Reading Black, Reading Czech: UnravelingtheFigureofthe Czech TragicMulatta. Karla Kovalová 1 - PDF

Review of Arts and Humanities December 2015, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 1-9 ISSN: (Print), (Online) Copyright The Author(s). All Rights Reserved. Published by American Research Institute for

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Review of Arts and Humanities December 2015, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 1-9 ISSN: (Print), (Online) Copyright The Author(s). All Rights Reserved. Published by American Research Institute for Policy Development DOI: /rah.v4n2a1 URL: Reading Black, Reading Czech: UnravelingtheFigureofthe Czech TragicMulatta Karla Kovalová 1 Abstract Following Ann DuCille s (2010) call to explore what black feminist theory can offer to its other, this paperoffers a blackfeministreadingofživotopis černobílého jehněte (2009) by Tomáš Zmeškal, a novel set in communistczechoslovakia, to demonstrate that such reading not only reveals how communist ideology challenges notions of blackness but also unravels a new African female Diasporic figure the figure of a Czech tragic mulatta that exposes a slippage in Czech racial homogeneity and epitomizes the racial anxieties of Czechs. This figure, a reincarnation of Viktorka s [Božena Němcová s fictional character s] drowned baby, points to a line of Czech tragic female fictional characters who dared to love the dark other, whom the Czech society has, historically, linked with evil. The paper thus points to and makes the first step in a new direction for black (and Czech) feminist literary studies: a search for and an investigation into what happened to Viktorka s drowned baby and its many reincarnations. Key words: Black feministreading, communist ideology, Czech tragicmulatta, Viktorka, Životopis černobílého jehněte Introduction Inher 2010 essay The Short Happy Life of Black Feminist Theory, AnnDuCilleponders the benefits of the mutual relationship between black feministtheory and literature which does not immediately or organically invite a reading at once gender wise, race sensitive, and class conscious (p. 32), i.e., literature which seems far removed from the project of black feminist criticism.reflecting on the relevance of black feminist criticism in the 21 st century 2 and its frequently narrow subject of inquiry, she urgesblack feminist criticstoturn to other literaryterritories to explorewhat black feminist theory can offer to its other, i.e., to that which is not its own p. (33). Echoing Toni Morrison s call for acritical exploration of the Africanist presence in American literature written by white canonical authors, 3 DuCillejoins the line of black feminist critics who had pushed the textual boundaries of theirfield beyond literature produced by black authors. 4 1Department ofenglish, University ofostrava, Reální 5, , Ostrava 1, Czech Republic, 2 I read the essay as a possible response to the 2006 PMLA discussion about the present status quo of feminist criticism, which failed to include a black feminist contribution. Instead, it featured an interview with Nellie Y. McKay, recording her memories about the pastlife of black feminist literary criticism: the emergence of black literature in the academy, and the establishment of black women s literature in the canon. See PMLA(2006), 121.5,pp Morrison, T. (1992).Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, New York: Vintage. DuCille acknowledges her debt to Morrison explicitly in the text on pp. 32, Among these critics are, for example, Kim F. Hall, with her 1995 seminal work on blackness in Elizabethan England, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press), and Jennifer DeVere Brody, with her 1998 groundbreaking book exploring blackness in Victorian ideology, Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture (Durham: Duke University Press). 2 Review of Arts and Humanities, Vol. 4(2), December 2015 In this paper, following the lead of these critics, I want to move beyond the already mined territories of American national literature, Caribbean literature, and/or British literature to offer a black feminist reading of a novel originating in a country rarely associated with blackness the Czech Republic. Although Czech literature is not readily associated with blackness due to the country s non-involvement in either slavery or colonization and a statistically insignificant number of blacks living in the country, a careful study revealsthat anumber of Czech literary works across all genres poems, stories, plays, children s books, novellas, and novels feature black characters. 5 In the vast majority of these works, however, these characters are, predictably, minor and/orforeigners. While it would undoubtedly bea worthwhileproject to explorethe use of these characters, formy own purposes I have chosena novelin which black characters are both center-stage and Czech citizens: Životopisčernobíléhojehněte [The Biography of a Black-and-White Lamb] (2009) by TomášZmeškal. 6 Choosing a novel set in the country s communist past, I hope to demonstrate that reading (in) this context can not only challenge notions of blackness (and Czechness)but also unravel a new African female Diasporic figure the figure of a Czech tragic mulatta that exposes a slippage in Czech racial homogeneity and epitomizes the racial anxieties of Czechs Methodology Although some of the chapters in the novel are inspired by personal experience,zmeškal maintains that the main storyline,exploring the process of growing-up of two racially-mixed twins, is not autobiographical. As he explains in an interview: I never had a sister. She was born purely for the purposes of the novel so I could [ ] make the novel less overtly autobiographical. [ ] I also thought that the story of the sister could be more interesting than that of the brother, and that [idea] was key to the way in which I would approach my own story (Horak, 2010). The sister sstory is also central to my black feminist analysis,whichbuilds upon close reading andknowledge of Czech history, culture and literature. 3. Analysis Six minutes older than her twin brother Václav, Lucie is theoffspring of a Czech mother and a Congolese father. Believing in the lie that her parents died in a car accident, she is raised, together with her brother, by her grandmother Božena, who shields her from thetruth about her is not until she is nearly fifteen that she learns the family secret, which involves a far more profound tragedy. Soon afterthe twins were born, their fatherhad toleave Czechoslovakia and return to Congo, a country that wasn t following the right kind of leftist path (Vaughan, 2012,p. 2).Their mother lost her job, presumably on account of having children with an African, her friends deserted her, and she became subject to racist threats and intimidation. Unable to cope with the situation andto take care of and provide for her children, she suffered a breakdown, ending up in a mental asylum. Lucie s newly acquired knowledge that her mother is aliveproduces in her an instantfeeling of happiness which, however,does not last long. Visiting her mother in a mental asylum, she is shocked to hear that her mother refuses to accept her, renouncing bothtwins as animal-like monsters whom she fears and from whom she wants to distance herself: 5 See, for example,františekgellner s poem John Sambo (1919), Benjamin Klička s novella DivoškaJaja (1925), Karel Konrád s collection of stories Rinaldino (1927) and his story Dinah (1928), BohumilHrabal s novel Obsluhovaljsemanglickéhokrále (1971),Josef Škvorecký s novel Příběhinženýralidskýchduší (1977),Jan Novák s collection of storiesstriptease Chicago (1983), LadislavDvořák s collection of stories Šavlemeče (1986), Iva Procházková s book for children Jožinjede do Afriky (2000) and Milan Kozelka s collection of stories Ponorka (2001).For this information I am indebted to Iva Málková, Professor of Czech Literature at the University of Ostrava, Ostrava, Czech Republic. 6TomášZmeškal is the winner of several literary awards, among them the European Prize for Literature for his debut novel Milostnýdopisklínovýmpísmem[A Love Letter in Cuneiform Script] (2007). Životopisčernobíléhojehněte [The Biography of a Black-and-White Lamb] (2009) is his second novel. It has not been translated into English; all subsequent translations are mine. 7Thispaperfollows and extends my earlierdiscussionofhowblacknesswasperceived in communistczechoslovakia in To Look High, Low, and Beyond: Shifting the Textual Terrain of Black Feminist Literary Criticism, From Theory to Practice 2013, ,wheresomeofmyideasappearedoriginally. Karla Kovalová 3 Not a mother. Not a mother. I am Zdenička. Zdena. 8 Not a mother. How could I. Look at them. [ ] Look at me. How could I? Could I? Could I? Could I give birth to monsters? Could I give birth to these monsters? It would be like giving birth to lizards, earthworms or boars. Am I a wild swine or a lizard?but I am totally, totally pure white. And they, they, they resemble their father, my wretched husband, who left me with them, alone, totally alone. [ ] Leave me alone. I gave birth to you and you now haunt me in the forest of shadows and sins of my youth. Monsters.Black monsters, I will run away from you. I will run away and you will never get me. Never. Never! (Zmeškal, 2009, pp , emphasis mine) 9 To help Lucie deal with her pain, Dr. Mikeštries to provide an explanation of her mother s behavior, which he sees as a result of a self-defense mechanism. In his theory, Lucie s mother loved her children but, having internalized ideological hatred toward her husband and, by extension, toward herself, she was forced to give them up: You know when there s a lot of hatred and evil around someone who is very fragile, like your mother, and this person cannot fight back, in order to protect herself from the pain, she gives up the most precious thing she owns. She sacrifices what is most precious to her, and that was you. People kept hurting her so much that by so doing, she tells them: leave me alone, leave me be, I ll be a good girl.i ll never have anything to do with anyone whom you hate. (Zmeškal, 2009, p. 119, emphasis mine) Histheory, shedding some light on the behavior of Lucie s mother (as I will discuss further in the paper), does not, however, provide a satisfying explanation as to why the Czech society views Lucie s father in a negative light. Is it because of his being a political enemy? Or does the negative attitude have something to do with his blackness, since his wife is fired on account of having had children with an African and is the victim ofracist threats? Neither does it explainthe specificracist imagery with which Lucie s mother describesher children, projecting her internalized hatred onto them. Yet both issues deserve close scrutiny. Although without a history of slavery and colonization, and despite the rhetoric of communist ideology thatemphasized the abstract equality of all racesczechoslovakia was not exempt from absorbing, producing, and disseminating the discourse about the Dark Continent. Martina Vitáčková s research on the creation of an African discourse in communist Central Europereveals the impact of literature produced by Czech travelers whorecorded their observations in books and journals for the reading public. Analyzing the work of the most esteemed and influential writer and journalist of the communist era, LadislavMikešPařízek, who published 31 books about Africa (most of them, pertinently, about Congo), 10 Vitáčková argues that his writing presented a stereotypical image of Africa, emphasizing its primitive, mystical, exotic, and erotic aspects (2009, p. 176). More importantly, despite his criticism of colonialism and itsexploitation of black people(both of which wereabused by the communist regime for its own purposes),pařízekdepictedafrica and its people in a very colonial way as the [ ] Other, as he was expected to do by his reading public (2009, p. 176, emphasis mine). Thusit can be established that the colonial discourse of the Dark continent, inextricably linked to the Western scientific discourse intent on proving that people of African descent are naturally less civilized and therefore savage because they are closer to nature, was something with which the readership in communist Czechoslovakia would be familiar. It is also important to note that folded into the discourse of the Dark continent were preexisting notions of blackness, whichhad been part of a framework that European (especially British)colonizers had incorporated into their observations about Africans. 11 8Zdena is a Czech female name. Zdenička is its diminutive. 9 The first part of the monologue is addressed to Mrs. Pechrová, a white female guard in the mental asylum, as if Zdena is seeking an affirmation from her. The remaining part of her monologue is addressed to Lucie and Václav. 10 He was also a prolific lecturer and writer of articles. For a detailed summary of his work, see Martina Vitáčková s2009 article In Search of adventure: LadislavMikešPařízek, a Czech in the Congo, TydscriftvirLetterkunde 46.1, For more detailed information about white attitudes of Englishmen toward Africans see, for example, the first chapter of Winthrop D. Jordan s 1968 seminal book White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro: (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press), or the more recent 1995 publication Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press) by Kim F. Hall. 4 Review of Arts and Humanities, Vol. 4(2), December 2015 In this framework, originating in Biblical imagery, white and black are constructedas opposites of purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, and God and the devil (Collins, 2004, p. 98), darkness always having negative connotations. Consider, for example, a description of a dark soldier from a text that was required reading text in Czech schoolsduring the 1970s and 1980s (the temporal frame ofthe Biography of a Blackand-White Lamb), which clearly articulates the dichotomy, associating darkness with evil: I am afraid of him. I feel the cold chills creeping over me whenever he is around, and those eyes of his make my head swim. Those eyes, those eyes! Everybody said they meant no good; some said that at night they shone like live coals, and that those dark eyebrows which overshadowed them like raven s wings, meeting in the middle, were a sure sign that he possessed the power of the evil eye. [ ] When he happened to look at one of the village children, the mother hastened to wipe the child s face with a white cloth; and when a child became ill, the gossips at once said that the dark chasseur had overlooked it. [ ] Their opinion of him amounted to this: [ ] God only knows where he is from; perhaps he is not human; one feels like signing oneself when he is about and saying: God with us and evil away! (Němcová, 1891, Grandmother, pp.85-86) Traces of this discoursecan be found in the language and imagery used by Lucie s mother. The imagery (black monsters as opposed to pure whiteness) is based on the white/black dichotomy in which whiteness is seen in a positive light, whereas blackness is associated with ugliness and physical abnormality. The Czech word zrůda, which can be translated as both monster and freak, highlights the aspect of physical deformation or deviation from the norm, and calls to mind the language of nineteenth-century European freak shows, displaying black bodies for entertainment.moreover, it points to the human inferiority of Africans,further underscored by their association with animals: lizards, earthworms, and wild boars. Although removed from the nineteenth-century scientific discourse of less intelligent, ape-like Africans, the choice of the species is also inherently negative, positing Africans as repellent creatures, exhibiting primitive sexuality. Further traces of the colonial discourse can be observed in the sequence of phrases uttered by Lucie s mother: Could I give birth to these monsters?, It would be like giving birth to lizards, earthworms or boars, Am I a wild swine or a lizard? and But I am totally, totally pure white. The order of the last two sentences highlightslucie s mother s belief that whiteness precludesone from being an animal and thus it would beunnaturalfor a white (Czech)woman to give birth to one. 12 Declaring herself white, she thus distances herself from anything black (and deviant). Western scholars have long pointed out the constructed nature of whiteness vis-à-vis blackness. In Playing in the Dark (1992), Toni Morrison argues that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their [whites ] sense of Americanness (p. 6), while Jennifer DeVere Brody reveals in Impossible Purities (1998) that Victorian Englishness posited as white, masculine, and pure is only a construct dependent on a feminized black figure (p. 7). In Scenes of Subjection (1997), Saidiya Hartman posits that the value of blackness resided in its metaphorical aptitude [ ] understood as the imaginative surface upon which [ ] the nation came to understand [itself] (p. 7, emphasis mine). In other words, it is in the opposition to black that one becomes white or totally, totally pure white as Lucie s mother describes herself. But why the need to describe herself as white,or totally, totally pure white in a country of white people, where the official ideology proclaims equality of all races? In order to answer this question, we must unpack the layered meaning of the words pure white. The words pure white are a translation of the Czech expression čistěbílá, which, at first sight, indicates no relation to the word purity (in a sense of being morally or sexually pure) but rather an absence of contamination by any other color (in a sense of having no stain). Thus the expression can also betranslated as only white or clean white, because the Czech adjectivečistý,from which the adverbčistě is derived, means clean. Etymologically, however, the word is also linked to the wordčistota, which has, according to the leading Czech-English dictionary, 13 four equivalents in English: cleanliness/cleanness, tidiness/neatness, purity, and chastity. While the word čistě is used morphologically as an adverb, not as an adjective, thus explicitly privileging the reading of whiteness as stain-free, by the very association with the word stain, which translates into Czech as skvrna, the expression also invokes moral purity (morálníčistota) because the Czech expression for someone who is morally pure, i.e., untainted, contains a kinword poskvrna (full expression: bez poskrvrny). 12The belief parallels, to large extent, the 19 th century Victorian sexual theories which depicted the procreation of white English women with black men as impossible. For more on this topic, see Brody, J. (1998).Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture.Durham: Duke University Press,p Fronek, J. (2000).Velkýčesko-anglickýslovník.Praha: LEDA, p. 87. Karla Kovalová 5 In other words, when referring to herself as totally, totally pure white, Lucie s mother is referring not only to the color of her skin (a fact underscored by the following sentence, in which she refers to the color of the skin of her husband and her children who resemble their father) but also, metaphorically, to her (moral) purity and (sexual) chastity, which stand in contrast to the sins of my youth, i.e., her relationship with and pregnancy by the dark other, mentioned in the next sentence. In the last decades, feminist scholars have produced an impressive amount of scholarship about the role of women in the construction of nationhood, 14 pointing out how the construction of nationhood involves (and depends on) definitions of masculinity and femininity, placing a high value on female chastity and, simultaneously, nationalistic motherhood. Arguing that nations often figured as women, and women were constructed as bearers of nations, these scholars have demonstrated how thepurity, honor, and vulnerabil
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