Trinh T. Minh-ha's book is as much about writing as it is 'about' any of its other areas of research: postcolonial culture, feminist theory, anthropology, deconstructionist philosophy, narrative. Like her films, Trinh's writing represents a critical engagement with a number of what she terms 'master discourses,' the languages of human sciences that the West has used to represent itself and its Others. In the four essays published here, Trinh works to interrogate these languages and interrupt their claims to authenticity, transparency, and universality.
Rather than constructing a clear-cut counterdiscourse--a Third World feminist criticism pose in relation to First World male-dominated criticisms--Trinh's writings employ a very different tactic, working inside these discourses to allow other readings, other responses, impersonating them in some instances, playing with them, exposing their limits and contradictions. This makes for a very mobile ride, as Trinh shifts discourses, speaking positions, and stances, moving in and out of a number of languages of authority and resistance. She describes her method as a form of storytelling.
From jagged transitions between the analytical and the poetical to the disruptive, always shifting fluidity of a headless and bottomless storytelling, what is exposed in this text is the inscription and de-scription of a non unitary female subject of color through her engagement, therefore also disengagement, with master discourses.
Michel Foucault, who discerned the emergence of a modern liberal form of power that makes social regulation tolerable by masking its operations and incorporating opposition. In more familiar terms, Foucault's work proposes a critique of pluralism and cooptation. Similarly, Trinh refuses to describe herself, the Other, the woman of color, in Western languages designed for her submission or annihilation. A strategy of inclusion, she implies, only reinforces hegemonic power by incorporating the Other into its own language of difference as essence, division, or inferiority--what she calls 'an apartheid kind of difference.'
One of the rules of my games is to echo back his words to an unexpected din or simply let them bounce around to yield most of what is being and has been said through them and despite them. I am therefore not concerned with judging the veracity of his discourses in relation to some original truth.Ivan Illich, Trinh implicates anthropology in the ideology of 'development,' the latest in a long line of Western definitions of the outsider where the underlying dynamics remain constant: the barbarian, the pagan, the infidel, the wild man, the native, the underdeveloped. In such a context, debates over the terms of representation all to easily function to update and re-legitimate underlying power relationships, questioning how the Other is represented--'positive image' vs. 'negative images,' 'stereotypes vs. 'realistic depiction'--without considering who controls the definitions.
One of the cornerstones of Trinh's work is a radical rethinking of concepts of identity and difference from the standpoint of postcolonial experiences of displacement and cultural hybridization, which overlaps and complements the work of many contemporary cultural critics like Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Spivak, Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, and Hazel Carby. Despite their sometimes disparate interests and methods, these writers--along with Trinh--have all contributed to rigorous re-conceptualizations of ethnic, gender, and sexual differences, often questioning notions of an 'authentic' or 'true' identity in the process. At stake in these theoretical discussions are notions of identity that have long been taken as the foundation of political resistance. A very different model of identity, based on recognition of the interpenetration of First and Third Worlds, implicitly suggests the need for different forms of political action and intervention. As Trinh very succinctly and poetically states in her introduction to an issue of the journal Discourse (No. 8, Fall/Winter 1986-87), 'What is at stake is not only the hegemony of western cultures, but also their identities as unified cultures; in other words, the realization that there is a Third World in every First World, and vice versa.'
Silence as a refusal to partake in the story does sometimes provide us with a means to gain a hearing. It is voice, a mode of uttering, and a response in its own right. Without utter silences, however, my silence goes unheard, unnoticed; it is simply one voice less, or more point given to the silencers.Blasted Allegories), Trinh explores storytelling as an expression and repository of historical consciousness. In this mode of representation, which she sees as a function of community, Trinh develops a discourse that allows difference to emerge without domination, articulating different positions without opposition. Tracing the separation of 'literature' and 'history' as distinct narrative practices in Western culture, she proposes their re-integration. Working with texts by Teresa Hak Kyung Cha and Maxine Hong Kingston, Trinh explores the overlapping effects of storytelling: passing on information, inspiration, a sense of history, and emotional bonding, what she terms a 'living female tradition.' In many instances, she refers to traditional cultures as sites of cultural space that is female, gendered, but not subordinated; a postcolonial re-appropriation of 'women's space' against the movement of 'genderless hegemonic standardization.'
Although genre-crossing in what's categorized as literature may be acceptable nowadays, it is still quite suspect when the writing is theoretical. But this is precisely the territory of Woman, Native, Other. Located at the boundaries of a number of discourses and disciplines, Trinh's book explores the various resistances produced by their interplay. Her intense awareness of how languages construct political and institutional positions, her attention to silence, and her resistance to a fixed and marginalized identity as a Third World woman writer suggests a powerful strategy for politically engaged writing. Hers is a dense text, inviting readers to tease out different strands and lines of thought, often without explicitly spelling out the implications of her ideas or arguments. Although not directly addressing questions of cinema, it sketches a provocative context for such work. For those interested in a more pointed discussion of film, her article 'Outside In, Inside Out' in Questions of Third Cinema (Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, eds., London: British Film Institute, 1989) offers more topical application of her ideas to problems of representation and documentary filmmaking.
[This is a slightly edited version of an essay originally published by Liz Kotz, at the time a writer and curator in San Francisco, in the monthly film and video journal The Independent, Vol. 12, No. 10, December, 1989, pp. 21-22. Images from Trinh T. Minh-ha's 1989 film 'Surname Viet Given Name Nam' are borrowed from Art Torrents, and her 1991 film 'Shoot for the Contents' is on UbuWeb.]