Rachael Warmington Professor Lothian
24 June 2013
Representations of Female Histories in Queer Diasporic Texts and Film
In the introduction to Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Culture, Gayatri Gopinath states that “queer diasporic cultural forms and practices point to submerged histories of racist and colonialist violence that continue to resonate in the present and make themselves felt through bodily desire”(5). She also argues that “it is through the queer diasporic body that these histories are brought into the present; it is also through the queer diasporic body that their legacies are imaginatively contested and transformed” (5). The “queer racialized body becomes a historical archive for both individuals and communities, one that is excavated through the very act of desiring the racial Other” (3). Unfortunately, many literary and film representations of queer diasporas are “narrativized through the bonds of relationally between men” that “invariably displaces and elides female diasporic subjects” (5). Although these works bring queer diasporic histories into the present, they also erase female queer diasporic histories from the archive. As Gopinath notes, there have been and continue to be exceptions. After reading Gopinath’s introduction to Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Culture, I realized that Shamim Sarif’s 2007 film The World Unseen is one of the exceptions. Not only does Sarif’s film include female histories of the diaspora, she also reimagines histories of safe spaces for racial others in hegemonic postcolonial societies.
The film takes place in Cape Town South Africa in 1952 under apartheid. In the first scene an Indian women dressed in men’s clothing is fixing something outside of her diner when a policeman walks up to her and seems polite and cordial; however, the police officer then enters the diner where he finds black and mixed race patrons, who identify as colored, eating and his tone changes. The officer warns the owner that they are in an Indian area and it is forbidden for black people to eat with white people. Amina responds to the officer by stating that there are not any whites there accept for him. The officer then harasses the patrons and asks for their papers. One woman only has a travel pass and argues that she is colored not black. The officer’s partner comes in and threatens Amina. He says that if they keep serving black people they will kill them all. After the officers leave it is revealed that there was a white woman having tea but Jacob, Amina’s secret business partner, shielded her from the officer. Jacob cannot not reveal that he is Amina’s Business partner because he is considered colored and is not permitted to have a partnership with her because she is Indian. Sarif is addressing several issues in this first scene; the most import being a safe space. In spite of the ramifications, Amina and Jacob welcome everyone into their diner, Amina and Jacob have a business partnership and Amina does not conform to the accepted role and attire of women. Through their actions, they created a space that ruptures the local hegemonic structure. Throughut the rest of the film, the police who enforce the hegemonic structure, take actions to destroy this safe place.
The next scene focuses on the heteronormative family structure of the married couple, Miriam and Omar. The scene opens with the police driving by a house and then Sarif brings viewers inside this space. The camera slowly zooms on a mother wearing traditional fifties clothing with a dish towel draped over her shoulder. She is attending to and nurturing her children as they are getting ready for school. The tone shifts again when the camera pans towards her husband who is agitated by their current living conditions and expresses that they need to get out of there especially since Miriam is expecting another child. They are staying with Miriam’s sister and her husband who also have children that irritate Omar. The way that the relationship is depicted in this scene alludes to tensions within the relationship. Directly following this scene, Sarif demonstrates the lack of freedom Miriam and her sister have as married women with children. The scene begins with Miriam on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor with a brush. Her sister walks in and asks Miriam to get dressed because they are permitted to go to the diner. Miriam’s sister says, “I cannot believe that they are letting us out of here” (Sarif). Miriam smiles at this moment and gets up to change. This is one of many moments in the film that reveal Miriam’s confinement in domestic space. Miriam and her sister’s husbands are the authority within this hegemonic system that utilizes heteronormativity to maintain racial and class hierarchies.
The aforementioned scenes occur within the first ten minutes of the film. The first time that I watched the film I thought that I had the whole plot figured out and dreaded the ending. I stated earlier that many films and literary texts erase female queer diasporic histories from the archive but there is also another trope that is often utilized; this being that either the female returns to her life within the patriarchal structure or something terrible happens such as her death or the death of her female lover. In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Audre Lorde states:
As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all of our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters. (2)
Queer diasporic as well as non diasporic queer representations in media often perpetuate this system of ideas which places women in service to men and delegates the function of female desire when they conclude by expunging a homoerotic relationship between women. These representations often begin with women that are married and have children; especially, infants. My initial impression of the film was that Miriam was going to have an affair with Amina and then return to her heternormative life. I actually remember thinking that maybe this film was not worth my time but I would be proven wrong.
I will continue the analysis of this film in my presentation.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing : Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham [N.C.]: Duke UP, 2005. Print.
Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Lorde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power. Brooklyn, N.Y: Out & Out Books, 1978. Print.
The World Unseen. Dir. Hanan Kattan, Shamim Sarif. Enlightenment Films. 2010.
But I want to know what happens! In particular, I am keen to find out how the Indian diasporic experience plays out with respect to the racist structures of Apartheid South Africa, and whether we experience a coalition or moments of solidarity between black and Indian women — or is the action of the film primarily about the Indian protagonists, with Africa working as a backdrop? I am also curious about whether the queerness of the film will play out through a same sex relationship or whether there are excessive moments of the kind that Gopinath analyzes in East is East, where we see a female queer diasporic imaginary that operates through performance, dance, and the gaze as well as in the ways that female characters interact with one another.
Looking forward to more…
I think that there are many ideas/commentaries being presented in The World Unseen. I did not even notice that Jacob is in-between Amina and Miriam at the end of the film. That was an important detail that you picked out Dr. Lothian. In once sense he represents a racial divide and in another he is almost the patriarchal figure of the queer diasporic space. In addition, Everyone who is displaced and “othered” winds up in the Location Café. I wonder if the title of the diner speaks to this idea. I feel that almost every scene can become a paper.