Interethnic representation is fraught with pitfallsIf artists cannot be careful about avoiding exoticising characters, they are better off representing their own.
In the past week or so, The Kathmandu Post published a report on Nepali comedians, who belong to the hill castes, wearing blackface for performances. Another paper published a fictional story about a local Madhesi woman politician by a rising Nepali language writer, Anbika Giri, and a rejoinder to the story followed by a Madhesi intellectual, Rita Shah, who works and writes on Madhes issues. Giri’s story read almost as an allegory of Madhesi gender relationships, and gender and male power. Shah presented half a dozen examples where Madhesi women had won their local elections in their own right and administered their local bodies as independently as any man could. This debate was interesting to me, primarily because of my interest in how writers and artists represent cultures and communities that are not their own. In particular, how, in Nepal—where Nepali is the only dominant language in the public sphere (literature, media, and official discourse)—writers whose first language is Nepali and belong to the traditionally dominant community represent those who have been marginalised by the Nepali-speaking, hill caste state. But before I delve deeper, a brief theoretical background is in order.
The question of representation lies at the heart of power distribution in society, but the issue never caught people’s attention until Edward W Said’s Orientalism (1978). Based on the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of power and its relationship to discourse, Said’s encyclopediac book caused a paradigm shift in literary and cultural studies. Many of us in the Western academe, after wandering through English and American literature, make our living by teaching and researching the field of discursive representation called Postcolonial Studies. Originally applied to the study of how Europe represented or, better yet, misrepresented the non-European societies that it had come to colonise in its various discourses (from literature to anthropology), a similar approach came to be applied to many other unequal power groups: women by men and the patriarchy (gender studies), non-whites by whites (race studies), queer by straight (sexuality or LGBTQ studies). The approach easily applies to audio-visual representations as well, such as cinema, television and other mass media.
In the Nepali public sphere, dominated by hill caste writers and media personalities, the marginalised traditionally never had a ‘voice of their own’ that the rest of the public was willing or ready to hear. Thus, writers who came from the marginal communities, such as Bhupi Sherchan, wrote poems that made the Nepali state and social myths his target. The voice of rebellion emerged as a voice of class rather than language, religion or ethnicity. The pain of migration and sorrow of banishment from a beloved but feudally tyrannised homeland became a popular literary genre that didn’t dare to discuss caste or ethnic marginalisation as a primary cause of forced migration to north-east India. How many novels of the era of Lil Bahadur Chettri’s Basain can we find that portray the way caste violations in marriage (between so-called high caste persons and Dalits) caused migration from Rana-controlled Nepal to north-east India, as was often the case in reality?
In republican Nepal, and after several Madhes movements, things are changing. Writers and intellectuals from marginalised communities have come forward to both challenge the dominant narrative and tell their own stories to the public at large. Rajan Mukarung’s Damini Bhir (2012) is an example. The fact that it also won the year’s top literary prize Madan Puraskar demonstrates that the voices of the marginalised have begun to be acceptable to the establishment. But if you read the novel, you will find that it portrays the social life of indigenous Janajatis brilliantly in their own spoken Nepali idiom, but doesn’t radically challenge the unequal interethnic social order.
But there are other Nepali-speaking writers of the new generation who are also activists. Yug Pathak’s Urgen Ko Ghoda is an example of a novel that is politically more astute in representation. A writer who represents another community that is marginalised can do advocacy work, or must take care to avoid either exoticising or stereotyping. The problem of intercommunity representation has been a familiar one in the literature of other languages as well also. The American white southern writer William Styron had faced much criticism from African American intellectuals in the 1970s. Styron’s novel Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, but was accused of degrading the mythical slave rebel by giving him sexual motives and desires—even though he had presented Nat Turner as a hero.
As for the Nepali comedians performing blackface comedy shows, this is a classic case of how members of a dominant community represent the marginalised—through insensitivity and ignorance. But the nature of unequal power bequeathed by the state to the dominant society is so tempting that the insensitive, ignorant comedian can’t help himself. Ignorant because these Nepali comedians have no clue why they are such fans of Bollywood stars; for their fair complexion and lovely faces. Insensitive because even if all Madhesis were dark-skinned, their portrayal in black-faced comedy ridiculing the Madhesi community would be racist and objectionable. That was how the whites in the American South performed blackface minstrelsy in the age of Jim Crow—to ridicule, laugh at and mock the subjugated blacks by exaggerating their stereotypes at the expense of everything else.
Interethnic representation is fraught with pitfalls. Advocacy and consciousness-raising are safe ways, but high-quality literary work doesn’t result from adopting the safer route. Nor does it result from stereotyping or exoticising. If one can’t handle interethnic representation, one would be better off representing their own community. William Faulkner did so, and his white townspeople hated him, and called him ‘Count No Account’ anyway for writing so well about the mess that was the US South.
What do you think?
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