Reading Goan Women

Christopher Larkosh is the Associate Prof of Portuguese, UMass Dartmouth. Director of Tagus Press, publisher of books on the Lusophone world. Co-Editor of the academic journal Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies. Translator, researcher on global cultures, incl. South Asia. Lives in Boston.

A more detailed biography can be read here.

The following essay is excerpted from the paper Thinking Goa in the World through English Language Women's Writing, presented by Larkosh at the 'Goa: Cultures, Languages and Literatures' symposium; Goa, 2016.

Read the full paper here.

My main intention here is to look at the ways that Goans in general, and diaspora women writing in English in particular, map out, expand and complicate conventional understandings of Goa’s unique set of cultural and linguistic identities and its concomitant place in the world, shaped though its transnational connections and shifting understandings of citizenship and (non-) belonging. There are three well known recent works that might serve as touchstones as we begin to identify some of the salient characteristics of this select contemporary corpus that both integrates and challenges the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, historical research and personalized memoir.

The first is the much-discussed 2001 novel by Margaret Mascarenhas called Skin which, as most of you probably already know, aside from telling the story of a writer as she travels between countries, cultures and languages from Brazil, Venezuela and the US to Angola and Mozambique and back again to Goa, also incorporates the oral histories of older women in her own family and details from historical events in order to unravel, if not to answer in any definitive way, the complex questions of her own identity.  The second is the 2010 book by Selma Carvalho called Into the Diaspora Wilderness, which also combines historical testimonies and documentation with her own personal experience, as she passes through a number of global regions, from the Arab Gulf States to East Africa to the US, Canada and the UK, all countries that have become in recent years as essential as any other in piecing together a coherent narrative of what Goa represents in a contemporary context. While this may not be an academic study senso strictu, the perspectives that it combines and relays are of just as much value to researchers like myself as we imagine an academic environment that is not elitist and is open to participation from a broad range of engaged scholars who devote time and effort to rethinking questions of identity and alterity.

These two authors may indeed seem diametrically opposed in their style of writing and the descriptions they offer of their own identity: Carvalho, in spite of a lifetime of living between the UAE, the UK and the US, still states resolutely that she has really “never been anything but Goan”; whereas Mascarenhas, who with a similarly wide-ranging set of places she has lived over the years, has chosen to live here in the Goan village of Aldona, describing herself on Twitter as a “Native American, Dutch, French, Indian novelist/essayist/poet raised in Venezuela, and adding “I like to think for myself.” To add yet another level of complexity to the picture, the poems that comprise her 2013 collection titled Triage not only add more touches to this portrait of complex cultural identity, but also explicitly address the connection between crossing genres (between poetry and prose) and crossing genders, in a work in which those gender identities usual considered on the margins of South Asian culture (gay men, bisexual women or transgender; human or animal; ‘queens’ or commoners, a sensibility perhaps best articulated in her poem “Queen Bee”). The list of acknowledgments also reminds the reader that this work emerges in a vast and identifiably Anglophone Indian context of writers, editors and other critical literary contemporaries. In the end, the global map that Mascarenhas continues to chart is already an nearly encyclopedic atlas of narratives and textual encounters.

The global maps that each of these two very different writers suggest cannot overlap in any exact or concrete way, as each shifts the borders of broad expanses of global space to accommodate the demands of their own story and identity, but even if they seem at times to come from two very different literary worlds, both still have the common effect of challenging the fixed boundaries of source language and narrative genre in order to expand the potential global frame of reference for future configurations of Goan transcultural consciousness.  And this is perhaps what most interests me in these two authors.

The third and final work I would want to posit in this discussion is again of what might appear to be at first glance two diametrically opposed works. The first is a work that would be at home in the world of non-fiction investigative reporting, were it not for the fact that its exquisite literary style places it in an entirely different category, that of testimonial literature. The book is Goan-born, Delhi raised, London and Bangalore-based journalist Sonia Faleiro’s 2010 book Beautiful Thing, which deals with Faleiro’s own attempts to get at the story of a group of exotic dancers from Bombay’s Mira Road nightclubs. The style is one that may well be familiar to readers of Anglophone Indian literature: especially in the use of a smattering of standard Hindi vocabulary and Bombay Hindi slang, often with a consecutive translation into standard English immediately following. While such use of Hindi and Bombay slang may thus seem somewhat unnecessary or gratuitous, what it serves to point out is Faleiro’s linguistic flexibility between the world of professional journalism and that of these women who have arrived from rural villages to the big city to make their way in life. While Faleiro is very adept at gaining the confidence of these women, particularly that of Leela, the 19-year-old protagonist, the narrator also does not dispute the fact that her own cultural indeterminacy between Indian and Western modes of cultural behavior gives her a distinct advantage in gaining access to this story: i.e., a familiarity both with traditional Indian cultural and gender norms and those of a presumably modern, Westernized professional, as well as a considerable advantage in wealth, social entitlement and cultural capital, one that these other women can only dream of; as the narrator herself points out, it was probably that dream of access to that world of privilege that have attracted them to the narrator in Western clothes and good English in the first place.

With this in mind, the recurrent question that current instances of engaged research present may compel us to ask once again: can we be simply be content with mediating the testimony of subaltern, silenced or suppressed cultural others, or must such work necessarily be accompanied with some long-term concrete commitment of time, resources and energy to improve the lives of those whose testimonies and experiences are often at the heart of our research?  Such ethical questions of cultural mediation are similar to those that we often ask in translation studies, such as: Am I culturally competent enough to interpret this cultural material not only from a linguistic perspective, but also from the point of departure of experiential background of racial difference, caste discrimination, social class distinctions, etc.? To what extent are we sufficiently prepared to cross these cultural lines, and perhaps more importantly, unilaterally suspend, even if we can never give up entirely, those identifying marks of social class and privilege that condition what we understand of the story that others share with us?  What traces of the colonial enterprise may linger in this form of investigative journalism, and how honest are we prepared to be about the colonial remnants in our own academic practices and groupings, regardless of our own cultural and linguistic origins, not to mention how we imagine shared identifications with those we aim to represent?

Ultimately, these cultural intersections at which we congregate and call ‘Goa’, whether say, in a café in Fontainhas or a chat on social media, will no doubt continue to generate any number of possible lines of narrative communication to negotiate an ever-expanding set of global connections. As these trajectories are articulated in literature and other media, it becomes possible to begin to remap Goa’s place in the world: not as a formerly Portuguese colonial territory, or the smallest of states in the Indian Union, but at the very center of a 21st-century global transcultural network.  However we may imagine them, one thing is certain: these literary works cannot but underscore how women’s perspectives continue to play an indispensable role in this ever-expanding set of alternatives called human consciousness.  

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