steampunk:
"What dynamics of our traditions do we retain? And what are we retaining only because we got colonized?" Gurira asks. "There was this huge gap that happened, in terms of how we were taken over, and we were not able to evolve in our way, in our own time."
There's more to imperialism than just taking over a country; you also take over entire peoples, and force them to adhere to your ways, and punish them when they don't. And these have long-term effects that take generations to really see, collectively, the true costs. 

tl;dr: OMG a story about being colonized by the descendants of the colonized and not filtered through some feel-good whitewashed lens?? AMAZING!! 

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff! :) I wonder where she'll really go next with her work. :)